John and I headed for Bolivia in January. It was a very positive "return" journey. I was last there in 1997, with dear Louis (a great love of mine who died in 2003), and this time with another sweetheart, Johnny B, and it really hadn't changed much. Once more we travelled from one end to the other, with one of the highlights being another visit to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world. And the Salar is only part of it, it is a spectacular wilderness area bordering on Chile that is only accessible by 4 wheel drive, a very intense and bumpy 4 day trip. The highest point is at 17,000 feet and you come across every kind of terrain; snow, desert, geysers, hot springs, lakes full of flamingos, a lake with no life in it because it is full of arsenic, but the most vivid green you can imagine (appropriately named Laguna Verde).
Much of the area is so surreal it looks as though it is straight out of a Dali painting, and he did in fact paint there, a cluster of rather phallic looking rocks in a desert area are even named "Salvador Dali Rocks".I'm sure that would delight his modest soul. It is an absolute wonder world, with herds of vicuna (a small and wild member of the llama family), lots of llamas, birds of every description and chinchillas, (cute as can be, but apparently just a very large rodent). The salt lake itself is wondrous, the light magical as you drive cross what feels and looks like a massive still mirror. There is a small island on the middle, Isla des Pescados (although of course not a fish in sight), covered in giant towering cacti, some apparently 1,800 years old.
We stayed in a hotel completely built out of salt, and it was a really strange feeling being in there, a lot like being in the Polish salt mines, something to do with reversal of the ions?, which I understand not at all, but it certainly felt bizarre. It was a month of non-stop intensive travel. It included a visit to the mines in Potosi, the oldest silver mine in the world, at one time the richest city in the world, and the most primitive mine conditions imaginable, boys as young as 12 years old working in archaic conditions (completely heartbreaking to see), and every single person who works down there gets silicosis (a fierce and terminal lung disease) after 15 years, and still it is coveted work because the alternative is abject poverty. And of course when the silver prices plummet they go hungry, so here's to us paying a healthy (= humane) price for our jewellery so that their sacrifices aren't for nothing.
John "the jeweller" and I did have a couple of heated discussions about this. A couple of places I hadn't been to before were Tarija and Tupiza, near the Argentine border. Incredibly beautiful lush farmland, (many vineyards), and red rocks to match anything found in Sedona. Plus the most hair-raising mountainous road between these 2 towns, with no other mode of transport available, except for a ludicrously expensive jeep taxi, and those drivers were more daring than the bus-drivers. I must have spent about half of the 8 hours with my eyes tightly closed as our mad bus-driver careened up and down unpaved mountainous roads, taking hair-pin turns at what seemed to be 90 miles an hour. I know it seems like I am always having these kinds of experiences.. I honestly don't seek them out.
Every place in Bolivia is such high elevation, that actually going down to around 7,000 feet (Sucre) was a relief, on average we were usually at 13,000+ ft... phew. I must admit it was tougher on me this time than 10 years ago, a few headaches and some pretty sleepless nights, but fortunately only for the first couple of weeks. There were too many adventures to recount, and in summation it was incredible, and Bolivia still rates up there as one of my favourite places in the world.
Once more went to the "Island of the Sun" on Lake Titicaca, and saw the sad little Bolivian Navy patrolling round and round the lake as it has done since it lost its coastline to Chile,a very long time ago. They never give up hope that they will one day win it back, so there it is; Armada de Bolivia, the Navy without an ocean. Interesting aside, in La Paz we noticed that every one of the shoe-shine boys wore woollen balaclava-type hats that only exposed their eyes. Bit sinister looking actually, and I had to enquire about this, because in Peru this job usually goes to very poor street children who are nearly all glue addicts. These were obviously, by their build, older males. It turns out that they are all students, studying law, medicine and the likes, and this is how they help pay their way through school. So the reason for the hats is they don't want to be recognised, probably because they don't want their future clients/patients saying "didn't you clean my loafers once?"
Last time I was in Bolivia I journeyed into the interior, to an area where there isn't much of anything, but in my obsessive way I had to see where Che Guevara died (Vallegrande), and to lie on the same slab in the laundry where they laid out his body (yes I know I'm weird). In fact while I was there, so were many Cubans looking for his body, and they found it about a month after I left, absolutely nothing to do with me I swear. This time around I demanded we go out of our way to the pitiful little mining town where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (supposedly) made their last stand and are buried. It really was one of the grimiest mining towns imaginable, and there is much speculation as to whether it is actually them buried in the little churchyard, although X does mark the spot, with a very big (mis-spelled) sign announcing their last stand, death and burial. I've since done some research on them, and besides the haziness around where and how they came to their demise, Robert Redford and Paul Newman they were not.
We took one internal flight from La Paz to Tarija (in order to avoid an additional 36 hours on a bus, $40 very well spent I'd say), the security was practically non existent, nobody spoke a word of English, and all check-in staff, stewardesses and pilots were in jeans and t-shirts. Then on the way back to the US there was an unexpected 4 day layover in Miami (we were flying on passes thanks to my wonderful "you know who you are!" friend), but due to floods etc., all over the country, it was impossible to get a flight on to LA, especially as we were at the wrong end of the stand-by list.
So having survived the extreme altitude, the street food, all the hair-raising bus travel and the outback of Bolivia, I finally got sick from Miami Airport fast food. Feeling really wiped out we succumbed to getting a hotel room, and then darted back and forth to the airport until we finally got out of there. So back to the US, and I went into high gear work mode and started seeing clients 7 days a week. It is a part of my life I love with a passion, so it is far from a hardship, and since I don't work this intensely all the time (I really do have the life of a tropical Riley), it is still a rich, rewarding and constantly evolving part of my life. And of course I do have to support my travel addictions and Bali-life somehow.
However, lest anyone feel sorry for me, between February and July I still managed to go to Chicago, Sedona, Mexico, Seattle and Santa Fe, some work related, some fun, but on every trip I saw someone(s) very dear to me.
January the 15th and I am right back where I started, in Santa Ynez, having circled the globe since last July. I am just completing another (more sobering) circle. I was at the car wash the other day, and I looked over and saw a sign that said "Senior Discount 55 and over". I almost fell off my chair. I will be 55 in 1 week (and probably 55 and a half by the time I finish and send this!). So, remember when you are 25 and hoping to be carded? Well in the blink of an eye, here I am hoping, hoping I will be carded when I ask for that senior discount (it of course didn't happen). Because, unlike some of my friends who tell me they refuse to acknowledge this and ask for the discount, I am a true Scot and will be asking for it.
And the above experience was followed by a free magazine and solicitation from AARP. How did they find me? Stupid question I know, and the truth is, apart from the aforementioned surprises I'm loving this "getting older" business, or more to the point I'm loving how I feel at this point in my life.