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The issue of not being on time

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 1: Ballina, NSW – Brooyar, Queensland (381km)

Our race to beat the setting sun was a lost cause.

If only we’d set off earlier, as planned then we might have got pitched in daylight. If only we’d not taken a diversion to put our pennies into the honesty boxes of roadside stalls in exchange for avocados and potatoes and tomatoes, if only the calamari at Brunswick Fish Co-Op hadn’t called out to stomachs that lightly rumbled barely thirty minutes into the journey, if only the super supermarket conveniently positioned right on the highway at Gympie hadn’t reminded us of forgotten necessities, well, maybe then we would have gotten to Brooyar State Forest on time.

But, hang on! This is holiday time, time off from being on time. 

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 1: Still a long way to go… what adventures are up ahead?

We could have stopped off somewhere sooner, somewhere closer to the road. Brooyar was an en-route decision, a decision that took us away from concrete and the last light of day, down a long, pitted dirt track into an expanse of rain forest and a scattering of gum trees. Glastonbury Creek Camp. Arrived.

And realistically  setting up camp and cooking in the dark was more of an adventure than a problem, three concentrated explorers equipped with head torches, hammers, high spirits and unspoken coordination.

Tents up, kick back, eat easy food, say goodnight to the glow of neighbouring fires, switch off the lights and lie beneath a light sheet.

Listen to the darkness.

And fall into a fresh air sleep full of dreams about what this place might look like by day.

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Why did I skip these? Things I missed out on in Bolivia

Cyclists on the Death Road, Bolivia (image from blog.brazenbraden.com)

“A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, ‘I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

You can’t come to Bolivia and not do the Death Road!’ said one of my travel buddies when I aired my disinterest. ‘Of course I can’, I protested, ‘I’m pretty scared of heights and cliffs, I had a bad bike accident in Peru, I’m just not feeling it’.

Other tourists did the trip, got kitted out with fancy suspension bikes and cycled down the infamous road where every now and then, people still fall off and die. They all came back buzzing. The views, they told me, were incredible, the day out totally worth every penny.

They nearly persuaded me to re-evaluate, but I stuck to my guns. I don’t have to do everything touristy, tick off everything there is to do in a country, do I?

I do travel a little slower than many people I’ve met and I tend to get stuck in a place for a little while. Often, this is to the detriment of seeing all the top spots of a country – natural or otherwise – but the upside is I get a better feel for the place where I’m staying and I make some connections in the area.

Whilst I do prefer it this way, during my seven week stay in Bolivia there were a few key attractions that I skipped, some by choice, some by a sudden change to my travel plans that meant time ran out. Would I live to regret it?

  1. Cycle the Death Road. The original link between La Paz and the northern regions of Bolivia, this road was given the Death Road label after an average 200-300 people tumbled and tripped to their death every year. Narrow bends, vertical drops and impossible passing points add to the peril of this place, and chunky rocks litter the pathway with sure-fire trip up potential. Even looking at pictures of cyclists and vehicles on the road sends my stomach into a frenzy. How can you go to La Paz and not give it a go? asks Rob on his Lonely Planet blog. Erm, actually easily enough. I love some adrenaline activities but this one wasn’t for me. And it turns out that I’m not the only one opting out.
  2. Go horse riding in Tupiza in south Bolivia. I heard and read so much about the spectacular landscapes around Tupiza and the legendary resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sounded rugged and beautiful. Horse riding through the red rock canyons is the one activity that I really wish I’d had the time to do in Bolivia, although according to one blogger, I didn’t miss much. Each to their own. If I ever make it back to Bolivia, Tupiza is on my list.
  3. Take a trip down the mines in Potosi. On the way to Uyuni, my bus passed through Potosi, the highest city in the world, where it is rumoured women pack up and leave in order to conceive and give birth. The main ‘attractions’ in Potosi are the mineral mines. Ethically, I ummed and aaahhed about this one. Why visit working mines where conditions, by Western standards, are unsafe and detrimental to the worker’s health? Where children are put to work? Where the average life expectancy of a miner is between thirty and forty years of age before they die an uncomfortable death of silicosis? Whilst in Sucre, I watched a documentary called The Devil’s Miner. It is one of a few times where I’ve cried at a film and was left speechless afterwards. Why? Because I couldn’t understand how this could be going on, and because I didn’t see how I could help. Was visiting the mines the right action or the wrong thing? I wasn’t sure whether I was just judging this with Western eyes, whether the film was seeking an emotive response, whether this was a lifestyle choice or not.
  4. Sleep out in the jungle. Tourists either take the rough, twenty-four hour bus journey from La Paz or otherwise soar in on tiny, low flying planes to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the jungle and pampas of Bolivia. Having already visited the jungle back in Ecuador, I didn’t feel a huge pull to the Bolivian Amazon, because although the Bolivian jungle is rumoured to be a rich, dense habitat for wildlife and plantlife, most of the tour activities and wildlife that I would encounter were the same as what I’d already been lucky enough to see in Cuyabeno, Ecuador. And for some reason the mosquitos seem to be so much more vicious in Bolivia, providing another excuse to give the tour a miss. I met many returned tourists completely covered in raised bites, despite having worn a full covering of clothing and a good dose of antimalarial spray.
  5. Visit the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca. During my stay in Peru, I’d got so close to but just didn’t make it to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and here, in Bolivia, once again I didn’t make it near to the pure water shores. Chatback about heavy tourism emphasis on the floating reed islands of the Uros tribe did somewhat put me off, but I was still intrigued by how people live on such transient foundations. The tranquil shores and rocky terrain of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) was, however, attractive to me with its walking trails and rugged appearance. Instead, I ended up staying longer in La Paz than intended, checking out hospitals and doctors, markets and mayhem.
  6. Transfer into Chile. Although slightly aside from Bolivia, before I made a random travel decision to head back to Ecuador that put time restrictions on my stay in the country, I had really wanted to get to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and explore the Atacama desert a little. The route suggested by Olaf in Roadrunners in Samaipata was to take the Uyuni tour to San Pedro (and maybe mountain bike the Moon Valley), take the bus to Calama, bus to Arica (spend a day or two on the Chilean coast), bus to Putre (where you could do a half day tour to the National Park) and finally bus across the border to La Paz, Bolivia. Other tourists I spoke to agreed that it was a scenic route, but that it definitely required more time than I had.

The saying goes, regret only what you haven’t done, not what you’ve done. Well, I chose to go slow and stay in some places, and I don’t regret that decision one little bit.

Thanks Bolivia for all the beautiful moments and memories (and let’s pretend the bad belly bugs never happened).

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5 ways to be Bolivian

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Dress code

TRAVELLING TO BOLIVIA AND WANT to blend in with the country folk? Here are a few tips on how to be less of a gringo, more of a local.

  1. Women, wear your hair in two plaits and dress in colourful, full skirts that reach a little past your knee, swish as you walk and leave people wondering whether you’re a little chunky or just layered up. Men, wear a wide brimmed hat.
  2. Hang out of bus windows whenever you stop or slow down to check out what’s going on.
  3. Believe in God. 82% of Bolivians are Catholics and when they question you on your faith, it’s often easier to say that you’re Christian (or any other religious denomination) rather than agnostic or atheist. Cross yourself any time you pass by a church or shrine or holy statue, whatever your age. Don’t, however, forget about Pacha Mama. Throw the odd bit of food or dribble some drink on the ground before you indulge, and every now and then sacrifice a llama or llama foetus in her honour.
  4. If travelling with a child, sling them on your back in a swaddling of bright coloured material that completely conceals them. Actually, carry any large bulks in this way and confuse people as to whether you have a child or vegetables or just a mass of material on your back. Keep chickens and other livestock separate but still covered so that if one of your hens decides to poke her head out and start pecking at a gringo’s shoes in the aisle of a crowded bus, it gives them a sufficient fright to behave on public transport. It may even raise a smile. Talking of which, don’t give out smiles too easily. Be a bit reserved, restrained. You don’t know who you’re dealing with, especially when it comes to bushy-tailed travellers, so err on the side of caution and observe these strange creatures from a bit of a distance.
  5. Guys, to deal with working at high altitude stuff your cheeks with coca leaves, so full that it lumps out and could be mistaken for a growth. Make sure you use a catalyst with the coca leaves so that your lips go a little numb.

There are of course lots of other things you should do to blend in. Unlike other South American countries, llama hats and woolly jumpers aren’t the exclusive outfit of gringos (although pick carefully). It’s cold here so everyone needs some llama love.

What else? Erm… eat meals that consist of double carbs, always something potato based alongside rice. Don’t understand vegetarianism and feel completely confident that taking out the main hunks of meat in a soup before dishing up will suffice for those fussy eaters.

And more seriously? Survive on a salary of 20Bs.-30Bs. per day (that’s US$2.87-US$4.30). Send your kids out to beg or shoe shine at known tourist spots or set them to work down the mines because although they are sacrificing their education, you need the money to survive.

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Quick pause: I´ll be back

Just a quick note. I´ve tried to schedule as much of my Bolivia stuff as possible but I´m currently sailing across the Pacific  with no internet and the likelihood is I won´t get to Tahiti to do updates before they run out… apologies… I´ll be back online before long. See you soon.

P.S. Even though I won´t be able to respond to comments for a few weeks, please keep posting! I love to read them and get some feedback. Hasta luego.

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Where Che lay rotting, lost in a shallow grave

I WAS PARTLY FOLLOWING La Ruta del Che, the trail within Bolivia that Che Guevara is said to have taken shortly before his capture and execution at the age of 39. Che and his men were in Bolivia to try and win support from Bolivians and the surrounding countries, but overall reports suggest that his efforts weren’t wholly successful.

After Che was killed, his body was moved from La Higuera to Vallegrande where it was laid out across the hard, concrete basins of the hospital laundry, the lavanderia. He was half naked, his eyes were forced open, his body mutilated. A warning to other wannabe political rebels.

I stood for a while in front of the open fronted room and took in this scene. Graffiti covered every inch of the walls, messages of appreciation amongst modern day fighting talk. The simplest scribble states Gracias Che.

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The hospital lavanderia in Vallegrande where Che lay for a couple of days on display

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Painted on the outside of existing hospital buildings

A small group of us headed to the next part, the memorial. Why we needed three guides with us, who knows. Maybe they just wanted to visit the site again themselves?

The memorial, under lock and key, is a well preserved little place only accessible through booking with the Casa de la Cultura. Inside the light building are carefully framed photos from throughout Che’s life and newspaper clippings from various events connected to Bolivia.

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World class sign for Che Guevara’s memorial, Vallegrande

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Che and his crew’s well-maintained memorial, Vallegrande

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Che photos in the memorial building

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The guides tried to convince me that this was Che shortly before he died.                         He sure looks old for 39!

The centre piece is the shallow grave where Che and six of his men were hidden for thirty years before being discovered and sent back to their respective home countries. In 1997, Che’s body was exhumed and repatriated back to Cuba.

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The shallow grave

Not really the place for big smile or thumbs up photos, one of the guides was insistent to photograph me in front of absolutely everything. ‘Now here’, he’d say, grabbing my hand and dragging me to the next part of the room to stand awkwardly in front of yet another a photo display whilst he took ownership of my camera. ‘And now here, he said physically positioning me in front of the grave, ‘now outside’.

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Me and a load of revolutionaries. Oh yeah.

I felt that this little part of the trip was partly being hijacked by a snap happy helpful, so I turned the camera on him, and he loved it.

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Drama and more with the additional guide

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The Casa de la Cultura is located on the main plaza, Plaza 26 de Enero, and is full of Che cuttings and information. Here they can provide you with a wealth of information and help to organise onward trips to La Higuera (the place of Che’s capture and execution). Entrance the memorial and the lavanderia costs 30Bs. It is possible to book tours that take in the two Vallegrande sights and then explore the other places en route and within La Higuera, but costs are high and it can be worth organising your own transport, as I did.

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Inca Jungle Trek (Day 4): Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, finally!

I’m not overly enamoured with traipsing around ruins and have thus far passed up on visiting some places along my route through Ecuador and Peru. I had wondered, for instance, about Chan Chan, but was reassured when another traveller told me that ‘the photos are great, they show it at its best, but when you’re actually there its just a bit boring… and shortlived‘.

Machu Picchu is, however, a whole different thing: famous, revered, a place of intrigue and cultural and historical interest. And if its good enough for Mick Jagger, who bought up all the tickets for the morning session a few weeks back, well, then it’s more than good enough for me.

I, along with over half the group, took the bus up to Machu Picchu. Tired and worn down, the 05:00am start was a significant effort. Rain swept the bus windows as we took the winding road up into a lush mountainscape, and I wondered how the others were getting on climbing the many, many steps in these miserable conditions.

We all met up by the entrance. They were soaked through but pumped up, physical challenge completed.

We all headed into the Parque Arqueologico Nacional Machu Picchu, and through misty, mystical wafts of cloud we saw those infamous views, the site of Machu Picchu spread out beneath us; quiet, green, impressive. A moment to be still and breathe and take in the wonder.

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06:00am at Machu Picchu

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