Drinking with the Devil

Tales from the Saddle - Heading for Maragua
Heading for Maragua

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I push the bike out of the narrow corridor of the hostel, then squeeze between pedestrians outside rushing by on the kerb opposite the busy market, all the while thinking about having to set off on the road again.  Any break in the continuous rolling of wheels south, resting in one place, makes me comfortable and then when it comes time to leave again, anxious, like it’s the first day leaving home all over.  Now as I push the bike off the kerb I think about that first day, dropping the keys on the counter for the last time with their familiar jangle, rolling down the driveway with my tear faced parents and sister at my back and the feeling that the very familiar road to my house felt so alien on this wobbly bike, all the while thinking have I forgotten something?  Now, I’m wondering if I’ve forgotten something and then, as soon as the bike is running all I can think of is getting out of the city, I just want to leave the city.

It’s a testing slog through traffic, sandwiched between smoking buses and bullish taxis until I reach the quieter suburbs of squat red brick houses on the outskirts of the city.  I expect the road to begin swinging around left, circling the city and towards the mountains, but it doesn’t.  Instead it continues straight, sparser, passing alongside the airport, separated from the road by just a fence.  Perhaps I’m misreading the landscape…or the map?  Reluctantly I stop the bike and pull the compass out from around my neck and sigh, “South East.” Dammit!

There’s still a couple of weeks left on my Bolivian visa and I’ll keep one week spare in case of any bike problems, injury, disease or getting lost in cities.  This means I have six days to reach Uyuni, and then – finally for readers – into Chile.  Whilst there are plenty of paved roads that will get me to Uyuni in less than two days I just can’t bring myself to take them.  I opt instead for a dirt road via (well, in a roundabout way) Maragua; a village inside a giant meteor crater.

On the way out of Sucre

I slip the compass in to the map case, U-turn back into Sucre and follow the compass stubbornly north-west; down side streets, through markets, across plazas and football pitches, via hospitals and army barracks and up one-way streets to insure I reach my goal.  I eventually find myself on an obvious large road, where I can now relax and just ride, leaving behind the earlier anxiety and push-pull of the city and instead succumbing to fatigue and hunger.  I pull over on the lay-by of a hairpin sweeping around the belly of the golden mountain and, here, take a break for lunch overlooking Sucre, its haze of blue-grey smog, the airport in the very far distance.  The break is short-lived though as I feel I’ve wasted the morning and I push ever onwards and shortly reach a gated toll and checkpoint set amongst grimy grey houses and shops and I ask for directions.  I must take the side-road here, turning left on to a cobblestoned road heading west to Maragua.  I’d forgotten to buy tea and so now look in each and every shop in this small hamlet and others along the way, though I know full well they won’t have any. It could be worse though and I remind myself that it is nice to strip things away, I can live without tea.  It starts raining as I rise gradually up the mountains in to thin green trees, the rain washing away all memories of the comfortable city that I was so eager to leave and I’m reminded that I can’t have a hot brew tonight.  As I pass the last of the houses the tyres plunk-plunk off the cobbles and on to red dirt dotted by large dark blobs of rain.  It looks very dark to the north, on my right and I worry a little what I could be riding in to, thunder and perilous mud high in the mountains perhaps.  I could have just reached Uyuni in two easy days.

The monastery and a monument to Tomas Katari

The road sweeps around tightly beneath a small monastery nestled amongst a rocky pinnacle and then along the angled flank of a pale green mountain, rising gently up to the col and the top of the pass. When I reach the col I can see that the mountain and trail drops very steeply down a valley to a small ribbon of river. From this vantage point I get a good view of the brewing storm submersing the taller mountains across the valley in angry grey cloud and I begin wondering whether to carry on or to remain on this side of the valley and camp.  A fierce strike of lightning drives itself into the mountain opposite and the subsequent crack of thunder is enough to make up my mind, this could get messy.  I rush backwards as the rain worsens and find a spot just off the road on a wet patch of unused farmland, throwing the tent up on top of deep runnels of earth ploughed by hand.  The tent is familiar now and I run around throwing pegs and poles automatically.  The tent up I splash through puddles to the bike and plunge my hands into the panniers straight on to the few items I need, toss them in to the tent and dive in quickly after them.  I pull hard on the two zips, zzzziiiiip, zzzziiiippp, shutting off the porch, kick off muddy boots and sit for a moment listening to the rain attacking the canvas.  Then I wonder about moving the bike in case it falls in the softening earth and onto the tent….back on with boots.

When I got to the top of the low pass I saw a bolt of lightning hit the mountain and decided….to turn back and camp! I stuck plastic in my ears to ease the noise…. I used to like lightning storms…!
When I got to the top of the low pass I saw a bolt of lightning hit the mountain and decided….to turn back and camp! I stuck plastic in my ears to ease the noise…. I used to like lightning storms…!

The light fades drastically as the storm nears, everything taking on a dark yellow and purple hue, and the wind increases.  Up the field from me, at the roadside, I hear a vehicle arrive and look out to see three men jump out of a minivan, dressed in traditional indigenous clothing.  Music plays from the van and a camera pokes out of the van’s side door as they film their traditional ‘cumbia’ music video.  The three men sway in unison with the trees, somewhat oblivious to the rain, holding guitars and singing.  They laugh and joke as they film then quickly pile into the silver van and rush back to Sucre, leaving me to listen to the sound of the storm alone.

The beat of rain has stopped by morning, leaving behind brooding cloud. By the time I reach the col again, in contrast to yesterday, it looks fine and clear.  Directly beneath me; a fine trail zig-zags steeply downwards to the valley floor.  At the bottom I find a small village and check directions with a local before pushing onwards. It’s only when I reach a second village, Potolo, much farther on that I see a rough old sign post and I realise I’ve been misdirected.  I’d later learn there are actually two Maraguas but for now this means I have to back track a long way to the village at the valley bottom and find a smaller side trail. This trail must cross the river, fast flowing, full and brown after last night’s storm and which I’d crossed easily on the way to Potolo via a bridge, but with this being a more minor trail I don’t expect I’ll find a second bridge. Not only that but as I take the correct junction a man waves me down and tells me that the route has been completely washed away, but that if I ride part way back up the pass – even closer towards my camp – I’ll find a football pitch, cross the pitch and there is a trail down to meet the road.

Tales from the Saddle - Heading for Maragua
And here’s the road down!  Perfect!

I find the football pitch, a slab of flat dirt almost floating on the mountainside, with goal posts that hang lopsided and ghostly like an old gallows.  However, I can see no trail until I ride to the very far side of the pitch and find it dropping off the precipice.  Here the road is black, like cold lava and as I go, wondering if this is really the way, some other people, walking up, shake their fingers at me suggesting that perhaps this road is also washed away, that I can’t make it or that I’ll still have to ford the very large river.  However, there is a bridge and the trail continues easily, though narrow and unused.  As I arrive in Maragua I also realise that the crater is actually the thing I could see from the col so long ago this morning.  Huge marbled crests, waves and wedges of rock bursting up out of the ground, green and cream, and hanging over adjacent valleys as if frozen in time, in the middle of the blast, huge and almost too large to fully appreciate at ground level.

As I nibble some lunch beneath a leafless shade tree, thinking about another fairly unproductive morning, I look over the map which shows a vicious looking thin red line squirrelling its way back north west, a short cut that would save me further backtracking and get me moving towards Uyuni. However, I notice a river along its route and when I chat with a mother and daughter walking by, they suggest that it will be impassable. I spend the rest of lunch a an impasse; to go and burn vital fuel or turn back, a longer route, waste more time and curse myself for the remainder of the day for not trying, for perhaps being a wimp. Of course I go to check out the river, scared of being weak and I just can’t take having to be admonished by myself for the rest of the day!

This is where I’m heading – I didn’t know at the time. It’s actually a meteor crater, the “wings” of earth are where the meteor blasted it outwards!
This is where I’m heading – I didn’t know at the time. It’s actually a meteor crater, the “wings” of earth are where the meteor blasted it outwards!
Finally on the way to Maragua’s crater
Wings of the crater

The bad news is that the road is under repair and for some odd reason they’ve chosen to dump the needed gravel in mounds at intervals in the road….At first it’s fine as the road is wide, leaving space either side, but it soon narrows so that the mounds fill its width completely. With the road rising steeply on one side, dropping steeply on the other down to a babbling blue brook, it becomes virtually impossible to get by. I battle with the mounds, trying to ride on the lower outer edges and have several falls down towards the brook. When I then glimpse the mounds rising all the way up the zig-zagging mountain pass ahead I decide to forget it; my thinking being that the road is being repaired whilst the river is high and impassable i.e. whilst the road is completely unused.

All of this means I have to backtrack to where I started backtracking some time ago this morning, at the signpost in Potolo, so that when I again reach the football pitch, my progress from camp so far today is about two miles.  The road to Potolo is nice however, dropping out of the mountains to weave through an area of rounded red badlands. I pass a woman, arched beneath a bundle of maize, a white church on the crest of a dark ridge of the badlands, then the sign post in Potolo.  When  I reach the village proper it’s larger than expected, but seemingly deserted, the grass growing tall and dry amongst the dust in the simple open plaza.  I try to find fuel but the few people I talk to tell me there is none.  Reluctantly, and with little choice, I carry on, twisting through a beautiful sunny and fertile valley waving at men and women working oxen ploughs through the heavy earth, adjusting the sluices of the irrigation canals or else walking home for the day shouldering their tools.

The start of the mounds here actually, you can see how they’ve been spread out unlike farther on…
Dropping back to Maragua
Woman shoulders maize on the road to Potolo
Church on the badlands near Potolo
Looking back down the valley

The road turns from this sunny fertile valley, sharp left towards a lone, dark and imposing crack in the tall mountains to the west.  Through this huge natural gateway the road clings on to the steep walls of a deep gorge, narrow and littered with fallen rocks whilst farther below the river churns its way noisily forward through the narrow channel it has cut. It is a mighty route, but it’s getting late and there’s absolutely no chance to camp here.  With so much fuel wasted I’m reluctant to back track to the safer fields of earlier to camp and instead I push on hoping to find another village and safe spot.

The sun was dropping but I felt I couldn’t turn back.

The canyon opens into a tall mountainous valley and the river quietens, sweeping smoothly yet powerfully by on my right.  At intervals the road is lost to large flash flood “arroyos” (quebradas, creeks or washes) which cut across the trail.  These arroyos are large, perhaps 100m across, more like lava fields sweeping down the adjoining valleys than any road.  A house teeters on the far side of one of these arroyos where the water has washed away the earth and undercut the house, leaving a space that would easily accommodate my bike. There are many of these arroyos, each one feeding down to the river and luckily for now there is just a trickle of water amongst the rocks.  Whilst they provide some slight difficulty to cross they also tell me that when it rains here it really rains. Comfortingly there are collections of houses, tatty adobe houses and pampa thatched roofs, though for me it’s one of the last places I’d chose to live, with hardly a flat patch of land in sight and obvious danger from the weather.  In fact, looking around I’m struck by how impoverished the area feels until my thoughts are interrupted and I look up….

I pull in the clutch, coasting to a stop and I curse under my breath.  Not what I wanted to see, an ominous bank of dark cloud advancing toward me.  I need to get out of the valley to avoid this, the question is which way?  I sit with the bike idling beneath me and feel someone looking at me, funny how you feel it.  I look up to the left, a mud house on the mountainside and two kids staring from behind a wall.  I wave and then, remembering my predicament swear under my breath again.  Feeling I can’t go back for lack of fuel I decide to race onwards as quick as possible, hoping to turn out of the valley or at least away from the storm.  As I go the comfort of surrounding houses stops, making me feel more alone and at risk and I ride as fast as I can all the time wondering which way the road will turn.  I cross numerous more arroyos at speed and already I notice the water levels rising in them, never much, but it’s there. Miraculously the road turns sharp left, but what greets me is a monumental looking storm caught between towering vertical walls of an endless looking valley.  It looks quite bad and I really can’t risk being in the valley when the storm hits and now it’s late; I’ll have to back track again. I race little Rodney hard, over the arroyos, past the hanging house and back through the canyon.  It’s like stepping from Narnia, passing through the gateway of the mountain, leaving the impending storm and the roar of the water behind, in the wardrobe, to replace it with the instantly more pleasant and peaceful fields and mountains.  I pull off the road almost immediately, riding the edge of the concrete irrigation canal to a flat area looking down the valley and over Tomoya. It’s nice to stop.

Camp next to the irrigation canal, overlooking the confluence of the rivers

A peaceful night leads to a bright and sunny morning.  Having not stopped much yesterday in trying to make up for “lost” time I’m happy to sit around at camp reading, overlooking the confluence of the broad rivers until the sun is hot and unbearable.  It makes packing up slow going.  A man comes over and with little formality sits on the bank above the canal.  He pulls out a bag of coca leaves from his jacket and sits chewing and/or smoking cigarettes, watching me pack up. He’s a man of few words, giving me one word answers and not asking much other than if I can give him some money,

“If I give you money what will you do with it?” I ask.
“I can buy things.”
“Like what?  What do you need?”
He thinks a moment, “I need more coca.”

He tells me he’s got a busy day, working his field just above where I’ve camped.

“What will you eat?” I ask curious, as he doesn’t seem to have anything.
“Coca,” he says, and spits on the ground.
“Mmm,” I say and continue packing.  He removes the wad of coca leaves from his mouth, throws it on the ground with a wet slap and pulls out a cigarette.
“Do you know where I can get petrol this way?” I ask, pointing at the gorge.
He replies with an, “ooooeeeee.” as in, ‘that’s far’, or maybe even ‘it rains like hell up there’.
“No fuel then?”
“Na”

Great.

“I need more coca!”

He says I might get some back in Potolo, I tell him umpteen times there wasn’t any and try to get him to clarify how far it is up the valley but we end up just going round in circles.  Whilst I take a lot of what he says with a pinch of salt, it’s clear that the next town is far, I’ll have to start backtracking….again!

I reach Potolo and ask a few people about fuel, one door leads to another until I knock on the door of the police station, who after some lengthy interrogations tell me that whilst they have literally tonnes of fuel just through ‘that’ door, they are not permitted to sell any.  Two questions spring to mind, could you just give me the fuel, and, were the interrogations really necessary?!  He asks a few people on my behalf, but they have none, so with a shrug of the shoulders I take to walking the streets somewhat aimlessly.  I spot a group of rather unsavoury people at the end of one deadbeat street. Approaching nearer I notice they have a generator set and, getting desperate, ask them if they have any spare fuel. They are a travelling disco and DJ from Sucre, with speakers, decks, lights and, as luck would have it, five litres of leftover fuel. They are tired and hungover, or maybe still drunk and whilst at first they seem friendly I feel an odd undertone of animosity.  This is perhaps confirmed when I ask about buying the fuel with how much they want, which is more than three times the usual price. I can’t blame them I suppose, but even so I try to tell them that once back in Sucre they can easily buy more, it will help me out and save them having to cart the fuel back with all their gear.  But, the price stays fixed and they laugh amongst themselves at my obvious predicament.  I have no choice but to agree, so the main man – and friendliest of the group – goes off to get some change from a small shop across the street. I’m left to chat away with the others and to save any comments accept a drink of their pretty foul chicha (maize alcohol, which is normally okay).  I ask if I can take a photo as chicha as I’ve been meaning to for some time, it is quite unique in these parts and in this case comes in a particularly stereotypical (i.e. dirty) container – an old oil bottle. For some reason my request causes masses of offence and I’m half expecting a punch-up until the young DJ returns with the change returns and manages to calm things down.  He gets the fuel from out of the boxes and insists I now take the bloody photo. Done, I bid him good day, nod to the rest and walk up the very long street to the bike, all the time feeling their looks at my back.

I used to get worked up whenever I got ripped off, was treated badly or even had something stolen.  Often because I felt I should have worked it out, should have been cleverer, quicker, one step ahead and not beaten.  Now I try to tell myself that for every person that rips me off there are ten times more that help me out in some way (except maybe Egypt where I remember clearly being charged the correct prices in the market only once in my whole time there!…not to mention the border).  Even so, the balance is heavily in my favour so I quickly forget about these five people.

Chicha
Looking for fuel, I realised there was none in the village. I found some people who had 5litres they didn’t need. Knowing they had me over barrel they wanted a stack of cash. I got a free chicha (this crap in photo) and got the needed fuel. They got real nasty when I wanted the photo of the chicha! I told them politely to go finger themselves, and they let me get the pic….some of only VERY few bad people I’ve met in Bolivia
The beautiful fertile valley

The canyon and following road of arroyos is no less spectacular second time around, especially in fine weather, a lovely section. As the day progresses the storm brews up again in the same pattern as yesterday, but now I’m much farther along and luckily the rain only begins to fall as I start rising up and out of – hopefully – the last valley.  The rain soon begins falling in heavy wet blobs and I get doused as I see the first other vehicle of the last two and a half days, a bike with two wet locals. Out of the valley and I leave the worst of the storm behind me and from this safe point looking back the iron grey sky looks even more menacing.  The road ends at a junction though unfortunately the sign post has fallen down, on its face, and it’s made of concrete.  I give a feeble push with my foot to test its weight, quickly deem it too heavy and I look around for clues.  I see a man ploughing with oxen, his friend sits on the side of the field shouting conversation as he ploughs.  I walk across the field to him, greeted with another smiling face with plenty of time, we chat a little about where I’ve come from, where I’m going and the weather and he tells me which way to take.

The road is easier now, broader and obviously more well used with tall mountains on either side and fields somehow clinging on to the steep sides.  I reach the second Maragua and it’s only now that I work out what caused my earlier problems.  This Maragua is a sizeable town and gives me opportunity to stock up on fuel and supplies.  I chat to the friendly woman in the shop, who also sells me the fuel from a stockpile of plastic containers in a nearby stock room come cupboard.  As we talk she tells me to turn left at the fork in the road ahead, the other road right is closed she says.  I follow her advice and the road proceeds from here onto a high, cold and windy plain towards the still distant main road.  The wind seems to have taken with it all the colour from the land, everything a shade of cold grey.  Another storm brews, coming in on the wind and sending ribbons of grey cloud across the sky and decide to look for camp.  I pull off the road in several places trying to find shelter from the wind besides crops and behind dry stone walls but it’s very difficult to get out of the wind.  Finally I decide to tuck the tent up behind an abandoned section of the dry stone wall on an otherwise empty patch of the barren landscape, looking out to a peak lightly dusted with snow, spending about an hour trying to decide whether to camp behind this bit of wall or that one (200m away).

Looking even nicer in sunlight!
Back in the gorge

 

Here you can see one of the arroyos crossing the road
This is where I was confronted with the storm the evening prior
Some houses along the route
Having reached this village I figured I must be close to being out of the valley
I rose out of the valley and reached this road and was glad to leave the day’s brewing storm behind
Finding camp
…and looking the other way, the walls weren’t up to much

nce Sucre, and during breakfast the next day I stare at it wondering what it could be.  I decide to check the valves again, perhaps I made a mistake when I last checked them, but no, sure enough they are fine.  The spark plug is new and fine.  The air filter is new and clean but I notice has less fins than an old one.  I decide to put the old filter in, a non-OEM one, and later find the bike runs fine (perhaps it was the other way around, but I remember having a bee in my bonnet about OEM parts).  Shortly after leaving, the road easy now, I reach a village busy with buses and vendors.  It seems the village exists purely because it’s a junction, joining the dirt road section with a paved road, the campesinos with the city, where buses come in and go out in droves.  It’s also nowhere near where I expected to be, putting me closer to the city of Potosi.  With little thought I decide to go to Uyuni via (sort of…again) Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world.  As a paved road I travel quickly and arrive in Potosi by late afternoon, in rain (imagine how short this blog would be if I stayed on paved roads!).  I barely make it up the somewhat steep entry boulevard at Potosi’s dizzying 4000m altitude, cursing the traffic lights which turn to red just as I arrive and which require some serious burning of clutch to make a hill start once they turn green again.  Finding a flat piece of road I pull over to fold my map to the Potosi city map, to begin looking for hotels, when I hear a man call “Can I help you?”  The old African alarm hasn’t warn off just yet and I wonder what menial task the man might perform – for a price – that I could quite easily do myself. “No it’s okay thanks, I should be okay.” I reply.  “Are you sure, I don’t mind…”  Seeing his face then and hearing his tone I quickly realise this is quite genuine help, “Well, actually I’ve just arrived here,” I say, “I’m looking for a hotel.”

“Why don’t you come in for lunch?  I live just here.”

Alex helps me push the bike into the entranceway of his house and we skip across the large open courtyard through the rain to his kitchen.  We are joined by his father, mother, son and shortly, his wife on a break from work at the school.  Alex is a softly spoken, cardigan wearing English teacher and lunch is a jovial affair.  On the far side of the wet tiled courtyard is Alex’s home office, a cave of nostalgia; English books, LPs and western memorabilia.  We move to the living room to chat for most of the afternoon, the theme often based on trying to persuade me to teach English here in Potosi.

Upon Alex’s living room wall was a striking photo of a miner, shot in black and white, from below the shoulders and up, slender but strong arms glisten with sweat and grime, outstretched and pushing one of the old railcarts.  Potosi owes its existence to this mining in “Cerro Rico,” a broad, pointed and barren mound rising to 4824m on the very edge of town.  “Rich Mountain” was once plentiful with silver and mined extensively by the Spaniards in the 16th century.  Since then the mine has passed from the Spaniards, to the government and now to the locals who mine it in small teams as part of a larger public cooperative scraping away the dregs.  Today the silver is much less plentiful and these small bands of miners work tirelessly dynamiting their way ever deeper into the heart of the mountain using techniques almost unchanged from the mine’s opening.

Checking the bike’s valves
On the paved road to Potosi, the gorge is the start of the Pilcomayo river, than canyon of same river I passed through south of Santa Cruz, weeks earlier

 

Alex!
I think this was the photo on Alex’s wall

With Alex’s help I’ve marked some hostals on the city map and ride through the centre and book in to a somewhat posh gringo place, meeting some nice people outside.  No sooner have I booked in and taken my bags through to the room than I feel guilty, this is too much, too expensive, I don’t need this stuff.  I sheepishly ask for my money back and go out into the dark to find somewhere more economical.  I find cheaper, seedier and dirtier and finally after many loops on the same one-way streets settle on something somewhere in-between (closer to seedy than classy) for about £2.50 with a large courtyard for parking.  My mind at least is at ease until that is, I see the showers with their bluish fluorescent lights, most of which don’t work reminding me of a CSI murder scene.  However, the small room with it’s walls adorned with maps soon feels quite homely especially with the stove brewing tea.

Studying the map, working out if there is any way to avoid the paved road to Uyuni!

I go for a walk around Potosi in the evening, the cold air and damp streets.  Alex told me of his friend’s tour company, running tours in the mine.  I have a bit of a dislike for tour guides, something about having to buy that fake friendliness, and I walk past the shop umpteen times, thinking all the while of the picture on Alex’s wall and that if I want to see the mine then this is the only way, and so finally I go in.  I chat to them a while, then book a spot, leave and instantly regret it.

Woman outside Potosi’s cathedral
Morning rituals often include sweeping
As a historic Spanish city, Potosi is full of churches
Church
Two nuns and priest walk into a church and one nun says to the other…
The streets of Potosi were generally pretty quiet
Early morning, a couple sit in the sunshine

It’s a cold and early start, meeting at the office a few others going on the tour, a Russian girl (a snooty minx), a German guy (didn’t say too much), another girl (I duno) and me (forgetful).  We drive to a lock-up and get into overalls, boots and helmets. I look a twat, like a scarecrow-miner without the hay stuffing.  Then to the local shop to buy cigarettes, booze, fizzy drinks and coca for the miners as gifts.  I sample the sugar-cane liquor, called Ceibo, a tiny cap-full of the 96% proof fire…imagine the face you pull when you taste a lemon, now imagine someone is squeezing it in your eye, punching you in the stomach and putting a thistle down your throat…Anyway, we jump back in the little rattly minibus and climb towards the entrance of Cerro Rico.  I chat with the others along the way, the Russian girl arrived in Potosi about ten minutes ago and will leave not long after the tour to go to Sucre.  In fact she outlines her plan for her two weeks in South America, in fourteen days she will see roughly 472 sights and I count myself lucky for my freedom of time.  Outside the mine is mess of buildings, tools and rubble, busy with miners in a meeting about working hours and number of people working (I seem to recall that many people were overworking on one side of the mine, or working in areas too close to other cooperatives).  The mine has numerous entrances and I got the impression there were two cooperatives but it could be many more and at any one time there are up 16,000 people inside the worm-holed mountain mining.  As far as I know the mine is completely unmapped, mined from more or less all angles and all heights.  Collapses are common and the summit even sinks a little every year.  The guide was quick to point out that the death toll is not as bad as many are led to believe, this is either true and comes from a notion based on old historic data (when the local people were slaves and many did die), or it is false and used to hide the real statistics to make sure the government doesn’t close the mine down.

Twit

We spend little time outside, and enter the mine through a stone arched opening with a wonky gate that would likely not keep out a sheep.  The tunnel continues through neatly stoned walls and of course as we go deeper the tunnels get hotter, more humid, more noxious, smaller and less neat (compared to the original Spanish walled tunnels at the entrance).

Our first stop is a side tunnel to “El Tio”, a life-size clay model of a Nick Park/Luche Libre-like man covered in party poppers with a penis that rivals a competition marrow.  In Spanish ‘tio’ actually means uncle, as well as a term of friendship, like mate or buddy, but in this case it actually means “Dios” for God because there is no D sound in the Quechua language.  In this case the God is that of the underworld – we’re underground after all – so he is in fact, the devil.  He seems amiable enough, but to be sure to keep in his good books we give him a cigarette and a swig of alcohol as well as a few splashes of the potent stuff on to his rather ample member!  The ritual complete we are now safe to proceed and get off our faces on the potent alcohol and a few bags of coca and then go setting dynamite willy-nilly in hopes of finding a bit of silver to go buy a much needed kebab on the way home to cure the hangover as well as some more dynamite, coca and Ceibo alcohol so they can do it all again tomorrow.

We head down deeper into the mine, cramped and dark, the sound of overalls rubbing on the damp rock the smell of hot sweat.  A group of shirtless men heave a cart over onto it edge in a dark side tunnel, tipping its contents, in this case grey water, removed from a flooded section. The men look over to us like grim wild animals as if we are trespassing.  We climb through a small hole in the roof nearby and join three men in a tiny hole, scratching at the rock in a confined space and setting some dynamite.  They all know our guide well so we seem quite welcome.  There are differing levels of worker, and only one has the authority to actually mine and choose where to go, the others are varying levels of helper, with the lowliest job being cart pusher having to heave the spoil to the outlet points.  We hand out some biscuits to these guys and they tell us how they worked last night until 2pm and were up this morning and back by 6am, working extra hours to try and make some extra cash for Christmas.  We hear the muffled thuds of some explosions sounding off somewhere in the mine and leave these men to get on with things.

Downwards ever further, the roof propped up by the odd wooden post, water leaking here and there and smells of sulphar, everywhere damp and hot, the rock glistening with minerals.  The tunnel is smaller now and some of the group moan it’s too hot and too hard, in fact it’s a strange thing, tens of meters down below ground but actually in the thin air of 4000m up.  Soon the tunnel opens into a hot open chamber and a group of men, sat down and chewing on bags of coca having just blasted the area and just beginning to clear it.  This group have interest in only two things, the things we are carrying to give out and the girls in the group.  We are five levels down of about eight and will proceed no farther and soon enough return to the surface.  We leave the men to claw at the earth with half a mile of rock hunched over them and outside our little group decide to go for lunch together..

Cerro Rico, on the outskirts of Potosi
Lighting a cigarette for El Tio, the Devil

 

Crawling deeper into the mine
Miner repairs the wheel on one of the carts
Hoppers used to move the spoil out to ground level by cable winch
Two miners on a coca break

I leave Potosi next day for Uyuni on paved roads.  The ride is uneventful and I glimpse flat Uyuni from the a crest in the last of the mountains late in the day.  The town is a blip in the landscape, much like Vegas, on the edge of the salar, the slat flats stretching away north as flat as flat can be, the lights beginning to twinkle on in the town.  I decide to skip the hotel tonight, as it’s already late and I consider heading to the salt flat to camp but I’ve done that before so I head back a little way, take a barely used farm trail parallel with the mountains and set up camp there.  Having learnt my lesson, I always palm the inside of the tent to make sure nothing will puncture it (causing water leaks) or my mattress (causing a sleepless night).  I find the grass is oddly sharp and I have to lift the tent and spend 30 minutes kicking the whole area free of the turf.  Even the tyres are dotted with spikes!

Lunch stop along a small side trail on the way to Uyuni
Camp spot near Uyuni

The sun begins to set, setting the sky deep pink.  From complete stillness the tent now begins to flutter and flap in the growing wind and in the distance I see lightning.  I put my book down and snap some photos and squint at what might be the only building in a sight, a farm perhaps down in a bowl of land far from me.  The storm moves across to the right, perhaps a little closer and I start counting the gaps between lightning and thunder.  As the gaps I count become increasingly small I start thinking that the ridge of mountains that all angle down towards me are not the best place to be in a rain storm and might explain why no one actually lives here.  I fix my gaze on the storm without blinking to try and determine its path, luckily it seems to be passing across in front of me.  The temperature drops, the tent flaps more violently and the first drops of rain begin to land heavy and fat.  I was wrong and  need to get out of here.  I fall back into the tent, onto the mattress and release the valve, PPPSSSSSSHHHHHHHssssssssssssssss it hisses air, the tent fabric snaps in the wind and the pot falls form the stove with a clang.  I quickly roll the mattress away and then punch the sleeping bag desperately into its stuff sack, everything seems twice as big in a rush and the sleeping bag springs agonisingly back as the rain starts to fall heavier and heavier.  I dismantle the stove, then throw the kitchen and water bladder into a pannier that won’t seal because it’s badly packed and begin pulling tent pegs from the ground, dropping the poles and rolling it up.  A quick tug on the load straps, the tent half hanging out of it’s sack, and quick prayer as I turn the key and hit the starter.  It starts, thank God, and I race off in a torrent of rain, darkness and wind.  I ride fast, cursing the awful headlight but wanting to get away from this remote place quickly, to get to the road.  In my haste I forget about two short steep sand washes and only see them once I’m upon them.  The nose drops into them violently and somehow I manage to come away without incident as I’m bucked from hollow to hollow, nose wheelie-ing all the way to the road.  Breaking through the mountains I see the lights of Uyuni town, being battered by lightning and, despite the deluge of rain, I stop on the road to watch and I actually laugh at the weather, watching for some time, feeling oddly safe.  Riding into Uyuni, the streets are surprisingly deep with rushes of brown water and whether through water ingress or perhaps even struck by lightning the bike cuts out and I have to step from it, filling my boots with water and push it to the hotel.  I check in, leaving large puddles on the floor and desk and make to my room as the rain hammers on the glass roof.

Sitting taking photos in camp feeling confident the storm will pass across to the right….WRONG!
Having a bit of a chuckle now safely in the hotel!

I spend a week here, writing a blog post in the internet cafes.  Whilst there, and because I’ve loved Bolivia, I research if I can extend my visa, but 90 days per calendar year is the maximum….Still the calendar year is almost up, so for now at least I begin heading out towards Chile and finally say goodbye to beautiful Bolivia.

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