Monthly Archives: October 2012

Och Aye Mon, I’m Scotch!

I can say with absolute certainty that the last time I made a conscious decision over what I was wearing was the 25th May. It was a friends wedding and I wore a navy pinstriped suit with coordinating shirt and tie.

Since then, it has been a case of wearing whichever t-shirt and shorts combination happens to be at the top of my backpack, shamefully often the same outfit several days in a row.

That is, until today. Today, at 3:30am as I woke up and dressed, I did so very deliberately in an outfit chosen in advance. It wasn’t a suit, or even remotely smart. It was a pair of green cargo pants, walking boots and a Scotland Rugby shirt.

And the occasion for this outfit? Nothing to do with Scotland actually playing rugby (or any other sport for that matter). Today was the day we crossed from Bolivia down into Argentina, and if there was one thing that I was certain I didn’t want the Argentine Military thinking of me, it was that I was English.

It sounds petty, and don’t get me wrong I’m very proud to be British, but given everything that has happened between our two countries, and that numerous other Brits have been advised to tell people they meet here that they are Australian, I felt a Scotland shirt may grease the wheels a little.

In the event, I passed the border in the seemingly usual way of a cursory glance at my passport and a 90 day visa being stamped in.

As for the Scotland shirt, at just below 0 degrees and having to queue for 2 and a half hours, it was firmly buried under several layers of down-insulated clothing… C’est la vie.

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The Colour of Bolivia

In his diary as he traveled through Bolivia for the first time, Che Guevara wrote “the color green has been banned”.

Sat on a bus traveling through the country – whether in the north, south, east or west – and stare out at the grey hills, the brown rocks and the bleached beige grass, and it’s easy to see why Guevara thought this.

Indeed he’s right, the high altitude, cold and lack of water conspire to make Bolivia a country distinctly lacking in green. However, what Guevara failed to appreciate is the diverse range of other colours that more than make up for green’s absence.

Whether the brilliant white of Bolivia’s salt flats (the world’s largest) contrasting with the azure blue of the sky, or the vibrant pinks, oranges and yellows of the country’s volcanos, rich in iron ore and sulphur. Perhaps it’s the deep red of Laguna Colorado, a lake so full of iron ore that it shimmers red in the wind, or the turquoise blue of the many smaller glacial lakes.

The country is full of colour, it’s simply green isn’t one of them.

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Potosi on Paper…

On paper, Potosi sounds quite nice, even charming. Narrow streets lined with period buildings, a tree-lined main square with all the Spanish colonial trimmings and alleyways lit by imitation gas lamps.

However, despite all this there is an air of depression in Potosi. Perhaps it’s the city’s history – boom followed by bust, followed by boom followed by bust (first silver then tin). Perhaps it is it’s knowledge that it’s glory days are firmly placed in the 17th Century, or that a locals’ day’s labour risks life and limb for, at best a few dollars worth of base metals. Depression in Potosi is infectious.

It starts for you when you are dumped, unceremoniously, in a square on the outskirts of the town by a night bus driver from La Paz, who clearly can’t be bothered to drive further in to the town and it’s bus station (presumably for fear of catching depression).

You walk the deserted streets until eventually someone claiming to be a taxi picks you up and takes you to your hostel.

Any hope of having your spirits raised are dashed. You wait countless minutes and numerous doorbell rings before being let in and shown to a room barely large enough to accommodate the bed. You lie down – a rest will make everything better. After clearing the plethora of jet black hairs from the bed you doze off, only to be woken by the pounding of rain on the filthy sheet of corrugated plastic that serves as both window and skylight.

There is little left but to throw on some warm clothes and stumble out on to the street in search of a bar to drown your sorrows in. But of course there are none, every turn only yields a closed up storefront that should surely be a watering whole. Are we to believe that the residents of Potosi are so straight laced as to not enjoy a beverage at 6pm on a weekday evening? Hardly. Perhaps the lack of licensed premises is a contributing factor in the Potosi Blues.

The only thing the town does seem to have in abundance is pharmacies – presumably cashing in on the latest boom – antidepressants.

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“The Most Scenic Drives in South America”

We have done several drives over the course of our 3 months in South America, all of which have been recommended by some guidebook or the other. The drive up from Sao Paulo to Rio via Paraty. The Linea Verde along Brazil’s North East coast, and, most recently, The Pan-American Highway from Nazca down to Arequipa and southern Peru. All have had good points, but frankly none have seemed up to the titles offered them of “most scenic”.

Then you board a bus for a route where the books say little more than “be careful at the boarder crossing” and expect nothing, but are treated to a breathtaking journey along the shores if Lake Titicaca, each bend hailing something different. Sometimes a glimpse of the lake through the countless eucalyptus trees that dot the lake, others of water on both sides as we traversed a headland. Just when we thought that we could somehow be in the Mediterranean we came to a tiny port town where the gringos were herded off the bus and on to small boats while the locals and buses were loaded on to rafts so that everything could be transferred to the other side of the lake.

From there the route was admit idly downhill (technically uphill) as we crossed the barren wastelands of the Bolivian altiplano, but for 2 hours as we skirted Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian boarder, was the most scenic drive in South America… so far anyway!

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The Borderline

When you put it in numbers, it doesn’t sound as impressive, but by last count I has visited 33 of the world’s 196 countries. It’s a fair number and I happily consider myself well travelled. However, it is only an occasion like today’s that make’s me realise how little I have actually seen and experienced.

Today marks a first for me in my travelling experiences. A first that many of you from outside of Europe and from none island nations may baulk at… today I travel from Peru to Bolivia, and it will be the first time in my 29 years that I have crossed via land from one country to another… needing a passport.

Sure I’ve driven from The Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and been on coaches from France to Belgium (and vice versa). I’ve even skirted with the German boarder on a train in Austria. But none of these require a passport. There is just a sign welcoming you from one to the other. In the case of the Irish, simple a sign reminding you to drive in miles per hour and nothing more. I have never crossed a national frontier having been forced to get out of the vehicle, enter one building and then walk the dozen or so metres to another country. That was until today.

I imagined it like a Cold War thriller, with a bridge, flags at opposite ends and armed sentries. No such luck. The Peruvian police office was essentially a house with one, ‘plain-clothed’ policeman sitting behind a desk. A cursory glance at you passport and your Peruvian immigration form was stamped “NEGATIVE”. You then walked next-door to the ‘immigration hall’, where two Peruvian immigration officials sat behind a desk with a television chat-show on. They stamped your passport to say you had left Peru.

What followed was surely something anyone who has flown internationally (yours truly included) has experienced. You are nowhere! No longer in Peru, but not yet in Bolivia, you walk up a 50 metre stretch of hill, literally in ‘no-man’s land’.

Through an archway and you’re in Bolivia, technically if not officially. To your left is an immigration building that you can go into, though it seems the choice is entirely yours.

Inside, there is another man in civilian clothes whom you assume is an official. Another cursory look at you passport, a quick set of stamps and you are free to explore Bolivia for the next 30 days.

So what to make of my first proper border crossing. Honestly? There’s a part of me that’s disappointed there was no prisoner exchange. I was clearly not deemed important enough to either the Peruvians or the Bolivians to be traded for a communist spy! It was also somewhat frustrating to spend nearly an hour on formalities that neither country seemed to care enough about. If I had robbed the Bank la Nacion in Lima the day before, the plain clothed Peruvian police officer would be none the wiser. And if I planned to overthrow the Bolivian Government tomorrow (something which frankly seems a lot of effort) the Bolivians would be clueless.

Kind of makes you miss the practical approach employed in Europe.

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