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The Adventures of the Cycling Pixies Through Wine and Space
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Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999

Subject: Bolivia Part II


Yes, we're back on-line!


In Argentina now, heading for Chile . We left you in Potasí , Bolivia , distraught that the city, despite being big by Bolivian standards (120 000) and high (altitude 4070m), had no cable TV, so we never got to see the end of the Tour de France. (Hold on - Richard's having a mini epileptic fit - funnily enough - seems to happen every time I say the words 'Tour de France'!)  Potasí is famous for its silver mines and was, in the early 17th century, the largest city in the Am eric as (bigger at that time than London !) It was so rich that the expression "es un Potosí" (it's an Potasí) referred to anything superlatively rich - apparently (according to our guidebook) still in use in Spain today. They say enough silver was extracted to build a bridge from Potasí to Madrid - but we reckon they're pushing it on that claim! There's several stories about it's discovery but one of the one's we like is that the Inca's discovered it but never mined the silver because on starting to dig the cerro there was a big explosion & a thundering voice was heard, instructing the Incas to leave the silver - it was intended for another. The Spanish arrived about 5 years later & merrily started to dig away. Potasí is the Spanish form of the Quechua (the Inca language) word (nope - no idea how to spell it!) for explosion.


 We took the mandatory tour like all tourists of the mines which are now mainly used for tin & mineral extraction. It's hard to believe that people work under these medieval conditions in today's modern world (the mines of Indiana Jones were luxurious in comparison (we wonder if King Solomon’s weren't too!))


No light, electricity, air-conditioning. The miners slosh around in mud & luckily being Bolivian are small - even Stani was ducking & crawling along on her hands & knees. The mines have 4 different levels, with the distance between levels being 150 - 300m. The miners push old carts full of debris to a spot & then it is hauled up narrow shoots by rope. The minerals are carried in bags on their backs to the top (that's a possible 1200m - not sure but probably higher than any mountain in the UK ). It was hard enough under the slippery, dark conditions getting ourselves back up without the excess weight!


The mines are run on a co-operative basis with no regulations - therefore fights over spots where the tunnels meet are not unheard of (a risky business when dynamite is freely available on the surrounding streets!)

 If the conditions of the mines today and the history of the slavery of the Indians by the Spanish isn't dark enough there's still another blacker aspect to this story. The miner groups each have their own 'Tio' or 'Supay'(the devil himself) who is worshipped underground. Clad with a satanic grin & rams horns, he is festooned with cigarettes, coca leaves & alcohol.


On Friday nights, the miners gather to honour him (which involves chewing coca leaves fanatically, smoking & drinking until they are unconscious!) as well as sacrificing a llama foetus. Tales abound of individual miners who have made pacts with 'Tio' - bringing him live babies & burying them in the walls around him - subsequently becoming immensely rich. We doubted these stories - after all the Latin Am eric ans must be the most child loving people in the world & we couldn't see the average Latin male going along with it. But when questioning the family we were staying with, (Michel & Vivienne - we heard from Philippe & Sandra that you had such an awful time that you had to move out - surely it cannot be the Ramos family you are talking about?) they seemed to think the idea not impossible and even added a few tales of their own to verify the rumours!!!

 In Potosí we connected up with our Swiss Chocolate friends from La Paz and all departed together heading for Uyuni on a fairly easy 4 day bike ride on a dirt road through some marvellous scenery. This was the 1st time we had cycled with other cyclists in the 33 months we'd been away (apart from 2 hours with an Austrian cyclist in Mexico ). We soon found where our differences lay. They drove us crazy - how on earth were they so efficient in the morning? They'd get up an hour after us & be ready almost an hour before us! Our main crime (we hope!) was our noisy stove, which in the still of the morning can be mistaken for one of the Apollo rockets taking off. We marvelled - they had Blackburn racks - had cycled from Alaska - and they hadn't broken? After 2 days the dream came to an end & Sandra's rack cracked.


Our entry into Uyuni was a disappointment - set on the edge of the plains of Salar - we thought we were entering a rubbish dump. The town itself was a dusty nothing - until you reached the centre where a smart plaza had been built with row upon row of tourist agencies & pizza restaurants. We stayed at the Europa Hotel - hot shower & kitchen. In fact the shower was too hot & Stani feared getting 3rd degree burns!


Richard sussed it though & got Philippe to stand by the gas furnace & adjust it according to the burn factor indicated by Richard's screams!

Thanks to 2 Dutch cyclists we'd met in La Paz ( Ann , Kent , Santiago - believe you know them too - Mark & Lisbeth - the gadget fanatics?), we made contact with Jhovana, of the Esmeralda agency. The day before departure we crammed into her office & she took us step by step on a military geographical map of the route to Chile . Although not all her info was accurate (Laguna Cañape is definitively not potable!) she was immensely helpful & even agreed to deliver food parcels for us at Laguna Colorado - a relief as when we got there all we found there in the one shop was crackers, biscuits, sardine cans (labelled as tuna!) & alcohol. No basics like bread, pasta, rice etc.


Our 1st day was an easy ride - leaving about 3 in the afternoon & just cycling about 22km to the town of Colchani along the railway, the pampa itself & finally the road. On our arrival, we located the school director & requested permission to camp in the school premises so that we could be sheltered from the wind.

 He was delighted to greet us & gave us a lesson in the history & geography of the area & invited us to sleep in one of the rooms - a much warmer prospect. As we cooked dinner, Sandra & Philippe showed a map of the world to the eight year old Moises, who immediately located the Chilean/Bolivian border & declared war on Chile - stating that Bolivia WOULD get it's port back.

 We were surprised at the conviction he displayed & wondered how passionate his lessons were!

Our next 2 days were across the salar itself.

INCREDIBLE! Miles & miles of white expanse with the mountains & volcanoes on all sides. Great cycling too - the salt was as hard as asphalt & flat, flat, flat.


Tailwind too - a cyclist's paradise! Our 1st night we camped on an island in the centre - no easy task as the island is covered with giant cacti. Only one family lives on this island - the youngest & only remaining daughter took a shine to Richard when she found out he was French. Transpires that she had decided that she wanted to live in France & marry a Frenchman. We questioned her as to why a Frenchman & France. Turned out she knew nothing of the country & we're not even sure that she had met a Frenchman!

("Ah! That explains it" thought Stani - now I understand why she'd want to marry one!)


The other occupants of the island were 2 llamas & their 12 day old baby, not at all bashful; they took great interest in our bikes & tent. As did the young puppy who we nicknamed Cippolini, who we had great trouble dissuading not to enter our tent & kept running off with our shoes & cycling gloves!

 The next day we crossed the other half of the Uyuni salar & headed to the town of Colcha K where we asked at the school & the Red Cross for permission to spend the night on the premises. We had no luck though as it was a public holiday & everyone in authority, as well as their subordinates, was drunk. Finally we found the building site of the new school & camped in one of the unfinished classrooms. BIG mistake! In the morning we were in the shade & FREEZING. We had met Japanese cyclist the previous evening & he had camped with us.


We asked him how many hours he cycled daily - 10 to 13 hours was the response. (That's the difference between cyclists & other people - they always ask how many miles (or kms) you do daily) We thought he misunderstood us - after all the 4 of us only averaged 5 to 6 hours a day. But in the morning, as we crawled out our tents & sleepily searched for the spot the sun would hit first, he was packed & cycled off.


The next night was at the military camp of Chiguna.

 Isolated without roads in the salar, supplied only by an old cargo train that brings food, wood & water, the commandant was most hospitable, immediately realizing the diversion 4 European cyclists would bring to the intense boredom of the remote camp. We were invited to stay the night, tempted with the offer of a hot shower - which we eagerly accepted. 3 hours later we ruefully regretted our decision. Although the shower was indeed hot as promised, it couldn't wash away our guilt. In the 3 hours that we waited, we couldn't but help noticing the 5 soldiers who ran & fetched wood, chopped it up, filled the stove & climbed up a ladder with buckets of water all for our benefit.


Richard baked a couple of cakes in our oven - much to the amazement of the commandant. We found out later that there wasn't always sufficient food for all the soldiers. In the mornings they would divide into teams & play football - the winners getting lunch - the losers doing without. Now I understand why they take this sport so seriously.


In the morning we hacked our way through the ice to fill our water bottles and went to say our goodbyes. Just as we were about to depart a tourist jeep drove up but didn't stop at the camp to present the occupants papers as it was obliged to do. The poor soldiers - the commandant barked at them & they all ran off waving their rifles in the forlorn hope of catching the jeep. Why not use a vehicle we inquired?


The camp only possessed one scooter & at this moment it was in bits in the unrealistic dream that they could repair it!


This was the last inhabited place until we reached Laguna Colorado 4 days later. In fact we were relieved when we got there. We had heard so many tales of how dreadful the route was, how other cyclists had given up & cadged a lift with the car smugglers (as indeed the Japanese cyclist we'd met had). But although the route was by no means a pleasure - washboard and sand seeming to be the better aspects we encountered - we didn't spend 4 days pushing our bikes as we had feared and managed to cycle most of it. Despite the hardships we have to say it was worth it for the beauty of the surrounding countryside.


A brief note on the car smugglers - everyone knows about the smugglers & the route they take - it would be easy to catch them (if the military had a vehicle!) but it's one of those ways of life. The smugglers pay $50 per car to the border guards and everybody is happy.


We decided to rest at Laguna Colorado while the Swiss headed off to the hot bathes we were told to be about 15km away. We knew there was a 5000m pass in between us & those bathes so we decided to wait to the following morning. Just as well we did. The Bolivians really have a funny sense of humour with their distances. Admittedly our speedometer wasn’t functioning at this point (something that we heard happened to several cyclists due to the extreme cold) but it took us the whole day to get up to the top of the pass - a particularly miserable day because of the howling sub zero wind & camped eventually by Pozo 5 at 4900m. We didn’t hear the geysers that night because of the wind but in the morning we found something noisy enough at last to compete with our stove. We didn’t actually realise then that we were at the geysers as we thought we’d had passed them and started hunting for cyclists warming up their morning coffee (who else would be looney enough to camp up here with a MSR stove?).


Our trip through this remote land of hot bathes, flamingos, incredible lakes (of nearly all the colours of the rainbow) finally came to an end as we crossed the Bolivian/Argentine border. What a culture shock. The first thing we encountered was the Chile to Argentina motorway. Brand new asphalt, dotted white & yellow lines. Screaming green notice boards announcing the kilometres to every location imaginable - it looked remarkably reminiscent of a German autobahn. The sad thing that we had to laugh at was the pathetic wooden sign, inclined at an angle, surrounded by sand and pointing into the wilderness where the dirt road was barely discernable. " Bolivia " it announced in scrawled and faded painted brushstrokes - it looked very much like something out of one of Bugs Bunny’s cartoons.


That’s All Folks!



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     Stani     &      Richard

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