The Day I Exploded Dynamite: Oruro and Potosi, Bolivia
It rains a lot in Bolivia. The rain started in Copacabana and really didn’t ever stop. Also it was cold. This weather didn’t help improve my impressions of the country. Bolivia is the country I have liked the least in the whole trip. There seems to be a culture of disliking foreigners and until we reached Oruro, I did not meet any Bolivians that I really liked.
This changed when we went for dinner in Oruro. We’d arrived into town pretty soaked, and found a hotel using my Footprints guide, which helpfully lists places which have parking. The Hotel Repostero delivered, and recommended that we go to Najama restaurant. We met up with Mark, another motorcyclist who we had met in Cusco. A firefighter from Idaho also riding a KLR, he decided to join us for dinner.
When we found the restaurant it looked closed but we went around the corner as the sign on the door suggested, and found that there was a restaurant upstairs that was open. We were warmly welcomed by the owner, Roberto, who spoke English, and was absolutely thrilled to find that we had two Alaskans in the group.
Roberto had spent a few years in Anchorage as head chef of a hotel there, and he regaled us with stories of his time travelling the world. He pulled out newspaper and magazine articles, which featured him in various stages of his career, including when he was cooking for playboy bunnies! We asked him if he ever dated a bunny, and his reply was that not only did he date them, he married one!
We ate a delicious meal of lamb and accompaniments, one of the best meals (but certainly not the cheapest) I ate in Bolivia. Roberto showed us pictures of his daughter, now a model in the USA, and the guys all drooled over her. Roberto was incredibly friendly, interested in our journey, and insisted on giving us shots of the local liquor and sweet treats at the end of our meal.
It was a delight to meet Roberto, who ended up being one of the few genuinely friendly and nice Bolivians I met.
We’d all heard that the direct route to Uyuni was washboard dirt road, and so after much debate, everyone decided to take the longer paved route via Potosi, which the Lonely Planet claims to be the highest city in the world (Google tells us differently however).
In Potosi we found the Koala Annex hostel, which allowed us to park our bikes in the main living area. Once again we were soaking wet. One of my boots, previously waterproof, had developed a leak, and so my left foot was swimming in freezing water for most of the ride. Once we’d dried out and bought some beers, we decided that instead of heading out in the rain, we’d order pizza to the hostel.
The pizzeria said it would be about 20 minutes, which I took to mean at least 45 minutes given the lax attitude Latinos have to time. An hour and 15 minutes later, we were starving, and the pizza still hadn’t appeared. We called the pizzeria and they promised it would be there in two minutes. Twenty minutes later we decided to forget about the pizza and go out to find something to eat.
As we were walking out the door the delivery driver called, saying he was in the plaza and would be there very soon. I told him to forget it, as we had given up and were heading out to find something else.
After finding the two places we’d looked up were closed, we ended up eating very unhealthy, but delicious, fried meat sandwiches from street stalls and headed to bed.
I had decided to go and see the local mines the next morning. To my great surprise, none of the guys wanted to come with me, some saying they’d already seen mines, and others expressing a degree of claustrophobia. Therefore it was decided that I would go on the mine tour by myself and they would head off on the three hour ride to Uyuni. I’d catch up in the afternoon when I got back from the tour.
The tour was very interesting. It was to an operating mine, where they extract silver, iron, zinc and lead using very old fashioned techniques.
First we were taken to dress in our miner gear.
Then we stopped at the processing plant, which was not operating at the time because it was just after Christmas.
Then we stopped at the miner’s market, where I bought some dynamite for about $3, because I could, and because our tour guide said he’d help me explode it in the mine.
We then went off to the mine itself. There weren’t a lot of miners working because they had all worked very hard before Christmas, and so were still having a bit of a break before returning back to work.
The walls of the mine were lined with sulphur and arsenic, and I didn’t feel that the handkerchief I had wrapped around my face was really good enough to save my lungs from harm. In fact I got quite a bad cold the next day that lasted for weeks. (This all happened on the 3rd of January, and it’s the end of January as I type this and I still cough at night.)
We met this miner, who was drunk on almost pure alcohol. He’d been in the mine for over 30 hours. Usually his kids come and help him, but this time he’d gone in alone. (Our guide told us that despite it being illegal, children as young as 12 work in the mines. The average lifespan of a miner is 42 years old.)
The grand finale of the tour was getting to set off the dynamite we’d bought.
It was very interesting touring the mine, but involved crawling on my belly through some very narrow passages, and breathing in some pretty dodgy things. I certainly would not ever want to work in there!
It was raining again as the bus took us back to change out of our mining outfits and back into our own clothes.
I was less than enthusiastic as I made my way back to the hostel to get my bike and head to Uyuni in the rain. However, as I walked into the hostel, I noticed that one of the guys had forgotten some things in the doorway. As I rounded the corner, I was greeted by the Alaskans, Josh and Jordon, who were in the process of pulling Jordon’s bike apart.
It turned out that Jordon had ridden his KLR (called Frank) out the door, and as he parked it on the road, it stalled and wouldn’t start again. Nothing any of the gang did made it start again. Eventually after it started to rain they pushed it back inside, the others finally left, and that is how I found Josh and Jordon. They had established that it wasn’t a problem with fuel or air, and all that left was spark.
After my problems in Alaska with the CDI, and Phil’s problems all the way down to Arizona, I consider myself to know a thing or two about the KLR’s electrical system. I pulled out my tools and joined in with the diagnosing.
Unfortunately it wasn’t anything easy. We changed the spark plug, the cap and cable, checked all the connections, and then started swapping parts from Josh’s bike to Jordon’s. I posted on a few forums to get advice, and emailed Chuck in Flagstaff who had helped finally solve Phil’s electrical problems.
Chuck got back to me right away, and said it was probably the pulse generator or the stator, both of which are located inside the engine case. I was willing to open up the cover, but Jordon rightly pointed out that even if we found the problem, we didn’t have replacement parts, and the risks of opening the cover and wrecking the gasket were too high, with no recourse to actually fix the problem.
We spent the whole afternoon and into the evening, but in the end, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to start Frank. We went out for a nice dinner, and decided that Jordon was going to have to find a truck or a bus to get Frank out of Potosi (which only has one moto mechanic, who is known to be incompetent) and down towards Salta, which was our next main destination.
In the morning, the lady who ran the hostel had contacted a friend who promised that it was possible to put both Jordon and Frank on a bus to the border that evening. Rather worryingly, Cricket had decided to gush oil out of her left fork, and there was a big puddle on the floor. To this day I have no idea why the oil came out after the bike had been sitting there for two days, but my decision to just change the fork oil and clean the seals rather than replacing them in Lima now seemed foolish.
I still really wanted to see the salt flats, and so decided to ride to Uyuni, Josh was going to come with me, right up until the last minute, when he decided he just couldn’t abandon his riding partner in his time of need. So off I went on my own.