TITICACA TO RIVER PLATE By Pierre Beemans (Article)

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Pierre Beemans

Towards the middle of January we had finished off the last of the Christmas turkey leftovers, we were into our fourth straight week of daytime highs below -10C and we had moved well beyond our saturation point for breathless CBC reports and righteous Citizen headlines about the sponsorship scandal. Isn't it summertime in South America, I asked my wife, Isn't it about time we visited the family in Bolivia and, while we are down there, looked in on some of our old friends in Uruguay?

A week later, we stepped off the plane into the rarified atmosphere of El Alto airport just outside La Paz. Rarified, because the airport lies at 4,000 metres above sea level on the edge of the Altiplano and because El Alto was currently both the scene and the symbol of a tense political struggle underway in Bolivia. I have set out separately a passer-by's impressions of that struggle, and a few comments on the momentous political change that has just taken place in Uruguay with the inauguration of the first leftist government in its history. The following paragraphs, however, are some vignettes of our overland travels across Bolivia and down through Argentina to Montevideo, that lovely city on what we used to call the River Plate..

Teresa and I stayed two weeks in Bolivia, mainly in La Paz with brief two-day excursions to visit family in Cochabamba (a beautiful city nestled in a warm fertile valley about 300 km and eight hours by bus from La Paz) and to the edge of Lake Titicaca, to pay our respects at the 16th-century shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared there to an Indian farmer in 1582, and since then it has been a popular pilgrimage site for the faithful from Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina (Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro is named after the shrine). Although Lake Titicaca is stunningly beautiful, surrounded by ancient terraced hillsides and snow-capped mountains, it is almost tourist-free, thanks in large part to the thin air at 14,000 feet. In the old Spanish colonial church in Copacabana we lit candles for our family and friends, and knelt for blessings after the evening Mass, in Aymara, Quechua and Spanish.

Our arrival in Bolivia coincided with the beginning of the Carnaval celebrations. Although the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is better known to Canadians, the one is Bolivia rivals it as an exhuberant expression of popular culture. The public manifestation consists of parades through the streets by elaborately dressed teams of dancers, accompanied by bands of musicians; mostly wind, brass and drums. It is a community event for which groups from every level of society prepare during the entire year, preparing costumes and rehearsing their steps. The celebrations originated during the colonial era as religious manifestations by the Indian populations: many of the traditional costumes mock the dress of the Spanish aristocrats of the time. Other costumes with elaborate demons' heads mock the devil or portray evil spirits carried over from Indian mythology into Christian folklore. There are special musical styles and dances for Carnaval, like the diablada and the morenada. The parades always wind up at a church, where the dancers enter and present their prayers to the Virgin. Afterwards, in the streets and in the homes, there is abundant partying, dancing, eating and of course, drinking. The celebrations last for an entire week.

Every city and town has its own Carnaval. The most elaborate one, which is a national event that has been classified as a World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, takes place in the mining city of Oruro. This year there were over 8,000 dancers and 250,000 spectators from all over Bolivia. The spectacle of Carnaval was overwhelming and omnipresent: offices and industries shut down, traffic came to a standstill in every city centre for hours during the parades, and the road blockages and political manifestations that had paralyzed government for weeks were lifted, and television coverage was non-stop. We preferred to avoid the massive events in favour of a small local Carnaval parade in the village of Quillacollo, just outside Cochabamba. The band was tinny and out of tune, the dancers were village women in their best colourful pollera skirts, but there was room enough for everyone in the square to get a good look and to join in.

Teresa and I had spent part of our honeymoon 34 years ago traveling by rail from La Paz to Potosi (the 5,000-metre high colonial silver-mining city) in a wonderful sleeping car built in 1905, which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might well have occupied. We had hoped to take the train all the way to Buenos Aires, which used to be a four-day trip, but we discovered that the service no longer exists. There is a train to Villazon, on the Argentine border, but it originates in Oruro and takes 16 hours to get to its destination, where one disembarks and lugs one's baggage across the bridge to the Argentine town of La Quiaca and travels onward by bus.

We set off by bus for Oruro at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday. Inter-city buses in Bolivia are no longer the small, rickety overcrowded contraptions I knew three decades ago. They are usually double-decker behemoths complete with reclining seats and ceiling-mounted video screens, which is just as well because they don't seem to average much more than 40-50 kmh on the narrow highways, so that the 200 km trip to Oruro took almost five hours. We were traveling lighter than expected because, in a 10-second moment of distraction in La Paz's sprawling bus terminus, a fleet-footed young man made off with our backpack. Two policemen and I chased him across the yard, but we lost him in the narrow crowded streets outside and I had to return as our bus was leaving in 15 minutes. Fortunately, our papers and money were secure in my wife's shoulder bag and our two suitcases were safe, but we lost many of our personal effects and a large bag of sandwiches and snacks I had packed for the trip. For reasons which will become apparent, the latter affected us most directly.

We spent the three-hour wait for the train camped in front of the gates in the Oruro station. Our agent had warned us that the railway company tends to oversell and over-reserve seats. We were traveling executive class, which meant that the seats in the coach reclined and the conductor issued blankets. In first class, the seats reclined, but no blankets. In second class, the seats were wood. At 7:00 p.m. the train set off with about 400 passengers, mostly Bolivians but about 50 young backpacking Australians, Germans and Swiss, plus this couple of retired Canadian civil servants. I settled my 6'5" frame in as well as I could and dozed fitfully, dreaming of the books I could have been listening to and the sandwiches I could have been eating.

At 2:30 a.m. we pulled into Uyuni, on the edge of the vast salt flats of the same name. As all the backpackers got off, we noticed a lot of scuffling going on among the crowd on the platform. The conductors moved rapidly through the train locking all the exit doors. Peering through the windows, we saw about 100 people banging on the doors and waving tickets. Then, about 50 of them peeled off, ran to the front of the train, and sat down on the tracks. If they weren't going to leave on the train they had paid for, neither was anyone else! One had to feel a certain sympathy for their outrage: it was the middle of the night, about three degrees above freezing, many had already traveled for hours to get to the station, and the next train was in two days.

The chief conductor, a quiet young man, got off the train and was immediately swarmed by irate ticket-holders waving their fists and reservations in his face. I feared for his safety: the crowd was about two shoves away from becoming a mob. His calm was awesome, repeatedly explaining that there were no extra coaches to be added on and even if there had been, the locomotive was not powerful enough to pull the additional weight over the mountains ahead of them. Finally, at 4:00 a.m., the protesters lifted the blockade (or perhaps they had just wandered off for something hot to drink) and the train slowly and quietly pulled out of Uyuni.

Three hours later we stopped in the small mining town of Atocha, at about 15,000 feet. The conductor came on the loudspeakers to explain that heavy rains had washed out large sections of track further down the line. Crews were already at work, but it would take at least 15 hours before we could carry on to Villazon. Privately, he told me that he thought we might be there a day or two and that if we could find alternative transportation, we should take it quickly.

Moreover, since the population of the town had more than doubled with the arrival of the train, the food stalls by the side of the track had already been cleaned out. By this time I wouldn't have begrudged the thief our backpack, if he had only left us the sandwiches..... There was no bus service to Atocha (the main road was also washed out) but when Teresa and I set out in the drizzle we came across some microbuses that linked up the villages in the surrounding mountains. The driver of a Jeep Cherokee was offering to take passengers over the back roads to Tupiza, the nearest town that had bus service to Villazon. In all, he packed 10 people into the Cherokee, with Teresa, myself and a young Argentine couple squeezed into the cargo space behind the second row of seats and everyone's luggage strapped onto the roof. I couldn't sit upright, of course, so I spent the first two hours bent over with my head on my knees.

Just as well I couldn't see much, because as soon as we left town the dirt road disappeared, washed out by the rains. The driver nosed down onto the river bed and raced along the edge across sand bars, gravel flats and side currents, dodging boulders and dips for an hour until he spotted where the intact road resumed and pulled back up the bank onto more or less solid land. He explained that he had to move fast because otherwise we might get bogged down in the mud or get flipped by a hidden pothole.

The road (well, track, really, or maybe path) twisted up over great grey round mountaintops, bare except for patches of icchu or devil's grass (so tough that even llamas won't eat it), with even higher snow-capped peaks along the horizon. Not a sign of human habitation. After a couple of hours, a kind man in the second row took pity and offered me his seat. He was about half my size, so he didn't have to bend over quite so much in the back. Periodically, we stopped while the driver shoveled rocks and dirt where the rains had gouged foot-deep trenches out of the road. Occasionally, the trenches had grown into 5-6 foot gullies and we all got out while the Jeep picked its way carefully down one side and up the other (and we all did the same on foot). A few times the men all put their shoulders to the Jeep and pushed it across a muddy stream at the bottom of a valley. The road was from hell, but the scenery was from heaven.

Then, at one point, we came over a range of hills and there were a few herder's huts. A bit further along, the valley flattened out and there were patches of corn along the river banks and some adobe farmhouses with rusty corrugated tin roofs and barking dogs along the roadside. The road widened into two lanes and in a few kilometers we were in Tupiza, a pretty colonial town of 12,000. Six hours of one of the most exhausting but spectacular road trips I have ever made.

Teresa had done her year of rural service in Tupiza as a nurse (Bolivian health professionals are required to spend a year working in rural areas before they can get their permanent registration), and as it turned out, one of her old friends still lived there. We were greeted with open arms, we showered, ate heartily, told stories and shared photos of our families, caught a few hours sleep, and at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday we caught a bus for the bumpy 5-hour trip to Villazon. As we lugged our suitcases across the bridge over the river that divides the two countries, everyone came to a stop, uncovered their heads, and stood erect while the border police on each side raised their national flags as trumpets sounded.

This northwestern arm of Argentina is really an extension of the altiplano, so the landscape and the faces of the people remain very much the same. The style changes, however. The stolid reserve of the rural Bolivian gives way to the sassier extroversion of the Argentine, even in a highland town like La Quiaca. The accent changes, too: the plosive consonants that have leaked from Aymara and Quechua into Bolivian Spanish are replaced by the drawling sing-song of Argentine vowels.

We had a few hours for a good breakfast in La Quiaca and caught a megabus around noon on Tuesday for the 8-hour trip to Salta. The highway was broad and smooth, the sky was blue, the weather warmed up and, as we wound our way down into the foothills of the Andes, there was something different about the air, too. I think it is called oxygen.

The approach to Salta from the north is stunning. The vegetation changes every few hundred metres lower until the icchu disappears, the bald mountain slopes are covered in tall cactus and light brush, and eventually trees and forage grasses. The valley is lined on either side with high reddish cliffs with deep vertical striations caused by erosion. In some places it is like looking across to the columns of some great ancient fortified wall out of Lord of the Rings, in others, where the erosion has carved irregular features out of the rock, it seems like a line of Egyptian megaliths of awesome divinities.

I was startled out of this reverie somewhere near Humahuaca, when the conductor called out over the speakers requesting passengers who had taken off their shoes to please put them back on, out of consideration for the others and for himself. I hadn't noticed anything myself, but by then I had been traveling for two days in the same clothes, so perhaps I was not in the best position to judge. An hour or so later, the bus pulled to a stop at the side of the road, the conductor climbed up to our mezzanine level, and bellowed out, Enough! This bus is not moving another inch until some people put their shoes back on! The smell is disgusting down there! With which, he marched down the aisle peering at the feet in each row B unsuccessfully, as it turned out. AAha, you see!, someone cried out, It's not us, it's those people in the seats on the lower level. We're an upper class crowd up here! It was a classic example of Argentine wit: quick, sharp and comic.
Salta is a city of 200,000, filled with green parks, old colonial churches and convents, and elegant nineteenth century architecture. The people are as warm and friendly as the climate, there are excellent restaurants with superb food and great wine at reasonable prices, the billboards advertise plenty of plays, concerts and exhibitions, and there were hardly any non-Argentine tourists. It was worth the 58 hours it took us to get there from La Paz. We spent two nights there recovering and, if we hadn't had friends waiting for us in Uruguay, we would have stayed another week. At one point, I actually found myself looking at the postings in the windows of real estate agencies.

One of the reasons why Salta is so little visited is that it is really out of the way: a two-hour direct flight by jet from Buenos Aires, or a 30-hour trip by express sleeper bus, which explains why we took Aerolineas Argentinas on the Thursday. I know B.A. is one of the great cities of the world, but after Salta we found it over-crowded, over-priced and under-friendly. We caught the ferry to Montevideo next morning, crossed the broad Rio de la Plata (known as the River Plate to readers of old travel books) and three hours later found a good friend waiting for us as we disembarked.

When we weren't following the political scene in the papers or discussing it with our friends, Teresa and I basked in sunny 30°C. weather, walked the broad promenade that runs for kilometres along the sandy beaches of the Rio de la Plata, drank excellent Uruguayan wine with our seafood and steaks, and enjoyed the urban architecture of a capital city that is built on a human scale.

Montevideo may be a bit down-at-heels these days, but nonetheless it certainly has to be one of the most livable places in Latin America. Besides, if one wants polish and pizzazz, one can always drive a couple of hours down the coast to Punta del Este. What began 50 years ago as a quiet resort where the Rio de la Plata ends and the South Atlantic begins has blossomed into an elegant city of stunning homes and posh apartments where Argentine and Brazilian multi-millionaires come to spend their holidays.

We had thought that this trip might be our farewell to Uruguay now that we are retired, but the people are so pleasant, the friends so welcoming, the weather so balmy, the food so good and the scenery so relaxing that we may have to reconsider that idea. In fact, as we stepped off the plane in Ottawa into a late February -19C cold front, we began rethinking it immediately.

Pierre Beemans

March 18, 2005

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