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Louise’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 21 Jun 2005

Location: Salta, Argentina

MapOK, so everyone in England is enjoying a heatwave at the moment while here in northern Argentina it's cold, and they have 'winter fashions' in the windows. I guess I should have known the southern hemisphere was going to be chilly.

It's been a while since I updated my diary, but I've been busy in Bolivia dodging tear gas and trying to get through the blockades to get to the main city La Paz - have a look at the photos.

In my last entry I had just done Macchu Pichu in Peru. While it was amazing and the scenery beautiful I wasn't that blown away by it all. I think it was because I thought Aguas Calientes (the town nearest the ruins) was a total tourist trap, I was recovering from a bad stomach and I hadn't managed to get onto the Inca trail because it was booked up months before. But I still enjoyed it, and loved watching the ruins appear silently through the mist in the early morning.

After Macchu Pichu I went back to Cusco, stayed there for another day and then headed down to Lake Titicaca with an American guy and Italian girl I'd met. The plan for me was to get to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and then into La Paz. I'd heard there were problems in Bolivia with transport strikes, but obviously the people who sold us bus tickets assured us everything would be OK. It wasn't. We got as far as the border with Bolivia only to be told the Bolivian immigration office was shut. Turns out they were just having lunch, but we still had to walk the 8km into Copacabana with our rucksacks as the roads had been blocked with rocks (check out the pics).

After spending a couple of days in quiet Copacabana, hanging out with other travellers and reading up about the problems in La Paz, I thought it was time to try and get through the blockades. The only problem was how. I can't tell you the number of times we heard rumours of buses going to and from La Paz, only then to be told these buses were actually ferrying the protesters backwards and forwards and there was no way they were going to take some gringo tourists into the city. The only option was to get to another border town and try from there. Well, that day was the longest of my life. Together with a German couple, Jan and Ina, we walked back to the Bolivian border, got on a bus to Desaguadero (nasty little border town) and negotiated a price with a mini bus to take us to La Paz. So far so good. About 10 minutes into the journey we were turned back by one set of bloqueos (or blockaders), so we headed for the dirt track along the high altiplano. Then we met some more angry protesters. The bus driver duly paid them off, placated them and we were allowed through - all this taking a good hour of talking. And so it went on, until we came to a particularly angry protester who herded the mini bus into a remote farm and shut the large metal doors behind us.

He asked for all of our passports and got very angry when he realised some of the passengers were actually Bolivian, and hadn't they been reading the news and what were they doing trying to get through the blockades...The problem in Bolivia is that the local indigenous people are never listened to, so the only way they ever get heard is by bringing the country to a standstill and carrying out transport strikes and roadblocks. In this case they were calling for their gas reserves to be nationalised, rather than all the money going to the multinational companies. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America but is the second richest (Venezuela is richest) in terms of gas supplies. On top of this, the rich states in the east and the south wanted autonomy from the rest of the country, as they are the states which have all the gas. So for weeks there had been transport strikes and demonstrations and no decisions from the president.

Anyway. Back to the farm. The leader of this blockade, who was wearing a poncho and woolly Peruvian hat but still managed to look officious and angry, kept pointing at us saying it wasn't our fault as we were dumb tourists and how were we supposed to know what was happening. We knew full well what was happening, but put on our dumbest faces just to please him. Part of my reason for trying to get into La Paz was that I'd been commissioned to write a piece for the Telegraph, and I wanted to actually see what it was like in the city. Then I heard him say that he'd make us stay in the farm for the next 30 hours as a punishment, which is when we got a bit worried, especially as it was freezing cold. This didn't actually happen and again the situation was smoothed over with money, but I did think 'what have I got myself into' and felt pretty stupid for trying to think we could actually get into La Paz.

So eventually we were freed, and waved off by the angry poncho man and were on our way again. The whole journey, which normally takes 3 hours, took about 12 in total. We were stopped every hour or so by people at the blockades, who were getting drunker and drunker, and with people shining torches into the bus. Add to this the chatter of the people in the bus, the woman who would shout 'la ventana gringita' (shut the window gringo) and the coughing man sitting behind me, oh and the fact we hadn't properly eaten for hours and it was freezing cold, it was a pretty nasty journey.

And then, to make matters worse at 3am the driver said he couldn't go any further as the blockades had become impenetrable and we'd all have to walk from here. Fine for those without rucksacks, but my rucksack was really heavy and it was cold and dark outside. I didn't feel in danger, just exhausted. We started walking along the road, tripping over rocks, and I could see the lights of La Paz in the distance. I couldn't believe what we were doing. Two hours of walking in silence later we tried to get a bus or car to take us to the city. Everyone was ignoring us, and in once case Jan walked towards a bus to ask for a lift but the bus actually reversed and drove off hastily down a side street. We couldn't believe it. We were so tired and hungry and I didn't think I could physically walk any further. Luckily we were picked up in the end, but it was looking desperate for a while.

Anyway, to cut a long story short we made it to La Paz and slept for ages. When we woke up we treated ourselves to coffee and apple pie and then heard what we thought was gun fire. In fact it was the riot police firing tear gas at the protestors and some rowdy protestors responding by throwing back stones. We were right in the thick of things, which was a bit stupid really. We moved to another hostel where I met my Swiss friend Caroline who I'd travelled with for a month in Guatemala, and decided what to do for the next few days.

That night we went out with the editor of the Llama Express, an English paper in La Paz, and his friends and chatted about the situation and just at that point the president announced he was resigning. This was going to make matters worse and we were advised to get out while we can.

In the end we flew to Sucre, a town south of La Paz, but on the same day Congress decided to meet and we shared our flight with politicians, including the leader of the opposition party Evo Morales, and cameramen and journalists. We realised the seriousness of the situation when we landed in La Paz to be greeted by snipers on the airfield and armed guards. Hmm. Not the best place to be. The airport was shut indefinitely after we'd flown in (we were the only tourists on the flight), and we spent the evening in our hostel huddled round the tv watching the live news reports as they happened outside, and shielding our eyes and throats from the tear gas. It was a lot stronger here and I'd had enough by 8pm and ran back to my room. Tear gas tastes really chemically and stings your eyes and back of your throat.

But the funny thing was that the next day an interim president had been sworn in, shops were open again and the protestors, including a lot of miners throwing dynamite, did a victory march through the town. So everything had changed.

This meant we could go to Potosi, our next destination, visit the mines and then hopefully go down to the salt flats on the Salar de Uyuni, the main reason I'd wanted to come to Bolivia. (I've put these pics on the site too. Check them out, the landscapes are amazing).

I'll tell you more about all of those later. I'm now in Argentina preparing myself for a 24 hour bus journey to Iguacu Falls tomorrow, but I really loved Bolivia, just because in a pretty short space of time I got to know quite a bit about the country and the struggle of the people and how unfair it is for them. The country is so poor and so cheap, and it's in such a mess.

Argentina is lovely too, but a bit of a culture shock as it's very westernised and not what I've been used to at all for the past few months. People here are tall (shock), and pretty glamorous and the wine is so good and so cheap and the steak amazing. I'm trying not to eat it every night but when a meal only costs around 4 pounds, it's hard not to. On the last bus journey from San Pedro in Chile to Salta we watched three films, all of which were copies and all of which annoyingly ended three quarters of the way through, and kept jumping all over the place. The last epic was Brother Bear. Oh joy. Wonder what the bus company has got in store for us tomorrow!

L xxx