Friday, 31 October 2008

High attitude!

Less energetic than the ascent of the volvano, but still exacting, were the ten days we spent in Lauca National Park and then Bolivia's salt flats, both at around 3-4000 metres. Altitude sickness is not great - it feels like a bad hangover without the memory loss or the fun. It makes walking particularly hard work because you get breathless and dizzy, but even so, we saw tons of wildlife including flamingoes, llamas, alpacas, vicunyas and an andean fox, albeit often from the comfort of a 4x4.

Many silly photos were snapped during our 3 days at the Salar de Uyuni (salt lakes) in the south of Bolivia. The area is pure white and covers a land mass the size of Belgium. It is 120m deep at the deepest point. We also visited some amazing lagunas (lakes) full of flamingos. One was a deep, deep red. The highest point of the journey was 5000m and on the second night we were 4300m above sea level. We have just come to terms with the high altitude. We shared the tour with 4 young Irish girls, a young Scots couple, 2 blokes from south London (with the surname MacDonald!!) a Belgium couple and an Aussie. Everyone was great fun. All the youngsters got very drunk on the last night on 7% Bolivian beer called Special... sorry Bock, and a bottle of Bolivian grape brandy. We all had to get up at 5am the following day. There were one or two sore heads, believe you me.
On our last night in Uyuni we had a wee bit of a scary adventure in the local cemetary. To be exact, we got locked in behind 10m high walls and spiked gates!
We had taken an early evening walk to build up an appetite for some more beef, egg and chips and came across a large cemetary at the edge of town. There were families outside and inside there were about 3 people doing various things around the site. A young lad at the gate warned us not to take photos. Or so we thought...
Very soon we were completely absorbed in the various styles and decorations of the graves. This contrasted between elaborate family graves to graves of broken concrete with only a crude metal cross to mark the spot. Behind us the sun was setting and the place was becoming increasingly eerie and quiet. We made our way to the gates, noticing 2 dogs that weren´t there when we entered, and, to our horror, the gates (all of them) were closed and padlocked. The place was deserted. A Bolivian Hammer Horror! Looking around we found a plank of wood that we propped between a bench and the wall. Getting up was easy but getting down... Me, the big lump, scraped my belly and arms clambering over the wall and dropping over the other side. Ouch! Kathy, the athletic Jemima Bond, skipped on to the wall and cleared the other side with a dramatic double somersault - completing the routine with a triple toe salco to finish. Dix point!!!
Then we scarpered. Thankfully, the dogs were as big lumps as myself.

Bolivian tasty treats include the biggest ice-creams we've ever eaten, (yes that does include Italy) which Bolivians like for breakfast, llama steak (chewy but good) and, the biggest revelation of all: quinoa. Just because Gillian McKeith recommends it, I had always assumed it was revolting. Not so. The impact of this diet is particularly obvious in Bolivia. Women and men alike here are chubby. There is no other word for it. Kids are little butterballs and it's not unusual to see them chomping their way through an entire packet of chocolate biscuits, usually given to them by their parents to distract them. (Incidentally, I find the same trick works well with Athole on long bus journeys, of which there are plenty.) Women also like to layer themselves in numerous quantities of skirts, petticoats, woolly jumpers, aprons, cardigans, coats, tights, legwarmers (I kid you not), blankets and hats - so much so that getting down the aisle of a bus can become quite an operation. We passed a strip club today and wondered how many hours it took to get down to just their undies?
High altitude also burns extra calories, or at least that's what I'm hoping. La Paz is the highest capital in the world at 4,000 metres above sea level and as a result, its footie teams are made of iron. (Incidentally, the Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy trains here for the same reasons. Wonder if he eats ice-cream for brekkie.) We have yet to see a match live, but we watched one in the pub in Chile, which was almost as exciting, although the screen was hard to see for the fog of cigarette smoke. (Remember that?) Footie is definitely the first sport in South America, but snogging comes a close second. Everywhere you turn there are couples, not just teenagers mind but middle-aged ones too, absorbed in the close examination of each other's face in public. How they manage to find anything through the layers of clothes is another matter.

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