Sunday, May 31, 2009

Here comes the Sun!

this'll be a long one... but with lots of pictures!

At about 6:30 this morning I arrived in the city of Oruro, altitude 3,700m above sea level, as the Lonely Planet was all too happy to inform me. I arrived there via an overnight train from Uyuni, where I had paid my $15 for the executive class seat, which, among other things, meant there car was to have heating. It may have had other things, but no heating, so facing the bright, crisp, cold, early morning in Oruro, I had to reconsider my plans to spend a day in Oruro. Reconsider I did, and by 7:30 I was on a bus heading for the city of Cochabamba, which may not have any particulalry striking attractions, but is located a lot closer to sea level than Oruro. The issue, really, was that we had just finished a four day tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats, which served as an appropriately cold conclusion to the prior two months, spent primarily at altitudes of over 2,000m. Watching the weather get progressively colder as the Southern hemisphere's winter approached.

But now that I'm back in my travel comfort zone of shorts and sandals here in Cochabamba, we can safely focus on the real reason to go to the Salt Flats - the uniquely spectactacular scenery! So, off backwards in time to Tupiza, Bolivia five days ago:

Tuesday: Day -1
I had arrived in Tupiza the day before (on yet another freezing cold overnight bus) and had immediately gone off to investigate the Salt Flats tours. The tours start in Tupiza (among other places) and finish in Uyuni. Uyuni, however, has repeatedly been described to me as, well, a place to avoid spending any time in. The more colorful descriptions might make the blog sound offensive. I also wanted to take the train out of Tupiza instead of putting up with yet another overnight bus, so after a bit of research I had myself booked onto a tour leaving Wednesday morning, arriving in Uyuni Saturday afternoon, and onto a train for Oruro later Saturday night. This left me with a free day Monday - not to fear, the reason to do the tours out of Tupiza instead of Uyuni is that Tupiza is actually a pleasant town and there are things one can do do keep themselves entertained here. I decided to go horse-back riding for a day. A full day.

My noble steed and I

The scenery did not disappoint!

The first half of the day, we all tried to learn how to tell the horses to go faster. Then came lunch. And the horses apparently quite enjoyed their meal of grass - we spent the second half of the day learning how to get the horses to slow down. Around five o'clock, we were back, all rather exhausted after seven hours on horse back.

Wednesday: Day 1
Waking up at 7:30, I had two things to contemplate:
- my back still hurt after yesterday's horse ride
- and I was about to spend the next four days in the very relative comforts of a jeep crossing the Salt Flats

The second thought made me feel somewhat better about the first... So after what would be my last shower for the next four days, I was all packed and set to go at 8:30, meeting my companions for the next few days: Ronald, the driver, Carmen, the amazing cook, and Dominic, Alex, Peter, and Esther, the other tourists. Peter and Esther happened to show up at the very last second, but we were happy to take them along as there was plenty of room in the jeep, the bigger group made the trip cheaper for us, and you might as well have a couple more people to talk to over the next four days! So, off we went.

Now, in reality, the four day Salt Flats tour only spends one day in the actual Salt Flats. The other three days are spent looking at various other exotic scenery in this part of Bolivia, and one of the advantages of starting in Tupiza instead of Uyuni is that you build up to the Salt Flats, which you see on the fourth day. So, on day one, we had exotic scenery:

Such as these very jagged mountains

And this bolding cactus, which we tried to make look as fashionable as possible. Somewhere, I knew, Lott was cringing...

That night, we had the first of Carmen's amazing dinners (which also had to accomodate the two vegetarians, who showed up at the very last second) and then got our first introduction to the cold, as we were spending the night in an unheated building at an elevation of 4,300m. In late May. It actually wasn't that bad - sleeping bag and lots of blankets can apparently overcome quite a bit!

Thursday: Day 2
Up at a relatively reasonable 7:30 in the morning (we'd later meet another group who had had to get up at the astoundingly early, and cold, hour of 4:30), we were back on the road before 9. All of a sudden I started to realize that the one thing the lunar landscape was reminding me of was the drive across Western Mongolia - hundreds of miles of rock-strewn, unpaved roads, imposing mountain ranges all around, lots of river crossings, and very cold nights. Just replace the camels with llamas, and the mental image is complete!

The nights were actually quite a bit colder, so some of our river crossings also includes some snow and ice

And the other vehicles on the road weren't all Russian-made. Also, I discovered the joys of sepia!

We had soon arrived at the Koolpa Laguna, covered with a thin sheet of ice

For lunch, everyone got a chance to warm up in the hot springs. And I do mean everyone - the pool was packed.

In the afternoon, we crossed the highest point on the journey (5,020m - my 3rd time over 5,000m in two months... chew them coca leaves!) and came to visit a field of exotically colored geysers. The extreme winds up here cut the geyser trip rather short...

The day ended with a brief, and still very windy, visit to the multi-colored Laguna Colorada, home of many, many flamingos, but more on them on Day 3. For the night, we were once again sleeping in an unheated building at almost 4,400m above sea level. A bit chilly. This one did have a stove where we could make a fire, however, the wood quickly ran out and our repeated pleas for more were met with a standard Bolivian response of 'yes, yes,' followed by a disappearance. An hour later, and with our fire dead, we finally learned that they just wanted money for the firewood, since it is a scarce commodity up here, well above the tree line... We were more than happy to pay. In fact, I would've been willing to pay more if they could've just told us what they wanted right at the start!

Friday: Day 3
The day started with another visit to Laguan Colorada, which was looking even more spectacular in the morning's bright sunshine. The wildlife was out in full force to enjoy the rays of sun too, mostly oblivious to our presence:

I snuck in close enough to get some good shots of the flamingos

But when you get too close, they get away - a flamingo taking flight

Also grazing around the laguna, llamas. With funny red tags on their ears. Also completely unbothered by our presence.

After a break for lunch, we were out among the lunar landscapes again, and now the winds came in earnest, effectively putting us in the middle of a sand storm. Very Dune or Return of the Jedi... The sand storm made for some trepidation for the performance of the jeep (but Ronald got us through completely unscathed) and made for some unusual shots of the rock formations along the way, like Arbol de Piedra, here.

And on the third night, we were finally on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni - the salt flat itself. Only appropriate that we were staying at a salt hotel - the entire structure, including the beds is made out of salt blocks.

Saturday: Day 4
This time, we were up early: 5:30, in time to see the sunrise over the salar. And the morning sights surely didn't disappoint.

The sun coming up over the eerily-flat salt lake

Our jeep standing strong among the elements. The fact that we didn't have a single break down over the course of the trip is fairly amazing, considering the road conditions.

Now, fortunately, the winds from the day before had mostly died down, however, as you can imagine, the temperatures at sunrise were pretty, uhmm, invigorating. We were each wearing every piece of clothing available. Once the sun did come up in earnest though, the conditions improved a bit, and it was time to do what everyone comes to the salt fats for (apparently): funny perspective pictures in the extremely flat environment

mmm, Bolivian beer...

We all have such good balance!

The dinosaurs are attacking! The dinosaurs are attacking! And yes, mom, if you look real close, you'll discover that I now have red highlights in my hair - I was kind of bored the first day in Tupiza...

And on this, definitely high, note, our tour came to an end - we had one more lunch, expertly prepared by Carmen, and half an hour later, were dropped off in Uyuni, which lived up to its reputation as a thoroughly unattractive place. The jeep promptly took off for Tupiza (it's only three hours when you take the direct route), and we were left with half a day to spend entertaining ourselves in Uyuni... So, we headed off for the only attraction that the town has to offer - a train cemetery:

Now, there's a also a train cemetery in Chile - the admission is likewise free there, but it's actually set up as a museum, and the locomotives are all well preserved.

In Bolivia? No museums here - this is just the place where locomotives and wagons get dumped when they can no longer be used

Sometimes it's just bits of the train. Bonus points if you can spot the motorcycle in this picture - it really added to the Mad Max atmosphere

Light shining through bits of a former engine

And at this point, we were officially done. All was left was another six hours sitting around a variety of restuarants/pubs in Uyuni playing cards and drinking over-priced beer until the midnight hour arrived, we boarded our train, and headed off towards Oruro, which is where this post started, all that time ago...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


So, why did you come to Salta? I kept getting this question after explaining how I had been traveling in Bolivia for a couple of weeks, decided to detour to Salta (in the North of Argentina) for a few days and was promptly heading back to Bolvia afterwards. I suppose most people are going in more of a straight line: start up North somewhere (Peru, Colombia, Mexico, etc.) and go all the way South through Bolivia towards Ushuaia, Argentina, or doing it in the opposite direction.

Ushaia is a long way from the Bolivian border, by the way... In reality, most only make it as far as Buenos Aires.

I, however, was drawing more of an ampersant than a straight line with my trip through Bolivia, so detouring to Salta seemed perfectly within reason. So, why did I come to Salta? Well, the number one reason, as I quickly discovered upon arriving in Salta, was that Argentina remains my favorite South American country, and I had missed it in the prior two months of relative wilderness in Peru and Bolivia... More specifically, the buses are nice and comfortable, the hostels have hot showers, and you can go shopping at an actual supermarket. Also, the Argentinians themselves really like to travel, so you don't seem like quite so much of an oddity as a tourist. And then, there's the asados - the big all-the-meat-you-can-eat (and wine you can drink) barbeques that all the hostels regularly put on. The one here in Salta wasn't an exception. So, all in all, I felt there was a lot to like about simply being in Argentina - besides I still have 45 Argentinian Pesos from my last time there, and an Argentinian SIM card (which no longer worked as it turned out). But in spite of all that, I wasn't traveling in anything resembling a straight line, so people generally seemed confused by my having chosen to go to Salta. I was OK with the confusion - I've grown accustomed to having my travel choices appear odd and confusing to others!

As for Salta itself, it's a pretty city.

A nice overview from up high

It's also got a fine collection of churches scattered around the center of the city. Upon seeing them, it immeditately occurred to me that they appeared notably different than their counterparts in Peru and Bolivia. Cuzco is perhaps the most egregious example of this, but the churches there appear to serve one purpose above all else: to remind the locals who won, and who could build bigger and gaudier structures. Usually, right on top of the old Inca palaces and temples... just as an extra little bit of a reminder. Here in Salta, the churches actually seem to have a bit of sophistication and intricacy. They are actually beautifully decorated in addition to just being massive. Maybe it's the Italian influence (which is felt rather strongly in Argentina) or maybe they were just built a little later, but it's certainly hard to miss. To wit:

A pretty, well lit up church in Salta.

Compared to the monolithic Cathedral presiding over Cuzco, Peru.

But much like the rest of Argentina, you don't really come for the cities. Buenos Aires is better anyway if you want to see a city! In Salta, you come for the surrounding countryside, which is jagged, sprawling, other-worldly multi-colored mountains. So, after a day of exploring the town, Anja (a German tourist I met on the bus to Salta while waiting out the strike blocking the road) and I had a tour booked to see nearby San Antonio de los Cobres. The following morning, the tour agency picked us up bright and early shortly after 7 in the morning and we headed off to the mountains. After picking up an Argentinian couple, on a brief visit from Buenos Aires. The five of us, including the driver, were rather cozy, packed into our little pickup, but Laura spoke English, and Anja and I did our best with our Spanish, so we made friends. In fact, after a couple of hours, we were friends enough that they were sharing their mate with us:

Now mate is the ubiquitous beverage consumed by everyone in Argentina (and somehow, even more people seem to drink it in Uruguay).

Judging by simple looks (and the apparent addiction), it's awfully reminiscent of coffee, so I'd stayed away up until now, but now having tried it, I'm glad to report that it does not, in fact, taste anything like coffee! Has some sort of a dried fruit-flavored tea taste, maybe? That's probably a bad representation, but I did kinda like it.

With the mate out of the way, we were off to see the surrounding volcanic scenery:

The afore-mentioned multi-colored landscape

Now the landscape dotted with almost eery-looking cacti

A pair of cute cacti up close

The star attraction of our trip: the 'aqueduct:' a railroad bridge, a massive structure of industrial triumph over nature, at a height of 64m spanning a 224m canyon.

We climbed the 64m to the top, which was a bit of a chore, since we were back up at some 4,000m above sea level. There was, however, a group of about 20 nuns, apparently on a field trip from the convent to see the aqueduct - seeing them climbing the hill certainly spurred me on to reach the top without delay!

And that, was my Southernly detour to Salta, Argentina. That evening, Anja headed off for a bus taking her South to Mendoza, as she was one of the people traveling in a straight line North to South, while I hung around an extra day, and the following morning boarded a bus heading back up North to the Bolivian town of Tarija.

Tarija ened up being notable for two things:
#1: Getting in to Bolivia in a town of Bermejo, technically. You take a boat across the river, which acts as the border. Upon arriving on the Bolivian side, you find a sign that strictly instructs you to get your passport stamped at a Bolivian immigration post, fair enough. Unfortunately, the immigration post is nowhere to be found... So, after having spent 30 minutes in Bolivia (and wondering why the hell I had paid $135 for a visa), taken two cab rides (paid for in Bolivian currency), I finally arrived at an immigration office, that wasn't closed. A few minutes later, I was able to walk out of there with my passport properly stamped.
#2: Apparently, the Bolivians have decided to follow Argentina and Chile into the whole wine growing enterprise. Well, maybe not all of Bolivia, but certainly Tarija, which has a bunch of tiny little wineries scattered all about:

La Casa Vieja Bodega, near Tarija, Bolivia

The wine's not bad either - a little too sweet, but pretty good. The locals, apparently, haven't quite learned how to drink it though, as, I've been told, it's quite common to dilute your wine with Sprite, Coke, and Fanta!
#3 Ok, three things about Tarija - I also spent $20 (USD) for a hotel room in Tarija - the most I've paid for a night since the inflated Carnival prices in Rio. And it was a lot nicer than my hostel in Rio!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

La vida Sucre

The [ridiculously] spicy vindaloo at the Star of India in La Paz, down the 'Road of Death' on a mountain bike, 6,088m Huayna Potosi, the mines of Potosi: Bolivia was off to a pretty exciting start. Upon arriving in Sucre, Bolivia, I kinda felt like taking it easy for a little while... Well, I'm not really sure if that's actually true - I was quite enjoying the Bolivia adrenaline - but Sucre is a pleasant place in Bolivia where you can take it easy for a while, plus I'd had a recommendation for a Spanish teacher there, so La Vida Sucre wasn't 'The Sweet Life' (well, not literally anyway), it was a week spent relaxing and learning some rules of the Spanish language, to supplement my ability to string words and phrases together orally.

So what was there to do in Sucre for a week? Well, I had two hours of Spanish lessons each day. I also wondered around the city a bit, and the 'White City' as it's known in Bolivia is certainly the most visually appealing place I had seen so far in Bolivia:

Now, technically, both La Paz and Sucre are capitals of Bolivia (yes, it's a bit strange) - the President and Congress sit in La Paz, while the Supreme Court meets in Sucre. For a tourist, there's a lot of fun things to do in La Paz, but Sucre is certainly the one you want to look at; it also happens to not be nearly as high up in the mountains, so walking around the town doesn't wear you out quite so much...

And then there's Independence Day. Now, in the US, for example, it's the 4th of July. For the entire country - got fire up the barbeque and celebrate, no matter where you live! Bolivia? Well, technically, I seem to remember reading that there is a national independence day holiday, however, each province also celebrates a Bolivian Independence Day holiday, each at a different time of the year. I guess there must be some historical reasons for all this, but the upshot for all of this was that in Sucre, Independence Day was May 25, and the locals start celebrating about a month in advance. In part that can actually be annoying - the whole town gets painted fresh in time for the holiday, consequently the room where I stayed the first night in town smelled a lot like paint. I didn't stay there the next night. On the positive side, every evening, the city is enveloped in a party!

An evening concert in the main square. Next night there was a dance production there, sadly I didn't get a picture of the woman who was balancing 11 bottles on her head!

Also went to a traditional Bolivian costume dance performance. Hard to describe, but there were elaborate traditional costumes and dances reminiscent of choreographed insanity. Not sure if the picture does it justice...

The Tour de Bolivia may not have been explicitly scheduled to coincide with the Sucre province Independence Day (seeing how it was about 10 days too early for the big day itself), but here it was riding through the streets right outside of my hotel

And most of the rest of the time was spent hanging around our hotel along with a few other tourists there at the time:

Karen, from Holland, along with Balu, from Sucre, a 3 month old puppy who rumbled around the Wasi Masi hostal, and spent most of his time just being a cute three month old puppy...

On Sunday, three of us ventured to see a Bolivian football game. Some things missing at a Bolivian football game: instant replay, a functioning scoreboard, a clock, a particularly high level of skill... Still a lot of fun though!

In fact, it was fun enough, that we all accessorized with Universitario Sucre apparel. I got a scarf. Karen got a crazy hat. She's Dutch, after all!

And after a week of hanging around Sucre not doing very much of anything (there's all kinds of tours being organized into the surrounding countryside, but none of them seemed all that overwhelming, so I was content to just hang around town), I left the city, with a slightly improved command of the different tenses of the Spanish language. Next stop: back across the border into Argentina to see the town of Salta. More on Salta itself in a different post perhaps, but a few observations on the ride there: you first have to take a bus from Sucre to the border town of Villazon. This is an overnight bus ride... on a Bolivian bus (no bathrooms, not much comfort, bring a blanket or face freezing to death in the middle of the night), and on Bolivian roads (6PM - 11PM: reasonably nice, 11-11:30: dinner break, 11:30 - Villazon: unpaved and bumpy, welcome to Bolivia!). But the ride wasn't without a bit of entertainment: getting on, I was in the next to last row. There were three local girls in the last row, happily giggling along, until three guys came onboard with the tickets for the same seats. This was discussed for a bit, the conductor called in, the girls giggled some more, the bus took off. I wondered how this was going to get resolved seeing how we were leaving Sucre already... How it was going to be resolved? Very easily: after a couple more conversations with the conductor it was determined that the girls' tickets were for the previous day, so they had to vacate the seats. Not the bus though - no such thing as not enough space on a Bolivian bus (and the bus was full, mind you) - the girls just got to spend the next 12 hours in the aisle. I thought they took this turn of events remarkabky well even, certainly a lot better than I would have!

Upon arriving in Villazon, I promptly crossed the border into Argentina and headed for the bus terminal, hoping for a super-comfortable Argentinian cama bus to deliver me to Salta. Unfortunately, that route is only served by semi-cama buses, so I had to settle for that. Now the bus from Sucre was also called semi-cama, but putting them in the same plane of existence would be offensive to that plane. I had missed Argentinian buses, where even semi-cama is awfully comfortable, and is usually half-way empty (I don't know how they all stay in business). So having settled into my sleep-inducing seat, I was ready for the 7 hour ride to Salta, which got going well enough... and then after about an hour, we had stopped. After about 15 minutes, curiosity got the better of patience, and I headed outside to investigate. Argentina greeted me with this:

There was a strike blocking the road! I'm not sure what they were fighting for, but it was clearly wasting my time, so I wasn't feeling all that partial to their cause!

This went on for about an hour and a half. I thought the big, sturdy bus would've been perfectly justified in just plowing straight through the demonstration, but apparently our bus driver did not share my point of view, so we waited. Finally getting going again, the rest of the ride was downright boring and uneventful, and we arrived in Salta with only the hour and a half delay caused by the strike...

Monday, May 11, 2009

6,088m in pictures

So, let's say you get to La Paz, Bolivia, altitude: a breath-taking 3,500m above sea level. What do you do there? Well, first and foremost, you go to a company that'll give you a mountain bike and let you ride it down what they call the World's Most Dangerous Road. Done! And I lived to tell about it (apparently not being Israeli helps as of the 21 tourists that have died on the road since it being opened to tourists some 15 years ago, a full 1/3 have been Israeli). Ok, how do you trump that? Well, it's Bolivia, it's got lots of big mountains (the tallest just over 6,500m), including a 6,088m one, called Huayna Potosi, that's a mere 2 hour drive from La Paz along some bumpy, unpaved, Bolivian roads. The base camp is at 4,500m, the top is 6,088m - you only have to actually climb a little over 1,500m to reach the top, it is generally considered the most reacheable 6,000m peak in the world. How could I say no!? Altitude sickness is always a concern, but a week in La Paz and about a full month well above sea level had me feeling pretty confident. As had conquering the 5,100m Salkantay Pass in Peru a few weeks ago. And the helpful Bolivian tour agencies will send you up to the nearly stratospheric 6,088m, all gear, meals, and accomodations included, on a 3-day trek, culminating at the peak (in time for sunrise), all for less than $150! BTW, if you ever are in Bolivia, I would happily recommend the Huayna Potosi travel agency...

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so we'll just go with pictures from here:

Friday morning, we are leaving La Paz. Nice overview of the city from this spot, a big mountain flanking it - not the one we'd be climbing.

Two hours later we arrived at the Huayna Potosi refugio, with beautiful sunlit views of the mountain.

Climbing this mountain isn't all that easy - you need equipment and some basic training, so later that afternoon, we met Mario, our guide, grabbed out crampons, ice axes and other accessories and headed off to a nearby glacier for a bit of training

Views of the surrounding mountains on the way down. The refugio sits on the shores of a large lake, subjugated for hydro-electricity.

There's not a whole lot to do up here, so we were in bed around 9 Friday night. Up about 8:30AM Saturday morning, and by 1 in the afternoon, were all geared up and ready to trek up to the high camp: 5,300m. Lake in the background. Our team: just two people - myself and Ira, and Israeli traveling around South America for a year. He has a lot of motivation to make the peak as his [younger] sister had made it a year ago and will never let him live it down if he fails.

Now, the highest I've ever been in my life up until now was 5,196 in Gorak Shep, Nepal. So, getting to the rarified air of 5,300 was a bit tiring (about 2 and 3/4 hrs). On the bright side, you just walk up here, not much snow to speak of. On the downside, you have to carry all that snow equipment with you as from here, it's all snow and ice.

The clouds were gathering in the late afternoon, making for some spectacular views of the mountains and the high alpine lakes

A brief interlude from the photos, seeing how at about 6PM we went to bed (there's really nothing to do up here. I tried reading my book for a bit, but the sun was completely gone by 6:30 and not wanting to read with my headlamp, I tried going to bed too. Not sure if I actually got any sleep - sleeping at 5,300m takes some? a lot of getting used to... From here, the night ruled, so not a lot of pictures for a while:
1:15AM - Mario is up, indicating that we should be getting up to. My brain refuses to comprehend Spanish at 1:15 in the morning at 5,300m above sea level, but the message is pretty clear... We had actually been promised a 1AM sharp wake up.
1:30 - breakfast consists of coca tea (coca leaves are magical for altitude!), and some crackers. These take care of my the headache, which my brain was clearly trying to summon in protest
2:25 - we are all geared up and off to go! It's a clear moon-lit sky, with the path easily visible even without the headlamps
3:30 - we cross our first crevasse (of two). You just step across, so it's not much of a challenge really. Simultaneous breating, walking, and chewing coca leaves is a bit of a challenge, I find solace in the fact that I am still able to regain my breath quite quickly during our brief stops.
4:00 - our first climb, using the ice axe and everything. You get out of breath a lot quicker up here than you did back at the low glacier yesterday!
4:30 - we are now just trudging along, following Mario. You do start to feel a bit like cattle - walking in a line, tethered together by a rope (safety line in case somebody falls into, say, a crevasse), without a particularly clear understanding of where you are going or how you are getting there.
5:00 - we're passing 6,000m. I am getting tired, but my brain has gone fully into 'achievable goals' mode: we've made it this far, no signs of altitude sickness for either of us (for safety reasons, you can't just send one person back, so if one starts feeling sick, both of us would have to abandon and go back), I can see the top, we will make it no matter what! The small matter of the final 200m being mostly straight up will just have to take care of itself.
6:15 - that last part was a bitch, just steep enough to make walking difficult, but not steep enough to make the ice axe fully useful. And then there's the bit where a recent avalanche had taken out the path, making the traverse a little more uncertain... But we've made it! Quite early, and thus quickly too! You can see the sky just starting to turn bright on the Eastern horizon. Full-fledged sunrise is arount 6:45.

Now that we've got light again, back to pictures:

Just enough light now to celebrate our accomplishment: 6,088m above sea level!

The sun slowly coming up bright red behind the clouds.

All these cool sights we missed in the dark on the way up!

We are walking above the clouds

Now that the sun is out, the perfect snowy valleys make me miss my snowboard! Not that I'd have any desire whatsoever to carry it up here...

Heading down the bit that was our first ice axe climb. Now that it's light, and we're heading down, we just walk.

And so, that was my 6,088 excursion, quite succesful, not to mention gratifying, I must add. And the lack of sleep made it a hell of a lot easier to sleep on the overnight bus to Potosi that evening. Some other random commentary on Bolivia:
- what's with the breast feeding? Not only does every woman above age 18 appear to have a kid strapped to her back, but they all seem to want to breastfeed in public. As I was typing this up, at a crowded internet cafe, a woman sat down next to me, baby bundle in hand, and proceeded to play solitaire for 20 minutes. Now, I did a very thorough job of averting my eyes, but judging by the noises, there's only thing the baby could've been doing the whole time. Is there really no place just a little more private than an internet cafe?
- I'm now in Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4,200m above sea level. Getting here involves an overnight bus, which is something I've experienced many a time before in South America. Apparently, however, I have not experienced a Bolivian bus going over a 4,000m+ pass - somebody forgot to turn on the heater! The lack of sleep the night before did ensure I got plenty of sleep anyway, but I kept waking up, just being cold. The guy sitting next to me bringing a blanket on board was the first sign of trouble...
- This morning in Potosi, I went to the Silver Mines, Potosi's primary claim to fame. These aren't regulated by the government, so nobody knows just how close they are to collapsing, but tour groups get to go into the 'safer' areas anyway. The working conditions down there are pretty depressing, but everyone is self-employed, mining their very own silver ore, and seems pretty content...

Dressed for a mining excursion!

Working in the dark confines of the mine. I was ready to leave after our 2 hour trip. These guys work for over 20 years. Then generally die in their mid-forties, due to all the dust they breathe in... but, hey, it pays better than farming? And it's better than the Spanish that killed some 8 million Indian and African slaves in the mine over a few centuries of colonial rule...