World´s Highest/ Craziest/ Saltiest...

Trip Start Jan 22, 2008
Trip End Sep 30, 2008

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, July 28, 2008

It turns out that the Bolivians did not need my help to celebrate the carnival - by the time I hit the main street through which the procession was passing there were numerous smashed locals staggering around, lying down or being arrested. To be fair, the carnival did kick-off at 8am and I arrived at around 10.30, and they do sell a spirit in Bolivia which is 96% proof (I fortunately have not located it). The procession was all over the place whilst I was there - there were people in traditional dress dancing, followed by drunken people trying to copy them, the odd band, a paper machet car and loads of people lining the streets, some sat in temporary wooden stands. I didn´t stay that long as I had an epic Sunday planned, bang in line with my "go hard or go home" travel mantra...

My big plans for Sunday entailed getting up at the obscene hour of 7am, saddle sore bottom and all, and heading down to the main strip. En route I saw a local who had clearly partied hard as he was attempting to sleep in an upright sitting position in the middle of the road. I attempted to move him, but he seemed quite happy and I left him doing the classic bus sleep of waking suddenly every time he nodded off and his head lurched forward. We´ve all been there (just not on a road).

I jumped onto a micro (essentially a mini bus which services various parts of the city and seem to be popular on the basis that I saw two full on fist fights with people trying to board during the gridlock of the carnival the night before) and heading out of La Paz to a district called Marasilla. It was clearly a wealthy district, impressive Spanish style villas and plush apartments behind gated enclosures - wonder how the residents made their money (dinero)??? I was heading for La Paz Golf Club - the highest in the world - and jumped off the micro at the final stop with the slight problem of being separated from the golf course by a deep, wide ravine. I asked an old chap how to get to the course (well pointed) and he seemed to reply that I needed to go down into the valley and then up the other side. No shite, sherlock, I was thinking of flying. A young kid was fortunately on hand to point me to the cobbled road which after about a kilometre arrived at the smart golf club. The round was actually quite expensive, especially as I had to hire clubs and employ the services of a caddie - Alfonso. I was put into a four with three Bolivians - an old chap named Jose, middle aged guy called Jorge and his ten year old daughter, Maria. I had bought ten balls thinking that would be sufficient, despite the fact I have only played once this year, and that decision was looking optimistic on the par three second. It was a narrow hole, with out of bounds down the left and a lake on the right. I pulled my first, Alfonso helpfully laughing and shouting "Adios!" and then pushed my second, "Ha, ha, ha, Agua". Listen, Alfonso, we´re just not going to get on if you act like that. My form steadied after that and I was able to improve my Spanish by virtue of having to count to over ten a couple of times after some bunkero disasters, whilst Alfonso improved his English, "shanko", "toppo", "knifo", etc. You´re a funny guy Alfonso, you´ve just lost your tip - he was a legend actually; telling me where to aim putts (not that I could), collecting my divots and cleaning my balls (ooh, matron). The course itself was excellent, and the surrounding views incredible. The course has been built into the ´Valley of the Moon´ and often the fairway drops away directly into pale grey lunar landscape. It made it difficult to be annoyed by my generally poor play, and I didn´t even mind that a ten year old girl probably beat me (in fact, I think I just pipped her, she was ahead but started to play badly on the back nine and threw her toys out of the pram, or rather clubs out of the bag, and told her dad to shut up several times when he tried to offer advice).

I had no time to waste once the round was over and jumped straight into a cab for San Pedro Prison. For 20 pounds, you can enter the prison for a tour and then spend the afternoon in a prisoner´s cell. It was all quite intimidating on arrival, machine gun wielding uniformed guards but I had been told by some other tourists to ask for Martin, and was not even searched before I was ushered into the main courtyard of the prison. It is absolutely surreal - I was in the Posta section, which generally houses wealthy inmates who can buy their rooms, run restaurants and live with their families. There were a number of families sat around on picnic benches enjoying lunch in the afternoon sun when I arrived. I was taken upstairs to Martin´s cell, where he was tucking into a delicious looking sausage and mash, along with Jorge - a notorious Colombian drug baron. Martin is from South Africa and due to be released in two months. He spoke softly and after asking for one pound 50 for the education of the children (which I paid) he sent me up to the third floor to meet Jacques, a Zimbabwean drug dealer, also due to be released in two months. There were five other tourists sat round as he explained about life in the prison. We soon left the room, only after an innocuous disagreement with one of the other "tour guides", Sebastian had ended with Jacques vowing to kill him. Sebastian stormed off and said that Martin was "finished". Not sure if it was all part of an act, but it certainly looked pretty serious and had us all a bit of edge. We were taken back down to the courtyard, passing the gym and a pleasant looking prisoner owned restaurant on the way back through the courtyard and up a flight of stairs to Jacque´s "cell". It was a decently sized room with a double bed, TV, DVD player, kitchen area and en suite bathroom which would have made any student green. Jacques had bought it outright (you can get mortgages) and lived in the room with his wife, who he nicknamed "Penelope Cruz" and young daughter. There were about five further tourists in the room and as the afternoon went on Jacque´s stories began to move more into the Jack a´Nory world but it was still a fascinating and surreal experience. Despite the almost holiday camp feel of the section we were in, it is still a prison and the general population section houses more dangerous criminals - tourists can still visit but must pay about 30 pounds. As the stories began to become more and more incoherent, we looked around and everyone seemed ready to leave slightly earlier than the 5pm kick out time. Still - an unbelievable experience...

I had to dash from the prison, via my hostel, to catch the overnight bus to Uyuni. Considering it is home to the country´s most famous tourist attraction, the Salt Flats (the world´s largest, of course), one might have thought there would be a road between La Paz and Uyuni but if the constant juddering was anything to go by, there wasn´t- the world´s longest cattle grid maybe?

Anyway, off on my tour in five so ciao amigos,

Nicholas "World´s Worst Traveller" Turner
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