Friday, 8 July 2011

Grand Gringo Tours

When you venture into a wildlife preserve the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined, you do expect to encounter some rare creatures. The Pantanal may not have provided much in the way of native species, but we did spot a rare breed almost extinct in England. Some assert that they are merely mythical and even that claims to the contrary are only ever made by drunks and family members. So it was with some surprise  that we encountered a trio of Nice Etonians deep in the Brazilian wetlands. Their true colours were dulled after a few months in unfamiliar habitats, but this is common in migration season, typically lasting a few months after leaving the mother's nest, the alma mater. Gap year anthropology's been at its best in Bolivia, where we've been on the trail of all sorts of garden variety and exotic creatures. 

We've finished for piranha alongside a wisecracking Irish traveller and trekked barefoot through mud with a French couple whose terrifying cameras  left us whispering about using it right and preferring sighs to size. Nowadays we have to be careful what we say, because turns out the couple across the bus' aisle may well understand our discussing the merits of Hobbes' view of the natural state of man.  On the subject of popular culture, the films on the buses have improved further west, and going from Brazil to Santa Cruz in Bolivia we even had both Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. Maybe it's called 'The Death Train' because it also features Adam Sandler. 

Within twenty-four hours or so, we'd made it through Santa Cruz and into the mines at Potosí, so into the gates of hell and down the mines. It's the highest city of its size in the world, and yet all you go there to do is go down down down in these mines that have been mined in almost the same way for centuries. Buy your soda and your coca leaves and your cigarettes and your dynamite for the miners, don your mask and boots and let's go. Temps shooting up and ceilings falling down; you don't come here for the happiness index rating. Same with the Bolivian buses. But then you get to the salt flats the next day and you're in your jeep with two crazy lovely Danish girls and you really still feeling harrowed by those mine shafts when you're staring over salty white landscapes spreading out for kilometres or Technicolor lakes dotted with flamingoes? 

Not really. But try sleeping in minus degrees in a hostel made of salt. But then really do try running into a hot thermal spring at half six in the morning, which made La Paz with its pancake breakfasts and its llama foetuses and its curry houses and its running hot water a whole different place. Especially when you get in after an overnight bus one morning and don't leave the bar all day after watching the Wimbledon Mens' Final on English time and drinking barely even on Bolivian time - maybe back on Japanese time. But with free shots every ace, how could we not? Did mean the next day was a tad rushed, but we saw all we wanted to and made it to our bus to Bolivia's own Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Renting a kayak and paddling about out there was quite something, and a far easier form of transport than the minibus that evening across into Peru. But we made it, had a pleasant half day in Puni and then onto Lima, meeting Mary-Jane, and the fog. Even after another twenty-plus hour bus journey, we're still not sure about the natural state of man, but after Bolivia, we're pretty sure about the natural state of nature: we'll take the views any day, never mind the cold. 

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