Weekend Adventure – Toro Toro

Norte Potosi trip

Last Friday, I was supposed to go to a village in Norte Potosi for a conference on food sovereignty. Unfortunately, I was misinformed on trufi schedules (or the trufi driver decided not to show up – very possible) and I waited for an hour only to get a call while on the trufi telling me that the bus to the conference had already left. So I and Ryan, the volunteer who also works at my org, decided to explore the small town of Quillacollo just as it was coming to life at 8 AM. Their version of La Cancha market had hundreds of vendors hastily setting up stalls with fresh meat and produce while breakfast bread and pastry stands were quickly selling out. There was also a really nice church near the main plaza so we wandered through and took some pictures. The church is dedicated to the Virgin de Urkupiña and the town is known for their celebration of the festival of the same name in mid August.
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After strolling through the market, we got some coffee at a little side street cafe and then headed back home. At this point it was only about 10 and we realized one great benefit of missing this trip – we could join the group of Sustainable Bolivia volunteers going to Toro Toro national park for the weekend! They were going to leave around 4:30 so originally we would have missed it but now we had enough time to get home, pack, change money, and take a nap since we had woken up so early.

Road to Toro Toro

The trip didn’t start off too well because we went to the wrong bus stand. We ended up having to walk about 40 minutes to find the right station. Luckily, we had left early enough that we were still a half hour early and we were able to get tickets for everyone. The catch was that the bus was overbooked so myself and Abel sat in the aisle with some other travelers. But the other 13 people in our group got seats mostly together and I was able to lean on some of their legs so we were fine overall. The ride took about 5 hours including for a stop & search by police along the way. We got in to the pueblo of Toro Toro around midnight and found our hostel. It was modest but good enough for a place to rest and at 40 Bs per night it was a good deal. Plus for just an extra 45 Bs we got a small breakfast, a bagged lunch and dinner after our hike. That was an excellent deal!

Saturday Caverns

The next morning we set out around 10 AM lunch bags in hand. The first part of the day included a hike into the hills and through some mountainside caves. The hiking was fairly mild but had some great views of the valleys below and the mountain ranges surrounding us. We also came across some sheep and donkeys along the path while a few condors flew overhead. It was a nice warm up for the next adventure.
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After lunch, we set off for the underground caverns. We needed headlamps to see our way through the pitch black tunnels. The descent into the cavern was really an obstacle course. There were parts where we had to crawl on hands and knees to get through and other parts where we had to hold on to a rope and lower ourselves down to the next level. Then there were slippery rocks to navigate and even a tiny twisting tunnel which required us to lay down flat and slide along like snakes. All the while, only seeing in a small circle of light directly ahead of us. The guides Luis and Victor warned us beforehand that anyone afraid of the dark or of small spaces should probably stay behind. No one stayed behind and in the end our trek was rewarded with a cool waterfall with some pale fish swimming at the bottom.

After an exhilarating first day, we arrived back at our hostel to a huge dinner of pique macho. It’s a Bolivian dish that has chunks of beef, sausage, onions, tomatoes and  boiled eggs piled up on top of fried potatoes – exactly what we needed after a full day of hiking, climbing and crawling. Post dinner we partied a little to celebrate our day before getting a few hours rest to prepare for day 2.

Sunday Canyon & Waterfall

Sunday’s itinerary was to hike down the side of a canyon to the river and waterfall at the bottom. I thought it sounded easy enough but I was very wrong. Well, actually it was pretty easy going down, it’s the getting back up that kills you. Along the way, we saw several dinosaur footprints including the largest one in Bolivia – believed to belong to a brontosaurus. Our guides told us there are over 3,500 dinosaur tracks in the country and there is a museum where most of the fossils are collected. As we got to the canyon there was a small walkway where you could see through the bottom and see nothing but air for thousands of meters below your feet. The view was breathtaking; it was like the smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon.
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The walk down took a little less than an hour along narrow stairs along the canyon walls. Definitely not a walk for the faint of heart. When I got to the bottom, I looked up to see how far we’d come and I realized it was going to be a long climb back to the top. At that moment though I just wanted to stand under the waterfall and take a swim. After a couple of hours of alternately swimming in the freezing water and warming up in the sun, we headed back. The return was every bit as grueling as expected but we stopped several times to take pictures and rest so we didn’t kill ourselves. I really enjoyed the two days in the outdoors with all the different sights and experiences. Yet it was really only a small taste of the rich natural wonder of Bolivia.

Random Observations, Rain, and Trash

Random Observations

  • There are so many stray dogs everywhere; so far they’ve been pretty friendly to me but I still keep my distance just in case. There is also a lot of dust – my jeans are pretty much dirty all the time.

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  • I heard a rumor that McDonald’s was banned from Bolivia. But there is a Burger King here. After taking to a few people it seems what actually happened is there was a mass boycott and McDonald’s couldn’t stay in business. Whatever the case, besides the Burger King, I have yet to see large multinational chains around here. Small independent sellers and a handful of Bolivian chains seems to be the norm. One huge exception though – Coca-Cola is everywhere. From what I hear they provide supplies such as tables, chairs, and stands to many small stores and restaurants in exchange for having their signage prominently displayed. I’m not sure if this is a good thing overall. On one hand, it saves these small businesses some start-up costs which they may not have been able to borrow from elsewhere. On the other had, they’re promoting an unhealthy and addictive product. I would think these entrepreneurs could have managed without Coke’s help.

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  • I do know I’m a fan of more local businesses rather than large multinationals. In general, the need for economic scale and efficiency of large corporations seems overblown while the harm/danger of concentration of money and power in fewer companies is usually ignored. At least with local businesses, the concentration of wealth is in many more hands and those hands tend to stay local. I think worker-owned enterprises are even better. Just a tangent on economic issues.
  • Practically every street here has an internet cafe. And most of them seem to be for online gaming. Funny how these things become popular in unexpected places.
  • Beauty salons and barber shops seem to love using Hollywood celebrity photos as advertisement. So if I want I can ask for Ryan Gosling’s haircut.

Rain and Trash Day

Last Wednesday it rained for the first time since I’ve been here and the power went out for most of the day. I hear it’s pretty common and it’s something I’ve also experienced in India. I was supposed to take the trash out at 6 am but the rain made me postpone that. Let me clarify; take out the trash in Cochabamba does not mean put it on the sidewalk in front of the house the night before. It means get up at 6, drag the bins to the corner and wait for the truck to pass by sometime between 6:15 and 6:30 hopefully. You might be asking as I did: why not leave it out at night? Well, remember those stray dogs I mentioned? They would tear through the trash in minutes and even if they didn’t, the trash only gets picked up if someone is standing with it. Interesting system.

Stay tuned for an update on our weekend trip to Toro Toro national park…

Almuerzo, Eco-festival and Dia del Maestro

Almuerzo Completo

I finally got to try an “almuerzo completo” or “complete lunch” last week. For between 10 to 20 bolivianos, you get a salad bar, soup, main course with 2 or 3 sides and a small dessert. A full meal for less than $3! I had spinach soup, fried trout, rice and 2 kinds of potatoes. Several people had told me potatoes were a big part of the cochabamba diet but it’s not just your typical potatoes. There are so many different varieties: brown, red, blue, large, small, potatoes that look like smooth round stones and potatoes that look like ginger roots. I’ll probably never want to eat potatoes again once I leave here but for now I’m loving every bite. My hope now is to become a regular at two or three lunch spots.

Eco-festival

On Tuesday, I went to work early but there were no students at the center. It turned out they were at an environmental fair instead. I ventured off to the fair at Plaza Bolivar. There were several exhibits put on by students from primary and secondary schools in the area – everything from ideas to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to a guide on composting, tips for saving water and even a miniature working model of a drip irrigation system. Each exhibit was accompanied by a presentation by the students. I left thoroughly impressed with how well these kids understood the issues of sustainability. (More photos to come when I get my camera working)
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Dia del Maestro

Last Thursday was Teacher’s Day. Schools and many other organizations got the day off and many of them have performances to celebrate teachers. How awesome is that! Teachers should definitely be valued and appreciated for the important roles they play in the lives of our youth.

Last week in my exploring, I also learned that while La Cancha is the largest and most famous of them, there are smaller markets everywhere in Cochabamba and Quillacolla. I see many people in traditional dress at these markets.
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Week 1: last part

Wednesday

On Wednesday I visited PAI Tarpuy, the organization where I’ll be working. They’re a small group that runs a youth center to provide tutoring, sports and a safe environment to help kids build confidence and social skills, and improve school performance. Primarily, the organization focuses on street kids. They are located in the town of Quillacolla about 15km west of Cocha.
To get there we took a trufi – trufis are vans which operate like buses with set routes except you can flag them down and get on or off anywhere along the route. Bolivia makes me feel tall which is cool but sometimes uncomfortable such as when I have to crouch and bend my head to stand up in the trufi. Luckily I got a seat before my neck caught a cramp. In any case, I spent only about 20 min at the youth center where kids from 3 to 13 were doing HW or playing games.

Thursday

The next day was the festival of Corpus Christi which meant most businesses and organizations had the day off. So a couple of the other volunteers and I decided to brave the legendary “La Cancha”. It is the largest outdoor market in South America. One of the first warnings we got during orientation was “don’t bring valuables to La Cancha” followed by “you don’t want to be in La Cancha after dark”. We picked a good day for our first visit though because half the stalls were closed and the crowd was much smaller than usual. Don’t get me wrong, by typical American standards it was fairly busy but by La Cancha standards it was a ghost town. The stalls extend for several blocks in every direction and are packed very tightly together while the aisles have barely enough room for people to pass each other. I at least was able to buy a wallet and some tomatoes.
After getting a small taste of La Cancha, we went to the main plaza to see some of the festival artwork.
Lining an entire street were many huge arrangements of flowers, colored dirt and salt portraying various religious symbols. It was beautiful and intricate; unfortunately, my pictures didn’t come out.

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Friday

Nervous and excited for my first day of work (only a half day at that), I caught the trufi 10 minutes early and it ran faster than expected so I ended up getting there about 20 minutes early. It was closed and no one was there because typically in Bolivia everything (besides restaurants and markets) closes between 12 and 2 for lunch break. I had heard about this tradition but didn’t think about it when deciding when to show up for work.
Eventually one of the staff showed up and the kids began trickling in to do their homework. With my limited Spanish, I tried to help but it was challenging. One question was what are the three parts of the ear. I can’t even answer that in English never mind translating to Spanish! I found my niche though in helping with math by using numbers and pictures to explain things. By the end of the day, 4 hours of testing the limits of my foreign language skills had left me brain dead. It was a fun, challenging, inspiring and thoroughly exhausting first day of work.

Week 1 continued…

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One of the first things you see is the Cristo statue to the east overlooking the city and then the mountains to the north. After a brief orientation at the office, we took a walking tour of the city. One stop that I remember well is the 25 de Mayo market, a supermarket of sorts with maybe 100 stalls of fruits, veggies, grains, toiletries and other such things you usually see in a supermarket. The difference here is that you are buying directly from local producers/vendors rather than from a multinational company.
I finished the day by attending a discussion on the indigenous Quechua language, its history & significance, and current policies to preserve it. All in all “un buen primer día”.

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Week 1 in Bolivia: Taking in the Sights

I arrived at the main office of Sustainable Bolivia (SB) at 10 am on Tuesday. I left my parents place in Brooklyn, NY Monday morning around 7 so the total journey took close to 27 hours. Probably half that time was spent in airports (JFK to Panama to Lima to La Paz to Cochabamba). In La Paz airport I slept for 3 hours waiting for the ticket counters to open. I experienced a little altitude sickness – La Paz is the highest airport in the world. I didn’t have a flight to Cocha yet because I heard it was cheaper to book at the airport. There’s also a 6 hour bus option but there had been a lot of protests recently and there was a good chance the highway would be blockaded. As a side note, in Bolivia as in much of Latin America, it seems you’re not a real protest until you’ve managed to block a highway.

My first day in Cocha was just taking in the sights…