Monday, February 28, 2005

High Altitude Bolivian Crime and Sickness

There's often a sameness when travelling - I feel like I'm seeing the same cities, beaches, or wilderness I've already seen. That is definitely not the case for Bolivia. I've been in Bolivia for a couple of weeks, seen some unique stuff, and been the victim of bad health and of crime.

I left Salta in the north of Argentina to travel into Bolivia by bus. I expected just another tedious seven hour bus trip, and had a book ready with which to kill time. However the book remained unopened because almost from the moment the trip started I was ogling out the windows at strange multi-coloured rock formations. It looked like someone with an enormous paintbrush and some rainbow paint had swirled patterns onto the rocky hills. The road was in a river valley that got narrower the further we travelled. An old train line also ran through the valley, but it was obviously disused because every now and then 50 metres or so of the track was missing where the river had caused erosion. The closer we got to Bolivia the more spectacular the rock formations got and the faster the muddy water flowed. At one point on the Bolivian side two rivers met, one with chocolate-coloured water, the other with black water. The two colours at first flowed alongside each other then mingled and merged. The road went up and up and up and by the end we were at approximately 4000 metres above sea level.

It's amazing the sudden difference the moment you cross the border from Argentina to Bolvia. At the border I had to get off the modern, well-maintained Argentinean bus, walk along the paved roads, then cross a bridge into Bolivia, where the road became packed dirt. The Bolivian bus that continued the journey was an old thing that ratttled and shook and seemed unlikely to run for much longer. On the Argentine side people are outgoing, friendly, elegant, modern and service-oriented. Immediately across the border I was harrassed by snotty-faced children begging for money and lollies. I went into a Bolivian restaurant where everyone ate quitely and looked down at the floor. I asked the waitress for a menu, but she didn't have one. She wouldn't tell me what was available, I just had to look at what other people were eating to work it out.

My first stop in Bolivia was in a town called Tupiza. This is supposedly where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived their last days before being executed for trying to steal a Bolivian payroll. It is an apt setting for their wild west story, because the mountains all around Tupiza look just like the red rocks you see in a Western movie.

In Tupiza I departed on a 4 day tour by Toyota Landcruiser with a few other travellers, a driver and a guide/cook. The tour was on Bolivia's Altiplano, which I guess means "high plain". We were in the Andes, at an altitude of between 3000 metres and 5000 metres for the trip, but as the name suggests the land was mostly flat.

Despite the altitude the weather was usually pretty good - light clothes during the day but really cold at night. We saw some many unusual things on the tour, such as the world's highest geyser field (at almost 5000 metres). There were old decrepit villages with mud-brick houses, half of which are empty and falling apart, located on wind-blown mountainous desert and which get my nomination for Worst Place in the World to Grow Up. No trees, nothing green, nothing but the occasional llama to provide entertainment. Oh yeah, llamas, we saw a lot of them. Up close they look like a cross between a sheep and a camel. They are incredibly stupid too. They are scared of cars, and their way of handling this fear is to wait by the side of the road until our jeep was almost next to them, then suddenly run, not away, but directly in front of the jeep to the other side of the road. Fortunately our driver knew to expect this behaviour and managed not to kill any of these pathetic creatures.

At well above 4000 metres we took a dip in what must be one of the world's highest hotsprings, 30-something degree water, with a view to a lake populated by pink flamingoes, and a backdrop of 6000 metre high Andes mountains that make up the Chile-Bolivian border.

Warning: bad gag coming

Our guide: "That mountain is a volcano and the middle of it is Chile"
English guy: "I thought the middle of a volcano would be hot"

It is the rainy season at the moment in Bolivia. Some of the roads we travelled down were river beds, and being the rainy season those roads became rivers that we had to drive through. On the first day we got stuck in a river, the jeep unable to power its way out. We all had to climb out through the window, Dukes of Hazzard style, climb over the bonnet, stand in the icy water and push the front of the car while the driver revved it in reverse. After half an hour or so we got the car out but we had all lost feeling in our feet. After that there was an air of tension in the car any time we had to pass through a river.

The finale of the trip was the "Salar de Uyuni", a giant salt plain 200 kilometres across. Due to the rain the entire salt plain was flooded with about 5 centimetres of water creating a perfect mirror. The sky and clouds blended seamlessly into the reflected image on the horizon, making it appear that there was no horizon. Birds flying just above the surface of the water had a perfect reflection underneath, making it unclear as to which bird was flying and which was the reflection. Mountain peaks that appeared in the distance looked disconcertingly like floating rocks.

The high altitude causes lots of people health problems. Our highest point reached was higher than Mount Cook or Mont Blanc and twice as high as Mount Koscioszko. There is not so much oxygen in these reaches and even basic activities like brushing my teeth left my short of breath for a few minutes. The night after we peaked at over 5000 metres I had some problems. I had congested nasal passages, the air was thin, and we stayed in a windy plain with dusty air. I seemed to always to be struggling to breath properly. Before I went to bed I read a detailed explanation of altitude sickness and all the bad things it can do, and how the only good cure is to go much lower much quicker. Proving that reading leads to bad ideas and should be banned, I think the book put suggestions into my head that I was in real trouble.

At 1am I was having a nice dream that it was daylight, we were piling into the jeep, and heading downhill quickly to where the air was more breathable. I woke up to find that none of it was true and my breathing was still hard. At this point the lack of oxygen made me do strange things. I don't remember all of it, but it involved panic, walking up and down the corridor and heading outside and back inside, in flimsy clothes although the night air was very cold. I woke up everybody in the building and came to my senses when they were trying to wrap me in a blanket, calm me down, and bring me back inside from the doorway where I was. Once I calmed down I realised I was deathly cold.

Here was where the guide earned a generous tip. First he made me a brew of coca leaves and some other strange herbs which is supposed to fight the effects of altitude sickness. Then he made some hot water bottles out of empty coke bottles and lined my bed with them. Then finally he did something I didn't expect. He got into my little bed, sleeping top-and-tail, to use his body heat to keep me warm. Normally I wouldn't be so keen on a guy hopping into bed with me, but I was in no condition to complain. So girls, if you want to get a Bolivian man into bed, go up to a really high altitude and freak out in the middle of the night.

At slightly lower altitudes things were much better, and I decided to stay on in Bolivia.

Next stop was La Paz, the supposed World's Highest Capital City at 3800 metres, except that it is not the official capital of Bolivia, not the world's highest city, and therefore its claim to fame is reduced to City. Nevertheless it is breathtaking in two ways. Figuratively breathtaking as you arrive by bus, up to the edge of the canyon in which La Paz is located and through the sparse Eucalyptus trees you can see the city creeping up the slopes of the canyon, with highrise buildings in the bottom of the valley, and the occasional snowy peak providing additional scenery. Literally breathtaking because in addition to the thin air the streets of La Paz are the steepest I have seen, so that simply walking a block uphill leaves you panting and gasping.

On the bus into La Paz a team of scamsters stole my backpack. There was nothing irreplaceable in it and it was insured, so at first I wasn't too worried. At fact I admired how smooth the criminals were, how they distracted me with a friendly-seeming old man who tried to show me something out the window while others made my backpack vanish. I only got angry when I went to have a shower that night and remembered I had no towel. Then I wished death and disease on the criminals and their families. If you have to replace stolen clothing La Paz is the place to do because the ultra-steep streets are lined with people hawking ultra-cheap clothing and general supplies.

I had to report the stolen backpack at the tourist police, which is located outside the main football (soccer) stadium in La Paz. It turned out that a game was starting in 30 minutes between two of Bolivia's best teams, so I bought a ticket from an old lady for 1 euro, and achieved one of my aims for this trip, to watch a Latin American football game.


Anonymous said...

I had a good time reading this. Thanks for posting it. It was hilarious in places and brutally honest. Thanks again. Peter

Anonymous said...

I just got home from a two-week stint in Boliva, and am sorry you had such an ordeal. The matea de coca helps tremendously with altitude sickness, and the only problem I encountered was a horrible "altitude headache" the second day. Plus, you can get just about anything at the pharmacies to help with your aches/pains...

God of Wine said...

If you weren't such a snotty nosed asshole maybe they would've treated you better.