Tuesday, July 14, 2015
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
"This could be Heaven or this could be Hell"
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say...
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (Any time of year)
You can find it here
Andy hums the tune to the Hotel California. He has me in tears of laughter for a second or two.
Bread has run out so it is now crackers and jam for breakfast. Incredibly, the miserable woman who serves us our meager breakfast padlocks the cupboard that contains the salt and tea bags so we cannot help ourselves during the day. It comes to something when someone thinks you are going to steal salt.
Yesterday's dust storm has gone and it is sunny and considerably less boistrous today. A few more tourists have 'made it in' to Potosi but, as the final verse of the song says: “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave! "
Eight out of nine bank machines we've tried now have no cash. We do at least bump into the elderly american couple I met on the first day, who've been staying at a Christian hostel nearby. I've convinced them to come and move into our hotel so they are more comfortable, warm and we are all in the same place. The American lady, Jennifer, who is in her mid sixties, has fortunately got over her altitude sickness, which had confined her to bed. The only other foreigner we have met today during our time out on the streets is a German bloke here on a motorbike who had no problems getting through the blockades until the last one where he was surrounded by people shouting and acting quite aggressively towards him. And our number in the hotel has grown to seven as a Russian bloke called Alexei has just checked in downstairs. Alexei says he is in Bolivia buying silver and precious stones to help finance his travels.
By mid-afternoon the atmosphere in town has changed drastically again and there is a riot in the main square only 100 metres away from us. We are not sure of the scale of the fighting with the police because we are all trying to be sensible and not attend any mass demonstrations where there could be explosions and gunfire. And as if the sound of explosions, smashing glass and crowds shouting weren't intimidating enough a huge dust storm has begun engulfing the city, giving the sky a menacing orange glow and obscuring the distant mountains.
I've been in more regular contact with the British Embassy. The Vice Consul has now put me in charge with the Ambassador but they are both saying they can do almost nothing to get us out of our predicament. If anything, I am more use to them, as they have no reliable information about events from on the ground in Potosi. My journalist background suddenly makes me a trusted source of information. That's fine because I will play the journalist card to our advantage if things worsen here.
We, 'the Potosi seven', are not the only foreigners stuck in Potosi. According to one of Argentina's leading newspapers there are an estimated 80 Argentines – most of them elderly – trapped here. They had been heading home after attending the Pope's visit to La Paz a few days ago. Many of them are said to be too scared to leave their hotels and they are calling upon President Kirchner to step in and negotiate their evacuation. There are rumours that an Argentine army Hercules might be brought in to airlift them out.
We return to the 'secret restaurant' for dinner for more tasty rosti and quinoa soup washed down with Johnny Walker. There is even another couple dining here, eating rather repulsive smelling llama meat. Alexei has joined us. On first meeting him I got the impression he was a rather cool adventurer but this evening he is acting like the whole Potosi Seige is one big funny game. He was way too loud for my liking as we walked here through the half deserted streets; drawing more attention to us all than I would have wished. Now, in the restaurant, he is booming so loudly that I am sure passers by in the street can hear him, and he also seems to think that our predicament is hilarious rather than worrisome.
Case in point, some balaclava-clad motorbike riders pass along our street looking for strike breakers and Alexei has to be told twice to shut the **** up. Our host turns the lights off, gesticulates for all of us to be quiet and even seems to suggest it might be better if we hide by sitting on the floor. The motorbike rider in question has cut his engine so he can glide silently down the hill and catch people unawares. It is one of those moments when you realise the situation you find yourself in might be far more dangerous than you ever appreciated. What would happen if he forced his way in here? Would we be arrested and detained? At the end of the day, these people are not police, army or part of the municipality but thugs appointed by the strikers. I would imagine some of them are not nice people.
Back at the hotel, Andy and I sit up until late drinking Bolivian beer and discussing what the hell we should do. Today's riot and general bad vibe is troubling us both. I guess it has dawned on us both that we are well and truly marooned here. The plan tomorrow is to step it up with the embassies, the press and with our own tweets and online postings.
As if to emphasise the need for action, a drunken mob passes by the hotel at 2am. They sing and shout,chuck a couple of firecrackers and bang on the doors of buildings they pass. It causes my heart to pound in fear. They likely know half a dozen foreigners are staying here. What if they suddenly decide to attack the hotel now? Surely they would have no problem breaking in!
Eventually, the mob passes. But it is another hour or two before the fear abates and I can finally drift off to sleep.
Monday, July 13, 2015
It feels like revolution is in the air.
While Sunday evening Potosi felt safe and laid back, Monday morning feels rather dangerous and threatening. The city doesn't feel particularly safe as the general rule we are being told is: stay away from demonstrations (which are constant and numerous). This is all very well but the problem here being you walk down a couple of quiet, narrow streets and then, just like that, a demonstration suddenly appears from nowhere coming in your direction. At one point, during a stroll, we actually seem to be comically leading one particular demo that appears out of a side street with a band playing, and follows on 5 yards behind us up one hill. The majority of the demos are peaceful and friendly but we've no idea if the police or army are about to show up.
Since noon time a dusty wind has been blowing in giving the town a rougher air to it as the sun is blocked out by a sandy smog.
Most of the day is spent holed up in the hotel. I am not happy about taking Katya around the streets and putting her in danger.
As we go into the afternoon, firecrackers keep going off and dust is engulfing the town, giving it a sinister feel. All the time, we can hear the sound of distant explosions and locals shouting and screaming.
We do venture out for dinner. There is, apparently, only one place in the whole of Potosi, which is open, and we need to do a secret knock to get in. Outside it, the windows are covered with corrugated iron and after several failed attempts to get someone to open the front door, we begin walking away, until a man appears at the door, checks in both directions, and gesticulates that we should get inside as quickly as possible.
Once inside the elderly Bolivian owner and his wife are offering a full menu minus the products that are no longer available due to 'the seige' - such as bread. He does though have quinoa soup and Johnny Walker Red Label, so we're not exactly slumming it.
Just as he brings out our soups, motorbike thugs drive past checking for strike breakers and the host hits the lights and tells us to be absolutely silent. This is truly absurd.
Leaving 'the secret restaurant' at 7.30 the streets are calm (aside from the motorbike squads) and people are scurrying about in the darkness trying to buy resources from two or three hole-in-the-wall shops that have suddenly opened up. Being Irish, English and Russian we buy eggs and beer. Jeez this feels like some kind of war film with people out scurrying around, breaking curfew buying a few eggs and water.
All jokes aside though, how the hell are we going to get out of here?
Earlier today, I wrote to the British embassy in La Paz telling them of our situation. They have replied, telling us: under no circumstances try to cross the blockades.
That is easy for them to say when there are no shops open selling products, half of the bank machines have stopped working, and we are not allowed to leave the city. This is a pretty unique situation as even when war breaks out you can at least attempt to evacuate through part of a city. Here though, a night time run could end with us being attacked by the motorbike squads, while a pre-dawn, early morning 3-hour hike with 30 kilos at 4100 metres could kill us, if we don't get attacked by a protest march. WTF?!
At 10pm a loud boistrous march goes past our hotel. Andy and I nervously peer out through the curtains of the balcony, half cut from our beer and eggs diet. We just don't really understand how dangerous the situation is. Are they likely to turn on the few foreigners marooned in the city or couldn't they give a damn about us?
Just before bed, trawling the Internet for any news we can find about the general strike, I discover a local paper is running a story about three people being crucified just outside of Potosi!! It is not clear whether they elected to be crucified in protest or if they were nailed to a cross for some misdemeanour or other.
It is fair to say I don't sleep very well on Monday night.
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Uyuni - Potosi, Bolivia
When a wet, scraggy-haired street dog trots into the sub-zero cafe you are enjoying a crack-of-dawn breakfast in and casually urinates all over your backpacks, you know it is going to be one of those days.
Fast forward six hours later and our very local bus - seating 25, standing 10, lying on the floor 2, dogs 3 - has come to a screeching halt. Up on the dusty hill above there is a rudimentary roadblock and the driver says he is too worried about our safety to risk continuing. He suggests the bus might get attacked. And so, after five hours in this sardine tin of a bus from Uyuni we get off and ponder what the bloody hell to do next. It is suggested that Potosi is only a two-hour walk away. That is a two-hour walk with 20 kilo backpacks at 4000 metres above sea level.
We walk to the first blockade to see whether they are aggressive about us crossing but there is no problem, although I certainly wouldn't describe the striking miners as being particularly pleased to see us. Meanwhile, every car, bus or motorbike which reaches the first blockade is told they cannot go any further, regardless of how many young babies or pregnant women there might be present.
Coming from the opposite direction, an old man, with quite a pace on him, tells me it is 4km to Potosi. A Northern Irish couple - Andy and Christine - have decided to press ahead with us and see whether we can all make it to Potosi. After all, it is 2pm and we have more than four hours of light left. I reason that if we turn back now, the bus may have gone and we might get stuck in the middle of nowhere, five hours away from safety.
So we press ahead and with every step uphill the stress of high altitude can be felt upon our bodies. 20 metres uphill and you soon feel out of breath.
We run into the three Brasilian girls who were on the three-day Salt Lake tour with us. They set off on a bus 90 minutes before us this morning. However, they are now walking back very slowly in our direction. Turns out one of the girls only made it to the top of the second hill with her backpacks before a bout of altitude sickness kicked in. She is struggling to breath, has been vomiting, and doesn't look in a good way. The girls think it best they turn back and hope one of the buses that didn't make it through the blockade will take them back to Uyuni before dark. We discuss turning back and going with them as the girls also think it is two hours to Potosi. A passing stranger assures me it is 4km tops.
So we perservere and continue walking on. I am carrying Katya's travel bag - fearful she might get altitude sickness - and have around 35 kilos on my back and shoulders. That is a hell of a weight at 4000 metres, let me tell you.
We pass a pair of very dodgy 20-something blokes, one gripping a wooden club. They look like they are off their heads on something, and I don't like the way they look at the two women as they pass us, menacingly. There are more blockades full of striking miners. At one such blockage, sizable rocks cover the entire road, while dumper trucks block the whole width a few metres beyond. It would take an army to get through here.
After an hour we reach the top of a hill and can see Potosi in the distance, high on the next hill. The lower reaches of the city look poor while, higher up, church spires dot the landscape below the conical-shaped mountain, which towers above the silver city.
Everyone travelling by foot in this direction is now cutting across wasteland rather than continuing to follow the main road. One local I ask in my broken Spanish reassures me we will apparently save a couple of kilometres by abandoning the main road.
Because of the altitude and the need to conserve energy and air I have spoken very little to our new Northern Irish friends. I can sense that Andy, like me, is really worried about the peril he is putting his partner in with this foolhardy trek. The two of us jokingly make reference to the black and white film Ice Cold in Alex, where two army officers promise themselves a cold beer when they reach the safety of the city of Alexandria. Yes, a cold beer will certainly be called for when we get out of this tight spot.
We've reached the perimeter of a high security prison with eight guard towers. Beyond it lies waste ground full of overgrown bushes. To reach Potosi we need to walk across around 800 metres of this wasteland. Problem is some lads are hanging around in said waste ground and all of them have bandarnas covering their faces, suggesting they are up to no good. I don't trust the situation and ask the Irish not to continue on.
Plan C, we walk slowly up the side of the prison and try to cross near one of the prison guard towers, hoping that if things go Pete Tong, the guard might at least contact the authorities … wherever they might be. But after we throw our bags across from the road to the waste ground, which has a five foot drop to a ditch in the middle, we spot another tracksuited local lad acting conspiculously dodgy nearby. How the hell have we got ourselves into this situation? I keep asking myself. This is not good, not good at all. I suggest we let said lad walk on and see what he does. And, hey presto! he disappears behind the undergrowth before finally walking back in our direction all shifty a few minutes later.
All of us still hanging around on the edge of the waste ground, Katya spots one lone car drop off people near the far end of the prison, before driving back down the hill, where she tries to stop it. The old man driving it says he is willing to try and take us over the bumpy waste ground and on up the hill ... but not into the centre of the city as there is a really big road block there. So, this elderly life saver (and his wife) has the four of us crammed in his back seats and all of our things stuffed in the boot. The weight almost writes off his aging motor as he struggles to manouvre it over the rocky ground.
On past the waste ground, some poor suburbs and further on to the silver mines we go. Potosi looks rough with the slag heaps of the mine the first thing you see but, the suburbs don't look terribly dodgy as one might expect of Bolivia's poorest city.
Our driver drops us a few metres back from the blockade and we give him $7, which he seems very happy with considering he didn't ask for any money. But as soon as we step out he is accosted by locals suggesting he has broken the strike by giving a taxi service; his is only the second car we have seen since we got off the bus and, aside from one ambulance and a couple of bicycles, no other vehicles have been seen. I suggest to one of the men questioning him that we didn't give him any money and he was just helping us out in a tight spot.
Close by is a hardcore blockade where we are fearful of crossing. Rocks are scattered all over the streets as if there was previously some riot with the police or army. Those manning the checkpoint actually take the piss out of us when I ask in which direction we should go for the tourist area of Potosi. They clearly don't want us here.
Marching on in the direction of some church spires we end up on a deserted street where an old woman, who looks like a fairytale witch, is shouting aloud and muttering to herself about 'Potosi', “people' and 'Bolivia'. She is actually so scary looking that in the context of the day we have had she manages to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in some kind of fear of her. All of this is like a very, very bad dream.
Onwards we go, forever uphill, and finally we reach what looks like European streets. We all collapse with our bags in the main plaza, which is full of poker-faced Bolivian ladies in their strange looking bowler hats, all of them sat on the pavement eating or chatting. Already the sense of relief is massive.
I leave the others and go for a wander. Absolutely everything seems to be closed either because it is Sunday or for the strike. But fortuitously I chance upon a pizzeria in a building with an attractive balcony that wouldnt be out of place in Tbilisi. Excitedly I go back and fetch the others.
Once everyone is safely inside and beers have been ordered, I can see both girls are massively relieved; Katya suddenly cries from relief. The girls did well to keep it all inside because clearly they were both very scared.
According to the Lonely Planet, there is a gorgeous hostel fifty yards up the road. While we are waiting for the food I nip out to see if it is open so I can book us some overnight accommodation before we try to escape early tomorrow. After today's tribulations and the testing time that Bolivia has been these past few days, I unashamedly book the very best room in the hostel – the beautiful suite (25 quid), which wouldn't be out of place in a 200 quid per night heritage hotel in England. I feel slightly guilty for grabbing this before Andy and Christine but I think this room might help Katya keep her sanity.
Before crashing for the night we go for a thirty minute wander of the nearby streets. This city is absolutely stunning. The architecture – much of it hundreds of years old – is incredible and would put most cities (anywhere in the world) to shame. There are elements of Seville, Tiblisi, Lisbon and other great cities about Potosi, which was, once upon a time, the richest city not only in the Americas but in the whole world.
It is a chilled and enjoyable ending to an otherwise extremely testing day. But we made it through the blockades and each of us feels a sense of achievement and great adventure.