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South America » Bolivia » Potosí Department » Uyuni
August 15th 2006
Published: August 16th 2006
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train graveyardtrain graveyardtrain graveyard

You know that your town is in trouble when the train graveyard is the highlight...
3 flashy brand new, fully loaded SUV´s pull up at our hotel door and we jump in. OR, 3 incredibly decrepid circa 1970 Toyota land cruisers pull up and we grab a couple of 1940´s boy scout sleeping bags and cautiously climb into our vehicle which we immediately named the Mean Machine(oh no, it didn´t get that name until the first time it broke down, that was at least 15 minutes later).

Our first stop was the train graveyard. Yup, you know you live in a crappy town when that´s your tourist attraction, rusted trains. Actually, it was pretty cool. From the 1920´s to the 1960´s they just dumped old trains there. People of course came and stole anything valuable from them so it´s pretty much just iron frames. Makes for some good photos.

Then the driving began in earnest. The Salt Flats or Salare are exactly what you´d expect from their name. Salty and Flat. It is likely a dried up salt water lake. Some people think it was part of Lake Titicaca at some point, the only problem with that is the Lake Titicaca isn´t salty (oh, and I forgot to mention that Titi means ¨puma¨ so
Salar de UyuniSalar de UyuniSalar de Uyuni

The salt flats...amazing scenery.
if you happen to see a couple of pumas walking along the street you can say ¨hey, look at that pair of titi´s¨and you´re not being rude - hey we´ve had some long bus rides on not much sleep, the mind comes up with strange things). The people mine the salt and we got a tour of a very small salt processing plant. Basically, they truck in a pile of the wet salt (which has literally just been shovelled off the ground), light a fire under it to dry it. The father stands there and shovels it around to heat it all. Then it´s shovelled into another pile and the 8 year old daughter packs it into one kilo bags (approx, there´s no weighing involved). She has a cannister of propane with some little device stuck on the end that has a flame and she sticks the bags in to seal them shut(see s. american safety regulations in blog #1). Then she packs 40 of them into a large bag and stacks the large bags in the back. Now, for those of you who don´t like math, let me help you out with this...40 bags, one kilo each is 40
we can be arty you knowwe can be arty you knowwe can be arty you know

dont forget that this is where your table salt comes from...complete with our muddy footprints.
kilos, and yes and 8 year old is hauling them around. Life here is a little different than home. We bought some salty crafts that I´m positive won´t last until I get home (because they´ll crumble, not because I´ll eat them)

We then trucked it out to the heart of the salt flats. It´s very trippy! White as far as the eye can see. The flats are about 12 000 km2. I kept thinking it was ice and that I was going to fall, but didn´t cuz, well, it was salt. We took a bunch of goofy photos which we hope to show (but so far Shelagh has got 3 photos up for the last blog in 50 minutes- internet is not always so speedy here). The patterns of the salt are very cool. Oh speaking of cool...Bolivia is freaking freezing!!! it was pants, hiking boots and jacket weather during the day. There are not really roads, just sort of agreed upon paths through the salt. We stopped for lunch at an ¨island¨ covered in giant cactuses. We also saw a hotel built completely of salt- including tables and chairs. After some more driving across salt we hit desert type terrain and um...drove more. We actually broke down for the first time just minutes before our lodge. Carburator troubles you know. It was fixed and we were off again. I´m now going to highlight those last three sentences and hit copy, paste because that same scenario occurred approximately 15 times over the next 3 days. We got to our ¨lodge¨ and settled into the summer camp-esque dorm rooms. Oh, side note...I feared I was getting another tummy bug but I discovered the cure...vodka. There are certains schools of thought that say you should put some strong alcohol in your belly morning and night when travelling somewhere dodgy cuz it´ll kill any critter that dares to enter. Since one of our group members had bought a 26 of vodka for $3 (stolichnaya vodka for those of you in the know-not bad!) some sprite for $2 and some plastic cups for a few cents, we were able to enjoy vodka beverages along the journey (the drinking laws in S.America are similar in stringency to the safety regulations) a few of those throughout the day and Polly Parasite bothered me no more. Okay, back to the lodge...we had some time before dinner
The island with giant cactiThe island with giant cactiThe island with giant cacti

one of the aforementioned cacti bit me...íf you don´t hear from me I have gangrene...:-(
so we played a little soccer with some locals and a one armed spanish man. He did well at soccer, but not so well when one of the girls tried to show him how to play netball. We had a great dinner and our cook continually chided us for not eating enough, but mainly because she kept trying to serve us fresh vegetables and those of us who have been in S. AMerica know that fresh vegetables equal guaranteed tummy troubles. On THAT note, Shelagh definately has scurvy. She has been getting these weird fingernail ridges that are symptoms of a vitamin deficiency, and all day today she´s been complaining of tongue ulcers. Don´t worry, I MADE her drink her orange juice at breakfast. Anyway, a few rounds of cards and it was off to bed for our usual 8:30 pm bed time

Have I mentioned that it was cold? The ¨rustic lodge¨was not like Rimrock hotel rustic it was concrete shell, no heating, no hot water rustic. I survived, but have never worn so many clothes to bed. The next day was spent in the most depressing barren wasteland environment I think I have ever seen. We were supposed to go to 4 different lagoons along the way which sounded great, but we were um...disappointed...to say the least. They looked like the average saskatchewan slough (although they did have flamingos). There were no bathroom facilities all day and the dessert doesn´t provide a lot of protection if one chooses to use a ¨natural bathroom¨. We did get to one very cool random large rock in the middle of nowhere. when we arrived at the Laguna Colorada which is this famous red lagoon we were very disheartened. It was nothing special and it was insanely cold. It was then that our chief driver told us that we would be getting up at 5:30 am and to expect a morning temperature of around -18 to 20. YES, MINUS 20!!!!! THIS IS OUR SUMMER HOLIDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Shelagh is a true Canadian because she knew it was minus 20 when her nasal hairs froze. We have vowed that we are only going to warm places for the rest of our lives with the one exception of Antarctica. The lodge looked like a prison. Again, concrete shell, walls that didn´t connect to ceiling, no flush toilets, no running water. It´s not my favorite place
andean flamingoesandean flamingoesandean flamingoes

These guys got a bad deal...the other flamingoes live in galapagos, the carribean etc. etc. They actually have ice on their legs in the morning!
we´ve stayed so far.

So, at 5:30 am we loaded back into the Mean Machine. No shower, no face wash, no breakfast. Our destination this time...guysers. We did see a beautiful sunrise and then got to the guysers. You´ve gotta admit, it´s pretty awe inspiring to see the power of the earth. Sometimes we think we´ve got the earth under our control and then you get to a place like this where the ¨Pacha mama¨decides she´s in charge. There were only a couple of small guysers, but there were bubbling pots of mud and boiling water everywhere. Now, I´ve been to Yellowstone in the US and Rotarua in New Zealand but the advantage with these is that they´re in S. America... so your guide says ¨Be Careful the Earth is thin here you may fall through if you step in the wrong spot...Have Fun!¨ There are no ropes, signs, boardwalks or other silly western inventions. It was pretty cool to get up close to the roaring crevices shooting steam and of course the yummy smelling sulfer gas that always accompanies these things. We went to the ¨thermal baths¨that are nearby. Well, I have seen a lot of things in
Stunning moutainsStunning moutainsStunning moutains

including some active volcanoes
life that didn´t live up to their hype, but this one may have taken the cake. It is one little puddle about 8 ft diameter. No benches around it, let alone a building with change rooms etc. You are expected to just strip down and jump in. Have I mentioned how cold it is here?!?!?!?! Needless to say there was no thermal bathing for our group. There were however, somewhat surprisingly, great bathrooms. These may have been a highlight of the three days for me. Other than the old bathroom attendant guy saying ¨cabelleros a la izquierda¨(translation gentlemen left)...me ignoring him and continuing to walk to the right , him saying louder ¨cabelleros a la izquierda¨... me turning and saying and saying in my best absolutely not spanish ¨I´m Not a guy¨. Just because I´m a foot taller than him doesn´t mean I´m a guy. Shelagh tried to console me saying that it was just cuz I was wearing my toque (I know, it doesn´t make sense but she was nice to try wasn´t she?)

By this time we were able to put away the sleeping bags in the truck and settle in for some more driving. We arrived again at the red lake and this time it was much more impressive, it was actually red and led to some good photos. I am definately getting jaded in the bird watching (even more than when I started out). I have now reached the point where I don´t get out of a vehicle to look at flamingos.

A few hours and no breakdowns later we got to the valley of the rocks which was VERY cool. I have no idea what kind of weird geological joke the gods were playing in this part of the world but this part of it involves huge standing rocks for a few kilometers. They are beautiful and weird. We saw a funny rabbit thing sitting on the rocks.It resembled a kangaroo but was able to run vertically up the rocks.

So then the icing on the 4WD through the desert trip...we broke down again and foolishly thought it would just be the same thing and our guy could fix that problem with his eyes shut now...Nope, this was another of those minor problems that anyone can fix by the roadside...the transmission! Luckily our guide had watched his fair share of McGuyver episodes
Our Prison...I mean hotelOur Prison...I mean hotelOur Prison...I mean hotel

East German Prison or Gap Tours hotel?
and with a coathanger and a piece of wire was able to tie it all together. He didn´t even have to use the piece of underwire bra we offered him (someone elses bra of course ' note: when going on really dodgy 4WD trips, wear a sports bra). Anyway, worked like a charm and all we needed was a stop for some gas and we were headed home. On a karmic side note, the vehicle in our group that didn´t stop for us when we were broken down ran out of gas shortly after but we just assumed they had finally decided to wait for us so we didn´t stop for them. I never thought I´d be happy to see the lights of Uyuni but we were very glad to be back. We checked into the only decent hotel in town and had our first shower in 3 days.

The restaurant in the hotel is a pizza joint run by an american guy who is presumably in the witness protection program (how the hell else does one end up living in Uyuni) and makes a fantastic pizza, a fantastic cake,and a fantastic sandwhich and...you get the point. It would
Anything to get warmAnything to get warmAnything to get warm

If the earth is going to provide natural heating I´m going to use it
be an excellent restaurant anywhere, in Uyuni after 3 days of sand and salt it´s heaven! We ordered one of everything on the menu and happily munched away for a couple hours. Shelagh says it´s the best pizza she´s ever had (she was several beers into by this point so I wouldn´t trust her - oh, they also had beer from a local micro brewarywhich she declares the best beer in south america and believe me she´s tried them all!). I felt the need to keep my tape worm drunk so ordered a ¨laguna colorado¨(the red lake) it turned out to be a shirley Temple with the local terrible and strong alcohol added (missing the point of the shirley temple perhaps). When someone asked me how it was I said ¨It´s like it´s namesake, red, and bloody f"$king cold¨. Why does it always happen that the room goes quiet just as I´m saying something like that? We climbed into a warm bed and said a quick prayer of thanks that we would never have to return to Uyuni.

The next morning we had sampled the fantastic breakfasts of our hotel, truely amazing banana, apple, cinnamon pancakes, good coffee... Unfortunately
Hard days workHard days workHard days work

Do we look authentic or just scared as we head to the mine?
our food filled dream was shattered by the reality of a 6.5 hour bus ride to Potosi. Of all the buses we´ve been on this was one of the worst. Primarly because of the smell. I can´t even explain it, just imagine something you wouldn´t want to smell on a long bus ride and that was it. We actually arrived in Potosi (the highest city in the world) an hour earlier than scheduled which practically put us over the moon.

This morning (after Shelagh drinking 2 glasses of scurvy medication - orange juice) we went on a tour of the local silver and zinc mine. At one point in history the silver from these mines literally propped up the Spanish empire and at one point was latin americas largest and wealthiest city. You might not guess that from the current state of the city. It is now a Unesco world heritage site (we´ve lost track of how many we´ve seen) . 8 million people have died in the mines in their history including african slaves, incas and pretty much everyone they could convince or force to work here. Even with my familiarity with and amusement of safety standards here,
Tio...the devilTio...the devilTio...the devil

kind a cute don´t ya think?
I was a little bit surprised at this tour. First of all you drive through the miners market and stop at a stall where they tell you about thesupplies the miners need. 1) Coca leaves - they put about 300 coca leaves in their mouths. This serves several purposes it stops the hunger and thirst sensations so theydon´t need to eat or drink. It also acts as a clock in the dark underground where there´s no day or night. The juice from the leaves lasts 4 hours, they put in another wad, that lasts four hours, then they know they´re done their shift. 2)Cigarettes -they are special cigs with cinnamon, cilantro, black tobacco. Supposedly this is because the minors prefer to smell the smoke instead of the smell of the mine. There aren´t flamable gasses in these mines to apparently it´s not dangerous. 3)Alcohol - we´re not talking fine wines here, it´s 95% alcohol that smells like rubbing alcohol. They only take a few drinks a day and sometimes just rub it under their noses to control the smell too. I guess sometimes on fridays they drink too much and there are accidents. 4) Dynamite -Yup, Dynamite. It´s the only place in the world where you can just buy dynamite, and the nitroglycerin cap you stuff inside and the fuse... 5) Ammonia Nitrate-which i believe is potash right? which is used to increase the effect of the dynamite. In air it makes a 5 m radius explosion into a 15 m explosion. In rock it changes a 20 cm explosion to a 25 cm explosion. It´s also very illegal everywhere thanks to our friend Bin Laden. So you are to buy some of these things for the miners. We opted for the tourist grab bag that contains all of the above and tossed in a couple of chocolate bars for good measure.

Then you suit up in water proof pants and jacket, rubber boots(wellies for the brits in the crowd) hardhat and mining light. Our guide referred to the attractive blond in the group (I mean the other attractive blond) as Mining Barbie and it was true, if Matel introduces a line of blue collar worker barbies, that´s exactly what mining Barbie will look like. We took a minibus up a crazy little road to the mine entrance. The mine (which is actually a whole bunch of little mines together) is run as a cooperative and there are 10 000 miners working there. They start at about age 15. Some of them just push wheel barrows with 120 kg of rock in them, some work winches, eventually if you´re still alive you work your way up to dynamite guy. As you enter the mine there is Llamas blood on the entrance. The miners know that since they are hungry the Pacha Mama must also be hungry so they sacrifice llamas to feed her a few times a year. When you get about 25 m in, you can no longer see the outside light. At this point the miners make the sign of the cross. Then they leave Jesus who is god of the light outside and worship Tio, the devil, who is the god of the dark. They make sacrifices to Tio a few times a week inside the mine.

The mine is dark and there are collapses everywhere. To be honest we were a bit afraid, it wasn´t safe at all. At one point I went down a ladder first in our group. The guide told me that if I walked a few feet further I could look up through the hole we had just looked down through as we walked past. As I started towards the hole a rock about the size of computer monitor came through the hole and crashed in front of me. A girl in our group had accidentally kicked it, and it almost broke Shelaghs foot on route. You have to climb down ladders, crawl under rock, squish against the wall as the wheeled cart full of ore rolls byat 30 km-hr. The miners mainly looked pissed off that you´re holding them up. The tour ends with a climb of about 20 feet requiring hands etc to get out. Shelagh couldn´t get Frank slide out of her head and was very glad to survive ¨the stupidest thing I´ve ever done¨

Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective the lowest paid miner makes about 200 bolivianos per day which would be about $25- $30 cdn. This is more than a doctor makes here. Not much incentive towards higher education. Many of the miners can onlywork 15 days per month because it´s too hard on them. In 1997 one lucky son of a gun hit a vein of pure silver and he now makes $15 000 per day. Yup, that´s no typo. It´s a vein 2m by2m of pure silver. One hunk of rock that fits in your hand is worth $12. He no longer goes to the mine but has 2000 guys that work for him in the mines, they get 75% of the money (presumably split 2000 ways) and he gets 25%. He drives 2 hummers. It was at some point during this story that I became very unclear on the concept of a ¨cooperative¨. We were a pretty quiet bunch when we left and I think we´re all still not quite sure how we felt about this experience.

To make ourselves feel better we ate Salteñas (look at me using the spanish keyboard) from a vendor on the street. They´re little pastry things filled with potatoe onion etc. For 3 each for shelagh and I I think I paid 50 cents. We then went to the posh coffee shop, drank double espressos and ate rich cakes.

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18th August 2006

I'm glad I didn't know what you were doing
Shelagh it's just as well I didn't know about the road and how dangerous it was. You and Heather are certainly seeing pleanty. You will be needing a holiday before you both start work. We are really enjoying reading about your adventures. By the way that is very good Vodka you were drinking!
19th August 2006

caught up at last
sorry. totally forgot about your travel blog and have just spent an hour reading it. what a fantastic experience you're both having. it all sounds amazing. the mine sounded a bit scary tho! loving your pics. it's like a geography lesson. keep it up

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