Nov 052015
 
 Posted by on November 5, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  2 Responses »

The Bolivian South West is a expansive and rugged, resilient and optimistic synthesis of unique topologies, an amalgam of past eruptions and new dirt, of accumulated wisdom with new landscapes with few circumscribed references to the stuff of industrial Modernity. It is no country for young men (only Arthur Miller).

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Weird looking rock in the Bolivian South West

After returning from the Uyini Salt Lake, I tied the moto to a post, bought two litres of water and jumped into a jeep headed into the Bolivian South West. A jeep with four wheels is much better in the South West than a bike with two as I had encountered many experienced bikers coming from the region on high-powered and expensive motos looking rather shattered and distraught, thus it was no place for a girly-man moto.

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Road to nowhere!

The first day we crossed the Uyini Salt Flats and although I was happy to be back there again, it was much more fun on the bike. There were five other people in the jeep, who didn’t natter that much which was refreshing because some nubile travelers tend to see the world through layers and layers of generalised banality but then again they possibly have a very long, enriching journey ahead of them and one can forgive someone for being an idiot when they are young but to be old and an idiot it is a tragedy (and never argue with an idiot as other travelers may not know the difference!).

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Salt Hotel complete with salt floor

The first night we stayed in a salt hotel, with salt walls, salt beds, salt tables, and a salt floor. For dinner we had a simple meal of soup, meat and rice, except ironically there was no salt shaker on the table. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and warm and I slept well and was up at the crack of dawn ready to tackle the bumpy road ahead.

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Mars!

Indeed, we traveled on some very rugged and corrugated roads on this day, through multi-coloured deserts, past smoking volcanoes, ochre lakes, bizarre shaped rocks on desolate moon-scapes (and not to forget hundreds of pink flamingos). The landscape was remote, inhospitable, barren, yet incredible beautiful, one of the newest parts of the Earth as opposed to Australia which is one of the oldest (been there, done that).

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Pink Flamingos in pink lake (Lake Colorado, Bolivia South West)

On the second and last night , we left at 430 AM to see volcanic geysers at sunrise. The desert at this time of the morning was full of surprises with altering colours and long shadows bringing new depth to the visceral bareness. Steam violently shot out of the sand at many different places promising to upturn the jeep and strip us of another layer of banality.

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Geysers in the desert!

The final and most beautiful of many lakes we visited was called Laguna Verde, one of the most stunning lakes I have seen. Set beneath a Christmas pudding volcano, it ranks high as one of the nicest bits of real-estate I have seen on this journey (and it takes a lot to impress us Tasmanians).

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Langua Verde, Bolivian South West

On the third and final day, the jeep drove us back the few hundred kilometers to Uyini where I rested ready to cross into Chile.

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Lake Colorado, Bolivian South West

Oct 292015
 
 Posted by on October 29, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

The ride from Potosi to Salar de Uyuni was supposed to be a short one, except somehow I drove around the Potosi mine in the wrong direction towards cowboy-land Tupiza and it took seventy broke-back kilometers to figure this out (road-signs are rarer in Bolivia than good directions).  As the road was paved, it didn’t occur to me that I was going the wrong way as there couldn’t possible be more than one paved road in Bolivia!

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Road from Potosi to Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni is a dusty adobe apocalypse, set around an ugly Plaza de Ames with a extreme hot and cold climate that splits rocks in half. It has a spaghetti bolognese backpacker scene and is chocked with Toyota Hilux jeeps that have seen more abuse than a Colombian palate. This ugly, hellish Modernity set in a spectacular but inhospitable location is a new-world theme that I am accustomed (and maybe the Saudis could build a two hundred story building here, one more story closer to civilisation, or its end).

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Uyuni, adobe apocalypse

There is not much to do in Uyuni except sit on plastic tables, drink plastic beer and plan an escape. After just one plastic night I jumped on the moto and rode a dusty thirty kilometers to Salar de Uyuni, an enormous salt lake, a couple of hundred kilometers in diameter complete with cactus islands, salt hotels and tessellated pentagonals all the way to the horizon.

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Uyuni salt lake, Bolivia

When first entering the lake I was worried that the surface would crack and I fall into a big hole (and find a Japanese salary man there). But the lake’s surface was rock solid and in fact it was the best road surface I had encountered in Bolivia. Numerous well-worn jeep tracks cross the lake heading towards the ‘islands’ or further afield to southernmost Bolivia. After a few kilometers of following the jeep tracks, I set a GPS coordinate then headed towards the shimmering horizon at a speed I wasn’t aware the 125cc moto could achieve.

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Uyuni salt lake, Bolivia

At about eighty kilometers into the void, I climbed on the seat, imagined that I was flying the Tardis whilst singing Village People’s YMCA at the top of my voice (lucky I was alone).  The lake just went on-and-on and occasionally I would stop and just sit there, in the middle of no-where, but feeling like I was somewhere very, very special.  This was perhaps the most fun I have had without lube, ever.

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Salt Hotel, Uyuni, Bolivia

On the horizon I spotted an island, perhaps inhabited by aliens, so I set the Tardis for its time zone. But what appeared to be in the same galaxy was a lot further than I thought and it was almost sun-set by the time that I reached ‘cactus island’. The island was in fact inhabited by aliens, but of a different type, by spaghetti-eating travelers, fueled by carbohydrates and lubricated by plastic beer. I asked one for a cigarette in a foreign tongue, thanked the creature, then set off towards the GPS coordinate. As the sun went down, the shadows made the tessellated pentagons appear as through they were leaping from the lakes surface, making it difficult to ride in 2D. I rode for more than an light-year before I reached the GPS coordinate, then back to Uyuni as it got dark.

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Cactus Island, Salar de Uyuni

In Uyuni I met some rough-looking bikers with huge Dakar bikes waiting for Godot and some spare parts from Modernity. Sitting on plastic tables and drinking plastic beer, I explained to them in a sort of all-knowing high-school teacher tone that it isn’t size that matters, but what you do with it that counts.

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Cactus Island, Salar de Uyuni

Oct 222015
 
 Posted by on October 22, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  1 Response »

It was an easy 200 Km ride from Sucre (the capital of Bolivia) to Potosi along a lively, brisk paved road. Although there are 42,000 Kms of roads in Bolivia, only 2000 kms of them are paved. Plus petrol stations are few and far between and when you finally find one, there is no guarantee that they will sell petrol to a gringo anyhow. So I am injecting myself into the main arteries of Bolivia and will hop into a 4WD  jeep to travel further afield. 

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Potosi mine, Bolivia

I crossed a milestone in reaching Potosi in that I have now ridden 12000 Kms from the Caribbean Coast of Colombia to Potosi in Southern Bolivia (and geographically emaciated Chile is next). And although this has been challenging as a solo traveler, one is never alone in the grand landscapes of Bolivia when one has Kafka, Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez and Kapachinski as accompanying grand narratives.  I often see Andeans, sitting alone on the side of the road, miles from anywhere, or walking solo in the desert, a small dot on a vast landscape. I wonder what grand narratives are carrying them?

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Potosi, Bolivia with silver mine in the background

Potosi has a history too brutal and too core to human experience to do it justice here. The town sits at a respectable four thousand metres, overlooked by a five hundred year old silver mine that is witness to some of the most extreme forms of exploration imaginable. In colonial times, Andean and African slaves worked the mine, bankrolling the Spanish empire, making Potosi one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the world for its time. There is no more silver left in the mine, only silver-zinc that is worked by miner-owned collectives, in conditions that are still far from perfect.

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Visiting the mine at Potosi, Bolivia

I visited the mine for an uncomfortable, voyeuristic two hours, stooping through four-foot-tall mine shafts, hitting my head every few minutes, walking though mud and water in the dim, lantern-lit light whilst breathing Beijing air. I encountered some miners and gave one a bag of coca leaves that apparently is medicinal for altitude-sickness as the shaft penetrated the mountain at an absurdly high four thousand four hundred metres. The miners work with picks, shovels and dynamite and labouriously fill trolleys that hold one tonne of silver-zinc which in the present climate, only fetches about one hundred Bolivianos (about fifteen USD). 

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Miners, Potosi, Bolivia

A unique aspect about the mine is that it is a refuge from Catholicism , meaning when one enters the mine they enter the world of a devil-thing and leave Catholicism at the mine entrance. Accordingly, there is a menacing looking devil statue in the mine with an extraordinary large penis that has an insatiable appetite for coca leaves, ninety percent proof alcohol and cigarettes. The miners worship this instead.

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The devil likes coca, alcohol and cigarettes

I left the mine feeling shallow, wanting to explore it’s dark history some more and feeling that the next time I meet a complaining Australian etc. with no real perspective on the world that I will be a little less generous in my opinion of them (down the hole buddy).

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Mine shaft, Potosi mine, Bolivia

Oct 192015
 
 Posted by on October 19, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »

The ride from La Paz to Sucre was too-far to do in one day, so I rested in the desolate mining town of Oruru on the way. This ended up being a wise decision as it took forever to get out of car-chocked La Paz. La Paz is within a big, deep valley and the way in is the same way out, which I couldn’t figure out because it defied my logic based upon machine-learned experience from cities in less challenging locations.

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The road to Sucre from Oruro

In Oruro I met a young French/Chinese cyclist entering the ramshackle, adobe fringes of the beat-up city and stopped for a chat. He had a wild, energetic look in his eye and was deeply tanned, disheveled and driven by an infectious curiosity. We spent the evening chatting about riding, about solitude and traveling the more interesting back-roads of Bolivia. I enjoy meeting travelers like this, that take things one step further, that ride thousands of kilometers, often through extreme and isolated conditions, to explore the world and it’s people at a dignified pace (far beyond the two-minute-noodle dictates of the instrumentalist, poverty jet set). In the morning he rode off into the desert along a dusty, gravel road towards the salt lakes and I felt a little mediocre as my transportation has something that resembles a motor.

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Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre is the Capital of Bolivia (and I know someone told you that La Paz is the capital which isn’t true so stop stop saying it right now). Sucre is a colonial city, set out on an orderly grid with a lively Plaza del Ames and numerous luminescent white churches and civic buildings protected by a UNESCO World Heritage overlay (which is good because South America has the world’s ugliest Modernity hotly contested by Canberra).

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Sucre, Plaza del Ames

It has a good arts scene, numerous cafés and bars and the second oldest university in the Americas. It is a small city on a human scale so it it possible to walk most places (and stop for a cake and coffee on the way).

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Universidad de San Francisco Xavier, 1621

Bolivia is one of the world’s great indigenous countries and the majority of the population of ten million people originate from a number of indigenous groups such as Amerindians and Mestizos. However, it is also one of poorest and least developed countries in South America, making it inexpensive but challenging to travel within. For instance petrol is subsidised for locals at less than half the international market price but travelers must pay the international price. This isn’t a issue with a 125cc moto but there is a problem when eighty percent of petrol stations won’t sell petrol to foreigners (as I think that they don’t want to do the paper work). I went to six petrol stations on the road from Oruro to Sucre and none of them would sell petrol to a gringo. At the last one I finally lost my temper and said something disparaging about the Bolivian revolution of 1952 and used a hand gesture common in the United States in the 1970s to add emphasis. This Mad Max petrol system doesn’t fill me with confidence to travel further afield in Bolivia as it is prone to rorting and extortion (and running out of petrol in the desert doesn’t appeal). I wonder what Che would have done on that fuel guzzling, shit-box bike of his?

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Poster, Sucre, Bolivia

The hostel where I stayed in Sucre had a deal with Spanish lessons so I spent my week brushing-up on Spanish as I still have about three thousand kilometers, dozens of hotel rooms and two countries to ride through (hopefully, with petrol). Sucre has some excellent Spanish schools and just like Cuenca in Ecuador, has a reputation as one of the best places to learn Spanish in South America. Next I will ride the moto across the Uyuni salt flats in Southern Bolivia and then cross into the Atacama desert in Chile, one of the driest and most inhospitable places on the planet (hopefully with water).

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Casa de la libertad, Sucre, Bolivia

Oct 142015
 
 Posted by on October 14, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »

The ride from Copacabana to La Paz was a short, pleasant one, passing crystalline lakes and broad vistas of snow-capped Andean mountains (and not to forget the herds of wild, fluffy Llamas). In the late morning, making good progress, I rode into a small, relaxed lakeside town, but unfortunately the road had vanished. I have had innumerable problems with disappearing roads before, but usually it has been high in the mountains or deep in the jungle, not on a major road to the largest city in Bolivia. I looked around for the wayward road and was about to naively ask a local, but then realised there was no road, only a bunch of rickety wooden barges to take vehicles the kilometre or two to the other side of the lake. I put the moto on the wooden barge, paid the wooden barge-man viente Bolivianos, then continued onto La Paz.

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Don't pay the ferry man to he gets you to the other side

La Paz is a nasty, hard, Modernist city full of witches and slippery, Dickensian vermin who steal things. But aside from this, the actual location of this vice is pretty damn special, as the city is set within a deep high-altitude valley overlooked by an enormous wise, snow-peaked mountain.

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La Paz, Bolivia

The issue is that the city and the location are at odds with one another; there is just not enough room in the valley for yet another, old-fashioned 20th Century, New World Modernist apocalypse. A city of two million feels like a city of ten million simply because there are too-many polluting cars and buses crammed into a trashed grid-system that doesn’t work simply because the streets are too narrow and in desperation, they have been made into an incomprehensible, Kafkaesque one-way system, thus rendering the city one dated Fritz Lang industrial nightmare. Small measures such as restricting car access into the valley, making pedestrian-only streets and getting otherwise handsome people on bicycles would make La Paz sparkle (and it is no wonder the Uros people reject this shit).

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La Paz, Viva La Revolucion .

I only spent three days in La Paz, walking the streets, searching for something that resembled coffee, visiting the markets, San Pedro Prison (the outside), and at least one notorious party hostel (the inside), whilst trying to get a feel for the city and how its inhabitants engage with the world (and unfortunately I understand La Paz in this instance, through its aggressive, cancerous streets).

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Market, La Paz

Travel is necessarily superficial and my understandings of La Paz is likewise superficial but no one could ever accuse one of being superficial for visiting it (and perhaps it is the cracks within the Modern city that make them interesting and it’s the cracked ones that will possibly try something different)

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Many places pose as cafés in South America but they only have nasty, instant, Modernist coffee (from an old-fashioned future )

Oct 082015
 
 Posted by on October 8, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , , ,  1 Response »

The last stop of my two month Peruvian sojourn was Lake Titicaca, a very large and very deep lake high-up on a never-ending Andean plateau (the Altiplano). The lake is split between Peru and Bolivia and in case you were wondering, it is where the Sun was born. Lake Titicaca is the spiritual home and birthplace of a number of Andean cultures (including the Incas), some who still live around or even on the lake perpetuating the traditional lifestyles of their ancestors. And once you see the lake you can understand why (and Modernity is over-rated, especially in the other New World one-trick ponies of Australia and New Zealand etc. that don’t know of anything else).

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Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Puno is a fairly large but relaxed city on the Peruvian lake shore. From Puno I visited the pre-Incan Uros people who live on floating islands made of reeds a couple of kilometers off shore. They have lived this way for a thousand years originally as a defence mechanism against hostile Incas and others, but now perhaps because it is a pretty cool lifestyle. But they don’t reject Modernity entirely as I saw solar panels,TVs and radios and boats with outboard motors.

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The floating islands of the Uros people, Lake Titicaca

There are about two thousand Uros people who live on forty two-islands, each sitting on a living, floating reed-island made of metres-thick roots with freshly laid reeds on top (and the islands are tied to the floor of the lake so that they don’t float away). And apparently when the lake gets choppy, the islands bob up and down just like a boat. The reeds on the top of the island get replaced regularly but the underlying roots rot away so the whole island needs to be rebuilt every thirty years.

This reminded me of the Japanese movie by Hiroshi Teshigahata, Woman of the Dunes (1964). A salary man tired of the monotony of Japanese industrialisation escapes to the beach and whilst running along it, falls into a big hole. At the bottom of the hole lives a lady who puts him to work filling a sand bucket that must be lifted out of the hole regularly by the local villagers or the hole will cave in on itself. Perhaps the Uros people are more Modern than they think.

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Uros people, Lake Titicaca, Peru

From Puno I crossed the hellish and inefficient border of Peru into Bolivia to the other side of Lake Titicaca. I stayed in a friendly but claustrophobic, family-run hotel in Copacabana, a raffish tourist town on the lake edge. From here I visited Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), a quiet island about two hours by boat from Copacabana. The island was pretty damn special and reminded me a lot of the peninsulas in my very own Southern Tasmania. And having a moto I was able to easily visit many of the local villages on the mainland close to Copacabana although to call them quite is an understatement. Even the Llamas looked like they were in a coma.

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Isla Del Sol, Bolivia

I am now in La Paz, which I was trying to avoid as it is too damn large, but even on a moto you have to follow the pre-defined roads (and all roads lead to La Paz).

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Matt, Copacabana, Bolivia (imagining he is in Rio)

Sep 302015
 
 Posted by on September 30, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  1 Response »

From the shabby mining town of Mazuko in the Peruvian Amazon it was a tough two-day ride to bucolic Colca Canyon near Arequipa in Peru’s south. It rained heavily on the first day but it didn’t seem to matter that much as it was so damn hot. But as I climbed out of the Amazon basin, wet and tired, up a never-ending and steep river-valley the temperature dropped dramatically and enveloped in a thick, damp mist, it started to lightly snow. I emerged on a vast, desolate mountain plateau (Altiplano), absolutely freezing, but at least it had stopped raining! I managed to ride over the plateau for a few torturous hours before the temperature got the better of me and I spent the evening in a strange plateau town called Azangaro in a warm hotel with cable TV and hot water.

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View from Chivay

The next day it was bright and sunny but still very cold. The road was superb (a branch of the Interocianic), so I made good progress and arrived in Chivay in the Colca Canyon, mid-afternoon. On the way to Chivay I traversed yet another mountain pass of 4800 meters (I used to think this was high) and as I was doing so I am sure I heard the forever-loyal moto scream “get off me you bastard”. On the top of the pass there was a viewing platform where I saw one of the most dramatic sights of this trip so far (I told you, South America keeps giving and giving). Across the vast plateau, there was a row of extremely high volcanoes, some over 6000 meters high and just to top things off, one of them was smoking! This alone seemed to make the last two days of hell-riding worth it. And I’m sure there is a lot more to come (hell-riding that is).

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Smoking volcano!

Chivay is a small, friendly, and typically South American town in the Colca Canyon, a deep Canyon and fertile valley that has been home to Andean people and their agricultural practices for many centuries. I found a basic hotel just off the Plaza de Armes and had dinner with a nice Italian chap that narrated his hilarious story of driving an old Italian ambulance from Milan to Mongolia. Then I went to bed early so as to discover the Colca Canyon and valley early in the morning (and the night life in Chivay didn’t seem that hot).

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Colca Canyon, not deep enough!

In the morning I rode about 40 kms up the canyon to a condor viewing platform that I was assured was the best place to see the depth of the canyon and perhaps even some condors. But the condors go home about 930AM, about the same time that I got there, so I had to settle on the view of the deep canyon. And yes the canyon is deep, but to say that it is the world’s deepest or second deepest as does much tourist-orientated propaganda, is a means to appeal to the inner inner-hillbilly in us all, the hillbilly that needs simplistic hierarchies to measure and bring meaning to a world that is largely un-measurable (or as us Australians say, ‘best little town in the world mate’)

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Colca Canyon agricultural terracing

That said, the number one hierarchical sight in the valley is the agricultural terracing that utilises ever patch of fertile land, right up onto the canyon ledge. This has been a practice of the peoples in the traditional, Andean towns in the valley for many centuries. The view of the terraces from the edge of the canyon is absolutely beautiful. I spent three nights in Chivay exploring the valley and preparing myself to ride back over the 4800 metre pass (past the smoking volcano) and along the frigid plateau to Puno. The Italian guy (with the ambulance) introduced me to cheap Peruvian rum, which seems to do the trick.