Thursday, 5 August 2010

Marching bands and tear gas

After a night in the town of Uyuni, we were supposed to head across to Potosi, a town famous for its silver mines and architecture. However, upon arrival in Uyuni we heard the latest local news – a hill between Uyuni and Potosi had been found to contain a large deposit of minerals, and both towns were laying claim to it. The argument had turned into protests, and although there was a chance we would be able to get into Potosi, the likelihood of getting out again was slim. So we changed our plans, jumping on a bus to La Paz a couple of days early instead.

The journey was horrible – 14 hours crammed into a bus without suspension, so when we finally arrived in La Paz we were feeling rather irritable. The highest capital city in the world is pretty spectacular though, particularly on approach from above – many rows of houses line the high hills, culminating in the city itself situated in a bowl at the bottom. After settling into the hotel we went out for a wander, finding marching bands everywhere preparing for Bolivian independence day.

Unfortunately, a celebration about independence can sometimes stand hand in hand with political disputes. We had stopped for lunch after orienting ourselves when we heard an almighty bang and ran to the window – but what we at first thought were more band members was actually a little more serious – a group carrying an effigy of the Bolivian president and protesting in the streets had attacked a car, and the police had let off tear gas. Concerned about what would happen next, we waited a few minutes and then decided to leave the area – only we obviously hadn’t waited long enough as when we exited the restaurant our throats and noses were filled with the lingering gas, a burning sensation in our eyes and large bouts of sneezing.

We walked in the opposite direction, although that also proved to be a bad idea – a police car drove past and as it did so was chased by people throwing rocks at it which were bouncing off the car and the surrounding street walls and right by our heads. As rocks whizzed past our ears, we ran to the end of the street and decided it would probably be best to go back to the hotel before encountering more trouble. That incident aside, La Paz is an interesting city which I am very much looking forward to exploring over the next couple of days – there are many museums, local markets and winding alleys, and of course, mountain biking down the ‘death road’ (coming from the person who hasn’t been on a bike for years…)

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