Through the Inca Heartlands of Peru

DSC_0424

The minibus struggled up into the mountains overlooking Cuzco.

We passed the ruins of the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman, whose stones the conquistadors looted to build the colonial town below, crashed over epic potholes and burst out into beautiful countryside. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed at the side of the road, tended by Quechua ladies in felt hats and voluminous skirts.

DSC_0349 edit

A few switchback bends down the mountain road, we stopped to gaze over the Urubamba Valley, popularly known as El Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the Incan Empire. I said no gracias a few dozen times to the hawkers who held up alpaca jumpers and chullo hats, and water and sun cream, and CD’s of Andean music.

We stopped again at one of the weaving villages dotted about the mountains, and an embarrassed young woman demonstrated how to clean and dye alpaca wool, and older ladies worked a handloom. Their llamas and alpacas let me stroke their ears, but one of them spat when I tried to take its photo.

DSC_0366

Then on to Pisac, to climb Incan terraces which step up the mountain to the ruined fortress at the peak. The Incas dominated the western half of South America before the Spanish arrived, expanding from the Sacred Valley across Peru and into present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They built complex structures which have withstood centuries of earthquakes and impress engineers to this day. Yet they never devised a system of notation; they invented the wheel but could see no use for it except in toys; and they were still sacrificing children around the time of the European Renaissance.

Back on the bus, driving through little towns laid out along dirt roads with single-storey adobe buildings, whitewashed and painted by hand with the name of a proprietor, the nature of his business and perhaps a familiar logo, like Coca Cola or Repsol Oil.

DSC_0363

I was intrigued by the names carefully signwritten across the walls of houses: the same ones on house after house, “Humberto” or “Miguel Morales” in huge red letters, shaded in blue. It turned out that they were local politicians.

I climbed more Incan terraces at Ollantaytambo, where the Incas fought the conquistadors and won. The terrraces are impressively straight, impressively uniform, and the enormous blocks are shaped and slotted together so snugly, without mortar, that you would not slide a feeler gauge between them. The Incas did all sorts of ingenious things to get the blocks to the site, including diverting a river. But they would have made things a great deal easier for themselves if they had seen the potential of the wheel.

DSC_0471

There is an ethereal air about the town below with its adobe walls and trapezoid doorways, despite the trucks which bully their way with blasts of their horns along lanes meant for carts. The Andean people have lived there continuously since before the Incas came, let alone the conquistadors.

In the morning, I took the train to take the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

© Richard Senior 2016

Pop-Up Tango in Buenos Aires

DSC_0491 edit 

It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.

The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.

Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.

DSC_0498 edit

It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.

In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.

But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.

DSC_0495

It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.

It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.

It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.

But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.

© Richard Senior 2016

 

The Curious Classics of Colonia

DSC_0054

An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

DSC_0047

I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

DSC_1256

There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

DSC_1270 E

Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

DSC_1152

A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

DSC_0029

There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

DSC_1195

Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016   

Staying in San Telmo

DSC_0262 edit

It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

DSC_0896 edit

San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

DSC_0889 edit

I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

DSC_0519

A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

En El Hospital

DSC_0848

In Argentina I was bitten by mosquitoes. Then I was bitten by bed bugs. I had lost count of the bites by the time I got the ferry to Uruguay – and, there, I was bitten by sandflies, or something as small and pugnacious. Dozens of them died in the DEET on my legs; dozens more got through and bit me. Horrible things.

One bite smarted as if I had been stung by a wasp. I ignored it until late in the evening when it blew up like a balloon and turned yellow.  I slapped a big plaster on it until morning, then went to the pharmacist for antihistamines and more plasters. I showed her the bite.

“¿Do you have médico?” she asked

“Medico?” I guessed she was talking about some kind of insurance scheme until I dredged up a memory from my desultory attempts to learn Spanish. “Oh! Have I seen a doctor? No, I haven’t.”

“Deberίas: you eshould. Pienso que might be espider.”

“A spider?”

“Sί, espider.”

Where do I go?”

El hospital. La próxima block.”

There were a dozen or more clinics crammed into two cross streets, each covering a separate discipline but my Spanish was too hopeless to work out which was which, and they all, in any case, had the sleek corporate look of institutions who specialise in sending big bills to insurers.

But there was a grubbier building with “Emergencias” on the sign above the door and no smart reception with blonde wood floors and expensively bland art on the walls. It was the familiar chaos of an A&E unit with coughing, sneezing, crying children, hobbling adults and ice packs clamped over painful bits.

¿Sί?” said a guy in a white coat, and I explained – in English – why I was there.

No espeak espanish,” he said with a smirk and seemed to think it was a clever line, because he sniggered and repeated it to several other people. Nobody laughed except him.

Someone else pointed to a sliding window in the far wall and I went over and spoke to the guy inside and he had no English either but called over a girl who spoke Spanglish like the pharmacist and took me through to the accounts department.

No espeak espanish,” the sniggering man called out to the girl as we passed, but she ignored him. I imagine that happens to him a lot.

You need for to pay,” they told me in accounts.

How much?” I asked, but they didn’t want to talk about figures until they had swiped my card and then, when they found out what card I had, didn’t want to talk to me at all. They sent me over the road.

No aquί,” they said across the road.

¿Hablas Inglés?” I asked, but they didn’t. Nada. No una sola palabra. Lo siento.

But where should I go, then? ¿Donde?

“Fuera de la clínica, a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias»*.”

I gathered from the gestures and the occasional word I understood that she was directing me back to the hospital from which I had come.

“Erm, I think that’s where I’ve just been and they sent me over to you?”

“Fuera de la clínica,” she repeated with a sigh, louder and a little more slowly, although it was still just a blur of sound to me,“a la izquierda, ir a la vuelta de la esquina, traverser la calle, y hay un edificio blanco con un rótulo de «emergencias».”

Oh bollocks to it, I thought, and went out to enjoy my day.

But my mind always looped round to spider bites. What kind of spider? Why did the pharmacist think I needed to see a doctor straight away? In the end, I had to go back to the hostel and get onto Google.

It seemed clear enough: if you were bitten by the sort of spider toxic enough to leave a blister like that – and assuming it didn’t kill you outright – you either had to be rushed straight to intensive care, or there was not much a doctor could do for you, except prescribe things which you could buy over the counter, anyway.

But the blister got bigger overnight and I read some more about spider bites and found horror stories – admittedly in sources like The Daily Mail – about people who had been bitten and left the blisters to take their course and ended up with agonising ulcers, gangrene, and worse.

I was due to go back to Argentina, up to the far north and then down to Patagonia, but I would not, now, be able to do the trekking and climbing I had planned. I thought that the bite would more likely than not turn out to be nothing to worry about; but if there were any real risk of getting the symptoms I had read about, I wanted to be at home, not in a backpacker hostel, still less in a hospital where hardly anyone spoke English.

So I went back to BA and got the next plane but one to London.

© Richard Senior 2016

*I’m sure this is terrible Spanish. It’s the gist, of course, not the actual words.

The Uros and the Uru-Sceptics

DSC_0718

The island was made from layers of totora reeds and looked like a giant hay bale. It was one of forty-four floating islands between the reed beds on Lake Titicaca. As I stepped ashore, it sank underfoot, forcing up a puddle of water. It flexed and wobbled like a plywood sheet laid over uneven ground. Yet a few families called it home.

The Uru people have lived life their own way for hundreds of years. They fled to the lake and built the floating islands when the Aymara arrived in Southern Peru; they anchored the islands to the bed of the lake and stood ready, if attacked, to weigh anchor and row them to safety.

The islands rotted from the bottom up but the Uros maintained them by adding more layers of reeds. They used the same reeds to build huts and watchtowers and the white lower part as a foodstuff: they say that it works as a painkiller and hangover cure and inures them to the cold. They fished with tethered cormorants, kept ibis for eggs and hunted birds with flintlock rifles.

DSC_0738

They took bundles of totora reeds to the mainland to barter and sell and, by now, you will have guessed what they made their boats from.

There are solar panels, nowadays, on some of the huts; the Uros have TVs and smartphones, and their own radio station. They have motorboats to get to the mainland, although they still build rowing boats from totora reeds – I was rowed round the islands in one. They earn money, now, by selling textiles and handicrafts to the tourists who visit the islands.

Otherwise, though, their lives seem largely unchanged in the half a millennium or so within which the Aymara where subjugated by the Incas, the Incas crushed by the Spanish, the Spanish driven out by Bolivarian rebels and independent Peru fought wars, in turn, with Colombia, Spain, Chile, Colombia again and Ecuador and went through military juntas, Maoist insurgencies and strong-armed economic reforms.

DSC_0715

Sceptics maintain that it is all a façade. They accuse the Uros of embellishing their history – if not making it up – to entertain the tourists. But wherever there are people living an alternative lifestyle, there are mainstream figures doing their best to discredit them. Society dislikes difference.

With no written records until the Spanish arrived, neither the Uros nor the Uru-sceptics can prove their case; but researchers have at least established that the Uros are genetically different from other indigenous groups.

Their lifestyle, though, has been under threat since the 1980’s, when the government restricted hunting and fishing on Lake Titicaca and started confiscating their eggs and birds. Then climate change caused the surface of the lake to rise dramatically and inundate the islands, and brought droughts which ravaged the tortora reeds.

DSC_0733

The Uros rebuilt their islands closer to the shore of the lake and many drifted off to live a regular life on the mainland; others have followed since. The sceptics – who obviously have too little going on in their own lives – claim that no one really lives on the floating islands anymore and that the Uros return to homes in Puno after the last tourist boat leaves.

It seems unlikely to me that they pack up their children, their birds and their cats every night and leave their televisions, solar panels and radio equipment unattended. But, whether fixed or transitory, the population of the islands has undoubtedly fallen and each generation seems a little less interested than the last in maintaining the traditional lifestyle. Tourism is now a major part of the lives of the Uros who remain on the islands, and may soon be their only reason for staying.

© Richard Senior 2016

Peru between the Sights

coca cola edit

It was a dark restobar with a wobbly iron staircase, terracotta floor tiles and stacked Coca Cola crates.

Two old men were having a one-sided fight outside. The first lurched onto the street and hit the other on the shoulder in the way that you might greet a friend. The second took it badly, started shouting and pummelling the drunk man’s shoulders. He kicked him in the arse and he fell over and lay as helpless as a beetle on its back. A policeman saw them, strode over, helped the drunk man up and sent both of them on their way.

Aguas Calientes began, a century ago, as a camp for railway workers and still looks as if it might be abandoned on half a day’s notice. The buildings seem to have been put up in a hurry and occupied before they were finished. The only road out leads up to the mountains. The railroad alone links the town to the rest of Peru.

The tracks serve as the high street and shops and restaurants open straight onto the platform. When the train approaches, a man in a cap strolls out of a bar and onto the track and waves a red flag and pedestrians shuffle aside. The train passes and whistles and the man with the flag goes back to his drink and the pedestrians pick up their journey.

DSC_0585

I had reached Aguas Calientes the hard way, via the Inca Trail, and seen a glimpse of Machu Picchu at the end. I got back on the bus to the mountains in the morning to see it properly.

There had been a landslide a few days earlier and there were rocks the size of houses at the side of the road. A team was working to clear them but progress was slow; sledgehammers made little impression on rocks of that size. There were more rocks overhanging the road and it seemed as if a sneeze might dislodge them and if one had fallen with the bus underneath there would have been nowhere for the driver to swerve.

There was a boulder in the middle of the road near the top, blocking it to traffic. The bus stopped and disgorged the passengers and we walked round the corner, up the hill, to another bus which took us the last few hundred yards.

Around lunchtime, then, I took the two buses back to Aguas Calientes and bustled onto a train to Ollantaytambo, just as it was about to leave, and gazed out the window at the angry river, an Amazon tributary, and the verdant mountains either side, and adobe villages with political slogans painted on walls, and Quechua ladies leading llamas, and tethered donkeys and free-ranging pigs, and a dog trying to face down a bull which was roped to the ground from a ring in its nose.

DSC_0473

The station was a chaos of bewildered travellers and persistent vendors:

“¡Taxi! ¡Taxi! ¡Cusco! ¡ Taxi!”

“¡Choc-o-late!”

“¡Cusco-Cusco-Cusco!”

“¡Empanadas!”

“¡Taxi, amigo! ¡Taxi!”

I forced my way through and got on a bus to Cuzco. I had stayed there before but had only seen the Centro Historico and the scenic route out past the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman. The western suburbs are nothing like that, with rubble and weeds where the pavements should be and houses of unpainted concrete and rusty rebar sticking out of roofs and people buying provisions through bars on the doors of the shops.

As so often, the bits which the tourists see have little to do with the lives of ordinary people who live there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Sand, Salt and Sunsets in the Atacama Desert

DSC_0363 edit

Chile, that “long petal of sea, wine and snow” in the beautiful words of its Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, stands out on a map of the world. At 2,700 miles north to south, it is longer than any other country except Brazil – roughly the same as Britain and the United States bolted together. Yet it is all of 40 miles wide at its narrowest point east to west, 220 at its widest and a little over 100 on average.

The south has glaciers and ski slopes, the north has the Atacama Desert. Geographers know it as the driest place on earth, but it is better known now for the San José mine where, in 2010, 33 copper miners were trapped underground for over two months.

The Valle de la Lune (Moon Valley) is around 300 miles to the north of that, roughly in the middle of the desert. The sand is sprinkled with ancient salt deposits, like lorryloads of Shake n’ Vac. Natural sculptures sprout in the middle of nothingness. Dunes rise three storeys high, pristine except for a narrow strip which has been corrugated by the wind. Nature has carved the variegated sandstone into walls, as if of a fairytale castle. There are narrow alleys which you can squeeze through, and jump in alarm when the walls bang as they cool in the late afternoon and you think the whole lot will collapse.

As the sun dies down and the sky dims, the golden rocks turn gradually pink then gradually red. The Licancabur Volcano we had tracked towards on our way from Bolivia was pink at the crater, blending to red, then blue, then purple at the base of the cone. Busloads of people had come to watch the sun set. They crouched with their cameras, fussing with tripods; or sprawled on the rocks, sipping wine from plastic cups.

DSC_0380

Back in San Pedro, I went to a restobar with tables outside and a bonfire to chase off the chill of the evening. The fire crackled and scented the air as I looked through the menu and the waiter brought a basket of bread and the bowl of pebre, which always comes with it in Chile. It is simple enough to make. Roughly chop a handful of coriander, toss with a couple of diced tomatoes, a few sliced spring onions and a finely diced green chilli, add a glug of wine vinegar, three or four of olive oil, a sprinkle of seasoning, and toss it all again.

I was out by seven the next morning, looking to hire a bike. But everything was closed. Doors were bolted, windows were shuttered; there was no one else about. It was the same again when I went back at eight. A few cafes had opened by nine, but everything else was still shut. I had a coffee and an empanada de pino as I waited for the hire shops to unlock their doors. Then I really needed the exercise: Chilean empanadas are massive things, like half a rugby ball.

Sometime around 9.30, the keenest of the hire shops opened for business and I chose a mountain bike which surprised me by stopping when I squeezed the brakes. Hire bikes tend just to slow down. I had, as always, to remind myself that it was left hand drive. Squeeze hard on what would be the back brake at home and you are over the handlebars wondering how it happened.

I pootled around town and into the outskirts and rode out to the remains of a pre-Incan fortress named Pukará de Quitor. I could have cycled all day in that weather, but I had a bus to catch in the early afternoon: South towards Santiago.

© Richard Senior 2015

Across the Altiplano to Chile

 

DSC_0106

An Aymara lady muttered to herself as she laid out a blanket on the island in the middle of the road and set out the fruit which she hoped to sell to the drivers who passed by. Down the street, a door banged, a moped started and a man wobbled off to work. The rest of the town slept on.

Uyuni was 100 miles to the north; Chile was 50 miles west, or 150 south. To the east there was little but mountains for 80 or so miles until you got to another small town named San Vincente, which became unexpectedly famous a century ago when  two North Americans were shot there. Their names were Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, but they are better remembered as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Juanito strapped the backpacks on top of the jeep, warmed the engine, kicked the tyres and bundled us in. We tracked south again, to Chile the long way round. Out of the town and onto the plain, following a river, watched by vicuñas, the patrician cousins of the plebeian llamas. In the near distance behind them, a row of adobe huts, abandoned so long ago the roofs had rotted away. In the far distance, purple mountains speckled with grass, dusted with snow.

DSC_0158

We crossed the river and drove into the hills. Herds of llamas with coloured ribbons tied into their wool as badges of ownership were the only sign that anyone lived for miles around. But further along, a dejected group of Aymara sheltered behind a rock from the sun. “They wait for the bus,” the guide said. “It comes once a week, but not always”. I am not sure whether he was joking.

We stopped for a break near the lip of a canyon and I scrambled along to the edge of an outcrop and peered into the depths at the deep green river slithering along the base. Then on from there to a valley littered with rock formations, rising anything up to a hundred feet, pitted in places, smooth in others, patiently whittled by centuries of wind into arresting shapes. I free-climbed a few to amuse myself; but whatever I climbed a guy from another jeep climbed something higher, and put his camera on timer and photographed himself doing star jumps at the top.

We explored lakes and rock formations, spotted flamingos, vicuñas and an occasional retiring viscacha, a big rodent which looks like a rabbit with a long bushy tail. Then, with something like a hundred miles left to run, we stopped at an eco-hotel with concrete beds, visible wires, and a toilet which the wind whistled up and rattled the seat all night.

DSC_0196

The setting, though, was stunning. It was on the banks of Laguna Hedionda (which sounds better in Spanish than it does in translation as the Stinky Lake), the only building in sight. The lake was framed by mountains with folds of purple, brown and blue, and a sprinkle of snow on the highest peaks. On islets of mud and around the edges, mineral deposits left bold swathes of yellow and green over a white undercoat.

Vicuñas glanced from the banks at flamingos as they strode through mud, searching for food. There were dozens on the lake, noisily treading water as they built up the airspeed to fly, or gliding into land, cutting the power and braking hard with outstretched legs, then backtracking down the runway, or taxying along an islet awaiting clearance from the tower. I got closer to them than I imagined I would, but whenever I made a noise, the whole squadron scrambled, flew a circuit of the lake then cautiously landed back.

I had always wanted to see flamingos in the wild but, until then, had only caught a glimpse through the filthy window of a Sardinian public bus. I was very happy, until later in the evening when I had to attempt the hotel food. It was the worst I have had anywhere, ever. Even in Britain. The steak was perfectly cooked, if you wanted to use it for knocking in nails. The mash it was served with might have been okay, but I think that the top must have come off the salt when they seasoned it. I pushed my plate to the side and filled up on the hard bread which came with it.

DSC_0204

We started early again the next morning, heading south through a canyon, bumping along boulders, then racing across the Siloli Desert with a great plume of sand behind us. The sky was the same unbelievable blue as a dedicated rambler’s anorak, the sand so red it might have been the road to Uluru.

Until then, we had listened to Juanito’s CD of Andean folk songs, which were about as cheerful as Country and Western but at least added local colour. Then the guide plugged in his iPod and played Eighties pop. No one else seemed to mind, but there is little that gets me down more reliably and his playlist included all of the most cynical, saccharine tracks from that horrible decade of white BMW’s and big mobile phones; but I had my own iPod on quicker than a fireman can strap on his breathing apparatus and listened to Martin Garrix while the others had Tears for Fears, or some shit.

There were more rock formations in the middle of the desert, including the famous Stone Tree. With a runaway imagination, many beers and some acid you might think it looked vaguely like a tree, from a distance. If anything, it looks like a massive oyster mushroom.

DSC_0281

Minerals in the water have turned Laguna Colorado the colour of tinned tomato soup. A flurry of flamingos came to feast on the algae, pink against rusty red. They and the mountains reflected in the surface. There were volcanic rocks scattered along the banks, poking through clumps of spiky grass. The sky was still faultlessly blue. I could have stayed and gazed across the lake all morning, and I thought that I might when the guide realised that he had left his fancy altitude-sensing watch on the bonnet at the gate to the park and went off to pace the road. Incredibly enough, he found it. Then the jeep had a flat and Juanito seemingly learned on the job how to change a wheel. I was worried that the hand-tightened nuts would work loose, the wheel would come off and the jeep would end up on its roof; but I forgot about that as we pushed on across the Altiplano.

The altimeter briefly went over 5,000 metres above sea, higher than the peak of Mont Blanc, higher than the halfway point of an Everest ascent. Desert handed over to geyser field. Smoke issued from tears in the ground, mud sputtered in pools, sulphurous skid marks stained the rocks.

Juanito pointed at the distant volcano which had been growing in the centre of the windscreen for an hour. “Chile está allá,” he said, to general incomprehension. “Other side it is Chile,” the guide clarified, and raised a collective cheer.

DSC_0306

They dropped us beside a dead bus on a square of rough ground behind a hut with the national flag hanging from a rusty pole. It was the border post. A bored civil servant collected departure cards and put stamps in passports, which might have been hand-drawn on folded card for all the notice he took.

There was nothing much for half an hour, except roads that were as good as any in Europe – a novelty after Peru and Bolivia. If this were back home, the tabloids would get themselves apoplectic about the scope for immigrants to disappear across country. Even when we reached the official checkpoint, there was no barrier, no guard and little beyond your conscience to stop you driving straight through.

My preconceptions about Chile, grounded in the Pinochet era and fuelled by reading Isabel Allende, were plainly all wrong.

© Richard Senior 2015

Graduating from Uyuni

DSC_0025

The bus driver stopped twice on the way to Uyuni: once to dump some old tyres at the side of the road, and once for a toilet break at a remote house with an outside loo. It was not at all obvious that the owners had said that he could. The women from the bus formed a long line to use the one toilet. The men, of course, pissed where they felt like.

Uyuni is a small town with a frontier feel and the temporary look of a film set. The wind howls down the broad streets, whipping up dust, and you expect, when it clears, to see Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach among the filthy jeeps and kids on old BMX’s. It is a staging post for the famous salt flats. Every parking space is claimed by an overland truck with the logo of an ‘adventure travel’ company on the side, or a Land Cruiser belonging to one of the local outfits. Buses arrive as incessantly as planes into Heathrow, disgorging travellers, who struggle down the street under backpacks. Everyone ends up in Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza. It has a happy, hostel-like buzz, but the food is not at all revolutionary. I had spaghetti with ‘pesto’ which came from a jar, as I ought to have realised it would.

The Uyuni salt flats, the world’s largest, extend over 12,000 sq km, roughly the area of the Falklands; NASA uses them to calibrate satellites. The outer edges were still under water from the rains of a few days before, and through some alchemy I would not understand if a scientist patiently explained it, the salt, the sun, the water and sky came together to create a perfect reflection.

DSC_0987

The view from the jeep was a view as if from a plane: clouds above, clouds below, and clouds to infinity each side. Without a mountain or another jeep as a reference point, there was no way of telling where the salt flat ended and the sky began.

What used to be the Paris-Dakar Rally before fundamentalists forced it out of Africa had roared through the salt flats a few weeks before and Juanito drove as if training for next year’s event; he had the stickers on the flanks of his jeep already. Further into the flats, the salt was dry and cracked into pentagonal shapes. The sky was a searing, intense blue, the salt flat dazzling white. Flamingos occasionally scrawled a pink line between them.

The conditions induce psychedelic effects. I watched a column of jeeps roll along the horizon and distort into weird, trippy shapes; the bodies compressed, the wheels stretched like elastic, until the jeeps had morphed into a camel train. All sense of perspective goes: someone standing ten feet away looks beyond walking distance. A camera is as easily fooled as your eye, and we spent a giggly hour taking novelty pictures of the sort which appear in the brochures. I held a tiny person in the palm of my hand, then a giant dangled me from his fingertips, a group of us stood in a bowl, resigned to being eaten by a hundred foot man, then a big cartoon dinosaur chased us all away.

Near the edge of the salt flats, there are two long rows of rusting steam trains, sunk into the ground to their axles. They call it El Cementerio de Trenes. The trains were apparently abandoned there when the mines they worked closed in the 1940’s, but someone has gone to the trouble to arrange them artistically in parallel lines and hang children’s swings from a few. Others have gone to the trouble to steal anything worth a few Bolivianos.

DSC_0032

We turned south and drove on until late afternoon, then stopped for the night in a one street town with a cluster of houses, a shop and a backpacker hostel. The room smelled like laundry left in the machine for a very long time and the bed felt like concrete. It was concrete. But I slept better there than I often do at home. Perhaps I should build a bed out of concrete; and, when my neighbour asks me what I am doing with the cement mixer, I can tell him I am making the bed.

© Richard Senior 2015