September 29, 2004

Bolivia: Culinary experimentations

After a week sidelined in Potosi due to a nasty intestinal infection, I decided that it was time to stop waging war on my stomach. When travelling the gastronomic lanscape is often as important as the one I browse with my eyes. I have rarely shied away from trying new foods. However Bolivia is a place that seems to be yet untouched by the foodsafe patrol. I paid the price of my indescriminate sampling of local market food.

This fortunately coincided with a renewed interest in cooking for myself. Now that Tania is with me it is much more fun to cook for someone else, and we now have a pressure cooker. After two weeks of succesful stews, soups and rice dishes I was convinced that the pressure cooker could do more. So on a hunch we shopped around for a small stand to put inside the pressure cooker on which a small pan could sit separated from the water below. It took several days of browsing all the market streets in Potosi but eventually we found what we needed all in aluminum since the pressure cooker is also aluminum it helps avoid any chance of high pressure oxidation.

Finally today after buying some eggs, flour, butter, brazil nuts, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, lemon, I made a dough for banana bread. We poured the dough into the small pan and put it on the stand above a couple centimeters of water in the pressure cooker. Twenty five minutes later we let the pressure blast out throught the releace valve. This was the moment of truth... we removed the lid and we were pleasently surprised to find a nice moist and well baked banana bread sitting in the pressure cooker.
Next time we will try our hand at brownies. If anybody has another cake recepie they think is worth trying please let us know.

Posted by gwendal at 09:55 AM | Comments (0)

September 23, 2004

Bolivia: The "Calomino" road

Cycling the road to Potosi from Uyuni can best be described like riding a running camel at a donkey`s pace, for five days. We really did not know much about where we were headed other than the two towns marked on the map and that Potosi was at the other end. What we found was a harsh (on our bums) and beautiful landscape full of very colourful history. When we left Uyuni we entered into a world that has barely changed since the days that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their final holdups here.

The Andean occident of Bolivia currently does not have many personal vehicles, so the only traffic on this road is the occasional bus or truck. If we were to run into mechanical trouble we would most likely have to wait many hours before someone came by. With this in mind we stocked our trailer to the brim with enough food for 5 days. We even had to strap our granola to the tent bag because all the puffed wheat made it take so much room. The only people who live along this road are "campesinos" subsistance farmers and sheperds surviving by growing quinoa and tending to their flock of llamas and sheep. Many times we noticed that the vehicle tracks were obscured by llama footprints. There are also two mining towns one near Uyuni in Pulacayo and the other Aguas de Castilla not far from Potosi. It is because of these towns that the recent history of the region is interesting.

On our first day we left late from Uyuni (3660m elevation) at 2pm after struggling to get the bike de-salted from our trip across the salt flat. We were faced with 20km of uphill climbing over three passes up to 4200m. Some sections were so steep that we were often reduced to pushing the bike, and in some sections we were so tired that we had to take a break every 50m.
When we arrived in Pulacayo we genuinely thought that we had accomplished the worst. We learned that there was no longer anywhere to sleep in town as the last hotel was closed. Fortunately Franz Bonifaz, invited us to sleep on the floor of his office of tourism iniciatives that has only been open for three months. At the entrance of the town there was a big sign saying "This is where the first train arrived in Bolivia in 1890 and where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid assaulted a train in 1908". Franz as it turns out is the president of the Sociedad Pulacayo. Who is working very hard to capitalize on this towns rich history for tourism. In the 16th century Pulacayo was discovered by the spaniard possibly Gonzalo Pizarro who owned a mine in Huanchaca. While riding his donkey to the pacific coast at the location of the mine legend has it that his mule slipped on a section of exposed silver ore. He noticed this and named the location Mulacayo meaning where the mule fell. It was later renamed Pulacayo after the Quechua word Puka for the color of the ore found in the area. Eventually in the 19th century the mining started and it quickly became the largest silver mine in Bolivia and probably the world. There once were fifty thousand inhabitants working in this high and inhospitable mountainside. The mine was officially closed in 1959 and currently there are only about 30 cooperative miners and their families eaking a living off of what is left in the mountain. In the late 19th century the owner of the Pulacayo mine also happened to be the president of Bolivia. He had the pull to have a rail line built to the mine from Angofasta on the Chilean coast. This first locomotive has an engine of only 70cm tall and looks like a small toy.

With this excellent and unexpected tour guide we also learned about the rich history of labour activism that was iniciated by Pulacayo miners in the early twentieth century. It is here that in 1954 the minors staged the words first "huelga de hambre" hungar strike to protest for workers rights. It is because of this strong tradition of worker activism that the state mining company COMEBOL finally closed the mine in 1959. To learn more and to test your spanish you can read the article in La Prensa on the mine.

Before leaving we went to see the "La Union" locomotive who was deemed very unlucky to have been robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1908 and later by other unkown robbers in 1925.

We then continued downhill to a plateau surrounded by stunning mountains and volcanoes. Although it was flat for 40km and the wind was behind us, we were reduced to a 10 km/h crawl because of the dreaded washboard caused by infrequent road grading. Locally this has the colourful word ¨calomino¨.
We had two more grueling days with the dreaded "calominos" dogging us at every corner and a couple more 600m+ climbs. On the fifth day we had been riding untill 2pm when we arrived in Aguas de Castilla which has a smaller mine called Porco. Our easiest gear had been skipping and the remaining 40km to Potosi looked very daunting. We got more water and headed off to the small cluster of houses called Condoriri to camp for the night and tackle the remaining 25km. As we were struggling up a big hill at the 35km mark we were summoned by a man in small pickup who offered us a lift to Potosi. Missing our easiest gear we were nearly defeated by the hill and quickly accepted.

This was a fortunate encounter because our driver Jose Luis a Lawyer in Potosi knew the road well and was a good storyteller. We learned that in 1908 Butch and the Kid learned about a huge payroll convoy from the Porco mine was going to travel. This is a mine that had been worked by the Inca for silver before the Spanish arrived and is still being worked today. They positioned themselves near the top of a big climb about 20km from Potosi. Four people died in the shootout and their little graves can still be seen on the side of the road. But be warned there is no sign acknowleging the site, you need too look closely at the small plaques and it is easy to confuse these graves with others put up when a motorist dies on the road.

¨November 7, 1908. It was a crisp and bright morning in San Vicente, a small miner's settlement, north of Tupiza, up at 4,200 m in the mighty mountains of the Cordillera Occidental. As the sun rose over the Andean peaks, Justa Concha, capitano in the Abaroa Regiment, the cavalry unit of the Bolivian army, peered over his gun to the house. It had been quiet all night. Still there was no sign of life from the two bandidos that were hiding there. The holes in the walls were silent witnesses of the heavy gunfight of the night before. El capitano ordered the master of the house, called Bonifacio Casasola, who sat beside him, to take a peek inside. Wearily, covered by the guns of the handful of soldiers that circeled the house, Casasola approached the door. The clicking sound of the soldiers unlocking their rifles, ready to shoot, was the only thing heard. Tension was hanging in the air. Then Casasola shouted. The captain came up and ran to the house, his revolver in hand. Casasola pointed at the two men lying inside, in a pool of blood. Concha looked and put his gun away. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were dead..."
(found at
from Digging Up Butch and Sundance, third edition (Bison Books: Lincoln, 2003) (Meadows).

Cycling this beautiful and unchanged road from Uyuni to Potosi really brought to life the history and events that unfolded almost a hundred years ago. Just as in the 1969 western that made Paul Newman and Robert Redford famous (ironically there is also a fairly famous cycling scene in the movie). Butch and the Kid are reported to have met their end near Tupiza in 1908 after a failed getaway from the hold up of another payroll caravan. The movie is fairly faithful to what is know of these two very famous gunmen's end. However this did not stop the Bolivian Government at the time from banning the film for its Hollywood depiction of its government forces. Just as their is still mystery surrounding the death of Butch and the Kid the landscape seems to collude with history with pristine and timless vistas of a land that does not seem to change.

Posted by gwendal at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

September 22, 2004

Bolivia: Cycling on an Ocean of Petrified Milk

I knew that cycling from Bolivia back to Canada was going to be a challenge. The altitude alone, did not bode well for easing into the long haul. But to my surprise, my quads would have time to adjust as our first destination brought us to a 10 500 km² rink of flat salt, The Salar de Uyuni.

Imagine one day you woke up to see that the Georgia Strait had dried up and where the water stood was the glean of salt, like a frozen Canadian lake waiting for a newly sharpened skate to make its first cut to its surface. A tour of the Gulf Islands could now be made without the long waits at the ferry terminal and to boot you could spend the night in the middle of the Strait at a new type of Bed and Breakfast. A B&B made of salt; that is your bed and not your breakfast.

Located in the south highland of Bolivia in the Department (province) of Potosi, the ¨Salar de Uyuni¨ the Salt Flats of Uyuni, are the highest salt flats in the world sitting at 3656m above sea level. With over 20 islands to discover, 4 prominent summits to climb, over a dozen ancient villages and innumerable legends to underscore the rolls of film that one takes visiting the unique environment of the Salar.

We loaded up our tandem bike with fresh food from the that days market (Thurday is market day in Uyuni). We didn´t know what to expect, so we prepared to be self sufficient for the next week. The first 20km to the town of Colchani proved to be a slog. With loose sand, the wind against us and 4x4´s constantly whizzing by, I wondered if we shouldn´t have been in one of them. I gave my head a shake when we reached the entrance of the Salar for with one glimpse of what looked like a serene lake frozen in time, I was given a second wind to finish the 15km to reach the ¨Hotel de Sal¨ the only place to get water for the next 80km. What was to come would only be short of magical.

A local teacher, Pedro Claver Mamani Carlo, from the Salt Flat village of Llica, author of ¨Salt Flat Stories¨ tells that in popular native mythology the Salar is described as an ¨ocean of petrified milk¨ where peasants settled in villages around the Salar to sell salt to villagers of other regions of Potosi Province who in return would sell agricultural items such as corn and fruit.

We reached the Hotel de Sal to be greeted by a pink sunset framing a collection of flags from around the world that perched in front of the Hotel. The Hotel, which is better described as a charming rustic bed and breakfast, was just that, made of salt everywhere. Instead of a woodframed bed and creeky oak floor planks, the beds were made from salt blocks and the floor was laiden with salt crystals, much like coarse sand between your toes. In the salon, a group of local students from Uyuni who had stopped at the Hotel de Sal for a few drinks, invited us to join them and with little coersion, we were convinced to stay the night for 15US$ each, a luxurious expense in Bolivia and for a cycle tourist on a budget, but worth splurging. Santos, the manager of the hotel, tells us that we just missed all the tourists. July and August is the only month you will find the Hotel full. The next morning, I reached to turn off the alarm clock, trying to stay tucked under the cozy llama wool covers. As I peered out the window the sun had just made its appearance and was bouncing the light off the unending plain of salt. A continental breakfast was served and we were on our way to our next destination - Isla Incahuasi, the Island of the Inca.

As the sun lay low in the horizon, we arrived at Isla Incahuasi, 65 km from the Hotel de Sal where we were greeted by Doña Alfredo, the caretaker of the island who has lived there for over 10 years. In the low light we pitched our tent at the foot of the island covered in giant ancient cacti. For 8 Boliviano (1US$) we had access to the entire island and it´s potable water. The island hosts a Cafe serving breakfast, lunch and very well kept bathroom facilities. While preparing our dinner, Doña Alfredo insisted we visit her house and sign the island´s log book that is a historical account of every cyclist to have ever visted the island which made a very intersing read. It felt good to add our two bits and feel part of this exclusive club. In the morning we were bombarded by the tour groups arriving to see the sunrise. We took our time packing up and explored the island. All the cacti on the islands seemed surreal. The cacti grow about 1cm a year with the tallest one on the island measuring 12m high making it 1200 years old.

The next day we cycled an enjoyable 40km to a small and very ancient village called Coquesa at the base of the Volcano Tunupa (5400m) which we would climb the following day. At the base of the village on the shore of the lake, live a dozen flamingos. They perch just off a salt marsh where the earth gives away to pristine white salt, lining an archeological site next to the village. There lie huge boulders that are ancient corral reefs next to a network of old dry stone walls. We had no trouble finding accomodations as the children of the only hostel in the village, greeted us with warms smiles and excitement of seing a tandem bike arrive and bravely splash through the stone roadway that passes through the wet and muddy edge of the Salar. Once settled in our room, the owner of the Hostal, Marcos Mamani, yells to us ¨¿Quieres agua de la vida?¨ which normally translates as local distilled alcohol, so we laughed and kindly said, no. But to our surprise, Marcos was actually pulling water out of a 12m deep well in the courtyard that receives its water filtering down from the slopes of the Volcano 2000m higher. Our final day on the Salar was spent climbing up the Tunupa Volcano. At 9am we began our hike. The climb begins with a comfortable grade, and can include a visit to the Mommies about 500m up. Just remember to ask for the key to the cave for 1 US$ before beginning your hike. By noon we had reached the Mirador (4600m), a beautiful viewpoint of the Salar and the tops of the islands that remind me of the Broken Islands off the coast of Vancouver Island. A steeper ascent of 800m took us to the mouth of the Volcano, 5400m above sea level, with a view that literally takes your breath away.

Running out of time we took a local bus back across the Salar. With people and pet birds and dogs filling the aisle of the bus, the ticket vendor masterfully makes her way to collect the fares at the back of the bus by hopscotching from armrest to armrest, stopping only to transcribe the names of all the passengers in her log book. All the villagers were on their way to Uyuni with their goods to sell at the next day´s (Thursday´s) market. Albeit always amusing, riding the bus across the Salar, made cycling on the Salar seem like a dream that I wish we had time to continue.

As the manager of the Hotel de Sal said, the high season is July and August. In the rainy season of December and January, the Salar is flooded making it difficult, if not almost impossible to cylce across, but apparently worth the trip by 4x4 as the the Salar reflects the mountains and and villages that surround it.

So, until the Strait of Georgia becomes an strait of petrified milk, an island tour on salt in Bolivia seems well worth the trip.

Posted by tania at 12:02 PM | Comments (0)

September 08, 2004

Bolivia: Cycling out of La Paz

Four days on the road has lead us up the nastiest stretch of traffic imaginable to the arid plains of the Altiplano. Up here we expected the air to be pure with a slight cold nip. But instead, on the road out of La Paz, every second breath is one of opaque diesel fumes from the old trucks and "micros" Jitnies going up to El Alto (translates as The Top) the rougher looking twin city of La Paz on the Altiplano Plateau.

As we left the metropolitan region of La Paz the air slowly began to clear up but we were still left with headaches; a result of a mixture of too much diesel fumes and finding ourselves 500m higher at 3900m. Our first day started a little late as we packed everything hoping it would all fit.
At five thirty we arrived at Achica Arriba (translates as A Little Higher) a mere 37 km away from the centre of La Paz. The sun was getting low in the sky so we decided that it was better to stop at this small highway toll station with a good police presence than risk darkness for the next 20km to the first town with a hotel.
The small Bolivian flag flapping at the back of the trailer worked its charm as one of the toll guards came to talk to us. He offered us a rough piece of ground where we could pitch our tent behind their washroom, assuring us that it would be very safe; he was working the night-shift. While setting up the tent a couple of curious girls informed us that a few meters away there was also a trench that occasionally served as a refuse dump.
On the other side of the trench we noticed a few little pigs that we wouldn´t use cute to describe.
We wasted no time selecting rocks to help anchor the pegs into the rocky ground. Several of the local vendors thought us crazy to sleep outside and offered the floor of the warming hut. But we confidently explained that we were equipped with down sleeping bags and we were sure we would be warm enough. We soon fell asleep to the lulling rumble of trucks and barking ferrel dogs. The next morning we had a nice crusty layer of frost on the tent and had trouble getting out of our cozy bags.
But the sun does not take long to warm up the dry air and we were soon back on the road.

With little cloud coverage, we were sacrificed to the sun. Even UV30 sunblock wouldn´t suffice. We reached Patacamaya by 3:30 and settled into the only hotel, St. Elenita. After a look around this town, that spans 8 blocks long and 4 blocks wide, we were to find several Ferreterias ( hardware stores) small corner stores and no lack of family run restaurants, each with it´s own "original" line-up of a set dinner: bread with salsa picante, soup and a main course of rice or pasta with meat followed by a cup of something sweet. On the street where we were recommended a restaurant, which was closed, across stood a brand spanking new Hospital built with funds from the Spanish Governement for a mere €386,000. Finding a hospital proved to be fortuitous. As we turned the corner onto the main street to find an open restaurant, we heard a loud screech and barely had time to turn around to see an Isuzu Trooper accelerate across the road and smash, not 10 m behind us, into the adobe wall of an empty storefront. 2 small children climbed out unhurt from the back door, while the driver and passenger remained pinned beneath the collapsed wall. Bystanders quickly jumped onto the truck and started pulling bricks away. We ran 200m back to the hospital to get help. One doctor and 2 nurses accompanied us back to the accident with a stretcher. By then the driver had managed to get out. He was visibly drunk and incoherent, not noticing the gashes to his forehead and bloody nose or his unconscious wife still trapped by the broken windshield. Amazingly, after enough rubble was removed, the woman with a deep gash to her right cheek, climbed out on her own, staying conscious just long enough to stumble onto the stretcher. Gwendal, eager to help, grabbed onto one corner of the stretcher, horrified that there was no spinal injury management, and ran back to the hospital with the doctor. The last thing we heard was that the woman was going to be ambulanced to La Paz for surgery.

We later ate dinner trying to forget the horrifying events of the evening. Walking back to the hotel, in the dark, we were much more aware of every passing car.

Since that evening, we have cycled another 150km to Oruro with less plano Altiplano, mini tornados, unending blue sky and less than solid bowel movements. Now we are in Uyuni preparing to cross the highest salt flat in the world.

Posted by tania at 01:17 PM | Comments (6)

September 03, 2004

Bolivia: Scarce Commodities

Getting a good map of the country can be a bit of a challenge. While in Santa Cruz exploring the centre of the city and all the market streets, I attempted to find a good map of the city and a road map of the country that would give a good breakdown of the distances between towns. The ITM (International Travel Maps) map that I bought in Vancouver does not indicate distances and I later found that it is missing some pretty vital villages. However, a stop at the Santa Cruz city hall did not bear any fruit. All the innumerable small bookstores had on hand were some very coarse and poorly printed maps where each colour of the prints were slightly mis-aligned so that rivers sometimes had white "roads" that followed them everywhere.

In Cochabamba I faced the same stalemate in every place I looked. Eventually, I found the Instituto Geographico Militar (IGM). It was a small office on a residential street with a tiny little sign indicating it was a government office.

There, in its small lobby, hung a giant physical map of Bolivia. It dominated the entire room. I was mesmerized, and it took a few "disculpe señor, commo puedo te ayudar" for me to snap out of my daydream. The Cochabamba office only had 1:50 000 maps of Cochabamba state and none of the maps of the state of Potosi I was intrested in. In any case a 1:50 000 map measures a mere 50km wide which we would go through in half a day on a bicycle. I was kindly told to climb the 2000m to the La Paz office where I would be able to get maps of the whole country.
On my way to meet Tania. at the airport in La Paz, I realized that what I really wanted now was that giant 2mx2m colour map of Bolivia. Each elevation gradient was painted with beautiful red and orange highlands that melted into yellows and greens to show the Chaco and Amazonian lowlands. Its size made it totally impractical, but instead of a nice colourful woven blanket, I was intent on finding my nice colourful limited edition Bolivian map.

I arrived in La Paz a day before Tania. My mission was clear: find the map! With an address in hand, I wandered for three hours before finding the military complex that housed the IGM of La Paz. (I may like maps but apparently I still haven`t figured out what end of an avenue the numbers begin)
The complex was surrounded by tall white walls and well guarded by green mates with white helmets that had MP written on them. I went to the main gate and the watch officer quickly pointed me to a small side door half a block down for civilian visitors. It was friday at 3pm when I presented myself to the civilian control office. They told me to come back on Monday because everyone was already off for "exercicios physico". I had to wait all weekend because of the military´s Friday afternoon game of soccer.

Monday, with Tania, we presented ourselves one more time to the civilian control office. Tania had forgotten her passport so she wandered around the street outside. After my passport was checked, I was escorted by armed guards to the Intituto Geographico Militar office. My map was also on the wall here and this time lit by a huge stain glass skylight with the IGM coat of arms. The sales officer showed me a few 1:200 000 maps but all seemed to pale in comparison with the physical map of Bolivia. After some explaining and persuading he phoned his friend at the rural cadastral office who said that he may be able to help me. That afternoon I was talking to Willie Lopez at the Rural office which was on a small back road near the city market with no security. My conversation with Willie was much less formal. I learned that he was the president of the La Paz mountain biking club. After a little coaxing he told me that he may have a "friend" that might have a copy of the map I wanted. He told me to meet him the next morning in front of the plaza San Francisco at 8am. I got there at 7:45 and started to try to spot him amongst all the other people waiting to meet someone at the plaza. I felt like I was waiting to do some illicit transaction that would result in me obtaining some very important state secrets. Out of nowhere Willie appeared with a tube under his arm. My heart jumped. This was it... how much would his "friend" want for the map? In the end he asked me the standard price of 100 Bs. which is about $15 CAD. I thanked him profusely and he modestly shook my hand and went off to work. Leaving me exstatic in the middle of the plaza at 8am. I ran back to the hostel to show the map to Tania. She was still fast asleep. With map in hand, we are both ready to ride the roads of Bolivia with little fear of riding into a river.

Posted by gwendal at 04:06 PM | Comments (4)

September 01, 2004

“Just remember, if you get lost, ask for the place where you can buy dead llama fetuses and get your hair cut”

It was day four, and I was finally aclimatizing to the altitude of La Paz and enjoying being back by the side of my beloved partner Gwendal. But now the honeymoon was over. We were starting to put our tandem bicycle together and we needed some WD40. “Your sending me out there on my own?” I exlaimed with my best puppy dog pout. I guess my puppy dog impression needs work, because the next thing I new I was putting on my baseball cap, to mask my foreign looking eyes, rolled up my pants to avoid keeping the streets of la paz as a souvenir and hiding my Visa card in my newly made invisible pocket.

“Send a search party if I´m not back in 2hrs” I belted as I set out for the market gauntlet. “Just remember, if you get lost, ask for the place where you can buy dead llama fetuses and get your hair cut” responded a concerned Gwendal, just not concerned enough to come along. La Paz´s market is organized in a way many big city markets are organized. All sellers of a certain good congregate together on one street and for about a block, you can buy the same good from over 20 different sellers. Not unlike the sporting good strip between Main and Cambie on Broadway in Vancouver. The cross streets of our hostel were home to vendors that specialized in selling llama fetuses as spritual offerings when building a new house similar to the chinese tradition of turning on all the lights of a new dwelling to welcome good spirits into your home. In the other direction, you had barber shop row, where you could get your hair cut like Enrique Iglesias or Che Guevera.

My mission: to find the street where the hardware vendors set up shop and buy something that resembled WD40 ( a liquid, aerosol lubricant) for under 20 Bolivianos ( 1 US$ is equal to roughly 8 Bolivianos).

I walked up the hill (a 90degree angle) scanned the plethora of goodies the vendors on our street were selling as I made my way too the hardware district. I pointed to a screw and asked if she sold an oil like product that helped loosen a screw that I was having trouble with. To my surprise, amidst the junk on the table, she produced a bottle labeled “Singer-Aceite de Maquina” or in english “Singer-Machine Oil”, with a picture of a sewing machine a typwriter, and a bicycle. I was sold. And the price tag: 1.50 Boliviano, Donald Trump would be proud.

I was back at our hostal, beaming with pride as I had 1. only been gone for 10 min, 2. spent only 1.50 Bolivianos and 3. didn´t get lost. “Look what I got” said, flashing all my shiney whites . “Singer Oil?”says Gwendal with dismay. “That´s not WD40” . Lucky for me Gwendal´s my boyfriend and not Donald Trump and I was not in the boardroom to hear the dreaded words “Your Fired”.

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Posted by tania at 06:20 PM | Comments (5)