When I left you last, it was early May and time to get moving to Bolivia, where unfortunately the 5 weeks we had intended to spend there had to be reduced to two and a half (a year's travelling is just not enough!). We crossed the Chilean-Bolivian border via the Bolivian desert, full of Dali-esque rock formations, more altiplanic lakes (including the reddish-orange Laguna Colorada housing a large colony of very noisy pink flamingoes) and the Uyuni salt flats - vast expanses of white salt in all directions against a perfectly blue sky and surrounded by "floating" mountains - mirages created by the brightness of the salt. We stopped at the Isla Pescado in the middle of the salt flats where we visited a 1200 year old cactus (an awe-inspiring 12 metres high) and also at the Salt Hotel, which is entirely made of salt (including the beds, chairs and tables) - very strange.
On to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, at 3500-4000 metres above sea-level. La Paz is a great city, but not for the faint-hearted (literally) as its streets are constantly climbing or descending, and walking uphill at 3500 metres or more requires a serious amount of energy. Couple that with the fact that walking around La Paz is like walking around a permament, buzzing, chaotic marketplace and you get an idea of just how exhausting it is to get anywhere in the city. In 1967 in "Inside South America", John Gunther said of La Paz:
“The altitude takes a savage toll on the Indians, who are the only people capable of surviving the rigours of the habitat at all; life expectancy on the altiplano is 32 years, and women of 25, their faces ravaged, look 70. A friend told me, driving near La Paz, “You can live here 3 months without ever seeing a person smile"".
Some of the images of the streets of La Paz that have stayed with me are - mobile phones attached to their owners with chains/dog leads - initially I thought that this was to prevent robbery, but in fact these chained mobile phones are actually public phones - the owner has a meter that starts running when a passer-by uses it to make a call, and the caller pays accordingly; young shoeshiners, huddled on every corner, their faces covered with balaclavas so all that is visible are their eyes staring out at you (I later learned that they cover their faces for fear of being recognised by family or friends, they are ashamed of having such a lowly job); and the campesino women with their long, black, plaited hair, full colourful skirts and, of course, a bowler hat perched on their heads.
"In the 18th Century an English bowler hat salesman endeavoured to save his ailing business by selling bowler hats in Bolivia. These hats caught on amongst Bolivian women and are still worn by their descendents. However there are subtleties to be observed when wearing bowler hats. Widows wear them tiltled to one side, married women wear them on the top of their heads and women who are looking for action, so to speak, wear them on the crown of their heads. So before you approach make sure you get your angles right." (Please note that the author of the above, fellow-traveller Peter O'Halloran (of Meath), kindly agreed to its reproduction following lengthy consultations with his solicitor).
Another peculiarity of La Paz is that it has a Witches Market where witches tout wares ranging from love potions to dead owls and llama foetuses. I spent a morning scouring the Witches Market for a voodoo doll (immediately requested by my 13 year old brother James on hearing that I had access to witches). I must say that the witches Í spoke to were disappointingly unhag-like; I spotted very few warts and they all had full sets of teeth and very shiny hair. None of the witches quizzed expressed suprise at my request for a voodoo doll - but each regretted that they were out of stock and advised me to try the next witch. I finally found a witch who produced 2 voodoo dolls (she refused to sell them apart) - they looked more like sitting Buddhas to me and I was puzzled that were ceramic rather than the soft pin-sticking type I had expected, but I was not really in a position to argue. I grilled the witch as to how to work both good and evil with the dolls (she only wanted to sell me good incense to burn in their laps but I persuaded her to throw in some of the evil stuff also, suspecting where James' interests lay) and departed a satisfied customer.
Before leaving La Paz, I was persuaded (by no doubt well-intentioned fellow travellers) to mountain bike the 60kms down Death Road (Camina de la Muerte), so called because it has the highest number of fatalities of any road in the world. Those of you who are familiar with my mountain biking (and, in general, sporting) abilities may wonder what kind of persuasive techniques were used by these fellow-travellers. I am still wondering.
The ride down Death Road was nothing short of breathtaking - the road was unpaved (making it extremely hazardous to even attempt to place one's posterior anywhere near the saddle) and the drop off the edge of the road was sheer (and, needless to say, without any kind of guardrails). As we were descending the road, we were obliged to hug the outer (cliff) edge of the road and the oncoming traffic around the frequent hairpin bends consistently took us by surprise (the Bolivian truck drivers seemed to have some sort of unwritten agreement to approach as silently (and as erratically) as possible and certainly not to sound a warning horn). Part of the descent involved cycling under waterfalls cascading down from the cliffs above us (in the future I believe that they are planning to add oil slicks to the road as descending a wet, gravel-surfaced, hairpinbend-littered road with a sheer drop off the side is surely not thrill enough). One of said waterfalls cascades over a corner of the road now known as "ET Corner" in memory of an unfortunate Israeli girl who, admiring the waterfall on her way down, missed the corner and sailed off the edge of the road on her bike (hence the name) before plunging to her death.
After the exhilerating 6 hour descent, it was a welcome relief to spend a few days relaxing in the pretty village of Corioco in the tropical Yungas region of Bolivia. Pity nobody warned us about the voracious sandflies though....
Next stop was Rurrenabaque in the Amazon Basin in north Bolivia, where we spent 3 days in the jungle with Tarzan-like guide Chino. Chino introduced us to the delights of eating mint-tasting termites off the bark of a tree - to experience the mint flavour though it was necessary to get a good tongueful of termites and then grind them between your teeth. While I had eaten the termites (which were most refreshing), I balked when later presented with a squirming white maggot-like grub, apparently full of protein. I refused to let it anywhere near my mouth at which point Chino cheerfully bit its head off and ate it. I did however drink water out of the upended branch of a tree and licked a very tasty creamy substance from the bark of yet another tree. Eating quinine scraped from the bark of the quinine tree was not as pleasant though, nor was chewing a strip of bark from another tree supposed to cure diarrhoea and stomach ache - both were exceedingly bitter. I should add that we were not nourished solely on tree bark, maggots and termites during the 3 days - back at our jungle camp our chef would produce veritable feasts for us (including a cake with icing at one point!).
Last stop in Bolivia was Copacabana and the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake, before crossing the border into Peru....but that's another story.