Politics & Festivals

Politics
Elections are slated for September 6th in Guatemala – a new president will be elected and several other national positions are up for grabs. After all the corruption scandals and protests this year that led several high ranking politicians to resign or be removed from office, people are hungry for responsible and responsive leadership. But so far I hear it’s still the same old story albeit with new faces…but I don’t know enough to comment on that.

What I do know is that for the past two months there have been an overwhelming amount of political spectacles trying to win votes for candidates. Almost every party – and there are at least 15 of them – has held boisterous rallies with blaring music and long-winded speeches, marches through the streets, vehicles with large speakers on their roofs driving through town at all hours blasting popular songs with the lyrics adapted to support their candidates, and lots and lots of fireworks. I’ve never really enjoyed political campaign seasons but I have especially disliked this one as it has stolen several hours of sleep from me each week, so I’m looking forward to the elections as much as anyone. Well I guess I’m looking forward to the day after the elections – but there will likely be fireworks and music from the winning party then so there goes that plan.

A disproportionate amount of political campaign spending is targeted at rural areas. Here many parties offer gifts to their supporters – essentially buying votes. Unfortunately it’s an effective tactic more often than not because levels of education and understanding of the political system are so low. Last week I witnessed the presidential candidate for one of the largest parties fly in to Chajul on a helicopter only to speak for a few minutes. But thousands of people were bussed in from surrounding villages to fill the streets and welcome the guy. In a town where more than half the residents live in poverty it was a bit unnerving to put it mildly.

I’m looking forward to the elections not only for the extra sleep I’ll get but also to see if the recent protests will have any real impact on the results. In the United States, our “democracy” has almost always really been an oligarchy where policy is decided by the wishes of the wealthiest and most connected people, not by the general public. Probably more than half the time the wishes of the elites and the majority coincide but when they clash it’s the elites that get their way about 4 out of 5 times. I’ll hold out judgment on Guatemalan democracy until I see how things turn out next month and over the next year.

Annual Town Festival
Every town has an annual feria or festival to celebrate its patron. For Nebaj the patron is “Santa Maria de la Asunción” or the Assumption of Mary which falls on August 15th. The feria lasts the entire week leading up to the date. People come from all around to see the sights, play carnival games and dance in the costume parades. Nebaj seemed to have transformed into Disney World overnight – or at least into Coney Island. There were two Ferris wheels set up, there was a full block of foosball tables, stalls of food and trinket vendors lining all the side streets near the central park, and a town dance every night. There were even some pretty impressive fireworks on the last two nights.
image

image

The last two days saw the custome parades from 7 am until 9 pm. The first day is for men with a wide range of outfits mostly inspired by cartoons it seems; There were even a couple of dragonball z characters. The next day was for women who also seemed inspired by cartoons except maybe a little more by anime. They were very elaborate costumes but I must say I was disappointed not to see more Mayan costumes.  The town dances were definitely my favorite part of it all; I went to three of them.

Weekend Adventures in Nebaj

Weekend Fun
Some may wonder what I do with my free time and weekends here in small town Nebaj. Before I arrived, I imagined there would be plenty of quiet time to read, write, and sleep. Two and a half months later I’ve read maybe 10 pages, written just 3 short blog posts and slept late maybe twice. Believe it or not, I socialize more here than I did in New York. Somehow there is always something going on. It’s probably because we have a small community of friends and the small town makes it easier to meet up on the spur of the moment. It helps that everything is so much cheaper here – a full meal complete with drinks and dessert at Popi’s runs about $5.

Our weekends generally involve gathering people together for hiking, cooking or dancing, or as is often the case, all of the above. I’ve been learning how to cook with the local veggies: acelga, bleda, chipilin, and leaves of huisquil among others that are basically varieties of chard or spinach or mustard greens.

I was very surprised to learn there is also a basketball league in Nebaj. It’s not my favorite sport but I enjoy playing just about anything and it’s yet another way to socialize. My team is probably the favorite to win it all and I’m trying to contribute by being the Dennis Rodman of Guatemala – grabbing every rebound and blocking every shot. If you’ve never seen me, you might read that sentence and assume I’m at least 6’5″ (196 cm). But while I am taller than all but 4 or 5 people in the league, I’m only 5’9″ (175 cm). Finally I get to see how tall people feel.

Hikes

One of the main attractions of living in this area for me was the hiking. So I was very excited when I heard a group of 16 was heading to Chichel Falls one of my first Saturdays here. We first caught a micro (van) to Chajul then had to hike up and down dirt paths for 2 hours. A drunk guy accompanied us for most of the way. He wanted to be our guide and was even somehow leading the pack. A couple of times he lost energy and slowed down or even stopped but a few minutes later he’d be running up ahead again. It was impressive and I think he only eventually broke off from the group because he saw a bar nearby. Actually I don’t know why he left but he entertained us for a while and I think there are far worse things a drunk can do than “lead” a hike. Unfortunately there are quite a few guys like him that are serious alcoholics and just seem to be drinking at all times of day. They are referred to as “bolos”. The community frowns on drinking generally but as with most bad habits or addictions, repression or blaming is rarely helpful. Finding other enjoyable but healthier habits could help, and changing daily circumstances that trigger the habits also helps. But it’s an uphill battle. I saw a great TED talk on the subject of addiction arguing that it is mostly driven by lack of social connection: http://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong

That aside, after several uphill battles of our own, we finally reached the waterfall and jumped into the pool at the bottom to cool off. The falls were much taller than I expected and, along with the swimming, well worth the journey.

P1000540

Acul Cheese Farm is another attraction nearby. An Italian family moved to the village of Acul years ago and started producing some incredible cheese. Great motivation to spend an hour climbing the hills to get there. Apart from the farm the village is tiny with hardly anything else going on.

A few weeks later we had a respite from the rains that the Ixil region is famous for and we headed for the outlying aldea (village) of Cocop – this was an easy hike but still had pretty mountainside views along the way. We had lunch in a random lady’s house. Ok, maybe she wasn’t completely random but she has an unofficial unmarked diner right as you get into the village. I wondered who else frequents her establishment. After lunch we returned by a different route that took us to Rio Azul where we dipped our feet a little before getting to the road to hitch on a pickup truck.

image

There is also plenty going on here that doesn’t require as much sweating. I’ve learned to play Settlers of Catan which I’m starting to get addicted to, we’ve had a few group dinners with various foods from around the world, and I’ve started practicing guitar again. I hope to always be learning and socializing no matter how old I get.

A Note on Water and Power

Water and electricity are things we generally take for granted in the richer countries. Here I’ve quickly had to adjust my expectations of these basic utilities.

In the mornings after 7 until the early afternoons, the water pressure is almost always very low or it’s not running at all. The electricity is often low in the evenings around 8pm which scared me at first because I thought my laptop just couldn’t hold a charge anymore. The issue with water is it lacks presure when everyone is using it early in the day. With the power the issue is not enough supply to meet demand in the evenings when everyone has their lights and possibly appliances on.

So it’s important to time your daily routines around those shortages as much as possible. It can be inconvenient but it may not be such a bad thing if it reduces usage and waste of resources.

Sometimes water goes out for longer. Twice in the first 3 weeks power went out for almost 3 days each time. Normally it goes out here and there but comes back within a day. I’m getting used to it though. What I am not yet used to is the loudspeakers of the at least 10 political parties fighting to gain votes for September elections. More on that in the next post.

Immersion into Maya Ixil Culture

It’s taken a little longer than I expected to get out another update. I’ve been trying to get to know my new town and my new friends so I never seem to have the right combination of free time and WiFi. But I finally took advantage of some long bus rides to continue documenting my adventures so I want to share a little more about the local culture as I’m experiencing it.

—-

A Day in the Life

My first week of work happened to coincide with a visit from a family who donates to our program. Our visitors often participate in tours and activities to learn about our work and the people we serve. It was great timing because I got to tag along and learn more about LHI’s programs, indigenous Ixil culture and daily life in Chajul. The week kicked off with a tour of Chajul starting of course with the church and park in the center of town and then the open air market a few steps away. Next to the local cemetery we saw an “animal jail”. We learned it was for runaway animals who were causing trouble in the neighborhood. At the time it was empty but a few days later when I saw a group of cows stuck in there I wondered whose garden they had illegally eaten.

I probably can’t explain everything I’ve learned about the culture but there were some things that stood out for me. We had a class on the regional language of Ixil to learn some key phrases. The main ones I remember and sometimes use are: Txaql axh (Good morning), Xeni (Good afternoon), Tantiuxh (Thank you), Naxbaj (Bye) and Yeele (No you can’t – sometimes said to the younger kids in our program). The “x” is pronounced like “sh”. I hope to learn to say “Yes you can” and “I want to dance” next.  Later, we watched part of a documentary on the 36 year civil war and the related genocide against indigenous peoples. The war ended in 1996 but resulted in the deaths of an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 people many of whom were indigenous.

I also spent the night with a local family whose daughter is in our program. The power went out that day so I met the family by candlelight. Their house was small with the floors made of dirt and the walls partly of wood and partly of concrete. The kitchen is a small separate building with a stove powered by firewood. While there is running water at various times of day, it comes from a curiously shaped sink outside in front of the house. It’s a concrete rectangular basin about waist high which fills with water from the tap right above it and has stands on both sides where you can wash your hands/dishes/laundry/etc with water scooped up from the basin. The two stands have drains which run out into the street (or the public sewer if that happens to reach your house). I’m not entirely sure why the basin is left uncovered but I’m conducting an informal survey. I think it’s mostly out of convenience and since the water is used up almost everyday between washing, cooking, and cleaning, dirt falling in is no great concern. The tap water is full of parasites anyway and should be boiled before drinking. It seems most people know this and their drinks are typically hot. Mainly coffee of course but also several boiled corn and wheat based drinks collectively known as atol. They’re fairly bland but sometimes they come with cinnamon or sugar or other spices.

Just about every woman is skilled in the art of backstrap weaving. We attended a workshop by the mother of the house where I spent the night – Teresa – to see this skill in action. The weaving is done on a “loom” that is really two long cords with one end tied to a tree or pole and the other around the woman’s lower back. There are a couple of small flat sticks involved as well in the 7 step process that often takes hours. If my description of this art sounds vague or confusing it’s because when I tried my hand at it, I failed miserably. I couldn’t get through the first 3 steps of making a simple bookmark without help from both mother and daughter. Now I understand why people pay so much for handwoven artisan products.

After the weaving, Teresa showed the group how to make tortillas. I redeemed myself a little as I was much better at this art. Still it is much harder than it appears. When you watch the experts (i.e. any woman here) it looks like they simply clap their hands rapidly and a perfectly round flat tortilla just falls out onto the stove. When I tried it myself, I discovered the dough sticks to your hands so you can’t just keep clapping; your fingers need to make intricate and precise movements to keep the dough spinning into a perfectly round circle as you flatten it with your clapping. I will probably stick to buying the fresh tortillas that are sold on every street at every mealtime for about a dollar. On one of the final days we experienced “a day in the life of an Ixil”. (An aside: Although most of the state is Ixil indigenous, there is a second indigenous group descended from the Maya in the region, the Quiche, whose daily lives are fairly similar to the Ixil).

We learned that in most families the gender roles are fairly fixed and traditional. The women are charged with childcare, cooking, and cleaning while the men work in the fields and chop firewood. Women also sometimes get a bit of income from selling tortillas and weaving. Two other tasks that fall to women are getting water when it’s not running at home and beating corn. To get the water they carry the jugs on their heads. It was amusing trying it ourselves. Even more amusing was beating the corn. We put dried corn on the cob in sacks and then beat it with a stick to separate the kernels. It seems a great way to relieve stress during a long day of housework. I would’ve loved to go chop firewood and show off my axe-handling skills but instead we just learned how to carry a lot of wood on our backs using straps across our foreheads.

Some Cultural Events

05021502360502150130

My host family is part of a Mayan council here in Nebaj and they hosted a ceremony and celebration for the planting of corn which generally happens at the end of April before the rainy season starts. The festivities began sunrise – before even the rooster was up – with a giant bonfire and an even bigger pot of soup over it. After breakfast were rituals which seemed to mix Catholic and Maya traditions. I left for work but returned in the evening in time for the indigenous music using marimba, guitar and violin. The first people to hit the dance floor were the senior citizens. The dance is basically a two step involving leaning side to side and turning slightly. The ceremony didn’t end until about 9PM but besides the dancing and a few prayers it seemed more like a regular hangout with friends. Still it was interesting to be part of.

May 2nd was Dia de Los Cruces (day of the crosses). From evening to dawn every major intersection (i.e. cross) had stations with altars and musicians. The stations were often tents with the musicians and the altars underneath. A large group of us, foreigners and locals, walked around the town to several of the stations. Some of us brought our own candles to light and add to the various altars. Some of the stations also offered alcohol to accompany the religious celebration. We ended the night at a large station with a band, a spiritual guide leading prayers, and a ceremony where people lined up to ask for specific blessings and place their candles at the altar. Another interesting cultural experience of which I am sure there will be many more.

First Days: Chajul and Nebaj

The family I’m renting a room from has been very helpful in my transition to a new land, lifestyle, culture and language. They’re both teachers so they’ll usually explain different customs from the region and they make sure I never make the same mistake twice in my Spanish. Their four kids – 1 girl & 3 boys all between 7 and 13 – are great company and also force me to sharpen my Spanish while answering all their questions. I taught them to play baseball in their yard and now they want to play with me whenever I’m around. I’ve also translated Tom & Jerry videos for them, compared the housing & transportation of Guatemala to that of New York and India, and showed them how to use my Kindle. They in turn have given me tours of the yard pointing out plants for eating and plants for medicine, explained local kids customs including all the cool handshakes and useful slang, and shared the movie Big Hero 6 in Spanish (Grandes Heroes Seis). There are also two dogs, Scooby, a German Shepherd mix, and Chata, a poodle mix (I think), who enjoy following me around the yard until I scratch their backs. I appreciate the attention as much as they do. The other animals that complete the household are Diana, the pig who will eat anything and has something to oink about everything, and several chickens, including 1 particular rooster who ensures that I get up bright and early to start the day – even if that day is Sunday.

P1000534P1000536P1000537P1000535

I used my first Thursday and Friday for a quick orientation to Limitless Horizons Ixil, the organization where I’ll be working, and Chajul, the town where it’s located, before having a weekend to explore Nebaj, where I’ll be living. About three days a week I’ll be working in Chajul which means I have to get out of the house by 7 AM to catch a 45 minute micro (local van transportation) to the office. Luckily I keep my cellphone on NY time to feel better about when I wake up – 8AM is a bit less disheartening than 6 AM.

Some Initial Cultural Learnings

On my first day at work we went to lunch with a few people who work at Fundacion Ixil – a local non-profit that supports girls’ education. I got my first taste of pepian de pollo which is chicken in a sauce made with ground squash seeds, pureed tomatos and some local varieties of chile. So far it’s my favorite chicken dish I’ve tried here. Maybe I like it because it looks somewhat like homemade chicken curry although a lot milder. While in that comedor (diner), I also got my first taste of local tradition when the people at another table got up to leave. They declared out loud to no one in particular, “Gracias” and everyone else replied “Provecho”. I learned it’s customary when leaving a table after a meal to thank everyone and to get this reply. Actually if it’s around lunchtime you greet people practically anywhere you see them by saying “Provecho”. I think it’s a great social ritual. I’m not so sure how I feel about another ritual – greeting or bidding farewell to women by kissing them on the cheek regardless of whether you know them or it’s your first time meeting them. I think it’s great that strangers are so open and sociable with each other, but I imagine it can lead to a bit of confusion at the end of a first date.

My first Saturday, my host mother prepared a local dish called boxbol. These are thin strips of corn dough wrapped in the leaves of huisquil (a local squash), boiled and then covered in two sauces: one of tomatos and ground squash seeds and one of chiles. (Note: Although it sounds the same I don’t think these are the same squash seeds or the same chiles as the pepian dish mentioned earlier). (Further note: I could be wrong). I really liked the boxbol and not only because otherwise I had noticed a lack of greens in the daily diet. The sauces are rich and blend together very well on the leaves with the corn adding a bit of starchy texture. Although they are served in a bowl with some broth, they are meant to be eaten with the hands not with spoons as I discovered when my host family laughed at me.

Out and About In The Streets of Nebaj

Before the weekend ended I had to get to know more about my new hometown of Nebaj so I went exploring. The town is roughly shaped like an oval with one main street down the middle the long way, a few parallel avenidas (avenues) and several smaller calles (streets) crossing the avenidas. I walked from one end of the main street to the other in less than half an hour. Seeing as I had a whole afternoon left I decided to try wandering the side streets taking note of interesting places for future visits. I saw a few local restaurants, a non-profit or two, a cafe-bar and even a museum of archaeology. Even more interestingly I saw a whole section of town with several stores advertising “American clothing”. Not interesting because I want American clothing, but interesting that this is such a popular thing in a small town in rural Guatemala. Alas, my weekend was over and my further exploration of museums, restaurants, cafe-bars and global fashion would have to wait until next time. I also was looking forward to a week of firsthand experience of the Ixil culture in Chajul and my first full week of work with LHI.

A New Chapter: Guatemala

Several emotions took hold of me early this morning at the departure gate in La Guardia airport – excitement, anxiety, ambition, nostalgia, loneliness and so on. I’m about to spend the first night of possibly 2 years in the tiny town of Nebaj, Guatemala. The trip to get here was an 18 hour adventure – partly by choice since I enjoy long trips which offer much needed meditation and reflection time. That’s why I chose to take “chicken” buses from the airport to Nebaj, the town where I’ll be living. The buses are old school buses from the US.

P1000539

They’re called chicken buses because apparently passengers often bring their chickens along for the ride. I did not plan for a 45 min flight delay in Florida though. I also did not think banks in Guatemala city would refuse to change US dollars without an account, forcing me to wander through much of the mall with my 50 lb suitcase, 30 lb duffel bag and 10 lb backpack searching for any place that would buy my dollars. That plus lunch accounted for 2 hours in the city.

I made a friend on the flight though. Pablo works on preserving indigenous (Maya) history and disseminating information on indigenous rights. He was kind enough to accompany me on my fruitless hunt to exchange dollars and had lunch with me before showing me to the bus stop and then taking his leave while running alongside his bus to Antigua. The buses don’t often stop if there are only 1 or 2 people; they slow down just enough for you to run and jump on. I had to do the same a few minutes later when I spotted a bus going to Quiche although the ayudante (assistant) kindly took my suitcase for me.

Then just 3 weeks after experiencing a Megabus breakdown delay on my way back from DC, I enjoyed a chicken bus breakdown about two hours into my 6 hour journey from the capital to Nebaj. I say enjoyed because for me the breakdown was a blessing in disguise. I had committed an egregious traveler’s sin  – I forgot to use the bathroom beforehand. Almost immediately on boarding the bus I needed to pee, so 2 hours later when I realized the bus would be stopped for a while to get fixed, I gratefully hurried to the side of the road and relieved my bladder. It was only a 30 min setback before we resumed wildly swerving around curves along mountainside roads at top speed.

Everyone was calmly holding on for dear life. One guy was fast asleep but still had the windowsill firmly in his grasp. Every couple of hours, the bus was graced with a well dressed man loudly professing his religion for all to hear. Other buses  get salesmen hawking miracle drugs. Eventually we reached Quiche where I asked around and found a micro (passenger van) to Nebaj. The van picked up more people along the way so that at one point we had 20 adults and a couple of kids huddled together tightly. We climbed higher into the mountains and it was getting to be a beautiful view.

P1000538

I arrived in Nebaj around 8 pm in darkness and made my way to Popi’s to meet Alice (my coworker at Limitless Horizons). I ended up meeting several other people there as well because Popi’s is Nebaj’s foreigner headquarters and for good reason – great food, long hours, and most of all free Wi-Fi. Some locals, usually younger and more liberal, also frequent Popi’s. After dinner, Alice passed me off to my homestay parents: Domingo and Maria. It was past 10 so we didn’t talk too much. We just exchanged some basic introductions, took a quick house tour and then they showed me the standalone room where I would stay. They are both teachers and seem really nice. My room was spacious and came with a twin bed, a table & chair, and a dresser. I just unpacked a few things I needed for the next day and then I crashed (after setting my alarm for 6 am…ouch).

Farewell to Bolivia, a Quick Jungle Trip, and a Week in Peru

First Friday

My last Friday in Bolivia also happened to be the first friday of August. There is a tradition that the first friday of every month is a day for being grateful for the past month’s successes and lessons while praying for a good successful month to come. I had missed the chance to attend one of these ceremonies my first two months so I had to go this time. We went to a community center yard on the north end of the city to take part in some of the rituals. The most common is the koa which is a plate of different “gifts” including handicrafts and coca leaves that is then burnt as an offering to the “Pacha Mama”. Pacha Mama is a kind of deity probably best translated as Mother Earth. For hours we danced around the fire while men and women dressed in traditional garb played indigenous instruments similar to flutes and drums. We also drank chicha or fermented corn from buckets sitting all around the space. I really enjoyed taking part in the rituals and learning a bit about indigenous culture.

Villa Tunari

One thing I really wanted to do while in South America was to to go on an Amazon jungle trek. Unfortunately, my last weekend in Cochabamba had arrived and I had yet to do it. I settled for the closest substitute – Villa Tunari. At the edge of the Chapare jungle, Villa Tunari is jungle lite. You can get the feel of the Amazon including the humidity and the mosquitos but without having to rough it too much. A group of eight of us – much smaller groups than previous trips because many volunteers had finished their service term by this point – decided to go for the big “Feria de Pescado” or Fish Festival. (I later learned that among some locals it is known as the “Feria de Pecado” or Sin Festival. No idea why they would call it that.) We arrived after a 4 hour bus ride to discover that most hostels were fully booked and the ones that weren’t cost over 250 Bs per person (almost $40). So we split up into pairs to scour the town for any potential sleeping location including campgrounds. After considering several options we settled on a place that was under construction; I mean the second floor was bare brick with unfinished walls. Our dorm style room had green mesh in place of windows and came with three beds and a mattress on the floor. But it was only 60 Bs ($9) so we were happy with it. We only planned to be there for a few hours anyway.

During the day, the festival was actually about fish. There were stands all over this big open field with all kinds of pescado. We didn’t know this at lunch time though and we were famished so we just ate at a local restaurant near our hostel. It wasn’t until after lunch that we heard about the actual festival site and we heard the real festivities began after dark. With a couple of hours to kill we decided to go to another hotel where we paid about $3 to swim in the pool.

Night fell quickly and it was time for the real party. By now there was music blasting and a crowd had formed a large dance floor in a big open field. We had dinner first – both the sabalo and the surubi were delicious. Then it was time to dance and it was apparent that most of the crowd had been drinking all day. We were all really tired though, a combination of lack of sleep and too much pool volleyball plus the music wasn’t really inspiring so most of us left to go to bed by midnight. Also, we had wisely scheduled a rafting trip for 7:30 the next morning. A couple of us though wandered the main plaza first. The square was surrounded by cars each one blasting their own party playlist and claiming their piece of sidewalk and street as a dance floor. We moved from space to space dancing to a song we liked then heading off to the next when we wanted something different. It was like going to a club with 100 different rooms with their own DJ’s. It’s too bad our own DJ Cheez Grater wasn’t around. By about 2 AM when the last of our group headed back to the house, there were already people passed out all over each other on the benches. Apparently though the party was still going at 7 AM because there was still music from the plaza when we got up the next morning.

Rafting was a lot of fun despite being a little hungover. We split into 2 rafts along with our three guides. The river pulled us in a few times but we didn’t really mind. At one point both the guides in my raft fell in leaving us wondering what to do as we headed for a large rock. So I just started yelling random directions assuming that paddling furiously was probably better than doing nothing. We still went over a couple of rocks but none of us fell and we eventually got our guides back in. It was really funny after the fact. It was also a little taste of the jungle.

Later we did what I really came for which was to see some monkeys. We went to a monkey sanctuary and as soon as we got in we saw a handful of them just jumping around the trees above us. A little further uphill we came across two spider monkeys grooming each other in the middle of the path. As we approached, one of them hopped away but the other larger one, about the size of a small dog, climbed up on a log bench. I slowly got closer until I was sitting right next to her. I tried whispering hello when all of sudden she climbed into my lap and lay down. It was incredible! I was too taken aback to do anything at first but then I tried copying the grooming tactics and she seemed to enjoy it. For a few minutes she just relaxed but as more people came around she jumped down and rolled on her back like a puppy wanting a belly rub. Clearly she was used to tourists. We were all fascinated taking turns petting her. Eventually she decided to return to the trees but it was really cool of her to hang out for a bit. Another awesome weekend in Bolivia but sadly my last.

A Tearful Goodbye

It was the time of year when most volunteers were heading back to their home countries and to the “real world”. After saying adios to several people who had become close friends over my 10 weeks, it was finally time for the few remaining to bid me farewell. I definitely had tears in my eyes as I left to catch a bus to La Paz. I posted a farewell note to facebook but I’ll reproduce it here too:

Cochabamba, Bolivia you will always have a place in my heart. I have lived in many places but only a couple felt like home. Cochabamba is one of them. I had only ten weeks but the experience was so much better than I ever imagined.
To all the amazing people I met and friends I made especially at SB, I will miss you all dearly. I hope and believe our paths will cross again. Please keep in touch and if you are ever on the east coast of the US let me know and we will meet up.
I’m also going to miss the kids I worked with at PAI Tarpuy, the unfailing daily sunshine, the ”buen vivir” love of life mindset that Bolivians seem to be born with, almuerzos completos for $2, trufis for $0.25, stray dogs (the cute ones), api con pastel, being covered in dust all the time but not caring, random holidays almost every week, language exchanges with British and Australians, culture exchanges with just about everyone, girls and gays nights, late nights at La Marka and Pimienta followed by a visit to the cholita for choripan, and last but not least my home in Cocha: Casa Bolivar.
And lot of other things I won’t realize I miss until I’m back in the US.

I will not say goodbye, but as is the custom in Bolivia ”Hasta luego!”
Till we meet again: Un abrazo y un beso.

It’s true that Cocha felt like home. I think I’ve only really felt like that before in Southern California. I’ll miss it for sure.

Peru

Before returning to the States, I wanted to do a little bit of traveling. I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu ever since I saw a National Geographic special on it about 10 years ago. Now I was so close I couldn’t leave South America without making that trip. Usually the trip starts in Cusco, Peru the closest big city. So I headed to Cusco and spent a day exploring it. I spent a lot of time walking around and just admiring the really old buildings. There’s a small Cristo statue overlooking the city called Blanco Cristo (loosely translated White Jesus) so I hiked up to it and looked down at the city from Cristo’s viewpoint. Later I joined a city tour where we explored several sites of Inca ruins – sort of a pre-cursor to Machu Picchu. It turns out many of the old colonial Spanish buildings were built over older Inca sites which the conquistadors tore down. In many of these buildings you can still see the Inca work covered by colonial work and often with additions from modern builders. It all makes for a great history lesson. Speaking of history, I forgot to mention ealier that I also visited the Inca museum which takes you from pre-Inca civilizations like the Tiwanaku through the establishment and expansion of the Inca empire up to the Spanish conquest. It was a small museum but really interesting.

image

While in Peru I had to try to the most popular soda Inca Kola. It tastes like bubblegum so I didn’t really like it. But our city tour guide told us it was the most popular drink in Peru outselling even Coca Cola – so Coca Cola now owns it.

image

The next day I got up early to make my way to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo), the town outside Machu Picchu. There is no road into the town – there are hiking trails and there are train tracks. The trails are restricted to people on official tours and the train from Cusco costs about $100 for a three hour ride. The train is run by a foreign monopoly and is thought to be the most expensive train in the world {per hour} with prices up to $700. The tours are also really expensive and sell out weeks in advance. There is a cheaper way to get in though. You can bus to one of the small towns nearby and walk. From Santa Teresa it’s about 4 hours or from Hidroelectrico it’s 2. The catch is that those last 2 hours from Hidroelectrico to Aguas Calientes you have to walk along train tracks. That sounded like a cool adventure to me. I also wanted to see the towns between Cusco and Machu Picchu in the region known as the Sacred Valley so it was a win-win for me.

I took buses to the small towns of Pisaq, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Santa Maria before taking a taxi to Santa Teresa and another taxi to Hidroelectrico. The towns were cool and quaint and I spent a little time walking around each. Each one has ruins to see as well but I didn’t have time for that. Around 9 pm, I started down the train tracks in almost total darkness using my cellphone to light the way. There are parts where the tracks go over a river and if you’re not careful you can fall through. Pretty dangerous if you think about it, so I didn’t. After walking alone for about 20 minutes, I caught up to two local guys. It crossed my mind that they might be waiting to rob some idiot walking alone but as I got closer they sped up so they were probably even more worried of me robbing them. After a few minutes I caught up and they asked me where I was from. A little more questioning back and forth satisfied all of us that we weren’t looking for trouble and we continued on together. They were cooks for a local restaurant but they had worked late and missed the last train so they chose to walk the tracks. They shared some Bob Marley from their Ipods and we sang along to pass the time. Their flashlight ran out of battery about an hour in so they were grateful for my cellphone flashlight. We parted ways once we reached the edge of town but I was glad to have met them and had some company for the journey. The funny thing is we will probably never recognize each other if we met again in the light.

image

Machu Picchu

My next order of business was to find a place to sleep for the night. I wasn’t expecting any beds to be available since it was after midnight but what’s the harm in checking. Well, there was nothing as expected so after about 30 minutes, I switched focus to getting dinner. I found a Chinese place which helped calm my stomach and then I was faced with the choice of sleeping on a bench in the main square or heading to a campground. As a last resort, I asked the security guard at the plaza if she knew where I could sleep. She said she knew a restaurant manager who sometimes rented out his spare room. I went to talk with him and it was my lucky night because he had a bed for just $4! For the three hours that I slept, it was great but I needed to get an early start to see the sunrise over the ruins.

There’s a bus to the top but at 5 AM there was already a crazy long line for it so I figured it would be faster to hike. The bus takes 30 minutes, I did the hike in an hour but then I got stuck behind hundreds of people at the entry gate so I didn’t quite get to the ruins before sunrise. Still it was truly worth the hype once I got to the main site. It was so extensive it could take an entire day just to explore the main part but I also wanted to see the Temple of the Sun and hike to the top of  Machu Picchu mountain. The Temple of the Sun was cool but nothing special compared to the rest. The mountain was an exhausting hour-long climb up a set of never-ending stairs. But all along were beautiful viewpoints each one more incredible than the next. At the very top was an exhilirating 360 degree view looking down on the ruins and on Huayna Picchu. I just sat there for at least 30 minutes admiring the views…and also too drained to move.

image

image
Eventually I had to leave and I took the really expensive train back to Cusco because I couldn’t risk having a bus break down and missing my flight back to the US. The train was nice with windows curving up into the ceiling and came with a snack. They also had a traditional dance show followed by a fashion show to sell alpaca clothing. I was tuned out though. In less than 2 days I would be back in the States to spend a week in Los Angeles. My crazy adventure in South America had finally come to a close. I’m glad I have this blog to look back on in the distant future when I’m wondering whether or not this all really happened.

Thanks for reading!

Salt, Snow, Sulfur, and Solidified Lava: the Four Elements of the Salar

The Salar De Uyuni is one of Bolivia’s greatest attractions. It’s the largest salt flat in the world and also the largest lithium reserves. When I first told friends I was going to Bolivia, the number one recommendation was to go see the Salar. So I’d been trying to make the trip basically since the day I arrived. Finally after six weeks of talking about it we found a week where most of us had days of or could take days off. We set off on Wednesday at 3 pm from the Cochabamba bus terminal. I tried to make the departure as late as possible so those of us who needed to work that day could still make it. We ended up having thirteen people join but we were able to get seats for everyone on the first leg of our trip – a 4 hour ride to Oruro. The ride ended up taking closer to 5.5 hours and probably was a big reason we couldn’t find any seats from Oruro to Uyuni. But at least the ride was long enough for us to watch the movie What a Girl Wants with Amanda Bynes.

After asking around at several bus agencies, we learned that we could get drivers with vans for hire called “surubis” outside the terminal. A few minutes of searching and negotiating got us two surubis which would take us to Potosi – roughly halfway to our destination. We all agreed that was our best option, and after grabbing a quick dinner in a random eatery, we piled into the surubis and tried to get comfortable for the 4 hour ride.

The drive was a bit scary as our drivers seemed to be training for NASCAR. They flew around corners while passing trucks on the highway despite it being dark and barely visible. We joked that it was like Mario kart in 3D but I bet deep down we were all fearful for our lives. I thought about saying something but I was afraid breaking his concentration would only be worse. In the end, we all arrived safely in Potosi around 2 am. Once again we needed to seek out surubis. There were plenty of them parked there but we had to wake up the drivers sleeping inside them. The second pair of drivers were a little more cautious than the first much to our relief and it allowed us to sleep a little before reaching Uyuni a little before sunrise. The temperature displayed outside the bus terminal read “-9°C” (16°F). Our drivers were nice enough to let us sleep in the vans for about two hours waiting for everything to open. Our cost for the two sets of surubis came out to about $20 per person maybe $10 more than a bus would’ve cost but it made for a more interesting experience. We probably would never have learned about this whole surubi system otherwise and we might’ve had to get a hostel if we didn’t have the vans to sleep in after reaching freezing early morning Uyuni.

When we finally got out there was a lady from a nearby cafe who saw our group and easily won our business with the promise of a hot breakfast. Along our way to her cafe, we learned that it was the 123rd anniversary of the founding of the town so there were all kinds of preparations being made. No wonder all the buses were packed.

That hot breakfast was exactly what our cold tired bodies needed. We thawed out in the warmth of cafe for an hour or so before deciding to explore the town. There was a parade being set up with cars decorated as floats and guys in military apparel lined up to march. Along the sidewalks were all types of stalls selling llama and alpaca fur sweaters, gloves, and other winter wear. The sun had made it warmer now, about -3, but a few extra layers was still a good idea.

Our tour was scheduled to start at 10:30 so we were eagerly waiting our jeeps at 10:15. As it turned out they had trouble getting gas because with the influx of tourists for this special weekend the lines were ridiculous. An hour and a half later both our jeeps were ready and we were off to our first destination – the cemetery of trains. It looked like the middle of a desert but with a whole bunch of rusted out old trains that we could climb all over. That day there happened to be a band called tiqueta negra filming a music video on top of one of the trains. They were cool and let us take pictures on their set with their drums. A pretty cool start to the tour, the train cemetery was just to whet our appetites before heading to the main attraction, the vast white expanse known as the Salar de Uyuni.
image

We could see the salt long before we reached it. It was just glowing white ground in every direction seemingly perfectly flat except for the mountain-lined horizon. Because it’s so flat and bright it’s perfect for capturing perspective photos. We got pictures of people eating each other or stepping on each other or holding everyone else in their palms. We must’ve spent at least an hour before lunch taking photos and another hour or so after.
image

In between, we also stopped at cactus island. Not a real island – it’s just a large hill in the middle of the salt with all kinds of giant cacti growing wild. I have no idea how they got there but it was interesting climbing all over while trying to avoid being pricked. The larger cacti are over 1000 years old; the way you can tell is by their height since they only grow about a cm per year.
image

Our first tour day came to a close around 5 pm at a salt hotel. Almost everything in this place was constructed with salt, the walls, the tables, decorations, even a salt chandelier. At night I learned salt is a good insulator because I stayed warmer than expected. Before going to bed though we spent some time exploring our surroundings which were just a couple of hills behind the hotel with salt everywhere else. We whiled away the rest of the evening playing cards and charades. Lastly we faced the freezing winds outside to look at the stars. The cold was getting to us until we decided to try the penguin huddle and the penguin shuffle. That helped a little bit mostly because it was funny. But the stars! The stars were amazing! The sky was so clear and the landscape so flat we could see so much. We could see the Milky Way clearly and there were so many shooting stars. And every one was followed by a bunch of “Oohs”, “Aahs”, and “Wows”. That sight may have been one of the best parts of the whole trip.
image

Next morning we were up and ready early but our drivers didn’t show up at 8 as promised. It wasn’t until about 10 or so that they arrived. It seems one of the jeeps broke down. Luckily we weren’t in it. The second day was not as thrilling although we climbed some lava formations which looked like a scene from Mars, plus we saw lots of flamingos. The main attractions were the lagoons of different colors – green, blue and red. The colors are determined by mixes of bacteria and various chemicals like borax or sulfur.
image

After another night of charades and stargazing we went to bed early because we had to start the next day at 5 am. That night was freezing though so we didn’t get that much sleep. First stop for the third day were the geysers. Some of them were small enough that we could jump through them and get a steam bath for a second. Others were large enough for all of us to fall in and drown and boil at the same time. Like some of the lagoons, they smelled of sulfur (just like rotten eggs). The smell along with the cold soon drove us back to the cars and we headed to maybe the 2nd best part of the whole trip, the hot springs.
image

Most of us had not brought swimwear. Everyone had warned us of the bitter cold of Uyuni so the idea that there would be swimming involved at any point during this trip had not at all crossed my mind nor I think anyone else’s. We were hesitant to remove any of our 20 or so layers of clothing for fear the biting wind would freeze us in our tracks. But once you dipped your feet in the warm soothing water, you quickly stripped down to underwear and jumped in. It had been about three days since any of us had experienced even a hint of warmth so it was just pure bliss. For two hours we basked in the combined warmth of the sun and the hot springs while deliriously proclaiming we would never leave – to hell with the rest of the tour or going home. We even made a Harlem shake video…only about a year late. That video may never see the light of day; probably a good thing for all involved. Despite our valiant protests our guide eventually got us to forsake our momentary nirvana and head back on the long road home.

Along the way back to the Uyuni bus terminal, we made a few stops. One of these was memorable for more cool lava formations that we climbed all over. Another was a small town where Kory joined some locals in a soccer game, and Ryan and I tagged along. They beat us pretty bad but I’ve conveniently forgotten the score and it was a fun break.
image

Back in Uyuni, once again there were no seats available to Oruro. Maybe we should’ve asked the tour company to reserve some for us. From what I’ve seen in Bolivia, you can’t reserve seats more than a day in advance and you usually have to do it in person. At any rate, we put on our problem-solving hats on and decided to get a bus to Potosi and play it by ear from there. I have to say I was really happy with our group. No one really got into a sour mood although we would’ve loved having a nice sleeper bus for the 8 hour ride to Oruro. We were really flexible about figuring it out as we went. Once we got to Potosi, there were no buses but we got two surubis to take us all the way home to Cochabamba.

The driver of the one I was in brought his wife along. It became apparent very quickly that this was a vacation of sorts for them. They began calling friends to make plans and all along the road they were pointing out sights and landmarks. We were happy for them but it delayed our arrival home about an hour and a half. In contrast to our first surubi experience with the NASCAR wannabe, this driver was going unsafely slow. We were being passed by everything on the road. I think a cyclist passed us at one point. Ok maybe not but he could’ve if he wanted. Sightseeing driver and all we at last concluded our epic adventure around 10 am Sunday and were faced with a tough decision: warm bed or warm shower?