Having had a pretty ropey night’s sleep in the Chilean frontier town of Ollague, we dragged ourselves out of bed at first light and tried to make sense of the piles of bags and clothes which now, with sleepy eyes, seemed to be unnecessarily strewn all about the room. We slowly started the process of packing up and went to try and start the bikes for a warm up. No surprise then that due to the altitude and freezing conditions of the night before, they struggled a little. Indeed Chloe’s bike had to be jump started again, and the rider, while in the process of being towed, managed to snap the tow rope. Not before we got the bike started though…! Small consolation for Chris.
We passed through the border into Bolivia with little problem, despite taking nearly three hours even though we were the only people there. We waited for one of the officers to have a shave, another one to finish his nap, then stood around while one was completely missing for at least 45 minutes. Not quite sure how that works… but once we did finally meet said officers, they were very friendly, and by god, we actually understood them! Their dialect is much slower, clearer and more like European Spanish, so we secretly thanked our lucky stars that we weren’t that bad after all, and from now on we wouldn’t have to try and decipher the incomprehensible Chileans ever again!
Once we were on the Bolivian side of the border and free to go, we left the snow tipped smoking volcanoes behind us and followed the winding sandy road into the dusty flats of the Bolivian Altiplano.
First stop was the town of Uyuni and the famous salt flat, Salar de Uyuni – the largest and highest salt flat in the World. The town of Uyuni itself is unremarkable and dusty. But once you leave the slightly unkempt town and head west, it is not long before you first stumble upon houses and buildings made of slat blocks, then you spot the dazzling white beyond. If you stare too long it hurts, it is that white – It is like staring at the sun for too long when you are little to make yourself sneeze! The small settlement on the edge of the salt flat houses the salt farmers and their families, along with some market stalls, their owners waiting for the 4×4’s full of unsuspecting tourists who will hopefully buy an equally as large truckload of salt souvenirs and woolies.
We had taken one of those very 4×4’s out onto the salt lake with a tour company. We had hoped to take the motorbikes, but the water level is still too high at the moment, the rainy season only just having finished. We would have been faced with riding through rivers of salt water before reaching the areas of crisp dry salt. Large sections of the Salar were still too wet for even the 4×4’s to venture out to, but we were happy with our little trip, saving our bikes from the ensuing problems that would be caused by corroding salt in their nether regions. They will thank us for it too!
So we went out to the Salar on a day tour, accompanied by a Grecian sports journalist and a Bolivian family, we were all jammed into a Landcruiser and taken on our way. Luckily for Chris, the Grecian sports journalist spoke English, enabling him to spend the whole day talking about football instead of making pleasantries with the Bolivian family. Or even his wife!
After stopping off at the obligatory markets, but shamefully not buying anything – what could we do with a salt monkey while travelling on a motorbike? – we rode around the Salar, walked for a while, (which was exhausting!), then thankfully stopped for a picnic lunch complete with vino! Perfect!
By mid-afternoon we had seen more salt than we could handle and were feeling a bit crispy ourselves. So we were thankful when our driver had us hazily clamber back into the Landcruiser and whisked us off back towards the dusty town and our last stop at the train cemetery…. Interesting… do they bury them?!
Uyuni was on the main train line that linked Potosi, (location of one of the largest silver mines in the World during the 18th Century), to Calama and Antofagasta in Chile. The line was busy and thriving in its time, but was abandoned when the silver mine in Potosi declined and silver was found elsewhere in the rest of the Americas. Just outside of the town of Uyuni, the trains themselves were discarded in the desert landscape and forgotten, left to rust in the salty air. This neglect of infrastructure we have seen time and again on our travels so far. If an industry or service is not keeping itself busy, it is given up without any thought to its future potential. Maintenance and money is of course an issue in these poorer countries, but it seems such a waste after such a large initial investment to just let it rot away…. Nevertheless, they made nice photos!
We only stayed in Uyuni for a couple of days before we were riding out of the dry and dusty ramshackled landscape to Potosi. Potosi – the silver mining town that now boasts a large proportion of its centre being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was once vastly rich and flourishing. Now, the silver nuggets have run out and ore is a much more costly process to refine. The mine is still operating and the ore is being mined along with other metals such as tin, but the rise of other silver mines throughout the Americas caused Potosi’s collapse in the 20th Century. The old centre however, still retains its glamorous feel, albeit a little mottled with age and new-born poverty. Scruffy chic I think would be appropriate, with its narrow cobbled streets and over-crowded building facades , embellishments fighting to be seen against the oriel windows and jetties. Then come the big ones, the grand houses with stone coats-of-arms above the doors, and the churches, rich with faded splendor.
So we spent an afternoon and very cold evening wandering the streets, until we found some nice drink to warm us up. I have no idea what it was, but it was warm, a little lumpy, and smelt and tasted like some medicinal concoction of honey and oil….. hmmm, that’s why it is called linaza caliente – translated, it means hot linseed oil – nice!
One of the main ‘attractions’ in Potosi is going on a tour of the mine. So after reading and signing the disclaimer that we accept we my loose our lives while down there, (we may what…?!), we set off on our merry way with some friends whom we had been reunited with the night before.
Our guide, a young-ish, crazy guy who was definitely not taking the dangers seriously, happy described horror stories to us while we kitted ourselves up in attractive waterproofs and wellies, hard hats and head torches.
Fashion parade over, we were ready to go and buy the miners some gifts – apparently a gesture from visitor to worker while traipsing about in their mine. Gifts usually consist of water, coco leaves or dynamite. Obviously we were all desperate to buy dynamite until our guide regaled stories of infamous brawls that had broken out between numerous workers over a stick of dynamite. It seems that once a worker has been trained in the mine for five years, he then becomes his own ‘freelance’ miner, paid on the weight and quality of his individual load. So if a visitor takes a stick of dynamite into a crowd of six workers, they’re all going to want the damn thing for themselves, naturally. So we opted away from the dynamite to the more conservative gifts of water and coco.
Chris however, was not satisfied. He just had to buy a stick of dynamite. So Chris bought a stick of dynamite, for himself, not the miners, and somehow managed to persuade our guide that it would be a good idea to test it out ourselves when we were inside the mine, just for the hell of it. In fact, our guide didn’t need much persuading, because as noted earlier, he was a little crazy.
So off we trotted, first to the refining plant, then into the mine. Down in the mine the air became increasingly heavy, and the smell of sulphur and arsenic grew stronger as we clambered deeper and deeper. We had bandanas to cover our mouths and noses to filter out the noxious gases and dust, but the lack of oxygen meant they were discarded in favour of actually being able to breathe.
On the first level of the mine, we saw trolley wagons filled with ore being pulled and pushed along the narrow tracks by men steaming with sweat and stooped like hunchbacks, keeping their heads low as they grunted past. The next level down we saw more men with trolleys but also groups of men with buckets and shovels, heaving full loads up on ropes through a startlingly bright hole above. At least here the oxygen levels were still reasonable. The worst was down on level four where the heat was 42 degrees and there was no air change or any form of ventilation. The men sweated and heaved and shoveled in the sweltering heat while we all pathetically wilted.
As we crawled on our hands and knees, slithered across the rubble on our stomachs, then shuffled down jagged chutes to even deeper depths, the claustrophobia began to sink in. Or maybe it was just the suffocating feeling of being smothered to death by heat and heavy air, or lack of air. Either way, we were all beginning to feel a bit desperate.
But help was at hand! We slowly made our way staggering and fumbling to a shrine dedicated to ‘Uncle of the mine’ – an add looking fellow with horns, made from earth, shrouded in party popper garlands and surrounded by empty bottles and half burnt cigarettes. If we made our offerings he would keep us safe and prevent us from losing our life in the mine. Something we were all very attentive to at that time!
So our guide, on our behalf, doused ‘Uncle’ with some of his 96% alcohol, (96% alcohol…what?!… oh, apparently it has medicinal purposes when in the mine – drink when it just gets too much!), and left him a half smoldering cigarette in his muddy mouth. But that wasn’t all our guide had taken us down the dead-end tunnel for… it was here, hidden in the cave behind the shrine of Uncle that our guide began to prepare the dynamite. Chris was beside himself with excitement, the rest of a little wary. Surely our guide knew what he was doing, right…?! Within a minute it was all prepared and our guide was running off behind Uncle to try and lodge it in some rock before it went off. Not dangerous at all…! So a couple of minutes later when we had almost forgotten about listening and waiting for it, it came. We needn’t have worried about listening for it… the whole cave shook with the force of the blast and the sound penetrated our entire bodies like a sound from the depths of the earth that is so loud, amplified in that low narrow little cave, you can hardly imagine it. It certainly gave us all the fright of our lives! Well that was that, and Chris was happy, and we were all happy it was over!
Staggering out of the mine into dazzling sunlight, our lungs gave a burst for freedom and our bodies slowly followed suit, un-curling themselves as if they’d been asleep from the waist upwards. The relief of getting out is hard to describe. We had only been down there for three hours but by the end, it seemed like an eternity, indeed some of us thought we genuinely would die down there. The heat, the gases and lack of oxygen, coupled with the physical exertion of scrambling back up rocky chutes and scratching our way through impossibly small spaces makes you feel like you have been buried alive and you are trying to claw your way out, clinging to life even though your chest is almost giving up on breathing.
Heading back into town, the difference between work in the mine and the grand opulent shows of wealth in the buildings and squares feels even more extreme and potent. Potosi is definitely a very special place, rich in so many aspects… all the while the monetary wealth dwindles, the miners struggle on in the heat and dark depths of the mine, and the rest of the population fight to earn their supper.
Leaving Potosi for the countryside, one feels a sense of space and air unlike that experienced before. We passed small hamlets nestled into rocky outcrops, individual farmsteads and medieval looking courtyard complexes surrounded by tended fields with neat fencing or dry-stone walling.
It is not long before we are descending from the high plateau, traversing the mountainside, endlessly crossing back and forth as we make our way down to the ‘White City’ of Sucre. Boasting another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sucre’s historic centre is dominated by ornately carved and grand colonial buildings, all painted in their original white colour, giving the place a sparkling magical feel. No shopfront signs or billboards are fixed to the facades of the buildings, only hanging signs stand out proud on their iron brackets, squeaking in the light wind.
Sucre also held one of the largest Jesuit institutions, before their expulsion. Indeed the old Jesuit assembly complex, now a museum of Bolivian political history, was where the Declaration of Independence of Bolivia was agreed and signed. The original document with all the signatures still being held behind a glass case, within the museum.
Back on the road, and this time with a real mission – that of getting to Cochabamba, or rather the Community of Maria Auxiliadora 10km south of Cochabamba – we would join our host family and prepare to spend the next six weeks (approximately), building a new study space for the young people of the community. Upon leaving Sucre, we had decided to take the scenic route across the hills and on rough road, rather than go back through Potosi and round on the highway. It would be a leisurely two day ride, stopping off in one of the National Parks for the night.
What we hadn’t factored into our plan was the complete lack of road signs when not on a major highway. So we set off merrily towards Cochabamba from Sucre, which is quite a major route given that it is by far the shortest way across, and promptly missed the first and then the second turning that would have taken us across into the national park area. That there were no signs was one thing, but we didn’t even see the roads.
Stopping for lunch in a town where we shouldn’t have even been, the proprietor made us feel better by telling us it was only two more hours to Cochabamba if we just followed the main road west. Brilliant! Knowing the Bolivian’s generous dealings with time, we added an extra hour onto our calculations and thought that was still reasonable. Even if we didn’t quite make it to Cochabamba, we could at least stop somewhere nearby and make that last little stretch in the morning. Decided.
Five hours later, we were chugging downhill from some moorland, crawling at 10mph, in the dark, our progress limited by Chris’s broken suspension crunching at every bump. Of which there were a lot because the road was cobbled. Something we had agreed upon at the beginning of the trip was not to ride in the dark, and that night we were reminded why. The lights on the bikes are so so bad, you can only see a hazy patchy pool of subdued light for about 1m in front of you. This is totally inadequate for riding at any sort of speed, or indeed, on any kind of terrain rougher than the smoothest of tarmac. Potholes jump out at you when you are on top of them, corners appear out of nowhere and roads suddenly end abruptly, leaving you riding into a 2m high pile of gravel that you hadn’t seen ahead. After Chris’s suspension had bitten the dust on the cobbles, the latter, crashing into a pile of gravel, was the last straw. Especially since Chloe landed in the gravel in a big heap on the ground, snapping her newly mended clutch lever (again!), that only a few weeks before Miguel had fixed for her in Santa Fe.
We were grumpy and tired and still 50km away from Cochabamba. We would have stopped sooner, before it got dark, only that there had been nothing, nowhere to stay, since we had stopped in that town for lunch. We had considered getting the tent out, but it was so exposed up on the moor and the cold and wind was picking up, we had though to battle on because surely something would come up.
We spent that night in the most revolting hovel we have yet stayed in, purporting to be some sort of hostel. The next day we were up and out in a flash, and were sat having a very early lunch in a nice café in Cochabamba by late morning. That evening we were in the community, Comunidad Maria Auxiliadora, and had met our hosts Maria Eugenia and her 11 year old son Pablo, or Eric to us. Maria Eugenia is a cook and baker, so we had the promise of being well fed while we are here!
The next day we had our first ‘meeting’ with our contact Joanna and the Youth Leader Ivan. By the afternoon we were on the site, clearing debris and hacking back the vegetation. You can’t hold back a man on a mission, and Chris was certainly on a mission.
Over the next few days we had cleared the site, dismantled what was left of the existing adobe walls and had broken out the concrete dividing plinth walls inside. Ivan, his brother Gustavo and some of the other young people came and joined in, as well as some of the other villagers including the matron-like Doña Emma and softly spoken Doña Pilar.
Two weeks in, foundations have been dug and concrete has been poured. A telegraph pole was put in by an electrical company while we were on our lunch, just where our extension is going, so after lunch, (in a Bolivian kind of way), we removed it again!
Shuttering was set up for more walling, more concrete was poured, and reinforcement stone implanted. Prices have been got for the new adobe and all the timber we need.… Budget is looking tight already!
Meanwhile on a sad note, Lupé, the family female dog, has been in season and was sadly inseminated several times by the local hounds as its normal for all the dogs to wander the streets by day, taking their pick of their fancy.
After 2 sleepless nights and endless barking and howling at the gate, enough was enough, so with the thought of millions of puppies on her hands, Maria Eugenia gave Lupé a lethal concoction and then buried her in the back yard the next morning.
All the male dogs had howled the night away for her in mourning. And so life goes on in the Community…. And after a couple of weeks here, we feel we are getting right into it ourselves! Although a warm shower would be nice once in a while!
Regarding the building project, some of you have promised to donate but, we assume, have forgotten…. nudge nudge! As we are now here and can judge what we will need, a little extra help would go a long way. CLICK HERE TO DONATE Timber is more expensive than we thought, and we have already spent a good deal on cement. For those of you who have already donated – thank you so much for your generosity! We hope to be able to show you the fruits of your cash and our labours soon!!
Thrashed bike so hard on cobbles so that it broke Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Going to pay a fortune for new suspension Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Nearly fainted in mine Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Amount of times not washed hands before eating Chloe 0 v 100’s Chris
Days sat on the toilet with diarrhea (SEE ABOVE!) Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Fingers hit with hammer Chloe 0 v 4 Chris
IN MEMORY OF LUPE – OUR LOST FRIEND