There are some places you can visit for a month and still seem fairly lost. There are some places you can visit for just 7 days and feel like you belong there more than anything else. Bolivia was one such experience. When I started planning this trip, I had no intentions of visiting Bolivia (Thanks to the fact that Bolivia does not have an embassy in India). Call it stroke of luck or fate or whatever, I managed to get the Bolivian visa by applying in Buenos Aires.
After the guys left Peru for India, I decided to spend a week in Bolivia before crossing into Chile. I knew I wanted to visit Lapaz, the city nestled among mountains and recently in the news thanks to the Bond movie Quantum of Solace. (Its a separate story that the movie was actually shot in Chile and they called it Bolivia… Bolivians are very pissed about the fact that they show James Bond looking scared trying to check into a Bolivian hotel.. they also find it amusing that the cops in Bolivia were shows to be wearing sleeveless, when the weather actually warrants Alpaca wool or Fleece). Getting back to my plan, apart from Lapaz, I wanted to visit Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats of Bolivia, which are home to many a crazy pictures of world travelers. Having seen those photographs, I imagined doing some stunts in the salt plains myself.
So… this is how the week went. After Roy left Arequipa, I took one of those famous Peru buses from Arequipa to Puno, which is the town next to Lake Titicaca. I spent one night at Inka’s Rest hostel chatting with a French couple, who had just arrived there from Bolivia. On Saturday, I headed from Puno to Lapaz by bus. The bus company Tour Peru was the first decent Peruvian bus journey. Filled with backpackers, the bus had a lively atmosphere and for the first time in a long time, did not smell of Coca leaves (a local trademark). I hung out with 3 Australian girls, who were students and visiting South america as a part of a student tour.
Reaching Lapaz, I headed straight to Flavias house. Flavia was a wonderful couchsurfer, who hosted me for 2 days. On day 1, we walked around the historic city centre of Lapaz, comprising of Govt buildings and cathedrals. We also visited the Market of Black Magic (withcraft stuff that Bolivians still purchased) and street food stalls. Towards the night, we headed to one of the oldest streets in Lapaz, which was home to all the museums. The street was believed to be haunted and homes in that street hang a cross outside to ward of spirits. Lapaz, known for its night life, comes alive only after 11 pm. We hit a local bar, called Pena, which had Bolivian live music and dance. The Pena owner was a complete showman, who sung to please the tourists. He did a pretty good job of singing Peruvian music, Italian music, French music and American too. When it came to India, however, he was lost. Instead he just motivated his group of dancers to pull me up on stage to dance. As the Bolivian dancer did his bit, I did a Balle Balle to go with it. Without one sip of beer, just the music and dance was enough to get me high. Flavias friend Pamela (a local too) and Manuel (a Swiss guy volunteering in Bolivia) accompanied us to the Pena. A night getting to know Lapaz with the locals was a perfect start to the solo trip. I was missing Roy incredibly and Flavia and her friends made things so much easier by just being themseleves.
Ofcourse, there were many things that I could have done in lapaz on Sunday, my day 2.. like visiting the Death road north of lapaz or the Mercado Alto in El Alto, a huge flea market. Instead of doing all that, I just chose to hang out and get to know Flavias huge family. I cooked an Indian meal for a family of 12. Unbelievable by my standards. The menu comprised of Chole Alu Masala, Jeera Rice, Cabbage curry south indian style, Mixed vegetabbles with gravy, Chicken fry with Garam masala and Raita. Am not kidding. It took me 5 hours, but was totally worth it. Seeing Flavias family enjoy the meal was a wonderful feeling, something I honestly have not experienced before. After the meal, it was fun to gift Flavias grandpa an Indian Beedi. I shared photos from India, including the ones from my wedding, to share with them what the Indian culture was all about. Flavia did not need any more convincing to visit India. My sunday at her place was just an extra incentive. Next year, she will be traveling to India for 6 months and I hope to return the hospitality.
I left Flavias place on Monday morning after hugging everyone goodbye.. her mom, who was wonderful and kept offering me milk shakes and coffee, her brother (who resembled Ando from Heroes) and her cute white dog…
I was a little sad leaving a friend.. but not for too long. I was planning to travel from Lapaz to Uyuni with 2 colombians, who I had met in Peru. Lina and Mauro, a lovely couple who had done the Cusco city tour with us had pretty much the same plan ….. taking a bus from Lapaz to Uyuni and doing a 3 day tour of the salt flats. I was only more than happy to travel with people and learn something new. I reached their hostel to find out that Lina and Mauro had another companion, Diego…. So, it was 3 Colombians and me… heading from Lapaz to Uyuni… That was just the beginning…. The 4 days with them was the best 4 days of my trip….
Before I begin explaining what we did those 4 days, I need to tell you a bit more about these 3 Colombians.
Lina.. a student of cinema… having studied in france, worked in Italy and grown up in Colombia spoke many languages… had enthuasiasm that cannot be described… a true traveler at heart… a nomad… passionate, crazy, loving human being… and more than anything completely BEAuuuuuutiful. Her favourite colour was red and she was curious about everything under the sun (actually everything in the universe).
Mauro.. a communications student.. very much in love with Lina.. amazing at music…. could dance bloody well.. a colombian Austin Powers… a guy who loved to say ‘Behave Baby’…. one who added a mean streak and a dash of humour to the group… and one who taught me how to swear in Spanish…
Diego… a student of gastronomy who was headed to Australia to work as a chef… a guy who clicked pictures of everything he ate… one who liked to dress in green pants, white sweaters and a red blanket looking
Christmassy…. one who played me romantic Spanish songs from his Ipod… the guy who was addicted to Skittles (thats like M&Ms without the chocolate)….
We met on a Monday morning in Lapaz. After hanging out together eating a delicious heavy breakfast of Saltenas (a Bolivian sweet meat filled samosa), we decided to find out about buses to Uyuni. The cheapest bus was 80 Bolivianos, which was something I would have taken, had I not been traveling with real shoestring travelers. I learnt how to beat the cost with them. A direct trip costs 80 Bolivianos. However, a trip to Oruro and then from Oruro to Uyuni cost only 10 and 40 Bolivianos, making it 50 Bolivianos…. Lina had done this reasearch in the bus station. So, we reached the bus station after spending the day visiting Western Union and Money Gram to collect money, hunting for a flute for Mauro and a Polar jacket for me…. Buying cheap 10 boliviano tickets to Oruro for the 4 pm bus, we had 40 minutes in our hand. Lina and Mauro had to send a courier to Colombia. So, they headed to the post office. Diego wanted to try Pacena beer, the only beer he had not tasted in Lapaz. So, I went hunting for Pacena with him…. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we landed up at a really rundown restaurant, ordering another beer called Inga beer, which was not Pacena, but something Diego had not tried. It tasted like sweet corn turned bad. But, he was thirsty and he did not mind.
Reaching the bus stop 10 minutes before the bus, we waited for Lina and Mauro, only to see the clock turn 4 and the bus starting to move with our bags inside. Lina and Mauro were nowhere in sight. I ran after the bus and pleaded in English, as Diego hung from the door and pleaded in Spanish. We managed to convince the driver to throw out our bags. The driver sweared at Diego and gave us our bags. As we stood in the bus station with 4 backpacks and our friends nowhere in sight, we suddenly saw 2 people frantically running towards us. Lina and Mauro, who were late, thanks to a traffic jam (Alanis Ironic in action). We took the 4 backpacks and ran to the exit of the bus station, only to stop the bus before it headed out the maingate. The driver took the chance to swear at Diego, once again. We settled into our seats, panting for breath. Withing 10 minutes, we were asleep, only to be woken up in 20 minutes by a loud movie, which made absolutely no sense. It was some B grade Spanish violence mixed with humour, which none of us found remotely entertaining. However, what was entertaining was to look at the rest of the bus (filled with locals), keenly watching the movie like it was an Oscar winner.
We reached Oruro at 8 pm, only to find out that there was a bus strike the next day. we booked tickets to Uyuni for the 9 pm bus the same day. Diego threw a tantrum that he wanted to eat at the best restaurant in Oruro, Nayjama. We left the bus station at 8 10, reached the restaurant at 8 20, ordered food at 8 25, received the food at 8 35, ate by 8 45 and reached the bus station at 8 55, just in time. If you see pictures of this one hour, you would know what a satisfied man (satisfied with food) looked like.
We sunk into our seats at 9 pm and prayed that it would not get too cold in the bus. With 4 layers of clothes and jammed windows, we somehow managed to stay warm all night. The ride was comfortable till midnight. Between midnight and 4 am, we were being jolted around. There were moments I felt that I would go crashing out the window. The good part about the bumpy ride was that we got to see the landscape at night. One minute, you are seeing a million stars, a clear view. A little later, one couldnt see anything out of the window, thanks to the dust storm. To add to the interesting landscape, Diego played Spanish songs on hid Ipod and translated them for me. I fell in love with some Colombian music that night. It was around 4 30 am that the bus reached Uyuni. The driver said that we could sleep in the bus till 7 am. However, around 6 ish, he started talking loudly and waking us up.
Getting out of the bus, 2 things shook me completely. The freezing cold. I was wearing 2 T shirts, 1 sweater, 1 jacket, 1 polar jacket, my multi coloured peuvian wool cap, black gloves and a shawl around my neck and I was still freezing. Lina was wrapped in layers like I was. Diego managed with a T shirt and a sweater. (The explanation to that… he is from Bogota, which experiences colder weather unlike Mumbai or Cali, where Lina came from) For us, anything below 15 degrees is not good news. Uyuni that morning must have been close to zero degrees. You can imagine my state.
After the shock of the cold, the next thing that shook me up was the state of my bag. It was supposed to have been stored in the compartment below the bus. However, thanks to the dust storms, the bag looked like it was tossed around in mud, dust, ash, whatever around hundred times. Taking the bag out, I spent a good 5 minutes kicking it and beating it till the dust came out. I managed to get all that dust on me and coughed my way around for sometime. Lina and Mauro’s bag was in bad shape too. I forgot to mention that Diego did not have to experience this. Guess why.. he traveled with a bag (the size of a school bag) and always hung on to it for his dear life. Dont ask me how he manages to fit his stuff into such a small bag. Its an art I am yet to learn.
Uyuni was a small town. Pretty much surviving due to the Salar de uyuni tours. Every third building is a tour agency or a hostel. We walked around enquiring with a few hostels till we found a really cheap one called Kactus Hostel for 25 Bolivianos. Thats just 175 Rs. Ofcourse, for the amount we paid, we were only allowed one hot shower. The hostel served no food and had a midnight curfew. Who cares. We needed a place to put our bags down and sleep. After being tossed around in the bus for so many hours, we slept like children in the hostel. We woke up way past lunch time and went hunting for the perfect tour agency. After enquiring with Sandra tours, Andrea tours, Good time tours and all that, we came across our tour agency. For ease of pronunciation, I will just call it X tour agency. It had a complicated name. The reason we chose the agency was because one of the reviews mentioned that the jeep had an Ipod adapter. That was a real bonus.
Lina, Mauro and Diego by that time had come up with an interesting way to call me. They called me ‘Our partner Aparna’… pronounced as ‘Apartner Aparna’…. Kinda rhymed. We hung around a street side cafe, playing Manu Chao music. Mauro started singing the song ‘Mentira’ and sang it for the rest of the d
ay. It is still playing in my head. After some beer, some food annd some wine, we decided to call it a day.
The Uyuni tour is a 3 day tour covering the Salt Flats, small villages processing salt, the Cemetry of trains, beautiful lagoons like the Laguna Colorado, Laguna Verde where you can see Flamengos and amazing Bolivian landscape. The tour is on a jeep that normally accommodated 8 people including the driver. The driver doubles up as a cook and you get amazing food for 3 days. You get to stay in cozy salt hotels or guest houses if you are lucky and in cold dorms if you are unlucky. Well.. we were lucky.
We reached the tour agency and met our co-travelers. A French couple Emilie and Samuel and a German geologist Rudiger in addition to the 3 mad Colombians and 1 crazy Indian. It was an interesting group. Having a geologist was a real bonus. The landscape, the rocks, the geysers, the volcanic stuff, the salt flats… we understood why everything was the way it was, thanks to him. The tour started at the Cemetry of trains, which was a huge yard where the old trains were dumped, once they stopped running. We took some crazy pictures with the trains and tracks.
The highlight of Day 1 was the Salt Flats, which is where we headed after the Cemetry of trains. The salt flats are 12000 Sq Km of Bolivia… briight white land… if you dont wear sunglasses, you are sure to get a headache. It looks like ice all the way. I can’t even describe how stunning it looks. You just have to see the pictures. incidentally, Salar Uyuni is the place where people love to take whacky pictures. Check out some of the photos we have taken – Me swallowing Diego, Lina jumping into Mauros mouth, Mauro walking on Linas stomach, Diego holding me in a spoon.. all sorts of stuff. Apart from the sane stuff, there was some insane stuff too. Mauro and Diego decided to run naked in the salt flats. The Mauro – Diego naked series is for private circulation only.
After an entire day of taking wild pictures, we reached our cozy salt hotel. The floor had salt and the entire place was made out of salt. Its true.. we licked the walls and they were salty. At the hotel, we met another group of travelers.. all Israelis… Yotam, Chen, Erez, Anat, Gal… I am forgeting one name. They were 3 guys and 3 girls, who met in Uyuni and decided to do the tour together.
Rudiger and Lina spent a lot of time taking pictures of the stars with Linas Nikon camera. Incidentally, Rudiger was also a fabulous photographer. Mauro played romantic music in the background as they took pictures. The French couple went to bed. I froze looking at the stars for sometime and then called it a day. Diego played poker till the wee hours of the morning with the Israelis. All in all, we were dead tired but excited for Day 2, as we were gonna see Falmengos in the lagoons.
Some more time with the Colombians and I had shared Indian music with them and pictures of my wedding. They were fascinated by Mehendi in my hands and Bollywood dancing. I told them a bit about the food from India, the caste system, the Taj Mahal… They told me more about Colombian music, Salsa, Meringue, food from their country, the beauty industry and plastic surgery industry in Cali… Colombia economy compared to other South american countries… Cultural exchange was fabulous. I taught them how to swear in Hindi and they taught me some critical swear words in Spanish. In addition to that, I learnt to speak like them. Whenever you see anything spectacular, you say ‘Oi.. marica….. Que Bonito.. Que Lindo…..’ and ‘Si.. Si.. Claro.. Claro..’ I was getting the hang of Spanish.
Day 2 was amazing… the colours of the lagoons.. the flamengos.. the volcanic mountains.. the rocky terrain.. the sky… it was picture perfect…. The night was musical with Israelis singing some Hebrew stuff, the Colombians singing Spanish stuff, me trying to sing Hindi songs and the French couple singing some French music. Then, we all sung some English music… like Beatles and popular stuff and ate Spaghetti for dinner.
I got to know the Colombians even more. They told me about their families…. about their lives… I told them about mine… They taught me how to dance… I loved it… I taught them the meaning of ‘Kaba me haddi’ and they told that ‘violinista’ was the Spanish equivalent… I told them how to say ‘I love you’ in Hindi… They were amused that I speak English with Roy.. coming from the same country, they expect us to speak the same Indian language… They asked me about Reincarnation, Karma, Dharma, Kismat, etc… Phew! Indian philosophy classes…. Then, we tried Indian beedis together… They were falling in love with India the way I was falling in love with Colombia.
Day 3 was something we were hoping wouldn’t arrive. I was leaving the group and heading to Chile. After a dip in the thermal springs and a breakfast of panckaes and coffee, our driver Santi drove like Schumacher to get me to the Chile border, from where I was taking a bus to San Pedro Atacama.
I was feeling really emotional. We took some pictures.. hugged each other… called each other silly names…. said short term goodbyes.. I am hoping to meet them in Argentina and travel to Patagonia with them… They gave me the best gift ever…. a handmade Colombian passport endorsing me as a Colombian officially. I guess there is one country in the world I won’t need a visa for. I know this post was called Un-Boliviable. However, I guess its more Colombian than Bolivian. It was like visiting 2 countries at the same time… a week I will cherish all my life.
Now, I am in Chile, missing Bolivia, waiting to meet the Colombians in Argentina before I head to Brazil. Oi Marica… South America is amazing!