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. 

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