Thursday, 28 February 2013

It was the Sunday Before Christmas

Copacabana and Lake Titicaca
Panhandling, begging, wheedling; it’s been entirely absent all the way through southern Bolivia, even the selling of individual, inconsequential sweeties has been a rare occasion. Even in the more obvious touristed areas, like Uyuní and Potosí.

Cycling slowly through an environment encourages a more minute investigation of detail. Slowly, I become aware of the freshly discarded ice lolly wrappers and their spatula sticks; both are fresh, unweathered,  unbleached, untattered, and in numbers that count into the many hundreds. At first I speculated that it might be a shed consignment, only Poirot-reasoning states that the stick would be inside an unopened wrapper, stuck to the verge in a sticky blob. I filed the thought under ’unresolved issues’, and left the matter there. Just another of life’s great mysteries.

A days’ ride short of Copacabana and Lake Titicaca, we’re riding a switchback, the lago far below on both sides of our road that rises and falls as the mood of the land takes it. The route traversing one view, then fidgeting over, on to the other hillside. Looking down over an archaeology of ancient agricultural practice, pre-Hispanic terraces that range and rank from waterside to hilltop that speaks of centuries of hard toil and plant development. For it was off slopes like these that the two thousand varieties of potato emerged. From these terraces that a Scot’s national cuisine, a  national condiment and a national challenge, emerged. Potatoes, tomatoes and chillies. Greasy chips, red ketchup and a drunken Vindaloo. Yet it’s along the roadside that a more modern development is happening, yet another personal mystery is slowly unfolding.

Groups of children, generally under the instruction of an older sister are ranged along the roadside, their spacing reflecting the relevant distance between their homes. Like the antisocial heron, they keep an impregnanable distance apart. Many have constructed shanties out of branches and plastic sheeting, or arranged elaborate constructs of stone, shelters that look semi permanent. Some play the beggar boy, doffing and offering their sun hats and calling for ’plata’, whilst others are asking for ’regalos’. Money or presents. There’s little malice, it’s more of a joke with some passing gringos. The boys with bikes set up a race, pacing us on the uphills, sprinting the downhills. They seem to be waiting for something better. At first I wondered if we had fallen upon an even greater level of poverty, yet the general countryside looked no different to what we’ve been moving through for the last few weeks, if anything, relatively more prosperous.  These small gatherings have now stretched for over seventy kilometres, and still I’ve no answer. Another mystery. 

Slowly more evidence is added; girls are playing with dolls, boys with small toy trucks. There’s packaging scattered down the concrete gully. All looks new.

Late in the day we cross the solution. A large white pick-up truck passes, then swerves into the verge,  the passenger jumps out and starts distributing large paper bags from the back to the expectant kids. Santa’s come. The truck departs, and the chaperoning older sister takes charge, hides the goodies under the blanket, then they settle and await the next  sleigh delivery. All this in the time it takes us to labour past, climbing up the next Andean hill.

A neat vignette, and for once a credible answer. Those ice lolly sticks? Same solution.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

All's Not So Quiet in the Capital

It would make for a good pub quiz question. ‘What is the constitutional capital of Bolivia?’ …‘La Paz?’… ‘Sorry: nil points’. It’s Sucre. Nuestra Señora de la Paz is the administrative capital. A semantic distinction. Just like the full city title is the ultimate misnomer. Our Lady of the Peace. It’s decidedly not a quiet, peaceful place. From the ’colectivo’ whippers-in, to the cry of ’para agua’ as the storm breaks, from the hooting horns on the junctions to the drum beat of the Aymara procession, from the 4am gringos to the un-miked tourist touts.

For the ’colectivo’, a double parallel parking would amount to tidiness, better to block a two lane highway with three and a half pulled up vehicles all attempting to plunder off the same queue. An abandonment, a melée of micro-buses. Out of which pours, what to my unaccustomed ear, sounds like crack fire poetry, each stanza ending on a rising inflection and an ‘a’. It’s musical, rhythmic, and were it not for the manic mayhem, near soporific. Only occasionally do I catch the destination and the fare. This time it was ‘San Francisco’, but as all these transports pass along the Prada, and stop at the Cathedral, this wasn’t a great achievement in  comprehension.

We’ve headed out from our ’grace and favour’ colonial courtyarded hostel. It was once President Panda’s residence, (presiding:1904-1904). When the first thunder storm of the day strikes, a near miraculous transformation occurs; a panoply of blue polythene materialises, a torrent of plastic sheeting, cascading down the slippy, pothole flooded, cobbled calle. All the traders' stalls that have been trading in the accumulation of China’s ’Rio del Plastico’, now start crying: ‘para agua, ponchero’, offering umbrellas and ponchos.  Gamps and pac-a-macs appear as if by magic. All looks disposable. One blast inverts and crushes the brittle ribs of plastic, one blast marks out the already obvious gringos. Andeans, when it gets damp, will put a polybag over their felted bowlers and blanket around their shoulders.

Thanks to ¡Unboliviable! - we'd left our camera behind!
Our perambulations lead us up to the plaza, drawn by a thing with a snake’s head and giant wings. A man in a costume. More and different dresses are sheltering in the alcoves of the square and in the porticos of the cathedral and the parliament. A brass band is warming up. Something is going to happen. Coincidentally, the potential performers are sheltering under the balcony from which Evo, decked in the national tricolour and the checks of the Aymara flag, has hectored his farther northern neighbour on more than one occasion. He’s not on the programme tonight, but his people are. The band strikes up, the dressage of costume ranks into a loose column, taxis try to push through, the police stand, ineffectual. There’s an effeminate St Miguel leading the devils; there’s the fire-breathing serpents, there’s the suckered tentacles of vipers, there’s body-hugging, hot-panted girls in pulsing lights, there’s the bulge-eyed, swollen -ongued, negro masks. There’s hairy beavers and black-pelted bears.  A mix of Animism and Christianity that has me wondering if there’s an element of Asian influence. I half expect a prancing, conga-ing dragon to appear. There’s a story to be solved.
San Miguel - thanks to ¡Unboliviable!
The now choreographed band, heavy on drums, trumpet and trombone, blast a beat that reverberates around the plaza, bounces off the bullet-spattered government buildings and springs car alarms that can’t compete. It’s their instruments that dance, the drums going skyward at the end of each rendition, the flared horn pieces that twirl and flash in the streetlights. The beat is throbbing, the footwork rapid shuffle, the progress around the square slow. Firecrackers and squibs crackle as the progression passes under a waterfall of sparklers. Symbolism, allegory and metaphor. From the pain of the negro slaves who suffered abominably in the high altitude mines, to the purification of fire, the Christian passage through the gates and an entrance to heaven. A mix of Christ and Nature. 

It’s 3am and I’m about to hear the next three quarters struck by the cathedral’s bell, as a quad of antipodean travellers debate, to the accompaniment of rap. At a volume that carries throughout the courtyard, just beyond comprehension and well within annoyance. Hostel living without the discipline and the old ethos of the SYHA.  

Back in northern Argentina, we had been entertained by a passing truck driver, who in comical form, mimicked how he reckoned all Paseños spoke. Keeping his wad of bica and coca leaves stuffed in his cheek, he pouted his lips and spoke from the front of his mouth. I took it to be an exaggeration - that is until now. 

She’s like an island, the surge of humans breaking around her, standing resolute in the middle of the road, outside her tour operator’s office, selling it’s wares. Bike descents on ‘death road’, jeeps to the salar, trains to Machu Picchu. She sounds like she might be miked up, only she’s not; her pitch carries clear down the canyon of the street. Our heavy haulage comic got it just right.
It’s a pageantry of noise, a cacophony of colour, that with time slowly dissipates in conscience. It’s when you leave and attain the heights again, find the utter calm of altitude and find that ringing silence in your ears, that you realise how cacophonic a city existence really is. Nuestra Señora de la????

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Will o' the Wisps

A silent body of still water, early morning after a cold night, the frost smoke spiralling like plumes of white steam, rising to man height and drifting slowly, vaguely, as if urged on by willpower. It’s a climatic phenomenon that can be found on occasions, not rare, but unusual enough to warrant comment. What we encountered on that day might be an associated spectacle, only these were different.

A thick wet haze had descended onto the Puna, settled in with the daylight. Over a flat highland pampa of short, stunted grasses and wet-season standing ponds, yet the sun is not far away; an opalesque light pulses with the changing flow, the tidal surges of cloud. Suddenly the shroud lifts off from the ground, rising to a low ceiling, visibility stretches out to the severed, truncated hills on the perimeter. It’s then that two spirals of vapour form, tight columns of fast rotating, diaphanous mist, connecting floor to ceiling and appear to be no wider than a few hand spans. Then they're gone. Dissolved.

I’m glad we both saw theme at the same time, as without that corroboration I might have questioned their existence and my perception. Were they some misquote of the inner eye, to be placed  alongside some other phantasms I’ve experienced in the hills?

A lucid blue streak cracks the covering to my east, the sun soon dissolves the haze blanket and questions my memory.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Into the Pit

203kms of road works, or so Evo’s bragging board claims. In this instance it’s the dualling of an existing asphalt road between Oruro and El Capital. Three contractors, two days riding, one vast project, and as each section nears completion, a weather coating of Colas tar is sprayed on. Nobody gets to drive on it yet, the exception being cyclists. Our very own two lane motorway, that’s climbing steadily up to El Alto and the world’s highest cantankerous councillors. You just can’t imagine two cyclists being allowed anywhere near such a construction project in Europe, here we’re being positively encouraged to try out their new facility, despite the circus of scraper blades and packer-whackers, diggers and hand mixed concrete.

If that created a degree of novelty, then what followed, entered the realm of surreality. We’ve been watching the slow progress of what appears to be conurbation rise slowly out of the dust, spreading across our path, yet the sum of map and kilometre posts don’t add up to either a logical answer or a major city. As we crest each subsequent rise, perspective and definition coalesce into blocks that might be buildings and a gap that should be our road. Far off to my east appears to be a quarry pit. It has to be El Alto, yet still the distance marks can’t agree, they won’t confirm. But it is, only it’s flowed out beyond it’s previous high water mark, sprawled from the last time the road signs were posted.

El Alto, La Paz’ alter ego. The de-facto Aymara capital, the city ‘burgh’ that controls the only effective road in and out of the Bolivian capital, that with a few burning tyres can close down what the militant local councillors up on the rim like to term ‘the pit’. It’s a place I’ve read about, have created a mental image of, and now we’re right in the middle of it.
It’s manic. It’s mayhem. It’s brilliant manic mayhem. No rules apply. Forget lane discipline. Forget the niceties of polite queuing. It’s El Alto. Slowly everything comes to a stop. Five and a half lanes of solid, stationary colectivos, where three might suffice. Nothing is moving with the exception of the horn hand. Abandoning their transport, weaving through the perfect jammage, for there’s little room on the stall-congested pavements. We’re advised to try the same. A man with a cuddly toy stand and Tannoy occupies part of a junction, yet he doesn’t seem to be part of the problem; he’s just taking advantage of the current impasse to steal a few vacant square metres of retail space. We push our way forward to the next junction, the next ineffectual, redundant traffic cop, the next set of traffic lights, that have countdown to the next change of phase, the next non movement of transports. Slowly those hand horns become more strident, more insistent, slowly we approach the reason and the solution. It’s been those colectivos all along. Those hands on horns aren’t aggressives, aren’t impatiences, they’re the calling cards of part-filled buses that won’t move off until they’ve captured at least just one more passenger, there’s always room for just one more passenger, before their descent down into the ‘pit’. I wonder at this lotto-roulette, to wait for just one more fare, or to run part filled, get into town and fill for a quick turnaround on the return journey. Yet I suspect they’ve honed their art to a fine point, in much the same way that I would script a similar scenario not happening in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. The Gorgie effing, the Morningside tutting. You can hear it from over the equator.

Eventually we reach the front, an open road and the ‘No Cycling’ sign. It’s Bolivia, so we ignore it, in much the same way as the policeman who smiles and waves us on. Out, into thin air and over the edge.

Through the sooty lead cloud of a labouring truck and the
sudden sweet, near sickly aroma of a chocolate factory, we get our first sighting of the city. It has to be one of the world’s greatest, most sudden, instant urban views. Like falling through a cloud bank in a descending aircraft, only you’re stationary and not being subjected to decompression ear popping or the imminent angst of the baggage carousel. A roofscape of  orange pantiles and silvered corrugations, the cartographic sweep of an ascending road, the splash of football pitches each with their own mis-matched ‘Subbuteo’ teams. All framed from our mirador by a fringe of gum trees.We push off, letting gravity offer it‘s luxurious pay-back, sweeping down through a succession of long switchbacks, that leads us, near instantly and suddenly in another colectivo jammage, disorientated and lost amongst the hordes of wandering tourists in the Plaza San Francisco. We’ve arrived, alive, in yet another Americas’ capital.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

El Cerro de los Siete Colores

The domed head and upper body slopes are covered by a modesty blanket, by a horsehair bristle of dun tussocks, whilst the mountain’s torso is laid out bare, it’s disembowelled chest cavity rent open, the cindered skin excoriated away, peeled back and washed slowly down to the drains, down the stank, down to the arrojos and rios. Like a corpse on the pathologist’s slab, it’s ready for bisection by the geologists and inspection by the students. Wind and water have carved out the soft undigested volcanic ashes, leaving a plasticine of viscera, a gouging that leaves an intestine of organ pipes, vertical chimney voids, the chiaroscuro play of dark and light that form the  ghost columns and ranked spires that line the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Like participating in a painting from one of the Dutch masters, the professorial surgeon demonstrates to his attentive pupils, the plumbing of the lower gut, so we attend a tutorial of successive story board lectures, whilst cycling slowly up onto the Andean puna, back onto the high ground. The iconic mountain, a multi-striated eon line that wavers and folds like a layered cake, poorly blended. A coloured coordination of time, the seven ages of El Cerro de los Siete Colores, where each colour represents a geological epoch.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wool, Steel and Touroids

Purmamarca, Argentina; Uyuni, Bolivia and Callander, Scotland. Not much would seem to connect these three geographically diverse places, yet they have a distinct common thread. Wool, Steel and Guests. All three owe their existence to the Victorian development of the railway. Their foundry’s city names are cast on their bridges’ girders, their rail fishplates, their porters’ weight scales. Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool.

Uyuni is at the centre of Bolivia’s mineral extraction, and the railway connected it, for a short time, to it’s exporting Pacific seaboard. Callander’s rail line enabled it to extract resources from the newly granted freedom of a Saturday half day, a
newly mobile city dweller flowing out from Scotland’s central belt, looking to escape the industrial revolution.  Purmamarca now sits by an abandoned, washed out line, the self-same line that still lives on in an impoverished Bolivian neighbour to the north. That vital trade route now strangled, it’s had to reinvent itself as a tourist destination.

Purmamarca: A terminal for the acquisition of an Andean sweater, an alpaca shawl, a silvered jug. Amazingly, it’s a place that easily outstrips it’s Scottish equivalent in offering outlets for woollen retail therapy. There’s the shops that have
mannequin modelled ponchos priced in New York dollars, elegant silverware priced: ‘by quote’, ‘ropa para ella’ priced to match your room rate in a boutique lodge of smoked glass and adobe chic. Move down on to the plaza and you’re confronted by a more recognisable sight: rank upon rank of brightly coloured, ex-pat Bolivian textiles. Shawls and blankets, ear-flapped hats and model llamas. Where Callander has aimed it’s visitor marketing at the blue-rinsed, acrylic woollen granny, fresh off her ‘3000 Scottish Lochs’ tour bus, Purmamarca has a more affluent client in mind. The ‘permanently four-wheel driven’, out from the cities to the south and east. Which makes for a strange town.

We walk all it’s streets, avoiding the beautiful artesanal craftware, searching for a more prosaic commodity: food. Peering into front windows, poking through front doors, snooping into dark interiors. It’s a peeping Tom’s dream. You’ve just got to do it, it’s the only way that you’re going to acquire even the barest of essentials for a tea.  In some towns it’s possible to distinguish between a private household and a private household that sells. It might be the inevitable red ‘cola’ sign or the promise of ‘Hoy Hielo’. Soda Pop or ice cubes. Yet there’s no guarantee; it could just as easily be ‘phone cards and oil filters. Neither big on nutritional value. So you squint through  every unlit open door, hoping to see the tell-tale box of tomatoes, a bunch of less-than-blackened bananas. Follow the local with the bag of bread, ask him for directions, only to discover that he bought them in the next town down the road.

Eventually I spot a glimmer through one anonymous door. It transpires to be a box of lettuce that might be better consigned to the brock bin. Pig food. It’s trapped between tins of white paint and barrels of engine oil.

It’s an extreme example, a strange paradox, probably the worst that we’ve encountered, this disparity between high end visitor gifts and the raw basics of a meal. Of course we’re expected to be dinning out in one of the exclusive restaurants, close to an Argentine midnight.

Where the woollen shopping therapists of Jujuy and Stirlingshire are set below hills of geological and touristical interest, Uyuni is a typical Bolivian mining town. Flat, so flat that when it rains all the junctions become awash. On the outskirts, the donkey-nibbled scrub is in full flower with pink, black and grey, wind grit shattered plastic bags. Bolsa plastica floresii. An unprepossessing entry, that’s only reconfirmed as we plough into the next flooded junction, cutting a bow wave, hoping that there isn’t something dead down or in there. Invariably with these types of entry, the reality of the town is quite different. Uyuni conforms to type. It’s still a railway town; we’ll leave it on the midnight train to Oruro. Yet it’s also a visitor town. A place with it’s full quota of woollen shops and jeep safari tours, of bottled water and pizzerias. Yet it’s a place that seems well able to ignore all the paraphernalia that the visitor brings and demands. The whinges and whines about slow internet and the lack of  recognisable one stop shopping. A concept that seems to live in our distant past…Tesco Who? Bananas at one, onions
at an other, rice and oats at a third.  Bread’s out on the pavement. What’s the difference between this and a hypermarket? You’ve just got several pay points, and true, you do need a mint of small change, but at least there’s no requirement for the ‘fewer than’ queue, only because every stall holds ‘fewer than’ items. It’s so much quicker than our Purmamarca Peeping-Tom experiences. There’s probably as much variety and selection laid out across the pavements of Uyuni, as there is in the isles of Callander’s Scotmid. So, do the locals bemoan the tourists blocking all the good parking spots, traipsing the pavements encumbered in  hunchbacks of rucksacs, searching for the ‘Firey Cross Chippie’, or the authentic Bolivian pizza? Wandering aimlessly, killing time until their night bus leaves or the dour landlady deigns to open her B+B front door to you? Their faces stuck in guidebooks, tripping over the street furniture of geranium flowered concrete planters or flea-blighted sleeping dogs, so stopping honest locals from going about their legitimate business? Or do they just smile nicely, whilst thinking darkly: ‘just give us your money and leave’.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Lantana Rivers

The one that caught us. A nagging board has sent us to a ‘mirador’, to an overlook. Standing on top of a clutch of lobster claws, rock hoodoos, overlooking a soft rock canyon, when the first ice pellet strikes, followed very swiftly by a volley that soon starts to settle on the ground, turning the dun desert to a grubby mush. We’re joined by a couple of poncho-less local moto riders, who grab thatch grasses to cover their saddles and try to gather shelter in an abandoned hut, whilst we all watch a circus spectacle.  A bus conductor clambering up on to his icy roof to close the roof lights. This one’s from the early wet season, and so is short lived. The storm moves off, heading across the ranges, we all continue on our differing ways. The thunder travelling obliquely to our road, we get to watch the effects of the fallout. A torrent surges off a rock cut, a waterspout erupts from a crevice, the roadside gutter a torment of asphalted debris. Our paths continue to diverge, the crumps clinging to the high tops, whilst we drop into to a wide strath, a flat bottomed valley that’s speckled with grazing llamas. All the arroyos that we cross are bone dry as the effects have still to arrive. Then from the struck hillside, a bore of scum and froth worms across the gentle incline. A bullnose of scud pink silt laden water is braiding towards us. Like raindrops running down a windscreen, they split and merge, some racing, some making slow progress towards the wind rippled, dry stream bed and a pass under the road. A few paces behind the dozing front, a reef of small standing waves have built up, pushing the creeping grub onward.

There’s an element of fantastical fiction about watching this
apparently animate being, moving with purpose and unstoppable determination. The lather of suds, the ichor of rust, the relentless determination, it comes straight from the special effects studio of a black and white era: ‘Dr Who’.

A living being that tomorrow will be but a dead, damp patch of sand. A riverlet, a mineral conveyor belt that’s mining a mountain down to the ocean. Like Lantana flowers, here today, gone tomorrow. Only to be awoken by the next storm.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Christmas in Copacabana

As predicted. A loving San Valentine’s Day, (In the US, more cards will be purchased and sent today, than at or on any other occasion) and a belated report on Christmas in Bolivia.

Ever wondered what happens to old European lorries? No,
neither had I. However, part of the answer lies in Latin America, and in particular Bolivia. A place of reincarnation, where they take pride in displaying the original plate, the previous owner’s business name, telex number and style of operation. Iberian, Low Countries, Scandinavian, ex-camions predominate. It’s a game to try to spot that tell tale euro-blue square to the left of the plate, or the script on the head board. Hanzen+ zons Bv., Pers Jurgensen, Akerieri; Island; Narvik, Norge, then to try to decipher where they originated. These lorries have already served a lifetime on the motorway, autopistas and autobahns of Europe; now they’re expected to resurrect, to operate in the world’s highest country. Climbing, and more problematically, descending the long Andean hills. They require the continual assistance of the resuscitationists; the talleria, the llanteria, the frenoseria, and the priest. Magicians in workshops, with tyres and brakes and when these fail, the Church and Faith.

If your vehicle is new, or just new to you, it requires the final arbiter and a place in the long, festive queue outside the Cathedral del Candelaria, Copacabana, Lago Sagrado. There for the Bendiciones de Movilades, the blessing of the automobiles.

It would appear that much of our serendipitous Bolivian experiences are connected to the local plaza. We’ve sat and watched so much of local life go about it’s business. This occasion will be no different. We’d already spotted an ex-Northampton unit, parked up and hoped that it might offer up a story. Were not to be disappointed.
The stalls along the cathedral walls are strewn with an association of the ecclesiastical, the votive candle sellers, the rosary bead vendors, the glass cupola virgins. The paraphernalia for auto benediction: red gladioli, yellow gladioli, green ferns, reed boats, glitz and sequined toppers, fizzy plonk, fire crackers, coloured confetti, digital photographers. A floral centrepiece of nationalist hue is pinned to the grille, below the open bonnet. The arrangement a representation of the Aymaran processional mask. The floral red mouth, the reed boat chin, the tentacle green horned fronds, with the pale yellow bunches of gladioli, angel wings, tied to the wing mirrors. An amalgam of Christian and pre-Columbian faiths. Set down in front of the vehicle, is mammon, a wish list for a prosperous new year. A new car. This element has more to do with another Bolivian festival: ‘Alasitas’, a prayer that the real thing will appear later in the year. Only it’s Christmas and you’ve paid the clergy, so you might as well cover all your bets.

The priest emerges from the
Cathedral, brown cassocked and baseball capped, with blue toilet brush and holy water bucket. He approaches the green GB plated lorry and the loo brush flicks the sanctified water over the engine, into the cab, onto the wheels, over the simulated cargo of bagged puffed corn, and finally over the hands of the owner and his family. A solemn benediction, then he moves on to the next minibus, whilst the lorry’s guardians complete the less than reverent ritual of spraying the wheels and the tyres with bubbly cider, to bless, celebrate and glue the red and white confetti over the bonnet, the windscreen and the fifth-wheel. Now the photographers step in, to immortalise the event. They even carry a printer over their shoulders, to produce an instant image for immediate sale, as a rattle of fire crackers reverberates around the surrounding hills, and a reek of cordite drifts through the unflinching, Budda-esque, crafting local woman, crocheting finger puppets and woollen llamas.

An event that is a blaze of colour  and pagent, another mix of faiths, an assimilation that the church aquiessed to, helping to spread their faith. Still, I can't quite see a minister for the Kirk o' Scotland preforming a similar service for a newly purchased J. Deere combine outside St. Giles. If only because it would hinder the hordes of visitors ascending to the castle. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Scotland Would Have Looked Like This Once

A platoon of dust devils are marching across the sandy plain, line abreast.  Marking time with the tall, elegant steel ladies who’ve been tasked with carrying, by their dainty finger tips, a few high tension cables. These ephemeral ghosts of dust are retreating before an advancing storm, collapsing and reforming, falling back in an orderly retreat. Whilst the ‘pyloneñas’ are the civilian stalwarts who will have to withstand the advance, accept the thunder’s bolts and frights, whilst singing patriotic songs, to the thrum in their cables.

To windward, an ominous mob of thunderheads have coalesced into a crenulated rampart, a wall of boiling trouble, advancing on us, advancing on a Cuillin Ridge. Away to leeward a single mega head has started to dump its payload from a swollen, distorted mushroom cloud. Trailing successive curtains of hail across a Ben Hope and a Quinag. It’s up this glen that we are racing for the innocence of blue quietness and puffy white clouds, across an exposed plain that, if we’re captured can offer no quarter, no surrender; there’s simply no shelter. Our attention and concern is for the trouble coming out of the airts of Skye, whilst the Assynt
granite wastes are off radar, offering up some safe, stunning cloudscapes. Despite the distance, it’s this storm cell that’s been brewing up it’s own armament of gravelled ice shot, that is now so engorged, that it won’t fit  into the camera’s lens, neither in portrait nor in landscape. Whilst those proto-twisters are now sand bright, etched against the lead slate of storm, drawn by the lowering evening sunlight. It’s this mega cell that has accumulated such a surfeit of energy that it can now mount a pincer movement, advancing contra windward, circling around behind us, and heading down the Inner Hebrides. The Lords of the nor’west are off for a wee contretemps, maybe a wee skirmish. 
We need to find shelter soon. In the distance, the land rises to some low hills that could offer some shelter, some concealment. There’s a stone walled ‘corales’ that might suffice, if it’s not already occupied by donkeys or llamas. It does and it’s not, so we move in. Pitched, and the herder finds us, to wish us a peaceful night. To move or to stay, it’s that difficult conundrum. Any shift will still be in the exposed, wide open visible space, so we stay, for a grandstand viewing of an approaching conflict.

The charge commences, but for once we’re safe spectators, out of the firing line. We’re like the Victorian aristocracy viewing from a Crimean hilltop the sporting spectacle, The Battle of Balaclava. I count the flash to crump ratio from the bombardment and calculate that the fallout of melting hail, the fertilising rain, will be that patch of maize corn beside the truck stop where we had lunch. Not even a near miss. I find distances and perspectives near impossible sums to determine in this vast, wide open scape.

Later in the night we’ll take a spot of collateral damage, catching a trailing edge of a shower thrown by another sneak ‘storm lord’. this one emanating out from Perthshire. Well, as every Scots Magazine subscriber and Munro bagging ticker knows, if it’s triangular and on the horizon, then it must be Schiehallion. Here, that county’s iconic hill are ‘Ten ‘a Bolivar’, not entirely surprising as they all have a similar volcanic ancestry. 

In a small way, I’ve succumbed to that travellers sin; of comparing places abroad with those from home territory. Yet it’s a piece of simple fun, and can be justified on the grounds of geological enquiry. Scotland would have looked like this once. The second transgression is to
Did Iceland ever go for this design?
anthropomorphise the animate out of the inanimate. Cycling slowly through these vast open places, pushing against the potential of mind numbing emptiness, mind numbing distance, where the asphalt and the pylons are man’s sole imprint, vivifying cold galvanised steel  becomes a pleasurable mind game. Pylons have always intrigued me, both for their resemblance to their alter egos, and their ability to fade from view, the way a wind farm can’t.

I’ve started a collection of photos, a montage that might make for an interesting quiz: ‘Name that Scottish Hill’. I’ve nearly got a complete cast for Arran, even an Holy Isle, tethered to a hillside rather than it’s Lamlash Bay, and a Goat Fell, but taken from the Rosa Burn, when it needs to be from Brodick’s pier head.  However, you can be reassured that there will be no rounded, indistinct blobs named Geal Charn. There’s plenty of examples with that profile along our route, but they are easily overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic array of colours, the contortions of shape, the convolutions and striations, of ziggurats and Neapolitan confections, that mix to make an Andean chain.  All incomparable and irrelevant to a home country comparison.

It’s only in the quiet innocence of early morning, as we climb out of our coral and rise above the low sheltering hills, that we see the result of last night’s action. The Black Cuillin of yesterday, has morphed into a sleet rimed mount, steep buttresses naked black against the sun-glazed, snow-choked gullies. But with the definition of a low morning light, it’s less of a Skye black gabbro ridge and more a multiple plane of flat topped mesas and red rock tors, of lobster claws and phallic glyphs. To westward, the Assynt wastes retain their singular, individual presences, cold and smudged in iron grey snow, turn to nor’ward and a rank of triangles are ranged out, marching along the horizon.

Man’s modern imposition has receded in it’s intent, yesterday’s gradients are still the same gradients of today, only their not lactated by fatigue and storm angst. Yesterday’s thunder heads have withered, yesterday’s pylons have wandered off down another valley. This benign morning I can travel with some new ghosts. contemplate on a humans ability to survive in this apparently austere environment. Speculate, unsuccessfully, for I don’t have the cultural memory, on the thought that the heard you tend today will be the same herd you tender to, two generations from now. The mud walls that you raised out of, and constructed from the earth, will in time meld back to it again, your stone shelter will dissolve to rickle of stones. Measured in generations, a lucid reminder of man’s determination to survive, measured in eons, a morbid reminder of man’s eventual release.

The ‘Lords of the Spheres’ have all moved away to the north-east, out over the lowland Amazonian jungle, gathering up a new armament of grapeshot hail, a new clutch of thunderbolts, a new supply of fork lightning, fanning up a new tempestuous rage, preparing to pump, yet again, the spinning tops of those poor, haunted dust devils. Hoping to hunt down, what they missed yesterday, to catch some unprotected cyclists before they can make the sanctuary of town and an hosteria. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Moksha Patam: Path to Liberation

‘onest sur, a dun ma hamework, but see, the dug ate it, like’

If it takes the roll of a double six to escape Cumbernauld, you’ll need a treble seven for Potosi. A city of one signpost. So we walk the route through the narrow calles, the one-way streets, out from the old colonial centre, down to the main road. The Navigator has, in the interest of planning research, gone to the length of visiting the municipal visitor centre, more in hope than expectation, gets a map and asks directions. Yet a sixth sense has rung a wee bell, the wavering pen line that they’ve scored out doesn’t flow with confidence, so she seeks a second opinion. Normally we would just head off and play ‘escape the city’ game, using chance and hazard, climbing the ladders and sliding the snakes. Playing the ancient Indian game of Moksha Patam; ‘The Path to Liberation’, only we’re playing in a place with but one sign, and by a variation to the accepted norm: starting from the top right, and concluding anywhere on the bottom rung. Any errors in the vertiginous alleys of Potosi will be a heart-thumping, thigh-screaming, slither back to the start. She tackles one of the many tour companies that run jeeps to Uyuni and they offer a different version. It’s why we walk the initial, supposedly most problematical, part of the escape route, and that I now know that these old colonial properties don’t have gutters. Streamers of rainwater are cascading off the tiled roofs, right into the middle of the narrow pavements and down my neck. Funnels of road wash from the upper levels spout at ankle level, flushing debris and lubricant across our now slippery, steep paths.

It’s early Sunday morning and we roll a six to start, set of
before the trucks take to the new week. The road should be quiet, or so the theory goes. True, the trucks aren’t out but the drunks are. Staggering, weaving, sleeping. On foot and behind the wheel. This makes for some interesting decision-making when asking for directions. Normally we try to hit on the student types, generally with success; only today they are not of this world. The old men who seem to be so easily charmed by the Navigator, aren’t up yet, so we resort to the colectivo drivers and the taxi men, at one point even following one through a chicane of criss-crossing broken roads, rail lines and contra-running down one way streets.

We’ve tried the map, but the blank areas on the plan that we’d taken to be cliffs, mines or slag heaps, turned out to be ‘dragons dens’. The bits the cartographer either forgot to explore or were lost in transcription. The places the old mapmakers filled with mythical serpents and sea monsters. 

Of course we enentually roll the treble seven; it just takes several attempts. We nearly circumnavigate the board, or at least the rotating restaurant on top of the tower in the park.
Discover that Real Potosi are playing the tiger stripes of yellow and black, that sunrise is not too early to be purchasing your home team’s harlequin jester cap of lavender and white, or to top up on last night’s inebriation. A tour that takes in a long, distended queue of men waiting for…I’m not sure what, but as it’s Sunday it can’t be the usual suspect; a bank. The half-hidden settlement lake of leaden slate sediment from the zinc and tin mine, or the ominous translucent green burn that oozes from a pipe. The blown, discarded virginal white swan, carved from Styrofoam, that’s fallen from yesterday’s wedding car. It’s a tour that the municipal tourist officials don’t sell and might not want the visitor to make; it’s the tour that the travelling cyclist always and inevitably finds. 

We did do our homework, we just didn’t do it all. Didn’t
follow through to the conclusion. Had we, we would have found that the single road sign with it’s solitary name was the short cut that would have saved a long tour and lost a short adventure.    

Saturday, 9 February 2013


 The official height for the world’s highest city is confidently quoted as 4060 metres, which, before we arrived, led me to assume that it might be a level city, possibly set out on a rolling plain, with a mountain for a backdrop. When the reality is radically different. It’s perched precariously on Cerro Rico’s steep flank. One decent seismic shake and you can’t help feeling that it could simply slide away, like a woollen blanket from a tumbled bed. Yet only a small microcosm of that quoted population can claim this elevation, possibly those who share the contour line that runs through the  top step of the ‘Casa de Gobierno’. From those at the top of the hill, to those in the basement, is a drop through multiple levels of history, through timelines of exploitation and degradation, all in the name of religious and old world aggrandisement. An history of slavery and indentured labour, of greed and hypocrisy, of callous indifference for their fellow man.  A city where truth says, if the mine doesn’t kill you, the mercury in the refining plant will. A city where it’s clear, even today you’re either old or dead before your half century‘s out. An historical city built on cant and pious fraud, that today is sustained by the concept of a lottery, where the probability of winning ‘el Gordo’ are similarly minuscule, but unlike a national lotto, you will be killed by playing their odds. It’s a city waiting for the invention of the three dimensional holographic map, where a flat, two dimensional chart just can’t manage to explain the place with any truth or clarity.

We were to have the same experiences with La Paz and with Cusco, places with altitude and gradients, with narrow street widths and uncharted staircases, that defy a cycling culture. We’ve pushed our way up one too many slippery cobbled streets, usually to the encouragement of a taxi with attitude. These are cities for parking up the bikes and taking to ‘Shank’s pony’, to walking, then waking in the morning, stiff from exercising unaccustomed calf muscles. Walking through history. We spend a few days exploring the old colonial quarter, wandering up and down the steep streets, the immediate streetscape changes, but the outer views are essentially the same.   
Look downhill, down any narrow alley of polished cobbles 
and your view will disappear through a cradle of electrical wires, down into a vanishing point of balconied houses. Look to your left or right, the street will roll off the side of the mountain’s flank, leaving a distant view of far off hill horizons. Now turn around. You’ve been presented to a Morloch. A brooding monster that has expected and extracted extreme and terrible sacrifices. You’re in an audience with the enormity that is Cerro Rico. It’s unremitting presence, it’s unrelenting essence is a dark shadow that fills in the space between city and sky. A black shadow that falls across all the intricate stone carvings, the delicate wood mouldings  that festoon  the basilica’s façades and altars. With it’s excoriated skin and scoured-out entrails, it’s spoil heaps and it‘s ‘pieces of eight’, it once created the world’s richest men and the world’s richest city, driving the economy of old world Spain and consequently, the history of colonising Europe. The city and the mountain, the prison and the servant, ended up, one and the same. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Salt Shopping

Yogurt, butter and milk from the ‘lacteos’, fine. Pan from the bread lady, simple. Bananas from the fruit stand and onions from the vegetable stall, they’re on opposite sides of the market hall, but we can cope with that. But where do you find salt? Now if this was Argentina, the answer would be very simple, in every shop that wasn’t a pharmacy. Argentines have a salt addiction. It’s what makes that lomo steak such a culinary delight. One day I watched the foreman for a construction squad preparing the siesta lunch. There was easily a kilo of meat per man. This is not unusual; it was the abandon with which the salt was thrown at the meat, on the hotplate, three-finger pinches, repeated, repeated and repeated. He won’t be preparing any vegetables - they’re poison. This was mainlining sodium chloride. 

Bolivia is not a meat culture and vegetables will appear in both the soup and the mains, as standard and not as an additional side dish. It’s not bland, it’s been salted. So where do they buy the salt? Much the same question could be asked about the firecrackers. The Forager asks the same repeated question at each and every stall, ‘hay sal?’, they look, they search, they shake their heads. Yet we’re only a short way from the world’s largest salar, a salt deposit that would out-supply any Argentine carnivore, yet we can’t find the salt. The suspicion is that we’ve just not yet found the appropriate section in Potosi’s market.

We’re clean out, but there’s no problem keeping up the input.  Perspiration output is down from Paraguayan Chaco levels, and we’ve been able to purchase salted bananas and salted broad beans to go in a trail mix along side the candy coated quinoa and the sugar coated peanuts. But that doesn’t solve the salt for the morning porridge.  At this rate I might be reduced to an adulterated  Anglification and the use of…..sugar.

Uyuni, and we’re now on the edge that ‘world’s largest’ salt pan. Still we’re encountering those shaken heads, those pointed fingers, suggestions that there might be a solution around the next corner. We’ve circumnavigated the market hall, wandered the pavements and slowly we’re being channelled off to a far corner, up an ever narrowing alley. We step past one sleeping stallholder, around a heap of peeled corn husks, stepping over the long neck of a skinned llama carcase, eventually to a stand and dealer. We have our fix, our small innocent bag of salt. Our eight pence of spend. Intriguing, the back of the package has a statement from the Bolivian government’s Ministry of Health and Sport extolling the benefits of salt in combatting thyroid deficiency and cretinism. A marked contrast to virtually every Argentine product that has a warning against salt.

Such a basic commodity, one that can be so easily taken for granted in our western based, consumer centred society. Where  travelling re-supply is generally easy; it’s a substance that’s stacked beside the lumpy curry powder and dried out thyme in an hostel’s leftover cupboard.  Not so Bolivia. Another subtle difference, another small acculturation, another timely reminder that you’re in a different culture.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Taken to the Cleaners

The ‘Laverap’ is a generic term and an Americas institution. ‘Lave’ as in wash and ‘rap’ as in fold and sometimes iron. You’ll see the hand-painted board at the side of the road pointing to an innocent house, an anonymous shed, an unlikely shop, a garage forecourt. There all collection points for the cleaners. We’re down and out in Potosi, in an hostal with no clothes washing basins, so it seems like time to experience this institution. Much of our ‘ropa’ has undergone cursory hand washing, with the occasional assault on trouser seats with a scrubbing brush. It’s a lick and a promise, a light freshen up. But leather saddle stains require a heavy duty chemical attack. So gathering up all that we’re not actually wearing, we head of to find the place. This isn’t Whitehorse, Yukon, where we sat in the laundrette in our swimming costumes, watching the sum total of our garments go round and round. Potosi is at 4,000 metres, it’s too Catholic, too cold for that. Weigh the load, collect the docket, come back at six. So simple.

It’s when we get back to our
room that night, I’m delighted to see that our kit has acquired a Bolivian touch. You wish to identify and assert ownership of your llamas? Tie brightly coloured wool to their chest or ears. Want to identify a customers clothing in a mixed wash load? Do the same. All our items now come with a vivid purple woollen thread.

Monday, 4 February 2013

A Monastically Gringo Howff

I wonder what the fathers and brothers of the ‘Company of Jesus’ would make of the fact that one of their rooms has been transformed into a gringo howff.  An order who adhered to abstinence and austerity, abnegation and renunciation, whilst we appear to be of the order buy and hoard, gear freak and technophile. Our bikes perched in one corner, our panniers exploded, disgorging their acquisition and accumulation across the wooden floor. The sparking plug trying to power up a reaffirmation, a temperance of coffee and mate de coca.

We’re staying at the ‘Hostal
Compaña de Jesús’, the Jesuits whose missions we visited over to the east in Paraguay. A monastery, a complex of buildings that fit together like loose jigsaw pieces. A small secluded courtyard, off which thread passages and tight alleyways, canyons where the sky is a mere strip, a line of light a few inches wide. The room was busy even before we arrived, with it’s three large beds, each with it’s smothering stack of quilts and woollen blankets, table, TV and bedside cabinets. Add our detonated collection and our cell becomes cosy, then with each succeeding day of occupation, entropic disorder sets in. A tent is easier to manage. Yet this chaotic eruption is a small price to pay for three centuries of imagined history.
Did the brother who worked or slept here, trip every night on the low half step at the door during his nocturnal wanderings, as he rose to chant Matins at midnight?  Did he curse the thin glass door that would do admirable service in a china cabinet to a latter day generation of Victorians? Did his conscience prick him for the inestimable mine deaths that plundered all the wealth of silver that he sent back to his Church and Crown in old-world Spain? Did it bother him that all his places of worship faced not the rising new day sun, but the hypocrisy of silver-rich Cerro Rico, to the mammon south? Or was he too busy persuading the rich, conscience-stricken mine owners to make a sin offering? A daughter to enter the purdah of Santa Teresa, perhaps, so that they could acquire an easy passage through the ‘pearly gates’ when their time came? And having accomplished this feat, further persuade them to endow the convent with many trappings of extravagance,  ‘A surplice of gold and silver thread for the Bishop when he visits, would be nice’.

In this building it’s hard to see
where the old stops and the restored starts, but there is an aura of calm, of peace that pervades the place, that must have pervaded throughout the centuries. A single dry leaf, caught in an eddy, rustles around the courtyard, the wind a precursor for the afternoon deluge. The dirty underside of a thunderhead blots out my small sky, the skeletal shadows of the passion flower are scrubbed away, replaced by a diffused, flat light. The threat is there, but calm remains in my quiet monastical corner. A peace accentuated and in contrast to the amplification of an event that rolls out from the plaza. I’m convinced I’ve just heard Andean pipe rap. The bugling horns of jammed and frustrated cars, the barking dogs arguing with the crumping thunder. The deluge, when it hits, blankets over all other sound, the amping speakers are shorted out.  But the respite is short lived. The klaxons slowly intrude, the traffic still constipated, whilst lost in my hermitage, I’m quiet and dry, lulled by a modern melodic canticle; the dripping water in the tin downpipe. A piece that starts with a rapid vibrato, moves to a wavering tremolo and concludes slowly, dissipating to a lethargic protracted conclusion. The second half of the concert is just as modern, but not nearly as soothing. A score that might have been composed in Detroit, Birmingham or Linwood, but no more.  Antiphonal, as two collectivos debate supremacy of one junction, verses of frustration, exchanges that nobody listens to, all to a background of a car alarm.  An habañera of auto horns that dance on and on, incessant, discordant, a nocturne that will play long into the dark.   

My spiritual, monastically minded tenant wouldn’t have known these interludes, he was too busy constructing ‘A silver bridge all the way back to Madrid’.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Some Other Days are Just Like That Too...

We’ve no idea what height we’re at, we’ve no idea what the road ahead might do, for mapped contours and spot height are but a Scot’s Ordnance Survey obsession. All we have is a distance to Potosi, except that the sum of the road engineer’s chain marks and our odometers don’t add up to the total on the green roadside sign. Will it be the level plain of Jujuy, or will it be like yesterday, when the road gave us a repetitive succession of long, steep climbs and hot rim descents? A long, sweaty collection of climbed metres and a poor accumulation of altitude. Somewhere we need to find 400m before we can enter the world’s highest town. The temperature at night should be a height indicator, but we keep hearing the same mantra: it’s too hot for this time of year. The beds in the hostals come with a crush of blankets, yet we sleep on top all night, hoping for a cooling breeze to come in the open window.

What we do get is different from before. We end up in a valley, a road rising and falling as it clings to the valley sides, through cuttings of loose, unconsolidated shale embedded with giant granite boulders that are only waiting to tumble and bomb the asphalt, leaving small craters with a radiation of cracks. This is shaky country, one tremor would close the road; one deluge, wash it away. The route keeps clear of the scarce, sparse marginal cropping land set beside the dry river bed. Small parcels of corn and beans, patches of blazing emerald green, connected by a capillary of thin irrigation channels. Flowering peppers and greeting willows sun shelter the encampments of anonymous adobe steadings that are visually sucked into to land. Tall, fastigate poplars offer exclamations alongside the submerged river in it’s dry bed. The hillside a reversion to dry, heavy thorn country, of flowering cacti and acacia scrub.

We climb up through the differing vegetative bands, slowly reaching the golden tussock country and the return of…. The Eucalyptus. At over 3,500m, there they are, standing long, tall and straight, superior regimental ranks. Either the visa restrictions aren’t onerous enough or they’re back to lambast me, to mock for questioning their utility, their sheer ability and power to survive, thrive and colonise. Eventually they too must give way to the llama-grazed tussocks, the cropping reduced to minuscule parcels in terraced plots. Shrunk beyond my comprehension of viability, lost beyond the tenuous touch of my perceived civilisation.

My progress fractures into shorter and shorter spells of
activity, the pauses for recovery more frequent. Each and every vehicle sounds it’s horn to announce it’s intention to pass - it’s written in the national highway code. I can ignore it, even forget that it’s a warning of intention and not a greeting. To respond and wave is an invitation for the bike to visit the gutter. Then one of these intrusion catches my wrath: ’F… off, I know you’re there, I heard you long before you saw me’, but swearing only burns oxygen, the muscles are stiff with lactates and the brain’s depleted enough already.

We later calculate the height to be around 4,500 m, a new P-B pb,(loaded).

We had intended to break up this section into two days and we even stopped at an hotel that claimed to have a room, eaten and paid for the establishment’s lunch. We think that ‘señora muy vieja’ understood our request, she then disappeared, never to return. No room materialises, so we give up and push on uphill. Did they have a place, but felt it was inadequate or no rooms but didn’t want to admit the fact?

Now we have a second day to tag onto this morning’s. Although fed, we’re still running on a dearth of calories. The last few k-posts are slow, the last two hills we push up. Iconic Cerro Rico mocks us, sitting cold, bold and close, yet the town will not materialise. Crest that last rise as the sun sinks below the horizon, there far, far below is Potosi. Now I understand our lactated legs, the melting hail and the strong cold wind. This is high.

Descending, racing the dark and the rush hour, dropping into yet another Americas town. Into a maelstrom of litter and shanty, broken paviors and billowing fumes, wandering drunk miners and shiny Land Cruisers. The Navigator’s age or grey hair has it’s usual miraculous effect: stop and look perplexed, which only attracts out from the pavement a solicitous gent, an enquiry and help with a direction. Down, down, threading narrower and narrower streets, deeper and deeper into history. Down and out, into the happy ambience of evening paseo and a collectivo-clogged plaza. Map to hand the Navigator tries to plot our position, propositions a local who says.. ‘Potosi’.  A joker who points us to an hostal, and another 'two in one' day.

This place is growing on me, even if tomorrow I’ll be floored with amoebic dysentery.