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.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Iguazu Falls

Where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet are Iguazu Falls. These are not the biggest waterfalls in the world, nor the tallest, but located in the jungle in two national parks, some say they are the most spectacular.

It is possible to travel the 18 hour journey from Buenos Aires to Iguazu by luxury bus. Seats that recline into completely horizontal beds, movies, food served at your seat - all in all, similar to an airplane. It is possible...or so I am told. I wanted to pass through Uruguay on the way to Iguazu, so instead of that one luxury bus journey I experienced 3 days of travel hell involving one boat, four buses, dealing with border guards at a backwater border crossing who were mystified by my New Zealand passport, missed connections, getting stranded until 1:30am in Hicksville, and riding overnight on a heavily air-conditioned bus while wearing only shorts and t-shirt and sitting next to Fat Albert himself, who oozed over and under and around the armrest into my seat, leaving me to huddle next to the window without a moment's sleep all night.

My whinging doesn't stop there. When I arrived in Iguazu late one afternoon I rested for a night in a hotel then tried to catch the local bus to the falls in the morning. It is a 20 minute journey, but I made it last an hour and a half. I caught the bus from the wrong side of the road, got off where everybody else got off assuming we were at the falls, then searched the streets asking bystanders in pidgin Spanish "Where are the waterfalls?" When I was told it was a long way away (about 15 kilometres, I found out later) I demanded specific step-by-step instructions as to how to walk there. People tended to back off slowly at this stage, suspecting that I was slightly unhinged. It was only when I found an English-speaking man with unlimitedf patience that I realised I needed to take another bus back in the direction I came from.

When I got to the entrance to the falls, I was asking myself whether it was worth the trouble to have come here. Why didn't I just stay in Buenos Aires? It was nice there. Finding that foreigners were charged three times as much as locals to get into the national park containing the waterfalls made me even grumpier. I don't think I would have made good company at the time.

I walked through the jungle, listening to the distant roar of the falls get louder and louder, and at the moment when the falls first came into view my mood immediately changed. I forgot I was tired and hot. I forgot that I hated the world and especially bus companies.

Iguazu Falls is one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. The edge of the falls is a giant crescent shape, and the water breaks up into 275 separate streams each plunging separately up to 72 metres over the edge along three kilometres. One main stream contains so much water and drops so violently that it creates a cloud of mist completely blocking the view at the bottom. The viewing paths weave in and out of the jungle, and the views seem to be better each time you come out of the jungle. Meanwhile exotic animals I didn't recognise roam along the path. I later found out they are called coatis. Death-defying herons wade in the water at the top of the falls only metres from the water drops. A walkway over the river ends in a viewing platform directly over the main stream of water. The travel hell was definitely worth it.

The best part of the falls was not viewing it. It was the high-speed boat ride into the falls. This starts a couple of kilometres downstream from the falls. We were warned that we would get wet so we should put our valuables and cameras into plastic bags. I thought "wet" meant a few drops of water. Actually we got as wet as if we had jumped off the boat into the water. The boat stopped first in a place where we could take photos safely. Then after putting cameras away we travelled up the gorge past little streams falling from the top of the falls right into the whirlpools, currents and waves created by the major stream. The mist was so thick we couldn't see, and afterwards I wandered how the boatdriver could drive blind. Finally we went back weaving in and out of waterfalls that fell directly on our heads.

After the troubles getting to Iguazu I was in no hurry to leave, so I stayed in town for three days. To pass time, I crossed over the border to Brazil for the day, and saw the waterfalls again, this time from the Brazilian side. Just as good, also in a national park, but the perspective it offers is more panoramic rather than up-close.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Tango, Evita and Feisty Pride

There is a story in the brothels of Buenos Aires...

I've been in Argentina for the last couple of weeks. I asked an Argentinian girl in Buenos Aires to tell me something about her country. She replied instantly, "We are good at everything." Except humility, well as economic management, political stability, andaccepting military defeat. To explain:

  • in 2002 Argentina's economy crashed and the Argentinian peso lost 70% of it's value almost overnight, turning it from the most expensive country in Latin America into a budget traveller's paradise, but makinga lot of Argentinians suddenly poor
  • after the economic crisis Argentina had five presidents in as many weeks
  • Argentina invaded the UK-owned Falkland Islands in 1982, but were soon kicked out again by the British military. However a big billboard greets arrivals at the Brazil/Argentina border boldlyproclaiming "The Falklands are Argentinian"

Buenos Aires is a city I liked instantly. Strangely, I felt quite at home, and it was only after a few days that I realised this is because it is quite similar to Melbourne, Australia, where I lived for 10 years, with its wide tree-lined boulevards, lots of grand old buildings from the 1800's, a thriving cafe culture, a number of interesting and varied neighbourhoods, and a pervading sense of style. Like in Melbourne, I always had a nagging feeling that my clothes were not quite fashionable enough.

One thing Buenos Aires has that Melbourne doesn't (or anywhere else for that matter) is the tango. This style of dance originated in the waiting rooms of brothels frequented by immigrants in what was once Buenos Aires' port. Nowadays it is performed in cabarets and cafes for tourists, on popular streets on the weekends, and in milongas, which are regular events where tango dancers come to hone their skills. I learnt some tango steps a few years ago and I was looking forward to seeing it in its home. However what I saw in Buenos was nothing like what I learnt. What I knew as tango was rigid, precise, and danced to a strict tempo, like it was designed by the Swiss military. What I saw in Buenos Aires was emotional, sensual, always with a sense of sad longing. Partners danced while caressing in a passionate embrace, as if they
never wanted to let go of each other again. For me it was like thinking all my life that "food" meant "McDonalds", then discovering Italian cuisine was how good food could be.

I visited a tango milonga one night, which took place upstairs in a dusty old community theatre. 20-year-old girls in slinky black dresses and high heels danced with 70-year-old men who dressed as if in an earlier age, in dapper brown suits with matching hats. I was there with another traveller, both of us in jeans and t-shirts, so we discreetly went to a back table where we still had a good view of the dance floor. A man on one side of the room would stand up at the same time as a woman on the other side, to meet on the dance floor and do their stuff. I could never quite work out how they had agreed to dance together without speaking first. Either they have ESP or a milonga has unwritten rules about body language that are used to request a dance.

At 8:30pm on July 26, 1952 an event happened that shook the world - the death at age 33 from cancer of Eva Peron, aka Evita of "Don't Cry for me, Argentina" fame. Well, according to the Evita Museum it shook the world. I took Spanish lessons for a week in Buenos Aires and my Spanish teacher offered to take me to the Evita Musuem after class one day. It wasn't exactly high on the list of what I wanted to do in the city, but I took up her offer. Evita was a movie star who married the president of Argentina, and later tried to become vice-president. Today there are many things in Argentina named after Evita, including streets, schools, hospitals, and even a small city. A popular tourist destination is Evita's tomb in the city cemetery.

The Evita Museum was more a propagandistic shrine than a museum, portraying Evita as somewhere between Mahatma Ghandi and Jesus Christ. My teacher was telling me some saucy facts about Evita not mentioned in the musuem's displays. A guard heard one of those stories and told my teacher to stop, saying that all that was needed to know was written on the walls. At this point I saw a display of that legendary Argentinian temper, as my teacher spent the rest of the afternoon ranting that "since 1982 we are not a dictatorship. He can't tell me not to say things. I am so mad with him. I am so mad."

Argentinians are truly creatures of the night. Restaurants become busy after 11pm, bars and night clubs kick off at 1am or 2am, and people only head home as the sun rises. On arriving late in a town one Saturday night, I went to a restaurant at midnight to find whole families there, including young children happily running around. I can't work out when people get their sleep, because shops open early in the morning and close late at night. Whenever I told my Spanish teacher I was tired, she would chastise me with a Spanish phrase that translates as "in Buenos Aires there is no sleep."

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A friend of mine noted that Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America. He then added that this was an injustice - Paris doesn't have the Tango. I have to add to that. Unlike Paris, Buenos Aires is full of people who are warm to foreigners and who spontaneously help me to learn more Spanish. It also has an unbeatable nightlife. I complained to my Spanish teacher here that I needed to spend the afternoon sleeping. She looked a little shocked then told me, "Steve, in Buenos Aires there is no time for sleeping."

Leaving the Buenos Aires airport I momentarily felt I was back in Europe. The people and the streets both look European. It is a beautiful, big, and interesting city. Once one of the richest places on the planet, the wealth of former days is still plainly visible in the heart of the Buenos Airies.