Friday, October 28, 2005


We've made our deadline and have arrived in Chile. Finally the blockades were opened at the ever so practical oh so Bolivian time of 4am last Saturday so we caught a bus to the border and with very little ceremony all of a sudden we were in Argentina.

On another bus to the first largish city in the country Salta where the majority of us blockaded turistas were in for a shock. Suddenly we were back in the land of western civilisation...shops filling every street selling shoes, clothes, chocolates, designer sunglasses, homewears, whitegoods, all manner of shiny do dahs and what not. And there amongst it all were the Argentines, dressed to the nines, sporting groovy haircuts, sipping espresso and of course shopping.

For the first hour or so this was a delight and we revelled in eating, drinking and generally consuming - but then after catching sight of myself in a trendy shop window I realised I had had a visit from the frump fairy somewhere on the border. It's amazing how cool you can think you look in grubby old travel clothes and with hair that hasn't seen a pair of scissors for nine months in countries where the height of consumer fashion is a pair of woolly mittens with alpacas knitted into them. Now in the midst of all these thin, manicured, coiffed scary Argy fashionistas I was having a crisis, which of course has continued to this very day.

Although it is very nice having shops and food and things, I have to say I am suffering pangs for those crazy Andean countries where things like having a cool haircut are just not important and where running totally amok (with or without a puma) is completely acceptable. Suddenly we are back in the kind of society where it matters what you say and do and for that matter what kind of shoes you are wearing when you say and do it and the truth is - it's boring.

Luckily we are heading off the very odd and remote Easter Island in the morning where 3000 eccentrics live and work in the shadow of the mysterious Moai. I bet they aren't too concerned about haircuts.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Locked in and Shut Down

Eduardo off to talk to the bloody blockaders - they were very helpful and told us the best way to get out of here was to walk for 15ks - can't quite see myself doing that with 20kg on my back.

Day five of this bloody stupid Bolivian Blockade. The novelty factor has really worn off and thanks to the angry self righteous mobs that go around the town waving sticks and throwing stones now ALL the businesses have to close all day meaning that there is nothing to do and it's even a challenge to find something to eat. It's like being in a war or something to see if any illicit businesses are open you have to tap on the door and see if they will let you inwhen no-one is looking. Even this internet cafe has it's lights turned off, it's almost exciting if not for the fact that it is SO BLOODY BORING.

But then there is the positive side:

1: Not many people can say they have been out to dinner and just about to tuck into a dish of lasagne only to have an angry mob assemble outside who are banging on the windows. Then be locked into the restaurant for their safety. Hours later when you wish to leave the owners un-barricade the door and peer out into the dark street to check the coast is clear before we scuttled out into the street.

2: The town is acting like a catchment area for a whole lot of people we have befriended on the road in other places. Because we are not all moving on after a day or two more and more people wanting to cross the border to Argentina are arriving in this god forsaken town so it's been nice to see some of our pals from the animal park and other adventures so we can all sit arond the pool and whinge together.

Out in the wild west territory looking for 'injuns

3: Just about the only thing that IS allowed is horseriding. For a mere 2 bucks an hour me, Eduardo and four others saddled up and went riding for five hours in this most beautiful of landscapes. The horses were happy and healthy and keen to gallop. At first I was worried, it seemed a bad omen to be given a riding hat that had the words "speedy" printed on it and a horse whose name was "Maximo" - I had visions of bolting uncontrollably through the wilderness before coming off on top of a spiky cactus but it was all good. Maximo only went to the maximo when I wanted him to and even was good enough to stop when I wanted him to, quite a rare quality in a Sth American horse. All in all it gave me time to enjoy the big red rocks, deep canyons and huge cactus that make up this very wild west area - just wish I could have worn a great big cowboy hat.

Me and Maximo - I unfortunately didn¡t get to wear a big cowboy hat, just a red crash helmet that said "speedy".

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My Salt Bed

Bolivia has its fair share of strange and beautiful landscapes but the Southwest of the country really takes the cake. Commonly referred to as the Salar de Uyuni this large empty stretch of land can make the average tourist feel like they are on another planet.

The best way to travel through this landscape is to take a 4WD tour for four days so Eduardo and I did just that. We packed ourselves into a beaten up Toyota Landcruiser with two other aussies, an english fireman and a neurotic whinging english girl. Accompanying us was Hugo our driver / tour guide extraordinaire and Sylvia our lovely cook. The tour took us through some incredible landscapes, we were at 4000 metres most of the time so there were no trees, just mountains, volcanoes, huge canyons, deserts, inca ruins and multi coloured lakes. The lakes were amazing, there was an emerald green one, a whitish one, a red one, pink one, turquoise blue and turquoise green. Just to top off the colours were Flamingos - thousands of hot pink dots adrift in a lake the colour of a swimming pool. It was strange to see what I think of as hot climate creatures happily wading about in water that is barely above zero but they seemed to love it. Other animals included thousands of different coloured Llamas, the delicate and bambi like Vicuna which is a wild relative of the Llama and the weird little Vizcacha - a strange cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. Looking like a large rabbit with a long fluffy tail the Vizcacha is famous for being able to survive extreme cold and heat by changing it's metabolism.

Accomodation was an interesting prospect on this tour, for our first two nights we were housed in drafty wooden buildings with no heating and cold showers - we slept in big communal rooms in little metal beds. The second night was so cold that I wore thermals, tracksuit pants, three tops, a jumper, a beanie and then slept in my sleeping bag covered by 4 blankets and cuddling the hostals kitten who tucked himself in and proceeded to deafen me with purrs in my ear.

For our third night the accomodation got even more interesting as we stayed in one of the famous Salt Hotels. Initially disappointing from the outside with regular brown bricks (I had imagined something snow white and crystalline) when we go in we discover walls, tables, chairs and even beds made out of salt bricks. A quick lick of the walls confirms this is true - delicious. But the cozy sleep I had in my salt bed was cut short by a 4.30am start for the highlight of our trip - the Salar. The salar is a flat area of 12 thousand square Ks that is covered in pure white salt. Or as a Swiss tourist exclaimed "it's the size of Switzerland - this fucking thing!" So in the darkness of the early morning we hopped in the jeep and drove out to see for ourselves. Accompanied by a golden full moon slowly sinking over one mountain and the sun slowly rising over the other we were soon gliding over a bed of blinding white that stretched as far as the horizon.

Our first stop that morning was at "Isla Pescada" - Fish Island. This chunk of land rises above the salt plain just like an island at sea. The Island itself is covered in 6 metre tall 1000 year old crazy looking cacti. We climb to the peak of the island and sit surrounded by an endless sea of white salt, ringed by snow capped mountains and volcanoes as the sunrise turns everything pink and gold.

Later we hop in the truck and race the other group travelling with us across the white salt - with no road and no perspective it is impossible to tell how fast we are going but it feels like we are flying. Finally we stop in the middle of the salar where the blinding white stretches to the horizon in every direction. This is the perfect place to do trick photography as the white doesn't give any sense of perspective, we amuse ourselves for hours taking photos sitting in someones hand, floating above each others heads and sitting on top of cups and bottles. The salt beneath our feet cracks and shatters making a sound like broken glass.

Photo-ed out we then sit down on a blanket for a picnic lunch. What do you eat and drink when you are in the middle of the worlds biggest salt plain in the country of Bolivia? Spaghetti napolitana and coca cola of course. By now the sun is really sitting high in the sky and getting brutal, the reflection from all the white leaves me and several others with sunburnt chins and lips.

On our return to Tupiza we find out about the blockades, the roads are blocked to all traffic as a protest and it means we may spend a night in the van or have to walk several Ks to town carrying all our stuff. It's not looking good but our fearless driver Hugo is undeterred, switching off the headlights and barely running the engine he rolls the truck into a field and creeps us slowly cross country dodging the protesters and the blockades. I feel like someone in WW2 in the UK during the blackout as we roll silently into the town accross the local football oval. After half an hour of extreme tension we arrive back in the town to the curious stares of locals who haven't seen any cars all day - hurrah for Hugo!

PS: Want to say a big hello to Linda and Red - glad you are reading!

The Wild West

Shopping for dynamite and ciggies - gifts for the miners at Potosi

Back in the "normal" world that is Bolivia now for nine days. In this time Ed and I have been plauged by nightmares about Pumas, Jaguars and Ocelots most nights. Both of us have even woken up thinking that a cat is in the room. It has been a bumpy ride back to earth for both of us. But onwards and Southwards we go. In the last nine days we have managed to pack in a huge amount of activity - first to Colonial Sucre the pretty ex capital of Bolivia, then to Potosi the highest city in the world at a breathtaking 4000 metres - once the largest city in the world and famous for it's silver mines. We got to go into these mines, a claustrophobics nightmare as we crawled in darkness into the belly of mountain and into the hellish conditions that the miners work in. 40 degree heat and air full of arsenic anyone? For more on this weird trip check out Eds blog.

Then we arrived in the wild west town of Tupiza, famous for it's amazing desert landscape of canyons, towers and red rocks. It has even more wild west cred as this was the place Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid whiled away their final days robbing banks and payrolls before going out in a blaze of glory and bullets. It is hot (yay!), dry and luckily for us our hotel has a pool. Unlukily for us we are stuck here for a while cause of "bloquedas" a kind of strike where they block off the roads and close all business. If you attempt to cross the blockade they protesters will throw ricks at you so sneaking through isn't an option. Hope we aren't stuck for too many days, we have a date with Argentina and then Santiago in a couple of days.

Goodbye Beauty

“Hello Beauty” is how Eran, one of Ricos many fans used to greet him every day when he popped in for a visit. Rico just loved this guy and would roll on his back like a little kitten allowing Eran to stroke his belly. Of course if I tried this I would get swiped at, unfaithful feline. But I have to say now we have left the wonders and the horrors of the animal park I have been overcome with a dose of sentimentality. Back in the normal world I now realise what a feast of beauty, danger, fear and drama we had been immersed in for four weeks.

So first up on the thank you list is of course young Rico, otherwise known as "Prince Rico", "Prince of Darkness", "the dark lord", "you little bastard", "No, Rico No!" and of course "Beauty". Gracias Rico, for letting me into your weird feline life for a month, it was interesting, scary, funny and sometimes rather lovely.

I would also like to thank the Spider Monkeys who made my trip through the park everyday a joy. They are surely the most funny, cuddly animal ever - except for Michaela who really seemed to dislike me and spent a lot of her time making horrible noises and faces at me, and grabbing Eds hand and dragging him away from me whenever she had the chance.

Then there are the whipsmart badass Capuchin monkeys who managed to mug all us volunteers of our lunch, money, books and cameras in between being very amusing and kind of disgusting. I realised that I had been at the park for too long when Martin the monkey put his tongue in my mouth one day and I didn't bat an eyelid. Often at mealtimes several volunteers could be seen trying to look delighted as the monkeys "shared" their food by shoving a half sucked piece of corn into their mouths before removing it again to suck off the saliva. These guys just don't have any shame. But then they could be sweet climbing down into your shirt for a cuddle when it was cold and rainy - you just had to cross your fingers and hope they didn't pee on you while in there.

There were the pigs, the baby sloths, the turtles, birds, honey bears, the terrifying Cuchi Cuchis, Tejons and the totally mad monkey on a cord who hissed at me everyday.

Finally there are the Pumas, the kings of the park. Beautiful, big and unpredictable. It was such a treat to see Simba and Gato the Pumas everyday out on the trail, I'd particularly like to thank Gato for not attacking me and Rico the day we accidentally wandered into your rest area and almost right on top of you- Bueno Chico Gato.

Then finally there are all the mad, funny, fearless, hilarious people that worked at the park. A motely collection of travellers and locals who managed to make the transition from everyday citizen to Puma tamer, Ocelot charmer and Monkey miracle worker within days. The stories people came back with each day were a feast and will keep me going for years. Gracias and Adios.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Creatures of the night

Behold the Cuchi Cuchi....pure evil lurks in their tiny bodies

Just like any business or corporation, here at Inti Warra Yassi there are various "departments". And just like in any organisation each department has a distinct personality. "Big Cats" are like the heavy hitters in management, doing a job that comands respect and has a touch of glamour. "Small Cats" is like the sales department, not quite as glamorous as "Big Cats" but still has a frisson of challange and glamour. "Monkeys" are like the marketing department, fun, creative and a wee bit eccentric. Then come the less glamorous departments, "Birds" who have all the appeal of the accounts payable section and then there is "small animals" which would have to be at the bottom of the barrel. The people that work in Small Animals are responsible for a motely collection of turtles, pigs, weasel things, weird badger things, a fox and anything else that turns up. I always thought that their day was easy street while I was off battling my psycho cat but it turns out I was wrong when I heard about the Cuchi Cuchis.

These cute sounding critters live in the small animals area - they are nocturnal so none of us volunteers had ever seen them but all agreed that they sounded adorable, like an OOmpa Loompa or something. Turns out we were wrong....everyday the good folk of small animals brace themselves in order to enter the lair of the Cuchi Cuchi. Turns out these furry tennis ball sized creatures don't like being disturbed when they are asleep but volunteers however need to go into the cage to clean it. If woken, the Cuchi Cuchis will launch their tiny selves onto any available limb and attach themselves with razor sharp teeth. The major problem for the volunteers is that it's impossible to tell if the little buggers are awake or not until you are already in the cage. Once a pair of beady eyes are spotted it's all over for the volunteer. One girl got savaged by the tiny beasts and after kicking them off headed off to tell one of the managers, a guy who walks Pumas. After she told him apparently he just laughed, lit a cigarette and turned away. As she said, its hard to get any respect when you complain about being attacked by something called a Cuchi Cuchi while tough guys are sitting around talking about their Puma maulings.
On the bright side, I discovered that small animals was also home to the mysterious Night Monkeys - these delightful little creatures are gentle, silent, covered in soft woolly fur and look like they have little smiles painted onto their faces.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Photo time

This cute little fella goes by the name of Junior, he is a young Howler monkey and can usually be found draped around the neck of a young Bolivian guy who works at the park. Junior usually is very well behaved and never seems to do anything but sit on peoples shoulders looking sweet....until of course I was asked to mind him for a few minutes. Seconds after this photo was taken Junior leapt off my shoulder and hotfooted it into the kitchen of the cafe grabbing eggs, eating bread, dancing across the hotplates, throwing cutlery everywhere while Ed and I were in hot persuit shouting "no Junior" and grabbing at his tail while he tried snapping at me with big teeth. Lucky for us his minder returned and so did order to the cafe, I slunk away defeated by a tiny monkey.
Rico showing off just how good his camoflage is in the jungle. Sometimes when I walk him he almost totally disappears and all I can see is the end of his rope....being a typical selfish feline he also likes to choose sleeping spots that have maximum comfort for him and usually leave me perched on an ants nest, stuck in the rain or the sun. Any suggestion from me that we move on is met with a growl...
My favourite bird ever - the glorious Toucan. This one who goes by the name of Mr T is my fave, he looks like a cartoon bird from a Froot Loops box. Other birds in the aviary shout out "hola" and "bugger off" to me when I walk past every morning - bless.
The worlds most dopey turtle. These guys are everywhere and their main purpose in life seems to be to provide entertainment for the Pumas and the Ocelots. The cats can't do much to them as they just suck in their heads and wait til the cats get bored but every cat walkers heart sinks when their kitty cat comes across a turtle as it usually means standing and waiting for half an hour til the cat is bored and unless you like being attacked you must never attempt to take the turtles from them, so much fun. This particular turtle is the bain of my life as he manages to wander into Ricos cage area everyday making it rather challenging to get the beast back in his cage.
Many of our days at Inti Wara Yassi go like this, wake early, walk Ocelot / Puma all day long, return from jungle sweaty and exhausted, shower, go to the only shop in town, find ridiculous outfit for dress up party, drink 1 dollar bottles of rum and 1 dollar giant beers, pass out 1am, wake with hangover, walk cat....and so on. Never have I attended so many dress up parties, I think we've been to 5 so far and there will be more I'm sure- this one was a stupid headwear party as you might be able to guess. Half the people attending just raided the gardens in the park - I am sporting some lovely straw stuff that some lady was about to weave into a basket.