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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?

Two weeks of winter break

Break

The past two weeks the kids were off from school for winter break. I used the time off to help at other organizations and learn what they did, while also taking time to explore some of the outskirts of Cochabamba.

Small Towns

My co-volunteer Ryan and I used one of our days off to just catch a trufi van to random towns about an hour outside Cochabamba. First stop was Sipe Sipe. We had some lunch which included a stew with a whole chicken foot. It tasted good but I’m not a big fan of the texture.
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The restaurant also had an old style toilet which is not actually a toilet but only a hole in the ground with porcelain foot rests. I’ve only ever seen that before years ago in India.
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After lunch we walked all over the town just observing and reflecting on the positives and negatives of “development”. Most of the houses we saw appeared to be constructed with everyday affordable materials such as trees, clay, rocks and old bricks. I wondered if most people built their own houses slowly expanding and improving as they found time and resources. I also wondered what (if any) development the people of the town would wish for.
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Parotani, a town with basically just one long street, was our next stop. There were a handful of restaurants most of which seemed to be in a family’s living room or backyard. Next to the town we passed a large field with several indigenous men and women working hard. We didn’t get a chance to interact with them although in hindsight I regret not trying.
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National Pride

Many products have this label prominently displayed on their packages. “Hecho en Bolivia – consume lo nuestro, emplea a los nuestros” which means “made in Bolivia consume our own, employ our own.” It’s a really interesting and cool idea. I think it will be good in the long run because it will allow Bolivian industry to develop and keep more profits in local pockets, but in the short run it probably means giving up better quality products that are also possibly cheaper. Time will tell.
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Aymara New Year, La Paz, Death Road and Cristo

Aymara New Year

June 21 was the solstice (summer in the north but winter here in the south). It was also Incan or Aymara New Year. We heard that the best place to celebrate the new year was in Tihuanaco, a town and the site of pre-Inca ruins including a small pyramid outside La Paz. So Thursday after work a few of us caught the late night flight from Cochabamba. We had heard it would be cold because of the altitude in La Paz – just under 4,000 meters or 12,000 feet – but still we assumed it was just cold by Cochabamba standards meaning slightly chilly so we were not prepared. I wore layers but I hadn’t brought any winter clothes at all.

There was ice on the ground as we made our way through the crowds huddled around bonfires at Tihuanaco. Using some dry brush and random objects laying around like old sweaters we started our own fire but with no wood it burned out very quickly.

We were freezing terribly from about 3 am to 7 am watching traditional music and dance performers parading by in the large open field outside the walls of the main site, and waiting for the sunrise above the ruins when there would be a llama sacrifice and a speech by the president, Evo Morales, to mark the occasion. By 7 we were still standing in line to get into the site of the ruins when one of our companions collapsed with hypothermia. At that point we realized she needed medical attention and the rest of us might too if we stayed any longer. So we decided to leave without having even seen any of the ruins, never mind the rituals. The sun was just rising as our hired vans left the town and hit the road back to La Paz. I couldn’t even take any pictures because my camera was “unable to use flash due to low temperature”. I at least got this poster as a memory.
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La Paz

Much bigger than Cochabamba, La Paz is the unofficial capital and is much more touristic which also means more expensive. The layout of the city is incredible though. Situated along mountainsides, it is one of the highest altitude cities in the world. (The highest, El Alto, is part of the metro area of La Paz). The air is thin and cold so you lose your breath very quickly and it takes a few days to get adjusted. Walking the city means going up and down hills much of the time – similar to San Francisco. Add in the cold thin air and you’re gasping for breath after just two blocks.

We slept all day Friday before checking out the nightlife; somehow we ended up in bars and clubs full of tourists. I had fun but after the freezing night, I was sick and didn’t have much energy for partying. But I do love to dance so I ended up even more exhausted and slept much of the next day as well.

Saturday I got up briefly to explore the neighborhood around my hostel. There were at least ten different travel and adventure agencies within a couple of blocks including the one we would go to for the Death Road. I enjoyed some coca tea at a small cafe before going back to bed.

Death Road

Sunday we got up bright and early  to take on Death Road. The agency took us in 2 vans to the start of the trail. Most of us were a little hungover from the night before especially me but the anticipation of speeding down a winding mountain path on a bike outweighed anything else I was feeling. Our first ride was mainly a warm-up. For about 15 minutes, we rode along an asphalt road; we were going fast but nothing too crazy except for the dense fog below us making it difficult to see very far down the mountain. Probably that was better since we couldn´t see how far a fall would take us. After the asphalt ride, we loaded the bikes back on the vans and drove further down the mountain to the real trail.

I was not feeling well at all – except when I was on the bike just flying down the rock-strewn dirt and mud path. All along the way as the fog lifted we got beautiful views of the valley and rivers beneath us. For about four hours we went on with a few minor crashes but nothing serious. I skidded a few times but that´s about it. We had a few stops every so often and every time we stopped I remembered how bad I felt and I would go off to the side to puke. I just  needed to stay in motion to feel better. My only close call was towards the end – I was going as fast as I could when suddenly a car approached from around a turn. We both hit our brakes and I shifted to the left hand side of the trail which was the side you could fall off if you went too far. Luckily, the car stopped  completely and I safely swerved by it and kept going. Besides that the Death Road was not as dangerous as it sounds. It´s just a thrill to go that fast knowing that if you do lose control, you will practically be skydiving without a parachute.

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Cristo

After one weekend hiking in Toro Toro and then the weekend in La Paz, most of us wanted to take it easy this past weekend. So we threw a house party at Casa Bolivar (our house) on Friday night complete with a bonfire and beer pong. On Sunday we decided to get our adventure fix by hiking up to the Cristo statue. Even though I have been here for over a month and I live only a 15 minute walk away, I had not yet gone up the hill to the Cristo. So it was about time I climbed the 2,000 steps to the statue. Going on Sunday also meant we could climb up the spiral stairs within the statue up to about his neck. Inside there were holes all throughout from which we could see the city below  – I was even able to fit my head through one of them. It was a fun hike and it was cool trying to identify landmarks from so high above the city.

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Kids Mural

I also took a couple of days this week to help out with a mural outside one of our partner organizations which is a day care center. The kids and adults at the center made paintings on large tiles which we put up on the wall outside with cement. We surrounded the paintings with broken colored tiles to fill in the space. It came out really nice and while we were making it many neighbors passing by told us how beautiful it was. Some even  thought they would do one outside their own workplaces. For me it was just nice to do some work outdoors in the sun.
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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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