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.