Water, water everywhere ....

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

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

It's an interesting phenomenon that the country which was responsible for the death of Che Guevara is now probably the biggest merchandiser of Che paraphernalia ever. I myself was forced to buy a bright disco-pink tee-shirt with Che's face on the front, which I will gladly model for a small fee on my return. That's if it doesn't get nicked before I get back. Since leaving the UK, I have been utterly paranoid about having my stuff stolen. As we arrived in Oruro at 4 o'clock in the morning, having said a very sad goodbye to lovely Sucre, my anxiety reared its jerky little head when the taxi driver didn't bother to shut the boot of the car where all our rucksacks were. While I was screeching in Spanish at the driver to shut the boot and so deter would-be thieves at traffic lights, an Argentinian bloke who was sharing the cab told me to calm down and not get so stressed, ridiculing my fears to such an extent that I had to rely on his lack of English as I told him to sod off. And so it was with a tiny smirk of satisfaction and the sense that one shouldn't mock the afflicted that I heard the next day that he had been robbed three times during carnival.

Oruro is a large and ugly city which smells of fried chicken and urine, and is famous for its annual La Diablada carnival. The carnival was fantastic, thousands of dancers wearing bright, shiny costumes and masks, marching bands competing with firecrackers, and the screaming crowds wrapped in plastic ponchos, like fat people trying to lose weight, attempting to avoid the millions of water balloons and canisters of a nasty cream-like substance wielded by everyone from toddlers to grannies. Foreigners were a favourite target and, as well as getting thoroughly soaked, I picked up a few cracking bruises from some well-aimed frozen water balloons. By the evening of the first day of carnival, the streets were packed with stumbling, swaying drunks who had lost the art of subtle peeing and were aiming unknowingly in the gutters, up cars and over small children.

We stayed in a freezing-cold house, with 8 people to a room and one bathroom between 15, with water only available for a few hours each day as the city authorities shut it off in an attempt to stop the children from draining the city's supplies for their water balloons. Two days of walking bent-double to avoid yet another unnecessary face-wash was enough for me, and let's face it, once you've seen one grown man dressed in a giant furry armadillo suit, you've seen them all.

So after four days without washing, Robyn-the-Canadian and I dragged ourselves to La Paz for a hot shower, finally managing to lose the I've-been-running-away-from-myself-all-my-life American psycho with whom we had shared the house in Sucre. La Paz is chaotic, dirty and noisy, built in the bottom of a canyon with houses clinging right up the sides to the top - it's an impressive sight. We arrived at the arse-end of carnival, the day when the city's students enjoy a 'water war'. Even President Evo dressed up as a clown and got drenched. Ducking the water bombs, we managed to find a pub which proudly calls itself the second-highest English pub in the world, where we had a fry-up and a real cup of Tetley tea.

It gets so cold at night in La Paz that the hostels provide blankets so heavy that going to bed is like being sucked into one of those vacuum compression bags. This is a bit tricky when you develop cramp in your leg in the middle of the night, and pushing yourself out of the bed to jump up and down is not a little unlike squeezing a pencil sideways out of a bag of cement. I still have the bruises.

We were a little wary walking around the city, as we had heard so many stories of fake policemen conning tourists out of their credit cards and passports by claiming they needed to be checked for 'authenticity'. Robyn and I spent a good few pints coming up with a number of diversionary tactics, should we be faced with a similar situation - (a) pretending to be deaf, so the fakers would get exasperated trying to communicate what they wanted and therefore leave in disgust; (b) falling to our knees, weeping and wailing whilst grabbing the legs of the coppers. Again they should leave in disgust; (c) primal screaming. Scares the bejesus out of me, should do the same to them; and (d) shouting that we'd already had had our stuff nicked yesterday and why weren't they out there looking for the thieves instead of harassing innocent tourists.

Fed up with the cold, we headed to Sorata in the Yungas region, five hours by bus through the stunning Cordillera Real, the 200 km-long Andes range. The only gringos on the bus, it was packed with locals returning home from carnival bringing with them goods bought in La Paz. I had a bag of squawking chickens at my feet plus a smaller bag containing a lone and very scared kitten. I also had an incredibly warty child sleeping against me for the entire journey, waking only when the chickens tried to make a run for it.

Sorata is famous for trekking and hiking, of which we did none because (a) it's the rainy season and (b) we couldn't be arsed. We stayed in an old colonial mansion, built in the 1800's by a family who had made their wealth in the quinine trade. The village contains a huge number of stray dogs, which naturally restricted my movements somewhat. We sat for days on our veranda, watching the clouds rolling over the mountains and the humming birds flit around the garden, and listening to a tale of woe from our new American friend Shelly.

Shelly's boyfriend had rather cruelly dumped her by email on Valentine's Day. They had met a year previously through an internet dating agency called CatholicMatch.com. Now this guy wasn't exactly imbibed with the christian spirit when, a week after ditching her, he emailed to tell her that he'd given all her gifts to a thrift shop and advised her to get in touch in a year's time when he might reconsider her as a potential partner if she (a) had lost some weight (b) recognised that her university studies had inconvenienced him (c) agreed that his career would always take precedence (d) admitted that he was the better salsa dancer (e) recognised that it was in fact due to her sins that he had to go to confession twice-weekly, and (f) if she immediately sent back his Russian dance CDs.

Is he on crack? we asked.

No, she replied, he's a website designer.

We suggested that she send back the Russian dance CD covers containing CD-Roms instructing him in the art of how not to be such an arse, and also surf the web to see if there was a self-help website called CatholicsOnCrack.com. We left Shelly back in La Paz pondering her next move and seriously considering if her ex had been a major drug user.

And so, after far too much cold weather, I've travelled to Iquique in northern Chile to soak up a few rays and prepare for the journey to Quito where I catch my flight home. I've left Robyn-the-Canadian in Copacabana, but fully expect to see her on the beach next week.

Not long now - get those expense accounts ready.
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