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October 10, 2011
We got to the border, of course the first thing to do is check out of Argentina, Immigration then Customs. This was straight forward but the next step is usually where things get dicey. For Bolivia you have to go to Customs first, this isn’t usual, then to Immigration. While Deya was clearing us out of Argentina I met a super cool couple touring around in a totally cool car. They were planning a world trip in the car next year and were just doing several months shake-out around South America. The couple arrived after us and left three hours earlier.
The folks from Argentina didn’t have Bolivian insurance, like us, and so instead of playing the game of ‘sorry you have to turn around and go back’, they paid 50 bucks and were through in minutes. Of course this set a bad precedence that was going to cost us several hours. We had to wait, and wait, and wait while the customs agent hummed a hawed about what could be done. He explained that we had to have international insurance for Bolivia; we explained that no one will sell us valid insurance for Bolivia. He said we can go back into Argentina and buy the insurance (even though it’s not valid) but he might not accept it. Deya asked what insurance he would accept and the agent told her any but he might not accept it when we got back. This went on and on.
Deya pressed and the guy was now at the point he was willing to ask for something but in the office was a customs broker who had recently reported him fore extortion. He kept looking at her and saying, “Hmmm, I wonder what to do, hmmm, what to do, what to do.” Then finally told us to go outside and wait. We went outside and stood by the bikes, I know what was coming and we did our best to capture it on video. The agent emerged and was casual just hanging out and talking to people before sauntering over to us and standing there looking into the distance.
The agent started to speak, “What should we do, let me think, let me think….hmmm, so do you use Euros in your country?” To which Deya replied “No, we use Canadian dollars”. The agent replies softly so the bystanders don’t hear, “Oh good because I collect Canadian money, do you have any?” Deya replies, “Yes.” To which the agent asked how much. And Deya replied that she only had pennies. The Agent says, “Oh well I can’t do anything with that.” Deya said, “So are you saying that we’ll have to back to Argentina and Chile to get to Peru?” And the agent replied, “Yes you’ll have to.” Deya snapped.
The road from the border almost all the way to Potosi was paved, the problem was it was blocked for construction. We had to ride dirt most of the way and it was very rutty. I had a bit of fun ploughing with our heavy bikes over some banks to get to the road and back, Deya just laughed and we should have recorded the bikes going airborne. It is probably the hardest we’ve been on the bikes since we started, good times.
We arrived in a little town called Tupiza and found a place called Hotel Mitru. About 14 dollars a night for the two of us, it included Wi-Fi, a substantial breakfast, swimming pool and an easy walk to everything. We could have stayed there for a week, very relaxing and a lot of interesting tourists coming and going. The town was nice and you could get pretty much anything you need except dinner. I know, it makes no sense but dinner isn’t really their thing in this town. Despite this it was great. It turns out we could get a tour from here for the same price as if we went to Potosi. We had decided not to take the bikes onto the Salar (Salt Flats) for a number of reasons as you might imagine. Since the tour from Tupiza was actually closer than Potosi and we were loving the accommodations and secure parking, we decided to take a tour from there by Jeep.
The tour would take us along rough dirt roads and river beds, we would traverse sandy sections and water filled with garbage, past many mines, small villages and prayer sites.
The mines are everywhere and they are primitive. Most things are done manually and the work is brutal, the wage is good for the area and a person can make from 12-35 dollars a day, wow! Lead, Zinc, Silver, Gold and some other minerals are extracted with the crudest of technology, often humped on someone’s back and carried up a hill that would kill most of us in the 3800 metres plus elevation. We are talking tonnes per day.
We crossed a river bed before stopping at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere and checked out the prayer sight for a Saint “Señor San Cristobal”, saint of the drivers. Our guide got out to give an offering of Coca leaves. It’s common to give an offering to this saint too so that one can be blessed with a successful and safe trip. The most common offerings here are beer, smokes and coca leaves. So the sight itself was a disaster of empty beer cans, chewed coca and half smoked cigarettes. Pretty much you can count on drunk or stoned drivers bashing around the back roads without much concern for others’ safety because they’ll be safe, God willing. Brutal, but this is their gig not mine and common sense plays no role here.
Did you say Coca leaves? So they produced a bag and started to consume and of course offered me some. Let me tell you why people here chew coca:
First off the UN and member countries have banned Coca production because of the huge demand in European and North American counties for Cocaine. The Bolivian government stepped up and changed the rules in their country saying, “Coca Yes, Cocaine NO!” and legalized and regulated the production for domestic use. They kicked out the USA DEA and have very little problems now. The concept is, stop demand and the supply of cocaine goes away. The USA being one of the largest demand customers, hence the Mexican problems with drugs and people trafficking, but all those people who buy narcotics are to blame.
I for one was scared of the leaf but when you have altitude sickness it makes you rethink your fears. Coca leaf is supposed to wake you up a bit, reduce feeling of cold or hot, make breathing easier and significantly reduce the effects of altitude. No wonder everyone here chews the stuff. It’s also not addictive, yet there are some people who can’t stop chewing it. Despite that observation there is no ‘High’ or special feelings or superpowers.
Okay, so having shortness of breath, a pounding headache and nausea I decided to give it a try. You have to remember that when we ask people in South America about coca leaves and if they are a nasty drug they look at you like you are a total retard or they just laugh. It’s kind of like asking the Chinese waiter in your favourite restaurant if the green tea is going to make you into a crack whore, totally stupid. So with overwhelming tranquillity, casual use and acceptance regarding the product and with no haggard crack junkies in sight trying to ram a leaf into their veins I gave it a go.
Wow, total non event. The wad taste like old lawn trimming so they add a catalyzer made out of the ash of quinoa tree and sodium bicarbonate (like you use in cakes and bread). The quinoa, if you’ve never heard of it, is a fancy grain that vegans usually pay a high price for because it is awesome. It’s kind of like rice but loaded with proteins and such. The taste of this catalyzer was minty and cool, it made the wad of coca very enjoyable and I could totally chew on the stuff all day if I wanted to, like having a fresh chewy candy in your mouth; I though the combination was really nice but what I was waiting for was the super powers. I finished the wad and had a very slight numb sensation in my cheek, very slight, I had to focus to notice it. No super powers emerged, it was cold out and I was cold, the sun was shining through the jeep window and I was uncomfortably hot, I still suffered from the headache and now I felt like I was going to puke lawn trimming and a minty fresh flavour (which I looked forward to).
The truth is a strong coffee has more kick but is too expensive here, it’s also more addictive in my opinion. I occasionally suffer from coffee addiction both mental and physical. After a long bought of coffee consumption, usually work related, a short stop produces a headache for a day or so; this is physical addiction and many of you know this well enough. The wish to sit quietly with an extra hot cup of coffee in hand and stare blankly into space absorbing the flavours, smells and heat from the cup is a psychological addiction. It’s reassuring and comforting and my mind wishes for it. But yet I haven’t seen any coca junkies. I think I agree with the low threat level of this product and would firmly agree that dealing with the demand problem is the solution. After all if we soaked coffee beans in gasoline (how they make cocaine) and added a bunch of other brutal refinement processes and people were stupid enough to fry their worthless brains on it, would it be fair to all the families who live off coffee plantations, work in Starbucks, Tim’s and all the people who enjoy a morning brew to criminalize the coffee plant? Stupid, hopefully we figure this complicated problem out one day.
So after the coca craze we stopped for a lunch and discovered something totally cool, poop piles! So these crazy looking Llamas don’t just taste good and have nice fuzzy fur but they are brilliant beasts that make their own piles of poop. Two to three times per day they will come running over the hill to find their own poop pile and take a dump.
The young ones don’t do it because they haven’t learned or don’t need to, may be a territory thing. Either way the piles of poop can be easily harvested to burn in the ovens to make bread taste better (hahahah) or turned into the soil for fertilizer. I was super impressed with this and it was probably the best discovery of the tour.
We ended the day in a salt hotel, everything but the hole you squat into to take a dump was made of salt. It’s interesting but I though pretty over rated, take me back to Tupiza please! The following day we went into the Salar, visited an island with a hotel and restaurant, saw some salty water holes (Eyes of the Salar) and took some typical pictures. It was a good tour and I’m glad we never took the bikes, too much work and risk. On the bikes we would have had to stay in the nearby town of Uyuni and it’s a total dump, literally it’s covered in garbage to the point that the population talks about the desert flowers (small shrubs adorned with garbage bags blowing in the wind).
There is a cemetery of old steam trains that could be cool but isn’t and we spent a little time learning some native language. The guides are good but tend to drink and drive.
After leaving Tupiza we headed towards Potosi, the road was still messy and we encountered a new problem. Previously we had to pay more than double for gas, due to the government subsidizing the national fuel reserve. This was okay since double is only about $1.38 CND for us and I understand, though the system is kind of stupid. The government wants to be able to make all us capitalist dogs pay for fuel in Bolivia at the price we would pay at home but only some of the stations have the proper receipts to make the transaction. So when we were nearly out of gas and stopped to find out that we could not by gas from anyone but this well hidden gas station in a mysterious section of town it was kind of annoying. The process, with two receipts, names and ID numbers takes a while and is very cumbersome. The loss of productivity for the staff and the long line ups created doesn’t help this country but I surmise the ones who thought this one up can’t think that deep. Not to be insulting but it’s a crazy thing to see.
We only spent the evening in Potosi, the third highest city in the world (4100 metres), but we scored Silver in food and people, literally! We had a fantastic dinner of llama that let us know what the beast was all about and met some super people while we looked for accommodations. The city is very nice and my only regret was not to be able to spend more time there and with the family that had us over for coffee. Brilliant people and super nice; they gave Deya a lump of unprocessed silver from the local mine as a reminder of our visit.
We spent the next night in Oruro, it was a dump.
Going around La Paz was the right thing to do, total chaos. We arrived to Copacabana which sits at the shores of Lake Titicaca. I know its funny but it’s a real lake, it happens to be the largest high altitude lake in the world at about 3808 metres. We took a ferry across the lake to get to Copacabana and it was only slightly better that the one we took in Guatemala. The ride from the ferry to Copacabana was stunning with near perfect roads and beautiful vistas. Once in town we found a place and attracted a lot of attention from tourists, this is typical and very enjoyable to have some conversation from the northern hemisphere. Our luck was good as we found a good place at a reasonable price with safe parking and Wi-Fi plus met two Vancouverites! Roger and Nicole, thanks for dinner and best wishes on your trip, it was a pleasure to meet you and you left me with that feeling of being around family and friends; maybe it was the proper use of ‘eh!’ that got me.
Next stop Peru, but they don’t sell insurance at this border, shit.