Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Journey Into the Surreal

Even the most exotic tourist destinations in the world have a hint of the familiar - the Grand Canyon is just a very big hole in the ground, The Great Wall of China is simply a wall, just a very very long one, and Tannadice is only a football stadium, it just happnes to be a rather magical one.
So there was something extra-ordinarily fascinating and moving about my visit to the unique and unfamiliar site of the Saler de Uyuni, Bolivia´s giant salt flats.
Neither words nor pictures can fully capture the place, but having made that cop-out, the following will try to do some justice to the experience.

The Saler de Uyuni is 10 billion tonnes of salt, covering 12,000 sq kms of the Bolivian altiplano. For most of the year, the salt flat is an immense expanse of blinding whiteness, but in the rainy season the salt flats become an endless perfectly reflecting mirror producing the incredible reflections seen in these images.
From the edge of the salt-flat a drive into the centre becomes an increasingly eerie and unnerving adventure. The chalk white surface at the edge of the salt flat appears to change colour as you head towards the centre, taking on a pale blue colour, until you realise that this blue is the reflected blue of the sky.

It took us about two hours by pick-up to get to the middle of the salt flat. The distances are so immense and the ground so profoundly flat that after a while it appeared that we were simply floating in space, going nowhere.

Every tourist´s destination on the flats is the Isla de Pescadores (Island of Fishermen). This is an outstandingly beatiful and unlikely place - just a couple of square kms of land in the middle of nothing, like a single lily in a giant frozen pond. There´s nothing cold about this place though, as the island´s inhabitants - thousands of exuberantly bushy cacti - testify.

Close inspection of the salt flat shows it is made up of billions of hexagonal salt ´tiles´. As well as their aesthetic beauty, these tiles represent a commercial bounty for the local people - 20,000 tonnes of salt are harvested from the flats each year.

A closer inspection of the flats also reveals the opportunity for some trick photography. Here I am pushing over a giant pre-Incan statue found sitting on the salt flats.

Danger! Danger! (Mines and) High Voltage!!!!

Cerro Rico, Potosi

One phenomenon that becomes immediately obvious in both Central and South America - and I imagine in any developing county - is that safety standards are a heck of a lot lower than we are used to in the Western world. Machu Picchu in Peru was a case in point (see below) but nothing so far has been quite as hairy as my exploits the day after leaving La Paz.

While La Paz is the highest capital city in the world it is still several hundred metres below the highest city in the world - Potosi. Potosi today is a shadow of the city it once was. At one point, Potosi was one of the largest and richest cities in the world, larger even than London. This all came about as a result of the discovery of silver in the mountain that overlooks Potosi in the mid 1500s, around the time when the Spanish were conquering South America.

The Spanish were quick to exploit the huge potential of Potosi (basically the inside of the mountain was one giant lode of minerals) and they were willing to stop at nothing to get at the treasures.

Over the next two hundred years they extracted huge quantities of silver from the mountain. No-one knows exactly how much, but it is seriously suggested that enough silver was extracted to build a silver bridge from Potosi to Spain. The human cost of this industry was immense. When the poor air, poor safety standards and back-breaking work killed off thousands of local workers, the Spanish brought slave labour from Africa to replace them. Over those two hundred years, it is estimated that 8 million men died on and in the mountain at Potosi.

Amazingly, mining work goes on by hand today in the very tunnels built over 400 years ago. Even more amazingly a new industry has built up around this - tourism. Yes, believe it or not, tourists can go into the mines themselves and see the miners at work.

Despite vague memories of claustrophobic experiences in the past i donned a helmet and fetching overalls and went into the mine.

This was an experience never to be forgotten. After crawling through a couple of tunnels, myself, two others from the tour and our guide were right at the mine face, where the modern day miners worked in cramped conditions but with much better air quality than those of their 16th century counterparts.

As we crawled deeper into the mine, we passed through tunnels dating back to 1545. This tunnel was carved by hand by local workers at the hands of the Spanish. Who knows how many of the 8 million died building this very tunnel.

After about half an hour we met a miner who told us that we couldn´t go any further as they had just set dynamite charges in the next cavern. I couldn´t quite believe this was happening, but the ´excitement´ in our group was ´tangible´as we weighted for the 30 explosions to go off. If anyone is interested I can email you a short video in which you can hear the explosions going off, and see our reactions. The only thing you can´t experience is the smell of the dynamite and the shaking of the mine!!

After this I wasn´t surprised by anything. We proceeded to belowered 25m down a hole on a rope, scrambled up loose rock and through tiny openings, and I even helped with the mining operaton by pushing out a barrow of loose rock and carried a pneumatic drill into a tunnel for one of the miners. But when we came to a tunnel that had partially collapsed and had to change our planned route I was definitely ready to come back to the surface. Thankfully that was indeed right at the end of the tour.

Perhaps the most bizarre element of a visit to the mine is the purchasing of ´gifts´for the miners. As compensation for any disturbance caused to the miners by their visit, tourists are expected to offer the miners some offering. I purchased a goody bag that consisted off coca leaves (to make tea), coca cigarettes, a length of fuse, a small block of TNT and a starter cap containing nitro-glycerine.

Those safety-standards in action!

As much as I was excited and thrilled by my experience in the mine, I couldn´t help but think how horrendous the history of Potosi is and what a bleak story it tells about ´human endeavour´. And that is definitely reflected in the atmosphere of the town and the mines.

And that wasn´t the end of dangerous activities that day. In the afternoon, Ali and I took the seemingly safer and more sedate option of a trip to the thermal pools outside of Potosi. The picture below shows the pool created by the Incans 500 years ago to exploit the natural springs that come out of the ground at 25C. Unfortunately when we got there it had clouded over but we were determined to make the most of it and had a very enjoyable swim for about 30 minutes, at which point a large lightning flash directly overhead persuaded us to call it a day.

Hopefully the most dangerous day of my year´s travels is now past...

La Paz: Wolves, Bulletholes and an appearance on Bolivian TV

Can any other city-centres boast a view like this one? The goegraphy of La Paz is incredible, stretching from 4000m in the slums at the crater rim, down to under 3000m in the rich suburbs below. The average difference in temperature between these points is 8C.

La Paz is one of those places that every traveller must have great expectations about. In fact, for me it seemed like one of those places that is too exotic to visit, for fear that it could never live up to expectations.

As it turns out, the image I had built up in my head and the reality I experienced bore almost no resemblance to each other at all. But on reflection, I´d be hard pushed to say which is the more bizarre, more exotic and more like the South America that I came on this trip to see. For example, I can´t imagine going anywhere else and seeing two young women walking a wolf through the city centre - wish I´d gotten a photo of that one.
Bolivian women in traditional dress. This was no show for tourists, but typical attire for married women in Bolivia. Single women can be recognised by the lack of bowler hats and pleats in their skirts.

Our first night in La Paz was Hogmanay. The evening started with my first Christmas dinner of the festive season, which made me feel a bit homesick, and was quickly followed by mojitos, vodka-redbulls and champagne, which just made me feel a bit sick.

At the bells, homemade firecrackers were set off in the street and I´d swear I could hear the sound of rifle-fire in the distance.

Our guide takes us to the traditional markets in La Paz. The odd looking collection of objects over the guide´s right shoulder are llama foetuses. These are still believed to bring good fortune and the residents of La Paz will purchase one to ensure success in new jobs, business contracts, houses and other ventures.

Ne´erday 2007 in La Paz was a bright and sunny one. After dancing to Bolivian music until 4am I didn´t quite have the presence of mind to take appropriate precautions (steady!) and subsequently suffered sunburn on New Years Day for the first time.

As a visitor, I loved La Paz. But it´s clearly not a happy place for all. Our city tour showed up the huge differences between the lives of the rich - gated residential areas, $1m houses, shopping malls - and the poor. A large percentage of children in La Paz are forced to work each day from the age of 5, often earning more than their parents, for whom a wage of $2-3 per day is common.

Our city tour ended in the main square, where bullet-holes riddle buildings on opposite sides of the plaza. This is evidence of the last time political strife turned to violence in Bolivia, an occasion on which the army and police force fought against each other for control of the country. It was a shock to learn that this wasn´t the 60s or 70s but in 2003. Since then there has been major political upheaval in Bolivia. And electoral success for the left has brought stability and the promise of a better deal for Bolivia´s poor. But as I saw in Belize progress can be painfully slow and a rich majority with huge business interests and influence are waiting in their high security suburbs for the opportunity to move back into power.

As our tour was ending, my deep political insight and photogenic qualities (...) were obviously recognised by reporters from Bolivian tv, who approached me on the street for an interview on the merits of the government´s proposed visa system for foreigners. After embarrassing myself in Spanish for a few moments, the reporter decided to switch to English and we started off again! I think I gave a fairly good account of myself, though I´d like to have seen how much was lost in translation...
Shell-shocked Scottish correspondent in Bolivia relaxes in local hostelry.

For those of you with an extremely large satellite dish (Fiona - does the beeb pick up this sort of thing?), you need to switch to Channel 27 on Bolivian TV.