Friday, 29 November 2013

Salt Pans and Other Worlds.


When the brain-eye sees what the brain-calculator can't compute, it reaches for the default button and the next known, manageable image. Or so it would appear. Coincidentally, we both try to use the correct term, only for in moments of forgetfulness to revert back. Eventually giving up entirely. Which makes for an embarrassing moment when talking with one person back in town, when we say that "we've been out on the ice".

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. It's vast. It's flat. It's dichromatic. The raw statistics give an area of 12,000 square kilometres (4,630 sq mi) or the less than helpful ... 'size of the Lebanon'. Top to bottom it's Aberdeen to Edinburgh, across: North Berwick to the Mull of Kintyre. The remnant of the much larger and prehistoric Lago Minchin, that covered much of Southern Bolivia four hundred centuries ago. Today it's the deposit for a local salt industry and half the world's supply of lithium.

Anticipations and expectations are kindled by the posters outside every tour operators' booth between La Paz and Cochabamba, Tupiza and Sucre. A photo-shopped sky of improbable blue, a foreground of burnt-out, overexposed white, a gringo posing' foot raised to stamp on a miniaturised human friend. The obligatory perspective photograph from a hot spot on the SA travellers' trail. Written accounts use words like 'other worldliness', 'bizarre', 'geographical marvel' and with a covering of water, 'the world's largest mirror'. It's been a place on our wish list for some time and this will be our second attempt. We were thwarted last December by the onset of the wet season, so making it yet another piece of unfinished business. It did afford some beautiful pictures, but no access to the interior.

The technophobic Chronicler is under an assault and battery from the Apple Brain. These gizmos know where they are, ergo so should I. It's a sad admission, but this is the first trip where a Silva compass hasn't been an integral part of our kit. In truth most of the jeeps are all heading in the same direction, you only have to watch out for the next one hurtling across the saltscape, and then follow in a similar direction.

Slowly the dun brown of the mainland recedes behind, it's only in front that little changes. You start to concentrate on the expanse immediately around about. The crunch under my tyres, the rumble of the rough surface, the spangles of reflected crystal light. The glacier tan on the underside of your nose. The sudden potholes of blue water with delicate salt crusts forming on their surfaces. Squinting through dark sunglasses.

The eye sees, but the hard disc mis-computes, and yet I know this world. It's called cycling on a frozen Scottish loch, over a rough crud of refrozen snow. Still, there are the misquotes. The lack of slip-slide and the rock hard surface in twenty degree heat. Or the sastrugi of filigree that etch out the hexagonal tesselae, shapes that resemble distressed chicken wire. Still, there's not enough erroneous information to remove that abiding sensation of winter ice.



Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On the Buses - again.

A clock that works, it even tells the correct time. A waiting hall that is litter free and polished clean. A woman'd information desk that's open. Ticketing booths that are operational, porters with smiles and trolleys. Stationary busses that switch off their engines. A coin operated full body massage machine. This is Sucre bus station, Bolivia. Only we're waiting for the reality check and the first negative.

As is our custom, we've walked the escape route the previous day, uphill through a throng of crawling micros, street food and the inevitable fumes. So this morning we know where we're meant to be going. Renegotiating a fully loaded cycle back up a wrong cobbled alley, with a dead line, is not good for a marriage. Renaging on the inclusive breakfast.....I not a good for the parsimonious Scot. So of course we arrive too early. The streets were empty, the traffic lights still switched off, so the micros were able to race each other from pick-up to drop-off, usually only a few metres apart. The food stalls were shuttered, even the re-bar delivery men had yet to strew the highway, as they sort through their steel rods. We've collected our ticket and paid the departure tax (23p). All is going to plan. But where and when will the knock back appear?

We're expanding our experiences of South American bus travel and taking a Bolivian semi-cama to Uyuni. We've been granted our dispensation, avoiding a reputatious slur, as we will be traveling roads we've cycled previously. Strange how that old justification excuse still nags away deep in the Presbyterian subconscious. An eight hour journey that took five days to ride. A jump to keep ahead of the wet season weather that's been threatening for the last few days.

The similarity between Argentine and Bolivian busses, lies solely in that term 'bus'. They still have the requisite number of tyres, don't check the treads, the reclining seats, the un-watched violent video, but do come with a reputation for for late departure and non arrival. The UN road fatality statistics make for sobering reading and English language guidebooks seem to delight in naming some routes, quoting one as averaging a crash per fortnight. But it's the roadside shrines, all with one date, that are the physical, ever present reminder.

Another unique aspect of the service is the paintwork, that can be both mystifying and interesting, Religion, mysticism and dubious history all feature, but it's the prophetic that raises an eyebrow. 'Ultimate Viajes' seems a bit conclusive, and one company that might sum up the fatalistic nature of bus travel Boliviano: a clutch of rolled dice. A game of chance, a shot at Russian roulette.

Sucre bus station is a oasis of calm efficiency, if you disregard time keeping. Each operator has his own stance in a gated yard, which keeps out the packs of dogs and meeters and greeters - an institution that clogs up so many of the southern neighbour's stations. It allows us to do what the locals do, to break down our bikes into cargo sized bundles in peace and security, and then to join the orderly queue of trader goods going to the next market. It allows the handler to plan his loading in a logical manner and to put our bikes on top. It's a novel concept. He needs to fit in a blacksmith's construction that might be metal window frames and a coffin like box that requires three to lift. Now add in a trader's trolley, several sacks of rice, potatoes and coca leaf. As yet I see no livestock, but who knows what lurks in those anonymous pale blue poly-prop bags. Our cycles are the least of his problems.

So what if the departure time is long past, nobody seems either surprised or concerned. We haven't even needed to sharpen our elbows. Eventually our bus arrives. It's vintage looks to be just of this century, unlike some of the weather worn, mud encrusted, crack windowed models that run on disgorged reek, that have been departing in the last few hours. Luggage starts to decend on a rope from an upper storey from whence and why, I know not. Porters deliver crates of Red Bull and boxes of Chivas Regal. This service, like every other Bolivian bus service doubles as a lorry delivery service. A cast of characters climb on board, all Andean Highlanders, the ladies with their babies wrapped deep and muffled in their back-packed vibrant shawls, the men dapper in careworn suits and their bandalleroed shawls, all are working their mobile 'phone.

I check for what I had already on board toilet. It's partly why we forwent coffee and the mate de coca this morning. It's an eight hour journey. I hope they stop.

The bus does stop. The driver needs his dinner, his conductor needs to change into yet another football shirt. 'Barca', 'Boca' and 'The Strongest', have all been supported . We're at a stance that needs to serve up thirty 'almuerzo' meals instantly. It's only a twenty minute stop. We've regularly used these places, and marveled at their efficiency. Now I know why. There is a shack some distance off, The Bano, yet most ignore it and head off into the scrub. An unwritten etiquette prevails, the same one as when the driver calls "Bano", and stops, later in the day, somewhere on a vast empty plain, not a building, tree or blade of modesty grass in sight. Males to the right, ladies to the other side of the bus. There's no Brittish prudish embarrassment. Although the moaning Altiplano wind does play havoc. On occasions a micro will pass us and pull in, right in front. A perfectly acceptable Latin American traffic manoeuvre, as he's legimised the action by blowing his horn. The full passenger load will descend and relieve themselves in full view of the now unshockable gringa. Or, I'm standing in a crowd, when I become aware of toddler urinating towards a lampost, his aim's not great, but nobody's bothered. Blame it all on our British potty training.

We do arrive alive, even if on more than one occasion the bus seemed to be in freefall, descending some of the long downhill straights, the speed accelerating, the brakes unfeathered. I've ridden the route, I know there's a hairpin bend and a collection of memorials at the bottom. It's all fate and there's little point in worrying.

We of a Western disposition have a tendency to disparage the so called 'New World', to denigrate and belittle. Yet Bolivia still has a public transport system that works, that covers the whole country, that's efficient, affordable and doesn't tooth-suck when a Gringo's cycle materialises.

Our departure from Uyuni will be by an equally efficient method... The WaraWara overnight train to Oruro. It too will leave late but still manages to arrive on time.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Of Zebras and Presidents.

We first met them in La Paz last Christmas, then again in Tarija last week, and now today outside the Casa de Gobierno buildings in Sucre. We saw Him in Potosi last year, missed Him by a street last week and now He's here today. It would seem that the Zebras and the President of Bolivia are destined to be our occasional, recurring companions.

Thirteen years ago, the major of La Paz introduced a programme of civic education. Using a carrot in place of the stick. The smile in place of the fine. Humour in place of a scowl. 'Mama Zebra' was aimed at curbing the antisocial behavior of both pedestrians and car drivers. No jaywalking, no lights jumping, no mobile use. He recruited twenty 'at risk' youths, paid them and dressed them in impractable two man outfits, that have morphed into the comedic characters that today patrol at rush hour crossroads and conga-dance through markets. Now, the iconic image has spread to other Andean cities, and is aimed at enabling students to pay their way into further education. Such is the image that the Zebra has joined in other municipal campaigns.

Sitting plaza benched, people watching. Two Zebras are on duty at each of it's four corners; they're on crossing patrol. Not a lolly-pop or safety tabard in sight, Bolivia is a hi-viz-free zone. Each time the traffic lights phase back around to the White Man, the curtain is raised on an horse opera. The zebra crossing now a hippodrome. The pantomists enact a melodrama as a group of self important civil servants jay walk through the traffic, making their way to one of the Casas de Gobierno. One Zebra hangs his head, shakes it sorrowfully and wipes a virtual tear from it's eye. The other administers the waggy finger. Some of the transgressors have the grace to smile. The message is clear. Pure street theatre.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Digestive Aids and Traffic Hazards.

The piercing diode traffic lights wash a red glow over the waiting throng, that changes to flickering green of the Walking man. The countdown numbers that are intended to encourage pedestrian confidence, are but in reality, the count down for the next formula taxi race. Three collectivos ignore all instructions and jump the gun, it's not surprising. They want to be ahead of the next impending traffic hazard. Marching bands and incessant lyricless 'earverms'.

On the tenth of November 1810, the Spanish Crown was temporarily removed from Potosi, but in common with much of Spanish colonial history, they had a reconquista. That initial displacement set in train a trend that ulltimatly led to independence. The central plaza is named for this day and it's around this square and many of the surrounding streets that the processions parade.

Banda de Musica, are the first to come over the hill and down the steep street. An all girl band, in their tight black skirts and stiletto heels, white gloves and battle honour flags.The honeycombed broken paviors might be to blame for their demeanor as there's not a smile. This is a serious business. So unlike the exuberance of the Aymara parade we stumbled upon in La Paz. They make their way past the empty viewing stand.....the President's down at the arena for a concert - and move slowly down a side street. Their brass and drum rolls recede slowly, and then the tune returns. The exact same tune, only it comes out of another airt, from another band. It's the turn of an all male troop. Double the number of their sisters' contingent, and consequently treble the impact. Their name rendered formless on the big bass drums by the thumped vibration. It's the machismo thing.

There's a standard format. First the advance guard, a rank of banners and baton hurlers. Behind them the vanguard. A timpani of snare drummers, bass drummers, big bass drummers. This, backed up by the brass section of cymbals and trumpets, and finally the lightweight tinkling xylophones. But the real meat of a band lies in that heavyweight midsection. It's they that give a band its signature . A bombard of physical proportions, a reverberation that bounces off the acoustic walls of the narrow streets, and vibrates straight into my stomach. As an aid to digestion, it can stand alongside a select liqueur or a double expresso. As an aid to tinnitus it would have a British HSE officer reaching for an injunction and his ear defenders. The hypnotic beat stops in perfect synchronisation and a sepulchral silence settles, into which the cathedral bell pathetically chimes the hour. The band strikes up once more, and it is now that they sow their ear worm. A four line stanza for which we can't, as yet get a handle on the words. To add insult to injury they revert to the original tune, just when we might have got an answer. We follow the band, only they move at a foxtrot, we are restrained by the crowd, the narrow pavement and are left waltzing in their wake. They fade away down a side street, the base boom receding last, leaving Elvis at a CD stall, announcing a party at the county jail. We return to the plaza to await the next manifestation. We don't have to stand long. The same nagging rhyme, with it's accompanying drum roll comes around the corner.

And the band plays on; only the traffic remains stationary. Diesel fumes and dust motes thicken the air. A car alarm wails plaintively. Eventually, we head back to our abode for the night. As I put out the light, I hear one lost band making their way back, coming right down our narrow, car clogged street. Now the only rhythm in their repertoire is that short idiotic refrain.

In the middle of the night and I come too. That 'earverm' has been working overtime on the subconscious, and I've got hold of the first thread......"the runaway train......."

It will take two days of long climbs and Sr. Google to unravel the knot.

"The runaway train came down the line and she blew.....

The runaway train came down the track and she blew....

The runaway train came down the track , her whistle wide, and throttle back....

And she blew blew blew blew......"

You get the idea, there's a lot of vented steam, to set along side the nihilistic predictions from the engineer, the fireman and the porter. Then there's the donkey that disappears leaving it's bray behind,and the conductor who felt a chill up his neck.The end result? "The last we heard she's going still" . Still going blew blew blew.


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Blanket Box

The world's highest city, or five blankets and a quilt on the bed. Potosi doesn't do double glazing, central heating or draught proofing. Summer might be coming, but mornings open with a steel blue clear sky, that leaves the long shadows, dark cold. Cockerels garner the new heat against an adobe wall, like cold blooded reptiles. Dogs are loath to set up a chase, content to grumble from their dust nests. My handwritten notes are arthritic, rendered in obscurity font. Yet the new day sun, given time, will heat in an invigorating warmth, that creates an accumulation of thunder heads. They rumble, the sudden wind blast that precedes the rain moans through the daylight cracks in the flyweight door, the glazed panes rattle in their astricle sockets. Just another four o'clock storm.

The Navigator carries an altimeter, as part of the cycle computer, a psychological aid and a remarkably accurate instrument. However, equally infallible for guestamating height are the stacked blankets on the bed. An equation in the order of: (1bx2kg)=800m, or if using the 'lapse rate' scale: add one blanket for every five degrees of centigrade lost. Sums that seem to withstand observational testing. However we haven't felt the need to carry out the empirical experimentation, the 'sleep test', to be drugged by a swaddling of blanket, crushed under a restraint of llama hair. Given the depleted oxygen levels at these heights, any impediment to breathing is not to be encouraged. We resort to goose down.



Saturday, 9 November 2013

Just Another Day.

Pushing bikes uphill, up an unlit tunnel, through a slime of wet dust, up over 11,000ft, in Southern Bolivia. The inverted horseshoe of daylight behind is blotted out by the advancing growl of an articulated lorry that swells, saturating all audible space. Our single rear red lights creating a consternation, he slows right down and craws past. I should be grateful. Eventually the two blots of daylight equalise and it's then that we both dissolve into a fit of the giggles. The absurdity of location in relation to date. Slip-sliding in the middle of a South American tunnel on your 34th wedding anniversary. It's almost Freudian.

Sometimes it seems but yesterday, but then you consider the world changes between these two dates. The ultimate in technology was a Sinclair pocket calculator, Britain still built motor cars and a bicycle's smallest cog had forty-two teeth. It was no wonder that we pushed up so many Norwegian roads. Nobody within your ken travelled further than Spain. Now....this iPad warms up and drops a blue arrow precisely where we are. My Mini Cooper, with it's turned out seams and ubiquitous corroding sills, is now a German import. That smallest toothed cog is now the biggest on these new-dangled mountain bikes. Now I can pedal up a Bolivian one in eight. A long week-end in New York. No problem.

We've left Tarija in the eary stillness of a Sunday morning, our two dimensional map suggesting an easy distance to the next village. Only reality and geography disagree. The road starts to snake it's way uphill, climbing ever upwards. Up through the bio-climes.The green lushness of the irrigated plain giving way to a dry winterness of withered tussock grasses, flowering cacti and bare red rock. The hoped for roadside restaurant non-existent. The village but a road junction. Up to a damp cold mist and that tunnel.

The romanticism. No bunches of flowers. The locals have bought them all to garnish the roadside shrines; it's two days since the 'Day of The Dead'. Even in death their colours reflect their political alliegences. Actually there's never been flowers - I didn't want to suggest a guilty conscience. Or a candle-lit meal. Tonight it will be egg noodle hash outside the tent, under a thorn bush, the dying sun warm on the rock as a herd of goats wander home.

Could we ever have imagined where we would be tonight, as we stood in an innocence in front of our friends and relations all those years ago?


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Exploding Golf Balls.

There's a primary school just behind our room, the playground chatter and squeals drifts over like squabling seagulls on a rock. Then comes a report like a stone landing on the clay pantile roof. First one then a few more. The location and the association with being stoned on that train leads to an erroneous conclusion. A rumble of thunder and a crackle of rocket fire suggests another answer.

When Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, they were assumed to have relocated to Tarija, Bolivia. Or at least that's the claim made by the local city fathers. Set at around 2000 metres, with an equitable climate suitable for wine production, the biblical association is obvious. On our way over the rolling countryside, small plots of vines start to proliferate, each covered by sheet cloths of stretched mesh. We'd speculated on their purpose and concluded on hail protection, not realising how quickly confirmation might come.


Another artillery of projectiles exploding on the roof, the shards of ice shattering across the secluded square. The assault increases, the crecendo intensifying, all other noise is blotted out. The doves swirl around in a panic, unable to settle, as cloud seeding rockets add to the cacophony.

With climo-exaggeration, and using the recognised unit of measurement I'd like to claim they were the size of golf balls, or even apocalyptical toads, only they were more akin to glass marbles, that melt and steam on the hot terrazzo tiles. Then, as quickly as the storm appeared the sun returns and the quiet constant hum of a city settles down again. Yet all this meteorological violence has no noticeable effect on the potted courtyard flora, not even the cigarette plant is extinguished. Another four o'clock storm.


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Suss the System.

Another frontier, another crossing, yet another system. When it comes to immigration, it's only at airports that any standardisation seems to occurs. A simplicity of procedure where you're herded along through holding pens and gates of protocol. It might be crowded, it will be slow, but it's comprehensible, in an illogical way. Batteries in camera- fine, out of camera- please hand them over.

We're crossing into Southern Bolivia, at Bermejo, way down in the high humidities. Sugar cane country. A political, geographical and cultural frontier. The vast flat lands of Northern Argentina lie at our backs, the first hill sits in front. Our first resort to the granny gears. The first office of officialdom on the crest, the first 'Cholita' in her pleated plaits and pollera skirts waiting in the queue in front. Only and oddly it's an area of peace and calm. No traders hawking China Goods, no money changers pestering after dollars, no manic manhandling of sack barrows, stories that have been such a feature of all our previous crossings. Armed with our first piece of paper and it's obligatory stamp, we progress as requested, over the road to another queue and to explain that we don't have a vehicle, and therefor don't need another scrap of paper. Thence to the surreality of the international bridge. Deserted, with the exception of two travelling students, hauling small wheeled suitcases. By now I'm starting to try to wonder what is happening. Has yesterday's Argentine elections created a financial instability, an upset of the normal mercantile balance? On to Migration de Bolivia and the expected and anticipated tourist card, with the new bonus of ninety days unrestricted touring, but still none of usual hustle and bustle.

It's only when we get down into town that the answer appears. The Rio Bermejo is at it's dry season low, not much greater than a stream, a pool no more than thirty metres wide, across which twenty small launches are plying. Flitting like pond skaters. Ferrying school children to school, grannies to the bazaar. Boxes of apple juice, cartons of cooking oil. Bags of rice and boxes of toys. Cement mixers and tea pots. All the paraphernalia that is stocked up on Main Street Bolivia, stacked in the cave-like booths that are shrouded in the ubiquitous blue plastic. In front of me is a vast polyprop bag, from which two bare brown bow'd legs protrude, smothering, bending double the porter underneath. Another consignment of flip-flops heading south. Only this load heads to another point on the river. To a wider more shallow stretch, the water only waist deep, across which our carrier wades. Others are using inner tubes to float loads across. They won't be paying the ferryman. Officialdom, in the form and uniform of the Bolivian Naval Police watch over this scenario with a total lack of interest.

An enduring tradition that has survived the modernisation of a road bridge, withstood the anominity of curtain wagons, the advent of pallets and containerisation. Another variation on a theme of frontera.