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Brave Third World

After writing about a few unusual tidbits from Brazil in my July 8th entry, here are few Bolivian Interesting Things:

Bo.I.T. #51 Cars. Many Bolivian vehicles have been imported from Japan, most noticeably taxis and minibuses, and a great deal of these still have odd Japanese advertisements painted on the side, leading to my best practice reading Japanese since living there a decade ago. As well, because the Japanese drive on the British side of the road and the Bolivians drive on the Canadian side, this has led to all the steering wheels having been torn out from the dashboards and re-inserted on the left side of the vehicle. However, minorly important instruments, such as the speedometer, remain hidden on the right, which helps to explain a lot about Bolivian driving.

Bo.I.T. #74 The Sex-Religion Dichotomy. As is well known, most South Americans are extremely devout Catholics - today, with my photo developing, I received two free Jesus keychains - and in a great number of restaurants that I have visited there have been large pictures of Jesus on the cross proudly displayed on the walls. The interesting part comes in that, right next to them, are often photos of gargantuan-breasted topless European models, displayed equally proudly. In fact, these pneumatic bare-bosomed beauties (who are white, always white) can be seen on posters and in newspapers all over the city. Please note that this is simply an observation and not a complaint.

I am now in Cochabamba, back in the centre of Bolivia, after spending four days in Uyuni, near the Chilean border, witnessing the most incredible geologic landscape I have ever seen.

I took a mini-bus from Potosi to Uyuni last Sunday afternoon, and on this ride the Bolivian Traffic Gods did not even wait an hour to have the bus be delayed. We had driven for about 20 minutes when we became trapped behind twelve other buses waiting to turn onto the highway. It turns out there was a car rally that day, and as the highway is the only drivable road in the vicinity, we had to wait until the race was over.

An hour later we were back on the bus and made it the rest of the way, uninterrupted. For the ride, I sat next to an Israeli guy, Erez, who insisted on translating Bazooka Joe comics into Spanish to the poor Bolivian bastard who was unlucky enough to buy the ticket for the seat on the other side of him. Despite the fact that this breaks many of the UN's anti-torture conventions, Erez managed to get off scot-free.

Monday morning in Uyuni, I met up with my group of six, all of whom would be heading on the same 4-day tour of the local area with me. There was Erez, who was actually very funny (all traces of gum were banished for the trip's duration); Romilly (ENG); Alexandra (SUI); Marta (ITA); and Simone, the human Italian beatbox, who would dance on our fender to unhearable music when our truck was stopped. The group was fantastic, and everybody was a lot of fun, which made the 4-days even more enjoyable.

The six of us piled into a Toyota Land Cruiser with our driver, Julio, and a series of rotating Bolivians who kept disappearing on the trip and none of whom ever did anything, including speak. Our first stop was a deserted train cemetery on the outskirts of town. A few trains, rusted and long-since dead, laid there in the middle of the desert and had a sort of sad, poetic beauty about them that seemed near-mystic.

The weather was still warm at this point, so we walked around and on the trains for about 20 minutes before heading to our next destination, the Salar de Uyuni, or the local salt lakes. Julio drove us through a vast, impressive expanse of white nothingness until we reached a hotel in the middle that was composed entirely out of salt. It was kitschy and oddly captivating, but not really worth taking a photo of. We pressed on.

Next, we arrived at Isla de Pascada ("Fish Island"), a giant rock risen out of the salt flats, located near absolutely nothing. The island contained some exquisite cactus, a colony of stranded desert rabbits and a domesticated eagle that liked my back and head so much that it continued to jump on me and bite me until I eventually had to turn around and slap it. We sat around the island, reading and playing hackey-sack, until 6 o'clock, when we got to see the sunset, which I can only describe as the most strikingly glorious thing I have ever seen in nature. The sun slid down behind a couple of small mountains, miles off in the distance, and turned the sky various hues of pink, peach and blue, lighting up the enormous hexagons of white that criss-crossed the landscape into nowhere. It will never be forgotten, and possibly not matched, either.

We spent the chilly night in the nearby town of San Juan with no heating and limited electricity before passing out for the night. Up at 8, we drove onwards through a series of volcanoes until we reached a lake that contained three species of bright pink flamingos. Seeing a flamingo, which I always considered a tropical bird, at 14,000 feet bent my mind nearly as much as seeing an island at 13,000 feet in the middle of lakes that weren't wet, the day before. After that, we arrived at Laguna Colorado, a giant lake that is a murky, crimson colour due to the algae in the water; it's unusualness was strange and somehow pretty.

We stayed next to the Laguna for the night, again with no heat, and this time the temperature dropped near twenty below. Absolutely freezing, we bought out the alchohol at the local store, hoping to drink ourselves to warmth or to blissful unconsciousness, whichever was easier. We played cards until the power went out at 9:30, and then headed to bed.

Up at 5:00 am, we hopped into the truck with the temperature still ranging around -10C. Julio took us to a geyser range, now up at 16,000 feet, which was impressive, but we only jumped out, took a look and jumped back into the warm truck which took us to some hot springs. Hesitantly, Simone, Erez and I lowered ourselves into the springs - we were nervous about having to get out - but we were exceptionally glad we did. Not only was it the closest I had to come to a shower in 6 days (no hot water in these parts, either), but the springs were 33C while outside bordered on -5; our hair froze into place as we kept our bodies underwater. We broke out the cold beer from the night previous and drank it as we relaxed our bones at 8:30 in the morning. Unbelievably nice.

We sprinted out of the water and back into the truck, which took us to Laguna Verde, a supposedly green lake that was really Laguna Blanca due to the fact it was totally frozen over. We then headed to Valle de Rocas, a group of massive, vertical rocks jutting out from the middle of nothing, weird and beautiful, like a setting in a surrealist western, as if Luis Bunuel had directed "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly", or something.

We spent the last night in a pueblo so small that the children were summoned to school by a man banging a drum in the plaza in the centre of town. The bathrooms contained no sinks, but they did have a huge metal pick of whose use I was not totally certain but was extremely wary. Again, the power went out around 9 pm, but Alexandra managed somehow to see with her flashlight that, to my surprise, worked, powered by Bolivian-made, high-quality Dubacell batteries (tm).

The fourth day was just a drive back to the town of Uyuni, where we ran out of gas along the way. Julio, who was a little suspect from the start, emptied the spare container into our tank and drove us to lunch in the next pueblo. Erez followed him in as he spoke to the owner of the restaurant, then came back out to the rest of us.

"Julio just asked an interesting question," Erez told us, "He asked the man there how much gas we need to get back to Uyuni because he's not sure we have enough."

And it WAS an interesting question. Luckily, we didn't run out again, and made it back to Uyuni, where everyone went on their separate way.

I took an overnight train and bus connection to Cochabamba, where I arrived yesterday, and took my first shower in 8 days in this lovely, warm town.

I woke up this morning to find out that today is Bolivia Day, which the government seems to celebrate by sending tens of thousands of locals into the streets as aimless, trampling hordes, which makes me wonder if not every day in Bolivia is Bolivia day.

Escaping the lethargic stampede, I decided to make way up to Cristo La Concordia, or the Giant Jesus of Cochabamba. The Giant Jesus here whoops ass on Giant Jesus-Rio, measuring in at an impressive 6 inches higher and is therefore the Giantest Jesus in the world (or so the pamphlets say). I figured I had some energy in me and would walk my way up to the top of the mountain where the statue lies. It was 2:00, so I was walking incredibly stupidly in a mid-afternoon heat of 30C at an altitude I am simply not used to. Forty-five minutes later, I had pressed through the 1,400+ steps, without benefit of shade anywhere on the way. I heaved myself up the final few steps, sweating and gasping, but feeling extremely proud of what I had accomplished. I got to the top, sighed with relief, and promptly puked at the feet of Jesus. Sucking desperately for air and feeling the effects of minor heatstroke, I let loose a small portion of the Indian lunch I thought I had put down a few hours earlier, spewing a few small chunks right at the base of the statue. It was easily the most pious moment of my young life, and I am hoping I get my picture on a restaurant wall beside a massive-mammaried lady in honor thereof.

It has been over two months on the road. Two months without a watch, a clock or a plan - occasionally I have to snap into the reality of where I am, as it feels so much like a dream at points. One I hope I don't wake up from for a while to come.