Last saludos from Bolivia

January 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last week a made a 2 day tour through the Salar with a tourist agency, main goal was to  take some more pictures which focus on tourism in the Salar. Only in winter time from Dec-Feb, occasionally a few inches of water cover parts of the salt flat and make the Salar a big big mirror. Fascinating to see and to drive through with a jeep. At the edge of the Salar we stayed overnight in a small village and it totally felt like Scotland – stone towers and walls and really green which is rare for the Bolivian Altiplano (highland).This was my last post from Bolivia. Will head to Germany soon and keep you updated how editing and making prints and design the book and exhibition will keep me busy until July!

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Playing golf at 4300 Meters?

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

The nowadays small village of Pulacayo, situated 18 kms from Uyuni at an altitude of 4100 (!) Meters, was home to the the biggest Bolivian silver mine of the 20th century. In the 1940’s/50’s, up to 60.000 people lived there, an incredible contrast compared to 2011 as only 500 people still live in Pulacayo.

The cemetery of Pulacyo 

As there where many European, specifically British and German engineers working in the Pulacayo mining industry, these people brought some European sports culture with them to the Bolivian Andes. One example for that: they constructed a golf course! An older man who remembered the golf course described me where it had been, and after walking an hour or so through the hills of Pulacayo I found something that could be the ruins of the golf court. That concrete kind of thing in the next photos, was this the teeing ground? It’s strange to imagine that people would play golf in such an environment – as the photos maybe show, this place can be terribly windy! For sure, this must have been one of the highest golf courses worldwide, at 4300 Meters!

One of several old, abandoned tennis courts.In Germany, we call this SEIFENKISTE (soap box, I guess that makes no sense )The old machine and metall workshop is full with old European machinerie from England and Germany. This one is from Wuppertal.These 2 tanks were produced recently in this very old workshop. They will be used at the lithium pilot plant soon.A locomotive from the German Ruhr Area (Essen).But the highlight of this day was the fact that I meet two Austrian guys, Michael and Thomas. They are producing a documentary film on Pulacayo and when we met they had their last day in the village after 6 weeks of filming. Their translator wasn´t available that day so when they made their last interview with “Franz” (see the next picture) I translated for them.Their film will be finished by the end of the year, we thought about combining my exhibition in Berlin with a screening of their film!One last thing: many many cars and trucks in Bolivia are used, imported ones from Europe, especially Scandinavia. Often there are still stickers of the old companies on the trucks – this one was Swedish I guess. Bolivians love VOLVO trucks.Taxi with japanese (?) lettering.Greetins from Room Nr 14 !

Tourism at it´s best

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

After visiting the previous places at the Salar where I focused mostly on mining and work, I came back to Uyuni and continued some parts of my work which I had begun during my last trip. I photographed interiors of restaurants, offices and officials and some other Bolivian curiosities.
One of these curiosities can be found in almost every tourist agency (and there is more than a dozen of them in small Uyuni): people who have done a tour through the Salt lake area with an agency write on a piece of paper that they liked this specific tour agency, because the food was good or the driver was knowledgeable or whatever  (most of these writings, doesn’t matter which language, say the same positive stuff – they are almost never critical).  I think the value of these papers isn’t a big one for tourist who search an agency, but some are fun to read. And all these amazing Asian texts!
But first 2 photographs of my recent restaurant visits:

Here a small selection of recommendations:And finally another great socialist office (of the miners federation).

Getting to know Rio Grande

January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

After visiting the lithium plant I spend 3 days in Rio Grande where I had already been in 2010. I meet again Luis and his colleagues who are borax (a mineral and a component of many detergents, cosmetics etc.) workers. I had brought them some copies of the group photo I had taken the last time, and that kind of opened some doors for me. So the next 2 days I spent a lot of time with the workers, which allowed me to get closer to them and gain their trust. We had lunch and dinner together and I also hung out with them in their very basic accomodation which is nothing else than a room with some beds and no window, no electricity, not bathroom, no heating which in bolivain winter is really hard. The 7 seven guys are mostly between 18-30 years old, and being originally from La Paz it seemed to be hard for them to be away from their homes and families for several weeks before coming home for a week or so. Also, their work is physically challenging and more than one of them seemed to have pain in his back and knees at night, after 9-10 hours work, loading dozens of 50 kilo bags of minerals on trucks and train wagons.
Group photo with Luis and his workers. Remember that room?In this (new!) barrack they have one room for all of them.These 2 photos show my “accomodation” while I stayed in Rio Grande. This small village has no hotel or such thing, so after one night on the restaurants floor I finally stayed in the old medical centre of Rio Grande (next photo), thanks to a young dentist whom I met and how offered me this room. Thanks, Gualberto!Wednesday I wanted to take the bus back to Uyuni, actually during the day 2 buses passed through the village, but both were so crowded and full that there was no way for me and my luggage to get in. The bus looked like a japanese subway train during  rush hour,totally over-crowded. But as I was not in a hurry, I stayed one more night. The next day I could get to Uyuni with a jeep which was way more comfortable , faster and with a great views on the landscape as the driver took another route than the bus.

Visiting the lithium pilot plant in Lipi again

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Compared to the first time I visited the lithium pilot plant in September 2010, constructions works have advanced a lot. Several evaporation pools are fully installed now, and according to informations of the state run Comibol firm, they are about to start the process of producing lithium carbonate soon (something like a first test run I think). 

To be out there in the salt lake and to see these big pools and completely masked workers was again a strange feeling. Indeed, it didn’t feel that much like earth but rather like being on a different planet. What I found even stranger than the last time was the fact, that the pools where filled with liquid salt brine and workers walked through it. So it was not only hot and windy and very dry as it is usually in the Salar, but now I could even listen to the waves of the pools. Felt like being in the desert but listening to the ocean. I hope some of the many pictures I took show this weird atmosphere.

Just to give a short summary of the chemical process they want to use in the Salar: under the thick crust of hard,dry salt that covers the salt lake there are several layers of “liquid salt”, called salt brine. This brine is a chemical solution that contains not only lithium, but also   magnesium, potassium and more minerals and metals. This brine is pumped into the first evaporation pool, and because of the big surface of the pool the water of the brine evaporates. What remains is another solution that is being pumped to the next pool. There, the evaporation process continues. Like this, they pump the left over solutions from pool to pool. They have to add certain chemicals, and of course this is a simple summary of the process, but the end product of the process then is lithium carbonate – an important material for the production of Li-Ion batteries.

A weekend in Colchani

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The weekend I spent mostly in Colchani. 25 kms from Uyuni, Colchani is a village (300 inhabitants) at the shore of the Salar, and all the jeep tours that visit the Salar pass through this village. Locals have some stands, selling small things made out of salt and the usual tourist-gift-stuff, but apart from that it’s a pretty deserted place. On my last trip I had already spent an afternoon here with David, my british friend who writes about the lithium project and the people that live on the Salar.

I decided to come back because I wanted to know more about the people that live in Colchani and their work. Most of the men work as “salt workers”, bringing tons of salt (directly “scratched” from the Salar’s surface) to the village. After a short process of drying and purification, the salt is then packed in small bags and sold as regular salt for cooking etc. I don’t know when this practice stopped, but until the late 20th century caravanes (with animals) brought the salt to cities like Tupiza where they traded the salt against other goods. Nowadays huge trucks transport the salt to various places in Bolivia, some is even for exportation.

In september I had photographed Carlos, a 20 year old who has been working in the salt for 5 years now. After asking a bunch of people, I found Carlos again and brougt him a copy of the photo I took of him. I spent the whole afternoon with him, and in an old old Nissan truck (must be from the 50’s or 60’s) we went out to the Salar. Days before, Carlos had prepared several, 1 meter high pyramids of salt. Like that, the (slightly wet) salt could dry quicker.   Carlos then shuffeled 4 of these “salt pyramids” on the truck, and as he finished after 1,5 hrs or so, I asked him how much salt that had been. He said appr. 5 tons are now on the truck. We drove back to the village and Carlos unloaded the salt at his companies courtyard. Three times a day he drives to the Salar and back, and when 5 tons is the correct number (sounds quite a lot to me), Carlos moves 30 tons of salt every day – with his own hands, no machines included! I tried to help him shuffling the salt on the truck, and I must admit it is damn hard labour, which most West-Europeans could never imagine.

Carlos shuffling salt on the truck.Here are the “pyramids” of salt.

On our way back to the village of Colchani we picked up this woman who is also a salt worker.
Survival of the fittest?!

Arriving in Uyuni

January 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

After organizing some stuff in La Paz I took the night bus to Uyuni. Half of the “highway” to Uyuni is paved, the other half is not. Even worse, the street to Uyuni seems to be one of the worst in the country. For several hours I felt like in a permanent earthquake, in was not possible to continue the sweet sleep of the first half of the trip. Most of all I was worried about my equipment, because of course all this shaking cannot be really good for laptop and cameras.

I arrived in Uyuni and on of the first things I noted: it was so much warmer then the last time I was here. Even early in the mornings temperatures where almost towards 20 Celsius, and the sun had arleady a lot of power. Raining saison? Not here, not now. Here and there you even find some green plants and trees now, the city looks way more welcoming . And there are more tourists here, or to be more precisely: there are hundreds of tourists here waiting for the trip to the Salar. They mostly seem to come from Argentina, must be their winter holidays. Or is there a new hype about  visiting the salt flats of Uyuni? Bolivians told me tourism in this area here grows a lot. Would be an interesting questions if, in the long run, lithium extraction and the whole infrastructure and plants it needs, will affect tourism in the Salar? One must not forget that the salt lake is very large, 100 kms long in some parts, so I can´t imagine the lithium industry will affect tourism directly. But of course environmental pollution is an issue bolivian authorities will have to deal with carefully.

I will visit the lithium pilot plant probably (!) Monday and Tuesday, but it’s not clear how I will get there. Hopefully an technician or a truck that delivers fuel to the plant will take me with him the 70 kms from Uyuni to the plant. It’s hard to imagine but if you want to see some remote places here in the bolivian altiplano (highland at appr. 3600 mtrs), and you ask for bus connections, an answer can be: oh yes,there is a bus to XX . Goes there every Friday, comes back Saturday. There are also some trains, e.g. one train goes once per weeks to Chile – Mondays at 3 .30 AM. What I want to say: if you want to see Bolivia, you either have a lot of money and rent a car with driver, or you bring a lot of time.

I brought time.

Here some snapshots.

Another great bus design.

Room 14. My home for the next 1-2 weeks. I like Hotel Avenida! (and its 4 Dollar per night only )

Lot’s of stickers on the receptions window…

So I’m not the first one of the province of Northrhine-Westphalia (West Germany)


Yesterday and today I visited the village of Colchani. More to come soon!
Looks as if sunny days will disappear soon. In the foreground, pure salt.

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