Across the Altiplano to Chile

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

Potosí: Rich Hill, Macho Beef and Altitude Sickness

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Un Potosí is a Spanish idiom which loosely means a fortune. It is credited to Cervantes, who had the mad Don Quixote say: “the mines of Potosí would be insufficient to pay thee”. He was alluding to a city four hours southwest of Sucre, where Bolivia’s Central Highlands blend into the Altiplano. 

Nowadays it has the look of an old, unloved Rolls Royce, curbed and keyed, filled with junk, but still nonetheless a Rolls Royce. The buildings are painted in blues and reds, yellows and greens, muted now, but obviously striking once. The pompous columns, the intricate doorways, the heavy iron grilles on windows all sing the same song. The words are on the coat of arms:

            I am rich Potosí

            Treasure of the world

            King of all Mountains

            And the envy of kings

The King of all Mountains dominates the city, visible from every street. Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), it is called, because it is laced with silver. It is popularly said that the Spanish shipped out enough of it to build a bridge to Madrid. They shipped slaves the other way, from Africa, because the indigenous workforce kept dying and they still had targets to meet.

The mountain is like a honeycomb, now, after five hundred years of unconstrained digging; and engineers worry that the whole thing might collapse. But the miners are fatalistic. They have to be. They work with hammers and chisels, picks and shovels, breathe the foul air, and carry rock on their backs to the surface. Wads of coca leaves and cheap, strong alcohol get them through the day. They are all likely to be dead before 40. Even if they avoid the frequent cave-ins and runaway trucks, silicosis will get them anyway.

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Agents all over town arrange tours of the mines, with a stop at the market to buy coca leaves, cigarettes and dynamite as presents to give to the miners. Some dismiss it as voyeurism, others think it educational. I was not sure what I thought, but on balance I was minded to go.

Altitude sickness decided the point in the end. It crept up on me during the bus ride from Sucre and left me unable to do much except read and drink coca tea. At 4,090 metres above sea, Potosí is higher than most of the Alps; but the guidebooks overreach themselves when they call it the highest city in the world. It was not even the highest I had been on that trip: El Alto is at 4,150. But altitude sickness is hard to predict. It gives no credit for being fit and healthy, nor for being used to altitude. It can do anything right up to killing you of pulmonary edema; but in my case it was much like a hangover with laboured breath as a bonus. I was fine by the time I went to dinner.

Pique a lo macho is aimed at men with Popeye arms. It seemed the right thing to order in a tough guy town like Potosí. The cook sautés strips of beef with garlic and cumin, adds beer and reduces it, then tosses with slices of onion, tomato and chilli, balances it all on a plate of fries and garnishes with hardboiled eggs. Finishing one alone has about the same significance as eating three Shredded Wheat. It means you are a greedy bastard.

The beef was tender and the flavours were good but I could only manage half. I am not at all a tough guy. I like cats and poetry and even wear a coat in winter.

© Richard Senior 2015

La Paz: Effigies, Offerings and Rebar

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The road from Peru meanders through a poetic landscape, along Lake Titicaca, up and over the mountains, past rivers and plains and glorious eruptions of wildflower. Then all at once you are in honking traffic in the apocalyptic satellite town of El Alto.

A smothering dust covers everything. Every building remains unfinished, and will forever, with rebar sprouting from the floors of notional upper storeys. Aymara ladies buy fruit through the bars on the doors of the shops. Legs protrude from old cars up on jacks on the pavement. Life-sized effigies hang from the lampposts with notices pinned to their chests reading, “This is what we do to thieves”. They do, as well. The 30 lynchings in the first 10 months of 2011 represented “a notable decrease,” according to an upbeat UN.

La Paz is picturesque in spite of itself. The first view from El Alto is a sea of ochre buildings embraced by high peaks, and there is a paradoxical beauty in what seems to be nothing but tower blocks. There is, as you see when you roll into town, more heritage than appears from above. The steep streets of sunken cobbles are lined with colonial buildings, crumbling, faded, covered with graffiti and torn fly-posters, but nonetheless photogenic.

There are numberless markets, but they can’t contain the Aymara vendors who spill out down the pavements and into the road. Stocky ladies in bowler hats kneel on sheets laid anywhere they find a space, selling fruit and veg, meat and fish, clothes and shoes, stolen electronics, herbs and potions, figurines and amulets, and llama foetuses to offer to Pachamama.

Oh, thanks for that,” I imagine her saying, in the tone you use when your cat lays a mouse at your feet.

(c) Richard Senior 2014