Here comes the Don

It’s been a curious, beautiful, saddening, interesting and uplifting few weeks. I’ve seen why Bolivia is called the Tibet of the Andes, met some strange, strange people (see end) and be treated to friendship and sights that make me sad to leave. I’ve been at over 3500m now for four weeks and have become acclimatise to the mountains. the salt lakes of the south, lake Titicaca of the north, the Spanish colonial town of Sucre and the mines of Potosi have all graced me. there are places that seem so wonderful that they don’t seem real. if the Big Man did decide to get his paint brush out and grace us, then Bolivia was his canvas.

There is one thing about South America. it seems very racial harmonious. they don’t have the problems of western countries or the racial restrictions. maybe that it part of it. there would never be a Steve Montoya moment. climbing over the fence into Texas in the 1980s, wearing an open blue checked shirt and tight jeans. landing on US soil, Montoya checks his ass, pulls out a comb and smooths those irrepressible locks, gives the world the grin and moves on to make a fantastic life in a foreign land. people have migration here as part of their lives. it may work in racial harmony terms. only the Indians suffer that humiliation here. they were unable to move on.

I left Peru travelling with two girls. they were a pair. Christ. one, a young sweet American, thought that Bangkok was in Brazil, talked about Inca culture being so amazing as its 1200 years old (try 600) and compared to the states which was only 600 years old she said (try 220). that pushed my tongue to top of my mouth in anticipation of a rant but I let the air brush over me and relaxed. but then she told me that she left American when her parents were arguing and it all happened at the same time as “my country went to war”. that made my fingers curl into a ball. but compared to Jess, a cynical boring Australian girl who complained about everything, “you’re not in a western country now love” came to mind, the yank was a sweet pleasure. Jess actually thought I was a serious person. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she bored me senseless.

But we arrived at the Isle de la Sol and I talked with an Italian girl who had more energy than was possible. (stop it). the island, the birth place of the Incas was stunning, surrounded by azul blue, crested with mountains. I could see why people didn’t leave here. we found accommodation ate dinner and went to bed where I resolved to sleep until the girls had left. that they did and I went walking. five minutes later I met Christian who looked much better than last time and we set off round the isle.

We glided over the crown of the isle at 4200m, puffing and panting and watched a boat arrive at the small dock, greeted by a band that had less tune than sex pistols on a bad day, with men playing the recorder and men banging a drum. we followed it and it turned out to be the opening of a museum, funded by UNESCO. we were the first tourists in and did so free and were given free food and watched the various, curious, repetitive dances accompanied by the sex pistols of the Andes. one of the dancers wore a mask and seemed to be carrying a rabbit. on closer inspection it was a gutted cat without ears or eyes. named George apparently. we chatted to the women from UNESCO who had flown in from Paris and spoke the most diplomatic English spoken, the head of the Bolivian (landlocked) navy and were then treated to a speech by the local politician. this was something to behold. a rant, he spoke to the TV cameras, not the electorate, mentioning how these voters were the descendants of the first Inca, the greatest Inca, the man who had beaten Genghis khan in a fistfight, scored the winning penalty in the 1446 world cup final and made hulk Hogan beg for mercy in a little known steel cage fight in the 1980s. this politician had little in common with these indigenous people, a man who talked in exaggerations, open promises, talked about money and their past while having little to do with their lives. having UNESCO here was a propaganda coup and he milked it. the Indians didn’t really know where to look.

We continued our walk and finished at about 8pm after 12km and receiving burnt face. the next day we returned to the mainland and by chance walked into the internet cafe where Luke sat. that put afternoon beer on the menu and as u will know I’ve never been one to spoil my beer appetite with too much food so there was a hangover the next day. what made it worse was saying goodbye to Luke, maybe for a while though maybe not. I wish him and Serena the happiness they deserve in oz.

I returned to La Paz and looked to book a tour to the salt lakes. we walked into a travel agency to be met by a German which hilarious English and ferocious energy. we booked. had no choice. the next day we headed south to the largest salt lakes in the world. this proved a real highlight. on the way, the bus crawled along weaving road which tilted up and down. the driver who was wearing an orange bobble hat that reached the ceiling (this was a bus remember), grew restless and put his foot down. the tyre blew a few seconds later and we sat in the freezing cold as they tried to imagine a way to fix it. the hobbling bus passed through sleeping police vehicle inspections finally made to the Uyuni by morning.

Our 4×4 tour driver presented himself. his name was Don El Doro. wearing Sly Stallone glasses from Cobra, he cruised the salt plains, informing us of the facts and turning his llama siren into a wolf whistle when we passed a woman. genius. his careless driving made my nerves bleed. the car was five people. Jason and Dina who were returning to oz after a few torturous years working in the NHS in England, Christian the German who took the role of translating with El Doro. speaking Spanish was a strength unfortunately his English was appalling. so Christian the Austrian and Christian the German spoke in English for the rest of us. made u proud to be English.

The salt lakes were stunningly beautiful (I’ll post the photos later). blindingly white, shorn flat with vast grey misty mountains in the backdrop. but as has become a constant here in Bolivia the landscape continually changed from red rock desert to steep mountain valleys. on the second night it snowed and we woke up to a post breakfast snowball battle. our jeep managed to pin one team back in the home and proceeded to beat up the rest. hugely enjoyable. the snow also made the lagunas come alive. the pictures from the third day are just stunning. volcanoes overlooking lagunas, red rock outcrops which provided great free climbing. it’s not something I’m particularly good at but I like it and am getting better. the team broke up and we meet Al and Sibella, honey-mooning couple and Mike and June, a Canadian couple, he looking remarkably like a young Dan Ackroyd.

After the salt lakes we headed north to Potosi, formerly the largest city in south America based on the mining trade. up to 8 million Incas and Africans died in these mines. Christian and I went down one, scrambling and climbing.  It was really great and scary. the safety procedures and negligible. miners die within 15 years of entering the mines due to silicon inhalation. Our guide Helen was informative and funny though at 4ft 5 inches I was convinced she should be still in school but she argued that she was 23.

The next day we moved on to Sucre, a beautiful town, seemingly transported from southern Spain to Bolivia. It’s a rich town, decorated with parks, white houses and pretty people. the Spanish must have left some genes here. it’s a university city so lively and interesting. I am hoping to go back to study some Spanish there next week. that will be a challenge but next week I will face a greater challenge. I hope I make it. I will be back sooner than I previously thought as I’ve made some plans which need doing now not later. but I’ll inform when I know.

Lastly, two days ago three guys moved into the room next door in Sucre. wearing matching navy dungarees, two with baseball caps, one with a cowboy hat, they placed their small bags in the room and then headed out. I was sitting on the patio and said hello. the younger one looked at the older ones who looked at each other and the walked on without saying anything. the Christian brotherhood had arrived in Bolivia. there is a lot I could say but I just hope the Bolivians remember the tolerance that has stood them in good stead. I will sort out the photos later, soon.

Machu Picchu

“You want some help amigo.” These are the words that u hear consistently in Peru. It’s bloody annoying and just makes you walk away. But once I didn’t and I became very lucky. Friendliness is something you have to be careful about when travelling. It’s sad but true. but what do Hulk Hogan and Bobby Robson have in common? well yes they are both old but also risk takers and therefore winners. This time I was lucky and I feel a little smug.

Leaving La Paz is a great experience. For the right reasons. It’s just a 30min uphill ride through the favellas of half-built houses where only cowboy construction is allowed. As you reach the summit of the ride, the city’s shape comes into focus. La Paz lies in a cauldron, surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains and white crested volcanoes. On a perfect day, as mine was, it looks stunning. The bus trip was excellent. First the driver jokingly asked a Swedish couple the reciprocal question “can I have your baby?” Unfortunately the husband answered.

As we drove along, we were treated to the great sights of Bolivia; the wide-open plains and a man pissing next to the road. The bus picked up speed, the open plain bordered by immense mountains and ridges, the great time watchers who overlook the cattle and people. They only interrupt their duties to panoramically watch the bus go by. I feel like the Queen. Kids play football in knee-deep grass as parents eat picnics, abandoned houses, roofless worn by time and the endless harshness of life there litter the scene. These are places that National Geographic or the Discovery Channel visit, showcase and leave. And the best thing about countries like these is there is only one road. There is no skirting population densities like you get in Europe, arriving at ring roads to be ferried to the next place, safely away from the cities and its residents. Because there is only one road, you see the people tilling the caramel soil, playing near the road, holding dances outside the churches, living seemingly idyllic but really far from ideal lives.

The drivers here don’t use their brakes. They prefer the horn which generally works though if it doesn’t, as I remember once in Myanmar, they just plough on through. In Myanmar it was a large dog that was the casualty. The isolated, near desolate towns are all brown, with red dusty roads and on one occasion had a French flag flying. Surely a mistake for the British flag. Soon lake Titicaca opens up, the world’s highest navigable lake, a simmering blue, overlooked by those ever-present mountains, like tender grandparents. Small sail boats rest against the reeds and single men row out to catch the livestock. The countryside changes as we reach Peru. The road gets worse and the mountains become more immediate, rawer. The villages appear poorer, more subsistence. Fathers and sons work in the fields while mothers try to get the clothes clean. How people survive here I don’t know.

The first film on the bus was one of the worst I’ve seen. Full of guys with Olympian bodies, ludicrous stunts and slow-mos, comically bad guys who wear Armani and Marky Mark. But then came the second film. This is a bold statement but I think it could be the worst Dolph Lungren film I’ve seen and I’ve seen alot of them as I’m a fan. It was so shocking, I ignored the scenery and watched from beginning to end.

Finally I arrived in Cuzco, a large city near the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. I met an Italian guy who was going into town and headed off with him. He couldn’t speak English but Spanish and the only Italian I know is Nessum Dorma (badly) and Sabrina videos (exceptional talent). He set me up in a hostel he knew with hot showers and two beds to myself for 3 pounds. Nice. I never saw him again. I needed to change a large note so that I could buy dinner. In Peru, they look at you disapprovingly if you give them a 100sol note for a 10sol meal. So I went to a posh bar, an English pub where I thought it`d be fine to change. There was a space at the bar and Real Madrid on the TV so I decided to have a beer. I met a Canadian guy who bought me a drink, an honour say I must reciprocate. We end up in a nightclub till 4am. I woke up and roll to my right and there is a girl sleeping in the next bed. She wakes, I look perplexed, we’re both fully clothed, she laughs and says “you drink. you dormir”, I feel relieved and reply “you, door”. She was happy to leave. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Go to the bar to change money. Who am I kidding?

I mopped around the next day, feeling very sorry for myself. I meet Rie, my Japanese friend which was cool but I’m in no mood for talking so I head home. I pass a man who has clearly had enough and slams his hat on the ground and shouts “why”. Further on, a young girl asks me if I want some sweets. I say no but she asks me where I am from. I reply England and she proceeds to tell me everything about England, things didn’t know. so I took here back and… no, sorry I mean, I told her she was a good saleswoman and bought some sweets. Another girl offers me a drink voucher for last nights bar. I declined and she recognises me and say “oh you`re that English guy.” The look of disgust as she hands me another voucher is somewhat ironic.

The next day I get up and feel better and anyway, the unbelievably amounts of methane and the altitude means I have to get out of my room. The town is full of tour parties wearing the traditional Inca clothing that the locals gave up years ago and now sell for a fortune to tourists as the genuine thing. As we know that ain`t a good sign. I never understand it. Are these foreigners really going to wear a poncho in London? I wander town sightseeing. A few Inca ruins but nothing very exciting so I try to find the train station to book my ticket to Machu Picchu. It’s an early morning train and I find out it costs $54 plus $20 entry fee plus $10bus to the top. Tours start at $110. Stunned at the price, I sit on the steps of the station and ponder. Then my luck changes dramatically. A smartly-dressed, intelligent guy with coiffered hair walks by and asks me “if am I okay.” He sees my guide book and sad Labrador eyes and says “You want to go to Machu Pichu?” I’ve heard this line before but he was insistent he could help. As he leads me back into the station, he tells me he works here and can help. We walk through the security door, pass the back office of the sales who had quoted me the original $54 price and into a large office, paved with commendations and walled with certificates. He introduces himself as JC, sits down in a comfy chair and points to the other chair for me. He picks up a photo and says “my wife, very beautiful.” It was a statement, not a question and it was true. He was the head of Peru rail in this area and proceeds to tell me of an alternative method to Machu Picchu that he says is far more beautiful, easier, involves travelling through the Sacred Valley, gives u time at Machu Pichu when the tours aren’t there and importantly is very much cheaper. He tells me “many people want to go to Machu Picchu, they pay for treks and the agents make alot of money. Most foreigners want no problems but they don’t know that it’s easy to get to Machu Picchu without the agents. He says Machu Picchu is for everyone. It’s true,” he says. He shows me. “Take a bus for 3sols (50p) through the Sacred Valley and catch a train from Ollamba to Machu Pichu for $23 return. When u get to Ollamba, call me.” He gives me his number and pats me on the back, in a ´you can leave now` fashion. And all this time, his hair hasn’t moved once.

I get up and leave. I head back to the hostel, have a long shower that may have reduced the water level of Lake Titicaca by a foot. It all sounds too good to me. But I’ve got time, can do the walk later (which I didn´t bother with) and I like buses so I head off. The journey was beautiful and stops at ruins which most don’t go to. I arrive at Ollamba and call JC. He says that I should go to the station at 6pm, talk to Jose and the ticket will be there. At 6, I head down to the ticket office in the pouring rain and there is a man. “Are you Jose?” he nods. I tell him my name and he lights up. He scrambles through his draw and places a ticket in front of me. I am stunned but eventually find my wallet. But Jose shakes his head and repeats no. He sits back, crosses his arms and smiles. I look at him for a second, then my ticket and run. The bloody ticket was free. I thanked God despite the rain.

I went to a restaurant giddy and sat opposite a skinny guy with messy blonde hair. He was Ron, a Dutch railway engineer who looked about 12 but told me he had lived for 33 years. He liked trains, especially the brakes. I liked cards and taught him a few games and he thrashed me. All the time he would tell me that he was interested in the Machu Picchu train. I became interested in winning a game so taught him ´shithead` which he again hammered me at. (I finally pulled out a 3-2 victory). I noticed Ron had a very up-to-date guide and thought it would provide a useful place to stay in the rain. We found a comfy hotel for 2.50 each. after a shower, Ron sat himself on his bed in his pants and said “to be honest..”. he left too long a gap and this scared the shit out of me. “I don’t like my job.” Thanks Ron. I went to bed and hoped I woke up okay. in the morning, I couldn’t move. Then I realised it was just the 20 duvets I’d placed onto of me for protection. Ron was busy tightening his belt, trying to get a waist like Marie Antoinette. I wished him luck.

Agua Caliente is a town under construction. Its concrete everywhere. I wasn’t surprised to find a hairdresser that also sold cement. It’s the currency here. You can haggle over prices everywhere so it can be cheap. The area is very beautiful so I imagine the Inca Trail would be nice but it’s getting expensive and is plugging for the tourist dollar everywhere. We left the hotel and climbed the trail to Machu Picchu. It was bloody knackering.

Machu Picchu was as I expected. A stunning location and nice foundations. But not that interesting. After all no one really knows what it is and so it’s all mere speculation. It could just look like a bunch of foundations. I’ve always been more of an anthropologist than an archaeologist but I found it too much guesswork, putting your on views onto a place and short-changing history. It certainly doesn’t touch the Maya temples of Mexico or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. What the Incas left behind is nothing compared with the Romans, the Egyptians or even the Mongols who are often credited with destruction rather than creation. The Incas had gold, astronomy and stonework and no doubt the hueing of the stone and transportation was a great achievement engineering-wise but they had no writing system, ruled for under 100years and disappeared as fast as they dominated. They were not advanced militarily, lost to the Spanish (who loses to Spain?) They should have delayed the battles to the afternoon. Then they would have routed the Spaniards). Little is known about Incas but that shouldn’t make them more important than they were. For me they were a minor civilisation. But hey, it`d been almost free.

Would I visit Machu Pichu again? No. But if you are in Peru then do visit but don’t travel halfway round the world for it. There are much better temples, ruins, civilisations to observe. Did I like Peru? Its a pretty colonial town, with too many hawkers, kids begging etc. Lima is never worth visiting (ask anyone), its more expensive than Bolivia but Bolivia is more interesting. However, make no mistake, Peru is very beautiful with sprawling valleys, suffocating gorges, pristine rainforest, pleasant towns and ruins. This is probably the most beautiful continent in the world.

As I was about to leave Peru, I sat on the steps of the cathedral, gazing at people. I’d had a good time no doubts. I’d travelled from Bolivia to there and was about to head back. The town square which the cathedral dominates, was full of tourists, hawkers, kids selling postcards who should be at school, school children running near the fountain and policemen blowing their whistles. A man had just asked me if I wanted some crack which I declined. I was keen to get back to Bolivia and out of a city. I’d been lucky, very lucky in Peru. Two dogs to my left, after checking each other, decided to have sex within metres of me. I say dog, one was almost a horse but the female seemed happy. I guess the luck gets shared around.
take care

No!!! It’s my party

Someone has to spoil the party don’t they? Waiting for my bus the other day in Sucre, my water was stolen by a traveller. I was leaving Bolivia that day, maybe not to return for many years. I scanned my fellow passengers, deciding who it could be. The bus had been delayed due to a fat woman probably arguing she needed two seats. She looked like Frank Bruno’s sister. Next to was a worn out Winona Ryder look-alike. (Just imagine all those lesbian showers scene she had to perform in prison) The guy near me was so old he could have met Columbus. He couldn’t have stolen it as it would have shown on his pants soon after. I watched a Bolivian guy steal a sweet from a hawker and decided it must be him. I was to watch him carefully for the journey. I woke up at the next stop. Many got off here and there it was, my water, in the hands of a small boy. I planned how to tackle him. Maybe a clothesline. As I planned my attack, he took his mothers hand and they walked out the bus station. Wimp.

I’d been in Sucre licking my wounds after Mt Potosi which I’ll explain soon. In Sucre, alone after parting ways with Christian, I wrote, studied and planned Argentina. While in a bar, I managed to turn the lights off in an entire place while fumbling for the toilet light. After a 36 hour bus journey, I arrived in Salta and got very pissed in a bar. In the bar, I found a newspaper from 1996. It’s had an article about the famous gun-toting bandy legged superstar Faustino Asprilla. He had just joined Newcastle and I marvelled that it had been 7years since we had signed a discredited footballer.

Salta proved a fun city on the weekend. Both nights I was to be found in a cool club, drinking cheap beer. The argies were good fun and liked their karaoke. I won free beers for my effort in a bar. There seem to be alot posh travellers around argie. People called Will and ´nice’ Ben. People who says “that is so funny” when they didn’t laugh. I decided to move on to Mendoza further where I arrived today on an overnight bus. Buses in argie are better quality and warmer but lack the ability to drive through a medium-sized family without a bump that make Bolivian buses the crazy but interesting experience they are.

The previous days we had been in La Paz climbing Mt Potosi. We went to the same German travel agent to book the climb. Yet again for the third time he failed to remember us. The last time was within the same conversation. This conversation involved us speaking only the first line. Its went like this, Christian: we are interested in the mountain climbing. How much is it? German: its $75. It’s a good price. We leave tomorrow and climb tomorrow night. Okay. Okay I call my guys and they will be here at three to fit u for ur clothes. right so three o’clock. u pay then. goodbye. we hadn’t indicated anything. but we left and returned at three to be met by three smiling Bolivians, two brothers and a son. they fitted our clothes, telling us everything was “no problem” even though I looked like I was drowning in gortex.

they arranged to meet us at 8.30 the next day. one of the brothers was part-time taxi driver. we had to leave before 9am or he would get fined for having his car in the city. we drove there. a beautiful drive over La Paz and into the mountains. this would be my first real mountain climbing experience and I’d chosen a 6000m plus mountain. maybe a bad plan. I was determined but maybe that belied my ability. the mountain looked beautiful as we approached, bathed in sunshine. we climbed up to 5200m from 4700m (about the height of Mt Blanc)carrying our packs and then changed into snow gear and left at 10pm for the summit. the summit was at 6088m. on the way up, my zip on my trousers broke. our guides again said “no problem.” maybe not but I hoped I didn’t get attacked by an amorous yeti.

below in the valley a storm raged, lighting the sky with its power every few seconds. the wind rushed around the peak making it difficult to stay upright. at about 5700m we were hit by a snowstorm. we sought shelter. it was a welcome relief as my legs had been dead for at least a 100m. the storm lasted about 20mins but by then my legs had seized up. I had difficult standing and was frankly exhausted. the top was only 400m away but it was 70 degree inclination and I had to make the choice to stop. it was freezing and I really couldn’t go on. mountaineering is often psychological but I knew that I wasn’t really fit enough to do this in the first place.

Christian explained that it was just really technique but I’d lost alot of weight in Bolivia through illness and to be honest, the gym work I did in Japan and England was merely cosmetic, as Scott would tell u. it did little for my stamina, conditioning and leg strength. it was probably vanity. my legs simply gave up on the mountain. my days riding that bike in Okayama had been to waste! so I headed down with one of the guides and returned to sleep off my disappointment. Christian headed up and made it to the top though he said it was exhausting. maybe I made the right decision but I am bitterly disappointed and have no doubt mr mountain, I will be back.

Christian and I decided to have a farewell beer or ten. after a great night, dancing on tables, we ended up at this party which was one of the strangest I’ve been to. it was 5am but the dance floor was full of women, only women. the tables were rammed with men, only men, all head down asleep. apparently I told a guy off for supporting man u. sat in a bar wondering about where I should go next after Bolivia and a Dutch couple sat next to me with their friends. I wrote and listened to their conversation occasionally. the Dutch guy has without doubt the greatest ability to end a conversation I ever met. three times his comments caused the sort of silence only last heard when bobby “it’s in the past so I can’t remember” robson famously said “lee bowyer is a great human being. I remember when he made that long walk to freedom from those authoritarian bastards in south Africa. I couldn’t turn my TV off, on off. err where is the control betty”.
hope all are well
take care