Fighting old women and crap cars

Thursday 07 June

It is unbelievably cold in our hostel room.  I have no idea why icicles are not hanging from my nostrils when I wake, and my eyes have not frozen shut with the sub zero temperatures.  It is actually warmer outside, and I’m wearing all of the stinking clothes from last nights session.  I’ve discovered Paddy had returned a little while after me, and was asleep in his cot as I attempted to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.  Little was I aware he had constructed a foolproof security device by the door in order to wake him should anyone try to enter.  I smash my bare feet into the coat stand, which starts it swinging over to give me a full frontal in the head, resulting in a loud “fuck!” Paddy continues to slumber, totally unaware that potentially someone was robbing him dry.  He’s a genius.

In a groggy world we’re wandering apparently aimlessly around the town trying to find a way out.  Chile it the destination, and from here you can charter jeeps to cross back over the unforgiving Bolivian wilderness, or you can wait a few days and get a bus.  We’re in no mood to hang around.  For forty bucks we organise a ride to take us to another freezing cold hostel, wake up at 4am the next day, then drive to the border.  It’s not a bad arrangement considering we’ll be in a new country by tomorrow afternoon.

It doesn’t help matters that this is Corpus Christi day.  I’ve no idea what it really means, but everything is closed.  Not everything, just everything useful for getting us out.  Once again nobody knows anything about anything, and we’ve covered a lot of ground and time before we’ve finally booked a ticket to the frontier.  Somewhere in between we’ve eaten watery soup with a carrot in it, visited an interesting train engine graveyard, and got in a fight with the angry proprietress of our icy hostel establishment. Well I did anyway.

It’s approaching the time to leave as we returned to the digs to pick up our bags.  The door to the hostel is locked, the owner nowhere to be found.  After banging on the closed vale several times, anxious that we will miss our man, a market stall holder behind informs us that they’ve gone out and will be back later.  Well that’s just great.  How the hell are we meant to get our gear with the hostel closed and locked, with no sign of the owner for what could be for hours.  I give the doors a frustrated push one last time, and to my surprise they give way and screech open.

No sooner am I over the threshold, when the little lady that told us the owner was out is on her feet, screaming bloody murder at me.  Paddy is doing his best to calm her down, while I’m doing my best to wind her up.  According to Paddy, she’s claiming I was the drunk in room 16 (we were in room 2) who kept her up all night, my actions are that of a thief, and I’m a…..Credit to the calm influence of the Irishman, we manage to get our belongings as she produces the key she had all along.  It’s time’s like these I really wish I did speak Spanish, because she would have been getting a barrage of abuse for nearly making us miss our shuttle out, all because she couldn’t be bothered to get up off her lazy fat Inca arse.  As it stands I do my best in my mother tongue anyway, which does little to help Paddy’s diplomacy.

We make a quick getaway as the crowds have gathered outside to see what the woman is bleating about, and manage to reach the jeep in time.  It’s a similar set up to the one we’ve just been in for four days, and we’re accompanied by yet another Irish girl, two Chileans and a Frenchman.  Paddy and myself are once again squeezed into the back, and we lurch away down dusty tracks towards pastures new, until the rear drivers side wheel falls off.

I’m staring out the window thinking about Geoffrey Rush’s performance in The Kings Speech, when I’m snapped back into reality with a loud crunch and a screaming tyre.  Credit to the driver, he does well to control the vehicle at that speed, when in the front of my mind and the fear in my eyes I know we’re going over.  You hear many a story of these jeeps flipping out during the tours, but thankfully he regains control and we shudder to a halt.  There we sit, in the middle of nowhere, the sun going down, the temperature dropping, and our guide scratching his head at the missing part on the rear left axle.  It looks like we’re set for the night, in a similar setting to that of The Hills Have Eyes.

A couple of hours and a lot of mumbling pass by while he does his best to fix a hopeless situation.  We don’t need a new tyre, we need a new jeep.  He’s not going to patch it up himself by the side of the road.  We wait in vain for some passing lights, but out here that isn’t likely to happen often, and would you honestly stop if a man was flagging you down by the side of a Bolivian dirt road in the middle of the night?  It’s the oldest trick in the book.  A kind soul still falls for it, and thunders off to get aid.

An indiscernible amount of time later and someone has picked us up in a new vehicle to take us to the hostel.  Our bags will follow later.  This is where it gets really dubious.  In what could be one of the most elaborate rouses ever, our pilot is now making off with five ruck sacks of stuff, which he could make a killing from.  Either that or they’re now being stuffed with narcotics, ready to be delivered by us across the border into Chile.  How easy would it be to do?  It amazes me they’ve not thought of it before.  Or have they?

It’s a familiar lodging we eventually pull into, thankful of some hot tea and supper.  By now we’re all fed up, cold and tired, so it isn’t long before we’re utilising several blankets to heat our shivering frames once again.  With the alarm set for 4am, we can only hope our luggage will arrive in time, clothes and belongings intact, without new stitched pockets lined with kilo’s of coke.  If you see me next on Banged Up Abroad you’ll know what’s happened.  That’ll be my excuse anyway.

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The Salt Flats

Wednesday 06 June

Waking up a combination of cold, tired, hungover and pissed off is never a good thing, but I find I am once again in the back of a jeep with the sun barely up.  I console myself with the thought that this is the last time I need to pander to someone else’s time frame, knowing full well I’m not getting out of bed tomorrow for less than ten grand.  We’re gunning it across the salty landscape before I can complain.

Here we are then, the culmination of three days nightmarish conditions.  I say nightmarish, but not in comparison to a war zone.  It was only a bit of cold and a lack of hot water, but when you’ve got someone like me who prefers their creature comforts, then I’d throw a tantrum if there isn’t a power socket for my hair straighteners.  I can’t wait to be back in a warm bed within ten feet of a power shower and a fluffy toilet seat.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and I’ve said that before and I’ll say this again, that we really do take so much for granted.  The end is in sight as we speed on into nothingness.

I’m not going to be able to do this justice in either words or pictures.  The Salar De Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at over 10,000 square metres.  It’s sheer size is almost overwhelmingly daunting.  A blindingly white salt plateau that appears perfectly flat right to the distant horizon, and covers a pool of brine, which apparently contains much of the worlds lithium content.  Science and geology aside, it is totally mesmerising, and, if you have a camera and a few props, a huge amount of fun.

Playing with perspectives is one of the many reasons why this place attracts so many people each year.  Granted the sight itself is truly stunning, but it isn’t as much of a laugh as creating stupid pictures that make you look like you’re about to swallow your best mate, you’re standing on a Pringle tin, or pushing a jeep like it’s a dinky car.  You only have to google some images to see there are thousands of them out there, each more creative than the last, each trying to find the most original and humourous picture to entertain and amuse.  I’ve not put much thought into it compared to some of the efforts I’ve seen, but we’re still wracking our brains to come up with some new ideas, so much so you could get lost in the attempt, and end up spending hours upon hours in the white desert.

We’re all perspective’d out though as we finally make out way to the last stop, leave the jeeps and guides behind and once more strike out into the country on our own.  Uyuni is the closest town to the Salt Flats, and one that for most serves as a base to see the natural phenomenon.  Over the course of the evening the group departs to head their separate ways, goodbyes are hugged out, and eventually myself and Paddy are left to sauce it up in The Extreme Fun Pub.

Now I’m not sure if I missed something at the door, but it was neither extreme, nor was it much fun.  The aforementioned Irish girl turned up very briefly, then was the only one who didn’t come back out due to ‘tiredness’.  I was left to converse with a crazy bald guy who kept touching girls to see how long it would take to freak them out, and a Dutch motorcycle dude who financed his way around South America by selling drugs.  Added to this the bars walls are covered in the names of foolhardy individuals who have taken it upon themselves to see how fast they can drink ‘The Challenge’.  This consists of around ten shots, each with a ridiculous amount of alcohol, to be downed in the quickest time possible.  Do it fast enough and you’d get it for free.  This is assuming you’re not dead.  One ‘hero’ boasted 28 seconds.  He was from Bolivia.  The vast majority were made up of English and Australians.  It was time to call it a night, before I got drunk enough to give it a try and wake up in a gutter with a street dog licking the vomit out of my mouth.

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German and Irish

Tuesday 05 June

You know the drill by now.  Up when it’s still dark, no shower, still wearing the same clothes we’ve had on for the past three days.  Although light hasn’t found it’s way over the hills, I’m hiding my eyes with sunglasses due to the obvious bleariness of them, stoatering around like a blind man in search of coca tea.  I long to just crumble into the back of a jeep and pass out under a stolen blanket.

Once more we’re crossing vast spaces in high wind chill temperatures, with every photo stop cut disappointingly short due to the wintry gales whipping through your several layers.  It hurts to hold the camera steady to snap pictures of colourful lagoons dotted with flamingos, dramatic volcanoes and lonely, long since deserted outposts.  Lonely is the perfect description for the voluminous expanse that stretches around a 360 degree horizon.  Lonely and cold.  Much like the attitude women have to me.  As much as we’re cruising along at a decent pace, the end never seems to be in sight.  It is difficult to comprehend the size of the planet when you see just how enormous this rocky desert is.  Astounding.

Along the route we’re also treated to sulpher geysers spewing from the earth and the ‘tree rock’ which is part of a large geological site made up of volcanic deposits.  To be honest I have no idea if I saw these today or not.  They could have been yesterday, they could have been tomorrow.  Basically for three days it was all very similar.  Stunning, but similar, and my mind has been warped and confused by both the intense cold, and the fact that I’m writing this a week later.

As the sun is once again sinking below the mountains which it tends to do these days, we have arrived at our final trek hostel, and it has something of an unusual look and feel to it.  That’s probably because it’s made out of salt.  At least it appears to be, including salt bricks, tables and chairs, along with corridors paved with loose granules that crunch underfoot.  Paddy decides to test it out, and sticks his tongue to one of the walls.  It is indeed salty.  Well done Paddy.

We’re finally treated to a hot shower, and following an evening meal, we once again get stuck into some social boozing.  The small town that borders the Salar De Uyuni appears to consist only of tourist hotels, and as this one is proving pretty popular, we’re joined by a number of other trekkers from various companies, and included in this new group, is a nice Irish girl I’ve taken a shine to.  In spite of not really talking the whole trip, she makes a bee line for me at the pool table (not made of salt) and opens up a music conversation, which I’m all too happy to oblige her with.  An unprecedented feeling washes over me, as I’m actually discovering she might be interested, and I don’t have to do any of the usual vehement spadework for hours on end just to get a rejection.  Soon the guitar is out, and I’m doing my best to consolidate her affections.

That is until I lose her to this tall, dark, strikingly good look German guy, who she introduces, and then promptly sits down next to, for the pair of them to pay no notice of me at all, including through the songs she’s requested.  Coincidentally enough; Talk Tonight and Good Riddance, both requested, dear reader, if you may remember, by the attractive Irish girl back in Medellin Colombia; who then preceded to pay no heed to me at all.  Then there was a tall German who stole my only interest away back in Bocas Del Torro.  In conclusion, and consequently, in future, should either an Irish girl request these songs, or a tall German guy turn up to the party, I shall tell them to fuck off.

I retire to bed in a huff, leaving the two of them canoodling in the dark, as the electricity has been turned off at 11.  Thankfully it’s far too cold to take your clothes off, so I’m grinning to myself as I curl up in bed, mocking the no chance they have of doing anything naked.  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. ha, ha, ha…ha.   Ha.   Ha.  He.  He.        Ha.  I have the last laugh.  It’s the small victories that count.

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Not my scene

Monday 04 June

It’s a bitter cold morning as I pour out of bed fully clothed and into an icy Land Cruiser.  I’m barely awake for Spanish invasion ruins and early view points, and I’m wondering why I’m putting myself through this horribleness.  We’re not going to shower for three days, and it gets sub zero at night.  I want off this shit show.  I’m in a foul, stinking mood when I’m unwashed and freezing cold.  AKA, most of the time.

We’re not in Bolivia, we’re actually on Mars.  The vast red rock landscape stretches for miles, with distant peaks bordering the emptiness.  Apparently NASA practices missions here, working in the craters of semi-active volcanoes.  It’s like the final scene in Total Recall.

After hours of vast wilderness, we’re pulling into a surreal setting of a hot spring, surrounded by a large lagoon, and peppered with tourist-filled jeeps.  Needless to say it’s not taking much for everyone to throw off the warm clothes and stick on a bathing suit.  Everyone apart from me that is.  Apart from my irrational self consciousness, since the weather started to turn cold back in Cusco I’ve developed my usual seasonal eczema.  Only this time it’s much, much worse.  Every year around mid October I can tell the season is changing by the reaction on my lower legs.  It’s a direct side effect from using the powerful Roaccutain drug for my acne many years ago.  Some you win and some you lose.  Whether it’s the high altitude or the extreme cold I don’t know, but it’s back with a vengeance, bringing brothers and sisters with it.  Consequently I’m in agony as I try to sleep, and I’m not getting into a hot spring for love nor money.

Of course I’m not letting on to anyone the real reason why is that my beer baby is nearly due.  There is little to do but feed it at the side of the springs, crack out the guitar and stammer excuses that this is ‘not my scene’.  People can guess anything they like as to why I don’t get in, but really I’m becoming more of a mess every day.  I need to seek some warmer weather, settle somewhere for a while, get off the booze, and hit the gym.  Or, get sauced every night on this trip to fend off the cold.  An easy decision to make.

The punters seem to enjoy the usual crowd pleasing set of the only things I can play, including one tall, slim, gorgeous blond girl who smiles away, then has her picture taken by her handsome boyfriend.  Still I’m not really in the mood for that kind of thing, which is unlike me, and I’m happy to enjoy the trip for what it is.  I’ve been very lucky on a recent trek, and content with that, I’m not going to be thinking with the penis.  It’s a refreshing change for all.

Once again we’re in icy accommodations wearing multiple layers as we arrive at our base for the night.  We’ve also managed to pick up a few bottles of wine and some beers, so under a small strip light in near darkness, shivering in the cold, we do our best to establish booze blankets, and see out the night with a sing-song.  I’m sitting on my own finishing the last of the red wine as everyone eventually retires to bed, but it helps keep my bones from shaking, and I pass out fully clothed when I finally decide to turn in.

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Salt Flats day 1

Sunday 03 June

Wedged into the back of a Toyota land cruiser with two American girls, Paddy, a guide and a cook, we’re underway, beginning a four day journey that will culminate in the stunningly mesmerising Salar De Uyuni.  Between Tupiza and the worlds largest Salt Flat, we will see vast volcanic landscapes, geysers, hot springs, lagoons, indigenous villages, ruins, flamingo’s, ostriches, wild donkeys, and Llamas.  I’m only going for the Llamas.

We’re in convoy with the same group of girls we met yesterday, along with new companions Erin and Jess who join the party.  In actual fact there is a very large amount of vehicles criss-crossing the dusty roads, all heading to the same destination.  As you would expect with this kind of trip, there are numerous tour operators, all vying for the dollars once again.  Once again you get what you pay for, as we pass a broken down jeep not five minutes from the off.  I’m relieved to note that our vehicle appears to be made of sterner stuff, and David our driver and guide seems to know his stuff.  Do your research and ensure you’re not getting into a car with it’s exhaust falling off.

I’m sure I’ll say this a number of times over the course of the next 72 hours, but the scenery outside the window is like another planet.  It’s a spikey cactus filled view, with red rocks and dirt roads stretching as far as the eye can see.  I’m snapping as much as time will allow, especially humorous penis cactus shots and silly Llama heads.  Much craic is had as we rumble on to lunch.

I’m doing my usual scan of the company as we settle down for our first meal together, and once again, no disrespect intended, I find myself missing a certain German.  We’ve done pretty well with the companions on our treks, as there is always a danger that you won’t get on well with someone you’re stuck with in a van for four days.  Paddy has mentioned that if we’d been with that American coke fiend we met on the death road, there would have been a murder.  I’m inclined to agree.  Yet there nearly was during dinner as we freeze into our first digs for the night.

Apparently I’m not Scottish, I’m English, as I’m being told by one of the English girls.  This is news to me, as for 32 years I believed my bloodline to be Caledonian.  I was bullied in high school for being Scottish, and I deal with a lot of banter north of the border for being English.  Evidently I can’t win.  With a Scottish mother and a father who was ‘a Scot with his head kicked in’, I was born and raised in England because mum ‘couldn’t get me up North fast enough’.  I know my sister is proud of her Scottish heritage, as am I, genuinely enjoying the best of both worlds.  I can wear, and proudly wear the kilt, and I’ll be following the English national team in the upcoming European championships, as would have my dad.  I sing all the words to Flower of Scotland with heart and gusto, and tease Scottish friends with Swing Low Sweet Chariot.  Some might think it a crisis of identity, I see it as a blessing in having roots in two passionate countries.  God’s county Yorkshire was my home growing up, and Glasgow, the best city in the UK, is my home now.  At the end of the day it’s where you feel you belong.  I don’t need anyone to tell me that.

We’re treated to a sing session from a number of local boys, who look like they’re doing a roaring trade with the passing tourists.  It’s a lonely but strangely beautiful spot, nestled between distant snowy peaks and cold foreboding waste land.  I have no idea how the people survive out here.  Especially without an X-Box and a WiFi connection.  You have to admire the resliance against such a harsh landscape and existence.  Admire it I do, as I shiver fully clothed under three blankets, hoping that sleep will overcome my shuddering frame.

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Bolivian wild west

Saturday 02 June

The gurgling stomach I can hear across the room ensures that Paddy is in no fit state to join me on the horse trek.  Unfortunately for him my group is then changed so I’m joining four girls.  Apparently he wants me to flirt with them on his behalf.  He’s got enough to worry about with a trip to the laboratory today.  I’m hoping it’s a gorgeous nurse who takes his poo sample.

So I strike out alone with the chicas into the Bolivian wilderness.  Expecting a group of Germans, my companions are made up of English, Irish and American.  I’m once again doing my best to show competence on my surprisingly large mare.  I’ve been used to skinny racks of bone in Central and South America, but this looks like a cared for beast.  It certainly makes a difference to my arse and family jewels the longer the trek goes on.  I can’t feel my legs after twenty minutes.

The sun is warm and inviting as we trot through a sharp red rocky landscape.  Morgan, the Texan, has rightly commented that it looks very similar to home for her.  You would be forgiven for thinking you were in the American west circa 1875, moseying on down to a lawless town as a pack of wanted gunmen.  I lose myself in the imagination of it all as we put distance between us and civilisation.

Further down the line, I become a little more disappointed with the surroundings and countryside.  I was expecting some amazing vistas, with deep canyons and dusty trails, but for the most part we’re just following an unremarkable river.  Our ‘guide’ manages around four words for the whole seven hours, and with only one real break, the company soon falls silent from tiredness and saddle sore.  With around an hour left on the animals, I’m wishing I’d done the three hour trek, a first considering I’m back on the beloved horse.

In order to see the scenery I was looking for, and Butch Cassidy’s town of demise, I would need to take a longer expedition for two to four days into the country.  After a full seven hours wedged in a hard saddle, I have no idea how my nether regions would cope with such demand.  I’m practically falling asleep on the thing as we finally make it back to town, and walking like the Duke himself as I make my way back to base.  It was a pleasant enough day, but nothing compared to the Colombian San Augustin trek, and no disrespect intended, nothing compared to the company that day either.

I return to find Paddy with two companions.  The sly dog.  One is called Trofozoitos and the other goes by E. Histolytica.  Both are living in his stomach eating his intestine walls.  If you’re traveling this way, don’t drink the water or use it to clean your teeth, and be careful when eating fruit and vegetables.  As a rule of thumb, I only eat something that has been either cooked well, or peeled.  Paddy is now stuck stuffing himself with antibiotics.  They’ve been living and partying in there for four months.

Undeterred, he joins me to meet the girls for food in the evening, although I’ve already royally cock blocked him by accidentally informing them of his bowel issues.  In graphic detail.  A couple of large beers later and I’m demanding we find the karaoke in the one horse town.  Everyone else insists on calling it a night, and I’m raging as I wander up the road.  Perhaps it’s for the best, as our four day adventure to the Salt Flats starts at first light, and Paddy’s predicament needs all the help it can get

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