Monthly Archives: August 2019

Do the Hop

Tuesday, July 23

Our friend Laura’s description of her Green Tortoise vacations had gotten me interested in that style of travel, so I signed us on to the Bolivia Hop bus from La Paz to Lima.  It went to places that I wanted to see (Nazca primarily) and it would put us with different people than you meet on a private guided tour.  You see the people who have your budget.

“They only want to drink Chardonnay at ten in the morning, and talk about their surgeries.”

— cousin Johan, describing Queen Mary Round-The-World passengers

Recently, Laura told us that Green Tortoise is in financial trouble because nobody wants to, or is allowed to, come see Trump’s America.  They always had had a lot of foreign tourists.

Our guide met us in our hotel at 6am to take us to meet the Bolivia Hop bus at a centrally-located hostel.  It was a pleasure hanging out with him in our trip through Bolivia, he spoke good English, and knew everything about Bolivia and all the birds and plants we saw.

The Bolivia Hop bus finally arrived, and took us to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca.  At one point, there was a strait that we crossed, people going on a little boat, and the bus floating across on a raft.  A tour from Copacabana went to Isla Del Sol, getting there late and telling us we have to leave early.

Skip the Isla del Sol tour, even though Copacabana is a fat bore as well.  If you take this trip you will see on the island:

  1. Your own feet, one in front of the other as fast as you can, mounting rocks on the unmarked trail from where the boat leaves you off to where the boat picks you up. 
  2. There is no 2.

It seems this is a lovely little island, looking past the gauntlet of sellers of Chinese-made souvenirs. You cannot see it in forty-five minutes. You could not see your own front porch in 45 minutes. The recommended Bolivia hop boat leaves after 1300, arrives at 1440, and you must be at another place at 1530 in order to meet the boat which returns you to the bus at 1700. This is not an island tour. This is a boat ride and a high altitude sprint. Maybe this is what you want. Maybe there really isn’t anything to see in Copacabana. In the first two hours we were there, I didn’t see anything.  (Reader responses are welcome.  You know our addresses.)

We returned, got back on the bus, went 15 minutes to the Peru border, and said goodbye to the Bolivia Hop bus (They use a different bus from the Peru Hop.  Maybe there is a problem with gauges and they don’t feel like swapping bogies).  

We boarded the Peru Hop bus which took us up to the city of Puno, on the west side of the lake.  We checked in to our hotel, after some dodging of street demonstrations in a shuttle (Peru Hop offloads you to a shuttle and takes you to your hotel), then had dinner at Mojsa, a nice restaurant overlooking the square, currently surrounded by blue tarps for renovation.

And so to bed.

Wednesday, July 24

We put the big pieces of luggage in storage, and took the smaller ones with us as we were picked up for the Island Homestay tour. That started with a visit to the Uros floating islands, where 4600 people live on 120 small islands made out of mud covered with totoro reeds, as they have for 3700 years.  They have ceremonial boats made out of reeds, which they push with a little motorboat.

The islanders don’t like tourists much, but the ones closest to the shore appreciate the hard currency and conduct their PowerPoint presentations, with prefabricated jokes and facts such as: they can’t play basketball here because you can’t launch off the surface of the reeds.

Our guide speaks Aymara and Quechua after mother and father. Then Spanish, English, and Italian. But in December he will become a lawyer.

We then continued to head for Amantani Island, but at one point the tour guide was concerned by the wind on the lake, and we turned around to head back to Puno.  Before too long we turned back around, and the tour guide said that it would be safe to go to the peninsula in front of the island, and that we could do our homestay there.  So we did:  we had lunch, and were assigned to a family who were in the process of building a little hotel.  We had a private room with a bathroom, which missed only a toilet seat and a shower head.  I’m sure they’ll finish it eventually.  We walked around the neighborhood, saw a couple men making mud bricks for a building they were constructing, and watched some ducks.  There were llamas and sheep all over, including baby ones.

One of the tourists was having a birthday, which gave an awkward excuse to dance. For this they passed out brightly colored Native Shawls which might not even have been made in China, since the wages are so much lower here.  It was awkward.  We did not dance.  Introverts are kind of like Jesus; we feel awkward for the things that extroverts do that they ought to be utterly humiliated to be seen at.  Dancing in native costume is the same as putting the skulls of your defeated enemies around your roofline, or wearing the skins of animals you have slain.  Making the defeated culture participate is even more demeaning. It is blackface.

It’s cold at Lake Titicaca, as well.  There wasn’t heat yet, in the hotel under construction.  Nor electricity at all, after a time.  The shawls helped with the heat.  For all the lack of utilities, we hadn’t regressed to the neolithic: a car alarm sounded about three in the morning.

Thursday, July 25

In the morning, we were to go to Taquile Island.  But the previous day high winds had overturned five boats there, and a captain had been injured.  So the police said no, and we just returned to Puno.  There were Titicaca Grebes to watch, when we were close enough to shore.  They skitter cutely across the water.  The captain goes slowly past the reed islands, because of reed mats in the water that might foul the blades.

When we got back to Puno, our guide told us that the whole city was on strike and we could walk to our hotels, starting with walking over four boats to get to the dock.  Others had more suitcases than we did.  But somebody rustled up a minibus.  It wouldn’t have been that far a walk.

Strikes were a continuous problem in Peru.  The miners were also striking, and one of their actions was to block roads.  They were more serious about it than the blockaders in Bolivia.  When a road was blocked, nobody went past, and a bus hasn’t the option of driving on the little dirt roads.  As a result, many of our departures were delayed by hours, or threatened with delay, which requires the same amount of contingency planning.

We were able to get a “day room” in our hotel, Suites Antonio, allowing us a base to walk around as we waited for our 9pm departure to Arequipa.  They must be used to this.  It wasn’t expensive.  The night room was $27.

We walked around Puno.  Up to a viewpoint with a graffiti-covered statue.  Peering into stores and cafes.  It was warm.  High deserts can be nice during the day during the winter.  I bought a paper describing the winds the day before, with pictures of the wrecked boats on the island we couldn’t go to.  Buying a paper seems as esoteric as buying an Andean hat doll.  Far from normal life.  Something only seen at the antipodes.

La Yapa

Saturday, July 20

We got up early and headed to the airport to fly to La Paz.  I couldn’t see Lake Poopo because there was a cloud bank over it.  Poopo and Titicaca are what everyone remembers from elementary school South American geography.  What is not made clear, is that the lakes of the altiplano are arranged in an order.  Titicaca flows into Poopo which empties into the Salar de Uyuni, just like the Rye Patch Reservoir in Nevada drops into Humboldt Sink.

As we drove away from the airport (another day, another car and driver) after arriving in La Paz, we stopped at a little observation point and looked at the city, with millions of houses covering slopes of hills, with even higher snow-covered mountains in the background.  It had snowed in town a couple days earlier, but there was no sign of it by the time we got there.  Things get ritzier and ritzier the further downhill you go: at the top, by the airport, is El Alto, a city of essentially millions of poor people.  As you go down into La Paz the buildings get fancier.  We stayed at the premium mediocre “Ritz Apart Hotels All Suites”, in a room which was definitely not a suite.  It looked like people booking directly can only get suites, but tour companies can put people in ordinary rooms.  It’s nice but I’d worry about it in a fire; the stairway is in the atrium and would become unusable in minutes.

The guide is from La Paz and he would finally get some time at home briefly between the tour with us, and a two-week trekking tour he would go on a few days later.  We took it easy in the afternoon, doing some dinner research, and found Gustu, a restaurant further downhill from the hotel.  It was started by one of the cofounders of Noma, the celebrated best-in-the-world restaurant in Copenhagen.  And while it was quite expensive for Bolivia ($100 per person including drinks) it was still way less than anything similar in San Francisco would have been.   We made a reservation for the only time available, 9:30, and signed up for the two-hour 15-course tasting menu.

Every course was tiny, and almost all of the ingredients were unfamiliar.  Imagine Benu on an exoplanet.  It was all delicious.  We were definitely full by the time it was over.

We really are animals, not souls, and you feel it when we’re presented with a stack of unfamiliar inputs. The next morning, my digestive system was bewildered. Gustu is challenging in a way El Bulli is not: chemically. Adriá changed physically everything. But the chemicals were the same as what you’ve been eating all along (rabbit brains, again?) and liquid nitrogen and calcium alginate don’t change what your stomach enzymes see.  The Amazonian vegetal bestiary of Bolivia is a whole nother ball game.

Gustu is also a bar.  Bar food!  we were eating bar snacks!  The music was not Mos Eisley however.  It was interesting; we had to shazam some of it.  We ordered one drink.  Having a drink in front of you is like having a tour guide in Bamako:  it’s there to keep the bar people from hassling you to buy a drink.

Sunday, July 21

The guide was scheduled to do a city tour with us including the Gold Museum, but we decided, gold, meh, let’s take the two-hour drive out to Tiahuanaco.  (The first hour was getting out of La Paz, including driving through El Alto.)  Tiwanaku is an archaeological site displaying buildings of a culture which imploded around 1000 A.D., and the farmers scattered.  Drought?  Dissension?  A museum showed the timeline and many artifacts, and then the pyramid and Sun Gate had some remarkably intact carvings outside in the adjacent desert. My favorite bit was a wall with carved faces in it, all individuals.  The stonework was exceptionally fine — no mortar, in the Machu Picchu style.  The Incas had good role models when they started being civilized again a couple of centuries later.

The site was of course looted by the Spanish, among others.  It has been deduced, from Spanish descriptions and physical evidence, that the stones of the pyramids and gates were all covered with metal, which must have been quite a sight in the blazing Andean sun.  But the metal plates were all pried off, melted down, sent to Spain to be part of Virgin icons or armor.  You can see the pry marks on every stone block.

After a delightfully small buffet lunch, we returned to La Paz, and took it easy.  For dinner, we took a taxi to Luciernaga (“firefly”) and had good food with a gracious host, who came here from the Netherlands in 2009.  Besides a soup, we had charque, the same idea as the dried llama we’d had in Uyuni, but this time with beef.  Basically, very flavorful machaca.  Again on a bed of hominy, with potatoes.  It was a bit too much for us, but we took the rest to go and finished it in the morning.

Monday, July 22

Another day on our own.

We showed up at St. Peter’s Square at 11am for the Red Cap Walking Tour, which took us through several places in the center of La Paz. The guides had many interesting stories to tell about the places we went, starting with the prison next to the square.  It was built to hold 400 and now holds 2000, including families of some inmates.  Essentially, there are no guards or cells in the prison; it’s like its own little city, with rich and poor. Inmates have phones and run businesses, including extrajudicial execution and producing cocaine.  No different from any other prison. Occasionally a packet of cocaine is ejected onto the street, and our guides warned us if that happened, to just leave it alone.  Coca Cola has a soft drink monopoly inside, just as they do in many places.  For awhile there were “tours” inside the prison, which featured rowdy parties. Eventually, after many problems, they were shut down.  Anyone offering tours now is a scammer and we were sternly advised to avoid them as it’s basically kidnapping and once in a prison how do you get out?

The tour continued up through a tourist market, and to the “witches’ market”, where lamb fetuses and dead baby lambs are sold for ceremonies used to get Mother Earth’s permission to build on a site, according to the guide’s story.  For big buildings, they still sacrifice human beings.  The guides warned us not to pass out drunk on the streets — it’s the same ritual as described in the museum in Salta.

Many other “medicinal” herbs and spices are sold as well.  The little sugar loaf icons are used in ceremonies requesting boons from Pachamama. The icon represents what you want.

The historian Kenneth Clark once said, of the Apollo Belvedere: “It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.”  I couldn’t say how many actual Bolivians know these stories, but every tourist hears them.  But we heard the tour guide version of the Bolivian Bowler Hat (introduced by English in 1920’s as a result of overstock), the standards of beauty (another poor country where Fat is Beautiful because it means you can survive famine), and traditional courtship (throwing pebbles at girls — I’d rather be whistled at).

Oh, and the sacrificial baby llamas are supposed to die by natural causes.  I bet that nature gets a hand, given the number of them.

More stops on the tour included the square outside San Francisco church, and a stop to buy fresh juice or snacks.  We bought juice.  (Cultural note: one isn’t supposed to bargain for food by price; the formula is to ask for “la yapa”, a little more food for the same price.  The word “lagniappe” derives from it.)  We visited Plaza Murillo, a square next to the main government buildings, where stories were told about history, and about protests and coups and exchanges of gunfire which had happened there. Finally, we went to a nearby cafe, where the guides told us what they really thought about Mr. Morales (“he’s done a lot of great things for the people of Bolivia, but he’s a bit erratic, and he’s subverting the democratic process by running for a fourth term”).  It will be interesting to see what happens in October: in the countryside, “EVO SÍ” was painted on almost every rock.

We walked through a handicrafts market where we didn’t buy anything, and then back to the hotel.  There was an artistic T-shirt I came close to buying, but then “$30 for a t-shirt?  That’s ridiculous” kicked in and I didn’t bother.  Although it’s less than the shirt not bought in Kiev, by a factor. We decided just to eat at the hotel on account of the early departure tomorrow; the trout poke (from Lake Titicaca) was quite good.

The Prince of Candelaria

Thursday, July 18

We checked out and headed in the direction of Sucre, the old capital named not for sugar but for the other founder of Bolivia (i.e. not Mr. Bolívar), although French tourists like to come here for the name.  Without counting, I thought I noticed more German tourists in Argentina and more French tourists in Bolivia.

Driving out of Potosí, you really notice how much it’s like a giant West Virginia.   All tailings and chemicals.  Economic Development always means destruction of the earth.  Well-being for this generation of workers means death to their grandchildren.  It’s the sort of conundrum that evolution takes care of in the very long term, as it did with oxygen pollution.  We passed a big airport expansion underway.  Runways at a high elevation must be long.

There were no roadblocks along the way.  We stopped at a couple of miradors, including the Puente Sucre, a bridge that used to span the Pilcomayo River.  It fell into disuse, was reconstructed, and then a couple of meters of the reconstructed bridge dropped into the river again, so now you just admire the towers and use the new bridge a couple of kilometers downstream.

We arrived at the hotel Merced, and walked to a dumb international restaurant in a nearby fancy hotel for lunch.  Boeuf a l’orange on the patio with mashed potatoes that might have come from a box.  Then we did a bit of sightseeing, walking around the Franciscan cathedral near the square, and stopping at a museum which should have been open, but whose owners had decided to take the day off.  Furries were dancing in the road around the plaza.  Evidently, a safety campaign, suggested by zebra striping in crosswalks in La Paz and featuring dancers in zebra costumes, has spread to other cities.  In Sucre, there are orange and green crocodiles.  Sucre is a university town, which must contribute to the availability of costumed workers.  Students are a large part of the crowd, even outnumbering tourists when you get a couple of blocks from the main square.

The strongest public awareness campaign is against littering.  It’s not just somebody ran off 100,000 No Tire Basura signs and that was it — there are zillions of handmade signs against littering, using different images and individual wording, and it must be that a ton of people are involved in this.  I hope it works.  There is trash all over the world.  People haven’t really internalized the idea that modern packaging doesn’t decay the way basketwork of the last 200,000 years decays.  it will be with us for a while.  And one doesn’t throw things “away” on a round planet.

After that, Ray walked around with Julio, while I went to find a place to work.  The closest hit in Google Maps for “coworking” was a spot around the corner called IDIF, Instituto De Investigationes Forensicos.  That location was actually being renovated, and I walked a few blocks to where it had moved.  It appeared not to actually be a coworking space, but they sent me to Metro Cafe, where there was actually fast WiFi.  My main mission was to do a 3GB download of the latest version of Xcode.  It failed after 45 minutes, but I got a good copy of it after another hour.

The walk with Julio took us to the Parque Bolívar, not far from the center of town.  This park features a viewing platform which they affectionately call the Torre Eiffel, because it was designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1906, and is similar to his larger structure in Paris.  It’s painted orange, like the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the middle of winter, the park is a little tatty, plantwise, but the citizens were still there.

We had dinner at Pueblo Chico, a little place on the square.

Friday, July 19

On this day, we were scheduled for a tour out of town to a little village.  I was prepared to skip the tour, but during the download the previous night I discovered that the work I thought I’d have to start on wasn’t actually necessary. 

We started at a little viewpoint square at the top of Sucre for a visit we’d skipped the previous evening due to the angle of the sun.  Then we continued on out of town, stopping first at the entrance to a village called Tarabuco.  Tarabuco is famous for the ferocity of its native warriors. They trained by living outdoors for years at a time.  Their signature move was ripping the hearts out of their Catholic adversaries and eating them raw.

The Christian historians don’t mention this, but despite their viciousness and economic and technological power, there are places they didn’t get to. “Uncontacted” tribes in Brazil, Baltic pagans, and a lot of redoubts in Bolivia.  La Paz itself was divided between Spanish and Native controlled areas.  And the guidebooks tell you that it’s not done to mention Christian gods in the mines of Potosí — that’s El Tío’s territory.

Tarabuco was such a place.  Trade is still largely by barter.

Julio had retained two local guides for the trip to the hacienda.  He was friends with the grandmother of the driver; the guide was a student majoring in tourism.  When the conversation turned to barter, I asked the driver — as a humanizing gesture — how many generations it had been, since his family had conducted trade by barter.  I can certainly give the answer for my family.  Five matrilineal generations back, we were trading furs by the shores of Gitchi Gumee.

This effort at bonding failed.  Nicolas was offended I should even say such a thing.  Nicolas is a direct descendant of the couple who was granted the hacienda, married by the pope, given the title Prince and Princess (apparently without portfolio; nobody ever said what they were prince and princess OF) and here he is driving a car to show impertinent tourists the ruins of the weedy estate Candelaria, where the old blind caretaker (his grandmother’s babysitter) and her granddaughter totter around the courtyard with spiders and pigeons, keeping a couple of rooms habitable for overnight youth hostellers and preparing soup for day trippers, dusting off the family portraits, occasionally editing the Wikipedia entry.

After lunch, we looked at a room of old farm implements, which must be part of some “How to Write about Africa”-style handbook of small town tourism worldwide.  We walked into the nearby town where we watched a woman making a weaving on a hand loom.  We hope she will get paid handsomely for it since it will have taken her days and days to complete.  The dyes are made from petrochemicals and come from China.

The guide’s father’s family was from Poland, before the war.  I got Henri’s WhatsApp contact info, and wrote to him afterwards, that having a conversation with somebody about how his family came to Bolivia is worth visiting ten museums.

On the way back to the main road, we gave two boys a ride from their school to a football match.  They were hitchhiking as a joke, I think.  People here are used to walking.  However, since Nicolas is technically from the village of Candelaria, it wasn’t that far-fetched a gesture.  I am always fond of uncomfortable relationships.  Let them feel what I feel around everyone.

After driving back to town, we returned to the museum which was now open, and saw its collections of paintings, colonial and “contemporary”, in other words, before and after 1900.  There was a gallery of paintings of presidents of the republic; for some reason there wasn’t one of the current president (since 2006) Evo Morales.  One item available in the gift shop was a deck of cards, showing a different painting from their Contemporary collection on each card, one of the best deals ever for getting a museum’s catalog.

The Classical museum had examples of criminal sexual perversion of the sort usually found in Catholic art.  The virgin nursing St. Bernard and the Christ Child was one, and also the cockroot of the Baby Jesus.  This manifestation of sagging — totally an attention-getting device — is usually found in bathroom mirror selfies by men who still think they might still run for office one day, or Paco Rabanne models doing testicular cancer awareness campaigns.  I was in the middle of a meandering thread with Kent about the latter manifestation, and here it was in religious art.  

Dinner was at a little place near the hotel called Azafran.

Workin’ in the Silver Mine

Tuesday, July 16

On Monday we had heard from our guide that there was a blockade between Uyuni and Potosí, our next destination.  Rather than drive almost twice as far to avoid it, we proceeded up the road with the hopes that negotiation might let us through.  Sure enough, within an hour of driving we encountered two buses sideways blocking the road.  We sat there during an hour of negotiations between our driver and police and strikers and various truckers and their next higher-ups. The activists who had blocked the road became amenable to turning the action from agitprop to fundraising.  So rather than run the blockade, it became a “fill the boot” drive, such as is held by the Sky Londa Fire Station.  The only thing missing was trays of lasagne and plastic forks.  And Jerry Lewis, of course.

They moved one of the buses and we continued.  This sort of thing is apparently very common in Bolivia and Peru, and has been for years.

Potosí is a city built to serve a very old silver mine.  It is surrounded by mountains and is very beautiful in the way that a million dead slaves can make an old town beautiful.  We had lunch next to the hotel at an Authentic Bolivian Restaurant.  They had nonstop videos playing Korean pop music.  You expect them to listen to Bob Marley still?  The food was similarly international.  Potosí is a university town.  Students are a large part of the crowd, even outnumbering tourists when you get a couple of blocks from the main square.

We were taken to the Mint House for a tour.  The silver from the mine was used in the mid-1500s to make coins that were used all over New Spain.  They were all hand-stamped, and there were no punches so they were never perfectly round.  There is one functional silver working machine on the premises.  If you were to hitch up four mules to it in the basement, you could press silver like pasta, just as was done centuries ago.  

After the tour, we had dinner on our own at a nearby restaurant, eating Bolivian traditional dishes.  One of them was pretty much meat and potatoes, all covered by a sauce that was almost entirely paprika.  We encountered paprika in a lot of Bolivian dishes.  Did it come from here, to Hungary, or was it returned from Hungary?  Chili Peppers are a New World genus, but they have gone everywhere in the world.

The Sopa Andina was better than the last Lipton’s Cup-a-Quinoa I had.  Not every place makes real soup stock.

We stayed in a pretty hotel, Hostel Colonial, with two courtyards, but the bathroom in room 116 smells bad, as if a turd or small animal had died there.  I’ve smelled this in bathrooms before.  Never chose to pursue the analysis scientifically.  Null hypothesis is that they have mistaken the P trap for a ventilator fan.

Wednesday, July 17

In the morning we headed up to the silver mine for a tour.  On the way we stopped in a shopping district for miners, where they buy shovels, pickaxes, protective clothing. The miners in Potosí are expected to purchase, either out of their own paychecks or through their co-operatives, everything they need to do their jobs.  Coca leaves, foremost.  Working class men in Bolivia generally have rodent cheeks bulging with coca and the various flavoring agents that you can chew with it, without which extended work at high altitudes is impossible.  The main single-point mutation that Tibetans exhibit, increasing the efficiency of hemoglobin at high altitudes, has not occurred in the Andes.  Other advantageous mutations have been identified.  African slaves could not work here and were sent to the lowlands, after brief experiments in the colonial period. But mostly it’s coca.

The result is that there are old ladies running tiny shops on the streets leading up to the mine, where dynamite, fuses, blasting caps, boots, shovels, ammonium nitrate, hard hats, coca leaves, anise flavored paste, and the like, sit next to each other on the shelves with Fanta and toilet paper and cigarettes.

And ethanol.  There is a native God, El Tío (Dios, but the Aymara language didn’t distinguish “d” and “t”) who protects the miners (not doing a great job: millions have died since the 16th century, and even today the life expectancy of a miner at Cerro Rico is 40 years) and He expects the miners to garland him with Carneval paper streamers, coca, cigarettes, and a few drops of 96% ethanol on His head, hands, feet, eyes, and enormous red penis, every time they get the chance.  Pachamama, the Earth Mother, also wants you to pour one out for the homies.

On special days, llama blood and the head of the sacrificed llama, as well.

At the mine, we were issued a rubber jacket, pants, and boots, which we put on over most everything else we were wearing.  A headlamp was attached to our hard hats, and we proceeded into the mine.  The mine shafts have electricity and oxygen pipes running everywhere, and it was actually quite breathable.  But one is constantly ducking under overhanging beams, pipes, and rock ceilings.  We stopped to see the devil effigy, and then continued to a side shaft where a 17-year-old worker was moving a pile of ore, one wheelbarrow at a time, from where it had been broken up, to the spot where we were standing, next to the trolley tracks in the shaft where we had entered.  I continued on a bit farther, but the height was such that I was walking pretty constantly bent over, and we decided that we had gotten the idea and headed back out into the daylight.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, and walked to a little church where we took the tour of the cathedral, the roof, and the paintings in the courtyard of the convent.  It was all in Spanish, but one of the workers typed as much as he could into Google Translate, and showed us the results in English.  It was very sweet of him.  The observation platform at the top of the roof had a great view of the city.  The tiles, similar to the ones in California, are called “musleras”, Spanish for “thigh”, because they were originally formed around the roofer’s thigh.

We met the guide for dinner at another traditional Bolivian restaurant.  The food included llullucha soup and pique macho.  Llullucha is a bacterium that grows in little green spheres in lakes.  Very nice, hard to describe except in terms of spherized this-and-that which you might have found in very trendy restaurants a decade ago.  As with many human inventions, nature got there first.  Pique Macho is Bolivian for way too much food; also tasty and picante.

Cum Planum Salis

Sunday, July 14

We continued along the highway to Uyuni, a dusty little town near the Uyuni Salt Flats.  Apparently the ex-mayor is in prison for corruption; they are getting tons of income from tourists and salt mining, but seem to have little to show for it in terms of infrastructure.  Typical.  (You’ve heard the stories about lithium in Bolivia, with a huge proven reserve under the salt flats.  They are doing their best to figure out how to get it out of the ground and into phone batteries, but it will probably be a decade before they succeed.)  

We walked through the Sunday Market in Uyuni.  It was a real market, not a tourist market, where the people in the villages surrounding the Salar Uyuni come to buy Star Wars t-shirts for their kids, or plastic spatulas.

The Bolivian lady stitching on the hem was in some other part of the downtown area, which is entirely tour agencies and souvenir shops.  I haven’t been here long, but I’m thinking, they really do dress in that national costume, with the hats and the shawls and stuff.  Answer:  it’s cold. As soon as the sun goes down, or you step into the shadow of a building, it’s below freezing.  The salt water puddles are frozen, in the mountains, Fahrenheit speakers take note.  So you have a lot of fabric around you, and it might as well be cheerful and bright.

We visited the Train Cemetery, a place with hundreds of rusted old freight train cars and engines, these days mostly used as graffiti surfaces and climbing objects for kids.  When industrial decay is artistic in its own right, you shouldn’t put graffiti on it.  Graffiti is like medicine: first of all, do no harm. Leave the campground better than you found it.  Dan Savage used that metaphor about sex.  (There aren’t any metaphors not about sex.) Climbing kids, of course, improve everything, even the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Then we drove out of town, and out onto the salt flats for sunset.  On the way, I asked the guide how deep the salt was.  He said there was 10cm of salt, then a layer of brine, and then more salt, and more brine, down hundreds of meters.  After we parked, we did see a hole under the truck with water beneath.  The interesting thing though was that the driver decided that one of the tires was flat (didn’t look that bad to me) and went about changing it.  We were worried that the jack would concentrate so much weight on the salt that it would break through.  But no problem, it worked just fine.  We had peanuts, potato chips, and wine, and took pictures.  Tourist vans dotted the horizon.

The sun set, and we headed to the hotel.

Ray reacted badly to something, perhaps the peanuts or wine or just the altitude, but got immediately into bed when we arrived.  I went and had the hotel dinner, which had a really nice masaco, a Bolivian croquette of some sort made out of plantain.  I also braved fish, which was from Lake Titicaca, which isn’t that far upstream from Uyuni.  Titicaca, Poopo, and Salar Uyuni are all the same watershed.  Uyuni is the last stop.

Monday, July 15

Ray decided his headache was more likely from reading in a moving vehicle; he felt much better in the morning.  We checked out (sad! the hotel was very nice) and headed back out onto the salt flats.  We crossed them, going to a village beneath a beautiful but inactive volcano, visiting a little museum of old artifacts, and a quirky sculpture garden.  After a short lunch in the middle of the salt flats, we went to Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered island, and climbed to the top for great views over the salt playa.  Ray took a photo of a cactus that he later found on a post card.

Lately I read an article, probably British, decrying the tendency of tourists to take the same photo over and over for Instagram.  Whatever.  It isn’t that everyone wants to take the Instagram photo, it’s that it’s the only view left.  There is only one angle from which you can now photograph the pyramids at Giza, that does not reveal that they are surrounded by a grimy Cairo slum, thrown up as Egypt attempts to manage 90 million people when they had a world empire with 1% that many.  As it applies to Uyuni, there is only one photo they encourage: sunset over the salt flats.  All other images reveal the horrific devouring of a world treasure: premium mediocre hotels at the north edge of the flat, clay and concrete metastasizing mining shanty towns surrounding them, housing desperately poor workers as the salt flats are dug up using every giant machine that China has to offer.  The mining is done, starting from the south.  A few traditional mines, with picks and trucks, also near Uyuní.  It was the town industry, after all.  There will be a great Instagram moment when the two meet: luxury hotels overlooking a pit.

In the middle of the flat, one may find stretches of untrammeled surface, and not see the edges on account of the round earth. The flats are 11,000 square kilometers in size.  That’s 20 times bigger than the playa at Burning Man. 

There is one Nat Geo shot of Uyuni that you have to work for.  It happens every year a few times, after the rains have come.  During the rainy season, the salt flats can be covered by as much as 50 mm of water, which evaporates at the rate of 6 mm per day.  The really great images of Salar Uyuni, the ones that don’t look like the hard packed overflow parking lot in a ski area at the beginning of spring, happen at the instant when God’s Zamboni has scraped off all the tire marks.  We are not here to post that photo.  Eclipse chasers miss all the Rainy Season shots — the thundering waterfalls, the mating flamingoes.

After our drive across the salt flat, our guide checked us into La Petite Porte.  This hotel would have been OK except that it was designed during the hotel design era when bathrooms were reconceptualized as performance spaces.  (Rooms 3 and 4 were, anyway.  Peering into the other rooms, which were open and unoccupied, it seemed that more normal western privacy sensibility prevailed.  We really do want a video camera between our behavior and the people spying on it.)

We went around the block for dinner to Tika, where the hit was charque, a big pile of strips of dried llama, over a base of hominy with one of the 200 varieties of potatoes on the side.

High Plains Drifting

Friday, July 12

We got up very early in the morning.  Our host at the rooming house had arranged for her taxi driver friend to come and pick us up; he did that, but she hadn’t exactly told him we were going to the bus station, so he started driving us to the airport.  As I was following along on Google Maps, the mistake became apparent when he passed the bus station.  We said No and he turned around and Dave had bus station coffee and Svenhard’s and we got on the bus.

It was another endurance test, this time a 10-hour bus ride from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama.  The bus went right past the hotel in Purmamarca.  There was no way to return a SiXT car in Purmamarca.  I tried.  Someone had posted on TripAdvisor that she had made a deal with the SiXT in Salta and done this, but I wasn’t able to find the right person to talk to.  So we had made the best of it, returning to the Salta museum and restaurant scene.  

The bus literally didn’t stop until it reached the border, 7 hours in.  Above Purmamarca, the road just kept going up and up.  In Colorado and California, they have 14,000-ft peaks.  In this part of the world, they have 14,000-ft plains, and that’s what we climbed up to and then drove across.

The Altitude of the border crossing was getting to me — after passing through Chilean customs, I almost put my luggage on the wrong bus.  But everybody’s watching to make corrections.

San Pedro de Atacama is what Donald Trump thinks foreign countries are like, outside the front gates of Buckingham Palace and other Trump properties.  It is the first town you get to, coming from Bolivia or Argentina, and it wears its  Tijuana dust with the same pride that Andorra la Vella wears its duty free cigarettes.  The first sign you see in the bus station is (in English) Watch for Pickpockets.  These signs are placed by pickpockets, so they can see where you reflexively feel for your wallet, to save them the trouble of inspecting every corner of your REI vest. There are no taxis; a random guy pulled up in a white truck and told us he was a taxi.  He had even had a card printed.  These thieves and kidnappers have it so easy, today!  I insisted we walk to the hotel, which was a few hundred meters, although it would have been easier if the streets were paved entirely, instead of in misaligned chunks scattered among dust.  The business part of SPdA is small, though the tin roof adobe shacks spread over the desert.

Dave walked around town while I attempted a bit of laundry.  After being in Salta, a bustling, crowded town, San Pedro seemed quite empty and peaceful.  I walked to one ATM which canceled my transaction repeatedly, then tried another which worked just fine.  There were two places offering “astronomy tours”, where for $20 per person we could go out in the desert at night and look through telescopes.  We didn’t bother, but I thought it was a nice thing to offer.

Then we both walked around town.  They have a little plaza and a little church.  They have a post office, where I bought a few stamps at closing time and mailed letters later.  The postman thought that a card to the US was 600 pesos and 510 would be OK with him — the airport in Santiago had said 1000.  We’ll see if they arrive before this blog is taken down in some post-mortem re-org for the Internet.

After dark, we went for dinner at a place that served good soup and OK meat and rice.  I find that people don’t serve soup hot enough in these parts.  The main interest was that the waiter looked like our friend Skye, with blond streaks, and singing along to all the background tango classics.

The hotel didn’t really bother with the concept of heat, either.  While it was quite nice during the day, once the sun goes down it gets cold! (There were plenty of warm blankets on the bed; it was only getting out of bed, or walking across the courtyard to the bathroom which was freezing.)  

We set the alarm for 6, so we’d be ready for the 7-7:30 pickup for the van to take us to the border to meet the guide for our Bolivian tour.   I worried if the van would show up in time, or at all.

Saturday, July 13

As I stood on the corner outside Hostal Barros Nativo in San Pedro de Atacama in the morning chill, at least one bus per minute drove past in every direction, ready to take tourists waiting outside their hostels in every direction away from the dusty little town, which is where they all wanted to go.  A pack of dogs consisting entirely of German Shepherds chased each other on the falling adobe wall across the street.  Are ethnically cleansed dog packs common?

The van arrived.  The driver had our names on his manifest.  It takes about 40 minutes to get to the Bolivian border.  My worry was, after the first worry, that the border post would be an abandoned shack in the desert, and we would be stuck three days trying to get out, unless everything went clockwork.

As it turned out, the border post was abandoned like the Trevi fountain on a hot summer night.  Once there, you wait in a line of minibuses, 8 to 12 people in each.  You wait a very long time.  People move from bus to bus.  It’s easier at the border crossing, if you come in with a defined bus, than if you just got there in a taxi and are waiting in the desert tundra cold alone and suspicious.

Travelers are always sizing each other up.  People are always sizing each other up:

“Eight inches or less?”

—Frank Zappa, 200 motels

“He was one of those people who are like, ‘When I was talking to the Dalai Lama…'”

—a famous person whose name I can never remember, 2006

Depending where you are and why, the questions differ. When you are seeing an eclipse, for two days before and after, everyone you hear or overhear will be asking one thing: “How many have you seen?”  There aren’t any follow up questions.  Nobody ever asks how many times you were clouded out.  It would be like asking how many of your startups failed, how often your 9-inch cock wilted; like asking a prisoner if he Did It. 

Among tourists (distinguishing “tourists” from “travelers” is so late-1980’s Lonely Planet, can you even remember it?) at large, judging from the sample space in a bus at the Bolivian border going into Avaroa National Park, the only question now asked is: how long are you out?

That has always been one of the questions, but usually it came packed in a bubble wrap of Have You Done Zion/The Mona Lisa/Jerusalem.  It has now become the only question.  Everybody knows that you have “done” Angkor Wat.  Having seen Angkor Wat only means that you had $1200 at some point in your life.  That’s about how much it costs to get from any point on earth to Cambodia and back.  If you’re living with your parents and have a job and this is one of your priorities, $1200 isn’t hard to come up with, in the middle classes.

But ten free months or seven free weeks or two available years — acquiring that treasure can be a challenge, and it’s the thing you brag about, if you’ve got it.  If you’ve quit your job to spend a good part of your twenties wearing a bright tasseled Bolivian cap — you know, I asked our tour guide where the fabric comes from, those crazy bright colors.  They are the same colors you see in African prints, and the answer is of course China, and before that, from vast fracking fields in North Dakota or the Sahara Desert and the refineries that change crude to aniline and polyester.  The guide pointed out the woman was sewing a hem on a blanket.  The blanket itself had clearly been woven on a machine in one of the 80 Chinese cities over a million people that you’ve never heard of.  The value added — made in Bolivia.

But I am getting ahead of myself by a few hours.  The border crossing from San Pedro de Atacama to the Avaroa National Park in Bolivia is slow because of bathroom.  Everyone in every bus is going to a clean, well-maintained bathroom where you can put the paper in the toilet on the Chilean side, because they are afraid it will be the last Western toilet they will see for a while.  It turns out they are wrong; Bolivia is modernizing quickly under the guidance of its effective President for Life, Evo Morales, but the distances in the desert are still great and it’s always a good idea to prepare your body for travel at 4000 meters.

The toilet line goes to the Passport Stamping line which goes to the Luggage Inspecting line which goes back to the buses, drive three or five kilometers, to a much humbler border crossing where you enter Bolivia.

We met our guide, Julio César.  He motioned us to an adobe hut with a table with baguettes which had been taunting us with their aroma the whole trip to the border, after our shuttle driver had stopped for them at a bakery.  And there was a plate of fresh avocado!  And, finally, coffee (even though it was instant).

We ate.  Then we stood in another line, which was outside, and cold, but not long, and then we were in Bolivia, and the 4×4 which would be our transportation for the next few days, and the stark desert beauty began.

It’s not easy to describe the grandeur of the Andean high desert.  Fortunately, photography has been invented since the last adjectives of 19th century were retired from common use.  360-degree completely immersive virtual reality will retire even more adjectives, especially if practiced in a freezer, with the air pressure adjusted to 2^-(altitude/5500 meters).  If you are in the habit of holding your breath while you take photos or think or anything, you’ll really notice it.

We spent the day driving across the altiplano, all above 4400 meters.  The vistas were stunning.  There was a geothermal area with geysers and bubbling mud.  This was made more accessible at another location with a hot spring, and a pool at exactly my favorite hot tub temperature.  We had brought bathing suits for the possibility, and put them to use.  There were tufts of grass and unusual crown-like cirrus clouds.  There were foxes and vicuñas and seagulls.  There was a “rock tree”, a formation vaguely in the shape of a tree, located near too many other formations to even see, let alone name.

And there were lagoons.  Flamingoes and gulls flock to them in large numbers, in the summer time; in the dead of winter there are not so many, and the flamingoes are only of one species, James’s.  All the work of learning to distinguish them from the Andean flamingo and the Chilean flamingo, was unnecessary.  The lagoons are mineral-rich salt lakes, named for their bright colors (Verde, Colorado) from arsenic, or iron, or even algae.  In the Red Lagoon, I was able to slowly approach a group of flamingoes, and take tons of pictures.  (It turned out that the next day, there were even friendlier ones.) 

The sky was the deep blue that you see when you can turn on your large electronic devices during takeoff, that you have to use a polarizing filter to get, in Utah.  Is that still done?  Capture One should be able to put such a sky on all your photos now, even the ones indoors.  We drove from one place to another, making the driver stop as we photographed rocks and tufts of paja brava grass.  (One of the plants that is not much in evidence here is the llareta — for some reason, only on the Chilean side, in the Atacama).

As the sun dropped, we approached the most improbable hotel — Takya del Desierto, a fairly modern hotel (2007), completely off the grid.  (They have satellite internet, but it’s unusably slow, so it still counts as off the grid.)  Solar power, wind power, stoves heated by cactus wood.  They threatened to turn off the charging outlets at 10pm but apparently forgot.  Thick flannel sheets kept us warm, but we both found it difficult to sleep, probably because the need to breathe deeply at 4300m kept waking us up.  It was a pretty luxurious hotel for its location, and I didn’t expect more than instant coffee and Tang, but they really could have made the hot beverage water actually hot.

Sunday, July 14

We continued our drive across the altiplano, visiting several more lagoons, including the Black Lagoon (no creatures visible, not even flamingos), Laguna Honda, and the Stinky Lagoon, which had hundreds of flamingos and a faint odor of sulfur.  We stayed for a long time and watched them. A group across the lake was warming up for their heads-high back-and-forth-strut mating ritual, still some months in the future.  A nearer group seemed to be half-heartedly considering it, too.

I think this was about the fifth time for me driving on a plain with no official roads.  The first time was at Burning Man in 1996, where the guy at the gate said “see that constellation?  Keep it in the same direction, and drive six miles”.  Next was in Morocco, where on a little trip out to the desert our guide would tell me which track to follow, but there were hundreds of them, and many would have gotten us there.  And in the Niger Sahara in 2006.  Point and drive.  How the Tuaregs navigated, I have no idea.  Same thing in 2009 in Mongolia.  And now, the paths across the southern Bolivian altiplano have the same characteristic.  While many roads are quite smooth and one can drive quite fast, there are always a few tough segments — the only vehicles we saw were 4x4s.  Except, after coming up a very tough rutted rocky steep road, we found a bicyclist at the top, about to go down it.  The guide said “crazy tourist!”

But eventually that came to an end, and we hit a “highway”.  It was a high-quality dirt road, for a few km until we hit road construction and were back on to little dirt diversion roads.  We stopped at yet another series of eroded rocks forming interesting shapes (many of these seemed “beaked” to me), and marveled at how vast it was, going on for 10km along its length, and probably being 1km wide.

Lunch (usually mandatory on tours, we generally skip it otherwise) was cute, in the small town of San Cristóbal.  We had what was essentially horchata but with quinoa substituted for rice, spinach soup, sweet potato stew, and a slice of papaya.  San Cristóbal was moved about a decade ago.  The mining company decided it was in the way of a pit mine they wanted to dig, so they moved their town, or at least the old church.  The rest of it was cheaper to rebuild.  It’s their town, after all.