Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Samaipata of little feet.

relax there are no kiddies it's just another blog title that's nothing more than a stupid pun. but at least I have a photo of the town.

Our return to Santa Cruz was supposed to be comprised of a few decadent days doing nothing but lounging by the pool and hanging out with the other guests. Like them, we had gotten sucked into the laid back vibe of Santa Cruz and felt no need to rush out especially since we were now staying in a cheaper room. Mother Nature had other ideas and the day after our arrival, the rain clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped 15 degrees. Now it wasn’t just cool it was actually kind of cold, certainly too cold to swim andmuch too cold to visit the waterfalls just outside of the city. So we just hung around the hostel and watched movies while we tried to figure out our next steps. And we weren’t the only ones. Linda was on her way out having just found an apartment for her 6 months in town. Pauline was in her last week of volunteering. Brenno’s vacation was over and it was time to head back to Brazil. Only Stuart and Max were still in no rush. Adrian and I decided to head to Samaipata next. It was supposed to be a picturesque town in the mountains and the first stop on the Che Trail. The Che Trail was a five-day hike that retraced Che’s last steps. While we weren’t up for a five-day hike (we’ve learned) we still wanted to visit the small towns in the mountains where he was captured and killed (well more Adrian than we). Plus, Samaipata was supposed to be a great place to hang out. We made some email enquiries and then asked Pauline if she wanted to join us when she was done volunteering. She was interested but she still had another day of volunteering so she’d email us when she was done to let us know if she was coming.

Rather than take a bus the next day, we remembered the shared taxis (particularly) how much cheaper they were and decided that was the best way to get to Samaipata. It helped that we weren’t in a hurry because shared taxi require patience. We took a taxi to the shared taxi stand and waited 45 minutes for 2 more folks to fill the car. Then we were off. I must have drifted off, only to be woken up when the road changed from paved to unpaved and full of potholes for the last hour. The scenary was spectacular, green hils, deep valleys and misty mountaintops (photo above). I was glad the taxi had to go slowly since it allowed us to take in everything.

At the outskirts of Saimpata, I asked the driver if he could drop us off at the Posada del Sol and he agreed (another plus of taking the taxi rather than the bus). Not that we couldn’t have found it ourselves. Samaipata was a small town and there were only a handful of places to stay but all well-marked. We checked into our room, grabbed a few extra layers to fight the damp chill and then went to town to find a place to eat. Depsite being popular on the backpacker trail there was only one place open. So we had a quick bite to eat and then hurried back to the hostel so we could get under the blankets. We had planned to spend a few days in sleepy Samaipata but with the cold, we decided to leave the next day.

At breakfast we talked to the owners to find out how to get to the first little town on the trail. They told us we were essentially too late to head out that day and in fact to get to the end of the Che trail was all but impossible by public transit. The towns were too small and nothing went there. He offered us a solution though, rather than stay overnight and try to hitch rides, he could help us find a driver for the day who could take us there and bring us back for $100. That was a lot of money (for Bolivia in particular) but Adrian had already jumped up and said yes before we could think it over. And even better the driver/guide only speaks Spanish and that would mean a whole day of translating. Fun. In preparation for this very long day, we did nothing but hang out in the lounge with the fire and the DVD player. Adrian dug up a copy of Che Part 2 and we watched it before heading out for an early dinner and early to bed because tomorrow we’d be getting up at stupid o’clock (4am). We’d chased Jeremy Irons to Conception now it was time to che Benecio del Toro to La Higuera.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The divine intervention of Bolivians.

Back in Copacabana, just as we had decided to drop Paraguay from our itinerary, we’d watched The Mission. It was that movie from the 80s starring Jeremy Irons and Robert Deniro as Jesuit missionaries fighting against the Spanish and Portuguese in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle. It was an awesome movie and got us all fired up to visit the missions. The famous missions were in the area around the borders of Paraguay, Brasil and Argentina but Bolivia also had some not too far away and since we were in the area and there was nothing to do, we decided to take a little side trip to check them out. I realized that a shirtless Jeremy Irons probably wasn’t going to be hanging out there but the missions were supposed to be beautiful and had an interesting history.

The Jesuits had come to the New World over 300 years ago to convert the Guarani Indians. It wasn’t an easy task but with the help of music and the Jesuits’ persistence the natives soon came to trust the Jesuits. The missions they built together housed thousands and were more like communities than churches. Unfortunately for the Jesuits, the Spanish and Portuguese governments didn’t like this. They wanted to keep the Guarani “uncivilized” so they could use them as slaves. But the Jesuits held their ground often fighting the Spanish and Portuguese before being expelled from the area. For the next few centuries the missions were abandoned but only by the Jesuits. The Guarani stayed on at many while others were left to the jungle.

Within a day’s journey around Santa Cruz there were a handful of towns built up around the old missions. There were tours available but they were a little out of our budget so we decided to check out the closest ones just a couple of hours away. Thanks to a wonky bus schedule we’d have to stay overnight as the bus didn’t leave until late in the evening. That should have meant a nice lie-in after last night’s silliness, except that we had to check out of the room. But we were able to recoup by hanging out at the pool all day and catching up with Brenno, Stuart and Max to find out what had happened to them. As expected they had been inside one of the “night clubs” although they admitted it wasn’t easy. They tried to bribe their way into a couple but had no such luck until the third. But rather than enjoying themselves, they admitted it was a bit ego-destroying as the beautiful Glamazon Bolivian models barely glanced in their direction. Ah, poor boys. Although judging by their slow movements and blood-shot eyes they still managed to have a good time.

At 7pm we headed to the bus station and then began to search for a bus to San Javier, the closest mission town. We walked the entire length of the bus station enquiring at every other window before finding the right bus company tucked in a faraway and dark corner. The bus was more expensive than we expected but it was leaving at 7:30 rather than 8pm. And we were lucky enough to get the last two seats. In fact, the bus was more than full as every adult had at least one child sitting on his or her lap, including the old school Mennonites sitting in front of us. They had two seats for the five of them. We were getting off at the first stop 4 hours away but the bus was scheduled to travel all night deep into the Bolivian jungle. I pitied the families until the bus pulled out of the station and the parents took over the aisles, laying down blankets and pillows in the aisle for the kids to sleep on. We nodded off ourselves, bolting awake as the bus came to a stop in San Javier. None of the dozens of kids sleeping in the aisle woke up though and it took a lot of careful stepping not to crush them under our feet as we carefully made our way off the bus.

San Javier was not what I expected at all. It was one street and at 11:30pm everything was dark and closed up tight. I knew there were pensions and alojementos but trying to find an open one at this hour didn’t look like it was going to be easy. We walked down the main street towards a pinprick of a light up ahead. It was a pension and they were just closing. But they had a room available for a third of the price we were paying in Santa Cruz and three times as nice (although the bed was rock hard). There was a private bathroom and tv even – not that we had time to enjoy it since we both crashed within minutes of lying down, hoping that San Javier was more impressive in the morning.

At 8am we awoke still groggy but anxious to begin our mission mission. It was already super hot and very sunny. Although the sunlight made it much easier to find our way around the town, it didn’t improve San Javier. The town was just a tiny village. But behind the one street was the main square where the mission was. The mission was still closed however so we set out to find some breakfast. The only place open was a small café, or rather a courtyard with a couple of tables and plastic chairs, that sold just one thing empanadas. Adrian, the breakfast purist, was a bit cranky about having empanadas for breakfast but when I reminded him that the option was empanadas or nothing he ordered two. Plus the price was right, 4 empanadas and a pot of coffee and milk came to about $2.50. As we were settling up our bill, the bells of the mission started ringing. We followed the villagers inside the doors and were surprised to find it packed. The population of San Javier couldn’t have been more than 100 but there were at least three times that amount inside the church. Rather than fight for a seat, we slipped out of the church and walked around the huge walled compound instead. The mission was being renovated so much of the pretty stuff was under protective tarps but there was still plenty to see, including the old bell tower, intricate carvings and wall paintings, class rooms and smaller chapels (but no Jeremy Irons). When the church service was over we walked back inside the church for a better look before heading out to find the bus to the next mission town, Concepcion.

We walked down the street looking for a micro (mini van buses) but having no luck popped into a bus office to ask. Just as we were asking a bus pulled up which they told us would take us to Concepcion. It was nicer than our night bus – it had airconditionning. And the price was right so we hopped on. The journey to Concepcion took less than an hour through the hills that had once been dense jungle. Just after 11 we arrived in Concepcion and checked when the bus back to Santa Cruz was. It was either 1pm or 5:30 so we decided to to catch the 1pm one. Unlike San Javier, Concepcion was an actual town, a small one but we had to walk a little faster if we were going to squeeze in our tour. There were people everywhere and when we got to the church I realized it wasn’t just because it was Sunday but because today was holy communion for every kid in the area. Everywhere we were tripping over young girls in their white mini wedding dressed and boys in dress shirts and ties, yet none were sweating in the stinking hot sun.

The mission (photo above) here was even more impressive but we went to the museum first and got a quick history of the restoration of the missions in the area. In the early 20th century the Jesuits had finally but centuries of neglect had left the buildings barely standing. One of the priests, Hans Roth, was also an architect and he spearheaded the task of restoring them. He first built a school and workshop to teach the locals how to help him out and provide them with skills for employment. It took 30 years but the Missions were now restored and the schools and workshops are still teaching hundreds of people a year. The story was impressive but so was the work. The museum had before and after photos that showed just how much work he and his workers had put into the project. There was also a lot of history on the Jesuits in the area and I was amazed at how much one of the old priests looked like Jeremy Irons until I realized it was a still shot from The Mission. Apparently, today’s Jesuits were just as inspired by the movie as we were. There were also exhibitions on the importance of music to the missions – the workshops not only made furniture and decorations for the church but musical instruments for the locals, just as the missions had done 300 years ago.

Inside the church our awe continued. The interior had been restored but also filled with contemporary additions. On each wooden pew a different Bible story had been carved in relief. The walls were decorated with others. No wonder, the parents of the children were crowded around taking pictures of their kids standing in front of the altar. We wanted to check out the workshop but when we got there we discovered it was closed on Sunday (of course). That was fine as our time was running out. We fought our way through the crowds and headed through town to the bus company office to buy our tickets. And that’s when the bad news started.

The first company was sold out until the 11pm bus – but that wouldn’t get us into Santa Cruz until 4am. And the other didn’t have any tickets until the 10pm bus. Just our luck to head to Concepcion, during one of the few weekends when the rest of the province did. We knew we could get out of town but we didn’t really want to stick around and decided to head out to the highway to try our luck. We didn’t know what we were trying our luck at but figured a change of scenary might clear our heads. Perhaps we could catch a collectivo or taxi, we thought. We waited and waited and although we saw taxis, something (namely fear of a super high price) stopped us from flagging them down. Eventually, we saw the 1pm bus turn onto the highway. There were empty seats visible and I thought I’d ask the driver. He told us he only had room until San Javier. Since the bus was only half full I was skeptical but at least we were on board and heading in the right direction. Just outside of San Javier however, I discovered who those seats were for. There was a camping area and 20 kids and their adult chaperones piled on board with all their gear. And they had tickets for the seats we were sitting in. Luckly, the ayudante (and the kids) let us sit until San Javier where we got off on the road and wondered what we were going to do next. Perhaps, there were tickets from San Javier on the 6pm bus but just as we were about to ask at the bus office, a taxi driver approached us. He asked us if we were looking for a tour but I explained that we had just done one and were trying to get to Santa Cruz. I thought he’d drive off but instead he decided to help us. He told us about the shared taxis we could take (changing at a couple of different towns), how much they cost (half the price of our bus tickets) and explained where to stand to find one. We thanked him and walked down to the taxi stand to wait. The next thing we knew he drove up and got out of the car to flag down a tiny minivan. He explained our story to the driver and although the driver wasn’t going all the way to Santa Cruz he could take us to the San Ramon where we could connect to another taxi for the final stretch. The first taxi driver was in his car and off before we could thank him. So just in the rare chance he speaks English, is online and is reading this, I want to say thank you.

We got to San Ramon quickly and were let off at another waiting taxi. It was boiling hot but not wanting to lose our seats we stayed in the van roasting for an hour until there were enough people for the driver to take off. Joining us were a professor in the front, a woman with her two young sons in the middle and us in the back all heading to Santa Cruz. The driver obviously thought he still had room for one more and stopped a few times along the way trying to entice more passengers but none were tempted. Adrian and I were surprisingly not bothered by the delays; we were just happy not to be stranded in tiny little San Javier or Conception. Don’t get me wrong, visiting the missions had been nice but after that there was nothing to do in the town.

Just after dark we arrived in Santa Cruz and the driver let off the woman and her sons leaving just the professor and I. I assumed the taxi was going to let us off near the bus station so when he pulled up to a hotel in an unfamiliar part of town, we were confused. I asked him where we were and how to get near Parque Urbano where the hostel was, the driver waved vaguely in a direction but the professor told us to get back in the car. That was near where he wa going so the driver could drop us off on the way. Phew, once again we were saved by the kindness and language skills of a stranger. When the professor found out we were from Canada, he clapped his hands in delight. His daughter lived in Canada and he had many Canadian grandchildren he told us. Me gusto mucho Canada, he told us. Me gusto mucho Bolivianos I told him. And I meant it. Without the help of all of them today we wouldn’t have made it back to the bbq and pool that were waiting for us at the hostel.

Friday, September 25, 2009

All dressed up with someplace to go.

After our overnight bus rides in Peru, the overnight bus to Santa Cruz was interesting. There were no more comfy pillows, no fuzzy blankets and no meals served to us at our seats. Instead we cowered under our jackets and woke up with kinks in our necks. Instead of breakfast, the bus stopped somewhere along the highway in the middle of the hot humid Bolivian jungle where we all got out at a little roadside open air café. While the Bolivians all tucked into the bowls of soup made out of big cow bones, slurping hungrily on the marrow, or knocked back heaping plates of rice with a chicken stew, Adrian and I made do with a cup of super sweet coffee. The one other gringo on the bus, joined us in our choice. She was a young English girl just wrapping up her four month trip and travelling to Santa Cruz to catch a flight to Rio where she would be enjoying some sun before heading home to grey England. When we arrived at the Santa Cruz bus station, we split a cab with her. Well we paid the same as if we had taken two cabs, but there is something comforting about sharing a taxi with someone else after arriving in a new city. Our hostel was located in a residential area just outside of the downtown area and although I had given the driver the address and shown him where it was located he still managed to get slightly lost until I pointed him in the right direction. But it was his loss since we were paying a flat rate no matter what route he took. We said goodbye to the English girl, gave her address to the driver since she spoke even worse Spanish than I did and checked in.

We’d chosen this hostel for its promise of free and fast wifi and great website (I know, we’ve been burned before). The hostel had once been a large house and it felt homey, clean and full of all the good things that make us happy (for me wifi, for Adrian a big screen tv with satellite tv). All good except for the fact that it appeared to be empty. Despite this the only room available was the most expensive. Since we didn’t feel like searching for another option we took it - after all the pool awaited. Yes, I forgot to mention the pool. Santa Cruz was stinking hot and humid and after sleeping on a bus in our clothes we were looking forward to a refreshing dip. The wifi was much better than the La Paz and while we paddled around the pool, the remaining hundreds of photos uploaded which made the hostel 100x better already.

There was a grocery store nearby and while Adrian went to stock up on some grub, the other guests started trickling in, among them Stuart and Max two easy going lads from England, lovely Pauline from Ireland and Linda, a perennially happy German girl. In just a few hours we’d gotten to know more people than we had in our three days in La Paz which is why I like small hostels. And we all had a lot in common – we were in Santa Cruz. No really that was important. The city doesn’t appear on most travelers agendas except as a place to catch an international flight (the airport here is bigger than La Paz’s), or on their way to Brazil to visit the Pantanal. Stuart and Max had only meant to pass through on their way to the rest of Bolivia but had found themselves drawn to the town. Likewise Pauline who had now been here for weeks volunteering at a school. And Linda, well, she was a sweet, giggly student who’d just arrived to start an internship. I immediately assumed it was something to do with international development. But no, she was studying transportation and logistics and her internship was with the Bolivian passenger rail service. I wasn't the only one who found this funny – the notoriously slow and undependable Bolivian rail service would get a free injection of notorious German efficiency, but poor Linda wasn’t going to learn much to help except frustration. Good thing she was the happiest person I’ve ever met – and I wondered if we’d be able to pass through in 6 months time to see if she still was after her intership.

The next day, we left our new friends to explore the city we’d found ourselves in. Santa Cruz is actually Bolivia’s richest and most prosperous city – rumour has it that most of that wealth came from drugs. But whatever the reason, it was now its business centre. Having read that, Adrian and I had high hopes for it. So we walked the 10 minutes into town, finding a French café on the way. I was skeptical when we walked in – French food in what was eseentially the middle of the Bolivian Pantanal - but I was pleasantly surprised by the fancy décor and to hear the two owners speaking French to each other. So we stopped for an authentic French lunch of quiche, coke and éclairs for just 15Bs and then started walking to the sights listed in the guidebook.

Our walking tour didn’t take long – there wasn’t much to see in Santa Cruz. The plaza, the old church, a handful of colonial buildings amongst the typical cement structures and a bunch of shops that sold clothes more expensive than our budget. There was definitely money in the town but it wasn’t being spent by us or on the city. The one exception was a park nearby (photo above) which consisted of an artificial pond ringed by some grass and a handful of palm trees and a large stone pathway/patio. It stood out for its newness. And in fact it was so new, that the ethnographic museum built on an island in the middle of the pond was still being constructed or set up and was closed. Including the time we took for lunch, our tour had taked an hour and a half. So once we’d seen all the buildings it was time to go shopping, but only if we could find something cheap. After 6 months of traveling some of our clothes had started to unravel and threadbare but replacing mine was going to be a bit of a struggle. Not only our women in Latin America at least a foot shorter than me but their also about a foot skinnier. They also like to wear a lot of shiny things – sequins, lame, and crystals – which aren’t really my style. At a large department store, I was lucky to find a pair of khaki casual pants that fit on the sale rack. I have a feeling they may have been maternity pants but they were about $8 so who cares. However, since the rest of the clothes looked more suitable for salsa dancing than hiking, that was the end of my shopping.

Back at the hostel, many of our new friends were back and were now joined by Brenno, a Brasilian on vacation from his job at a hostel in Bonito. Within 5 minutes of talking to him, he’d sold us on stopping by his place and even promised us a discount. It looked and sounded fabulous and hopefully would still be in the two or three months we figured it would take us to get to Brazil. He was a super nice guy – actually they all were. And we got to know each other better at the hostel bbq that night. It was all you could eat meat and all you could drink alcohol. I think it was that last freebie that had us agree to join Brenno to the feria later on. “It’s the biggest one in Bolivia” “It’s a big party” “Everyone goes there on the weekend” were just some of the things he told us making it sound like a nightclub yet it was the local agricultural fair, like the CNE. Max, Stuart, Adrian and I were game (making sure to leave our cameras and wallets at the hostel). And with a bit of prodding I convinced Pauline and Linda to join us too so I wouldn’t be the only girl. But with so many of us now going, we had to take two taxis: the girls (and Adrian) in one and the boys in the other, which meant we never saw the boys again. Little did we know that there were 8 different entrances to the fair which was the size of a small city. No worries there was plenty to keep us occupied without them.

We walked around the displays which were more like trade show booths selling tractors, cars, cell phone plans and giant cows to a mixture of local indigenous folks, partying young people and super-blond, old order Mennonite families. If that wasn’t an odd enough combination, each booth was populated with beautiful Bolivian models two feet taller than any Bolivian I’d met so far and decked out in their designer best. We thought for sure we’d find the boys near any of these women but no such luck. As we continued to wander, we stumbled across some sort of Miss Bolivia contest where 50 even more beautiful women were strutting the stage in bikinis under the watchful eye of a slightly letcheorus emcee. We searched amongst the families and men holding up their cellphones to record the contest for the boys and then decided to just watch the crowning, except the contest was not a contest. There was no winner just an endless succession of beautiful Amazon women, however, none of the men in the audience seemed to mind. I wonder if they were staring because they were wondering the same thing I was – where did they find these giants in a country of munchikin? Um, probably not. And not surprisingly, as soon as the models left the stage the huge crowd dispersed in record time. We still hadn’t found the boys and decided to give it one more shot. I told Linda to practice her Spanish by asking some of the young folks where the party was so we could find the boys – but those she asked just pointed all around. I told Adrian to put his “think like a boy” cap on and he said to follow the women. So we did. Most headed to the trade show booths that were now functioning like night clubs. Beefy bouncers were guarding the entrance while the beautiful people wearing the fancy clothes I’d seen for sale in the shops danced, dranked and partied on the otherside. Unfortunately all of us in our backpacker finest couldn’t even pass off ourselves as cleaners. We figured the lads were somewhere in one of them and in good hands so we did another lap of the exhibits then decided to leave. It was probably for the best as the all we could drink alcohol started to catch up with us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The highs of Bolivia.

La Paz was the highest capital city in the world. But high also had other connotations when you were speaking of Bolivia. The president, Evo Morales is a coca farmer and has made himself (un)popular abroad and at home by defending the rights of his fellow coca farmers. Of course, he’s defending the rights of the farmers to grow and harvest the leaves of the coca plant. A millennial old indigenous remedy for altitude sickness as well as a key plant in the Aymara and Quechua religions. But abroad, the coca plant is betterkknown as the origin of cocaine, known in many parts of the world as Bolivian Marching Powder. It’s for this reason that the American DEA fought to get into the country (although Morales has since kicked them out). And it’s the reason some backpackers put Bolivia on their must-do list. They come to partake in the nameless, addressless, after-hours cocaine bars that are sprinkled throughout the city. If you want to sample you can easily find out where to go, any taxi driver will help you. But unlike many of the young gap year travelers, it wasn’t the reason we were in town so we can’t help you out. Adrian was happy with the baked beans with his full English breakfast and I was happy enough to just wander the streets of the city.

To educate the masses about coca, the government had set up the Coca Musuem. Inside it was just two small cramped rooms chock full of displays visited by a mixture of those party-happy gap years probably hoping for a free sample and travelers like ourselves hoping for a more educational experience (sorry no photos allowed inside). We were given a booklet in English to read as we walked through. And there was a lot to read. The museum explained the farming of the plant, harvesting of the leaves and their traditional place in Bolivia’s history. We’d tried coca leaves in Peru to help with the altitude sickness but the taste was worse than the altitude sickness. Coca tea was readily available but tasted and had as much punch as any herbal tea. The leaves wer harmless and this is what the first half of museum was trying to celebrate. But it was cocaine that was the real money maker for the farmers (despite the president’s plea to the contrary) and the second half of the museum was dedicated to the refinement and consequences of the drug. It was a good attempt but was missing something. Years back I’d seen a youtube video on the jungle cocaine factories. It showed how the plant was refined – in detail and without the innocuous-looking chemical diagrams in the museum. In this video you saw what those chemical compounds were – gasoline, paint thinner amongst others – that were mixed with the plant to extract the drug. Working with these compounds, shortened the lifespan of the workers (if it didn’t kill them) and created a drug that should have more chemical warnings than a toxic waste dump. Probably the best anti-drug video I’d ever seen and much needed in this museum. As it was those who came here to be educated were, but those who came here straight from their all night party, left looking for the next party – not the result the museum hoped for.

After our morning at the Museo de Coca we headed down the pretty Prado to the newer part of the city for something different. By newer, I meant the buildings were only a hundred years old not five hundred. Although most were being left to crumble so they could be knocked down and replaced with steel and concrete towers. However there were a couple still standing and occupied. One of them was home to the Museo de Arte Contemporeano. The art inside was okay, some was even good, and most was for sale. But the house was amazing and at times outshone the art it was displaying. After the heaviness of the Coca Museo, this small art gallery was just the breath of fresh air we needed.

We headed back to hostel to check out and get ready for our night bus to Santa Cruz. Lulu was there so we said goodbye and wished her good luck. Then we grabbed our bags and flagged down a cab to take us to the bus station. It took us a while to find the right kiosk as all the bus companies seemed to be named Transcopa A thru Z and we needed to find Transcopa MEM. But we were early and found it eventually. The bus was comfier than we expected and although there were no blankets, pillows or food it was good enough for our 14 hour ride to Santa Cruz near the jungles where those Andean coca leaves were refined into cocaine. Hopefully, the distance to Santa Cruz would deter those gap year partiers from trying to make their way to the source.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bolivia, the just in case country

Sometimes when you’re traveling, you need a day off to sit around and do nothing. It’s like a vacation from the all the work of backpacking. That’s right I said work. We may be unemployed but what we’re doing is definitely not a vacation. When you’re working, you don’t have to think about what or where you’re going to eat and sleep, or how you’re going to get to where you’re going because you have a routine. But when you’re traveling you constantly have to think about that and it’s hard work, especially with a 20 kg pack on your back. And that’s why you take days off. However, sometimes you get forced into a day off. Today was one of those days.

With the help of the awesome staff at the hostel, we arranged for the delivery of our package from back home. But just like back home the best they could do was give us a delivery window of 12-6pm. We couldn’t leave just in case they came at the beginning of that window. Ah just in case just like back home. And just like back home, they didn’t come until 5:30 so we lost the whole day sitting around for DHL to deliver. And we had to be there because we had to pay. The fees were duties for importing Adrian’s beloved replacement PSP. Despite it being used and leaving the country with us, we still had to pay about $150 to get our package. It was definitely not a highlight.

While we waited to fork over our cash for the goods, Adrian and I made good use of our forced downtime to plan the next couple of days. See even when we’re off we’re still working and it was made more like work with painfully slow hostel internet. After all that hard work we decided to take the day off tomorrow and join a tour to the ruins of Tiwanaku. And the day after we decided to head east to Santa Cruz near the spot where Che Guevera was killed. Unfortunately, Che Guevera didn’t get himself shot in a major city – no, he had to go do it in the middle of the highlands which were only accessible by a tour, a tour that was three times our daily budget. But we bought our bus tickets from the hostel (for a fee) and decided to figure out how to chase Che (and stay in our budget) when we got to Santa Cruz. First though we had to conquer Tiwanku (photo above).

After breakfast, we were picked up right on time and loaded into the minivan to join the rest of the folks. There was Paul from Vancouver and his Brazilian girlfriend, three Germans and a dude from Californian who talked about karmic energy and even tried to show us photographic evidence of it. I didn’t want to burst his bubble by telling him it was just his camera flash bouncing off dust particles in the air. They were harmless and entertaining, even the dude (not to be mistaken for The Dude). But our guide Edel was even better than their company. She began her tour by telling us about the psyche of the Bolivian people using the Bolivian navy to make her point. Bolivians are a patient people. Hundreds of years ago, Bolivia used to have a coastline but battles were fought and maps redrawn and now that coastline belongs to northern Chile. But Bolivians aren’t fighting and protesting for that land back. Nope they’re just kinda maybe hoping and preparing for the day they get it back. So this hopelessly landlocked nation now has a proud navy waiting just in case. And that’s just an example of Edel’s storytelling. She talked just enough to keep us informed and entertained but not too much to give us a headache. Because of her, I was glad we had chosen to do the tour rather than just taking public transit all the way out to the site.

We headed up out of the La Paz through the suburbs and back out on the Altiplano. Although Tiwanaku was closer to Copacabana than La Paz, it’s actually easier to get to from the capital for some strange reason. Along the way we stopped to look back across the Altiplano towards the mountains that surround La Paz. The stop wasn’t just a scenic lookout, it was also an Aymara sacred site. And dotted around the hill were scorch marks marking where offerings were burnt and mounds of llama fur where an animal had sacrificed. Edel explained that llama sacrifices were reserved for big requests like a new home or business and judging by the amount of fur scattered around the hill, the local village was about to get a new subdivision of very large houses.

Tiwanaku was just a short ride away from the ridge where we had stopped. And once we pulled up to the tiny town I was really glad we had a guide. The site didn’t look very impressive and neither was the onsite museum. But Edel made up for it with her in-depth explanation of the history and significance of the site. By the time the Spanish arrived the Tiwanaku had disappeared, or rather been absorbed by the Incans, and in the absence of a written history it has been hard work to piece together a history. What archeologists have been able to figure out is that the Tiwanaku had once been 4 different people that had been around for almost 9 centuries before the Incans. Each of the four groups specialized in one thing – hunters, farmers, fighters and builders but in the end it was the farming group that became dominant and the rest of the skills were kind of forgotten. In the end that was the downfall of the Tiwanaku. When the Incans came through the area, the farmers were no match for the warriors and the Tiwanaku were conquered until the Spanish came through and did their best to wipe out the indigenous groups. Luckily, the legacy of the old Tiwanaku builders survived, leaving a handful of sites with clues to this ancient superpower.

But you really needed to be an archeologist with diving or digging skills to find the clues. In Isla fel Sol the ruins were far below the sea and in Tiwanaku what was left of the site was hidden underground. Well, not all of them actually, many of the stones were now in the small town just on the horizon having been pilfered by the Spanish to construct their churches and other important colonial buildings. And what they hadn’t pilfered they’d destroyed in a futile search for gold. The Spanish mistakenly believed that there was gold in the middle of the main structure and quickly dug up half of the pyramid looking for it only to leave empty handed. At the the half of the pyramid left behind, archeologists were carefully excavating. It was a slow process and only a corner had been uncovered. Perhaps they needed to call the Spanish back in to speed up the process.

Edel took us around the rest of the sites. She pointed out the quirks of the Tiwanaku building methods. Despite being nowhere near an earthquake zone, the builders had created earthquake-proof buildings (but not Spanish-proof). “Just in case” she said cheerfully. However, the bronze used to hold the stones in place was often poached by the Spanish. Despite all this poaching and pilfering, the Spanish had left some of the most important sites alone – which is amazing. Normally everything indigenous and religious was wiped out in an effort to convert the locals to Catholocism. But here it was the religious sites that were still standing. Just in case they were wrong, I wondered.

The most famous site was the Gateway of the Sun which scholars are still trying to make sense of. The best guess is that it was an old calender – with a set of carvings to mark the seasons, another to mark the months, and a final one to mark the weeks. The designs were super clear, if only we had a handy Tiwanaku to English (or even Spanish) pocket translator. The other famous site is the Sunken Temple. Famous because of the thousands of faces carved into the bricks. Each of the faces is different, representing different tribes and people (and some even believe aliens) that the Tiwanaku had contact with. Although the Spanish had left these sites in tact they hadn’t left them alone and occasionally Edel would point out a cross that had been carved into a statue or a wall by the Spanish.

There were other sites but they weren’t open to the public. Instead we headed to a small café located amongst the derelict buildings just outside the ruins for a late lunch. Adrian and I couldn’t afford the whole meal so we just had soup. Plus we’d become fans of Bolivian soup after our time on the Isla del Sol – and this one was almost as tasty as Estancia’s. The Dude pronounced the alpaca "awesome" as he had everything we'd seen so far. Then it was back in the van for the ride back to the La Paz. We stopped briefly at the original village and cathedral of La Paz until they moved it to the valley, just in case. It wasn’t a long tour and it hadn’t been amazing (although Edel was) but it had been a good day out.

When we got back to the hostel we met an Aussie girl named Lulu. Somehow we ended up chatting about getting robbed in our travels. And she told us that she’d been robbed when she arrived in Bolivia. Besides her valuables, the thieves had even stolen her shoes and coat. She wasn’t too shaken up and took it in stride but she said that the worst part had been showing up at the school she was volunteering at and having to ask for shoes and a coat from the poor people she was there to help. She said she was more embarrassed than bothered. Getting robbed sucks but I’m glad that those we’ve met have all had the same keep going attitude. It makes getting robbed seem like no big deal.

Instead of more British/Irish cooking at the hostel, I convinced Adrian to go out for something different. We decided to go for Indian, which after Mexican was our default road cuisine. Bolivia was home not only to the world’s most dangerous road (which we weren’t visiting) but also to the world’s most dangerous curry. We decided to pass on that dish and wimped out with a wimpy tika masala and palak paneer with naan bread. The curry was delicious but the naan was disappointing. It was just a loaf of bread that we left untouched. It didn’t matter since we’d ordered too much food just in case the dishes were small (they weren’t).

Besides the tasty food, the reason for heading out of the hostel was to try to find some better wifi. Next door to the Indian place was a café which advertised wifi and a pool table. Something for me and something for Adrian. So we moved next door for dessert, uploading and for Adrian, a dutch pool tournament. A what? Well this was a Dutch café full of Dutch expats all drinking coffee and smoking and drinking and playing pool. And today was their monthly charity pool tournament which in fact was an excuse to drink and smoke and drink some more. But despite not being Dutch, Adrian was allowed to play. It was for charity after all. So while he beat all the players and won the tournament, I attempted to upload our photos just in case we didn’t have better access elsewhere. Because the one thing I’d learned over the last few days was that in Bolivia, you do things just in case.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wrestling with La Paz.

At over 3660 metres above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. Now that was less than Copacabana and Isla del Sol but it was also a whole lot bigger which meant we would be huffing and puffing as we set out on foot to explore it today. We had hoped a big breakfast would help us out, but the hostel only provided bread and jam with coffee. Oh well, it was free so I shouldn’t complain too much. And we were able to add fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juice to that just a few blocks away. For less than $1 we got two huge glasses from a street vendor who squeezed it while we waited. Yum. But we still weren’t ready to start our walking tour. We had to find a bank machine to replenish the funds we’d just about exhausted over the last 7 days, and preferably a bank machine that gave out more than $150 at a time to stop the bank fee bleeding we’d been suffering from lately. The best we could do was double that amount. It still wasn’t great but it would have to do. Now it was time to tackle the city.

Back in Copacabana I’d traced the walking tour from the hostel’s Bolivia guidebook into ours and the first stop was the San Francisco Church. Not part of the walking tour was the huge public health fare going on in the square out front. The government had set up dozens of booths to catch the locals on their way into church. So not only could they get a sermon, today they could also get their blood pressure checked, learn about food groups, and talk to a doctor if they needed to. It was a little weird to see at first but I realized that churches in Latin America are more popular than malls and probably the best way for the government to reach the largest amount of people. Since Sunday service was going on we skipped poking our noses in the church and instead decided to see the other half of the Bolivian religion in action at the witches’ market. That required a hike up and by hike I mean it felt like we were walking straight up. Of course when we got to the point on the map where the market was supposed to be, we discovered it had been replaced by a street of tourist stalls selling pan flutes, ponchos and Che Guevera t-shirts. We were disappointed, probably because our lungs were now burning but continued on with the walking tour nonetheless. As we turned up the next street we stumbled upon the new location of the witches’ market. The stalls were interesting but not as weird as I expected, perhaps because we’d seen many of the offerings (miniature objects, herbs, candy shaped like cars and houses) on sale on Calvary Hill in Copacabana, everything except for the gruesome llama fetuses that the market is famous for and which are considered the most special offering someone could burn or bury. After that we cut the tour short as it continued to take us up and into more markets rather than down to the city sights.

The other thing that La Paz (and Bolivia) is famous for is cocaine and La Paz has an entire museum dedicated to the Coca Plant it comes from. No, this is not some sort of druggie paradise. You see, coca is used everyday by almost all Bolivians. The leaves are chewed and consumed the same way North Americans drink coffee, as an appetite suppressant, a cure for altitude sickness and also to make tea. Unfortunately for Bolivians, the US doesn’t quite agree with the planting of Coca and had been trying to outlaw it – unable to separate the domestic use from the illegal production of cocaine. The museum was dedicated to educating folks about the thousand year old Bolivian tradition of consuming coca. But it was also closed that day. So our education was going to have to wait. Oh well. At least the building and the courtyard in front were pretty enough so it didn’t feel like a wasted journey.

On our way to the main square, we discovered the Museo del Arte and decided to pop in. It was well worth the $1.50 entrance fee. The buildings was a beautiful old colonial one and the collection of art was quite nice too, and included enough modern stuff to keep Adrian from getting bored. When we left, an old blind couple was sitting outside busking in the pedestrian mall. They were quite good and also very sweet so we listened to three of their songs and then put some money in their box. We once again headed to the Cathedral square only to be thwarted this time by a giant religious procession. Knights of Columbus, priests, altar boys and girls, women’s auxiliary, clouds of incense, and many virgins. And by virgins, I mean Virgins. Each group in the procession was holding a large statue of Virgin Mary over their heads. We couldn’t move any further so we watched it pass by the presidential palace where dignitaries (but not the president) paid their respects to the Virgins. When the process finally moved on into town and out of the square, Adrian rushed over to the palace and congress excited to see the bullet holes left over from a failed coup decades ago. However, either the Virgins or a handyman had miraculously patched them recently. But all was not lost. A quick search of the other buildings on the square turned up some still visible bullet holes, satisfying Adrian’s morbid curiosity. The square itself was the perfect place to stop for a break so we grabbed some saltenas (Bolivian empanadas). They were tasty and also about 50 cents each that made them even tastier. Then it was back to hostel for our afternoon tour which was either going to be one of the worst things we had ever done or the best. We were going to see some Bolivian wrestling.

In Latin America, wrestling is a favoured sport. You’ll find wrestlers painted on the side of buses or the pictures pinned up in local restaurants. If it’s on tv men, women and whole families will watch it, entranced. I am not a wrestling fan, in fact I kind of hate it. But having just watched The Wrestler while we were in Copacabana, I was kind of excited about seeing a match in action. And Adrian? While if it’s tacky, he wants to do it. And this wrestling looked like it was the tackiest thing we could do in town if not all of Bolivia. You see, this wasn’t just any wrestling, it was Cholita wresting and a Cholita is what they call any traditional Bolivian women, the women in the voluminous skirts and tiny little bowler hats. That’s right we had paid money to see women’s wrestling.

At the hostel we met up with 20 other tack-hunters and set off in the bus back up out of the canyon of La Paz and into the altiplano suburbs. The bus stopped at the top of the hill so we could take a panoramic picture of the city down below and then we were back on board for the short drive into the working class suburbs. Outside a small and rustic arena we were let off, given our entry tickets, vouchers for a snack and souvenir as well as our tourist bathroom tickets before being hustled inside. The ticket taker handed us a program and we were disappointed to find more men then women listed for today’s fight and no midgets (yup midgets are just as popular competitors as the Cholitas). We were shown to our VIP seats which were plastic chairs lined up at ringside. I wasn’t sure if that was so much a privilege or a punishment – but I guess we’d soon find out as just as we were all seated the announcer came out to introduce the first match. Judging by the group’s reaction to his rapid-fire Spanish, there was some trash talk of some of the competitors but none of us gringos was able to figure out what we were about to see not that it would have mattered because I don’t think any of us would have been able to translate “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle”. You see, the first involved a guy dressed up as one of the TMNT but no Cholitas. It set the pattern for the rest of the matches: the crowd favourite would get beat up by the bad guy with a little help from the dirty ref followed by a comeback from the edge of defeat.

There were about 5 matches in total, or about 2 too many, of varying degrees of entertainment. Our refreshments were just a small cup of pop and another small bag of too salty popcorn which most of the gringos preferred to throw at the bad guys. Only half of the fights involved a Cholita. I assumed the Cholita would automatically be the crowd favourites whenever they fought but one of them was definitely not their favourite (although she was mine). Jenniferwas a bad ass and not afraid to fight dirty. At one point she was thrown into the protective railing in front of the gringos before being whacked over the head with a real wooden crate. I remembered The Wrestler and imagined she’d probably bruised her ribs and gotten a lump on the head and felt more than a little sorry for her even if the crowd was happy that she was injured. Although the wrestling was fake the moves were definitely not. But in the end evil Jennifer won her match. Adrian’s favourite was Mr. Atlas, the old-timer. But because of the age of both him and his opponent, the moves weren’t as scary or exciting, so much so that I don’t remember much except Mr. Atlas won. By the second last match most of the gringos had disappeared and I wondered if we were supposed to have left as well. But rather than leave we stayed right until the end mostly because Adrian was totally into the event now while I worried how we were going to get back to the hostel. My anxiety wasn’t helped by the last match. It wasn’t so much a match as a way to clear everyone out of the building and involved a wrestler called La Mumia de Africa (the mummy of Africa). He was the ultimate bad guy and after beating up both his opponent and the ref, the other wrestlers came out to try to control him. not even Jennifer could conquer him and he soon turned on the crowd, throwing the metal grates and plastic chairs forcing everyone out of the arena. It was a good thing many in the audience had already left because it meant less of a crowd in the small parking lot outside. Out of the original 20 who had arrived on our bus only 5 (including us) stuck it out until the end – it was the same story with the other tours so it was easy to find our ride back. Good thing because it was now dark outside.

The bus took us back down into the city bowl stopping briefly so we could take another shot of La Paz all lit up this time before dropping us off at the hostel. It was definitely Adrian’s day because the hostel was serving up a proper Sunday dinner. He chortled with glee as he gobbled up his first beef, roast potatoes, carrots, beans, broccoli, peas and lashings of gravy in the last 6 months. He even threatened to call home and tell his mum it was better than hers until I told him she might cut him off in the future. After all the fighting we’d seen in the ring we didn’t need to start any fights back in England.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Learning to drive in La Paz

It was 4:30am and I was wide awake again and didn’t get back to sleep until 6:30. I guess I shouldn’t have gone to bed at 9:30pm again (teehee whoops). But getting out of bed was much easier when we did finally get up – particularly because there was heat in our room and the bathroom was just a short trip across the hall. We took full advantage of the endless hot water shower and then treated ourselves to breakfast at the hostel. But in a comedic miscommunication Adrian ended up with 3 eggs rather than three pieces of toast when he used his sh-sh-sh sound and motioned to his plate. I was just grateful that it wasn’t me who ended up with all those eggs. We checked out and then headed down the hill one last time catch the bus to La Paz.

There were plenty of tourist shuttles trying to tempt us onboard but we bypassed them. Not only did the tourist shuttles not leave until the afternoon but they were triple the price of the public bus. So we followed the locals to the square where a small bus was waiting for us. We were two of just four gringos onboard but despite all the jokes about Bolivian public transport, we were disappointed to discover the rest of the passengers were human not feathered or four-legged.

The bus ride was just another bus ride with one exception. To get to La Paz from Copacabana, all traffic has to cross Lake Titicaca. There was no bridge but there was a ferry, you can call it that. At a narrow straight, the bus stopped and let us off and then continued on to a floating raft that looked like it was barely able to float (photo above). I was glad that we didn’t have to join it until I saw how we were getting across. There was a small passenger boat much like the one we had taken yesterday to get off the Isla del Sol. Impossibly it looked even less sea-worthy although, unlike the Isla del Sol boats, I did notice the presence of two life jackets that could be fought over by the 20 passengers in case of emergency. We all piled onboard and then waited and waited so more until a cranky and impatient old man, yelled at the gabbing captains that we were cold and weren’t getting any prettier which got the attention of one of the captains. He jumped onboard and started the boat, smoking while hanging over the motor that smelled of leaking petrol. I noticed that there were no fire extinguishers.

But in the end, we made it to the other side without incident. The only problem was we had no clue where to catch out bus. Neither did the two other gringos. Tomas and Chris were also on their way to La Paz and to the same hostel we were going to. We decided to stick together in the square and hope that with the four of us gringos grouped together and standing heads and shoulders above the rest of the crowd (literaly, Bolivians are tiny) that if we couldn’t find us the bus would at least be able to find us. They offered us some of their Andean popcorn. I’d seen the giant plastic bags of it for sale around Copacabana for mere cents but hadn’t tried it yet. Each piece was the size of Styrofoam popcorn but it tasted like Cracker Jacks. I passed on more after two pieces because unlike Cracker jacks there was no prize for finishing this stuff. Our plan to stick together worked as the bus honked at us and we turned in the direction of the sound to discover it parked a block away on a side street and the driver motioning to us.

We had all heard that the bus trip to La Paz could take up to 6 hours but we managed to get to the city limits in just 2.5 hours. I have a feeling the tourist shuttle companies try to scare folks by claiming the local bus takes 6 hours because our driver certainly wasn’t speeding or driving like a Colombian. Well not a first anyway – as we snaked through La Paz, his driving did take on a certain flair. At first La Paz seemed to be a big stretch of flatness with lots of wide (although crowded) streets. This was a surprise because I had read that La Paz was hilly. Then the bus made a turn and I realized that we had been in the suburbs. The bus was now on the edge of a precipice that was home to La Paz. The city lined a canyon-like gash in the flat altiplano and to get to the bottom now required the bus to begin an almost completely vertical descent.

Unfortunately for the driver, his normal route was blocked by a huge parade that was winding its way up the side of the canyon. Every street he turned onto had a roadblock at the end of it. Finally, he approached a road block but with no parade in sight he ignored the police motioning him to sop and turned down the parade route in an attempt to cross town. Eventually he was stopped by traffic and the police surrounded the bus. They forced their way on the bus and demanded to see his license while asking him which part of “stop” and “do not enter” did he not understand. They ordered him out of the bus but there were no guns and a quick look at their holsters revealed that they were only armed with pepper spray anyway. However, the driver didn’t want to get out. You see we were on what felt like a completely vertical street and he didn’t want to take his foot off the brakes. With his hands up in the air, he tried to explain as his ayudante scurried outside to put some blocks under the wheels of the bus. He tried to argue about his responsibility to his passengers but now the cops were questioning the roadworthiness of his vehicle and were threatening to impound the bus. Now the driver got a little worried and he tried to get out the bus to show the cops that there was nothing wrong with the bus – of course, now the bus lurched forward and sitting in the front seat, we noticed that the road we were on turned sharply right just 30 feet ahead but the bus was now heading straight and over a cliff. Luckily before we all went plummeting to our deaths, the driver jumped back into his seat ad pumped the brakes to stop us. The police continued to yell at the driver until a senior police office came on board. He was about to say something to the driver when he saw Adrian and I sitting in the front row. Instead, he told the driver to be more careful, not to do that again and sent him on his way. Being a gringo has its privileges.

Now that we were free, the ayudante brought the blocks back on the bus and the driver carefully navigated the sharp turn away from the cliff and continued down into La Paz. He pulled into a bus station across from the cemetery and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was home to the passengers of other not so lucky buses. And then of course both Adrian and I couldn’t stop singing Morrisey’s song “Another sunny day so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates.” Tomas and Chris joined us and we decided to share a taxi. It was only a two dollar ride but it was a long ride as the driver had to take multiple detours to snake around the parade route. He told us that all weekend there was a big fiesta but he wasn’t sure for what since there seemed to be a fiesta every weekend. It took 20 minutes to go just 2 kilometres but he didn’t raise his price when we arrived at the Loki hostel and more importantly he got us there without any more drama.

The hostel is probably the first big hostel we’ve stayed at. It used to be a hotel but was now part of the Loki chain that dotted Peru and Bolivia. It was huge and young and a bit of a party hotel. We were given ID bracelets to wear at check-in, the same as those that are worn at resorts and told about the bar upstairs, the oxygen bar on the roof and the free wifi and computers. I’m pretty sure we were at least 10 years older than every other guests. But it was oddly comforting, perhaps because half the staff have Mohawks which make me feel at home until I remember that I haven’t had funky hair in 15 years. My how time flies. Yet, it was very efficient and they were even able to tell me that our courier package had arrived. However, they had had to turn it away because the courier company needed to collect $150 in duty. Gulp. I guess we’ll sort that out on Monday.

Instead we spent the rest of the day catching up on the usual – laundry photo uploads and blogging – before having the lasagne dinner at the hostel. The kids staying at the hostel had other ideas and we could hear them partying well into the morning while we were sleeping. Our introduction to Bolivian driving had been all the excitement we needed for our first day in La Paz.

Making the most of civilization.

The problem with going to bed so early is that you get up way too early. This morning way too early was 4:30am. My body and brain decided I had had plenty of sleep but it was still dark enough that I could see the stars through the curtain. I tossed and turned for a few more hours until I could hear folks getting up and moving about. Not that I was in a hurry to get out of the warm toasty bed and out into the freezing morning air. The thought of a warm shower was a good thought but it was also a dream. The water heater had run out of gas. I’m glad we were leaving today.

After breakfast it was time to settle up. It took a good hour to figure out our bill even when Estancia showed it to me – she had the weirdest math I’d ever seen and I couldn’t figure out which of the thirty numbers on the sheet of paper was the total so I ended up writing it out myself and adding it up. 3 days for less than $100. Sure it was cheap but I was still glad to be heading back to the civilization of Copacabana. We grabbed our bags and headed into Yumani to conquer the dreaded 1000 Incan steps. We somehow managed to miss the turn off for the steps and instead found a dirt path that lead down and was much better on the knees than the 1000 steps would have been.

Siggy and Evelyn were already there as well as about 40 other gringos waiting for the boat. I could hear the dull murmur of discontent and when it came time to buy our tickets I understood why. The boat trip back was almost double the ride over – despite being a shorter trip. The discontent didn’t disappear when the boat showed up. This boat was small and the captain was trying to cram all of us and our luggage on it. 15 of us refused to get on and grudgingly they brought another boat over – although it was even smaller and soon filled to the brim. The smaller boats also meant smaller motors and the ride back took a full two hours. Not that I wanted the little boat to overexert itself and sink with all of us onboard. I was just grateful that we made it back to shore.

Back on shore we said goodbye to Siggy and Evelyn before heading to an internet café to get back in touch with the outside world. Then it was back to the hostel where the owner, Martin, welcomed us back like old friends. We were just as happy to see the comfy beds and warm showers and I almost hugged the room heater when I walked back into our room. We also decided to treat ourselves to some salad at the hostel restaurant – we were so vegetable deprived that the salads were gone in mere seconds. We didn’t care if they had been disinfected or not.

After no electricity for 3 days we made up for it by spending the rest of the day watching movies and spending time on our computer and PSP. And that night we treated ourselves to another pricey but oh-so-tasty meal once again. I had delicious stuffed trout in a creamy white wine and caper sauce with real mashed potatoes and more vegetables – I could even taste butter! And Adrian once again indulged in roast beef and gravy with potatoes and salad. (sorry Ayngelina no pictures we were too focused on eating) Dinner cost us more than our room (breaking my rule) but it was definitely worth it. Ah civilization - I will never take you for granted ever again. Although I’m sure I’ll soon find it funny that I considered Copacabana civilized.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Great Adventures of Adrian.

Just as I thought despite waking up to another beautiful view, we were already a bit bored of the island. Plus the last two days of hiking had left me with aching jelly legs. Today I just wanted to enjoy the sun and read.

Jonas and the rest of the guests left after breakfast leaving Adrian and I alone with the manageress, her little boy, and her younger sister. Adrian soon got a little stir crazy but luckily for me, she was in the mood to entertain him. She had gathered up the donkeys and loaded them with empty plastic containers and invited Adrian to join her as she went down to the shore to fill up them up at the tap.

Adrian followed her down and I was amused to note that she was about twice as fast as him. I lost sight of them as they went down the hill and stuck my nose in the book wondering how Adrian was going to communicate with her with his non-existent Spanish. About two hours later I could hear them returning. Well, I could hear Adrian before I could see them. He was using his sh-sh-sh sound effect and 10 word Spanish vocabulary to interrogate the woman. As she left him to continue up the hill with the donkeys to empty the water containers into the big water tank, Adrian joined me to fill me in on his adventure.

I was impressed. He had managed to find out her name – Estancia, and her son’s name – Christian. Estancia’s boyfriend (not husband, shocking) was the actual owner but he was in La Paz working and came back to the island about once a month. Estancia was only 20, her son 2, and her sister 16. Wow, the women, I mean, girls looked older than that but at the same time looked ageless, if that makes any sense. Adrian was pretty pleased with his conversation and claimed that hanging out with just a regular local person was one of the highlights of the trip so far. It sounded like fun and I wish I had joined him but I needed to save my legs for the trek into town for lunch.

We headed down the path to Yumani and once again we were stopped at the entrance to the community but we flashed yesterday’s receipt and they let us pass. Last night Jonas had told us about a good restaurant in town he’d eaten lunch at and we set off to find it. With no roads and directions that were – at the top of the hill in the woods, the restaurant wasn’t easy to find. But we eventually found it – closed that is. Oh well, it was back into town to try some of the other places we’d seen. The first place only had one piece of trout which Adrian quickly claimed for himself (always the gentleman), until I told him we’d try somewhere else. We found another place and they had two pieces of trout for us. I think they may have gone out to catch it because it took about an hour to get our lunch. But it was worth it. It was tasty and filling and not the same eggs and chicken that we’d had for the last two days.

With full tummies we walked slowly back to the hostel – after all we had plenty of time to kill. Once there we took our seats on the hostel patio and watched the day’s boatload come over the hill. Today, Estancia managed to tempt Siggy and Evelyn from Alsace to stay the night which provided us with new dining partners. Unfortunately for them, the weather was not as clear as the night before so the sunset wasn’t as dramatic and the stars were hidden behind clouds. But today hadn’t been about the amazing sights; it had been about Adrian hanging out with amazing people.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Southern Exposure

Waking up was hard, not the actual being awake part – that was easy thanks to our very full bladders. But the getting out of bed part. The temperature under the blankets it was toasty warm but just outside, it was frigid. Eventually, our bladders won and we jumped out of bed for the trip to the loo down the stairs and across the path in the other building. The good nights sleep had helped improve our opinion of the Palla Kasa hostel as did the view when we stepped outside. As we stepped out the door we could see the deep blue of Titicaca and a perfect sky. Last night we’d suffered through the cold, the dark and bad food. But this made up for it. However we were here for another three nights and as nice as it was to just stop and take in the view after motoring through Peru, a view wasn’t going to keep us amused for two more days.

We decided to walk into town. It was a 10 minute walk along the west side of the mountain that made up the island and when we got to the top of the hill we were surprised that it was much bigger than we had expected. Yumani ran all the way down the east side of the hill and most of that was small hostels. All the guidebooks talk about watching the sunset from Yumani, very few overnight visitors actually get to see it from their hostels. We passed through the town in search of the path that would take us to the southern ruins of Pilko Kaina we had seen from the boat on our way in. It wasn’t easy. The path we found took clambering over the terraced fields and when we passed more than a couple of donkeys and sheep, it became apart that this foot path was more of a hoof path. The altitude didn’t make it any easier today either. But the donkey path eventual led us to the actual footpath although there were just as many donkeys there. We followed the foot path passing the faux reed sail boat doing its tourist loop of the island and arrived at the ruins. They were small and as we went to enter them, Adrian remarked that it smelt like shit inside. Once I stuck my head in, the cause of the smell became obvious; some goon of a tourist had left a turd and toilet paper there (no I did not take a picture although Adrian thought it would be a good one). I was shocked and disgusted not just because it was gross but because these are sacred ruins. Plus there was a small guesthouse just below that a truly desperate person could have used. We hurried out of the ruins and paid our entrance fee to the attendants who had now turned up. I considered telling them about the turd in the ruins but with my poor Spanish (especially when it comes to bodily functions) I didn’t want to risk a miscommunication and ending up getting the blame for it.

We smiled and walked away quickly putting as much distance and blame between us and the offending deposit as possible. Although Adrian appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. He was walking towards the tip of the island rather than back to the hostel. As I tried to motion him back, he motioned more vigorously in his direction. Eventually he won and I followed him as we walked to the end of the island and the footpath. The path took us all the way down to the shoreline. Adrian attempted to forge his way back to the hostel on the west side. I sat down refusing to rock climb. This time I won and after a few minutes of fumbling and tripping on rocks he came stumbling back.

The walk back to town (and the hostel) was a bit daunting at first because we had to walk up. That’s right back up the same mountain that we cursed the first time. Rather than scramble up the donkey path again we continued on the footpath. That was almost a mistake as it led us to the mid point of the 1000 Incan stairs which meant we had to walk up 500 of them. Oh boy. When we had huffed and puffed our way up to the top, we decided that we wouldn’t be making our way back down them willingly again.

We explored a bit more of Yumani finding the small church and a couple of girls willing to pose for a photo (for a fee) with their pet llama. Sidestepping the numerous stalls selling colourful crafts to the tourists we found our way back out of town – not that easy without street signs or even um streets. Two women were sitting at the entrance, erm exit gate collecting the community entrance/exit fee. I guess we had been up rather early. So we handed over our nominal fee and were allowed to pass. We made it back to the hostel just as the today’s boat load of tourists were coming around the bend. Today the tiny little manageress and her sister were able to convince a French man and his guide as well as a young German guy to stay the night. We invited the young guy to join us for dinner. Jonas was on his way through South America before heading to the west coast of Canada to work and be close to his girlfriend who was in Portland, Oregon. We were able to warn him about the food, lights and cold. And in return we got to enjoy his company until the sun went down and we were distracted by the beautiful sunset (photo above) that we had read about.

But the show wasn’t over once the sunset was finished we were treated to the most amazing stars I’d ever seen. The sky was so clear and we were so high that we felt in the midst of the bazillions of stars. We could even clearly see the Milky Way that we first mistook for a glowing cloud. Now I was finally glad that we were staying here for three nights.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A long walk for a short drink of water.

Lake Titicaca (stop snickering, please) is the highest navigable lake in the world. In real language that means it’s the highest lake where you can get altitude sickness while riding in a boat. Tomorrow we were going to put this to the test as we took a boat out to Isla del Sol.

We spent the day just relaxing at the hostel before deciding to take another walk around town. I hadn’t realized just how many weekend tourists had been around the day before until I saw that everything was deserted around the small town. Down on the seashore it was a mass of empty paddleboats that looked almost creepy and boarded up cafes. There wasn’t anything to see. So we ended our sightseeing and went back to the hostel where we splurged on a tasty dinner at their restaurant. Adrian was particularly happy to see gravy and potatoes with his beef rather than rice and chicken. And I was happy to have a salad. Ah the joys of a foreign operated hostel you get tasty gringo food and directions on how to catch the boat that are understood without sign language. With the help of the desk we booked not just our boat tickets but our accommodation for the next three nights. Then we packed our small packs for our trip and went to bed.

Early the next morning we checked stashing our giant packs at the hostel and then headed down to the sea shore to catch our boat. There were half a dozen boats filling up with tourists and it took us a while to find the one we had boat tickets for. All the boats soon filled with gringos and then locals were let on to fill the spaces in between us. Most of the gringos scrambled up onto the roof of the boat but I was happy to sit down underneath out of the blazing sun. This high up and so close to the sun on the lake would make a sunburn an inevitability not a possibility up top. We had chosen seats at the back remembering that boat rides were always smother there. As we set off we realized that this was an unnecessary precaution as the boat literally crawled across the calm water. The weak waves managed to push the boat back and I’m pretty sure we could have swum faster than the boat.

The advantage of going that slow was that we got to take in all the sights as the boat followed the shore and then squeezed through a break in the rocks before turning directly towards the island. We passed the small ruins at the south end and continued chugging along until we hit the dock at Yumani where about a third of the passengers got off. The rest of us continued on to Challapampa at the north end, finally arriving there 2 hours after we left Copacabana which would have been in sight if the island wasn’t now in the way. And the island was daunting it was a giant rock that jutted out of lake in front of us. After our experience climbing up Calvary hill, I was suddenly very worried about our plan to hike up and across the island to get to our hostel in Yumani. He did his best to tell me it would be fine but I could tell he wasn’t convinced either.

Challapampa was even smaller than I imagined just a dozen homes and a few cafes and guesthouses. A guide met us and told us that he would take us to the museum and ruins for those who wanted to walk the 10+km to the south end he’d point us in the right direction. For those who didn’t he said the boat would leave the north end at 1:30 and from the south at 3:30pm. So technically we didn’t have to walk all the way to the hostel. However if we took the boat to Yumani, we had another daunting obstacle. In order to get to the town we’d have to climb the Incan (or 1000) steps. And I hate steps. Not a great choice either way. In the end we decided to see how far we could get before the boat left and how we felt.

The guide then led us up along the beach to the museum. Here we were told to pay 10Bs for access to the museum and the ruins and part of the path. An English couple who didn’t understand Spanish balked at the fee – saying they didn’t want to go to the museum they wanted to hike. I explained to them but they seemed annoyed at having to pay £1 to stomp across the sacred island. Yikes. There’s cheap and then there’s just rude. They humphed and scowled the entire time we were in the museum as the guide explained the significance of the island and the handful of artifacts on display. The Isla del Sol was considered the birthplace of the Incan empire, where the sun was born. But it was also the holy place of the pre-incan Tihuanacu empire. In 1968 Jacques Cousteau, discovered the remains of the Tihuanacan empire 30 metres underwater offshore. The tiny museum used to house the gold artifacts discovered by Cousteau but had been moved to La Paz –considering the display cases were flimsy glass ones I’m not surprised.

The guide then took us up to the holy rock pointing out the Tihuanacan’s sacred Puma (Titi) and the Incan’s sacred snake (Viracocha) (I think, as the tour was all done in Spanish). The guide instructed us to feel the rock which was believed to have sacred energy. We placed both hands on it but all we felt was the cold standing in the shade. I noticed the British couple had long since abandoned the group and continued up the path towards the South. I guess they preferred stomping across the land than stopping to learn about it. We passed by the sacred Incan table, well not too sacred because it was being used as a souvenir stand to our next stop the Incan ruins of Chincana. The guide told us his tour was done and pointed the direction of the path south. While the rest of the group scurried along obviously in a hurry to catch that 3:30 boat, Adrian and I explored the ruins and then steeled ourselves for the ascent up the hill. The guide had already taken us about halfway up the mountain and we’d been able to keep up but it was still a long way to go.

We began walking. We walked and stopped and walked and stopped, needing to catch our breath every 100 metres on our way up. With no one behind us, we weren’t rushed but it was still tough as we fought the effects of the altitude. We made it to the top of the crest of the hill and walked down. It was a nice break but it also meant we were going to have to walk back up again and that wasn’t something we were looking forward to. The sun was incredibly powerful up there and it bounced off the pale rocks and dirt. I thought of the two brits who rushed off to stomp around the island – they were probably going to be disappointed with the scenery as the island itself was dusty and carved up in dried up farming terraces that were hundreds if not centuries old. However the views, if you had time to enjoy them were spectacular. One side of the lake was Peru. On the other side, there was Bolivia with the snowy peaks of the Andes crystal clear on the horizon. As we took in the view, we also took the chance to reapply a thick layer of sunscreen. Then it was back to the hike. About an hour into the walk, we were happy to find a lone women selling drinks by the side of the path and purchased a pop as a treat and change from the water we were drinking. She really was in the middle of nowhere which meant that she had to cart her load of water, pop and snacks up here everyday. Oh and she had her infant son with her too. Amazing and yet I felt like such a wimp for huffing and puffing while carrying nothing.

And the walking didn’t get any easier for us on the way up the next hill. At the top it was slightly depressing to see another bigger hill we’d have to climb next. We decided to take a snack break in the ruins of a home near the path munching our apples and cookies while taking in the view and preparing ourselves for the next uphill slog. By now we were being passed by the next boat load of tourists who were probably a half hour or so behind us. But we didn’t care. Unlike everyone else (it seemed) we were actually staying on the island and in no rush to catch the 3:30 boat to Copacabana. Just when I thought we were making good progress, I consulted the map and realized we were only a quarter of the way. It wasn’t a pleasant discovery but rather than get bummed we used it as motivation to get moving. We walked down and then up the big hill in half the time we thought it would take. It felt like a victory particularly when we were greeted by a group of locals at the top. They congratulated us on making it halfway and then asked us for an entrance fee of 10Bs for this part of the island. I smiled and paid thinking of the cranky Brits who had probably not been pleased to hear this. But I thought it was a small price to pay for walking through these people’s backyards.

Just beyond the halfway point (photo above), we stopped for a rest and discovered that the rest of the path was a nice downhill one that even wound through a forest (yay, shade). Better yet, we could see Yumani just over the last hill. Woohoo we were almost there. In fact we were even closer than that because the place we were staying at was the first one approaching Yumani. So we trudged on and as we pulled up to the hostel, we were greeted by the manager, a little Aymari women who was standing out on the path trying to entice people to stay with her. The place overlooked the path and the Peruvian side of the lake. The room was basic – two beds and a wooden chair and even in the sun it was cold. Across the path was the shared bathroom a few more rooms and the dining room with its glass walls. It was only a few months old and things were still being built by hand but it was lovely.

We were happy to have survived the trek (and only 30 minutes more than suggested time of 3 hours) so Adrian and I celebrated with a beer overlooking the lake. We stayed out there until the sun began to set behind the clouds and the mountains. As soon as the sun was gone it got cold immediately and we headed inside to the dining area. We were the only people staying there which added to the empty feeling. But it was a good thing we were the only ones staying here because the woman only had one piece of chicken, pasta, or eggs for dinner, oh and soup. Adrian immediately asked for the chicken and a soup. Since I hate eggs, that left me with the pasta.

While we waited for the food, it became pitch black. I fumbled around for a light switch before calling out to the woman for some light. She was cooking in the dark kitchen and told me just a moment. It was another 20 minutes before she came out of the dining room depositing our food in front of us. Adrian dug in unimpressed and I started on my pasta soon discovering that carbonara here meant noodles with scrambled eggs and ham. Blech. We heard a generator start up and soon the lights came on. Now we could see what we were eating. All I could see was eggs – lots of egg. Too bad we weren’t staying closer to town so we could pop out to pick up something to eat. But town was far off along a narrow path that ran along side the mountain and it was now pitch. We finished off our meal the best we could and read by the light of the dining until it became too cold. Then we felt our way back to our room across the lawn. We fumbled in the dark up a couple of steps, across the path and then up a few more steps with our hands out in front of us. We got to the door and pulled out our lighters so Adrian could get the key in the door. No really it was that dark and that cold. There was no central heating so we immediately jumped under the covers fully clothed and hoped that we didn’t have to make a late night trips to the loo. Shivering we eventually both fell asleep. It had taken a long walk to get here; it was unfortunate that our destination wasn’t the reward we hoped it would be.