A big Bolivian adventure
I didn't know anything about Bolivia before we planned to go there. Apart from the fact that it's in South America, the women wear bowler hats and there are lamas. All that was true but the trip took us from steamy cloud forest to the high plateau of the Alto Plano, through chaotic cities and a wide empty landscape where it seemed impossible to scrape a living. And although it was a heavy birding tour I loved every minute.
It helped that the people we were travelling with were such a joy. We'd known the organiser Peter for ages - he was assistant warden in Fair Isle Bird Obs while I was cooking there - and he knew everyone else on the trip. Our local guide was Miguel, a charming Argentinian. We arrived a couple of days before the presidential election to discover that the sale of alcohol was banned until the day after the ballot was closed. The fact that everyone was equally horrified by the lack of beer at the end of the day seemed a good sign. The long journeys in Fernando's bus were enlivened by laconic comments from Scott, schoolboy smut from Tim and the sort of shared conversations that only happen between sympathetic strangers thrown together in adversity. I haven't laughed so much in years.
Bolivia isn't developed for tourism. There are good hotels in the few cities but these are used mostly by business people. Away from the main connecting highways the roads are largely unpaved and often un-mapped. There are few road signs. People who advocate 'light government' should witness the result: overloaded lorries, half-built houses, collisions that cause huge tailbacks because no-one is around to control the traffic. But I found all that exciting - it was different from anywhere I'd been before. Because we travelled such long distances I had many glimpses of domestic life - a woman spinning by the side of the road, people collecting coca on the steep mountain terraces, men and boys on horseback moving cattle. The beginnings of stories, tantalising.
What I'll remember most is the variety of landscape. There were cloud forests with brightly-coloured flowers attracting tiny humming birds, flat low plains with giant rheas wandering across them, snow-covered peaks caught in bright sunlight and the blue expanse of Lake Titicaca at the end of the trip. Every day brought new delights. I've come back with terrific memories and a lot of new friends.