Thursday, 24 July 2014

Potosi, Bolivia: It's A Little High Up Here

After leaving the hospital I was dropped off in the centre of Potosi where I quickly found a private room for a couple of nights. Potosi was a very important city in the Spanish Empire, at one stage it is believed to have bankrolled the empire. Over 40,000 tonnes of Silver were mined from the nearby mountain of Cerro de Potosi (AKA Cerro Rico "Rich Mountain") from the 16th to the 18th century, with 20% going to the Spanish crown. This is the origin of the Spanish expression "Vale un Potosi"; Worth a Potosi.

During this time the population stood at over 200,000 people making it one of the largest cities in the world. The population dwindled since those days and has only recently matched historic number again (currently about 250,000). Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world with an average height of 4,090m above sea level. In its day it would have been one of the most beautiful cities in the world but this is no longer the case.

It was before 9am when I arrived in my room. I just stuck to my room for most of the first day. My mind was definitely elsewhere and I was starting develop altitude sickness myself. I remember getting up in the afternoon feeling incredibly light headed, I left my room a bit worried while using the wall to hold myself up. I fell once and was starting to freak out a bit after what had happened over the last few days. I eventually made my way downstairs and had about 10 cups of Coca Tea. The hostel had 2 massive thermoses full of coca tea for the altitude.

The next day while walking the streets I ran into 5 of the Frenchies from Tilcara. We went and had lunch together, Alexia and I shared possibly the worst tasting beer I've had in my life, Potoseña. IF you're not good at pouring beer in normal altitude you have no hope at high altitude, unless you take 5 mins to pour a glass it will be mainly head. After lunch we explored more of the city where I ran into some of the Frenchies from Valle Fertil in Argentina... They really are everywhere. The Frenchies formed one big family and I went back to my hostel.

I had hoped to go to the mines that Potosi is famous for and set of some dynamite but since I wasn't 100% I wasn't too keen on spending the day in very confined spaces. Maybe I will go back one day.

The street food here was awesome. Mini burgers with steak fillets were less than $1. a big bag of popcorn was about 15 cents made fresh on the street.

After 3 nights in Potosi I decided to leave. Normally I would just stick around in a town until I've done what I wanted to do (mines and hiking) but time was becoming for the rest of my South American adventure.

The 15 minute taxi ride to the bus station was $1.50... Sorry travellers but I said it was too cheap and grave him double.

Next stop Sucre, Bolivia!

Leesons Learnt:
Sometimes it feels like I'm still travelling France.
Bolivia is so cheap.
Street food is awesome.
You will never enough time to do everything you want.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: The Largest Salt Flats in the World!

After leaving the hospital in Uyuni and getting some sleep Leo (driver), Ely (tour guide) and I made a late start to the Salt Flats. Uyuni was in a blockade with all transportation workers on strike and blocking all roads in and out of the city (I forgot to write about this in my last post). There were reports of any cars trying to get in or out of the city and getting smashed by rocks. The dirt towards the Salt Flats was the only way.

Uyuni would be the dirtiest city I have seen. All roads are dirt through the city and there were piles of garbage everywhere, especially piled up in the desert on the way out. We arrived at one last little town before the salt flats where the only gas/petrol station refused to sell fuel due to the blockade... We still had one more large jerrycan on the roof.

We were now on the salt flats! Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest at over 10,000 square kilometers (for the mathematically challenged imagine a square with each side being 100km in length). The salt flats also are about 3,700m above sea level. The salt flats and large salt lakes in this part of the world were caused when two continental plates smashed together (which also created the Andes with over 100 mountains above 6,000m) causing what was part of the ocean to be elevated thousands of metres above ground. Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain anywhere from 40% to 80% of the world's lithium reserves. Although Bolivia is regarded as the poorest country in South America the people are strongly opposed to lithium mining of Salar de Uyuni, very little is currently extracted and all foreign companies were booted 20 years ago... It also contains over 10 Billion tonnes of salt.

Our first stop was the Salt Museum where absolutely everything (building, tables, chairs, etc) are made from salt. Leo and Ely prepared our breakfast while I explored the outside and inside. There is a massive Dakar Rally salt statue here, although the Dakar rally ran through Chile, Argentina and Bolivia it never made it to the salt flats... the cost of the museum is any purchase from the gist shop. In my case this was a toblerone.

After breakfast I kicked a ball around with two little kids while Leo and Ely cleaned up.

Next on the list was a long drive across the salt flats for lunch eventually stopping at a mountain island in the middle of the salt flats.

The island was full of cacti and had a few little routes to explore. Leo and Eli were preparing our lunch while I explored the island.

The Imperial Inka Flag

Leo working hard making my lunch
On the Island

The Bolivian flag with top a little rabbit in front below.

That little speck is a car!

Even llamas live here

The kitchen
After lunch I helped pack up before we took off in the car again to a much bigger mountain which had an actual town on it. We drove through the town and up high on the mountain. We parked and did a short hike where I saw 800 year old remains in a cave (I will leave those photos out). They were killed by the Inkas in pre Columbus times.

Leo & Ely

Me admiring the salt flats

A long way down!

Now it was time for the fun part! Finding a spot in the middle of no where to take some salt flat photos.

But First it was time to look at flamingos.

I put my big lens in for this shot
 Now for the funny photos. I already had some practice in Argentina and Ely had a scrap book of other ideas. Unfortunately for Leo he would be on the receiving end of these photos.

This actually became my Bolivian drink of choice a week later

Toy time

Leo fighting back

I jumped too high

It was now time to head back to Uyuni. First we found a hole in the salt to fill up some bottles with water. The water is full of nutrients and Bolivians have been using it for health benefits for hundreds of years.

On the way back we stopped in at the salt museum again. Ely made a call to the hospital. That is when we received the news that Dylan had died 30 minutes before the town of Potosi, still 1.5 hours from the intended destination of Sucre. This was terrible news and a tragic end to beautiful trip.

Ely contacted the owners/managers of the tour company. The plan was for them to go to Potosi the next morning. I said that I wanted to go to but first we had to get back to Tupiza via Uyuni which meant going through the blockades.

We saw the first blockade so turned down a different route with them chasing only to have a second blockade run out in front of us holding sticks and massive rocks. This probably would have normally scared the absolute shit out of me but my mind was elsewhere. Ely told them what happened while they were yelling at us and holding rocks in a throwing position. They understood... they are human. 3 of them hopped in and squished next to me. They told us which way to go and got us through the blockade that we tried to avoid.

We were driving again and I thought we made it... Only to be met by a massive blockade with 100 cars. Our car became completely surrounded. Leo locked all of the doors and I avoided eye contact with the people holding rocks outside my window (about 30-50 people surrounding the car). Ely was crying and did all of the explaining. Many still didn't want to let us through but it looks like the majority felt sorry for what had happened. We drove to the front of the blockade and one of the big trucks made enough room for us to squeeze through... If Ely wasn't there then we would have had no chance on getting through.

On the way stopped for a toilet break a.k.a. the nearest ditch. Ely fainted walking back to the car. Leo and I carried her back to the car and gave her water then laid her seat right back so she could sleep the rest of the way back to Tupiza. Uyuni to Tupiza is about 4 hours on the highway (dirt road).

The tour company I used was one of the 2 big ones in Tupiza, both of the main one's are attached to hostels. the hostel was completely booked out that night so I stayed in a guest room at the owner's house/mansion (some Bolivians do have money). We awoke at 4am to make our (the father and son owners, Ely and I) journey from Tupiza to Potosi, this time in a Mercedes. We arrived at the hospital at 8am but Michael & Harry along with Dylan's body were taken to La Paz by police escort around 8pm the night before... we were too late.

One line from the death certificate is something that I will never forget, "Edema de Pulmon (causado por Mal de Altura)". This translates to Pulmonary Oedema (caused by Altitude Sickness).

I can't imagine what the feeling must have been like for Harry and Michael, especially in a foreign country that doesn't speak your language and is completely different to Australia.

Lessons Learnt:
The Bolivian Salt Flats are very impressive.
Altitude Sickness can be very serious and people need to know about it.
Take full advantage of your life while you can.

Before going on high altitude adventures (especially Bolivia and Nepal) google High Altitude Induced Pulmonary Oedema/Edema (UK/US) & High Altitude Induced Cerebral Oedema/Edema. Knowing the symptoms and remedies for these two types of altitude sickness could safe your life or the life of a friend. Dylan clearly showed all 4 signs of High Altitude Induced Pulmonary Oedema but none of us knew anything about the signs or remedies.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia: The Amazing Tour and With a Bad Ending

While waiting for my bus out of Argentina I saw the Frenchies from Tilcara, they are like rabbits in Argentina, the group was now 7. I shouted "Francia!" but they didn't hear me. When I hopped on the bus I was greeted Alex and Becca (the American couple from the salt flats and my last night in Tilcara) along with a group of English boys from my dorm room in Tilcara... The North of Argentina is so small.

The bus eventually terminated in La Quiaca, still in Argentina. The entry into Bolivia was via walking. I had been told quite a few times that Bolivia doesn't really have a drinking culture but when they drink they get absolutely shitfaced. That was very quickly apparent after my border crossing which took over an hour. Another thing I immediately noticed was the police didn't have guns... this seemed strange to me because in Argentina it seems like everyone has a gun (the police are everywhere in Argentina... during the day anyway). After a quick walk around the Bolivian town of Villazon I was on another bus to Tupiza. Tupiza sits at 3,200 in Altitude.

The next morning morning I was on a search to get out of my overpriced shitty hostel ($10 a night). I found a private room with a queen bed and wifi for $7 a night. I also walked around to every tour agency to find a spot for the 4 day 4WD tour leaving the next day. I was solo so I didn't have much negotiation power but I really got to practice my Spanish with the smaller companies. I eventually found a spot with 3 other Aussies for a good price with an English speaking tour guide. I also ran into the English guys a few times. That night some more Frenchies cooked for me and gave me beers and wine (they really are everywhere).

The next morning I met the other Aussies (Dylan, Harry & Michael) along with our tour guide/cook Ely (aka Mamasita) and our driver Leo (only speaks Spanish). It was an awesome group and before lunch we had already seen some really cool sights and lots of lamas.

The colours of these decorations represent the owner.


Leo with our Car

We stopped for lunch in a small town. Mamasita really fed us. It was a massive 3 course meal that we could not finish. The town was really cool and they had a donation box in the centre to build a school.

The Convoy - Maybe 20 cars a day do this trip in EACH direction.

The Church

With our bellies full we were soon off again. Dylan, Michael & Harry were really cool chilled out Australians from Perth even though they didn't speak a word of Spanish. We had some pretty similar experiences and thoughts of travelling Argentina and a lot of laughs on this tour of Bolivia.

We were soon at over 4,850m in Altitude. Dylan wasn't feeling so great so he stayed in the car while the rest of us jumped out to take photos and enjoy the views.

Altitude, A Frozen Lake and Mountains

4,855 Metres above Sea Level... A new record!

We soon made our way to a small town to spend the night. The 4 four of us went out and explored and eventually found a group of 4 teenagers playing soccer. We challenged them to a game at 4,200m. Dylan wasn't feeling good and didn't want to play so I told him to just go in goals. We were 1-all after 10 mins and completely wrecked. The young Bolivians had no idea what was wrong with us... I explained in Spanish that we can't handle the altitude after we gave up.

After returning to our new home we sat at our dinner table next to a table of 4 French girls. The 4 of us coughing non stop wasn't the sexiest thing in the world. Harry and I soon recovered but Dylan and Michael were no good. Dylan started to turn blue in his lips and fingers and went to bed without eating. The rest of us ate another massive 3 course meal.

After going to bed Mamasita came in with Coca tea for all of us. Coca leaves are only about 1% cocaine and it has been Inka tradition to make tea from the leaves for hundreds of years. It is one of the few things that helps with altitude. Dylan was on the wrong end of a few jokes (like borrowing one of our ski masks... so we didn't have to see his face)... When Mamasita returned to collect the cups she gave the 4 of us hot water bottles for out feet and turned out the light. She also said she would take Dylan to a clinic first thing in the morning.

In the morning the Dylan seemed good. He no longer looked like a ghost, he had his appetite back and said he was fine. The boys got Mamasita to translate some "altitude"sickness pills they had bought... which were for people who were scared of heights not for altitude sickness. Dylan didn't want  to visit a clinic so we continued.

The first stop were old ruins abandoned hundreds of years earlier.

The next stop was another frozen lake. The English guys from Tilcara were in 2 other 4WDs... One of them fell through the ice. His new traditional Bolivian outfit was quite interesting.

Trent on Ice
We eventually made it to a hot spring at about 5,000m above sea level. Dylan started to feel a bit off again.The rest of us went in the hot spring while Mamasita made lunch. There were about 10 other groups with us. Each group has their own cook and driver. I had a beer during lunch which was my first lesson about the effects of altitude on pouring beers (all head).

The Hot Spring with Frozen Lakes Behind

Dylan barely ate but kept saying he was fine.

We were soon back in the car we stopped to look at more lamas with stunning back drops.

I love this photo
Our next stop was the Salvadore Dali Desert (the surrealism painter). On the way there I was in the far back next to Dylan. He started making funny noises but was fully conscious. I asked if he was okay and he said yes. I told the others he was no good. They starting talking to him and he was responding fine but made random funny noises whenever he wasn't talking. Michael wasn't feeling great either.

Harry and I jumped out to snap some quick photos.

You can't capture the real beauty of this place in a photo

Those little mounds before the mountain are huge in person

We were now quite worried about Dylan. Mamasita suggested we cut our trip short by 2 days and get him to a doctor. We definitely all agreed. But first Mamasita said she will take him out to get some air while the rest of us race in the 4WD to see one last sight... Laguna Verde (The Green Lagoon).

Laguna Verde was at 5,000m in altitude with the volcano behind reaching above 6,000m.

One of the Best Photos I've ever took
On the way back to find Mamasita and Dylan we saw a fox in the middle of the desert. I have no idea what it eats.

Dylan was in terrible shape when we met back up. He couldn't walk and was having trouble breathing. We raced 2 hours in the car to Villa Mar. Dylan was very out of it and taking really short and fast breaths. I kept telling him to fill up his lungs but he didn't seem to be able to do it. He was now really only responding to his name with mumbling "yeah" and "I'm Alright".

We eventually made it to Villa Mar. The guys were struggling a bit to get Dylan out of the car. They were not in great shape themselves from the altitude. I told them to move and put him straight on my shoulders and ran up the stairs of the doctors and dumped him in the bed. My legs almost gave way before I made it because of the altitude.

I took 1 photo outside.

I planned to hike this mountain if we were staying the night.

The doctor gave Dylan oxygen and a shot of penicillin in the bum cheek. The oxygen made him become responsive again. He started coughing up orange liquid into a cup. Maybe only about 20ml, not a lot but we all new it was blood mixed with another liquid. The Doctor thought he might have pneumonia but I now knew what was wrong with him... High-Altitude Induced Pulmonary Oedema.

I didn't know the exact name of it and had done very little reading of the 3 types of altitude sickness before this tour but I remember lungs filling with blood was one of the types. I still believed he would be fine. The doctor said he needs a hospital with closest one being over 4 hours away in Uyuni.

It was now dark and we were racing through the Bolivian desert. Michael and Harry wanted Leo to drive faster but it was dark and these were dangerous roads so I was happy with his speed since an accident would be the worst possible outcome for everyone.

We stopped at another doctor along the way who gave him oxygen, tablets and observed him for 1 hour. This doctor misdiagnosed him big time and took an hour of time. He had bikini calendars over his office, which I thought was an interesting choice for a doctor. Leo and I were joking about it. I also saw many posters about Tuberculosis vaccinations, I asked Leo if it was common in Bolivia, "yes"was his response, I never had any shots for anything before leaving Aus but a minor concern with the current situation.

We raced another hour to the city of Uyuni and eventually found the private hospital that seemed deserted. His doctor was the prettiest Bolivian that I had seen so we were making jokes that he had planned the whole thing. Dylan seemed not fully aware of what was happening around him but very nervous. Mamasita asked if he was nervous and he said a little. I told her that means a lot in Australian and Dylan was always brushing everything off the whole time.

Michael, Leo and I went to hotel to sleep. The plan was for Leo to take me to the Salt Flats in the morning while the others stay at the hospital. Leo knocked on the door of Michael and I at 3am. I had to translate to Michael that Dylan wasn't reacting to the antibiotics and was deteriorating so we had to go back to the hospital now.

When we arrived at the hospital Dylan had just come out of X-Ray, he only had 10-20% capacity left in both lungs. They said they don't have the equipment and knowledge to treat him there. He needed a lung specialist. He required a 4 hour $1000 ambulance ride to Sucre. Harry paid and we talked the doctors into letting both Harry and Michael squeeze into the ambulance after them repeatedly saying they could only take 1. They also said that they would stop at Potosi on the way if they need to.

I said goodbye and that I would see them in the hospital in Sucre in 3 days.

After a few hours sleep Mamasita, Leo and I did the salt flat tour of Salar de Uyuni which I will cover in a separate post. After the tour we received news that Dylan had died 30 minutes outside of Potosi.

Rest In Peace Dylan Christopher Harris.

Dylan was the youngest of the 4 of us and was a very fit and healthy 25 year old Australian from Perth. He was taken far too young in what were very preventable circumstances and we should have acted much faster. Hindsight can be a good thing but we are still all partly responsible for his death and it should never have occurred.

To this day I still have 3 names in my tablet on a post it note.

Dylan Christopher Harris
Harry Webster
Michael Schalk

But I will never add the last two on Facebook. I've wanted to contact them a few times but I have no idea what to say and the only memories they have of me are linked to 2 days they would definitely prefer to forget. I have not spoken to either of them since Dylan died. I will write about my visit to the hospital in Potosi in my next post.

Lessons Learnt:
Altitude can be very Dangerous.
Bolivia is Beautiful.
Storage of meat in Bolivia usually means sitting in the sun.
Supermarkets aren't a thing in Bolivia, markets stands are everything.
Lamas are everywhere.
Amazing things can turn bad very quickly.
Bolivia surprisingly has good beer.
In the desert you are hours away from help.
Doctors in small towns of poor countries my not be helpful... Feel very privileged to live in a first world country.