Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The Train of DEATH!!

Exciting title eh? Brace yourself, for this is a tale of horror and gore, not for the faint hearted or heavily pregnant...

So where were we, readers? Ah yes, the bus to San Jose. A former Jesuit town containing a famous ruin. My seat mate, Christoph & I are pretty much ejected from the bus onto a random dusty roadside. Before I really had chance to say "What the hell?!" we were sharing a taxi to the centre. We get as far as the traintrack and find a goods train as long as the horizon parked up, going nowhere. Our driver decides to go off road down the side of the train to cut across the head of the train. This takes some time, but the the train starting moving the opposite way to us, speeding us along.

Eventually we hit town and old C gets out at a military barracks. That would explain the aviators then. He leaves nae cash, so I guess I'll get this one then. Cheers Chris. I ask drive to hit the train station, cos tonight I ain't getting on no bus, foo. My first train in all South America. And what better one to start on than ... Drums please ... THE TRAIN OF DEATH!

Get in.

A long queue later, where no-one pays any respect for the order of the line, I secure my 23 Boliviano First Class ticket to Santa Cruz. Depart 2am. Arrive 9am. Hopefully the same day. But for £1.44 how much can you ask for? Though that's cheap for death.

On a station bench I people-watch for a bit. Over the road, under the same terracotta tiles as the rest of the town is a small restaurant serving the locals. A couple of pigs and a skinny dog graze & snuffle outside. A seemingly drunk man stumbles out of the shadows, finds a brick and launches it at a pig. He misses but laughs all the same, then nearly falls off a bridge over a sewage channel.

Looking like an astronaut I double-pack my way to the town centre, which is pretty much around the Jesuit complex, and find a room in an empty hotel. Nack all a night? Done. I shower up, do my washing and, while I wait for the midday sun to drop a little, I attack my hair with me 12p paper scissors and two mirrors I pinched out of the bathrooms. Afterward, considering the massive pile of hair on my bedroom floor the boof don't look much different, just less hedgey.

I wander to the square round 3pm and sit on a curb with a bottle of fanta and stare out the imposing Jesuit Complex. Why do places paint the bottom of trees white? The main church building, walls and towers are in impressive condition and the insides have been sympathetically restored. I mosey and potter, doing my best to decipher the Spanish info-boards describing the restoration. It's a working church, and two twelve year olds sweep up dust with witches brooms around the gold painted alter and benches. I meet a lady who's one of the restorative artists painting a side building they're currently fixing up.

I pull up a pew under the ornate wooden roof, for the 2nd time in two days, and do some maths. 12, add 14, add 12, add 16 is, err, 54 hours. Seems an awful 'mission' to travel this far to look round a church. Fortunately it's nice, and out in the authentic arse end of nowhere. I ask about the other local Jesuit ruins, and although there are loads, they ain't that local and require a bus to San Ignacio 4 hours North. So after some grub and a have a bash on possibly THE slowest internet connection in all Bolivia and duck back to me room to get some rest. I'd almost forgotten what a bed felt like, like.

An hour later what sounds like a scooter fires up outside & people start coughing. Soon I'm coughing too, so I step out on the balcony to find out what's on. There's a man in a gas mask, backpack and radiation overalls gassing stuff with a gun. He can only be one of two things, a dengue fever disinfecter or a Ghostbuster. By the time he sprayed each room in the hotel I couldn't stop coughing and had a T-shirt pressed to my face. After he'd left I felt like I had a full blown cold. Wonderful. Nice of you to stop by.

After a powernap I woke up round midnight hot and itchy. Remove my T-shirt and find myself covered in an exciting blotchy scarlet rash. Joy. It felt like the prickle of bedbugs but could well have been a side effect of the dengue spray. Neither rock that hard.

I pack up and stroll out into the scary night for a dark dark walk to the train station. The road's under construction so I can't taxi. Shops that have just closed burn their rubbish in little piles so as to make garbage collection unnecessary. Though it creates a dangerous post apocalyptic street atmosphere. As my perception prickles, every noise points to an ominous doom, but before I know it I'm on a lit platform with loads of locals waiting on THE TRAIN OF DEATH!!

A bit of googling told me that the Train of Death was so named because of it's habit for detaching itself from the rails and bounding down the railway sleepers or nearby hills. This happens less and less often these days and now the train is considered by many to be deathly only in how boring it is. It's slow and regularly breaks down, and unlike in the UK, is considered the poor mans option to buses. The track connects Santa Cruz with Western Brazil, and offers a rare chance to take in Bolivia's Eastern lowlands. Though how much I'll see between 2am and 9am is questionable. Still it's nice to take in a South American plane, train, bus, boat, bike, foot and automobile.

At the station, and noticed around town earlier, are a different type of person than yet seen round of South America - the white skinned redneck. Standing out like a sore thumb are Caucasian, freckly, sunburnt cowboys in full-length denim dungarees and wild-west cowboy hats. They slink around like lost extras from 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou'.

I'd only seen a few in town earlier, but nearly half the folk in the station were Caucasian. Men looked straight out of a 1930s Arizonan time warp, in denim, cowboy hats / baseball caps and neckscarves, like railroad formen or mid-American farmers. The women looked even bizarre, in long unflattering, old-fashioned dresses with no make up. They floated around in conservative, dark pleated plain or floral cotton dresses with high necks, a big hat, white tights and plimsolls. Kind of plain Wagon train hillbilly chic.

I do believe they may have been a bunch of Mormons. They put out this judgmental standoffishness, which even felt a shade like racial hatred. They even had a redneck drawl; a 'deep South' sounding Spanish. The more I watch the surreal it became. The dismissive and sombre atmosphere surrounding them made me suspect they were on exodus to some woods somewhere for a mass suicide party.

The Ferrovaria Oriental diesel loco rattles in, on time (another difference from Uk railways) and I find two 106B carriages. Settle into seat 25V next to an old lady, then decide it's the other 106B, cos the other says 1st class. The seats are exactly the same but round the other 25V the other whole row is free. Result.

The train chugs off and I lie back as it clatters therapeutically over the uneven track. Camerabag clipped on and acting as I headrest I munch half a box of Pringles (you can stop, it's just hard) and gaze out of the open window at the passing stars till I drift off to sleep.

So far, no death.


The dancing consulate

It's Sunday morning & I duuno what to do, so I go to Church! Santa Cruz Cathedral, Bolivia. It's been a while since I pulled up a pew in God's house. So while the crowd half-heartedly sing saccharine sweet hymns to acoustic guitars (the same the world around) I knock a wee Prayer skyward...

"Yo G wassup boss! Nice place you got here! I'm feeling the sweeping arches and vaulted ceiling. I like what you've done here. Jesuit chic. Good side lighting when the sun ain't behind the clouds. I'm not sure about the finishing décor though buddy. What's with all these pictures of Jesus looking starved and pained? Yeah yeah, I know that's what happened. But is it really necessary to have 83 variations on one scene? Guided tour: This one's also called 'Jesus in pain'. Make your congregation feel guilty if you like. Oh the Catholics did it? Blame the decorators eh? Tell em to put up a picture of that night Haysoos got mashed with his boys. Yeah, the last supper, that's the puppy! That's a wicked group shot. Say Cheesus! Or that time Jesus got in a fight at Church, flipped a table and hit a rabbit. Rabbi, whatever... I just thing the old picture collection needs a change in emphasis. Get a bit more ying yang. A bit Feng Shui. What do you mean they won't listen to you? Throw a thunderbolt or something! I heard you was omnipotent! I dare ya..."

And so on. A deep and spiritual prayer, cut short when a person who SERIOUSLY needed a shower came and sat next to me.

After the Lord's Prayer, somewhat different to Barn's prayer, folk did that 'give thanks' bit where people shake hands. It was a nice surprise to get a bunch of foreign handshakes and kisses of old ladies with moustaches. I'd forgotten churches did that. S'nice.

When the service was over I was flushed out with the masses into the main square where the churchgoers and general populace mingled. I shot a bunch of snaps of folk relaxing. Shoe shiners chatting, old men reading papers, kids trying to stamp on pigeons.

I saw a sweet old dude with thick glasses and an ancient box camera taking peoples portraits in 'Blanco y Negro'. Using a fascinating old home-made wooden camera on an easel tripod, he'd set everything up under a cloth, then whipped off the lenscap and put it back on, real fast. Oooh, the technology! Then he'd put his hand in a glove into the box and fumble around in tobacco tins of developer until he pulled out a developed negative. He'd then re-photograph the negative on a board and end up with a reversed, or positive, exposure. So for 55p I got my portrait taken, while a drumming army band marched behind me.

It seems something important's going on today. It started with old men gathering round the main square flagpoles to make a meal out of raising three flags. Then traditionally dressed women helped set up flowers and a lectern. Then arrived a man in a suit and sash, flanked with other suited men, one carrying a flag on a pole, the others possibly bodyguards, and a woman who was clearly organising things. Sashman roused the growing crowd with an impassioned fist clenched speech. Afterwards flowers were given and a military band played a few numbers. I bemusedly watched the cymbal player wait expectantly for his part, which he performed with much gusto when it came around. Everyone knows the cymbal player in a band never gets laid.

Then the strangest thing happened. The consulate in the sash asked a traditionally dressed flower girl to dance. She obliged, and they started pulling all sorts of crazy shapes across the square. His second in command grabbed dropped the flagstaff And grabbed the next most attractive flower girl to follow suit. The masses started clapping and before I knew it, they were joining in and making a cancan ring. The politicians looked like they were having a wonderful time.

I asked around to try and find out what the hell was going on and who the guy was. Some said he was a consulate, others the President of Peru. Either way I can't imagine Gordon or Tony B getting down in front of a crowd.

Around the square, the council has an interesting policy to keep folk off the grass in the square. Every tree, flowerbed and green patch is cordoned off with yellow and black stripy tape. Like a crimescene. Extreme, but one thing's for certain, no-one's on't grass.

In town, after a lemon pie ice cream I toy with the idea of getting a haircut. Last time I got a 3rd world haircut up against the linguistic barrier was in northern India, and the 'hairdresser' made me look like a victim of a particularly nasty lobotomy. My last haircut was self styled with children's scissors in Lencois, Brazil, nearly two months ago. The sun has accelerated it's growth since then as it now resembles an unkempt hedge. I'm gonna have to find a parting soon. Outside a Bolivian hair salon wisdom gets the better of me, and I buy a pair of primary school paper scissors next door instead. After all, the closest haircutting instructions in my Spanish lexicon are 'big' and 'small'.

After a stroll, a bosh on't net, ascending the church tower, a crap sarnie and a scan of the tourist market tat I'm heading back to the bus station for another nightbus. Running behind again I get to watch 70% of Back To The Future 2 in Spanish, which has impressively accurate overdub casting.

Sat aboard the bus, hawkers squeeze up the bus selling plastic cups of ugly coloured jelly and kareoke dvds. I'm pleased to find both windows by my seat are openable - a rare delight. The smell from outside has that dusty, dry, bbq aroma that reminds me of Asia. Some cheerful Brazilians at the back start singing and locals call 'Vamos' to the driver through cupped hands. These buses are a definite gear change from Argentina. Like accidentally slipping it into reverse at 70 on a motorway. But I love em, cos they brim with character and remind you how far you are from home.

As we pull away I clock I am the only Westerner aboard. I introduce myself to my unlucky seatmate (two nightbuses, no shower...), he's called Christoph and he thinks I'm called Benitol. Sounds like a cough syrup. To a minor extent, I'm cutting my own path out here. Far Eastern Bolivia gets a minimal write up in the ol' Shoestring LP. I've only met seven tourists on the endless buses out East.

The traditional, well-worn Bolivian Backpacker Circuit (BBC?) includes a 4 day tour of the Uyuni salt plains in the South (including clever perspective photos on the white canvas), a claustrophobic trip down the working Potosi mines, a wander round colonial Sucre, a trip to La Pampas to voluntarily offering your body up to the jungle mosquitoes, a week in La Paz getting altitude sickness and then cycling the road of death and a trip to Lake Titicaca.

They're the highlights - for good reason - but as y'all know I'm a bit of a Jesuit Ruin freak, and there are some ace ones in Eastern Bolivia.


Do you take Sucre?

It suddenly dawned on me in Northern Argentina that I'm seriously running out of time. Returning early May leaves me just over two weeks to wax. While most would see that as a long summer holiday, it suddenly dawned on me how much I'd like to see while I'm this far from home. Like two whole countries, and namely catching dawn over magical Machu Piccu in Peru before I jet.

So instead of faff about everywhere I go, I decided to begin a 'by day look around, by night bus' theme. So as soon as I arrived in Sucre I booked my seat aboard the nightbus that night to Santa Cruz. I left my bag and turds in the care of the local Hostel International and set off to see what was on in Sucre.

I stomped through a ropey neighbourhood, filled with unfriendly canines, and dug out the centre and a fantastic market. Want fluorescent pink vegetables? A bag of Chickens feet? American pie 3, 4 & 5 on one Dvd? A tonne of gravel? Dried red and black corn on the cob? Sucre is your place. Plus the market sounds were ace too. Someone upstairs played recorder out of time to the chicken choppers chopping, more than one tinny radio blared news in Espanol, and near and distant voices filled the spaces in between.

Against all conventional supermarket psychology, the bloody meat stalls were located opposite fresh flowers. But it didn't put anyone off. Again I met the no-you-can't-photograph-us thing, and as usual it felt like stealing if I photographed without consent. It started to feel as though, though Bo was visually bo, I might here with a with a cack selection of photos.

Outside in the terracotta tiled centro I'm surprised by Sucre's beauty. Surrounded by low mountains, this clearly colonial town was the old capital of Bolivia, and while today La Paz has the lion's share of power, Sucre still holds on to some of the Governmental control. It certainly still feels like a reassured seat of power.

There seems to be a different huge, white-washed church on every other corner, all closed today, and a museum on every other, also closed. So instead of culture myself, I pant my way up to a mirador (viewpoint) and stomp to a cliché tourist market atop one of Sucre's skirting hills. I settle into a café and take in a chewy freshly squeezed oj, lemon & pineapple and an iced cappuccino. I kick bacl and soak in the smooth soul music, which occasionally forays into a genre I've never heard before, I believe known as 'sax fuelled porno soundtrack'.

For the greater good, the stereo is muted and a 3-piece Bolivian band in traditional threads play a set for the 4 filled tables. An old giffer plays a mandolin style geetar & drops suspect vocals, his 15 year old daughter bangs a drum, shakes shells on a rope and blows mini panpipes all at once, and his 17 year old son plas flute and throwing sultry looks. Albeit mediocre, it has a haunting charm, as though it's exactly what would get your neck hair standing if you heard it tromping through the Bolivian mountains. I blaze a few shots on the big gun and leave paper tip. Afterwards father, who introduces himself as Pedro, asks if he can practice his English with me.

Off he goes, returning shortly after in his civvies. We spend a good hour talking in Spanglish about his 10 kids, dead wife (a moment that couldn't have been more Borat) and the fact that he's never been out of Bolivia. We play the point-and-name the face parts game (eye, eyebrow, eyelash, nose, nostril ... etc) in English, Spanish and Quetchua. While I'm good at copying, I forget everything immediately. Before I leave Pedro I walk him to a shop and buy him 2 litres of Coke for his gang, for being a sound fellow.

On the way back to town I stop by one of the churches I'd tried earlier, to see if it was open. It's still locked, but after a little healthy shouting through an ajar door I catch the attention of a cleaner. He lets me in and points me in the direction of the roof. Up top in the bell tower and alone on the domed roof I get fantastic views of Sucre's red tiled city roofs from above. Carma eh? You look after it and it looks after you.

I grab a quick mustard steak sarnie and cevesa and hop in a taxi back to the hostel in time for my bus to Santa Cruz. Arriving punctually at the bus station, with 30 minutes in hand as told, I seem to be the only white again. Locals with woven bags and funky hats are everywhere. Two dogs rut in full view, but I'm the only one amused. As well as my bus ticket, I bumble my way through a massive faff to get a ticket for my bag and a ticket for departure tax. Why have one tickets when you can employ 8 folk to get your three?

Over an hour after arriving we depart Sucre, in the setting sun. Streets buzz with third world street culture and smells. I gaze out of my open window and smile at the touts trying to sell anything they have every time we pull to a stop. The driver puts on a scratchy, stretched out old tape and 5 minutes later it's like someone scratching a blackboard with their nails. Just as I burst open some soft 'crisps', best before Feb 06, the crying baby in front of me shat its pants & stank out the surrounding rows. I manage to clip my bg to my legs and don a tired BA sleep mask under my glasses and drift off into the unconscious abyss.

At 7am the following morning a man and his briefcase climb aboard and make an impassioned, hard sell presentation about how his sachet of powder will improve your life. It's amazing, they're so charismatic. You find yourself with your mp3 player on full so you can't hear them, but keep popping a plug to try and find out what his magic powdery remedy is all about. Plus at 7am, after a bumpy night wedged between a sweaty man and a freezing window, you could sell me anything.

So round 830am, wondering why I rinsed two days budget on a sachet of bullshit, I roll into Santa Cruz bus station. I set about repeating the same pattern, and look into night buses to San Juan, before finding somewhere for a strong coffee cortardo...


Sanitation and hygiene

In the Villazon bus station, a stones throw over the Bolivian border, I realise that I forgot to have my final Argentinean steak last night. I opted instead for a mediocre pizza. Bad call. I hate to admit it, being a carnivorous meatatarian, but to be honest I was getting a bit bored of giant, tender, cheap, juicy steak. Though had I realised it was my last Argey meal it'd've been nice to put a fat Bife de Chorizo con papas fritas away, accompanied by a fat woody Malbec.

So! The international stamp collector hath collected another stamp! Bolivia, tick. First impression is that it's damn cheap here. The national currency, the Boliviano, is abbreviated internationally to BOB - old school! The prices themselves are about the same figures as Argentina, though where it used to be 6 pesos to the pound, it's 16 Bob. Cheap cheap cheap!

However, the cheapness is a consequence of poorness and in a rundabout way with poorness cometh illness. The Lonely Planet pretty much said that for all it's strong cards, sanitation and hygiene are the weak suits. Pretty much for the first time in South America I begin eyeing food stuffs with suspicion. In spam my Navimag pal Sal said she got ill straight off the bat in Bolivia. I emailed her and asked what to avoid. 'Everything', came the reply. Great. A tube of Pringles, por favor.

2nd impression - there are loads of ace indigenous looking chicas in vibrant traditional dress. Apparently over half the population claim 'Amerindian' blood. If we're gonna splice words I prefer the word 'Indigian'. But near all the women here wear these ace mini bowler hats, seemingly glued on their noggins at a jaunty angle. They genuinely wear ponchos, all have black plaited hair and use versatile garish woven sheets as handbags, backpacks, shawls and baby carriers. Plus they have amazing faces, weathered, leathery and wizened. Like a granny, but at 40.

And they straight won't let you photograph them! If you ask it's a no. If you hide in a bush half a mile away with mr telephoto on the long end, they have this extra sensory perception, spot you and turn away. It's uncanny... and, as a photographer, rather annoying. I was determined to find out why and asked a Boliviano (not the coin) if it was some ancient superstition about having your soul stolen. Nope. Over my time in B I concluded, at a guess, that it was cos they didn't like a) feeling like they were Zoo exhibits and b) finding their likeness on a postcard and not seeing a cent from it.

So, back in Villazon with an rabble of backpackers from the Argey bus I sorted a ticket to Sucre. I'd been on a bus since 10am and it was now 5pm, so what's another 14 hours? And for two pound sixty eight how can one complain? I stock up on supplies for the bus. Mutated wotsit copies ('Cheesits'!) close to their eat-by date, a red fanta, some seemingly normal lemony biscuits and warm agua sin gas.

I look around for something to eat now, and never have I seen such an ugly cross-selection of national cuisine. Perhaps the bus station is a bad place from which to judge, but it seems the national dish is either a bowl of vomit or chicken and chips. There's a C&C hawker stall every 100m keeping soggy looking chips lukewarm under a 40w bulb. I'd rather get the shits from food that looked and ideally tasted nice. Overtly suspect of the chicken, I grab a tray of almost cold chips, cake em in mayo and tommy K that have more than likely sat in't sol all day, say a little grace (slash exorcism) for strong guts and get noshing. I didn't spend that time eating any old crap in Bangladesh for nothing. Do your worst.

Not long later, in the loo (fortunately not as a consequence of the chups) I quickly learnt the Bolivian Bog Rule: don't put anything down the pan/hole that didn't come from inside you, unless you want to see it again. Like the Argeys and Chileans, you get a bin where you're to dispose of used bog roll, sunny side down if you've any manners. It is 'inshiteful' to see how more peeps scrunch than fold. But it also seems Bolivians don't furnish their loos with bog roll (...note to self). Could be less than amusing being caught short on sick day.

The fellow travellers turn out to be on the same bus as me, but alighting earlier. We loiter round the lyrically, and more than optimistically named, 'Semi Carma Villa Imperial Flota Bus' awaiting destructions. It's a 3rd world bus make no mistake. You can tell by how they rip out the official number of seats, squeeze em together and bolt in another ten rows. When they finally let us all on, well after departure time, I find a burley Bolivian in my seat. We both have the same number on our tickets. The 16 year old who seems to think he runs the show tries to explain I should sit on a blanket by the driver. Hmmm.

I wait for everyone to board and sit in a space next to a kindly looking man, who turns out to be an Argentinian on business. We have a passable conversation in Spanish about my three month jaunt round South America. He informs me that to get all the way to Sucre I'm probably gonna have to change buses in Potosí, at approximately shit o'clock tomorrow morning. Yey.

The bus is so shit it's brilliant! You know you're traveling when you're on a super shit bus. The old heap finally sets off and minutes after leaving town the paved road becomes a dusty rubble, through drive keeps the pedal to the metal irrespective. It stinks of cigs, dusty bedsheats and the great unwashed. I'm sneezing from the dust and much to my surprise, considering the dwarfine leg room, I bounce off to sleep.

I wake as the lights flick on for a bog stop and find I'm the only westerner left. T'others have gone, so I decide to shake out the legs, take a leak and see if my pack's where I left it under the bus. Stretch tick, piss grim, bag gone. Hmm. I ponder that it might have been taken off by the 16 year old and put in a pile with the other backpackers bags and we screamed off while I slept. But there's nothing I can do now, so I get back on and drift in an out of consciousness to Potosí.

In Potosí Bus depot at 4am, next to a urinating man, I find my pack in a new home under the bus. I shuffle it over to my connecting bus, don the fleece cos it's got super chilly and settle in between a chair and a fat man. Soon after I get some exciting cramp which makes me spasm and crack my funnybone on some protruding metal by the window. Whenever the bus is in a stationary position it's considered fair game to soda sellers, empenada pimps and ladies selling what appears to be tied clear bag of seamen and urine. "SODA FRIO SODA SODA SODA!!" is the mantra. But as soon as we start to move, there's a quick scrabble and their gone.

Before long I'm shivering my ass off and able to see my breath as we drive through cloud on a high Andean pass. Fortunately the sun soon comes up and warms the single-glazed tin box, and before I know it we're arriving in Sucre, my first proper Bolivian town.

Metaphorically, they say Bolivia is a beggar sleeping in a golden bed. A country brimming to overflowing with natural resources, but too poor and corrupt to exploit itself. It suffers a 'Third World Trifecta' i) a high infant mortality (5.7% of all births) ii) a high birth rate (3.3 sprogs per mam) and iii) low female literacy (77%). Generally, to me it sounds really interesting, and as in all 3rd world countries, it wears it's culture on it's colourful sleeve.

Bring it on.


Monday, 30 April 2007

Alec & The Indians

Back along, my mother used to be the newsletter writer for Joyce Illingworth, a Christian who spent a decade as a Missionary in Northern Argentina. Before I left for this adventure, over a tasty Sunday roast, Joyce helped shape my route and threw a 'fun' Salta contact in my way, named Alec. Today I met this man, and we're off North to the jungle to meet indigenous Indians...

Alec rolls up outside Formia's in an impressively battered elderly white estate, boot tied shut with elastic rope. First impressions are that he's got the 'eccentric-jungle-explorer' look nailed. Karky lapelled, long-sleeved shirt, struggling to contain a mat of ginger chest hair, matching chinos and sandals over socks. His glasses bounce round his neck on a string, a tired-looking bum-bag clips round his trim middle next to a belt-clipped phone. His unkempt, grey-flecked ginger beard and cheery freckled face, topped with a red cricket hat, frame bright and slightly mischievous blue eyes. He speaks English with an accent very difficult to place and is hard to age due to his youthful spirit, but I'd guess he's got the half centenary.

First port of call was the workshop to grab a few bits before the long drive North. Alec disappears off into a cluttered, wood-scented chaos of boxes and benches and I'm left in a disorganised office full of DHL boxes with a guy counting dried animal skins. We jump back in the car, or 'the slave' as he calls it, and set off. His car is ace; it has an almost totally cracked windscreen, with drill holes to stop the cracks spreading, and anything that can rattles. The slave seems to have automotive cancer and its various parts are packing in, including the speedo, milo (which died at 297,000km) and fifth gear (which is 'dangerous'). Plus it seems the right indicator is always on.

As soon as we join the motorway we're stopped by a bunch of people dragging branches across the carriageways, banging drums and chanting. Much to Alec's annoyance, we got caught in a teachers strike. They're protesting nation-wide for 60% more pay, but they're especially pissed off today because yesterday a teacher died after getting clocked in the back of the head by a gun launched smoke grenade, fanning their cause. Looks like we're here for a while. Alec recognises a friend and got out to chat. I went a shot off a few photos; early morning mist swirling round the green mountains, teachers shouting in bull horns, banner carriers.

Thirty minutes later we're rattling along again and I find him very open about his fascinating life. Of mixed genealogy, he had an Irish mother, English father and granddad that sold planes round South America for Vickers during the roaring 20s. With his 6 siblings he spent 6 months on a farm South of BA and 6 in London. After a spendy private education, later focusing on agriculture, he chose a different course to his fathers ideals and joined the South American Missionary Society, evangelising to the native indigenous collective. Thrown in the deep-end at 25 he seemed to have a hard time maintaining a marriage, kids and all the responsibility of SAMS.

Not far up the road something snaps and twangs under the slave's hood and the steering gets real sluggish. Pulling into a town a mechanic finds a belt joining a whole host of different parts of the engine to have disappeared, and that the power steering's died. Nowhere in town has a suitable belt. Oh well. Alec points out a stowaway on the roofrack, a dead unlucky sparrow, and laughs 'A snack for later!' before jumping back in. We clatter on. I like his style.

I'm not 100% on the chronology, but he and Joyce stuck out the Falklands conflict and through the Argentinean financial crash, and one thing led to another and he decided to get out of SAMS and set up shop as a freelance craft trader, buying and selling native Indian craftwork. A definite ideas man, scattily bouncing excitably from one good meaning idea to the next, he's built an international export business selling what appears to be fairly traded native craftwork.

"One day," he says "my wife went on holiday and never came back..." What followed was a messy divorce and a still ongoing painful lawsuit. It seems she got the kids and the moolah, and is squeezing him for more. The picture he paints of her does make her out to have horns and carry a trident. Though like Borat "...it's ok, I have a new wife." This time he married a Psychologist; an unconsciously practical choice considering it sounded like he needed the therapy. His current openness and introspection sounds like a man who's been walked down a psychiatric path.

We pull up by a set of traffic lights and a man wanders between cars selling 'The Tribune' newspaper and a selection of catapults. I'm more than tempted to get a catapult, but we settle on a paper. Then Alec makes an impressive, if rather dangerous, attempt to multitask and read the paper while driving. Though even when not reading the paper he drove with no hands rather more than I'd have liked.

Passing endless fields of sugarcane we philosophise, talk psychology, agriculture, religion, economics, property, history, politics, about the Wicki people, and about Alec's theory on why Argentina never really managed to launch itself as a country. We suddenly have to pull in again, cos this time the coathanger that's holding down the bonnet has come loose and it's starting to flap. Might not be good if it flips up at 80mph.

We stop for lunch at Embarcation and I grab a seat while he gets change from a bank. He joins me and orders a corn dish I've never tried, so I give it a bash. Turns out he's pretty much a veggie, not entirely by choice, but cos hepatitis shagged his liver. The half hectare of fluorescent yellow corn cake, drowning under cheese sauce, was passably bland but could've fed a village.

We pick up a nurse and two teachers, hitching a few km down the road to their respective workplaces. Apparently it's normal practice to pick up uniformed professionals and give them free rides. Perhaps I should get a nurses uniform, then I'd get free lifts everywhere! Perhaps...

After Embarcation it's off the main roads and onto the old tierra. Everything that rattled before throws an epi. We pass miles of Soya plantations that Alec says were once forest. It's gradually being eaten up by a disastrous combination of illegal logging and agriculture. The Wicki people, still hunter gatherers, and the environment are the only losers.

Passing homes of 'Log thieves' who Alec's caught but can't stop, and real live mounted gauchos, in hats and chaps, we arrive at the 'protected' Wicki Mission area. I knew it wouldn't be so, but this modern day Mission couldn't have been further from the ornate stone mission reducciones of the Jesuits. Neither was it villages full of wigwams. Turns out it's just a pocket of real poor people living in mud 'adobe' houses behind stick fences. As we drive up, adults appear with bags full of handicrafts and children seem to appear and multiply from behind trees. Alec gets out and dons the bestringed glasses which don't sit straight on his face. He obviously puts in orders and collects them next time, and has a mark-up he calculates on an archaic data organiser.

Another thing I'd expected was traditional indigenous fashions, like the Bolivian and Peruvian Indians. But the Wicki people simply wear standard western clothing. Men in trousers and t-shirts, women in flowery dresses, baby strapped on with a sash and flip-flops. Though the women do seem to follow a 'the more materials, colours and patterns clash, the better' policy.

The Wicki have heavy-set Marlon Brando Godfather cheeks, and definitely have a more indigenous look than the neighbouring Argentineans of Spanish decent. They are very mild mannered, always shake your hand and are notoriously bad at making decisions. They follow a 'goodwill' merit system, where they do you a favour in exchange for an owed favour anon. This fit very well with Christian Missionary ethics, but was and still is exploited by entrepreneurial Argentineans who've no intention of returning favours.

We shuffled from village to village as the Wicki came out to sell Alec their stuff. Still fully involved with the wellbeing of the Missions Alec organises Wicki Footy championships and marathons and is endlessly fundraising for Church roofs, the building of a Museum and other Wicki related projects. As well as helping Alec tie up and bag giant bunches of necklaces, I pretty much photodocumented the day, to the entertainment of the kids. We left a box or two of instant mash and candy bars at each village. Some kids had ginger highlights as a consequence of malnutrition. I was asked by a lady if I'd photograph her family because her mother was dying, so Alec drove on & I obliged.

We met up in the main town where Alec had parked up. We unloaded our stuff and set up our mozzy nets in our mud hut. While the threat of Malaria is low there's been a resurfacing of Dengue Fever of late and while you don't die (first time you get it...) it gives you a bitchin headache. Our 'bathroom' has a brownstained bathtub and a cupboard with large spider legs protruding from one side. In the 'kitchen' our fridge is open and contains two black kettles, a packet of medication and a lonely tub of marmite. The 'lounge' has a fine selection of National Geographics circa 1993.

While Alec sets to work, paying for carvings, paintings and jewellery from a never ending queue of locals, I set off to explore the village. Cut to ten minutes later and I'm surrounded by kids messing about for the camera then swarming round to see the picture on my LCD. Children appear from nowhere. It's no surprise that every girl over 20 years old here has a baby in tow.

When I ask Alec for some water I'm supplied orange Fanta. Fortunately I love Fanta, but this might explain why the place looks like it's crying out for a good dentist. Even the kids teeth look like wooden stumps.

Alec organises a village meeting to sort the upcoming footie tournament and we leave them to it while we eat a beefy dinner washed down with more Fanta. I learn the best way to hunt a condor and after a long day we hit the hay...


Up and pottering about at 0645 in the spitting with rain, we rearrange the already loaded Slave and pack in five Wicki for the bumpy journey back. We pass eagles and herons out looking for breakfast and philosophise our way back to Salta, taking the road Sandra and I should've taken instead of the Jungle Road. As I ponder what splendid luck to see this crazy backwater we see an ambulance mow down a chicken. Sad and morbid it's true, but what delicious irony to cark it being hit by an ambulance.


Salta v (Passing Pumamarca)

After the bender of a pass from the Salt Plains we wind our way down to Pumamarca, originally an Inca settlement built at the foot of the striking 'Mountain of Seven Colours'. At a quaint market I buy a few alpaca scarves and steal a few sneaky photos. Sandra buys most of the market and we grab a llama steak for brunch. Surprisingly enough it doesn't taste of chicken! More porky beefy, with a hint of tuna steak. Not much to write home about, but evidently enough to blog.

Some emergency pollo empenadas in a bag and we're back on't road heading up the famous Quebrada de Humahuaka, a world heritage site. We're on route to a colonial town and a pre-Columbian (well old) indigenous fort, both real close to tut t'Bolivian Border.

The reconstructed fort on a hill is my first taste of the South American ancients stonemasonry. They knew what they were doing then. A fascinating windy stone town surrounding a temple with amazing valley views and comedy phallic cacti. It's ace seeing the way these pre-Inca guys built clever cities while we were busy throwing spears at each other.

Back on the road in the heading North to Humahuaka, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and passed a fair few dogs by the roadside. The dogs here have an over zealous penchant for car chasing. In fact the dogs in South America have a funny life. Domesticated by man, but left as unspayed strays to jump anything they want they have bred like rabbits. Some towns have more dogs than peeps, in a full spectrum of emanciation. They seem to be largely ignored by the populace, are don't seem quite sure what to do with their new found wild urban status. They skip about in packs merrily looking for piss to sniff, weedy dogs to bully and bitches to do, generally in front of a large crowd on a bus station forecourt.

Humahuaka: good name, average place. Another pretty colonial one-story town with various ornate churches, markets selling silly hats and shops packed with overpriced Bolivian-made ponchos, guanaco socks and the usual tourbus fodder. After a coffee and a silly hat purchase we head back down the Quebrada de Humuaka towards Salta, through fantastic colourful cacti valleys as the sun softly set.

6pm, heading through Jujuy, the next big town north of Salta, and out the other side. On a busy motorway junction we pass a marvellous sign saying 'Salta Left, Salta Straight on'. Arbitrarily we hike a left and several km later realise we chose poorly. Back we go and navigate the least straightforward junction to finally end up on the direct road to Salta. Or so it looked on our map. A nice short straight red line, Jujuy to Salta.

High up in the jungle canopy on a painfully slow narrow switchback road hugging a mountain that wasn't on our map. Damn the free car rental mappage. Possibly the meatiest spider I've ever seen padded across the road and I almost had to swerve round it. Bats fluttered by and the jungle played it's jungle cacophony at full volume.

Sporadic signs said Salta 61km, and twenty minutes later, 59km. The petrol gauge began sinking through the red and became a taboo subject of conversation. We'd survived thus far without changing a tyre but became mindful of the advice we hadn't heeded: take a spare, two if you can and a spare tank of gas. All we had was 8 litres of agua and some warm white wine.

Trucks fly round tight bends with lights full beam and the unlit road seems to stretch on forever. Once we rounded a bend after a truck, flipped the lights back up to full and out of nowhere appeared a head of 25 horned cows. Quite the surprise.

The sweet sweet streetlights of Salta eventually envelope us and after what I'd driven through I took us back through the mental traffic of Salta without a hitch. Apart from a long drive down a one way road. We made it back in one piece with an unscathed, albeit very dirty cowboy. Good work fella.

Knacked and pretty much overwhelmed with the natural beauty of the Salta region, I fell into a deep and contented sleep, in Granny Formia's flowery bed.


Salta iv (Route through the clouds)

For years, the 'tren a las nubes' ('train in the clouds') cut it's way across steep Andean valleys, tunnels and countless iron bridges. An engineering marvel, the line includes 21 tunnels, 13 viaducts, 31 bridges, 2 loops and 2 zig-zags. Starting at 1200m and rising to 4220m along the Quebrada del Torro, the railway was originally built to connect Argentina and Chile. It later became a tourist train, then two years ago the train broke down on a bridge and it hasn't run since. Also running up the valley, along-side or opposite the railway line is a rough dirt road and we're gonna take the cowboy up it...

The start of the nubes route puts the V in valley. Under a grey sky we begin to climb up the giant cacti ridden Andean hills, banks of wispy cloud massaging the tips. A small root-like river winds a down wide stony bed, clearly fuller in wetter seasons. We pass tiny tiled villages, rusty iron girder bridges and carpets of trees and cacti. Rail and road intertwine. Wild horses dot the vista. Mountains display colourful scars of up to seven clearly distinguishable colours.

This ancient and largely untouched landscape would make a perfect setpiece for the 'Walking With Dinosaurs' tv series.

Random police checkpoint. Stop the record. "Your papers and international driving license." I hand him the papers and my distinctly non-international card, saying "...my INTERNATIONAL license...". An old Jedi-mind trick I know. He scans through disinterestedly, more focussed on the fact that our car has no licence plates. "This isn't the car you're looking for. You can go about your business. Move along..." We're waved along. Barn Obi Wan on the case. Close call. These bored border dudes love looking for loopholes to exploit.

Driving along round ever changing bends, the altitude starts to get to me and I start to think I'm Michael Knight, Lone Crusader. In Cowboy Kitt, I hum the theme. Sandra throws concerned sideways glances. Fortunately before I try to jump the canyon with the turbo boost San Antonio de los Cobres appears in view. As also did the Salinas Grande salt plains, glittering briefly on the horizon.

A strange and hopeless place, San Antonio used to rely on the Tren a las Nubes for income. A reasonably large town, containing 7000 isolated inhabitants on the desert Altiplano, it's become a bit of a ghost town. Even before you arrive, snotty, unwashed children of consistently poor dental hygiene literally run AT the car in a manic bid to push stuffed llamas or fancy stones on you. One immediately feels party in a horror film and lock the doors and speed up, flicking on the wipers in case you take down a kid. In town, one story high, everything's shuttered or flapping in the wind. An empty restaurant with a softly spoken, sad waiter serves us empenadas (which are the only thing on the menu and albeit tasty are still cold in the middle).

Post sustenance we step into the arid open. It's like a wild west frontier town, minus the tumbleweed. Locals immediately spot a white face and run up with just slightly more alpaca fur garmentage than they can carry. Scrambling back into the car we scream out of town on a mission for the Salinas Grande salt plains. What this town needs is a) the Tren a las Nubes to get rolling again and b) a quality dentist.

60km and a long time later we're still rumbling over a seemingly endless expanse of sandy stones, trying to avoid that trip destroying double-puncture. Either side is a brush plain sporadically pocked with backlit llamas and donkeys with fetching decorative earrings. The folk round these parts are certainly more indigenous looking. Far away are standing like silently sentinels are the dusty blue Andes.

The sun dips significantly in the sky and dust tornadoes spiral off with a sense of foreboding. We start to question our route taking. Have we taken a wrong turn? We'd been on the road that takes about two hours for a good three hours now, and not a sign or salt plain in sight. Driving past a hill we take the opportunity to climb up for an elevated vantage. At altitude this hill resembles a small mountain but from the top we spot the salt plains off ahead, stretching out like a brilliant white lake towards the distant mountains. Back down the hill the setting sun has set the Cowboy in shadow. Just round the next corner there's a sign saying Salinas Grandes and Pumamarca, our planned destination. Typical. Glad we climbed that hill.

The sun eventually falls gracefully from the sky casting the thin altostratus a brilliant orange and we're still trundling over stony desert roads. We start to re-evaluate. We're 60km away from Pumamarca and haven't yet reached the salt plains. We could sleep in the car. We've got an apple, a yoghurt drink, a stale roll, a tomato, 8 litres of still water and a warmish bottle of Cafayatten Torrentes. It's doable.

But it'd help to get a bite somewhere nearby mind. So when we finally reach the cross roads (Pumamarca and darkness right; random twinkling lights and dirt road ahead; salt plains, asphalt and random twinkling lights left) we hiked a left. Pulling into a tiny solitary garage off the road we find two men drinking mate tea in the dark. Sandra has a word while I keep the engine running. She returns and informs me that we need to ask for Veronica in that twinkling patch, and she should be able to fix us a sandwich. Bonza.

After a technically complicated photo of our headlights lighting the salt patterns under a star filled sky we eventually take a right down to find Veronica. Down a sand road we knock on a random door and get passed via two more doors, before ending up being shuffled into an empty room bar a table, tablecloth and chairs. Moments earlier the room was full of teenagers making lots of noise, but they're now in the next room and are joining the kids who peer round the corner and run off laughing. Chicos, this place definitely isn't in the Lonely Planet.

Veronica turns out to be a man and he has no bread for a sarnie. But he does have milanesa steak and mash and can fix us a big bottle of Fanta. We sit there enjoying a better than average meal and pop and Veronica charges us a whole 4 pesos (80p) for the trouble. As he describes how tranquil it is here and how we can sleep in our car in the village, a teenager rocks up and asks if we wanna stay in a room in town. So he walks us over and shows us a bare room with two beds, power and a shared family shower. Done. We grab the cowboy, the newest car in town by a good decade (and now covered in finger artwork), park up outside and unload.

Out in the back end of nowhere, with only ten dull streetlights to light the night every star beams it's little heart out. The whole cosmos is on display, including the milky way. Clear as a bell, a dense strip of stars spanning the night, with Orien, Cassiopeia and the Southern Cross standing distinct. A shooting star whizzes past in my periphery, too fast to properly catch, and I feel it kind of pointless to make a wish in light of what just happened. I just nod my thanks. I set up the tripod and blitz off a few reasonably successful snaps of the night sky before retiring to bed.


The following morning we rise early with lots ahead of us. Our host family, all busy in the kitchen preparing a tablefull of empenadas, see us off and leave it up to us how much cash to leave. Outside we realise this is a fully adobe town, called 'San Tuareo Tres Posos' (The sacred three wells), is literally on the salt plains. We briefly wander around and watch farmers chase uncooperative llamas and children head to school. Mud bricks dry in piles under the sun. Everyone bids us farewell as we drive off and rejoin the main road.

Heading back towards Pumamarca, we decide to take a drive on the salt plain. Stretching off in both directions, with the sun rising to the left, we take a right. Thankfully solid, the salt plains are crystallised into a blazing white sea of hexagonal geometric patterns. Apart from the odd silhouette motorbike or articulated lorry tearing down the raised tarmac a km away, we had the vast lake to ourselves. Photo op heaven.

In places it's farmed and piled in neat mounts ready for cleaning. I even gave the ground a cheeky lick, and it does what it says on the tin. Damn salty.

Finally able to tear ourselves away from the spellbinding and borderline hallucinogenic salt plains, we jump back on the road to Pumamarca. It turns out it's 60km of 4000m cactai pass, riddled with cliff-faced, break-smoking switchback turns. Good job we didn't take that right last night... Tis funny indeed how things work out.


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