Blazing Bolivia

The award for the best border control official goes to the man stamping passports on the way into Bolivia close to Copacabana. He looked at my passport quizzically and said: "is this you"?

"Yes", I replied.

Then he just said "hair" and stamped my passport. Brilliant.

I stayed for a few days in La Paz where there wasn't too much to do to be honest. It is a high, noisy, hilly city that looks like it has been dropped in between mountains, and been broken on the fall. It's redeeming features are the markets that are everywhere. In fact I don't think people ever buy things in shops in La Paz.

There are mile long markets with each few blocks hosting a bizarre speciality. After walking for 10 minutes you will get to the padlock zone, with 50 stalls all selling the same locks. Then on to the onion quarter with scores of women laying out their tear inducing vegetables on colourful blankets. 500m further on there might be an array of hub cap stalls. It is truly mind boggling the amount of markets the city has.

As if that wasn't enough, I decided to go to El Alto market (a satellite town on the hills overlooking La Paz), which hosts a market bigger than most towns in the UK. You can check out the pictures of some of the strange wares above. Bolivians have taken counterfeit wares to a truly new level. Not only could you buy the usual Nike knock-offs etc, but they would simply sow any logo or label onto clothes. I saw Starbucks hats, Grahams construction hoodies, Toy story shoes and a whole range of shirt with American universities on that I'm sure don't even exist. There were even stalls selling logos and emblems to make your own counterfeit goodies.

I also cycled down the world's most dangerous road an hour outside of La Paz. Since a new road was built in 2007 to replace the insanely dangerous mountain pass into the capital, hundreds of companies have set up mountain biking excursions down the 'camino viejo'. It has become 'the thing' to do whilst you are in La Paz . . . so I obliged.  It was actually pretty fun and had amazing views (although obviously it is not a good idea to look down at the unprotected  1000m drop when hurtling down the hill on your bike).

I took what is hopefully one of my last overnight buses to Sucre and it wasn't a particularly relaxing ride. The bus stopped to pick up passengers in El Alto, and left the door open prompting no less than 20 salesman, beggars and terrible musicans onto the bus. They all started the same overly polite introduction:

"Good evening ladies, gentlemen, youths and student, I hope you are having a good day. Please forgive me for interrupting your journey, I will not take up much of your time, so thank you for listening to this opportunity for a short period before you can continue to relax and enjoy your journey. Now, ladies, gentlemen, children, doctors, professors, please pay attention for the next 5 miniatures as I explain these products to you and once again thank you for your patience -

"F**king GET ON WITH IT!!!"

The sales techniques were particularly successful though, passengers were buying food, drink, jewellery, giving money to religious zealots and slipping coins into the palm what must have been the country's worst pan pipe player. My personal favourite was a blind man who climbed the stairs onto the bus and simply felt around until he found a passenger, then extended his hand without saying a word.

I slapped his outstretched hand giving him a 'low five' before telling him I didn't have any coins. He wasn't best pleased.

Sucre is a nice city. Much more relaxed with nice bars and better places to eat. I am staying in a hostel where virtually everyone is learning Spanish for a couple of weeks. For once I can lord it over the students struggling to work out how to order a sandwich in Spanish.

"Hola senor hombre, me gusta comer una sandwicha por mi boca gracias. Muy bien bueno queso rico gracias"

In all seriousness, I have really enjoyed the hostel I'm in in sunny Sucre, and wish I could stay for longer.

I have just got back from an exhausting tour of the mines in Potosi and have to leave for the salt flats soon, so forgive me if this bit is a little rushed!

Potosi is a fairly large mining town south of Sucre where 15,000 mentalists dig out whatever minerals they can find in the 150 operating mines (silver, zinc, tin etc). Many travellers had told me  this tour was a real experience so I wasn't expecting clean air and handrails.

Our party of about 20 were split up into three groups - the sex machines, the sexy llama fuckers, and dynamite group. We then got kitted out with the helmets, overalls and essential presents for the miners -

Coca leaves (their only sustenance as they can eat in the toxically dusty mines),
Nuclear coloured Orange squash
96% alcohol (which had a distinct taste of aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh)
And completos - (no, not the sandwiches) dynamite, detonator and amonium nitrate. A snip at £2 and available to all (kids included)

We then visited the processing plant which seemed like a horrifying medieval torture chamber of pounding machines, weird chemicals, unsafe wooden walkways and silvery powder.

I'm not claustrophobic, but pretty much everyone wanted out after just 400m of walking in the mines. Being tall and having to do extra stooping, butt-sliding and crawling didn't help, but the air is basically black. Apparently many people on the tours do turn back rather than carry on into the sweaty hell below.

After a while you got used to the conditions and got far enough into the mines to see the men working, pulling 2 ton trolleys, bagging gravel with shovels and chiseling the rock. The conditions are truly astounding - 40 degree heat, black air, no food, not much water. So why do they do it?

Well, there isn't any other industry in Potosi, and the superstitions and machismo that go with mining are like a badge of honour for many. The wages they make (£300-£500 per month) are triple that of other professions and teenagers often have to help in the mines to replace injured or dead family members.

I haven't seen it, but this film addresses some of the issues and shows their life in more detail, but essentially everything is pretty dangerous because they work for themselves in co-operatives. Miners pay a small fee to the co-op and also to the government in order to decrease their life expectancy by 20 years (Most miners are dead from knackered lungs by 50).

To lighten the mood on the way out of the mine to guides said that the miners like to make fun of gringos because they they are like an 'L' - tall with small penises, whilst the shorter Bolivians have 'baby anacondas'. This type of nonsense was like rubbing salt in the wound of us taller folks who were already clutching at our aching backs and banging our heads every 2 seconds!

Anyway, sorry about the lack of photos I will keep trying to upload them, but Latin America's entire Internet network seems to be against me.

I'll write you from another country.