The journey home

The following day, Paul and Nev set off for La Paz and the rest of us started preparing to leave. The weather was still poor and we had more snowfall. The next day it cleared up a bit and Rich and I went up to the Buena Vista col to recover the tent and equipment we had left. We found the tent in the middle of an 8-inch pool of water and as it was snowing again we put off going up to the Ancohuma glacier to the following morning.

It snowed all night and we were in a foot of fresh snow and a strong head wind by the time we reached the site of the dump. We had some difficulty finding it in the drifts; it felt distinctly like the end of the season. We dug the gear out of the snow, loaded everything up and with a last look back, and feeling bitterly cold, set off down to base camp for the last time.

On Friday 1st August we were woken by Angelino and the rest of the llamas and men arrived during the day. We were in a strange frame of mind, pushing thoughts into the back of our heads and mundanely packing our bags, even posing for publicity photos, which, of course, would never be used. Angelino was ill at ease and clearly didn’t quite know how to react in the circumstances, I think he found us rather too cold and uncaring. I tried to explain that I had been brought up not too show my feelings, but wondered if that was the real reason. They had brought up several varieties of boiled potatoes; Bolivia is the land of the spud. We negotiated, as always through Angelino, a transport rate that involved them keeping all our tinned food. They have little in the way of meat and protein and were glad of a change from tinned fish.

Next morning, they set off at 5.00 am, we left a little later. We had 29 llama loads and 2 man loads; it had been 60 and10 on the way in. I was walking with Angelino, when we reached a spot on the shoulder behind the lake and just before we would have lost sight of base camp, he took the can of petrol he was carrying, poured some on the ground and set fire to it. This was all done impassively in silence, he then turned round and continued along the path. What ever it signified, it seemed appropriate, I didn’t ask him.

We arrived at the village at 2.30 pm and started up the climb to the mine. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared; being acclimatized makes a big difference. At the mine we were made welcome again, and settled in for what was to be a 6 day wait, a sort of purgatory, a strange, unreal period between two worlds, high up in the Andes, the mountains on the right, the Amazon basin on the left, and the clouds all around. Sitting in a little whitewashed room, lit with a paraffin lamp, we had time to think.

There were some students staying at the mine, and we managed to talk a little more easily with them than the indians who, apart from Angelino, only spoke Aymara. It wasn’t clear why they were there, they sort of avoided the subject when we asked, I wondered if it wasn’t related to the fact that the military government had recently closed the university- when we had been in La Paz the bullet holes were still visible on the facade. We also had a few games of football with the locals, more Steve’s speciality than mine. The miners were much shorter than us but stockier and much broader in the chest, apparently their bodies have adapted to life on the Altiplano and they have bigger hearts and lungs. At more than 4,000 metres, they had a physical advantage on us but it was fairly balanced all the same.

Finally the Club Andino camionetta arrived, we loaded up in the rain, and were off. We had a little trouble with the engine, and after 5 hours and a highest pass at 15 500 feet we arrived in Sorrato at 10 pm. We spent a night in a hotel, serenaded by barking dogs and inebriated locals till dawn; it was Friday night, after all. We drove across the Altiplano, sitting on the roof taking photographs and we were soon in La Paz. The police made an investigation into the accident, and the formalities took a few days. We booked into the same cheap hotel near the top, and hence cheaper, area of the Spanish part of town.

An incident was quite revealing about one aspect of the social situation in Bolivia. When we said goodbye to Angelino he had said he had to come to La Paz shortly and we had naturally given him the address of the hotel and invited him to come and see us when he came, after all he had done for us the least we could do was to invite him for a meal. He duly turned up at the hotel, but wouldn’t come in. We went out to see him and he explained that it was a European hotel, and he was an indian, he couldn’t come in... A simple incident of everyday racism that apparently was so common that it was not even seen as shocking, or at least no one said they were shocked. This in a country where 60% of the population are pure indian, 30% mixed and only about 10% European.

For the return Paul Bunting and I were to accompany the gear to Arica to ship it back to Britain, and the others were keen to visit Cuzco and Macchu Pichu, the Inca city, in Peru, we would meet up later for the flight home. I would have liked to travel round Peru, but I was still keen to visit Chile, Allende was president at the time and I was curious to see the country - all of us knew that it was unlikely we would ever return to this part of the world.

The way to Arica was by train, a Bolivian one to the border and a Chilean one to Arica. The difference between the trains mirrored the difference between the two countries. The Bolivian train was slow and the carriages seemed to be straight out of a Western with a platform at each end and the interior all dark, carved wood. The Chilean one was rapid, light, and modern. At the frontier, in the middle of the desert, was a small, isolated collection of buildings where we changed both trains and worlds, yet another special, slightly unreal place among so many we had seen.

We had to wait a little, in the distance the twin volcanic cones of Sajama (6,520m) and Pannacota rose out of the desert plain. Nearer at hand, as it grew dark, indian women set up stalls and sold food to the travellers. There was a group of young Chilean railway men there too, and we chatted a bit. The conversation continued during the overnight journey to Arica, they were all keen supporters of Allende, and the trip passed quickly. Paul’s politics being of a distinctly more conservative bent than mine and the enthusiasm (mixed with apprehension as the situation in the country was already very tense) of our travelling companions gave plenty of scope for discussion. I wonder what became of them in the military coup, exactly a year later on 11th September 1973 ?

In Arica we were back in the 20th century, the Pacific Ocean stretched before us, viewed from a beauty spot high on the cliffs overlooking the town and port. Paul sorted out the arrangements with the shipping agent, and we had a little time for tourism. The economic difficulties were very apparent, for the Chileans meat was en expensive item, and to get any involved endless queuing, but for us, with US dollars to change, anything was available. We ordered chicken in a restaurant and were amazed, and a little embarrassed, given the shortages and long queues we had seen, when we were served half an entire chicken each! There were Chilean flags to be seen everywhere and quite a few hand written posters in support of the Popular Front, but clearly things were not going well, we didn’t imagine just how badly it would soon end, in a country that prided itself on its democracy and the neutrality of its army, unlike Bolivia, or so we thought. When I look at my photographs of Chileans, I have that same oppressing feeling as when I look at my slides taken in Afghanistan two years before, how many of those smiling faces are still of this world today?

Anyway, it was now time to be off and we took the overnight bus North along the famous Pan American Highway to Peru. It was a bright sunny clear morning when we arrived in Arequipa, Peru’s second city. Snow covered mountains stood out against a deep blue sky, with one of the most remarkable Spanish colonial style squares of South America, called as usual “Plaza de Armas”, to provide a foreground. We had a break for tourism and I bought some locally made filigree silver jewellery, we were no longer mountaineers, but mere tourists buying souvenirs like all the others.

By now we were in danger of being late for our flight from Lima, and there wasn’t a suitable bus, so we found a “collectivo” to take us to Lima airport. This is a typical, and very logical, South American solution, which combines flexibility with reasonable cost. The driver of what is essentially a taxi, often, as in our case, an aging, but spacious, US gas-guzzler, finds a full carload of travellers heading in the same direction who share the cost. Our driver was not exactly a youth, but he promised to drive all night and get us to the airport in time.

We soon started on an epic journey along the Pan Am highway. The hours went by and it was now dark, the driver began to make the most amazing twitches, and the trajectory became more and more erratic, but he couldn’t stop, he’d made a promise. Eventually, he pulled in to fill up with petrol. He got out, spoke furtively to another man, and staggered, half asleep, round the back of a little hut, a sort of snack bar. A few minutes later he came back, walking as sprightly as a young man who had just had twelve hours sleep, smiling and wide awake. I don’t know what he took behind the snack bar, but it must have been stronger than coffee! Whatever it was, he kept his promise and we caught our plane, and said goodbye to South America. In my diary I noted: “Arrived Lima by collectivo at 6.30 am. Left by plane 7.30 am.”, a close run thing.

As we had a little time left, Paul Bunting and I decided to make use of the flexibility of our Air Equatoriana tickets and have a day or two in Panama. Another country, different again. We stayed in a distinctly seedy hotel in “down town” Panama City, complete with saloon style wooden balconies indoors on the first floor, like in the Westerns, stifling heat and bottles of cold beer that we drank lying on the beds. We hired a Volkswagen beetle the next day and, after one tight scrape when we found ourselves driving the wrong way down a four lane one-way boulevard, head on towards a quadruple horde of Panamanian buses and lorries, we managed to find our way to the canal zone. We spent a pleasant day exploring and taking photos, I had splashed out on a telephoto lens in the airport duty free zone, the pelican is one of many shots I snapped with it that day.

The next stop was Miami. A nice touch, just before arriving, was when I looked out the window to see that one of our four turbo props didn’t seem to be turning anymore. I called the air-hostess and pointed this out, she just smiled, as South American air-hostesses know how, and said it was OK, there were still three left, don’t worry.

She was, of course, quite right and we arrive safely in Miami. Here we had decided we just had time to “take in” the Florida Keys and went to hire a car in the airport. We were quite looking forward to driving what the brochure listed as their smallest “compact”; a Ford Mustang! Ironically, in the home of the mighty dollar they wouldn’t take cash for the hire, they insisted on a credit card, and as neither of us had one, they were not yet in common use in Britain, we had to give up our project even though we had more than enough money in our pockets. After spending more than two months in lands where no one liked gringos but their dollars would buy anything on the face of the earth, here, in the land of the gringos, they wouldn’t even take those same dollars.

Soon we were on the Greyhound for New York, which provided us with more examples of the charm of the natives; after a “rest” stop, the driver noticed that one of his passengers was late coming back from the “bathroom”. He waited till he was just in sight before driving off with a roar of the engine and characteristic remarks about the passenger’s panic. He eventually relented and let the poor man on, when he’d had his little “joke”.

In New York it was very hot, I went to cross the road when the sign said, “Don’t walk” and was roundly abused by a fat cop, who ostentatiously put his hand to his revolver in the process. This was after a pleasant chat with a taxi driver who I had asked the way to the airport, telling him I had time to spare and wanted to walk. “Look buster, if ye’ want me te take ye’ there, get in, if not F*** off!” This is what I did, and after a shopping expedition with Paul, who wanted to buy a camera, we got to the airport, into a well loaded, extremely long, “stretched” DC10, and after an interminable trundle along the runway, we were airborne and just a night away from Heathrow. We had been away almost exactly 3 months.