Week 33 - Uyuni to La Paz

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 14th - Potosi

Arrived in Potosi at 2am and rather than wait until light (all the bus passengers settled down for the long wait) me and the lads and a similarly impatient Israeli girl caught a taxi to our hostel of choice. The poor girls had to share a room with 3 complete strangers but at least it was a place to sleep. Settled down and caught up with some sleep.

On rising the first mission of the day was to get a silver mine tour booked. Potosi is famous for its silver mines and used to be the richest city in the world until the Spanish drained it and now it's only real claim to fame is being the highest city in the world. I quite like it here..it feels more like a town than a city.

Walked around the market and centre for a while and can see the people look very indigenous and traditional. Very hard to take photos (they get well grumpy). The 2pm tour of the mines kicked off on time and the first stop was to get kitted out with mining gear (with obligatory miner’s hat and lamp). I tried to convince a group of passing girls that I was in fact a real miner but they didn't believe a word of it and instead compared our group to the camp singers of YMCA.

Next up was a store that miners buy their stuff from. On my shopping list was a big bag of Coca leaves, a bottle of alcohol (no ordinary stuff either but a clear, gut melting 96% proof liquid of the paint stripper variety), a few packs of homemade cigs and...just what I needed...Dynamite! Dynamite was obviously the most exciting buy for our group and so we bought one each to blow up later on. In fact all of these things were gifts for the miners as a sort of thanks for letting us get in the way of their work.

Coca leaves in mouth and torch on head it was time to enter the dark and airless mines. First stop was a statue of a devil where the miners make sacrifices of Coca, cigarettes and alcohol to protect them against misfortune in the mines (collapses, lung poisoning and explosions gone wrong). Our guide did a small prayer for our own protection during the tour.

After a walk through narrow and short tunnels I met the oldest miners in the area; 53 and 54 (life expectancy for mine workers is a measly 35). They were both having a Coca, cigarette and alcohol break in the tiny Catholic shrine (a point was made that in the real world you can drink and smoke in a religious area and still be religious. We all shared a drop of the paint stripper...Sweet Jesus it was strong.

So thanking my lucky stars I chose the internet rather than mining as my profession (not that they have much choice) it was time to explore deeper into the mines. We did a lot of climbing up ropes, ladders and through holes just big enough to squeeze through.

The air was getting very thick and it was well hot and humid now. Finally we came to a place still being dug out for minerals and had a little go. I found a nice little shiny piece of stone (apparently with some trace of silver in it) and soon pocketed it hoping to top up my ever decreasing travel funds.

Escaping the claustrophobia of the mines it was time to set off some dynamite. Sadly we couldn't do it ourselves so Willy did the honours. We got a complete lesson in setting up dynamite (very useful in my line of work).

As Willy scampered away from the set dynamite the first one went off with a bang...the second one was so powerful it made everyone jump out of their skins. Exhausted and totally covered in dust we headed back to town. I couldn't help but think of the shitty life the miners have...and the low wages of between $100 and $200 a month.

This tour was one of the best and insightful I've been on so far and really was worth every penny of the 50 Bolivars ($6).

There was a bus to catch at 8pm so picking up our bags we headed to the bus terminal and chilled waiting for it to arrive. This is the first bus I've been on in Latin America that had heating...weird.

March 15th - La Paz

Sleep was difficult to come by in this oven on 8 wheels called the Copacabana Meme bus. Pulling into the bus terminal of the highest capital city in the world called La Paz at 5.30 me and the lads tried to get a taxi. I'd heard a lot of stories and warnings about taxi robberies (generally radio taxis that have a proper taxi sign on the roof, a phone number on the side and are registered are safe...generally the same all over Latin America). So when a dodgy taxi driver did try and get all 3 of us into a pretty average looking car around the corner I used my finest Spanish to tell him to piss off.

Found a decent hostel in town and settled down to catch up with some kip. When at 7am a group of Israelis decided on a game of snap right outside the door I cursed them and gave up on sleep. Instead I got up sat next to them and lit up a fag (they all happened to be non smokers). 20 minutes later they left as to plan and I went back to bed for a good sleep.

Later in the afternoon I went for some grub with the lads at a local restaurant and then it was time to catch up with my old travel mates Surekha and Krina. Today was no ordinary day...it was Surekha's birthday. Just by chance while walking around the market I bumped into Krina in the market and a little reunion and birthday drink was arranged for later.

Back at the hostel for some siesta'ing (still adjusting to the altitude and as well as that Ivan has a dodgy stomach and Chris has a cold).

That evening me and Chris (Ivan was suffering too much) met up with the girls in the location of dreams when you’re travelling. It was an English pub called Olivers Travels; good beer, football on tap..and the ever elusive English brekkie (black pudding goodness which I'll be back for tomorrow morning) and the usual good grub of fish and chips, curry or shepherd’s pie.

It was really good to see the girls again and we all had a good drink and chat. Getting back afterwards was not so easy as the girls couldn't remember where their hotel was. We caught a taxi but he didn't know where the bloody hotel was either so I asked him to return us to the pub. The girls insisted on walking which really wasn't a good idea in the deepest and darkest La Paz. In the end I asked a burger stall owner the way and one of his dodgy customers was kind enough to warn me and the gang of La Paz's dangers when walking around at night (he ran his hand across his throat in the universal cutthroat sign) which prompted me to mutter 'bollocks to this' and was about to demand a taxi when the rest of the gang had one ready. The girls were dropped off at the hotel finally and me and Chris back to our hostel.

March 16th - La Paz

Today checked out the local market in town (saying that..the whole of La Paz seems to be just one big market). The usual array of everything at criminally cheap prices; for example new DVD films 40c a piece. Also checked out the Witches Market where they sell the strangest objects; Llama foetuses, stuffed frogs, stuffed lizards, statues of good fortune, wild cat’s fur (sigh) and all sorts of natural herbs that promise to heal anything.

Next was the highlight of the day for me...a full English breakfast (the first in 8 months by my count) accompanied by a pint of tea (PG Tips no less).

Then it was time to book the bike ride down the infamous Road of Death (the most dangerous road in the world...apparently). We had a nice group of 5 people and that how it was to stay for tomorrow's day of fright (Me, Surekha, Krina, Ivan and Chris).

For dinner we found a cheap Chinese restaurant (well...when in Bolivia..) and had a tasty sweet and sour pork for $2.

Early night tonight as tomorrow I truly test my vertigo to see if Costa Rica really did cure me...

March 17th - La Paz (Death Road)

Today will go down as one (if not the) most memorable days in not only my travels but my life (all for the wrong reasons I might add).

The gang went for an early 7.30am brekkie at the tour company for the bike ride (Barro). All were in good spirits and there was some nervous tension in the air as we ate the usual bread, jam and tea (why the hell do they only do continental brekkie's in South America ...maybe I've been spoilt with yesterdays Full Monty English brekkie with extra bacon).

Forgot to bring my sunglasses with me so the next 20 minutes frantically tried to find a pair but gave up in the end.

The 1.5 hour drive to the bike ride of death starting point was good fun and a few songs were sung (Californication went down well) and as we passed through La Paz I mimicked the hundreds of buses that pass through by shouting out prices and pretending we would pick up passengers.

Reaching the start point we all donned waterproofs, helmet and gloves then tested the bikes (brakes being a huuuuge must work here) and went through a safety chat with Jose our guide.

The two lads were well up for it being adrenaline junkies through and through. Me and the girls stayed at the back as we all bombed it down the twisting road (not yet the Road of Death but just the beginning stages).

The bikes handled pretty well even at the frightening speeds we were doing but the signs of what was to follow soon became apparent when we got to a check point and Krina's bike suddenly veered violently to the left (almost hitting a stray dog on the road). Nobody was hurt but she was a bit shaken.
The next part was a gruelling 1 hour uphill cycle which I have to admit I lazied out of (as well as the girls). Much cajoling and harassing of Ivan and Chris followed while I was sitting comfy in the van (following us all the way) and they struggled up the steep road. Fair play to them they did us proud and managed the whole bit without a stop.

Now as we reached the proper Road of Death (a gravelly, slippery and narrow twisting road cut out of the mountain with shockingly steep cliff-face drops) we all mounted our bikes and followed our guide.

All was good as we bombed it down and I have to say I was getting braver and braver the further we went. Chris had some brake problems (really not the place for that) but Jose soon fixed it and we all continued ploughing into streams and waterfalls. We stopped for a few photo and video shots and then Jose stopped us for a chat that brought us back down to earth.

8 months previously an Israeli with apparently bad cycling skills had plunged full speed off the cliff here and quite obviously died. There was a memorial stone in place and I couldn't help but think about the poor fella.

The order we were cycling in changed after every stop and at this point it was Jose, Surekha, Me, Ivan, Chris and Krina in the back. When we turned the corner just after the memorial some of us heard a gravelly sound and as I watched Jose turn his head while cycling and then pounce off it with a murmur of fright me and Surekha realised something was badly wrong.

Looking back we realised Krina was missing at the back and this is when the shock hit. She had plunged down the cliff. After we all jumped off our bikes and raced back to where she may have plunged shock and reality hit us...it was a very long drop down. Poor Surekha was obviously the worst, what with Krina being her best mate and not knowing where she was or if she was still alive (survival rate from plummeting off these cliffs is understandably minimal if not impossible). She was shaking like a leaf.

After 15 minutes of frantically trying to spot her or her bike down below we finally found her bike and the eerie sight of one of her white trainers next to it...but no Krina. The van pulled up and the race was on to rescue her.

Jose and the driver pulled out some long rope and he climbed down slowly to see if he could find her. Everyone was really tense and Surekha was obviously in tears not knowing if her close friend was dead or alive.

The atmosphere changed dramatically as a cry was heard from Jose below and Ivan spotted a body next to him....moving its head and sitting up. The relief was huge.

Now everything changed and the rescue operation was started in earnest. We didn't know how badly she was injured (back and neck was my first worry) so this had to be done carefully.

Jose clambered up the cliff to where the rope dangled and we dropped a stretcher down to him. He then said he needed all the man-power available so the 3 lads including me (a real test of my stupid vertigo) had to climb down using the rope. Surekha was quite adamant about going down as well (understandably) but I had to ask her to stay there and help at the top.

The climb down was well slippery and dangerous (right on a stream) but eventually I made it and was so relieved to see Krina sitting up and cracking a few jokes with the lads. There was still the worry about her back or neck but she said it felt ok. She was shaking a lot from the cold so Hyperthermia was another worry as she was sitting in a freezing cold stream of water.

Putting her into the stretcher was a tough job but finally she was strapped in (the only back support we had to hand was an old street sign...shocking). And so the long backbreaking carry back to the base of the cliff-face started. We all slipped, fell and winced as we hauled her up slowly (she's not a big lass but the dead weight was a killer even for 4 grown men...less burgers next time Krina).

Finally we got her to the base of the cliff and I clambered up the rope to help pull her from the top. Another scare happened when the guys down below lost grip of the stretcher and she very nearly plunged down again with a sharp rock in her way but thankfully (well, not for him) Ivan bravely put his hand in between her and the rock which stopped her but also ripped a hole in his middle finger.

Krina was re-tied (strapped in tightly) and after 10 minutes of backbreaking pulling from up top and below we swung her onto the flat cliff surface. By this time she was shaking violently so we swiftly got her into the relative warmth of the van and Surekha quickly got her into dry clothes.

One thing that really pissed me off was that Jose and the driver then spent another 5 minutes trying to retrieve her bike and equipment while Krina was shaking and moaning in the van. I actually went over and shouted at them which made them hurry a bit.

The 1.5 hour drive back to La Paz was painful Krina, it being a bumpy gravelly road and painful for us to watch and hear as she moaned at every small bump. Surekha was holding her head and I was trying to keep her awake. The threats of me singing her a few songs worked a treat and she stayed awake for the whole ride back.

At the hospital she was seen immediately and the prognosis was a twisted ankle, total bruising down her left side, a bruised shoulder and a few cuts here and there. In other words...a miracle of survival.

Ivan was patched up (very nasty deep cut on his finger) and by late evening we all checked on Krina again and then headed back to the hostel.

Its difficult to describe the emotions running through everyone but we were all still in shock (especially Surekha) so when we got back to the hostel and saw groups of people chatting and laughing it took a mammoth effort not to tell them to shut it. We all had a quiet night and as a form of distraction watched some Simpsons on my laptop.

Sweet Jesus...what a day. One I'll never forget...

March 18th - La Paz

First thing in the morning me and Surekha headed to the hospital to check on the non-intentional cliff diver. She seemed ok but true to being a bad patient demanded to be released from hospital.

Her only current memory of the fall was that she came off the bike and tried desperately to grab or cling onto anything as she plummeted. She then blacked out and remembers waking in a beautiful spot in the middle of a stream with tropical plants and trees around her.

The doctors suggested she stay another night in hospital and we all agreed. So exhausted we came back to the hostel and me and Surekha went off to organise a new place to stay. The shithole that is El Solario hostel was no place to recover (it also made Ivan ill and Chris got a cold).

Found the Hotel Majestic (it was indeed pretty majestic and also fairly cheap at $8 per night). We then hauled all our packs (I had mine and Krina's and nearly gave up when I remembered the hotel located uphill) there and settled down for the night.

March 19th - La Paz

Checkout day today for our patient. Surekha went to pick her up while me and the lads stayed sleeping. The whole day was basically a flurry of activity around her and keeping her company. Not much else was done really.

Dinner for tonight was at the British Hindu Curry House where we had a delicious curry. The mood was good and of course a lot of the time we talked about how lucky Krina was.

March 20th
- La Paz

Rumour had it that it was possible to get into the infamous La Paz prison to see how the inmates lived and survived. It’s a prison with a difference in that without money you can't survive. You have to pay for a room, essentials...well, everything really. No money...no survive.

Me, Ivan and Chris (Surekha wasn't in the mood for prisons at the moment) hopped into a taxi and got to the prison (strangely located next to a central plaza). After a few inquiries with the prison guards we nearly gave up when they sternly refused us (I wasn't going to push the idea). Walking away a Bolivian fella approached us and set the whole visit into operation. I was to call a South African inmate called Daniel Foley and then go to a side entrance where the guards would let us in.

After buying a small gift pack (toiletries, ciggies and chocolate) we headed in. A not very strict search was made and passports kept by the guards. To be honest I was a tad nervous (I mean...this is a South American knick...who knows what could happen in here).

Daniel was a big, friendly South African (near Jo'burg) who'd got himself involved with Nigerian drugs smugglers (bad move indeed). He was caught carrying 3 kg's of Charlie (swallowed in vials) at La Paz airport and was thus sentenced to 3.5 years.

After the introductions he immediately took us to his cell (I say cell in a very broad term...it was a room with a computer, books, nice bed etc.). The first thing he told us was there was a huge fight here last night between the foreign prisoners (23% of the prison) and the Bolivians. Started when they picked on a small South African fella (seem to be quite a few in here).

Life in here seems very tough. Apart from the fact that they can buy pretty much anything in here and that they produce the best Charlie in the country the main threat was the locals who didn't take too kindly to the foreigners in here.

After loads of stories (have been asked not to repeat or mention names) the hunger set in and Daniel asked us if we wanted some food. There followed a delicious burger and chips (shit...never thought I'd eat in a knick in South America). For obvious reasons something else was tried (well...at what other time can I say I've tried the best gear in Bolivia in such distinguished company).

The afternoon went swiftly and after a tour of the solitary cell (it had 7 inmates in it), kitchens, gym, pool room (the room that funnily enough has the most fights) we realised we'd been here for 6 hours (the longest for Daniel apparently). On the way out I met the Butcher of La Paz (apparently the best butcher in town who sliced his wife up in butcher style). Saw the daddy of the knick sitting on some stone seats with his lieutenants around him (yep...he looked well hard).

Rumours abounded about the legendary fella (nicknamed red beard) who got caught smuggling 4 tonnes of gear by plane. He was quite a character apparently.

Daniels due for release in 5 months so good luck to him and I quote from him 'I've learned my lesson' (we'll see).

A bit worse for wear I said my adios's and we all hopped into a cab home. What a great day...one of the best and most surreal days so far. Dinner was a takeaway and exhausted it was straight to bed and thanked my lucky stars I'm not remotely interested in the smuggling game.

The plan for the next week is to get Krina well enough to travel then I'm heading to Lake Titicaca for a few days (ok, childish laughter whenever I hear that name) for some chilling and to see the legendary Moon and Sun islands (where apparently the sun was born). Then it’s into Peru for the last main stretch of my Latin American journey...only 3 weeks to go.
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