Thursday, December 27, 2007


Having been exposed to the cat (and donkey) walk of Bolivia TZ and her new Aussie friend Marissa went on the prowl for some haute couture ...
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They tried on various outfits posing this way and that...
Silliness_3486 Silliness_3489
...until finally they discovered the Donatella Versace of Bolivia who kitted them up with a brand new set of hair extensions.
With hair extensions successfully attached, the Aussie troupe left Potosi and headed for Sucre in a taxi.
Our first impression of Sucre was this amazing castle which marks the border between the two provinces.
Our second (and lasting) impression was this toilet with a sophisticated water pale flush system...
One Sunday, we went to the Tarabuka markets an hour out of Sucre. We walked around looking at range of weavings, jewellery and trinkets before somehow landing up in the non-gringo area of the markets. Things were very different in this part. Here they sold offering trays –an odd collection of herbs, incense, Christian and pagan symbols and of course a mandatory llama foetus. Many people buy these offerings to use during their weavings to bring them luck, good health and fortune.
Indigenous Bolivians belong to many different groups, most easily distinguished by their dress and the style of their weaving.
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In all cases the females carry their children on their back using a colourful weaved blanket. The children are carried by their mothers in this fashion even when they are toddlers. Look at the size of this whopper...
Traditional Boliviano_3495
The mothers themselves range in age from teenagers to infirm octogenarians. We suspect this is a by-product of the people's commitment to the Catholic prohibition on condoms.
 Tradional Boliviano_3494  
During our time in Sucre a milestone was reached. An incident we now refer to as "The Hanson". For the past few months Jez had heard the phrase "same length" whispered over and over like demonic chanting. He had woken at night to find his wife whispering this phrase in his ear but could not understand her meaning or motive. Driven almost to distraction he begged to be released from this curse and was told the price ... he was to have a HAIRCUT and the bogan mullet was to be banished.
A barber was located and Jez was lead to the sacrificial altar. His wife whispered to the high priest, whose eyes shone with a crazy lust, before reaching into his collection of voodoo tools and extracting a pair of garden shears which he subsequently sterilised using a naked flame. Jez began muttering about not removing more than a centimetre or so. His wife gently reassured him that the long locks, of over two inches that were falling about his feet were actually only a few millimetres in length, but appeared deceptively long due to the humidity in Sucre. Being a blindly devoted husband Jez entered the logic free zone normally inhabited by his wife and acquiesced.
It was only when the barber was finished, and he burst out laughing and pointed at his victim, repeating over and over the words "Hanson, Hanson!" that Jez returned from his loving reverie, to discover that his relationship was more akin to Samson and Delilah than Romeo and Juliet.IsaacHanson
Nothing could placate the distraught Jez. Even an offer of his wife's new hair extensions.
The fact that the barber had even heard of Hanson was a bit strange in itself, but as you can see from the photo above, Jez now sports a bob haircut that makes him look like a swarthy imitation of one of the members of this boy pop group. It was on New Years eve that we were to discover Bolivia´s love affair with Hanson. Click to see TZ celebrating her victory to the tune of Hanson´s mmmBop!

When not paying tribute to Hanson, Marissa and TZ entertained the boys with feats of strength...
...taunts about the length of our hair and good old fashion table top dancing...
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Jez took the opportunity to hail in the new year by partaking in the lawlessness that is Sucre. He bought some fireworks and exploded them in the main square. Later while walking back to our hostel a bunch of crazy kids showed us the true meaning of lawlessness when they threw fireworks at us.

A few days after New Years we were woken by some almighty explosions which lasted through the night. We were aware that some recent protests had left 3 Bolivians dead, the police force ransacked, and the town devoid of law and order. Jez tried to reassure TZ that it was probably the same kids taunting some hapless gringos with their leftover fireworks.
In the morning we discovered the truth. The street was a mess of burnt out cars and uprooted telephone boxes as a result of an impromptu protest. The people of Sucre had heard that the justice minister was in town, and decided to burn whatever they could get their hands on in order to make their grievances heard. Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, housing the judicial system, but the government sits in La Paz, bringing much status and wealth to that city. The Sucre-maniacs had the great idea that if they could burn enough stuff the government would see the error in its ways and return to Sucre. The protest was successful in keeping the minister holed up in the Supreme Court until 6AM (at which time we could thankfully go back to sleep), and teaching us about lobbying Bolivian style, but probably little else...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Mines of Potosi

After our jeep trip across the Atacama desert to Uyuni in Bolivia, on a whim we headed directly to Potosi. The JeTZ were temporarily upgraded to a team of 4 as we were not yet ready to part from our fellow jeep travelling companions Marissa and Byron.

Potosi is claimed to be the highest city in the world (even higher than La Paz). We are not sure if that claim is true, but in any case it is located at an oxygen deprived altitude of 4070m above sea level.

Potosi is famous for 'cerro rico', or 'rich mountain', whose silver deposits practically bank rolled the Spanish empire between the mid 1500s and about 1800. In Spanish the name Potosi is synomous with wealth. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Bolivia there is very little evidence in their daily lives to show for the fortuity of living adjacent to one of the world's greatest mineral deposits.

Today the silver deposit is largely depleted, and the miners extract tin and other resources from a catacomb of unregulated mines that make the cerro rico appear to be one enormous rabbit warren.

The first stop on a tour of the Potosi mines is at the miner's market. In the centre of the market is a 'workers of the world unite' type statue, with the communist hammer and sickle customised for Bolivia with a rifle and jack hammer. Today the miners work in small collectives, so they own their own equipment which they buy at the market. Tourists can also buy presents, such as coca leaves and soft drinks for the miners.

Here our guide is explaining how he was lucky to be injured after a couple of years of work in the mines and now work as a guide rather than a labourer. He also explained how his burdens have been increased by an unexpected pregnancy. His salient advice: never use a condom made in the USA!

So after impressing on us the woes of the miners, our guide had convinced us to buy some presents to give to the miners we were to meet later. It did not take too much convincing for Jez to purchase some dynamite. Our guide told us we could buy dynamite for ourselves or the miners. At that moment we werent sure why we would need any dynamite for ourselves, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

We were a tad surprised that the dynamite sticks, the ammonium nitrate fertaliser pellets, the fuse and detonator were handed over in a shopping bag as if we had bought them from a grocery store! Here our guide is explaining the difference between three different types of dynamite. Apparently Peruvian dynamite is best, in case you need to know.

Here we are, The JeTZ, a guide, and Marissa and Byron, all kitted up, and ready to descend into the mines. The smiles might have been a little more strained had we known what we were about to experience.

In the first level of the mine there was a museum describing the history of cerro rico. Here we learnt about the atrocious working conditions. Even today, children as young as 10 work in conditions better suited to the 1700s. Incidentally, there is an award winning documentary about the child miners in Potosi called ´The Devil´s Miner´.

In the colonial era the native Indian work force was decimated by disease and the work conditions and was replaced by imported Negro slave labour. Today the Bolivian workers have a short life expectancy, typically dying in their 40s from silicosis.

There were also several life size figurines. This one is 'El Tio' or 'The Uncle'. The workers shower him with gifts of cigarettes and coca leaves and in return he apparently keeps them safe. We are not sure how he manages to do that, but maybe there is a clue in the size of El Tio's phallus.

As we descended deeper into the mine the dust and the lack of air and the claustrophobia started to become overwhelming. We turned to the local remedy, chewing coca leaves, for some relief. Here I am trying my best to imitate the workers, who strip the leaf from its stem with their teeth, and deposit the substance in their cheeks. This half masticated bolus is then 'activated' by chewing a small piece of ilucta (a chalk like substance prepared from lime stone and the ashes of a native plant).

The process of activation helps you produce saliva and to release the theraputic elements of the coca leaves. Overall its not a custom that we expect to take off within the institution of high tea at The Ritz, but it is apt for the mines of Potosi.

We continued to descend to the third level of the mine. By this stage things had started to get pretty uncomfortable, as it felt that all the air had been replaced by dust, the ladders were death traps, and the tunnels became so tight that Jez could barely negotiate them with his enormous muscular frame. To top it off our guide had started to become visibly agitated. It did not set us at ease to learn the reason for his agitation. We were approaching 5pm, or the 'blasting hour' when the daily charges of dynamite would be detonated.

Crawling on our hands and knees we finally made it to these workers, deep in the mine. By this stage I was going through cycles of counting to 10 in order to put aside the panic that was rising in my throat. TZ helped put things in perspective when she turned to me at one particularly tight point, with an unprotected shaft dropping away on one side, and a pool of mucus freshly deposited by a worker with silicosis on the other, and said ´you owe me a manicure when we get out of here´!

Here TZ is reminding me that she wasnt joking about the manicure.

After a few moments to recover from our ordeal (for us a trip into the mine was a physical and psychological trauma, without even picking up a shovel) we discovered the purpose of our dynamite. Our guides prepared the sticks by inserting the fuse and detonator, and then putting the sticks inside the shopping bags with the fertaliser pellets. It was now time to pose with the lit explosives as the fuse quickly disappeared. Notice that while Jez is very conscientiously holding his lit fuse away from the dynamite, TZ is playing dare-devil and letting the lit end come perilously close to the explosives!

Moments after these photos were taken our guides snatched the dynamite from our hands and ran off into the hills. We watched with racing hearts and rolling video camera as the guide made a hasty getaway and then BLOODY-KABOOM the earth shook.

In the aftermath your trusty video camera operator realised that in the shock of the explosion that the stop button had inadvertently been pressed at the moment of truth. The mushroom cloud will live on only in our memories!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Atacama Desert Jeep Trip - Day 3

After two days of driving in the desert, we had finally reached our prized destination: the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia. Although striking under almost any conditions, at sunrise it really was a sight to behold. Having had some experience with the salt flats in Jujuy, Northern Argentina, we knew how strong the compulsion would be to act up...

With nothing to block the paths of our shadows, they seemed to go on forever...

After I took the following photo Jez pointed out a rather strange phenomenon. While the rest of his body had been stretched to giraffe-like proportions, the shadow of his middle leg was in fact life size...


Or freefalling?

Ok enough of the stills, what fun can we have with our video?

When we hopped back in the jeep, our driver impressed us again with his navigation skills. Not only could he traverse the desert on imaginary roads, he could do the same on these salt flats. Although constantly surprised by where we would land up, nothing could prepare us for the sight of a cactus island that sprang forth from no where! It was here at Isla Incahuasi (Cactus Island) in the middle of the Salt Flat that we would enjoy Christmas cake for breakfast.

After breakfast, we walked around the Island. Jez made a rather interesting discovery...

A unanimous decision had been made, the Cactus Island set against the backdrop of a seemingly endless Salt Flat was indeed the highlight of our jeep trip. But the day had just begun for us and very soon, that would pale into insignificance...

We headed for the Salt Mines where we were to stop and have lunch. But not before a quick stop where our driver was to point out the Ojos de Salar, the eyes of the salt. Here we would see holes in the salt which revealed two things: 1) There was water under the salt and 2) the salt was pretty damn thin! We tapped our feet on a couple of salt ridges which created more eyes. We were still horrified by the realisation that we had been driving on such precarious terrain when our driver invited us back into the car...

When we reached the salt mine we realised we had run out of Bolivianos and could therefore not afford the mine tour. We took the opportunity to relax and have some lunch and meet a rather sociable looking vecuña...

The vecuña is part llama, part deer...but also part evil. We did not know that until for some unknown reason I stood before it and said: "I´ve been attacked by a cow before but never by a vecuña..." In all honestly, I dont know what compelled me to say that but click on the video below to see how that played out...

After the vecuña incident, as it has now been named, we jumped in the jeep, slammed the doors and wound up the windows. The beast was hunting for its next victim and no one else was willing to sacrifice their dignity. So we sped off and stopped at the outskirts of the quaint city of Uyuni. Here we explored the train cemetery - a sad collection of rusty old steam trains.

Some people paid hommage to Einstein...

Others advertised positions for mechanics...

But we were far too narcissistic and advertised ourselves!

We parted ways with our driver but not with our new Aussie friends Marissa and Byron who we´d be sharing more adventures with in Bolivia...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Atacama Desert Jeep Trip - Day 2

After pancakes for breakfast, our driver advised us that he needed to drop of his wife and child somewhere. His wife and child? Where did they come from? And where could he possibly be dropping them off? We hadn´t noticed any grocery stores or hairdressers in the desert...

We drove for about half an hour in the usual style: Jaws agape as our driver navigated imaginary roads through the desert sand. We noticed that he would drive straight for a while and then suddenly change direction without any evidence of a landmark or sign to indicate a change was necessary. Suddenly, he stopped the car and the three of them got out. They walked...and walked...and disappeared into thin air.

We sat around the jeep (at least we had the jeep!) confused and bored for a good half an hour. Although, we made good use of our time and updated our diary that would later be stolen from us in Mendoza.

Finally our driver returned and we drove off to see more crazy rock formations. Jez could not resist the opportunity to blend in with nature.

You may recall us having to take a photo of a fake llama in a previous blog lest we did not see any real ones. Well take heart, these babies are real! We got to see literally hundreds of them in an open field in a valley. It was here we would stop and have lunch.

Click below to hear the Bolivian rendition of "Baby got Back"...

Lazing about at the top of a canyon was a pretty good way to gain some perspective.So far, our jeep trip was muy traquilo.

After seeing a million more llamas, we reached our destination. One of the places specifically not recommended by the Lonely Planet: The Salt Hotel. It is one of many illegal establishments located on the salt flats. They are outlawed due to the problem of the waste from the toilets going back into the very salt that is mined and used for human consumption. But we take great pride in defying our guide book as often as possible.

The hotel itself is made completely out of salt. The ground is all salt so we walked around barefoot. Most impressive was that our bed was made from salt and we couldn't help but advertise ourselves on our bedroom may need to take a closer look at the photo.

Later we would discover, hidden in the structure of the hotel, something that would pique the interest of biblical historians: Lot’s wife

That night we had dinner in the salt lounge. As we were ploughing our way through more red wine, there was a knock at the door.

Two kids walked in dressed in traditional weaved ponchos and one of them sported a promising looking panpipe. Our entertainment for the evening had arrived! When they were done we tipped them and hurried off to bed...we had a 5:30AM start the following day and the electricity would go off very shortly leaving us to fumble our way in the dark.

Stay tuned for day 3 where we discover a landscape where sound travels with no barriers, shadows go on forever and a rather unusual island makes an appearance in a most unlikely place.