Salar de Uyuni: beauty beyond measure

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Chilean greetings beloved blog-readers!

As far as writing environments go, my current location is holding its own fairly well – I am sitting on the veranda of a higgledy-piggledy hostel on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, looking out onto the magnificent cordillera peaks that separate Chile from Bolivia. I’ve also just been fed large amounts of pasta by the guy who runs this place and his Brazilian, bongo-playing sidekick, so if my writing takes on a slightly dazed quality then it’s because all my brain power has been directed towards my digestive system, eased along by the lazy drum beat in the background. It’s a hard life eh.

But before I am lulled into full-on slumber, let’s crack on to the intended subject of this entry: the Salar de Uyuni, a.k.a. Bolivia’s trump card to end all trump cards. There are few places that have stunned me with such raw beauty – doing the three-day trip descriptive justice is going to be quite a challenge! The tour consisted of an exploration of the salt flats themselves, a glittering mosaic of hexagonal plates which are locked together like Arctic pack-ice and which stretch for as far as the eye can see. This was followed by two days of taking in blood-red, crystalline green and opalescent blue lagoons, sweeping desert-scapes speckled with islands of cacti, mountains slashed with multi-coloured rings and an array of enchanting native fauna including flamingos, vicuña (like llamas but smaller and more dainty), viscacha (like rabbits but larger and with long tails) and a friendly desert fox! The first night was spent in a hotel made almost entirely of salt from the flats, and the second saw us shivering away in slightly more basic accommodation – it was bloody freezing!! After wrapping myself up in about ten layers, however, I was able to drop off for a few hours.

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My fellow explorers included Stuart from Scotland, Elena from Switzerland and her partner Fernando from Italy, Argentinian gems Paula and Monica, and our Bolivian guide Placido, who had us roaring through the flats in his jeep to his hilariously eclectic music collection (Red Hot Chili Peppers to traditional Bolivian pipe music by way of Ke$ha). Placido also took great pleasure in ensuring that our cameras were loaded up with as many classic cheesy touristy perspective photos as possible (see below), and took every opportunity to have us jumping in the air for motion shots (“Katriiiina! Vamos chica – JUMPY JUMPY!”):

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Me being me, the linguistic diversity of the group was a source of great excitement and amusement; the conversation bounced about in hybrid combinations of English, Spanish, Italian and Swiss-German, which all hung together perfectly somehow. Some of the most uplifting moments of my journey so far have emerged from situations like these, in which I can code-switch to my heart’s content and play about between different languages, laughing off and bonding over errors, making random additions to my vocab bank… Sharing languages is a truly heart-warming, barrier-breaking experience. Highly recommended regardless of level – swallow your fear and pride and get stuck in I say!

The tour ended at the Chilean border, where we were all duly searched and charged a few bolivianos before being dropped off in sleepy San Pedro. I still haven’t fully digested the salt flats experience (or the hostel pasta for that matter), but writing this has definitely helped somewhat! I hope it gives you at least some kind of impression as to the magnificence of this part of the world.

Next stop: Salta, Argentina! It’s been a flying visit to Chile, but I’m sure that I’ll find my way back before too long 😉

Love love love love love x x x

P.s. I’d just like to make it known HOW LONG it’s taken me to upload above photos on the current snail-like internet connection, so please have a good long look to make it worth the while!

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Planeta de Luz: Shamanic Eden

Well hello there fellow humans!

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This post comes to you from a shamanic ashram called Planeta de Luz, tucked away on the outskirts of Quillacollo near Cochabamba, central Bolivia. I’m typing away from beneath a canopy of artfully intertwining branches, looking out onto a splendid view of sun-drenched grass verges, cascading, kaleidoscopic vines and squat, thatched huts. My nostrils are treated to a medley of exquisite scents from flowers that I wish I could name, while birdsong and the buzz of bees fill the air with energy and endeavour. A hummingbird appears sporadically in a rush of vibrating wings, methodically burrowing its beak into each flower that it encounters. A comical duo of llamas wanders lazily through the grounds, their expressions permanently registering mild, dozy intrigue in their surroundings, while several semi-feral cats skulk around the flowerbeds in search of rich pickings. Oh and there’s a dog somewhere. And a pair of parrots.

Thatching in progress

Thatching in progress

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I feel that my descriptive writing skills are failing me somewhat this morning… but if you remember that bit near the end of The Secret Garden (when Colin’s uncle discovers the garden brought back to life) then you should get a mental image comparable to my current view (minus the llamas and parrots). Hoping the photos do it some justice too.

The ashram feels as though it is contained inside a paperweight, a bubble of tranquillity sealed off from the world of hooting vehicles and bustling market places down the road, which I am pretty relieved to have left behind for a while! That said, Planeta de Luz has masterfully managed to blend modernity with times gone by; we wash our clothes by hand and help to re-thatch the hut roofs before the rainy season begins, but are also hooked up to an impressively fast internet connection and wash in solar-powered outdoor showers. Hoorah for renewables!

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Planeta de Luz was built a decade or so ago by a shaman named Chamalú, whose latest musings I am currently translating into English in exchange for eating and sleeping here. Volunteers come from all four corners of the globe, and contribute either by translating the shaman’s works into their own languages, or by working out in the grounds on whatever needs doing. Everyone works from 8am until 1pm, leaving the rest of the day free to read, draw, chat, meditate or generally lounge about contemplating the beautiful surroundings.

Tunari. A group of us decided to venture out of our paradisical bubble the other day and take on one of the local peaks. The crew consisted of myself, Bolivian Álvaro, Californian couple Ian and Nicole and Italian buds Florian and Stefano. Stefano, incidentally, is perhaps the most outrageously Italian guy I have ever met. Verbatim quote from him yesterday (complete with theatrical arm-flailing): “Katriiiina I confess I have aaaaall of the vices – I cannot help it – for me life is about good food, good wine and making love to beautiful women!!!” And this followed by much cheek-stroking and general exuberance. But I digress.

We were up at the crack of dawn in order to start the hike in good time. Tunari peak stands at a whopping 5030m (16,500ft) above sea level, and the high altitude meant that progress at some points was slow; despite previous high-altitude climbs, I found myself gasping for air every few paces. We reached the summit after about 4 hours of picking our way up the rocky mountainside, and were rewarded with a staggering view over the wild Bolivian landscape. Bloody windy up there too, to which the pictures attest!

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Meeting the shaman. Chamalú paid his first visit to the ashram since my arrival here yesterday afternoon. We all gathered in the meeting hut, wedging ourselves together around the circular walls and murmuring in anticipation. When he appeared in the doorway, my initial thought was that he would best be described as Dumbledore meets Scar out of The Lion King (I realise that Dumbledore has featured as a figure of comparison more than once in this blog – he is just such a universal go-to!). He also had shades of Rasputin about him – a long sheet of dark hair, silver beard and twinkly blue-grey eyes which I imagine could succeed in bewitching you should they choose to lock onto yours for too long…

His meditation was on the ancient and sacred power of women, whom he declared to be superior to men in all but brute strength, and then stated that female leadership was the only way through the current global mess that has resulted from male-centred conflict and greed. Tick tick tick, much nodding in approval. I must say that I have found his writings somewhat lacking in intellectual rigour during my hours of translation this week (rambling declarations about the status quo that lack qualification, big conceptual nouns like “love”, “happiness” and “truth” which are never properly defined, references to “ancestral knowledge” without explaining what this might be…). HOWEVER, I find his concern for the natural world and social responsibility uplifting and refreshing, and I do think that the indigenous voices that he represents have gone unheard for far too long. To my mind, as long as he can help people to lead harmonious lives and to respect the natural world as a priority, then the benevolent Rasputin of Bolivia he shall remain!

That’s all for now, folks. Next moves: Sucre, Uyuni and the Salt Flats, then onwards across the Chilean border! Truly never a dull moment.

Love, light and laughter homies x x x

Photo update: Titicaca, La Paz and Condoriri

Peru to Bolivia: men who knit and women who talk s**t

After haring about almost ceaselessly for a couple of weeks, I have come out of orbit and crash-landed in Cochabamba in central Bolivia. I have taken a day off the road to do some much-needed sorting out of emails, plans, washing, brain… STUFF. And as luck would have it, I’ve happened upon a cute little hostel with vaguely reliable wifi (by Bolivian standards anyway) in which to do so. It’s all very gap yahhh: a group of French girls are sitting opposite me in the garden, chain-smoking and discussing the best onward routes, a pair of excitable Brazilians are hanging over the balcony chatting up the receptionist, a guitar is being inexpertly strummed somewhere out back and there is a dread-headed, tattoo-covered Eastern European sitting in the corner reading Marx. Doesn’t get much more stereotypical than that.

I’ll leave the clichés of hostel-ville for a second and train my mind’s eye on the days and steps that have led me here, beginning with the world’s highest navigable lake…

Puno and Lake Titicaca. After grabbing a few final zzzs in Cusco post-Inca Trail, I jumped on an early-morning bus out towards Puno, a not unpleasant little town on the lakeside which I will remember primarily as the place in which I found the cheapest meal of my journey thus far: quinoa soup followed by a main course of rice, salad and cheese (or chicken stew for the meat-eaters I was with) and finished with a sweet tea… all for 3 soles (60p). My reason for stopping in Puno was not its affordable cuisine, however, but its access to Lake Titicaca, a stunning body of high-altitude water featuring a series of intrguing islands which I felt deserved some exploration.

The first stop on the 2-day boat tour was on one of the bizarre floating Uros islands, which are made out of reeds roots and which continue to be inhabited by descendants of the pre-Incan Uros people. We were given a demonstration of how the islands are built, and were introduced to a group of one island’s smiling, colourfully-clothed residents – all very lovely indeed.

One of the Uros islands

One of the Uros islands

From Uros it was on to Amantaní and Taquile. On the first of these, we were divided into small groups and assigned a ‘mama’ to take us home. We dumped our stuff at our assigned house and made our way up the hill to take in the glorious sunset over the lake, to which my photos again do no justice. We all trooped home and were greeted by our ‘papa’ Benigno and a veritable carb-fest (potato soup followed by rice with pasta), which we chomped our way through before being presented with traditional clothing (brightly and intricately embroidered sashes, skirts, ponchos and bobble hats) and marched down the hill to attend a local dance. The moves I was throwing in my oh-so-flattering cow-hide poncho and stripy hat were terribly impressive I’m sure… We wandered home an hour or so later, guided by the light of our torches and by the utterly spectacular light show provided by the stars above – almost fell over several times as I was staring upwards rather than looking for the path!

Sunset over Lake Titicaca

Sunset over Lake Titicaca

(Left to right) American Michelle, goon in poncho, German Silvia

(Left to right) American Michelle, goon in poncho, German Silvia

The second day saw us back on the boat and heading towards Taquile, where we stopped long enough for a short hike up to the main square, a delicious lunch of freshly-caught trout and a knitting demonstration by a couple of the island’s menfolk. In a wonderful reversal of European gender expectations, men on Taquile are taught to sew and knit from an early age (six or seven), and must impress potential spouses by the quality of their stitching. The hat a man wears must also reflect his marital status: red with white is for singletons whilst red with black hats mark those who are hitched. Makes courting much more straightforward, I should imagine.

Knitting to impress

Knitting to impress

The trip was all too short, but a wonderful way of bidding farewell to Peru. It also allowed me to meet another fab group of people from all over: Canada, Spain, Germany and even good old Blighty (thanks for the wee dose of home, Katie!) Beautiful place, beautiful people.

More Uros islands on the way back

More Uros islands on the way back

La Paz. I arrived in the world’s highest capital (in the altitude sense, not the other one) after a day-long bus journey which included crossing the border into Bolivia and stopping briefly in the tourist hot-spot of Copacobana. Back in Puno, I had hit it off immediately with my room-mate Louisa from Germany (aka my German doppelganger – seriously spooky how much we have in common…). She was also heading towards La Paz, so we teamed up and found an excellent deal on a B&B in the heart of the city. Our first full day was taken up by walking tours through the INSANE traffic (asthmatics beware: certain areas are totally toxic), during which we learnt about Bolivia’s chequered presidential past, its bowler hat-donning, wrestling matriarchs known as cholitas and the city’s obsession with witchcraft. Most disturbing in relation to the last of these were the dead baby llamas and foetuses dangling from many shops in the Witches Market, which are used in ceremonial offerings and buried beneath new buildings to bring luck. Supposedly they die of natural causes, but I remain unconvinced.

Llama foetuses, lovely

Llama foetuses, lovely

Later in the day, I had a slightly uncomfortable encounter with a fortune-teller, whom I had agreed to pay a visit as part of the tour. She eyed me beadily from within her dimly-lit shed, and then proceeded to scatter some coca leaves about whilst muttering indistinctly. Once she’d studied the leaves that had fallen in her lap, she informed me that I have bad headaches (I don’t), and that for her to whip up a potion to cure said ailment would cost me a mere 300 bolivianos (I don’t think so!). She also told me that I was my own worst enemy, that my apparently poor health would only worsen and that the only way forward in my life was to “make a choice” of some kind. I mean I’ve heard more convincing statements coming out of the Tory party conference. I suspected a quack. I thanked her, declined her kind offer, and stepped smartly back onto the street. PSHHH.

Where the fortune-tellers lurk

Where the fortune-tellers lurk

Condiriri. Louisa and I escaped the fume-choked city the following day and ventured out into Bolivia’s stunning countryside. There is something quite brutal about it; the land is untamed and scrubbier than what I had seen in Peru, but was entirely bewitching and featured a backdrop of towering mountains, reaching up jaggedly as though attempting to rip through the deep blue sky. We spent the fairly straight-forward 4-hour hike chatting about pretty much everything, stopping to marvel at the sheer beauty all around us, from the placid lagoons we passed to the snow-capped peaks above. Easily one of my favourite hikes of the journey, both in terms of company and scenery.

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That’ll do for now I think. Tomorrow I am off to Quillacollo just outside of Cochabamba to get down to some volunteering work for a week or so. The last few weeks’ adventures have been brilliant in so many ways, although I’ll be grateful for a little time in the same place! This travel lark can be a tad disorientating… news from the volunteer ranch whenever an internet connection is available.

All my love, as ever.

K 🙂 x x x