Thursday, 22 December 2011

Bolivia - The air is thinner the closer you get to the sun.

The bus journey to the dusty border town of  La Quicha was largely uneventful barring the 7 hours of films, dubbed in Spanish, depicting the horrors of Human Trafficking as well as the soothing tones of Bolivian Folk Music at full volume out of the pitiful speaker of an early 90's Nokia mobile phone, repeated more or less for the full 26 hour duration. As you can imagine, sleep didn't come easily. The first thing we noticed as we alighted, shrugging on our rucksacks, was that the air had become a lot harder to breathe. A side effect of being almost 4 vertical kilometres high on the Andean Plateau (Altiplano). I had been expecting the air to thin out, but having never experienced it first hand, was surprised at the effects none the less. Eventually your body gets used to it but at first it really is a little uncomfortable having to regulate your breathing and conciously thinking about each breath, as you inhale and exhale, becomes tiring for your oxygen starved brain. We shuffled slowly into the centre of  Villazon in search of a bus to the Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni). It turned out we would be spending the night.

We checked into a hotel on the main street and went out for a walk and to get some food. We'd been subsisting on weird cakes we'd bought from a shack on one of the stops betwen Mendoza and La Quicha and were absolutely ravenous. Quite different to the land of milk and honey that had been Mendoza, the choice in Villazon was somewhat limited. We ended up opting for some kind of gruel with bones in it bought from a friendly woman sporting a bowler hat like some kind of wizened, colourful skirt wearing 1950's London commuter.

It didn't look all that nice, but once you'd fished the pieces of spinal column and and shin out of it and thrown that to to the pack of stray dogs congregating nearby, it was actually quite tasty. It was impossible not to reminisce about our very recent Argentinian steak bonanza, but Emma and I both agreed that we were secretly relieved that the option of tenderloin was not and would not be available to us for some time. Bolivian food is very simple and tends to be comprised of roughly 12.5% protein and 87.5% carbs. It's not unusual to get a meal (either chicken or beef) with potatoes, rice and pasta piled high, which for me, is too much.

We took a wander around after that and although the town didn't have much by way of amenities we pottered around happily, pausing only to buy a bag of coca, which, according to the locals, helps adjust you to the altitude. Almost every store has a huge sack of Coca leaves sitting in front of it. Coca is a hugely contraversial issue in large swathes of South America particularly across the Altiplano. It has been used for centuries by the 'Campesinos' or peasants of the Andes due to its health benefits, hunger suppressing qualities and the slight narcotic high it produces. Evo Morales became hugely popular in the United States after becoming the first 'Campesino' President of Bolivia, immediately expelling all US DEA representatives and generally becoming a short stout thorn in the United States' effort to erradicate drugs. He was born into a family of subsistence farmers, whose main crop was the coca leaf and therefore has been a welcome voice for the poor majority in Bolivia, gaining a 69% majority in the most recent elections. Whether or not the cause of all this political upheaval I ended up chewing, did anything more than hurt my gums is debatable, but people always say that you should do as the locals do, so I did.

We wandered aimlessly around, stopping to peer curiously at things cooking on spits and in huge pans of oil and trying to avoid the packs of semi wild dogs, covered in scars from years spent on the streets. Women in local dress consisting of the ubiquitous bowler hats and colourful skirts carrying impressively heavy loads in multi coloured, multi purpose blankets slung over their shoulders. It was as though we'd gone back in time compared to Mendoza.

The tall and beautiful people of European origin, prevelant in Argentina, were replaced with the stout powerful build of Mountain people, built for maximum efficiency in the thin air found at altitude. The roads, little more than dirt tracks as heavy lorries and buses with exposed engines barrel past kicking up an amalgam of dust and toxic fumes in their wake. It was without doubt the poorest country we'd visited until now but we found ourselves begin, almost immediately, to like it.

That evening we returned to our hotel and took a well earned shower in one of the most dangerous looking contraptions we'd ever layed eyes on. The shower, to all intents and purposes looked like any other, apart from the dangerous looking collection of bare wires just a little too close to the shower head.

It would smoke angrily after each dousing, reminding us that, in Bolivia, life and death was only a matter of inches. Something that would become even more apparent on the frankly terrifying bus journey we would undertake on route to Uyuni the next day.

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