La Paz-port to Nowhere

Trip Start Feb 02, 2009
Trip End Dec 24, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Warning! Photo upload overload! Beware!

Hello there,

Sixty eight hats and counting. And you didn't think I could do it did you? Well shame on you and your lack of faith. Not one person thought I could achieve the herculean task of borrowing and being photographed in eighty different style hats from eighty strangers. That gives me a month left and twelve hats to go. Two a week give or take. It's a tremendous feeling of near accomplishment. I shouldn't get too cocky really or I'll sabotage my efforts. Just to recap though; shame on you.

So where did we leave it? San Pedro in Chile I believe. Well my GAP group of intrepid explorers and I made our way across the Bolivian border and onto a three day crossing of the desert to reach the much vaunted sand-flats. Bolivia is the country that killed Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Che Guevara; they have a lot to answer for and I intended to ask them some pretty tough questions. Whatever that means. Our group was still seven strong – Greg had not arrived to bulk up the numbers – and we were starting to mesh nicely as a unit. Which was a good job because the lodges we had to stay in in the desert were cosy to say the least. What they lacked in home comforts though they made up for with Bolivian authenticity. The first thing you notice with Bolivia is the altitude change. We went up to nearly five thousand feet and when I unpacked my bag the ball from my roll-on deodorant flew out and nearly took out my eye. The desert can be a dangerous place. We also suffered from shortness of breath and everyone else in the group got the sniffles and coughs. I'm a pretty healthy chap and look after myself so I got away with it. Seriously though the scenery is stunning, there are beautiful mountains and lagoons everywhere and it is well worth a little discomfort to see.

I couldn't help thinking though; if this were a film (say, Little Miss Sunshine) Boris - our eighty year old Russian comrade - would not make it to the end of the trip. For dramatic effect, you understand. We were spending long days in the desert climbing things and he is an octogenarian. However, with his sleeping regime he ended up being more chipper than the rest of us put together. He would sleep from the moment we finished touring for the day until breakfast was served. I worked out that with his fifteen hours of sleep a day he is only about forty years old in real terms. That's how he does it! He told us he used to work for the KGB in Russia when he was younger. Colin and I had a few laughs with the following knock knock joke;

Knock knock.

Who's there?


The KGB Wh – (Cut the other person off by slapping them across the face hard)


And everyone rolls around laughing! Funny, no? Anyway Boris was ex KGB and Frank used to work for the Stazi in East Germany. The rest of us really feared for our lives for a time but they turned out to be peaches the both of them. As well as these 'older' chaps we had the 'younger' group of Simone, Colin, Claudia, Andrea and me bringing the youthful exuberance to the party. It was a heady cocktail I can tell you.

On one night in the desert we arranged a football game against some Bolivians. Note to self; don't arrange a match against Bolivians at nearly five thousand feet. They're quite used to it and we were certainly not. In the end we only lost 3-2 and a sand-storm came and saved our legs by ending the match prematurely. They really can play those guys and it was a good opportunity for our team of Irish, French, Germans, Australians and English to build some bridges with our friends from South America. This we did by letting them win the football and letting them watch us wheeze excessively. On our last day in the desert we went out to the salt flats and did what passes for tradition out there and took photographs of ourselves with crazy perspectives. And, boy, are some of these quite good. Yes, yes they are. Some, however, didn't work at all but that's the risk you run with perspective. That's why people say it's all a matter of perspective … or something. You can have yourself climbing out of a huge bottle, being stamped on by a huge foot, fighting a huge elephant and being shouted at by a huge Austrian. See photographs for success or lack of for all of the above.

After the fun and games (lack of showers, sleep and sand everywhere) of the desert we arrived at a proper hotel in the Highest City in the World – Potosi. I'm sure I've heard a few places claim to be the highest city in the world but they were very convincing in Potosi. They also had the Highest Pizza Place in the World which was quite nice. We decided it would be a good idea to open up a rival pizza place next door – slightly up hill – so they would have to change all their signs and menus and what have you. The plan never materialised but I think it's a solid one. Next up was a town called Uyuni. There I missed out – I went for a much needed haircut - but my new friends went to a local silver mine to set off some dynamite (seriously), look around the mines and sample and purchase some 96% alcohol drink. The miners themselves live on coco leaves and this concoction and it really takes the enamel off your teeth.

Further into Bolivia we stayed in a fancy hotel with the Venezuelan athletics team in Sucre. Sucre? No thanks I'm sweet enough already! Well, the Simone Bolivar games were just starting when we arrived and the town was flush with athletes. The Simone Bolivar games – as if you didn't know – is a six nation tournament held every six years in an Olympics stylee. Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and Panama fight it out for … hmmm … some sort of cup probably. It's a chance for them to show the big boys – Argentina, Brazil etc - who aren't invited that they've got some skills in some sports. They do all the usuals, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, equestrian, track and field and even women playing football. Can you imagine? What will they think of next? Baboons playing scrabble? That's pretty unlikely.

After four days in Sucre we continued north through Bolivia to Cochabamba, a city that sound quite like that popular American exclamation 'hoochy-momma'. A phrase they use when excited or amazed. Our group tried to use 'Cochabamba' in similar circumstances for comic effect and with varied results. We had also taken to copying one of our guides whose poor English lead him to say 'somestimes' instead of sometimes. Trust me, if you repeat this a lot it can get pretty funny. Or annoying. Either is fine. While we were there we went to take a look at a huge statue of Jesus Christ. Bigger even than the famous one on Sao Paolo. Whilst there quite a few Peruvian tourists came up to our group to have their photographs taken with us. At one point a succession of teenage girls came up to be photographed with Colin and me. They had to form a line. It was quite surreal really but we lapped it up and had a photo taken with the whole Peruvian group for good measure. A celebrity for about eight minutes. Nice.

As I've gone along I've really made an effort to learn the lingo. 'Spanish' I think they call it. It's incredibly useful as well as lots of people don't speak English at all and you have to muddle through. I can order a meal and pay for it without too many problems but I do keep saying “Ola” to people as I leave them. It's an automatic thing even though I know I should be saying 'Ciao' or 'Hasta Leugo' or some-such. 'That Gringo just said hello to me as he walked off', they must think to themselves, 'strange chap'. But we all persevere and test each other during breakfast to try and improve. Croissant and Vocab training over coffee. Classic. Bolivia is fantastic for many things but mostly for it's cheapness. Which is lucky as I'm rather cheap myself. Especially near the business end of the trip when I may or may not have budgeted to perfection. You can get a glorious two course meal for fifteen Boliviano's – one pound twenty to you and me – or a hotel room for about three pounds a night. Thank you Bolivia. I'll forgive you finishing off Butch, Sundance and Che just pass me that one pound bottle of pisco sour. Bosh!

Next time; we say goodbye to our intrepid group and hello to an all-new shiny group for the small matter of the Inca Trail. You may have heard of it...

Love, Dan. x.

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