Dec 032015
 
 Posted by on December 3, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »

After many months in the Andes exploring Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, Santiago seemed a bit too much like home. A beautiful place to live but you wouldn’t want to travel there! It is a combination of American and socialist utilitarian modernism (same-same) that is almost impossible to distinguish from any other prosperous new-world city (at least on the meta, built-environment scale). Progress came at a great cultural cost to Santiago and its biggest crime against humanity is that it lacks imagination (although a night out on Pio Nono in Barrio Bella Vista lubricates the imagination).

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Santiago; view from Santuario Inmaculada Concepcion

But dig deep within the shopping malls, concrete and glass, the perfectly manicured parks full of consumers taking a five minute break between purchases, one might find a lonely Llama standing in line at Starbucks or riding the escalator to the menswear section, or searching for a parking spot for his Korean SUV, or drinking an iridescent energy drink. The Llama dreams of the mountains and valleys of Chile, of the ridiculously long coast, the hidden beaches and the fjords, of the time she danced in the Plaza del Ames and climbed the mighty valleys of the Andes.

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Gran Torre Santiago, one more story closer to civilisation..

The Llama, a flaneur, relentlessly walks the barren streets of Santiago, looking for a South America buried beneath the Guns, Germs, and Steel of progress, beneath the piles and piles of rubble the Llama searches for the remnants of a Chile long discarded.

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Chile has come a long way in a short amount of time

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up a house in The Heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and get to remain hidden from the world, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is the prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family.

From a Llama in Santiago
(or from C Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, 1863)

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The Museum of Memory and Human Rights

Nov 282015
 
 Posted by on November 28, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  2 Responses »

I recall an interview a few years ago with a well-known architect from the suburb of Fitzroy in Melbourne, Australia on a radio station in Venice, Italy from the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Fitzroy is where I started this journey, and soon it will end at Fitz Roy Mountain in Argentina). In certain circles, this particular architect isn’t held in high esteem and is often referred to as the ‘Butcher of Fitzroy’ because of his ugly, incongruous, modern apartment buildings (perhaps Melbourne should slap World Heritage status on its inner-city as many forward-thinking Bolivian, Peruvian, Chilean and Ecuadorian cities have done).

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Valparaiso street art

I was curious to hear what someone with the esteemious title of the Butcher of Fitzroy would have to say about Melbourne and Australia from Venice in Italy, one of the birthplaces of Modern Western civilisation. The Butcher was struggling with the questions from the interviewer and didn’t seem to understand the geographical context of the interview, namely Venice, a city perhaps a little too remote and strange to him to be worthy of referencing (and in need of a good renovation!). The Butcher somehow came to the subject of graffiti as Melbourne had an active graffiti scene about a decade ago which got hijacked by the City’s promoters and thus became part of narrow global-trash-narratives. Thus, the Butcher repeated the hackneyed statement that “Melbourne is the graffiti capital of the world!”.

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Valparaíso, Chile

This cringe-worthy statement grated out of my little radio in my room in Melbourne from Venice, perhaps the most elegant city in Europe (and ‘graffiti’ is an Italian word describing a practice invented in Italy, or, at least, ancient Rome). And graffiti isn’t a State so how can it have a capital? And it seems incongruous for graffiti, an autonomous and rebellious art form usually in opposition to the State to be conflated with political cities that are central to its institutional control. What a Bogan I thought to myself (a Bogan is an unsophisticated Australian prevent in all classes of society, not unique to Australia but common in many countries where economic development and cultural development are often at odds with one another such as Qatar, the Bogan capital of the world). Even if graffiti had a capital, how could it possibly be Melbourne, a comfortable and complacent city; a capital of Banality perhaps but certainly not graffiti.

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Valparaiso, Chile

In Valparaíso I reflected upon the Butcher of Fitzroy whilst wandering the steep streets with walls and houses covered with spectacular, confronting and uplifting street-art. The Butcher had obviously never been here and even if he had, he possibly wouldn’t have noticed it (and Valparaíso is protected by a UNESCO World Heritage overlay, so what some call progress isn’t so destructive).

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Valparaiso, Chile

I stayed in Valparaíso for two weeks, walking, eating, drinking, reading and thinking. As a port city, it reminded me of Fassbinder’s Querelle, a noir vibe with dodgy bars with lonely seamen. It is surrounded by forty-two hills, each hill forming a neighbourhood with dozens of funiculars carting women with their shopping and backpackers with their peculiar perspectives to the top. The funiculars are old and rickety and each quite different to one another, with at least one going under the ground.

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Valparaiso, Chile

I am now in Santiago, a large, modern developed city that looks like any other large, modern developed city. In fact half the Chilean population lives here, but more on that next…

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Funicular, Valparaíso

Nov 152015
 
 Posted by on November 15, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , , ,  1 Response »

The trip from Uyuni in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile was one of the more adventurous segments of the whole journey as the road was rough and unpaved, through remote Andean towns, past smoking volcanoes and over desolate, barren and lonely landscapes.

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Volcano!

This would be the last ride on the moto as after five months, five countries and twelve thousand grueling Andean kilometers, riding over, around, and through one of the world’s great mountain ranges, it was time to move on to something different. Every day on a moto is a very special day; it is the love of life, not the love of fear.

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The road from Uyuni, Bolivia to Avaroa on the border. After 12000 Kms this was the last ride in the moto!

San Pedro de Atacama was dull compared to Bolivia, modern, packaged, and processed full of sartorially challenged hedonists on vacation from some backwater of Modernity rather than dignified Andean ladies with short, waddling legs and in cool, timeless hats. The Bolivian desert is far more beautiful than the Chilean Atacama and Antofagasta regions, but if you haven’t been to Bolivia, you will never know the difference (and the desert doesn’t care).

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Luna Valley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

From San Pedro de Atacama I went to Antofagasta, Caldera, and La Serena. Antofagasta is a down-beat mining town on the coast, Caldera is a dystopian-vacation-fantasy of shack-ridden emptiness. La Serena is somewhere in between, lubricated by Pisco Sour, a nice beach and vibrant public spaces (it is actually a large, sophisticated city).

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Bottles of Pisco Sour, La Serena (Valle del Elqui)

And when it rains in the Atacama desert, “a hundred flowers blossom” bringing Maoists from all over the world to see the phenomenon. A good spot to see them is around La Serena, Caldera, Copiapo, or Vallenar in the southern Atacama.

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Flowers in the Atacama Desert, Chile

I am now in Valparaíso, a very special coastal city in the middle of Chile and quite close to Santiago (I will blog about Valparaíso next). Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, my final destination, is now only two thousand Andean kilometers away!

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Mano del Desierto, 75 kms south of Antofagasta represents loneliness, vulnerability and helplessness

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 Uyuni 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 Uyuni 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 a fool 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 moonscapes (and not to forget hundreds of pink flamingos). The landscape was remote, inhospitable, barren, yet incredibly 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 right directions). As the road was paved, it didn’t occur to me that I was going the wrong way as there couldn’t possibly 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 sweltering hot and freezing 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 old 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, probably 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 sunset 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 though they were leaping from the lakes surface, making it difficult to ride in 2D. I had ridden for more than a 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 gasoline 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 through mud and water in the dim, lantern-lit light while 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 of the mine is that it is a refuge from Catholicism, meaning when one enters the tunnel they enter the world of a devil-thing and leave Catholicism at the pit entrance. Accordingly, there is a menacing looking devil statue in the mine with an extraordinarily 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 located in a broad, deep valley and the way into the valley is the same way out of the valley, which I couldn’t figure out because it defied my logic based on machine-learned experience from other 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 town and stopped for a chat. He had a wild, rugged look in his eye and was deeply tanned, disheveled and driven by an infectious curiosity. We spent the evening talking about riding, about solitude and traveling the more interesting back roads of Bolivia. I enjoy meeting travelers like him that take things one step further and ride thousands of kilometers, often through extreme and exceptional conditions, to explore the world and its people at a stately 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 an excellent 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 is possible to walk most places (and stop for 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 indigenous groups such as Amerindians and Mestizos. However, it is also one of the 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 an 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 paperwork). I went to six petrol stations on the road from Oruro to Sucre, and none of them would sell gasoline 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