Thursday, October 27, 2005

The other Latin America

Listening to my blog entries over the last 6 months you could have been accused of thinking that South America was all about blockades, fried guinea pigs and women in bowler hats playing high altitude football. But you´re wrong as I have been for the last 6 months.
Somehow, whilst the rest of South America sells knitted beanies on the corner, the Argentinians have been grooving along in their trendy clothes, posh buses and ultra cool clubs. Serving up the worlds finest food( if you´re a meat eater that is), delivering you to your destination on the world´s most luxurious bus( with Bingo, chicken milanesa and more leg room than Emirates) and generally being more euro than the euros. All this with their much publicised currency crash 3 years ago... This I see no evidence of whatsoever. I do believe it´s the most modern country I have ever seen. But also cheap. Yes we´ve been drinking some of the finest wines and eating steaks the size of horse heads for about the cost of an entree back home. This is all terrific news except for the fact that we´re now in Chile and paying tokyo prices for everything. Yep, we´ve travelled more than 35 very relaxing hours on buses and made it to santiago Chile. It´s got all the prices of what Argentina should have with half the charm. Oh well. Saturday we fly to Easter Island too look at some large stone heads and then back to Argy Bargy for some serious urban cool.... can´t wait

Friday, October 21, 2005

Butch Browne and the Sundance Ed

Bloody Bolivians.... in fact we´re shouting it out loud here as it´s day 5 of the blockade and still no end in sight. All the shops are shut and all that walks the streets are tumbleweeds, hungry tourists looking for an open restaurant and the odd angry mob looking for hungary tourists entering an open restaurant. The latter is no joke as the dining experience here revolves around sneaking into a place, closing the shutters and making as little noise as possible. So what does this all mean other than the fact that we´ve taken to cooking up meals in the hotel. It means the Bolivians are bloody bonkers.
Where is the army to lift the blockade?
Furthermore it seems our local blockade is just one of three going on inside Bolivia and basically crippling the country. It seems the Bolivians blockade when 1) somebody sneezes 2) they feel like it
It´s become the national sport and they seem to be very good at it. I hate them. We are only 3 hours from the border and fast running out of money ... not that there is a lot to spend on as all the shops are shut. The other blockades are about gas cannisters and the number of seats up for grabs in the next election. mmmm But on the bright side we did manage to retrace the steps of Butch and Sundance riding the red hills of Tupiza. You couldn´t get more wild west if you tried as we galloped thru passes the duke would be proud of. I´m actually getting better on a horse, and not hanging on for dear life as much anymore. I´ve even perfected the cowboy walk back into town ( probably because of the chafing on the inside of my legs). It was indeed one of tne best rides I´ve ever done and the scenery was truly evocative. Even if Kate was a little too tiny for her horse.

Unfortunately it means we´ve pretty much done everything there is to do in this 4 horse town. Except escape that is.... something we will need to do soon if we´re to catch our October 29 flight to Easter Island from Santiago which is about 2000 kms south... so in the words of Butch and Sundance..."The next time I say Lets get the hell out of Bolivia, lets get the hell out of Bolivia¨

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Blockaded in Bolivia

Right now as I currently blog we are blockaded in the town of Tupiza. No one in this pueblo of 20,000 people is allowed to leave as the roads are blocked. The only places open in town are a few restaurants and a couple of internet cafes. Furthermore the border is closed 2 hours south. So Kate , myself and about 45 other tourists are stuck here with no end in sight.... quite relaxing really.
No pressure to be anywhere, do anything, other than waste time watching bad Brazilian Soap operas. So what´s it all about this blockade thing?
The current one is about the quality of the road south to the border. The Bolivian government promised to pave it a few years ago but alas, nothing is yet to be done. So the townsfolk here got togethor and whacked a few stones on the road and began cooking up some barbecues to make it a bit of a day out...or week out as it seems to be turning into(lets hope it doesn´t turn out to be a month long strike). A few of the tourists here are beginning to get quite desperate as they are on 3 week holidays and have flights to catch quite a few thousand kilometres away in Brazil. Some are getting desperate enough to invent all sorts of plans of escaping the blockade. The Israelis are especially the most gung ho unsurprisingly. The idea gaining the most favour at the moment is renting a couple of horses and riding out of town, tilting our sombreros to the mountain gods on the way out. Butch and Sundance would be so proud. The only other option is a 15 km walk with packs in the desert to maybe find a vehichle on the other side which could take us to the next blockade 2 hours south where we could walk another 5 kms and maybe find a way to bribe the border guards to let us sneak thru the blockade. All sounds terribly exciting... but then again so does sitting around in our hotel room watching Brazilian soap operas.... I can´t believe how Fernando left his sick dying wife for her evil twin sister.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Moon Safari

After 4 days squashed in a jeep through some of the most remote and oddest looking scenery this side of Aurora Borealis, we have returned from outer space to the comfort of our hotel room with CNN. Yes we have survived the Uyuni salt flat tour. Perhaps the most spectacular scenery on the planet and without doubt one of the best things I have ever done. In fact I would call it unboliviable.
It's a world of blueness and whiteness, of extreme cold and extreme brightness and a challenge to any cameraman looking to do a white balance. Active volcanos, Islands in a sea of salt, red coloured lakes, noisy geysers, and basically the setting of the movie Dune. There is also over 10 billion tons of salt some of which has been used to make a hotel. Yes we did indeed opt for the salt hotel option and yes the bed, walls, roof, table were made out of soduim chloride aka salt. (quite tasty actually)

Quote of the trip went to Jen a swiss guy on our tour. That thing out there is the size of fucking Switzerland. Actually it´s half the size of Belgium but who´s being pedantic. It also hovers at 3600 metres and aside from a few giant cactuses more than a 100o years old there aint a tree in sight. For statistic nerds the salt pan is the world´s largest at 12,000 square kilometres and has a depth of 8 metres. Living up here are Vicuña´s, Vizcachas (a rabbit type animal with a silly smile and a curly tail), three species of Flamingos( what the hell are they doing here), no trees, a few pumas( like I care), loads of llamas and even more 2 footed upright animals clutching digital cameras and often seen taking bizarre photos of themselves. Yes it´s a photgraphers dream and any tourist worth their salt couldn´t resist.

The other bizarre thing about the place is the incredible shrinking machine which we decided to take full advantage of The other rea problem is getting stuck in a water bottle. Unforunately i used up all three wishes to ge tout of the damn thing

Our group ended up being 4 aussies, and 2 whinging poms one of which was very funny and did really good magic tricks and the other being the bane of our experience making 4 days in the jeep more uncomfortable than they needed to be. So to the sounds of The Final countdown, Flashdance and The walk of life we cruised through the land that time forgot. Among the many highlights perhaps the best was the Isla de Pescadores ( Island of fish) which was a very bizarre oasis amongst the sea of salt. Studded over it was over 4000 very strange look cactuses, some of which appeared to be applauding when we landed. The Incas used to stop here on their way to wherever they were going and after visiting it´s not hard to understand how they created their very bizarre view of the world. We also managed to get to the world´s strangest hot springs. At 4800 metres it was very cold and very high but under the water it was just what the doctor ordered. Great for resting those jeep shaken limbs.

Once we arrived back in Tupiza ( co-incidentally the scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid´s final stand), we found ourselves blockaded. Very regularly here in Bolivia it seems to be the thing to whack a pile of stones across the road and stop all traffic in and out of town. We arrived at the blockade about 8.30 at night and under the cover of darkness, with our headlights off attempted the sneak back into town. By now we really did feel like Butch and Sundance as we all had to keep quiet while our driver off roaded thru streams, football fields, farms, and sidewalks around the blockade of angry protesters. We made it thru luckily as the Bolivians have a nasty habit of throwing sharp stones at anyone trying to get around the blockade. So here we are in wild west country and the blockade is still on. All the shops are shut and the roads are closed. At the moment we´re not panicking as we still have 12 days to fast track it to Santiago for our flight to Easter Island. (although we do have about 2500 km of travel thru Argentina to get there). Blockades can last months here too. Lucky we´ve got CNN I say.

In too Deep

And the prize for world´s most dangerous job goes too.....

The miners of Potosi.

Now just a bit of background info. Potosi is the world´s highest city at about 4200 metres which basically means that it´s really fucken cold and there isn't enough oxygen as the air is thin...
Unfortunately, 500 years ago the Spanish discovered the world's largest supply of silver and proceeded to exploit the hell out of a bunch of Indians, slaves and whoever else they could get their hands on. Before you could say that´s a lovely silver statue of the virgin, Potosi had become the world´s largest city with about 200,000 inhabitants, 36 churches and the amount of silver being extracted was said to be enough to build a bridge from Bolivia to Spain. Spaniards being Spaniards they kept all the silver for themselves and Potosi 500 years later is one of the poorest cities in Bolivia which is the poorest country in South America. Work that one out. Today the mine is still going albeit working conditions are pretty much the same as the middle ages. There is no machinery inside the mine. Miners use picks and smash a hole in the rock which takes about 1 to three hours and then shove some dynamite inside it which makes a one metre square hole. Then some lucky buggers get to break up the rock, throw it into some Indian Jones trolly's and push the thing in 40 degree heat a few kilometres in arsenic laden air. Of course the miners can´t eat anything all day as the arsenic would poison their food. About 40 miners die due to collapsed mines a year, There are no mining regulations here other than a please don´t build a tunnel within 10 metres of my one, and the real killer is the fumes which limits a miners life to about 42 years where they usually die a painful death of siliocosis.

The great thing about all this is that rich, fat western tourists can come and gawp at the miners working their arse off for about 5 dollars a day. (and take silly photos of themselves holding rocks). So yes the big attraction in Potosi is the mine tour and we joined the throngs and dressed up in very fashionable yellow jumpsuits and began crawling around in 500 year old tunnels on our hands and knees a few claustrophobic miles underground. Of course we came bearing gifts. 2 litre bottles of coke, a few bags of coca leaves, 10 packs of ciggies and as much dynamite as we could carry. The latter we heard detonated far too close to our important western bodies. Of course 2 hours was way too much time for us to bear and we left the mine early clutching our throats and gagging for a few chilled litres of the black doctor. So next time I complain about helping Margaret lift some furniture in the office hopefully I will remember those miners in Potosi.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The town of the strange hat and even stranger shoe

After 17 relaxing hours courtesy of the Bolivian transport industry we arrived in the city of Sucre and before we knew it were whisked off by a taxi driver to the market town of Tarabuca. It seems to be the fashion here for the men to wear hats that were in vogue in the 1700s. I´m not saying that the Bolivians are lacking in the creativity department but Hello... the best you can do is something the conquistadors wore 300 years ago. Where they got the inspiration for the shoes though is one of those great travel mysteries. I´ll put this one down to the side effect of chewing too much coca leaves

It was the best of times, It was the worst of times

It was also the longest and shortest month I have ever experienced. After 7 days a week for a month volunteering at Inti Yara Wasi, our stay is finally over. I won´t miss the wet clothes, the tired limbs, the threat of puma attack, monkey bites, torrential rain, unbearable heat, insects the size of hats and wearing the same smelly clothes for an entire month. What I will miss is the company from people all over the world doing the most bizarre job in South America. We´ve been gone 3 days and already we miss the place, intensive experience that it was. The place was a story feast and here were some of the classics.
  • A swiss girl fell asleep next to her puma only to awake with it´s teeth fixed on her bleeding nose
  • a Peruvian entered the monkey park with 3000 US dollars only to see a monkey steal two thirds of it
  • watching a spider monkey eat the book I was reading
  • A girl got lost walking her ocelot to find herself wading across the river in the night with an ocelot on her shoulders
  • one of the volunteers on their first night seeing a snake in their room
  • a peruvian woman attempting to sell an ocelot skin to the parks owners
  • monkeys raiding the bird cages 4 days in a row and taking off with an exotic species or three
  • A girl thinking she could quickly clean the jaguar´s cage whilst he was at the far end of his runner, only to slip over and find a jaguar on top of her and being slowly pulled into his area. 17 stiches later she managed to escape.
  • waiting 2 hours for a sloth to move so I can get my very excited puma back into his cage
  • An on heat female monkey trying to get an English guys attention by throwing stones at him and rubbing herself furiously
  • Hearing the crazy sounds of Kate´s ocelot Rico that sounds like a cross between a Tasmanian devil, an umpalumpa and ewok all rolled into one. Speaking of Rico here is a photo of him below

Our final night we cooked up an Aussie BBQ for all the volunteers and once again the famous $1 Boilivian Rum went down a treat. Now we start the trek southwards to chile thru the high altitudes of Southern Bolivias altiplano desert and then to the Atacama in Chile. From 300 metres altitude to over 5000 metres.... They dont call it chile for nuthin

Monday, October 03, 2005

Party animals

Of course, working in an animal park is not just about tramping thru the rainforest waiting to be attacked by some semi tamed beast. It´s about doing the above with a hangover because some idiot decided to organise another going away party. We´ve had a bad taste party, a pool party, an M party, a fabulous headwear party, a shabat dinner, football games, basketball, bad quality movie nights, and chinese dinners. All of which usually involve far too much cheap Bolivian 1 dollar a bottle rum. By the way prize to the biggest idiot goes to a Tasmanian guy called Scott who was last heard shouting ¨look at me I´m a puma¨ before jumping off a huge rock at 3 in the morning and breaking his ankle. Kate and I were at these events mainly to supervise that things didnt get too out of control. Being some of the elder members of the volunteer group, it´s been important to set an example of how to behave.