Trip Start May 01, 2005
Trip End Mar 25, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, February 19, 2006

The dark arts of the political make-over haven't quite reached Bolivia yet. The new and very popular President, Evo Morales, looks like he cuts his hair with a knife and fork and wears jumpers for interviews that his mum must have bought him for Christmas.

Bolivians are getting used to a period of political tranquility they haven't enjoyed in years. The road blockades, strikes and stone-throwing I had heard so much about are on the back-burner whilst Evo slashes MP's pay and increases teachers' salaries. He has a huge job on his hands in a country where the average annual wage is just over a grand. This is a terribly poor country, where the numbers of elderly indigenous people begging in the streets is quite overwhelming.

To get here, I had set off with five others in a jeep from Chile, travelling through the amazing Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a huge national park, to get to the Solar de Uyuni, the famed salt flats. The three-day journey was courtesy of our driver Leo, a Bolivian whose flies were always undone and who had the most amazing sticky-up hair - not even a blast from the biggest hair-straighteners in the world could have flattened this man's coiffure. I had chosen Leo's tour agency from the hundreds on offer because of their proud pledge that "none of our drivers drink on the job".

I really can't describe adequately just how beautiful the national park was - white and green and red lakes populated by thousands of pink flamingos and surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and mountains; bubbling geyser basins and boiling hot springs; flocks of llamas and alpacas; and strange hillsides in the desert covered in enormous stones, the kind of place where rocks go to die.

We spent the first night at an altitude of 4600m in a freezing cold refuge with no running water and an outside loo guarded by a skinny but fierce dog. I thanked God for my ability to refrain from going to the toilet during the night. The altitude didn't bother me at all, but my toothpaste exploded quite shockingly all over my rucksack. The second night was spent in a hotel made entirely from salt, even the beds (I licked them to make sure). We ended the trip in Uyuni, a small and dour town at the edge of the salt flats. The most interesting thing about Uyuni was our hostel owner's very bald and ugly baby parrot which made disgusting noises whilst picking bits of squashed banana off the bed.

I got a bus as soon as I could to Sucre, the colonial capital of Bolivia. The bus journey was fairly uninteresting, although not to the baggage boy who, at every loo-stop, tried desperately to spy on us girls.

The first thing I did here was to have my eyebrows done - being a lazy sort of girl, it had got to the stage where my eyesight was actually being impeded. And once I could see, I sorted out more Spanish lessons and an apartment which I am now renting with a Canadian girl (Robyn, great fun) and an American bloke who is perhaps the most self-absorbed person I have ever met, possibly because he looks like a cross between a fat Axel Rose and Catweasel with a ridiculous goatee like a dead hamster. He could even give Leonard Cohen lessons in how to be miserable.

Poverty aside, Bolivia is very different from other South America countries. The Bolivian psyche is made up of an overpowering machismo, rigid Catholicism and a healthy respect for witchcraft. I watched a bunch of young boys racing down the street after having a scrap, screeching insults at one another but automatically making the sign of the cross as they sped past a church. At the witches market here you can buy all sorts of potions to improve the quality of your life, including one to miraculously fix a broken-down car. I may buy a few to take home with me ....

Each day after my Spanish lessons I work in an orphanage for girls, helping with their homework and generally entertaining them until dinner time. Going through a picture book with me, 5 year old Vanessa correctly identified a pair of tweezers and, when I asked her to describe what they are used for, she replied "For pulling all the white hairs out of your head". Oh, how I laughed. The older girls get me to translate English song lyrics into Spanish, so I've taken the opportunity to defile the odd Britney Spears song with a few lyrics of my own.

Next week I hope to go to Oruro for a few days to see the famous carnival celebrations. Carnival here in Sucre has started early, with no-one safe from the schoolboy tradition of throwing water bombs. I got hit by a group of youngsters but got my own back by taking their picture and thereby capturing their souls in my camera for eternity. My kind of witchcraft.
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