Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Universe 2.7 (10): Bolivia

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Dear Friends, i found it! the End of the World... please, forgive me for skipping the tales of Rio carnival, antarctic icefields and Argentinean gauchos. God willing, i will catch up. The End wasn't there. It was hidden in a narrow crack between 4km-high windswept altiplano and cosmic light-blue sky. It is filled with crisp rarefied gas locals call air. It is dry and silent. At day, it is blinding. Sunlight, unfiltered by atmosphere, leaves the air cold, but heats rock-clad desert to +20-+30c. You sweep off light- and wind induced tears and lick dry lips. At night, it is freezing. Stars are everywhere. Little water there is turns into ice. You blow your nose, shiver under 5 blankets and crave for the sunrise, which will bring the temperature up. It is fantastic. it is Bolivia. It becomes obvious the End is near as Panamerciana bus climbs higher and higher, leaving behind vineyards and cattle estancias of argentina. now there is only desert and lamas. passengers shut up and start breathing heavily. the movie chokes up and stops. so does the bus. i have to get up, get my backpack, and slowly, very slowly, walk in through the checkpoint. Evo Morales is looking disapprovingly from the wall. Inside, it is unlike any other place i have seen. there are tiny grandmas with braids, woolen stockings and incredible sombreros, sitting on the ground behind heaps of vegetables. there are short sun-dried men of uncertain age in suit-jackets and woven hats. There are lamas with colorful pompons on their ears. there is no schedule for anything. a local bus, that will take me from the border leaves one hour late without any ado. It is filled with red dust which even tastes red. Rays of low sun beautifully cut through the dust. My first project is a 4-day expedition into Uyuni salars - the world´s largest salt flats bordering with Chilean Atacama desert. We have a driver and a cook, a toyota land cruiser with 3 rows of seats, occupied by two spaniards, two americans, and me. we are fully self-sufficient for 5 days: on the roof there are tires, spare parts, 400 liters of gasoline, gas cooking stove, water and food. now i finally understand what land cruisers are made for: they are made for driving for days over sharp uneven rocks without any sign of a road, crossing waist-deep whitewater, climbing and descending 40 degree angles, without breaking in the middle. you quite simply die if it breaks. i understand this as i attempt to walk some 300 meters at 5km altitude as our driver stops to help fix another stalled jeep. leather seats and rosewood dashboard are really optional. People we meet in the desert live like Columbus never sailed. There is no electricity, running water, heating, or news. the mailman doesn't travel 300km. neither does tv or cellular signal. news wouldnt be relevant, anyway. the day is cool and the night is freezing. you quickly realise what is critical and what is not. things are simple. a night bus ride to the east of the salars lies the world´s highest city - Potosi - the most terrifying place i have seen. built on the slope of multihued Cerro Rico (rich hill), it once was one of the richest towns of the new world for the silver veins that lied inside the mountain. Over 5 centuries millions of Quechua and african miners worked there in blood-chilling conditions, and as many as 8 million (!!) have died inside the mountain. not much have changed since. silver veins have been mostly depleted, but thousands of men continue to work the mines for remaining minerals - lead, copper and zinc. they work at their own gamble - they will only sell what they extract. their tools are hammer, shovel and dynamite. their clock is a stash of coca leaves in the mouth - they finish work when they run out of leaves. and their god they worship in their hell below is el tio - the devil. next time you feel overworked or underappreciated, please, have a look - http://picasaweb.google.com/dmy2008/SilverMinesOfBolivia?feat=directlink or, even better - look up a 2005 documentary The Devil´s Miner. I signed up to work in the mines for a day, but chickened out the night before. thanks God! Bolivia´s capital, La Paz, is every bit as dramatic as the rest of the country. steep unpaved, or stone-paved streets crawl up the walls of a giagantic canyon at the altitude of 3900 meters. every day city streets are fiercefully attacked by ancient smoking cars, buses, and trucks. Street life starts well before sunrise, with the good old grandmas in sombreros lining up fruits and vegetables for sale. everyday streets and plazas would be filled with the riot police troops, blocking traffic to intimidate hoards of demonstrators that demand something too basic to understand (e.g the right to running water). It is also impossible to understand how they do it, because i personally couldn't walk and talk simultaneously (leave alone shout slogans or wave flags) without losing my breath. one thing i could do, though, was to inhale, climb on a full suspension mountain bike, hold my breath, and bike down camino de la muerte - what they say is the world´s deadliest road, that descends from la paz to corioco, losing 3.5km(!!) of altitude over its 63 km. biking on it felt very similar to riding on a narrow steep balcony of a 1000+ storey building without railing. a wall on one side, passing clouds on the other, big gravel under tires, 50+ km/h semi-horizontal speed and oxygen-deprived air all make for some strange trajectory choices. to make some turns, you have to put your wheels 10cm from the cliff´s edge - the very end of the world as far as i was concerned. i did wear a helmet, though. now, something for desert: do you like Salvador Dali? I do. i find something irresistible in in his impossible, common-sense defying hallucinations. they are pure fantasy - something, that just cannot be real. guess what? there is a faraway place in Salars de Uyuni, where Dali´s landscapes actually exist. there is space as transparent, as if didn't have air. there are undefinable distances between objects. there are no shadows. they say Dali never was here, he painted his dreams. and as bizarre as these dreams were - there is a place on earth, where they are made true, begging a question: may this mean that any fantasy, any dream, might be materialised somewhere in the infinity of the universe?... what does one have to do to find this somewhere?.. maybe just keep looking?.. regards, d. visual coverage: http://picasaweb.google.com/dmy2008 san jose, costa rica 14.04.2009

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