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.

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