Potosi, Bolivia (Siege Day 6)
There is a commotion downstairs. People are shouting and running around. We need to get to Koala Hostel urgently.
I sprint to the hostel, the altitude causing me to arrive puffing and panting. The Colonel is about to arrive.
Sure enough, Potosi's Head of Police arrives (with a photographer) and promises us today is the day. He has some kind of evacuation list and we are encouraged to add to this. He is very keen to snap a few images with the young French backpackers. Even in deep Bolivia, the powerful and influential always think about their PR machines.
Back at our hostel, the owners are not so optimistic as the Colonel about our imminent evacuation. They are apologising to me again about us getting dragged into this mess and they also suggest they think we could be here weeks.
There are cracks appearing in the solidarity of those remaining. The Swiss couple have decided to leave and try to talk their way past the various lines of siege blockades. They are leaving with their full backpacks and realise that they might have to walk twenty kilometres or more to safety, if such a thing is possible. Some of the French are also talking about making a run for it. This is not good. If the French get split up and it ends up with various foreign teenagers scattered here, there and everywhere, it could badly backfire. I think safety in numbers is our strength. But, yes, I guess we are reaching the point where we need to consider plans C and D. Increasingly, we are worried about the health of our American friends. I am also concerned for Katya's health. If she gets sick here, she could be in serious trouble with her condition. In fact, the pressure of it all finally gets too much for the two of us and our fears and frustrations with the siege provoke a huge row with Katya comically claiming she wants to get the Russian government to fly her back to Moscow and away from this nightmare. Thus far, both the Russian and American governments have ignored the plight of their citizens trapped here.
I continue tweeting, emailing and phoning anyone and everyone who might potentially get us out of this mess. I also make sure Alexei moves in with us so that if we do suddenly get the chance to escape, he won't miss the evacuation.
I speak to Radio France International: they are going to put a piece out on French national radio. That is a big one. After that I am sure the MSM will pick this up with their usual copy/paste news feed journalism. Presstitutes. I also speak to the British Vice Consul, the Bolivian Tourism Minister and, most significantly of all, I have managed to get the bloody Americans to final show an interest in our two elderly friends. The US Embassy calls and we make sure our story, which is in no need of being embellished, is embellished to such a degree that they are almost ready to send in the Marines. Steve lays it on pretty thick with the Ambassador and we share a smile as the phone conversation turns into a one-hour "you better come and save us or you are going to have to resign when this all goes badly wrong".
I am feeling absolutely mentally and physically drained from my efforts to get us all out of here. I'm trying to have phone call interviews with Argentine press and I can barely speak Spanish. I've got to go up to our room and get into bed for some peace and quiet and the chance to have a sleep.
I'm close to drifting off as there is an almighty racket downstairs. Vamos, Vamos! someone is shouting. I look over the balcony and see a handful of police telling us it is time to evacuate. The owners are scampering around knocking on doors and telling everyone we have to keave right now. Jeez, we only finished speaking to the US government ten minutes ago. Is this the effect of one phone call?
We hurriedly cram stuff into our backpacks and run out into the street. I still reckon this is gonna be another false dawn. But there are now more police in the street and many of the French are skipping towards us with their backpacks on.
Less than five minutes after I was about to fall asleep forty of us are surging through the backstreets of Potosi with all our bags and half a dozen police officers. It is so damn surreal.
We round a corner and there is a bus parked up waiting for us with the police encouraging us to dump our bags in the back immediately. You couldn't make this stuff up. The bus has got a giant image of a half naked woman on the back. Meanwhile, it is clear that some foreigners are missing. A young Brit and Irish went off to try and find some lunch despite me encouraging them to stay at the hostel in case the Colonel kept to his promise. Now they have missed their ticket out.
And there is also a Ukrainian couple who the French have apparently abandoned in the hostel, mainly because they apparently couldn't speak any French, English or Spanish and had been feeling ill. I plead with the French to make sure they come with us but they are having none of it. The police aren't willing to go back for them either. Am I willing to go back for them? No, not with Katya with me. But I do feel bad for not going back even though I've never met them. A couple of Argentines in our hostel are also staying put. They don't believe the evacuation will succeed and, besides, they want to go south to the Argentine border. There is no convincing them otherwise.
And so, with about 40 of us on the coach, we slowly set off towards the first road block. Sergei suddenly turns around and addresses everyone on the bus with some surreal speech about escape. "Oh now he thinks he is Jesus Christ," Irish Andy comments.
The young Irish and British are extremely fortunate as the police have tracked them down and managed to drive them to join us on the bus at the very last moment.
And a few hundred metres back we also spot a second bus - a double decker - which is transporting the sizeable Argentine contingent (almost certainly without our hostel friends from Salta).
At the first hardcore blockade some of the strikers get on the bus and begin pacing up and down the aisle. One of them has a wooden club with two huge nails protruding from the end. He could kill you with one blow with that. His face is grotesquely swollen, seemingly from chewing coca, with his right cheek swollen to four times its normal size. His eyes are red and I whisper to Katya to avoid making eye contact with him.
Once past that check point, we only manage another 200 metres before the bus is forced to stop again and the leaders of our convoy get out to negotiate with the seige men. There appears to be a priest, a union leader, a high ranking police officer and a couple of other civic leaders involved in trying to get us out.
Meanwhile, on the road side the reaction from the locals is a friendly one rather than the potentially violent one of stone throwing at the bus we feared. Many Potosi citizens are waving at us, giving the thumbs up, smiling or displaying expressions which seem to say: we are sorry you got caught up in all of this! The sight of them all lining the roadside as we leave is something to behold.
After an hour, we have reached one of the biggest blockades near the prison we trekked past on the way in (that seems like weeks ago.) Negotiations go on for some time here and some of us have time to get off the bus to chat and take photos of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The final blockade is the hardest of all to get past. Many of the tired and rough looking men seem completely opposed to letting us pass. I can understand why they might think their position is stronger with us stuck in the city. The Catholic priest seems to be the main man in this negotiation and what ever he has said has worked as diggers clear some of the earth, concrete and tyres from the road so that the bus can pass.
At this point, we all get off the bus and everyone exchanges handshakes and hugs. Team photos are taken and the civic leaders congratulate each other on managing to get all the foreigners out. We have made it! Well, we have escaped Potosi at least!
It is like the film credits of a spaggheti western as our bus drives on an empty mountain road into the sunet, llamas by the roadside, cacti to the left, cacti to the right, and Bolivian music blaring from the bus radio. The sense of relief is hard to explain.
One hour past the final blockade and you've got to laugh!! The driver calls me to the front and asks me to collect the bus fare from everyone. We are being charged for the evacuation bus!!! This is hillarious. It surely cannot be correct but so relieved am I that this man was willing to drive us through the blockades that I am willing to take his word for it and start collecting cash.
Back in Uyuni, the police escort us into the city, which is full of sand from a recent sandstorm. There is a welcoming committee waiting for us with hot drinks and handshakes. The hot drink is actually coffee mixed with coca cola, which seems fitting somehow. Apparently, the Bolivian Tourism Ministry and the city of Uyuni is going to put us up for the night! Wow, that is nice. I am imagining a night in the city's only four-star hotel, a hot shower and a well-earned brandy in its bar...
....turns out our "free hotel room" is a £4 hostel dorm!! It is Baltic in here and the owner knows nothing about it being ''free". You wouldn't want your worst enemy to stay in this place for a night! Many thanks to the Bolivian Tourism Ministry! You have surpassed yourselves!!
Me, Katya and the Irish couple find a three-star hotel charging £30 near the train station. Let's treat ourselves! We say. American Steve has booked into the only good hotel in town for about 100$. And who could blame him?!
It turns out our room is crap and there is no heating. I can hear screaming coming from the Irish couple's room as one of our friends is finally tipped over the edge by Bolivia. She did well to last so long haha.
Dinner in town is predictably bad. The service is slow and stupid and one of the chef's kids touches my food with his dirty fingers and helps himself to something. I nip out the back to see what is going on and spot that the kitchen is absolutely filthy.
We had dreamed of escape, imagining an evening of good food, good company, plenty of alcohol and a warm bed. In the end, all we have managed is the good company and a couple of absurdly overpriced cold beers. But we had that in Potosi!
We dodge past a pack of dogs fighting in the sand-filled dirty street outside the restaurant and retire for bed, tired, cold and pissed off .... but at least we are free ... if we can ever get out of here...