Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Sunday 1 August 2010

Balancing Bolivia

When it was fashionable for men in the City of London to wear Bowlers, did they ever struggle to keep them on? Perhaps they never rushed, or the wind never inconveniently blew, but I don't remember photos of those purposeful gentlemen with one hand on their hats to stop them from escaping or images of them reaching to the ground to pick one up. I'm sure those Bowlers were fitted, that they were made to measure.

If you are a Chola lady in Bolivia the key to wearing your Bowler is not to have it firmly attached. They favour balancing them precariously on their heads so that any movement too violent sends them flying or someone else who is keen on owning one can simply grab it and run. It makes an already unusual outfit seem even trickier to live in. I saw women stuggling with their bowlers as they mounted buses, finding it impossible to keep them on as they harvested potatoes, battling with them in the brutal altiplano winds. It is a real art sporting that headgear.

And yet this precarious balancing act is the perfect analogy when weighing up Bolivia as a whole. From the calm perspective of a sojourn in Chile it seems a place juggling different worlds, where life exists in extremes, where so many things seem to be teetering on the edge.
Firstly just surviving the climate is hard enough. In the mountainous South West where people live in the shade of the Andes, the altiplano nights always bring frost and regularly bring temperatures of well below zero. The days bask in glaring sunshine and are swept through with brutally strong winds, the air of which is perilously thin.

This land is harsh and unforgiving and amenities and infrastructure aren´t easy to supply and are extremely basic. There is limited electricity, often no running water and the roads are mainly woeful and regularly impassable in the rainy season.

For those who live permanently in these conditions life is very definitely a precarious balance. This is extreme poverty where there is no bank for three hundred kilometres because most residents are not part of a money culture. There is no heating to protect against that brutal cold at night and the sun makes faces seem prematurely old. Day after day we passed people eking out a living farming pototoes and quinoa on small homesteads and supplementing this food with a few sheep, llamas and chickens. Children spend whole days driving animals from meagre feeding place to meagre feeding place, often not in school or only sporadically so.

And yet people choose to live here and have done for centuries. The Incas and their predecessors used irrigation channels and farm terracing to extract as much from it as they could. Whilst all that has gone, in the remaining emptiness someone is always at home. My one overriding memory of this landscape is of looking at what seems to be a totally barren and uninhabited hillside and then realising that someone, usually a woman, is in fact standing in the midst of it. Perhaps she is tending her animals, perhaps she is on her way somewhere, perhaps she has just stopped and is standing with her clothes blowing the wind. Sometimes she seems to have appeared from nowhere and when you look around her you have no idea where she can possibly be going since there seems to be nothing, anywhere, as far as the eye can see. Often the woman is on a hillside or promentary, standing defiant, an iconic figure.

But look closer and sometimes you see that there is in fact a small property lurking there too. It is as difficult to spot the houses, blending as they do into the landscape, made largely from it. These balance precariously too. Adobe homes made from baked mud bricks that collapse and melt in too much water, in flash mountain floods or extreme rain. Roofs are often caved in and nothing, but nothing, is finished. Walls stand forlornly unrooved, plaster covers half a building, metal and pillars stick into the air waiting for a second storey that may never come.

And where there is a settlement of any substantiality it is all surrounded by mounds of rubbish. With no municipal collection the hillsides are used to store what cannot be reused. Plastic bags cling to the low shrubs and blow in ceaseless wind. They co-exist with mass graves of broken glass, lorry tyres, old clothes and empty fizzy drink bottles.

But you cannot bottle the grandeur of the scenery. It beats the rubbish every time. Bold, big, beautiful. It is epic stuff, the stuff of fire and ice and the land buckling together. It is the sort of precarious nature that my geography teacher hoped to inspire our class with. In some places the ground was literally bubbling and hissing at our feet, like a mildly placated child who is going to explode at any moment. It belittles everything and makes it a bit hilarious that humans try to contend with it at all. Volcanoes soar in snow capped perfectness surrounded by extraordinary mountain ranges, huge sweeping empty plains, bonkers salt flats and great dusty expanses of desert. It was amazing. And those were the bits we saw. Bolivia descends in the East into the sweaty arms of the Amazon basin where rainforest and hot red earth set challenges all of their own. No one should live here and it feels as if one day nature will just ask for it all back.

No one should bike here either really. Apart from a couple of stretches of good tarmac road to carry trucks to Chile, Brazil, Peru and Argentina, the roads are just awful. We teetered along the biblical surfaces, falling off several times, balancing as best we could on the bucking bronco trips. You need a bike with suspension to ride here. We didn't have it.

When the roads were smooth and well made their very modernness was defied by having herds of llamas or goats suddenly appear upon them. Nature, as I said, is close to every surface and we saw its offspring in huge array. It became common place to see flamingos, vicuñas, vultures, alpacas, vizcachas, donkeys and the rest. They would suddenly appear on the road with a spectacular lack of concern and give us and other traffic something extra to play with. The buses and trucks vied not only with them but with bikes of an infinitely more creaking nature than ours, with carts loaded with firewood, with vehicles wheezing along.

And with vehicles loaded with extraodinary cargo. Along all roads teter trucks loaded to the gunnels with stuff that look as if it will break loose at any second and - wedged into any remaining gaps - human beings. Piles of human beings. Clustered together and covered in mounds of blankets they bounce along, staying in Lord only knows how, making journeys from small town to small town or occassionally to the capital. To the glories of La Paz.

Now there is a place that balances absurdly. Clinging in building defying extraordinariness to the hillsides of a huge basin it is the least likely city I have ever seen. It is as if someone threw one up into an enormous bucket. And it stands in such contradiction to the saxon-reconstruction-villages of its surrounding area. Fifteen kilometres outside it their are homes with straw roofs. Within it there are office blocks, Burger King and places that sell iPods. It was good to have seen this surging metropolis, albeit with some clunking water systems and still with almost no building left completed, to act as a counterbalance to our growing belief that the majority of Bolivians lived locked in a subsistence struggle, oddly disconnected from other parts of South America we had seen. It is hard to know what to make of that life. We had no wish to judge it as backward or unprogressive in a manner that suggested that a world of modern materialism cannot be too, but it looked hard, really hard, and as if the hand of help or choice was not often reaching it.

It may be coming though. There is growing access to a world we are more familiar with. In most little towns there is TV beaming in amusingly brash Bolivian programmes stuffed full of images of other kinds of lives. I saw an ancient Chola lady glued, mouth gaping, to a soap opera where nubile young ladies were prancing about in tight fitting frocks with shoulder pads to rival the Andes. The capitalist world is definitely invading and the young can see about them another world to which they may migrate even though the wealth of that world is still not spreading to many. There are still such contrasts. You see every form of human habitation imaginable in this country. I remember as a child having a book that showed houses 'through the ages' from simple mud homes, with one room and a fire in the middle, to the tower block wonders of the 'modern' world. Well they are all in Bolivia, often shacked up side by side.

Along with an inordinate number of churches. Every hamlet has one. Gracious the Catholic Church did a good job when they pitched up here, missionary zeal ablazing. Them and the 7th Day Adventists and the Mormons. It distressed me, I'm afraid, that in places of extreme crumbliness the church was often in pretty good nick, in some cases even having money poured into it whilst around the parishioners were living with no proper doors. However it provides a huge focus for activity and a lot of fiestas, so I guess it is another thing that is in the balance.

A lot hangs in the balance politically too. Famously volatile politically, the Bolivians have been through 192 governments since they became an independent nation. Now they have Evo. And boy, do you know about it. Evo, Evo, Evo. His minions have painted his name on the sides of endless houses that have little or no other decoration. He has a big job on his hands to unite a nation that is largely poor but has a big eastern province that is very rich and is muttering cessation increasingly. There is so much infrastructure needed, a lot of jobs to be finished. A lot of people we met have a lot of faith in him. A lot of people are relying on him.

Because that is what really makes Bolivia so tricky. Nothing can be relied upon. Not the road to be complete, not the water to come out of the tap, not the light to switch on, or the shower not to kill you. NGO workers and Europeans in La Paz we met commented on how docile the populace are in the face of difficulty, how fatalistic they seem. They don't expect things to work. One friend told us of an colleague who queued for seven hours to register her daughter in a school only to be told at the front of the queue that the government hadn't sent the right paperwork and so she'd have to come back Monday and queue again. She did not complain, she just put up with it. People do. Buses don't run to timetable and when they come they are so packed as to be laughable and people wait for hours and hours.

And that unpredictability was one of the biggest challenges. We are so used to being able to have expectations, and have them met. It was exhausting not being able to plan, or predict, or prepare. It wasn't easy to get comfortable in this constanstly shifting environment. You are on your metal most of the time and it's tiring. We spent 5 weeks cold and challenged and struggling for air. It was a real eye opener and it left us a bit precariously balanced mentally!

So we were relieved to spiral downhill to Chile where everything is much more familiar and we have been able to relax. Things work as we hope and the pace of life with so many creature comforts is calmer. However, we miss the stars and the solitude and the silence of Bolivia as we trade it for streetlights and company and car noise, so somewhere there is still a balance to be struck.

And the Bowlers? Well they have gone for the time being. Almost as soon as we rolled over the border women started dressing in a manner that was more Dorothy Perkins than Mrs Pepperpot. It is odd how a few kilometres pass a whole world changes. However we are on the cusp of Peru and we cannot be sure what we will find there in the millenary department. I have heard that people wear very old hats, battered and rather worn and not that precariously balanced (often seen near Paddington station in London) under which they keep their marmalade sandwiches.
But we shall have to see.

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