Hi-ho, hi-ho, in the Big Rock Candy Mountains

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, March 9, 2013

We're in Bolivia then, and what will be the last country on our South American adventure. We didn’t have the easiest start. The border crossing turned out to be one of the most frustrating experiences of the whole trip so far. We arrived early, at least half an hour before any doors opened, armed with the knowledge that this particular crossing might take a while, and prepared to cheerfully wait. Luckily there were plenty of other foreigners with which to share the experience, and so we banded together with some Isreali’s, British, Canadians, a Belgian and one American to take turns watching each other’s bags, and generally offering support. There are certain nationalities that have to pay for a visa to enter Bolivia. South Africans are one of these select groups. Once stamped out of Brazil, all we had to do was wait in a sunny queue on the Bolivian side. Here, a guard repeatedly assured Kerri that as a South African all she had to do was wait in the same queue as the rest of us foreigners, and get the same stamp from a cheerful old teller at the dusty little desk at the end of it. After only a couple of hours of shuffling along behind every other Latin American on the continent, we arrived at the aforementioned dusty little desk to be informed by the aforementioned cheerful old teller that South Africans actually have to apply for their visa at that other dusty desk, at the end of that other queue over there, which, stretching out the office and around the building was ambling along at a pace which would have shamed a crippled snail.

Oh, heck and all that, at least the bus out of town that we had just bought tickets for wasn’t leaving until six o clock that evening, giving us pretty much the whole afternoon to stand around again in a grimy repetition of the whole morning’s activity. Five minutes after Kerri had inserted herself into this queue, the woman at this particular desk decided to stop stamping papers, get up from her chair, and just meander off without a word. Thereupon another of the helpful officers started herding the queuing throng into the already cramped and sticky office, where he informed the good and patient people that their visa payments would be collected later on that afternoon when the recently disappeared clerk decided to come back from her lunch break, but that passports would not be stamped until tomorrow morning. The reason for this was that the desk for stamping passports closed an hour before the desk for collecting cash. Well, were we going to accept that without a great deal of angry shouting and pointing (and perhaps a little profanity thrown in for good measure)? No, we jolly well weren’t. The officers in charge seemed to realize that Kerri and I (the only westerners in the room) were not about to accept this situation lightly, and decided it would be easier all round if we were ushered along to the front of the queue, allowed some special treatment to get through the border today, and got out of their way. And so, we made it into Bolivia with a little fuss and a touch of bother, but at least in one piece, and without the wrath of some gun-toting border officials. There may be no match on Earth for the combination of a Yorkshireman’s steaming blasphemies and Kerri’s icy-cold killer glare.

This start to our tour of Bolivia was a good indicator of the more negative aspects of the kind of service we would receive in Bolivia. We wanted to get them out of the way before we talk about the country’s good points (of which there are many, don’t fret). In short, Bolivia even at a first glance is clearly the poorest country we’ve visited in South America. Its towns are dusty and littered, sometimes with people literally sitting in piles of old plastic bottles and carrier bags by the side of the road; weird and cheap brands of soft-drink and their bizarre colouring leave one wondering if it wouldn’t be that bit safer to drink even the tap water, and to find a hostel with wi-fi that doesn’t connect like a screeching 1996 dial-up modem would make national headlines. The hospitality of Bolivians so far hasn’t exactly bowled us over, but it would be unfair to call them all rude. The attitude of most hostel workers ranges from politely smiling to generally uncaring of whether we enjoy our stay or not. Compared to Peruvians and Ecuadorians, they could certainly be a lot friendlier, but let’s not forget (as if you would) that Bolivia is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural mineral wealth (gold and silver mines – as well as countless other kinds - abound at every turn), and yet they are still financially one of the poorest countries on the continent thanks to the good old folks of European history and their good old escapades of butchery and pillagery.  One tale we heard, as we passed through an abandoned mining village, was that when the Spanish first appeared all those years ago, the locals welcomed them with generous offers of selling them gold and silver.

"’Selling to us’, you say senor? Heh heh, well, that’s not exactly what we had in mind. Put your hands in the air and just hand it all over. Good boys. Now just slap on these chains and get on with your digging. We’ll take over from here on in. Thanks suckers, er… Amigos!"

Anyway, complaining over, it is time to describe just how wonderful a country Bolivia can be. Our first stop, in the city of Santa Cruz, was not a great example of a traveler’s delight. It is the biggest city in Bolivia, but unfortunately lacks any real character, and so we stayed long enough only to get some much-needed laundry done and climb the steps of its cathedral for a rather uninteresting view of the bland and blasť rooftops. 

Moving quickly on then, via an eighteen hour bumpy bus ride, to the much-celebrated city of Sucre, known for its quaint and relaxing atmosphere and its roughly five square block city centre of picturesque, whitewashed architecture, where enough museums, churches and parks keep the tourists wandering happily for a day or two before they venture out into the nearby countryside for some trekking. We decided to book a two-day hike into said countryside, and it was at this point in our travels that we encountered a fellow traveler who would become our faithful friend and companion for the next couple of weeks: Ludovic the French Plastic Surgeon, who bears a delightfully uncanny resemblance to Hans Gruber, evil antagonist from the classic Die Hard movie (or Professor Syrius Snape for the younger generation of readers), and who seemed to end every story he told with the line, “And zen, of course, I ended up 'aving sex with ‘er,” in a rather hilarious and stereotypically French way.

 Ludovic seemed able to smell other Frenchies from a block away, claiming that they are indeed the dirty, smelly characters we English like to stereotype them as. We started off together by booking the same countryside trek, and so the three of us, along with our wonderful local guide David, journeyed into the Bolivian mountains, hiking along part of an old Inca trail, through gorgeous glades and up beautiful hillsides, eventually to stagger, breathless and aching into a tectonically-formed crater, to spend the night in a local village. This village, called ‘Maragua’ had been placed here in this crater, high atop the mountain, by Spanish conquistadors way back in thingamy-hundred and whenever, in order for the locals to farm wheat and corn for the colonialists’ pleasure. Today the locals still uphold that tradition, as well as hand-making amazingly detailed and beautifully woven bags; and of course providing warm hospitality and hearty fare for weary hikers like us. The next day we continued our trek for another hundred miles or so, stopping at one point to gaze in wonder upon the large and almost perfectly clear footprints of a dinosaur known as watchamasaurous (well I don’t take notes you know – it looked like it could have been a velociraptor, the one that Steven Spielberg immortalised). The locals call this place something along the lines of ‘Valley of the Big Birds’, having had no idea about dinosaurs’ existence at the time of the footprints’ discovery.  After lunching here, we continued on about another million miles to the car that was waiting under a blessedly shady tree to take us back to the town of Sucre. We fell at its tyres like sacks of particularly tired potatoes, and slipped into unconsciousness as it drove us home.

After our exhausting but aesthetically amazing hike around the countryside of Sucre, we were ready to move on to another of our travels’ great superlatives and so took another bouncing bus ride to the highest city in the world: Potosi (another one for the pub quiz fanatics).

This city is famous for the mountain of Cerro Rico (‘Rich Mountain’) that sits gloatingly above the town, and more specifically, the maze of silver mine tunnels that snake around for miles within. In its heyday, Potosi was the richest city in the world, simply due to the immeasurable wealth embedded in its mountainsides. The silver here is still mined quite copiously by the locals, although it is said that the reserves are vastly depleted. Most of what is mined now is not even pure silver, but is still one of the greatest sources of income for so many men in town, who actually all work as part of a co-operative, rather than for any one company (one of the things that makes mining such a pleasure for them, they claim, the fact that working hard enough can actually reap very great monetary rewards – another of those things being the vast amounts of coca leaves they chew throughout the day).

Our guide book warned us in big capital letters that these mines can be nightmarish places, where accidents do happen, and that anyone with doubts, claustrophobia, or respiratory conditions should avoid them completely. Unfazed, and feeling acclimatized to the altitude of the world’s highest city (at over 4km above sea level), we booked a tour from what we’d been told was a reputable tour company run by genuine ex-miners, and took the plunge. We were first taken to the miners’ market, where we were told we could purchase gifts for the miners we would meet along the way. These gifts ranged from bags of coca leaves and lime to soft-drinks and dynamite. We settled for a bottle of orange soda and a bag of coca leaves each (avoiding the dynamite, which is actually legally available for anyone to buy regardless of age, sex or sociopathic tendencies, probably), and then went to get ourselves kitted up in mining overalls, hardhats and headlamps.

 Our next stop was the mountain itself, and the narrow, muddy shaft that began our entrance into the mines. On the way, we had been instructed to begin chewing the coca leaves we had brought, along with the lime rock that acts as a catalyst for the chemicals. Doing this, we were told, would displace any negative effects of altitude we might encounter, including but not limited to shortness of breath and light-headedness.  Just in case anybody is not aware, coca leaves are the main ingredient in a certain narcotic for which Bolivia is known for being one of the world’s biggest exporters. Chewing coca leaves alone has one of the most unpleasantly bitter tastes imaginable. They seem to have no effect whatsoever except to cause one’s face to screw up as though someone were squirting a particularly bad fart up your nostrils. Adding a little of the lime rock into your gnawing jaws however, is a completely different matter. The flavor becomes much sweeter, and then almost immediately creates a numbing effect in the whole mouth, followed by a very alert and almost buzzing sensation. The desire to focus one’s eyes intently at any colours and angles in your line of sight is almost matched by the desire to chat incessantly about whatever nonsense is firing through your brain.  After a couple of mouthfuls of this concoction, most of us felt like we didn’t really need this to get us through the experience, and left most of the rest of the leaves to give as gifts to the miners we passed, who seemed to gratefully – if not greedily – accept them before rushing off in whatever direction they were heading, pushing their rock-filled carts before them. Cleverly singing “High-ho, high-ho” to ourselves in those dark, cold shafts seemed to take on new depths of meaning for us. I guess these guys need something to make their days seem a little more cheerful. Strangely, we were informed, the miners eat practically nothing whilst at their job, settling only for a breakfast before leaving home in the morning, and then a meal when they arrived back in the evening.  Those leaves certainly seemed to stave off any hunger we might have otherwise felt.   Any miners who were given snack bars by us (well we thought they were a good idea), simply looked at them bemusedly, before shoving them in their pockets and moving on without a thanks. I wonder how well they sleep at night…

The other thing we encountered in the mine was a shrine to the exclusively miners’ god known as El Tio, an erection-sporting, cigarette smoking, alcohol-drinking and coca chewing devil, who’s image is revered inside the mines as much as Catholicism is prevalent outside the mine. The miners (who are regular church-goers in their above-ground lives) seem to have no qualms about this particularly anti-Christian deity being worshipped so blatantly in the tunnels, as underground for them is a whole different realm of existence than aboveground, and they claim that Christ has no power over people’s safety underground (well I suppose if you watch from clouds you can’t see everything). We stopped for a sit and a chat and a chew around a larger than life model of the behorned and sadistically grinning El Tio, who watched on while we toasted his image with a favourite tipple of the miners, a 96% alcoholic poison called simply ‘Alcohol Potable’, which while a single sip tastes quite pleasant and sweet on the tongue (for some bizarre reason), then gives the brain the immediate sensation of being turned into a boxing ring for gremlins on amphetamines. On the whole, not an unpleasant experience, but one which was not able to be repeated by most of the foreigners in the group, who gratefully passed on the small bottle the second (and third and fourth) time it was passed round.

All in all, this was one of the most exciting, interesting and unforgettable experiences of our whole trip in South America so far, if not because of the creepily close conditions, or the beautifully colourful mineral deposits clinging to so many of the walls, then simply because of the humbling opportunity to see how people can make a life for themselves in such seemingly unconducive conditions, and the fact that so many of them do genuinely seem to love their job and the whole camaraderie involved in such a life together underground. We encountered one old miner who, we were informed, had retired a few years before, but who missed the life so much that he returned day after day, if only to spend that time with his friends and old colleagues. It’s possible that he just had a particularly nagging wife, but we did find, that after a couple of hours crawling around in the dark and damp of those tunnels, that when we eventually emerged back out into the bright midday sunlight, that we (or I at least) actually kind of missed those close, cool and almost comforting walls.

The next pin on our Bolivian map is in a town called Tupiza. Tupiza is set amongst a backdrop of red rock mountains that are known for looking more like the Wild West than the actual Wild West, and are possibly most famous for being known as Butch Cassidy Country, it being the place where the famous train robber and his accomplice the Sundance Kid met their grisly demise. We thought it fitting therefore that this should be the place where we saddle up some horses and go trotting and cantering around the surrounding rocky terrain for a couple of days, talking, acting and spitting just like real old cowboys, and listening to Ludovic’s constant rendition of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain,’ which became something of an anthem for us in the following days and weeks. If you don’t know this song, and you haven’t seen the Coen Bros’ classic Oh Brother Where Art Thou, then shame on you and shame some more. Go watch it now. It was also nigh on impossible not to pass through a single one of the seemingly deserted and dusty little adobe-brick towns without whistling Ennio Morricone’s theme music from Sergio Leone’s The Good The Bad and The Ugly, while wary eyes regarded us from behind shuttered windows, and we were wont to drawl such witty remarks as, “Someb’dy fetch the sheriff, tha’s gunna be a showdown t’night.” And thinking we were all dead cool and that. 

The landscape was breathtaking, the horses beautiful, and in short it was a fantastic couple of days clip-clopping around and feeling like we lived in another century and a different world.  We renamed our horses after star Wars characters, I don’t know why, and unfortunately had a little bad luck with them. On day one, Kerri was riding Luke Skywalker, who had to be replaced with Princess Leia after he threw a shoe. Ludovic spent the whole two days trying to tame a particularly evil Darth Vader, who had the need to bite anyone who tried to take the lead or ride alongside him. And for myself, after the first day spent getting used to one spirited little nag called Han Solo, we awoke the next morning to find him lying in the mud, unable to rise, and seemingly near death from Colic. I therefore had to swap horses with the guide and ride Master Yoda for most of day two.  Han Solo, we were assured later by the tour company, after being whipped into standing and dragged back to his lodge by the guides, would survive his illness after some emergency treatment. We accepted this as truth without question.

Thus, after arriving back in the dusty town of Tupiza and having seen some of the most unique and beautiful scenery of our lives, we were ready to choose our next tour. This is going to be a four day drive through what might prove to be even more unique and mystifying terrain, and to the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Until then then…

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