South America Part 9 – Getting the hell outta dodge

You’ll remember from part 8 that Jack and I were trying to get out of Unuyi

“Hey taxi driver, take us to the road block” the taxi driver warned us it would be expensive, it was risky taking people to the roadblock. As we approached the road block which was made up of a few stones in the middle of the road, local people jumped in to action and started walking towards the taxi. They let Jack and I go, but the taxi driver was forced to walk back in to town and leave his taxi at the road block. We felt bad for a while but this was our only chance to escape. To add some context, the roadblock was about a mile out of town then if you were lucky to make it past that then there were concentric rings of blocks further out. Apparently they start the road blocks far from town and as part of the negotiations they bring it closer to town.

We’d been walking for half an hour, it was edging closer to the middle of the day and the heat was cranking up. In complete contrast to a few days before when we were walking in to town in freezing cold, we were now leaving town in the blistering heat. Looking back at the city you could really see how isolated of a location Unuyi is, there’s just a small metropolis popping out of the arid desert. It was becoming ever apparent that we hadn’t brought enough water, we were rapidly running out and we had no idea how long we would be walking for.

During the walk a few cars passed us with protesters in, but there was no interaction just curious stares from the locals who must have been thinking “look at those stupid gringos walking through the desert”. Picture a film scene where the heroes are walking through an apparently uninhabited city after a world ending event and on the building above them there are eyes just watching in silence, well that was me and jack as we walked through a gorge in the road. The road itself was strewn with stones and on the hilltops just a hint of people watching, until a bold boy of no more than ten openly stood on the edge of the cliff silently watching me and Jack whilst menacingly handling a rock. The pace quickened. After about two hours of walking, we saw a coach!! We saw a coach and a driver, he couldn’t get any closer but he was staying here until enough people found the coach….that worked for me and Jack. Over time more and more people turned up, buoyed by the energy of finding the coach many people excitidely shared stories of their escape from Unuyi. The drama did now end.

About 15 of us were sitting on the coach when the driver jumped on and drove about a quarter of a mile, it turns out the road block locals were coming for the coach but at the same time there were still people making their way out of town, again like a movie scene we had people running for the coach followed by a cool wave of “the enemy” slowly walking to the coach. The driver was off the coach with the engine running, shouting, “venga, rapido” the problem being, we didn’t know who were escapees and who were the protesters but eventually the breathless passengers got on reigniting the conversations about escape, the driver put his foot to the floor and in a cloud of dust we’d escaped Unuyi and we were on our way to La Paz….La Paz….and I thought Unuyi was bad if I was going to name the movies it would be Bolivia: Escape from Unuyi and La Paz.

We got to La Paz in the middle of the night, the bus station was quiet. The rain was coming down quite heavy and Jack and I didn’t fancy a wander through the streets. We got a cab to the Loki Hostel in La Paz, it was a few nights before Christmas so we were very pleased to find that we were staying in an empty ten person dorm!!! We went straight to bed ready to explore La Paz the next day.

When we woke and all signs of the rain were gone and it looked like a lovely day. We had no plans so we literally just walked, we walked to the station then to the stadium, up hills through markets and my first impression was that La Paz was ok, it was the first city we’d been to that didn’t have a “European” feel to it.

What a mountainous city

We planned out our next couple of days, we were going to ride death road, watch a football match, celebrate Christmas then move on, it didn’t go to plan.

Jack got ill I got ill, our room was no longer just me and Jack. I got drunk then had to right off a day due to hangover and generally the town after hearing and seeing all the pick pockets didn’t feel safe.

The highlights were though, finding miserable German from Unuyi WORKING at our hostel. He was very odd but much more happy that we’d last seen him, over time we ran in to one or two of the other Germans. They had a karaoke, obviously I smashed it. We met a couple of Australians. I made friends with a Bolivian, but we were too ill to go to football and Jack was too ill to ride death road.

Once we got the other side of Christmas we packed up our things and made our way to Lake Titicaca. That’s when I decided to start making my way back to Europe, so after one night at Lake Titicaca Jack and I had breakfast and got on separate coaches……Jack was heading to the paradise of the floating islands with our German friend Ben…..I was heading for numerous days travel which would eventually leave me in Sweden (including 24 hours on a coach in Peru sitting next to a above average size man :()

I got back to Sweden though and spent a great time there including some skiing, then eventually got back to England…..THE END (I swear)

South America Part 8 (Road Blocks and Salt Flats)

If you don’t remember head back to Part 6 here.

The bus stopped again, the second unexpected stop, “not another puncture” I thought to myself. We all had to get off the bus again and the rumours were flying around, apparently there was a block in the road but confusion mounted when Jack and I scoured the road ahead we saw a lot of people on the side of the road but no block on the road. We regrouped with our bus companions and found our Columbian friends; they explained in more detail that the people on the side of the road were the roadblock there were some political protests in Uyuni and there aren’t letting buses in or out of the town. It 12 o clock at night we expected to be at our hostel at around 10. The conclusion was a group of people from the bus were going to walk through the desert at 5,000 metres high in the sky and very cold temperatures, at that moment in time Jack and I thought this would be a fantastic idea. How did you know the way? You might ask, and the answer is….we didn’t, we could see some lights in the distance and the plan was to head towards them. When we found the town we headed straight to our hostel. In the morning more about the roadblock situation was revealed to us and little did we know, it turns out we were being held hostage in Unuyi. The next few days turned out to be….eventful.

We were surrounded by rumours of what was going on the news seemed to be all coming from one guy….he was telling anyone who would listen about the unrest from the locals who had been promised land from the government only for it too be taken from them after moving to Unuyi, all very confusing. Despite my smiley demeanour and approachable personality sometimes I really don’t want to talk to people and today was one of them days I avoided hostel news man at all costs eventually hurrying out of the door of the hostel to explore Unuyi in the light of day.

My first impressions were that of complete contrast to all the other countries we’d visited, this was how I expected much of South America, run down old towns with people wearing traditional dress and no organisation, Unuyi was the first town that delivered on the somewhat stereotypical view of mine. Anyway Jack and I walked the streets with the aim of finding a day excursion to the salt flats, Unuyi being one of the salt flats excursion hubs so you must be thinking “Ross, why did it take all day to find a trip that almost every building in the town is there to provide” well read on……the same blockades that caused us to have an hour walk through a cold high altitude desert were also stopped excursions from leaving the town (we later find out that they were also stopping excursions coming back in) anyway we found a company that would do the trip and promised us that should we not get to the salt flats that we would not be charged, this seemed reasonable. We had some food whilst listening to some live music and went back to the hostel.

Internet coverage in this hostel was particularly bad so Jack and I were confined to sitting at the top of the stairs which as you can imagine was a bit of a thoroughfare, it was only a matter of time until the font of all local knowledge showed up, local news guy……it happened….he was with a Dutch guy and news guy shared the Dutch guys life story with us and then went on to tell us about all the horror stories he’d heard about people trying to leave the town, after all this nonsense eventually got to names and locations of where we live. We told him we were from Watford and a flicker of recognition appeared in his eye, Watford you say….how old are you? We knew people in common, not just in passing but this man had met my brother!! He was one of my brothers ex girlfriends Dad. Well it was all very surreal! The end, nah not really.

We’d planned an early night, but at around 10 o clock four Germans and a English girl entered our previously empty room much to our dismay. Germans, not known for their patience or reluctance to express disgust, were continuously moaning about what was admittedly a bad situation, but it was as if they felt personally aggrieved. Now wide awake Jack and I joined in telling them our story of how we made it to Unuyi….they wanted a drink we went out and found a building that was open and had a drink not sure we were even in a bar as right next to us there were two five year olds playing PlayStation. Jack got confused for a model by the Mancunian hippie, thankfully this was our last conversation with her BUT it was not the last time we spent with any of the Germans. I’m gonna profile them

Michael – talkative good at English and ironically aware of our hatred towards Germans

Ben – quiet good looking chap, but seemed like the kind of guy that would steal your bird if you went to the toilet

Michael 2 – most vocal about his disgust, had bed bugs earlier on his trip, was sure our hostel had bed bugs, quite moany in general.

I’ll try to keep their names as they are above for the remainder of the story…..

After two beers jack and I went to bed and were surprisingly not woken up by the Mancunian and Ben having sex the night before, we only knew because Ben was a dog and they were sharing a bed when we woke up.

Today was the day we were going to the Salt Flats….we hoped. Before we left we spoke to girl at our hostel who told us she couldn’t find a company to take her to a different city so she planned to walk, she wasn’t sure how far it was but she was just going to walk, we wished her luck then made our way to the meeting point. The 4×4 picked us up, it was me Jack and a Mild mannered Canadian man. The mild mannered Canadian man would soon change his tune in about 12 hours but we had a lot to experience before then….the first 15 minutes of our journey out of the town was plain sailing until we were set upon by about 5 young children who surrounded the car and then over the crest of a hill a rival 4×4 we tried driving off but the kids would hit the car with sticks and rocks. Our driver got out to speak to the rebels…..he got back in the car and turned around and followed the route back to the town….we were in convey with two other trips being shepparded back by the rival four by four but as soon as the rebel stopped following ……we went off route an experience that in other countries we may have paid for…..we were making good time through the desert but having to risk rougher and rougher terrain to avoid the protesters who patrolled roads and then eventually the inevitable happened one by one and in the space of ten metres each of the cars got stuck…..it was here that I saw the best and worse of human nature….

Here we are, all of us trying to get out the sand.

So, stuck in the desert there were three 4x4s all stuck in sand with apparently bald tyres. Everyone got out of their vehicles and assessed the situation, the verdict – it was bad. In some cases the tyres were half buried in the sand and any attempt to move was only making the situation worse. And it was here that I experienced the best of human nature….

The logic was to get the first car out the sand, so everyone went on a rock hunt, we were going to build a road. With almost 12 people looking for rocks and sticks and twigs etc it wasn’t long before we had a “road” in front of each wheel in the car and after many attempts and many people pushing cars in the middle of 30 degree heat one vehicle was free then after another 20 – 30 minutes the second car was free but the third car was proving more difficult another 30 minutes passed and we were no closer to getting the car out of what was rapidly becoming “sinking sand” and slowly but surely the will of the helpers was fading and quickly an elephant was forming in the room, mutterings of “well our cars free” ….and….”the people in that car weren’t really helping anyway” then it happened the passengers in car 1 slowly snuck off. Now I need to stress how much of a hinderance this was going to be for the efforts to release car number three. The first two cars took EVERYONE pushing to get free this was going to be a big ask, after an hour we did it “praise the lord (no religion necessary) it was done both cars were done and on their way to the famed salt flats, we caught up with the other car on the trip, they didn’t seem to be bothered.

I can confirm that The salt flats were both flat (you could see for miles) and salty (I licked the floor). After seeing what we were promised we got some obligatory pictures and headed back. It wasn’t underwhelming despite what my small description might make it out to be but remember we are talking about salt flats, what more did you expect apart from a very flat very salty landscape, on the day we visited it was kind of white ….also probably expected from the salty description, there were some “islands” where random cactus grow, the cactus were not flat (the were in fact categorically not flat) and neither were they salty (that’s an assumption I never licked them, a bunch of pricks stopped me) not like the bunch of pricks who wouldn’t let me out of the town of Unuyi, this was an actual bunch of pricks, if you’ve ever seen a cactus you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t seen a cactus, it looks a bit like a tree, except it’s smaller (although some of them were bigger) and they are green (but some were brown) and they were covered in spikes (but some of them were smooth) google it. If anyone corrects me about the plural of cactus fair play, can you proof read all the other posts and let me know what needs to be corrected?

Anyway, we left the salt flats and headed back to Unuyi. Anyone who is still reading this will know how difficult it was for us to get out of the town, well it was equally as difficult to get back in, we avoided the sentry points as best we could but inevitably we ran in to a group of protesters, they weren’t going to let us through until a Bolivian conversation erupted I can only imagine it went like this –

Driver: let us through

Protesters: no

D: please

P: still no

D: I’ll do anything

*a porn film might have gone a bit differently but this wasn’t that

Protester: hmmm I would like to keep our fire going it gets cold at night could we have one of your passengers to burn

Driver: No

P: please

D: still no, BUT I do have a spare tyre you can have that

P: oh yeah that works

We gave him a tyre and continued back to the town. Forgive me for judging this protester but the fact he sold his principles for a tyre leads me to believe that his heart wasn’t really in it for the cause and more just for something to do because he was bored and it pisses people off.

Anyway 10 minutes later and very close to the town, we were stopped again….we didn’t have anymore spare tyres. We did have a secret weapon.

For those avid readers amongst you, I know you all be thinking “you told me about a mild mannered Canadian man earlier in the post” he was getting increasingly less mild mannered throughout this journey, he was Canadian as I’ve mentioned and notoriously they don’t get angry just irritated. The source of his irritation was his baggage which he had left in the building that the tour left from, the man working in said building said he would be leaving at six, it was five past six already…..he was irritated.

Anyway back to the timeline, we’d been stopped and this conversation wasn’t going as swimmingly as the previous one, up steps Canadian Dave, and the best Spanish since “donde esta el hombre” Canadian Dave come out with this beauty “hey, hey, es problemo” *points at watch* “grande problems, jack tell them there’s a problem” Jack replied after some hesitant laughter “I think you got the point across” well would you believe it the Bolivian Protester was so concerned about Canadian Dave’s big problem that he waved us through. So we made it back to the building at half six, Jack and I were half hoping we’d find the building locked and see how many Spanish adjectives for “big” Dave could find, alas it wasn’t to be as the boss had stayed behind and Dave got his rucksack…..

Jack and I decided that the next day we were going to try to escape Unuyi even if it meant crossing the desert in blistering heat like the girl who hadn’t returned from earlier that day. So the next day we woke and got in a taxi and asked him to take us to the road block….this was our first mistake but thankfully Jack and I weren’t the one who paid for our mistake.