5/11/2007 - COPACABANA - LAGO TITICACA , CHILE - BOLIVIAN BORDER
| COPACABANA - LAGO TITICACA
eight kilometers into bolivia, we lucked into beautiful copacabana. it was a small city, but it was filled with stuff. we hadn't had access to stuff in days, things like food, gas, housing. my aunties will be happy to know that i bought them some little rugs, they've been requesting items from the photos we post on the website, but by the time we post the photos, we're miles away from where they were taken. the town square and the market had a lot of what peru was lacking, and we truly hoped the rest of bolivia would be the same. a fine lunch at a restaurant that mostly catered to european hippies did us well, we basked in the sun and played with a monkey that was tied to a tree for our entertainment pleasure. i wanted to steal him, but i'd hate to end up in a south american prison for something so ridiculous. our comfort level was at an all time high, so we called it an early day and checked into a family operated hotel. we were waiting for the family to exibit some kind of crazy behavior like bonking ducks, but they never did. they weren't crazy at all, in fact, they were some of the nicest people in the world. the hotel was also nice, but was lacking a heater. the minute the sun disappears, it's damn near freezing. our room had three beds, so we pilfered all the blankets off the other two beds and the three of us snuggled under what felt like seventy pounds of wool. dollar bootlegged movies kept us occupied for the rest of the night, there's not too much going in in these little towns after dark.
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
we set out for la paz the next morning, which would require driving the truck onto a ferry to cross a section of lake titicaca. this would be the highlight of this particular day, we just didn't know it at the time. when you find that the road dead ends into a lake, you must not question the seaworthiness of the vessel that is to carry you and your truck across the water. there was more water than boat, but in bolivia, bouyancy is clearly not a factor where boats are concerned. much to my utter astonishment, we made it across the lake. we docked next to another ferry that boasted the name "titanic". glad we didn't get stuck with that one.
la paz is bolivia's biggest city, so we had high expectations for the place. i'd been on a south american hunger strike, which has directly affected my already limited wardrobe. i was badly in need of some new pants, as my old pants wouldn't stay up on their own, i had to keep at least one hand in my pocket to keep them from falling down. the truck was also in need of a little attention, the back rack, when completely loaded had become a little iffy. food and accommodation were also in order, with any luck, we'd find something we could stomach, and possibly a room with a heater. unfortunately, this would not be the case, la paz was too crazy to comprehend. there was not one ounce of space left unoccupied. crude little buildings made up the spaces in between the half-modern skyscrapers, econo-cars buzz about aimlessly, with no regard whatsoever for traffic lights, signs, oncoming traffic, etc... millions of phone lines, so old that they have stalagtites made of dust that hang off of them pollute the view of the sky, as do the scores of signage that hang off the sides of the buildings. our brains were overloaded with the massive excess of information, so much so, that we got a little bit off course. it would take an hour to get back to the main highway, where we headed directly out of town, as fast as we could.
the low point of our day occurred outside of la paz, about fifty miles down the road. a bus had overturned only moments before our arrival. people were just starting to make their way out of the upside down bus, exiting through the front window. there were about sixty or so passengers. some were covered in blood, some were in tears, all were in a complete daze. brian grabbed the first aid kit, and i called back to the states, hoping someone there could get a hold of the bolivian emergency services. one man's ear was almost completely severed from his head, and brian did his best to tie it to his head until he could reach a hospital. somewhere in the midst of all the chaos, a couple cops showed up, and they were waving cars over and loading them up with accident victims. people were scattered all over the panam-uno, and somehow in all the confusion, they failed to mention that there was a boy trapped in the bus. he'd been in there the whole time, all by himself. brian went in, but the bus was precariously laying on it's side, about to roll over. i backed the truck down the highway, and brian hooked the winch cable to support the bus. he went back in, and more closely assessed the situation. the boy's arm was hanging outside the window, pinched between the ground and the weight of the bus. i ran between the bus and the truck, bringing brian jacks and shovels while he tried to free the boy. eventually, one of the cops helped brian dig the boy's arm out, which was badly mangled, the boy was in terrible pain. his mother and aunties were all in our truck, they all had broken ankes and toes and were having difficulty standing. the whole family loaded into the only ambulance to show up to the scene, and they were rushed away to la paz. i don't know how much time passed, but i'd imagine it took at least a couple hours to make sure all the passengers made it to the hospital. i have to commend brian in being able to go inside that bus, i absolutely could not have done that, the chance of witnessing someone else's death weighed too heavy in my mind, i was too scared to face that. after everyone was gone, we got back in the truck and drove about a mile down the road, where we had to stop and try to recover from what just happened. hardly able to speak about it, we both just sat there and cried, and a thousand questions ran through our heads. why did it happen, who was at fault, why were there no emergency vehicles, why did the other passengers not help the boy, would they be okay, would anyone die tonight? we'd reached our threshold for the day, we couldn't handle much more. we drove to oruro in search of a little peace.
we checked into the first hotel we found, there would be no fussing over whether the place had a private bathroom, television, etcetera, we were too tired to care. food was next on the list of things needed to recover from our day on the road. we walked right past all the hot dog vendors and empanada booths, straight to the nicest restaurant in town. both of us needed a little comforting, and while i know that food is a sorry excuse for friends and family, it was the best we could do for ourselves after an emotionally exhausting day. we ate like it was thanksgiving dinner, there was no stopping us once we started. bellies full, and a little saner for having eaten, we returned to the hotel and slept solid throughout the night. we were awakened by the sounds of voices echoing from the raquetball courts that were on the first floor of the hotel. if it hadn't been for that, we would have slept the whole day through, south americans don't believe in clocks. about an hour later, we were back on the road, looking for the panam-uno. we passed by a hundred different shops that specialized in making elaborate costumes for oruro's canaval celebration. their version of the festival must be spectacular, their costumes were beaded, sequined birthday cake looking dresses with giant hats that looked impossible to wear. further down the road, we discovered that all the entrances to the panam-uno were being blocked by angry protesters. scores of bolivians in fidoras and wool sweaters piled rocks onto the highway entrances, making it impossible for anyone to enter or exit the city. they lived on the outskirts of town, and had been forgotten about when it came to the distribution of water. their cause was absolutely just, and we didn't want to upset anyone by driving around the immediate protest area, so we took to the rocky fields. in the process of searching for the highway, we met a couple of bolivian men who were doing the same thing. we'd follow each other for a while, branch off, then meet again, driving through farm fields, ditches, over bushes and burms. eventually, we all made it to the highway, and ended up at the same gas station down the road a ways. they were headed to uyuni, our next destination, so they invited us to follow them. we joined them for lunch, and i tried to be as polite as the food would allow... it was a two liter bowl of soup, and the more i investigated it, the more i found. hard-boiled eggs, black olives, chicken legs, a whole onion, a whole potato, and so on, and so on. it was nice to have some company, but i could have done without the soup.
SALAR DE UYUNI, BOLIVIA
the salar de uyuni are salt flats that rest in a valley in the middle of the andes, about 12,800 ft. in elevation. it was no joke getting there, the only road that goes to the salar is a hundred and twenty miles of sand and dirt. we already knew to stock up in uyuni proper on gas, food and water, thanks to ricardo rocco. i think it was also ricardo who said, "if you ever get bored on your trip, just run out of gas." we haven't yet had the need for that kind of entertainment, so we filled all three of our five gallon containers just to be sure. we made it to the edge of the salar by sunset, which was the most beautiful sight i have ever seen. the pink and blue sky reflected in the pools of water on the bright white flats, you couldn't tell what was earth and what was sky. there was a giant expedition truck with about ten or so tourists parked on the edge of the flat. their guide, an australian guy, had been to the edge of the flats numerous times, but didn't advise on us driving out there. we'd mentioned that we wanted to cross into chile via the salt flats, and while he'd heard stories of one or two successful attempts, he couldn't confirm if it was possible, nor did he advise of doing such a thing. he also knew the rules of driving on the flats, like stay in the middle, don't go near the edges or you'll sink, and nobody will rescue you. with that in mind, we left the naysaying australian by the edge of the flats, and we drove in. i always thought australians were supposed to be badasses like paul hogan or something, like they'd always be up for a little alligator wrestling, but i guess you can't judge a country by it's worst eighties movie.
in the center of uyuni, there is a hotel made from bricks of salt. it was kind of strange that there was a hotel literally in the middle of nowhere, but everything about this trip has been strange, so we tend not to question these things anymore. there were some french and japanese travellers wandering about outside the hotel, and it didn't appear as if the hotel was open because it was pitch black inside. i peeked in the door to see if there was anyone there, and sure enough, there was a bolivian woman and her tiny son roaming about the common space of the hotel by candle light. ecuadorians, for some reason, have bloodshot eyes. bolivians, on the other hand, have runny noses, and the woman and her son were stuffing notebook paper in their nostrils to stop the leakage. she showed me the accommodations, a cold, dark room with a twin bed for twenty u.s.d. the price included dinner and breakfast, no doubt it would be more bolivian tipico. we figured if we camped, we wouldn't have to pay to be cold, and i could cook an equally bad breakfast and dinner.
we drove on, miles into the bright, white nothingness. camp was set up by moonlight, the whole desert floor was glowing. the three of us curled up in the tent, blankets and sleeping bags piled high. it took a while to warm up, but we did eventually. i used to be adamantly opposed to camping, if it wasn't a holiday inn, it wasn't on my agenda. now, my tent is one of the only places that i feel comfortable, and i've grown to enjoy camping out. it was kind of a long night of drifting in and out of sleep, one of the harder nights of camping, but it was probably one of my favorite nigts so far. brian woke up at the break of dawn, and the water in dremel's bowl had ice in it. he made breakfast, which was ready and waiting by the time i got up. i crawled out of the tent to the blinding white of the salt and the sun. after breakfast, we drove according to the direction of the gps, there were no landmarks to guide our way. uyuni is huge, a giant white plain that seems to go on forever. we spotted an island of black rocks in the distance, and it took us an hour and a half of driving a consistent sixty miles an hour to get there. there were these giant bunny-mouse kind of animals on the island, and we would later find out that they were chinchillas. these chinchillas put those little ones you see in the mall petshops to shame, they were huge! we left the island, searching for the southern exit of uyuni, but the edges were every bit as soft as the australian had warned us. not wanting to dig the truck out for the rest of the afternoon, we turned back toward the western exit. there was a miniscule town on the way out, about ten houses and a single military guard watching the road. he waved us through, and we kept going, following an alternative route toward the chilean border.
the road turned from gravel, to sand, then to silt. we took turns driving through the technical terrain, there wasn't much stopping for fear of getting stuck in the silt. as the day went on, we found ourselves running low on fuel, even though we'd brought extra. there was also the small problem of having driven through the border illegally. there were no customs or immigrations offices to be found, it was a no man's land. if we turned back, we would most certainly run out of gas, and we were already cutting it close as it was. oh yeah, did i mention that because we crossed the border in the middle of a desert, we were unable to have our bolivian money changed into chilean money? even if we did find a gas station, we wouldn't be able to buy any gas, and the only place we've been able to get money is from the atm machine that is generally locked inside the bank every evening at five. it was four forty five, so that window of opportunity was closing fast. most the time, we're just tired and hungry, but this time we were tired, hungry, broke, and breaking about a thousand laws. ricardo rocco was right, at least we wouldn't be bored. hours passed, and the sun went down, then more hours passed. chile is only about sixty miles wide, but the first thirty coming from bolivia are hell. we just aimed for the first city listed on the gps, which turned out to be a good guess, it was pretty big. we rolled through town looking for an atm, which was non-existent. we went to the gas station anyway, hoping that they'd take a credit card or a first born child or something like that. i guess god thought we'd been punished enough that day, the miracle of all miracles occured... there was an atm machine in the gas station! i damn near started crying at the sight of it, it was so beautiful. money and fuel was taken care of, now all we needed was a place to stay and some food. we were told to drive an hour more to iquique, where we'd have an easier time of finding what we were looking for.
the chilean andes are ominous, rocky dunes that stop about a mile away from the ocean's edge. within that sliver of flat land, lies iquique, halfway modern, halfway pretty, all the way expensive. we checked into the first hotel that was less than fifty dollars, it was a bit of a chore to find one that cheap. dinner was a block away, and was equally expensive, but any long awaited meal is well worth every penny. there was one item left to take of, we were still in chile illegally, but that would have to be resolved in the morning. from the moment we reached civilization on the chilean side, we began to quickly realize that there is a premium price on modernization. granted, the cost of living in countries like bolivia and peru have probably made us cheap, but in chile, you're not always getting what you're paying for. a lot of the food items at the local grocery stores are imported, so you pay import prices. the gas prices are astronomical, there's lines for the pumps because no one is able to afford to fill up their tanks, they can only afford a liter or two at a time. maybe they should work out a deal with hugo chavez, venezuelean gas is a lot cheaper. from my understanding, the chilenos aren't able to afford these prices despite working long hours. money seems to be spent on only the necessary things, and entire towns are decaying into shambles because of it. you can see how beautiful these cities used to be if you stop to look past all the wear and tear, and i truly hope the chilenos can recover from the years of inflation that have left them high and dry.
THE CHILE - BOLIVIA BORDER
neither of us were looking forward to explaining to the chilean and bolivian border guards why we'd been in chile illegally for the past fourteen hours. i mean, our spanish has definitely improved, but this would require being somewhat eloquent with our words, and we're at a toddler's level as far as communicating in espanol goes. it had to be done, though, so we reluctantly drove all the way back to the border, this time, to a more official crossing area. we pulled up to the chilean side, and greeted the guards with the biggest, friendliest smiles that we could muster. "buenos dias, senor, yo tengo un poco, poco, poco problemo".
we explained ourselves as much as our spanish would allow, and when we ran out of spanish, we resorted to using sound effects while retracing our route on a map. after the guards figured out what we were trying to tell them, they all started laughing and exclaiming, "un poco problemo?! un grande problemo!" super. they regained their composure, and despite having such a grande problemo, they assured us it could be resolved. they sent us over to bolivia so that we could make our official exit.
we drove up to the bolivian border and parked next to the gate. generally, it takes hours of fancy footwork to get a country to open it's gate for you, but we were parked on the other side of the gate, so it was a whole different story. the usual amount of paperwork was done in the usual orderly fashion, and as usual, one of the guards tried to keep our passports because we'd crossed the border without permission, but for the low, low price of fifty u.s. dollars, this infraction could be overlooked. hmmm... let's get this straight. we're sitting in bolivia, and our passports indicate that we're still checked into bolivia. nothing illegal about that, and for the first time in history, a border guard could not dispute the facts. he angrily threw our passports back at us and spun his chair around to face the wall, pouting like a little kid. victory was ours, at least for a little while.
on the short drive back to the chilean immigration office, we happened to notice the huge, charred and rotting carcass of a 707 jetliner laying on the desert floor. how do you not notice an massive airplane completely out of context to it's environment? we'd get to the bottom of that story after we took care of our business, which was checking into chile, officially. the guards were still in good humor, and they took care of us in a very friendly fashion. there was just one problem left to tackle. seems you're supposed to get some special paperwork upon checking your dog into bolivia, that it, if you even bothered to check your dog in. i guess we were getting a little lax about the finer details. at the time, we kind of thought south america was like the wild, wild west, in most cases, you can just do what ever you want, and if you can't ten bucks can buy you the privelage.
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