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’.