Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On the buses, with Tio

I'm not the most patient of people. One of my aims when travelling was to try and improve this. After all, what's the big rush? I even wanted to learn to meditate. Have I become a more patient person? Close but no cigar? No, not close. I'm a long, long way from even a dynamite cigar.
Semi-cama means little in the UK but in South America it can mean many things. From almost horizontal seats with complimentary biscuits to, well, read on. On the bus journey from Potosi to Tupeza, semi cama meant:
1. Knees by ears
2. Screaming children, screaming parents and screaming Ollie
3. Ear bleedingly loud Bolivian rock music composed by Kim Jong Il's most effective and sadistic of torturers. They play only the first 45 seconds of each monumentally awful song, so that it's impossible to become accustomed. (Despite the agony, you can't help but have respect for it's genious.)
4. Baking heat
5. Windows that don't open (oh they could, they just don't)
6. All manner of salesman, preachers and lunatics allowed (encouraged?) to board and spout an hour of spwaffle before getting to the 'and for only 10 Bolivianos you too can own these disgusting biscuits/this ineffective dehumidifier/this latest deity'. It is the opposite of entertainment and if untertainment is not a word, it should be.
On this bus journey, I had a feud with the 10 year old boy sitting in front of (and therefore on top of) me. In this teeny tiny bus, he reclined his chair back fully. I responded by sticking my knee in his back, in a vein attempt to get him to move forward. The war of wills and knees continued for the whole journey, but I was in way over my head, outmatched. I wasn't his first victim and I've no doubt I won't be his last. His smug little 10 year old grin will mock me forever, Tio incarnated.

So, far from developing patience, what I'm actually learning is a growing intolerance of buses, people, children, buses, boredom, children, heat, buses, children, altitude, children and BUSES.

The devil's in the detail

Potosi, Bolivia, claims to be the world's highest city. Reknown for it's silver mines, it has become increasingly famous for tours that take gringos deep into the still working mine.
The Lonely Planet gives some warnings about the safety of the mine, but danger being my middle name, and there not being much else going on, I opted in.
Me and 2 others were dressed up in some impractical but wholly embarassing 'protective' clothing and taken to the town market. In the market, from a wholly unremarkable stall, we each bought 2 sticks of dynamite, detonators and bags of amonium nitrate. No questions asked. We also had to buy the same 96% liquor that pachamama had seemed so keen on in the jungle. This was a gift for the miners, who have deemed working in a mine, in Bolivia, with dynamite not dangerous enough and so to spice it up, spend most of their working life, very, very drunk.
Then off to the mine. As is par for the course in Bolivia, any sort of health and safety briefing is vigourously avoided . This seems to be for two reasons. One is that there is no health, and the other no safety. In place of the briefing, we are all made to take a swig of the 96% liquor. As the liquor is so strong and dissolves your taste buds on the way down, you don't feel the full impact until it mixes with your stomach juices in such a way as to render images of the movie Alien and you wouldn't be suprised, in fact might be relieved, had an ugly little space monster burst forth from your stomach.
There are an estimated 90km of tunnels, on 16 levels, all co-operatively owned. Into this warren we went, and were struck by the stench of toxic chemicals. We were initally made to handle the naturally occuring orange arsenic which the miners believe hold the mines together (experts have told them the mine could collapse very soon, but the heady mix of liquor, chemicals and machoism have allowed the miners to continue in blissfull, willfull, ignorance). The guide (an ex miner) told us that water wouldn't wash the arsenic off, but our own urine would (I'm game, but not that game and went for the diplomatic inbetween of 'soap' instead).  He later told us that if the toxic chemicals became dangerously strong, the workers would urinate on their clothing and then breathe through that. It seemed there was no ill that couldn't be cured by this magical liquid. I wondered what other uses they put it to, and concluded that this seeming over reliance on urine was probably just an amusing way to dispose of it in this toiletless world.
We went deeper into the passages, to where a statue of the demon, Tio was sitting. This is the demon that they believe rules the mine and decides on the fate and fortunes of the miners in it. The guide gave Tio a cigarette, then poured the 96% liquor on my thumb and lit it. He then used my thumb to light the cigarette, the point of which (other than to cause me uneccessary suffering) I was oblivious to. After this things got really weird, and the guide threw the dynamite at the two petrified Dutch girls I was with. Shortly after we found out that this was to prove that dynamite is not dangerous on it's own, but I'm pre-tty sure we would all have just taken his word for it. In case we still didn't believe him, he then lit the end of the dynamite and began smoking it, pretending it was a cigar, which I promptly blew out. At this stage I was begnning to wonder what sort of protection the wellies and overalls would provide in the face of this madman who seemed intent on detonating dynamite in my face. He then then set up the dynamite, inserted the detonator, the fuse and the ammonium nitrate. He lit the fuses (which sparked away as in old westerns) and, of course, handed them to the two Dutch girls and told them to put them round their necks. We all then nipped round the corner, left the dynamite, returned to a maximum of about 5 metres away, turned all our torches off and waited in the complete darkness. Tick tock, tick tock then BOOOOOOOOOM. The sound was loud but you felt the explosion far more than you heard it, and the floor shook, but thankfully the roof remained where I wanted it.
We were then taken further into the mine and met another, much larger statue of Tio, with a large phallus which we, for some inexplicable reason, had to pour beer over. We then met some of the miners, the most voiciferous of which was a chap about 65 years old. In an odd setting, we then had an odd conversation which went along these lines. He said one of the Dutch girls was my girlfriend. I said no. He said she would be after many beers. I said I had a girlfriend. This conversation then repeated itself for the next five minutes until I decided that he may well have fathered 9 children, worked in the mine for 38 years and be the head of the co-operative, but was still an idiot. Thankfully that episode ended and we left. A good experience and although it didn't feel very cultural, the bawdy drunken nature of our guide and the miners we met was probably a pretty good reflection of the culture of the mine. And in such appalling working conditions, I suppose, it's whatever works.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Captain Armitage Shanks

The practical paragliding lessons in Cochabamba were for a few hours in the mornings and the theoretical lessons in the evening. So during the afternoons we discovered the culinary delights of Cochabamba and only suffered food poisoning from about half the meals we ate, a good record for Bolivia.
Their diet may be the reason that they make many of their toilet seats so ridiculously comfy. They are cushioned and make a soothing and comforting sssshh sound as you descend onto them, like a toilet air bag for those that make too rapid a descent from the standing to sitting position. In the whole of South America you're forbidden from putting toilet paper in the toilet, something that took many blocked toilets to fully understand the consequences of.
After Fay's airborne hiccup, we both took a few more lessons learning the art of take off and landing, before I moved on to my solo flights. We had some unexpected assistance on our final day from the park guard. I was on film duty as he approached, and as staggered his way towards us, I wasn't sure if he was going to arrest us or join Fay's vomiting society (terra firma section). Instead he alternated between shouting abuse and encouragement at Fay and told me, without much conviction, that 'this is Bolivia', but I wasn't certain if he was trying to inform me, or convince himself.

So with the learned aeronautical wisdom of the the 'drunk ranger' bestowed upon me, I took to the air on my first solo flight on 5th December. Jumping off a mountain rather than climbing up it took some adjusting, and to say I wasn't nervous would be a lie. So i chose what i consider by far the best strategy in these situations, and tried as hard as humanly possible to forget that I was standing on the edge of a mountain about to leap to my airy doom. And it all went surprisingly well. I landed, both alive and in the landing zone. With the minor exception of me not being able to get seated and dangling painfully like a rag doll being given an indefinite wedgie for the entire flight, i had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

A couple of days of 'rain stops play' to recover, and then on 8th, I was back for more. 3 solo flights that day and during each I managed to progressively edge my derriere further back into the seat and look a little less like a dangler, and a little more like a paragliding pilot. Again and again I landed, still alive, in the landing zone.
On my final day of flying, my confidence had grown to such an extent that I wondered why on earth this flying lark had alluded man throughout the ages. What had we been doing? When Icarus was busy plucking the feathers from some poor, embarrassed, now naked duck and messing about with a tub of glue, why didn't someone tell him to get his nan to sew 10 pairs of pyjama bottoms together, add some string and attach it to his underwear? Anyway, I donned my harness, brought the wing above me, turned and gracefully leaped to play with the birds. Unlike my previous flights, I had 2 unexpected guests with me on this one. The first was a very gusty wind that collapsed 40% of my wing. The second was an unexpected thermal that threw me off course. Again I landed alive, but a different landing zone, in the shape of a prickly bush and very hard piece of ground, had to make do. It wasn't a soft landing, and my dreams that night were of cushioned toilet seats.
I had one more flight that day, and Christian caught the approach and landing on video:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nada rada

The 3rd December saw Fay's birthday come and go and her enter her 31st year. To celebrate, we opted to watch the local production of 'Glee', touted as a musical spectacular and accompanied with glitzy fliers and billboard posters. We went to the box office and were at first dissapointed as they seemed to be saying they had sold out, but were in fact saying we had to return on the day of the show. The theatre was full of character, grandeur and had a capacity of about 10,000. The 3rd came round and we made sure we were at the box office as soon as it opened so as not to miss our chance for a ticket. We were in luck, two box tickets were ours. That night we turned up early for the show and waited with anticipation. The start time came and went and the words 'get on with it' formed in my mind with ever increasing urgency and my patience meter began to run very low. Casting a by now irritable eye around the theatre, I should have read the warning signs - there were a maximum of 50 people and they looked very much like the mothers, fathers and grandparents of the cast that they indeed turned out to be. The 'spectacular' was in fact a b rate school production. 10 mins into the show and my ears began to bleed. Two and a half hours later, and the cast's own grandparents were thrwoing their granny undies at the stage to try and scare away their offspring and save the audience from any more torture. This was almost certainly the one situation where my joining in with the singing improved the quality. I remember a time at a wedding in Sweden where I tried to reinact that scene from dirty dancing where 'Baby' is caught by Patrick Swazyze and held aloft in the air. I tried to reinact it with the grooms mother and I was so drunk that although I somehow managed to persuade her it was a good idea, I completely lacked the co-ordinatrion to pull off such a feat. As she glided towards me in the air, everybody on the dancefloor knew it would end in tears. It did, but in comparisome to 'Glee', I was Patrick Swayze re-incarnated.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Solid hero to nerdy zero.

If ever there was a day of two halves, today was it. This morning, i completed 3 solo paragliding flights from a mountain 600m above Cochabamba, 3400m from sea level. Gliding around, catching thermals, taking in the views of the mountains and the city, avoiding power cables and generally feeling pretty pleased with myself.

This afternoon, I'm going to the cinema. To watch Tron. Out of choice. Alone. When it's 2 for 1 on all tickets.

Still, you can't be all awesome, all of the time.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vomitos in extremis

If a bird defecating on you from above is considered good luck, then those who were walking the streets of Cochabamba below Fay today should, without a moments hesitation, head to the nearest casino, race track or lottery stall.
We've been in Cochabamba for about a week now and have spent most of our time learning to fly with Christian, a paragliding instructor who assures us that his missing digit was from an incident with a wet hand and a plug socket and nothing to do with his chosen sport.
Christian is a little short in stature, but makes up for any lack of presence with a healthy dose of aftershave. There is no doubting that he has a real passion for the sport, but a passion that is a considerable distance behind his obvious love of chasing ladies. His aftershave is accompanied by a perfectly groomed goatie, latin good looks and flawless complexion. We have been having our theoretical lessons at his house and I wasn't surprised to find that his teaching room was fitted with red velvet sofas and a bar. I had already clocked that I would need to up my game and be even more charming (?) to Fay than usual, but when he told us he used to compete in national tango and ballet lessons, I didn't really have much to come back with. Singing in the school choir on Blue Peter when 14 years old about a dead dodo didn't seem to cut it. When he offered us free tango lessons I fortunately remembered my old shrapnel wound from Nam, and that's taken the sting out of that idea for the time being.
He is a very good teacher and has quality equipment and for the last 3 days we learned to take off in a small field with an unfortunately situated tree at the end, which Fay became pretty familiar with. 

We have 10 days in total and the plan is to learn take offs and landings, then go for a tandem flight with Christian and then progress to flying alone, with radio instruction. Today was the tandem flight day and Christian picked us up from our hotel and told us that a Swiss guy was also coming along but that he knew how to fly and was just renting equipment. The guy was an idiot, and added to the tension that we were both feeling. We drove to a mountain, 650m above Cochabamba and prepared the wing. It was a steep gradient and a world away from the field we had been practising in. Fay was understandably nervous and I think because of this, Christian had decided to take her first. Without too much in the way of hesitation, the two of them ran off and were soon lifted out and into the sky. I took some video and then waited and watched as they caught some thermals and practiced manoeuvres and flew for about quarter of an hour before landing in a field. What I wasn't aware of from my perspective, was that as soon as they had taken flight, Fay had thrown up over Christian, then proceeded to do the same over the residents of Cochabamba, and then over the drivers car on the way back to the top. The lucky lucky devils.