Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 36, November 24, 2002
Saliva Muggers, Candlelight Puking, Walking With Dinosaurs, Playing with Dynamite
Photos: Penis Temple Gallery Altiplano I Gallery
Independent Feature on Human Telephone Boxes in Bolivia


Witch Hotel?

The problem with Peru is that it has a near monopoly on Inca ruins. Moreover, ever since the Shining Path went to ground, it's been relatively safe. As a result tourism is now its economic mainstay. And, like anyone with a monocrop tourist industry, many of the Peruvians have (understandably) come to rather dislike tourists. Not everyone of course, but there's a lot of crappy service, poor products and indifference from people who, for obvious reasons, have come to regard you as a walking ATM.

Thus it's something of a relief arrive in La Paz. Of course, Bolivia's capital has tourists (and, for that matter, malodourous travelers) but if they disappeared tomorrow, life would go on. Also, La Paz is very crowded and has a real bustle to it: the main drag reminded me a little of Oxford Street. I know that Oxford Street is a dump - but when you haven't seen them for nearly a year, you start to feel vaguely nostalgic about the familiar places you normally hate.

Actually La Paz is a very peculiar city. At 3600m it's the highest capital in the world. Even driving there is odd: you don't really see it until you're right upon it because it sits in a bowl. In a neat inversion of the norm, the rich live lower down the bowl and the poor higher up, where, presumably the air is even thinner and colder. But the strangeness doesn't end with geography. The streets near our hotel were crowded with stalls run by old women selling incense, statues (which they offered to cast spells on) totemic dead creatures and so on. Initially I assumed the entire country was in the grip of some sort of voodoo cult, but then I discovered that we were staying in the middle of one of the city's odder attractions, the Witches' market. Which certainly explained why some mad old crone dried to sell me a dried llama foetus every time I left my hotel.

Simon and Justine, by contrast, had booked themselves into the 'highest five star in the world', which, at US$75 a night for a suite was an undeniable snip. That said, I can't imagine 'El Presidente' will be holding on to its fifth star for much longer. We took cocktails at the 'unmissable' rooftop bar. The cocktails were terrible and the bar was deserted but for us - very missable, although it did afford nice views of the city's lights and occasional blackouts. The rest hotel looked like it had last been decorated in 1982, with the help of one of Pablo Escobar's henchmen. The only other place you're likely to find so much tawdry marble and gold used to such effect is London's Edgeware Road.

Spit and Run

Just as I was getting into the swing of things, Bolivian style, I was the victim of a dastardly crime - I fell prey to a saliva mugger and this really is quite as disgusting as it sounds. Basically, these menaces spit a huge gobfull of saliva on to the back of your head. In the ensuing confusion, they nick your wallet/bag/camera/valuables. I had in fact been told about these nefarious types, but, in this case, forewarned is not fore-armed: no matter how many times you're told that a stranger will spit on the back of your head it's always a surprise when it happens. So they got my wallet, which contained a Switch card, a driving license, a credit card and no cash whatsoever as, Jane, sensibly, allows me only pocket money. The loss of an (non fake) Gucci wallet was a tough blow, but the Bolivian police were charming and I figure I got off pretty lightly: Saliva is not the only fluid these muggers use.

Drug Education

La Paz, although good fun is a little short on obvious attractions. Nonetheless, we spent a diverting afternoon at the Coca Museum. OK, it's the kind of thing that traveling types love it does look a little bit like someone's GCSE science project. But it takes a surprisingly even handed look at America's risble war on drugs, which, as the joke goes, drugs won years ago. It's also a learning experience and I learned a number of surprising cocaine facts which I list here in order of the surprise they evinced. 1.The US (with 5% of the world's population) consumes 50% of the world's cocaine (surprise level: 2/10). 2.Coca Cola is still a major buyer of coca leaves and scores them by the ton to flavour its soft drink (SL 6/10). 3.Finally, I learned that chewing coca leaves results in a blood drug level of about 40% of that which you get from the more traditional rolled up, bloodstained $100 note and mirror (surprise level 9/10 and I rushed out to buy another bag).

Thin Air, Thinner You

Speaking of things that make you thinner, life on the South American Altiplano is also a joy in terms of diet. Not that the Bolivian capital is a foodie mecca, although it is rather better than Peru. But mainly because, until you fully acclimatize, your heart has to work considerably faster in order to get the necessary oxygen to your vitals. This effectively means you're constantly exercising and, hey presto, the weight just drops off. Normally fairly healthy eaters, Jane and I were pigging out on burgers, chocolate, salami, cake - anything that took our fancy - and still losing weight. Indeed, further to this discovery, I am minded to set up a company that flies exercise averse fatties to high altitudes to lose weight, just by sitting around. Although I suppose if they're really fat, it might backfire and the strain placed on their hearts by taking a cab to the nearest pie shop could kill them.

La Paz was also the scene of our farewell to Simon and Justine, our companions of a month and a day. After much dithering they decided to head off to the northern Jungle. Naturally we went out and drank plenty of Pisco and Tequila to celebrate, as much as anything, the making of a decision. Thus, with crippling hnagovers we spent our last day in La Paz watching cable TV, while Simon and Justine (flashpackers extraordinaire) disappeared off to Santa Cruz where they chartered a private plane to fly them to a seven star eco lodge in the Noel Kempf National Park.

Keeping it real (part 256)

With our stated commitment to keeping it real (and meager budget), chartered planes were clearly out of the question. So we took a bus to Cochabamba - which sounds like a Latin themed nightclub in Romford - but is actually a rather nice city. It's rather nice for a number of reasons. Firstly as somewhere just off the Altiplano (and at a piffling 2600m) it's warm and you can sit outside drinking beer in the evenings. The nightlife is agreeable in a sort of brass band playing outside your restaurant kind of way. What's more, there are real trees! And rain! This may not sound like much, but after a month staring at buff coloured hills, I got pretty choked up over the sight of wet trees. It has the best steakburgers in the world; there are people who wander around with mobiles acting as human phone boxes; and you can get a three star hotel for a tenner. Finally, although fairly attractive, it's mercifully free of travelers. Well, I did see a rather crusty looking group skulking in a café once, but I chucked a couple of bars of soap at them and they scattered like rats.

Pleasant though it is, Cochabamba was just a staging post on our way to Toro Toro National Park. Although a mere 200km from Cochabamba, TT is not an easy place to reach, though, to be fair, it shouldn't be that hard either. We arranged a taxi. He didn't show. We arranged another taxi. One block from our hotel he doubled the price. We heard it was possible to hire a Cesna, at a price not that different from the doubled taxi, but it hardly seemed worth it. Eventually with the help of another taxi driver who looked like an extra from the Godfather, we managed to find a local bus. Our driver warned us that the park was absolutely crawling with tourists. Our hearts sank until he cautioned: 'There may be as many as ten'. So we wound up on the bus. It cost £1.50 and was about as real as you can get. That is, poverty can be quite charming when viewed from a few hundred metres; less so when it's sitting next to you and pukes all over your bag.

In terms of westerners, we had only the company of a quite strikingly unpleasant American girl. As we got off the bus for a meal stop, I said, 'Hello'. She blanked me. Later on, she asked me, in Spanish, if I spoke English. I replied that I was English, of course I did, also in Spanish. She then asked, rather haughtily, this time in English, 'Were you trying to talk to me earlier?' I replied, that, well, yes, I might have said Hi and asked her if she was from Georgia. 'What makes you say that?' she asked snootily.
'Well...'I said warily, 'you are wearing a T shirt that says "Athens, Georgia"'
'Well I'm from Nebraska' she snapped, turned her back on me and started talking to a woman in Spanish. Jane later said that her feminine instincts told her that the girl thought I was hitting on her. Which was both presumptuous (she was rather plain) and stupid (Jane was standing about a metre from me). Still, as the silly little cow clearly wanted to pretend she was the only tourist in the park, I made a point of greeting her with an effusive, 'How absolutely lovely to see you again' whenever we bumped into her therafter.

I'd been expecting the landscape to get lusher as we headed east - Toro Toro is right on the edge of the Andes and is probably less than 100km from the Amazon basin - but it's as dessicated as everywhere else, if rather warmer. Toro Toro, the town is bigger than you expect, especially for somewhere so isolated. It's also rather cute, but in the right way - that is, nice and rustic without being self consciously so. The doors, for example, are the kind of thing the chattering classes get full on rustic chubbies over. But they're just old doors and when they rot, they'll be replaced with new ones. TT is also notable for the luxuriant moustaches of its inhabitants - they have some of the finest facial hair anywhere in the world. With moustaches of this quality, they ought to be careful. Otherwise George Dubya will be directing his missiles at them in his long awaited war against moustaches, sorry, terror.

Puking By Candlelight

We found more swish low cost accommodation in TT: at the best place in town, eight pounds bought us a suite of four rather good rooms, breakfast included. Indeed, this hotel would have been an altogether charming three and a half star experience, except the town had running water only at night (sometimes) and electricity for about two hours a day. Moreover, if water was a problem, so was finding food. There weren't any restaurants per se - you just wandered around the town to see who happened to be selling food from their front room that day. Which places were and weren't restaurants changed daily, though the fare - rice, potatoes, steak, egg, salsa - did not.

Still food was the least of my worries. Something I'd eaten en route had disagreed with me violently. How violently? Well, I spent most of the first night (when, thankfully there was water) either on the loo or vomiting, often simultaneously. Disgusting as it sounds, my projectile puking was leant a certain olde worlde charm by the lack of electricity. For not only did I have to rush to the bathroom in order to void the contents of my stomach, I also had to find matches beforehand in order to bring my guts up by candlelight.

Walking with Dinosuars

After a day's convalescence, I got to appreciate the delights of the park. For starters, it's a huge, dramatic valley that looks like a range of hills has had the middle scooped out of it to reveal the land's layer cake strata. Pretty much what happened, except the scooping was done by volcanoes. TT's main claim to fame though is its dinosaur tracks which are absolutely everywhere, all over the shop, I've never seen quite anything like it; if you lived there you could probably have a dino-footprint patio. But this dinofest conceals a Jurassic tragedy. Many of the prints have raised edges, as if they were made in mud or plasticine. In fact they were made in molten lava and for most of the dinosaurs who made them, these steps were the last walking they ever did.

There's also a pretty stylish canyon. Although this canyon is about one tenth depth of Peru's much ballyhooed Colca Canyon, it is far, far better, because it actually looks the part. Nothing is visible until you get to the edge and then there's a sheer 300 metre drop, straight down to a river the colour of hot chocolate. Real 'Roadrunner' stuff. Finally on the way back to town, we caught some rock paintings, which, in all fairness were absolutely the most rubbish Inca artifacts I have ever seen. We'd been told that these were a highlight of the park by a couple of rather nice American retirees so we were a little disappointed. But we later discovered the Americans belonged to the American Society for Inca Art or somesuch, so I guess their keenness over these rare but entirely crappy paintings was understandable, rather sweet even.

Hole Lotta Fun

Back in TT and we met another American, bringing our tourist total to three. He was in his early forties and had the boozy, porky look of frat boy who has stayed at the party twenty years too long. He was treating the local family has was staying with to a meal in a rather ingratiatingly awful way and had quite the worst Spanish accent I've ever heard. Try saying 'tiennes' in a really whiny US accent and you'll see what I mean. We also met David and Hester, a far more pleasant Dutch couple, who we, discovered, were going to be our cave buddies the following day.

Along with Dino tracks, TT is famous for its caves, but these are not like the caves you find in the US and UK which have nice concrete walkways and cheesy souvenir caves selling willy shaped plastic stalactites. No, we went into these, via narrow, deep holes, with ropes, had to belly crawl, much like the Viet Cong, through passages about half a metre high and needed to limbo dance through passages so narrow they would defeat even the mildly plump. Much of the cave also had a, weird, vaguely meaty smell: this was down to its resident colony of vampire bats. Still, all very interesting if you've taken enough coca. Seriously though, caving is cool enough as a one off. But it's basically mountaineering in dark, wet places. And to spend every weekend hanging around some scummy pothole in Wales, well, you'd have to be a little bit keen for my liking.

Post cavernas, we had to hang around in TT for a couple of days unsuccessfully trying to hitch lifts, while we waited for the bus. Then, on bus day, proverbially enough, three showed up at once. It gives you an idea of the sort of isolation TT enjoys that the town has a carnival feel on bus day. After returning to Cochabamba, we went on to Potosi, which, for those who get excited about such things is the world's highest sizeable city (4070m, 13,200ft). But I've long since stopped noticing the altitude thing. Indeed, it astounds me to think that, seven months ago, back in the Himalayas, I considered myself something of a hero for having reached 4000m and was constantly alert for the symptoms of altitude sickness. Here, I don't even notice it unless there's a particularly steep hill.

Still Potosi is not just remarkable for its height. It also has a less than charming colonial past and is famous for its silver mines (probably also the world's highest) in which some eight million people died, largely at the hands of the Spaniards. A lot of art from the time depicts Indians working while Spaniards stand over them with whips, which is not a bad summary of the Spanish colonial experience. Anyhow, this rather gruesome history means that, at one point, not so long ago, Potosi was the richest city in the world, more populous than London and Paris combined. Indeed, it has a wealth of fine architecture and a pretty cool museum in its old mint, which, the usual crappy Spanish religious paintings aside, is pretty interesting.

Mine All Mine

Best of all, though, is that you can actually visit the mines, in the towering 'Rich Mountain' behind town which are still worked as cooperatives. You get togged up in very necessary protective clothing; you buy gifts of coca leaves, dynamite (yes, over the counter) and 96% (!) drinking alcohol for the miners. Then you walk into a hole in the mountain. It's worth stressing that, although tours are run, this is very much a real mine, with huge perilous pits everywhere. The mountain has some 6000 miners and an unspecified number of unofficial workers (who are often minors, haha). I had been told that it was a harrowing and shocking experience and, to be sure, the miners do suffer from health complaints, chew coca like bastards and drink the aforementioned near neat alcohol while working. But they were working for a cooperative and seemed largely happy with their lot; besides, which in Bolivian terms, their salaries aren't bad.

So we spent a claustrophobic, but undeniably interesting and unusual afternoon wandering around a thoroughly cave-in prone mine, using gas lanterns to light our way. While wandering around with a naked flame, I was carrying neat alcohol, (the obligatory big old bag of coca leaves) and two sticks of dynamite - to play with later - in my rucksack. And this being Bolivia, in all likelihood, this really was every bit as unbelievably dangerous and stupid as it sounds.