Just a Mini-Update, or, Feelin’ Lazy

•March 7, 2008 • 1 Comment

Howdy Folks!

Well, let’s see. Even against my best intentions, Santa Cruz developed into another Sucre. That is, we spent a lot of time lazing around. However, our Hostel was most certainly suited to leisure pursuits. Every morning we were served fresh melon juice and an assortment of fresh, ripe tropical fruits, which we consumed while watching the only available English channel on the wide- and flat-screen TV, CNN. Turns out the Israelis are still killing the Palestinians. Some things will never change, I suppose.

After breakfast, Brandon and I generally retired to the hammocks in the courtyard, which was overflowing with a veritable jungle of flowering tropical plants. To top it all off, two tame toucans (yes, toucans) lived there, and were more than willing to chill out with you.

Chillin out

The days slipped by easily there, and we avoided doing too much in the city, because for some reason everything was half again as expensive as anywhere else in Bolivia, and beer stores were almost impossible to find. One memorable evening, though, we North Americaned out and went to an arcade in a mall. There, you could rent a little cubicle with a giant flat screen TV, a super comfy couch, and a Playstation 2 for only two dollars an hour. We had a pretty good geek-out session for sure.

I think the height of our hedonism occured on Sunday. We decided to get some serious drinking done, and to do it right. So we went off to the huge market and bought a few coconuts, a couple ripe pinapples, some fresh mint and a large bottle of Havana Club 3 Year (for those of you who haven’t drunk it before, do so. It is quality in a bottle). We milked the coconuts, juiced the pineapples, and made cups from the empty coconut shells. We then concocted the freshest piña coladas I’ve ever had (thanks in part to the blender at the hostel), and garnished them with the little drink umbrellas I’ve been carrying around this whole time (thanks, Robin!). When we got tired of piña coladas, we made excellent mojitos with the good mint we had. What a day!

A damn fine mojito

Like most good things, though, Santa Cruz had to end. Too much partying had been taking its toll, and the slacker-traveller guilt was starting to get strong. So we headed to Samaipata, a sleepy little town set in the sub-tropical hills three hours from Santa Cruz. The drive, typically Bolivian, actually took seven hours (actually not that bad, as it turns out), due to a washed-out bridge first and a landslide second. We got here, though, and this place veritably rules. Everyone is friendly and says hello on the streets, the heat and humidity are at most acceptable levels, and the surrounding countryside is gorgeous.

A cholita walking to town

The first day we went to a little zoological reserve only a three-kilometer walk from town. The walk alone would have been worth the time, but the zoo (for short) was totally way cool. Excuse my slang, but that’s how you would describe it too. There were all sorts of cool animals, like tropical birds and turtles and even a little armadillo you could hold in your hands (under the shell he was actually quite disgusting looking and stinky), but the stealers of the show were the uncaged monkeys who wandered around. These guys just loved people. They would walk up to you, or climb, and hold out their hands as if to be picked up. The second you reached down (or up) they would grab on and climb right up onto your shoulder, where they would hug you and pick through your hair for lice. It was so funny! Also, watching them climb was amazing. Their (prehensile) tails have a little pad on the end like their hands, which give extra grip when they’re swinging around. Playing with monkeys is the coolest ever, and you all have got to try it one day. What else can I say?

My new friend and I

The next day it was off to some waterfalls. After being dropped off by the taxi, we struck off down the trail, which was regularly taken out by landslides. Traversing these was most enjoyable and resulted in extremely muddy boots. Beautiful forests, falls and mountains were the keywords for that day. I also saw my first tropical butterflies . . . specimens larger than my hand floated around on their almost unnaturally colored wings . . . dad, you would have been in paradise (especially with the giant — and repulsive — non-butterfly insects everywhere)!

Apart from that, we’re eating well (steak with mango chutney sauce, amazing, and cheap!), drinking well, and living well. In a couple days it’s back to La Paz, then to Lake Titicaca. Then it’s into Peru, where Maccu Piccu awaits. After that, I will work my way northward along the coast, eating seafood and enjoying the beaches, until I get to the north where I will learn how to surf. And then, it’s back home. No pictures on Flickr this time around, I’m afraid, so you all will just have to cope with the little flavour I’ve given you here. I’ll take care of that when I get back to La Paz.

Thanks for the emails, Mark and Kieran!

‘K Bye!

Advertisements

Don’t Worry, I’m Still Alive!

•February 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Greetings one and all,

Allow me to fill you all in on my latest exploits, of which, unlike the last post, there were actually not that many.

After so many activities crammed into such a short space of time, I decided that I needed some serious vacation time to just straight up chill out. Sucre was definitely the place to do so. Perfect climate, beautiful city, a great hostel, and abundant street food made it a relaxation-seeker’s dream, at least as far as Bolivia has to offer.

I met a fella from Colorado, with whom I teamed up with for that week. Our days were simple, yet satisfying: wake up at about eleven, and then strike out into the city to find some good street food for breakfast. Then, at about two or so, grab a beer (or in my case, gin — they actually had Gordon’s!!!), head back to the hostel, and play a few games of cribbage. After this, we were hungry again, so back onto the street for more comida de la calle. And after that, well, it was time to party! What a great week.

A paragraph (maybe two) about the street food. First of all, it was abundant in both selection and quantity. Secondly, and most importantly, it was dang cheap. Our favorites were the renellos (or was it rellenos? I can never remember), which are little balls or patties of mashed potatoes with a filling of either beef (my personal favorite), cheese, or a whole hard-boiled egg. These are coated in a very light batter and then deep-fried right there one the street. It comes with an onion sauce and as much hot sauce as you want (a brief aside: the Bolivians are always surprised to see a gringo eat hot sauce. Without fail, every time I put it on whatever street food I was eating, their eyes would widen slightly and they would ask, “you like the piquante?” Evidently, stereotypes exist.) About four of these little guys count as a good lunch, and they cost a mere 1 Bs. (about fifteen cents) each.

Also available were empenadas, which are a a deep-fried (everything is deep-fried here — you can’t escape it) pastry shell filled with anything from meat to chicken to eggs to all three. These have a variety of sauces and veggies available, and the way you eat them is to stand next to the stand and adding a blob of whatever you like for each bite. Then you order another. They are more filling, but more expensive, weighing in at 2 Bs.

Another amazing thing were the street pizzas. These old ladies would wheel a little propane oven out into a plaza, and sell you a whole (small) uncooked pizza for 6 Bs. Then they would fire up the oven and cook them up for you! I ate a pretty ridiculous amount of street pizzas, I must admit.

My favorite, however, was to eat in the main market. Upstairs (and this is a feature in every market), there exists a cafeteria of sorts, consisting of rows and rows of tables, at the foot of each is a mini-kitchenette (wo)manned by a matron and her daughter. Here was sold “real” food: soups, rice, pastas, meats, and most deliciously, chorizo sausage. It is hilarious walking into that place (and not only because there are never any other gringos there), because all the women would clamour for your attention and try any means possible to get you to sit at their table. I managed to form a bond with one lady, and I sat at her table every day for a week, much to the jealousy of the surrounding cooks. I loved it — good, real food for only 5 Bs. a plate. In fact, I already miss her.

Brandon (the Coloradan) and I did in fact do one thing that broke our daily schedule outlined above. We decided to hike up one of the many hills surrounding the town. So up we went, through the slum, into the woods, and lo and behold there was a stone staircase going right to the top! In hindsight, it was no surprise seeing the chapel and giant Jesus with the halogen halo at the peak.

Up the Stairs to J-Dogg

The views were great.

Then, what with all the street food, the inevitable struck, and we both got very sick.

That was Saturday night. I can proudly say that for the next two days I had the worst diarrhea I have ever had in my life. Maybe you didn’t need to hear that, but it’s too late now! We tried self medicating with bowls of All-Bran to no avail. The extra-strong medicine we got at the pharmacy didn’t work either. And to top it off, we had to spend 19 hours on a bus with no bathroom. Not exactly the best bus trip I’ve ever had, needless to say.

Our destination was Santa Cruz (where I am now), the cocaine capital of South America. Yikes. It is stinkingly hot and humid (I’m sweating like nothing else just typing this), and I can’t wait to get out of here. However, we hear the nightlife is good so we’ll stay for the weekend. Oh yes, it sits at a mere 400 meters, by far the lowest I’ve been since mid-January. I was right — the air is noticably thicker, and dang but it’s nice!

I’m tired of typing, so I’m going to go now.

‘K Bye!

The Last Week’s Adventures, of which there were Quite a Few

•February 14, 2008 • 3 Comments

Howdy all!

Sorry for the long hiatus from updates, I have been far from any place civilized enough to have internet connections, let alone electricity. Please, allow me to explain.

One of the greatest attractions of Bolivia is the Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt lake in the world, weighing in at 12,000 square kilometers, or about twice the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. I was like, “heck yes I’m going,” so I booked a tour from Potosi to do a three-day excursion into the wild. The bus ride was most stunning between the two towns (Potosi and Uyuni, that is) — take a gander at this.

Adobe hut on the road to Uyuni

Anyways, after eight dusty and bumpy hours, we rolled into the tiny town of Uyuni. Along the way we passed an interesting place — a tiny village that I honestly thought was a ghost town until people started emerging from the decrepitude at the approach of our bus. The raison d’etre of this pueblito was that it boasted the first train ever to ever enter Bolivia, but much more cool it had a train that had once been robbed by none other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Wow! But regardless, the place was really depressing, and I’m glad we didn’t stop there for long.

After an incredible night in a SINGLE ROOM (what luxery!) with a DOUBLE BED I got up, ran around the market buying up water and munchies, then jumped into the Landcruiser with six other tourists and our guide, Edwin (pronounced with a Spanish accent). First destination, the Salar.

After lunch in a salt mining village (they dig it up out of the flats, then grind and iodize it before selling it) where everything was made from salt bricks, we headed out. Being the rainy season, the flats were totally flooded with about three inches of water, so we unfortunately could not drive very fast. The salt water splashes up and ruins the electrical system, supposedly. This meant we could not do the very cool trick photography on the flats (due to the absolute lack of perspective, you can run way off into the distance, and rather than looking like you’re far away, you just look tiny. This allows for many humorous trick photos, but sadly I have none), but the reflection of the sky and mountains was unreal. It was very bizarre. There you stand, in a total flatness stretching off in all directions, with the only things visible on the horizon being the snowy peaks of mountains about 250 miles away. Where there were no mountains, one can’t even distinguish the line between water and sky . . . a horizonless land is disconcerting to say the least. Being unconvinced about the salinity, I tasted the water. It was indeed very salty, and my curiosity was satisfied.

Our Jeep on the Salar

We walked around in this strange landscape, and for the next four days my pant cuffs and Blundstones were whitely encrusted with salt, which no amount of water would dislodge. In fact, today is the first day since then that I have black boots, thanks to a boot-blacker here in Sucre. Oh, I suppose I’ll tell you all . . . I decided not to go to Chile, and rather just pay the 165 Bs. for a new visa. It probably worked out to be the same price anyhow. Anyways, forgive my digression, and I shall continue.

We left the Salar and drove back through Uyuni to a tiny village where we spent the night. We settled in to wait for dinner, and watched Jackie Chan movies which were unfortunately under control of the remote-control-weilding little girl who lived there. In just under two hours, we watched four movies in little segments, as she would constantly skip some parts or re-watch others. It was certainly the most aggravating movie experience I’ve ever had, and it was just made worse by the fact that we waited for over two hours for the lady to cook some dessicated fried chicken and soggy french fries.

The night was horrible. One of the members of our group, a 62-year-old Japonese man (more about him later . . . this guy was a true character), was unfortunately endowed with symphonic snoring abilities, and nobody (except him) got more than three hours of sleep. He woke up refreshed, we woke up angry. Nobody really spoke to him all day, except Edwin, because he had a seperate room.

But after a nice strong cup of Nescafe, I was ready to roll. First stop, the incredible Bay of Rocks, which is an area consisting of at least 10 square kilometers containing the most incredible rock formations I’d ever seen. They were so fun to scramble around on! It honestly beats Ellison Park or Twin Lakes all to hell for cool rock scrambling.

Californian dude riding a rock.

Soon, we were off again, and began climbing up to the high deserts which made up the bulk of the next two days. A word about these deserts: amazing. It is literally an endless expanse of sand, interrupted by the occasional soda lake or random rock, ringed by craggy Andean peaks, all at about 5000 meters above sea level. For those of you in Victoria, that’s five kilometers, straight up.

We drove all day through this, stopping at various points of interest, mostly the soda lakes, in each of which were hundred or thousands of pink flamingos. Yes, flamingos.

Flamingos!

A brief side note . . . all these pictures are also on my Flickr page, I just enjoy taking the best ones to spice up my posts. Don’t hesitate to check out all my pictures! To give you an idea of the immensity of the desert, have a gander at the following picture. It was quite a run out there, and let me assure you, ANY physical exertion of any type is almost impossible at these altitudes. It was a full ten minutes before my lungs stopped burning and my heart rate reduced to a tolerable level. It was an additional fifteen before full comfort had been re-attained. By the time I get back down to sea level, I swear the air will seem like soup!

Me in the desert

There you have it. There’s a lot more great pictures on my Flickr page, and honestly I’m done trying to explain with words. Not only is my butt getting really sore sitting here, but the pictures should explain a lot better. The only thing they cannot convey is the absolute immensity of the scenes, the whipping wind, or the sense of absolute desolation and isolation one gets standing there. But for that you’ll just have to visit yourselves.

Perhaps this is a good time to put in a few sentences about our Japonese amigo. He barely spoke Spanish, but that sure didn’t stop him from trying! I spent many hours answering banal questions about any matter of things, though I’m sure (or am I?) the banality was only due to his barely-existent grasp of Spanish. It turns out the poor guy had booked a flight from La Paz to Santiago, Chile, without realizing that he could have gotten off the tour in San Pedro and bussed to Santiago. The fella had to go all the way back to La Paz (a long way), and for the entirity of two days it was all he could talk about. At one point, while chilling next to a laguna, he came and squatted next to the Californian and I, and asked how to say “shit.” Due to his position, I thought he had to go, and offered him some toilet paper, but the Californian correctly intuited that the Japonese guy just wanted to swear. So we said, “you say ‘shit,'” and said it he did, at the top of his lungs. It was hilarious. In fact, he was very prone to vocal outbursts: any time he found something surprising, or finally understood something he’d been confused about, or in any moment of emotion at all, he let off this huge Japanese shout, somewhat akin to what I would imagine Samurai warriors letting loose before an especially powerful swing of the sword. His gesticulations were a matter of amazement to me as well. As he struggled through his speech, one word by agonizing word, he would define the most delicate abstract finger paintings in the air in front of his face. Geometric shapes, swirls, jabs, and forms which defy description — none were exempt from being traced by his fingers as he spoke.

He had a special amazement with me, and most especially my backpack (actually Lauren’s . . . thank you so much!). He was astounded that it was all the gear I had for three months, and took several photographs of it from various angles. He then presented me with a pad and pen and asked me to write a list of everything I had in the bag. Naturally, I did so, while he watched and slowly stamped his foot on the floor. I showed him some of my packing techniques, which are now immortalized in Japanese script in his notebook. What a guy.

For the last night, we stayed in the dormitories for the park rangers. Praise be, there was a cantina there, with Coca-Cola (honestly the most universally available product. You can get it anywhere and everywhere), but more importantly rum! The Californian and I were very excited, and got down to business.

Gettin’ er done, with the Japonese guy in the background.

Okay, I’m going to speed things up now. We woke up for a ridiculously cold and early morning and headed off for some geysers in the area. These were no geysers in the Old Faithful sense, because only steam shot up from the ground, but were still amazing, because it was essentially giant potholes filled with bubbling mud, emitting this disgusting sulphur smoke. After we walked through them we got to the other side, where a prominent sign was posted, warning any and all not to approach that which we had just walked through. Look at the pictures for more info.

Then it was off to some thermal baths for a quick swim, then to the Chilean border!

I’m fading quickly . . .

Anyways, fast forward to right now. I am now in Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia (but all the government buildings are in La Paz), the “White City” of Bolivia, and the Chocolate capital of Bolivia. That’s a lot of titles! However, most importantly, this place is clean, has trees, and the poverty is not as apparent as in Potosi, Uyuni, or even La Paz. This place is beautiful! It is so nice to be in a place where poverty does not stare you in the face everywhere you go . . .

I’ve decided to stay here for at least a week more, especially considering that the next leg of my trip to Santa Cruz is an 18 hour bus ride. I need to chill out muchly before attempting that one. For some reason, the Bolivians never open the windows on the buses, due to the “dust,” and prefer instead to sit in sweltering stale air, breathing in other people’s (and sometimes my) farts.

I’ve probably forgotten some of the coolest parts of the adventures, but oh well. If I remember I might post it. If not, well, oh well.

Hi Mark!

‘K Bye.

Potosi and the Mouth of Hell

•February 7, 2008 • 1 Comment

El Tio

Greetings all,

So I finally got out of La Paz and I made it to Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world, sitting at a solid 4200 meters. The bus here was amazing . . . remember how I mentioned that the Mexican buses put the Greyhound to shame? Well, the bus I rode to Potosi on puts the Mexican buses to shame. Get this . . . on the back of the seat in front of you, there is a section that folds down and creates a recliner for you!!!

Anyways, I’m not feeling too verbose at the moment as I’m very tired, so this will be a briefer post. Potosi is architecturally beautiful . . . look at the street pics I have provided. Looming over it all is Cerro Rico, or the Rich Mountain. Almost 500 years ago the Spanish realized it was totally loaded with silver, and, as my guidebook says, this sealed the town’s fate. During its height during the 17th century, Potosi was the largest city in the Americas, and rivalled Paris and London in population. The mountain looms over the town, but by now it has been thoroughly raped. It is a rust red from centuries of mining, but is quite a sight. The mountain is still the main attraction here, as one can go on a tour of the mines (which are still being actively mined).

The hostel here is not that great . . . it is B.Y.O.T.P., and even worse, there is no bar! Somehow I’m surviving.

During the days (this is day number three here) I’ve just been walking the city, and I went to a museum with a Belgian fella. This was the Casa de Moneda (House of Money), which is where the Spanish turned the mined silver into ingots so it could be taxed. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish so I didn’t learn too much, but I got some good photos, including one of me pulling a saint’s finger . . . heheheh.

But the coolest thing about Potosi I did today . . . a tour of the mines. Sadly I only have a few pictures of inside, as it was very dusty and hot. Being very lucky, I was the only person on the tour . . . I had a personal guide! You first go buy gifts for the miners so they don’t hate you when you photograph them (drugs all . . . coca leaves, giant Bolivian cigarettes, and the best, drinkable alcohol that weighs in at 96% liquor. That’s 192 proof. It burns.), and then head into the mines.

It was pitch black, except for our headlamps, and very low. Most of the time I was walking hunched over in half, and at one point I had to crawl on my belly through a tiny hole . . . I couldn’t stop thinking about cave-ins and whatnot . . . some parts were really quite scary. We met some miners (all of whom have a massive wad of coca in their cheeks . . . check out the photos), who were chipping away at the wall with pieces of rebar. Every time a rock broke off I cringed and looked around for the non-existant ceiling braces.

After more hunched walking, often along the edges of giant pits, we arrived at the shrine of El Tio, the “god” of the miners. Actually, he is the devil, but he is good for the miners. We “sacrificed” some coca and some cigarettes on the statue, and then had a seat. He explained the legend. Every time a miner enters the mine, he is posessed by El Tio. Mining, my guide told me, is a very sexual activity, as you are penetrating Mother Earth with your pick or whatever (hence El Tio’s giant penis), and is representative of fertility. Honestly, I don’t think the workers we encountered were thinking about that at all. But anyways, there we sat, next to this gruesome statue deep in the bowels of the mountain, drinking pure liquor (pure liquor for pure veins of silver, I’m told), and getting quite drunk. A weird experience to be sure.

Anyways, there is much more to tell about this, and sadly the few pictures I have don’t do the claustrophobia-inducing mine justice, but I’m tired. Tomorrow I leave to go on a three-day tour of Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. I also have a slight change of plans . . . my visa expires on the 16th, and when I inquired about buying 30 days more, I learned it would cost me 175 Bs. Way too expensive. So I’m going to swing into Chile for a night, head north to a volcano, and take a train back into Bolivia, thus (hopefully) renewing my visa for 30 more days. Then it’s off to Sucre, then Santa Cruz, then back to La Paz, then Lake Titicaca, then Cuzco, then the Inca Trail to Maccu Piccu, then to Northern Peru where I will lounge on the renowned beaches for a couple weeks, then it’s home!

One tip for any would-be travellers out there. Don’t buy traveller’s cheques! You will regret it . . . I sure do. Here in Potosi the cheapest rate I could find to change them was 15% comission. Ouch. Fortunately my other funds are still quite plush. Things are cheap here . . . the mine tour today (three hours) was about six dollars.

I’m spent.

Oh yes, the reason for the title “The Mouth of Hell” is because that is how one 18th century Spaniard described the entrance to the mines in Cerro Rico. I don’t know which entrance specifically . . . now there are 438 mines in this one mountain.

‘K Bye.

Carnaval at Oruro, or, the Drunken Water Fight

•February 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

 Feeling Foamy

Greetings all!

Well, I finally got my new bank card, and I was able to do some budgeting. My fears were unfounded, and my financial situation is most reasonable. Reasonable enough, in fact, that I was able to go out and buy me a brand new, non-black-market camera. Compared to my last unit, this camera is a beauty — for one, it has a zoom! It is loaded with cool features which I’ll probably never use, but it still has ’em! Anyways, I now know how to be damn careful with this baby, and damn careful I shall be.

All this means that I have pictures of the carnaval — and two videos too!

So, the carnaval (I’m spelling the word spanish style. Get over it, grammar freaks).

So we (myself, the Quebecker girl and the German fella) decided we only needed one day to truly appreciate the three-day carnaval, but this was one hell of a day. We were picked up at our hostel at 2:45 am, to leave La Paz at 3 (of course, this means that we actually left at about 3:45 — welcome to Latin America). We were home at about 12:30 am the next day — a solid 22 hour day.

We stopped at about 6:30 for a traditional Bolivian breakfast — steak and eggs. At about 9 am we were settled in our bleacher seats for the parade. I’ll just say right now that the parade lasts ALL DAY. Twelve hours of parade, which was truly amazing.

The parade was great. Essentially, it was group after group of people, each with their own costume and dance. Every third or so group there was an enormous brass band belting out the tunes. Some of these bands had over 100 players — 40 trumpets, 20 tubas, 20 sousaphones, 10 snare drums, 10 bass drums, and a smattering of random instruments. The sound was deafening, but they all played excellently. Before one band was out of earshot, the next was already there.

This is where I’ll put the links for the two videos, which give a tiny taste of what it was like. Here is the first video, showing some of the more tamely dressed dancers. And here is the second video, showing most importantly my drunken visage.

We sat way up high in the bleachers, and down along the edges of the parade the venders walked back and forth, selling everything from noisemakers to silly hats to ice cream (or regular) sandwiches to plastic ponchos (very important — you’ll see why in a moment) to (most importantly) beer. To get their attention one screams at the top of their lungs “CERVEZA CERVEZA CERVEZA,” and if the brass band is not right there they will hear you. The beer (or whatever) then gets passed hand to hand up the crowd to you, and you pass the money back down to them. Then up comes the change, hand to hand once again. It was impossible to actually go down to the vendors themselves, as the crowd was so dense, and plus down there you become a prime target for water balloons.

If you needed to go to the bathroom or something, there was fortunately a rickety ladder leading down the back of the bleachers. As the day went on and more and more cervezas were consumed, it became more and more interesting to negotiate. The Bolivians sitting right next to it thought it most amusing (check out the photo in my set entitled, der, Oruro Carnaval).

So there we sat, slamming the beers, sipping the rum from my flask, watching the nutbar parade, and listening to an endless sequence of deafening brass bands. Fun, you say? It only gets better.

Carnaval is actually a huge, drunken waterfight, with a parade to watch when the battle wans a little. Water balloons are thrown by the thousands, and everybody gets soaked, even if you are wearing one of the plastic ponchos (everyone was — doesn’t help much). To add to this, cans of this spray foam are everywhere (we determined after a couple hours that it was actually soap of some sort), and everybody sprays it in each other’s faces. In no time everybody is completely covered in this thick white foam, which burns the eyes and taints the beer (not enough that you can’t drink it, though!). Fortunately, one blast from a water gun or balloon to the face and you can see again. It was hilarious.

The best though, was that there were bleachers across the parade from us (the seating, on both sides, went on for four kilometers, and it was all packed). In gaps between the bands and dancers, water balloons flew many and thickly across the way, hitting unsuspecting spectators. Hilarious. Many people had umbrellas to defend themselves, but more often then not a direct hit from a balloon would break the umbrella, leaving them vulnerable to soakage (in the end, nobody was dry). I myself had many good head shots (given and recieved, of course), and was soaked through to my ginch by the end of the day. Sadly, there are no pictures of the water/foam fights because the camera was safely stowed for these moments. But trust me, at points I’m sure I looked like Frosty the Snowman.

Anyways, I’ll wrap it up quickly. At the end of the day I was soaked, hammered and exhausted. We stumbled onto the bus for the three-hour ride home, which turned out to be four (it took the bus driver an hour to find his way out of Oruro, asking people at every block).

I stumbled back into the hostel, took a hot shower, and passed out for 12 hours. Now today is Sunday and I’m doing NOTHING (except party tonight — it’s Super Bowl Sunday! Woot!). Tomorrow night I head off for Uyuni, where I shall check out the world’s largest salt flats!

Nobody has emailed me yet (except you, Yvonne. Thanks so much!)!!!! DO IT NOW!

‘K Bye.

Biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road

•January 31, 2008 • 2 Comments

Howdy Folks!

Still in La Paz, waiting for my new bank card to arrive . . . today is the fifth business day, so it should be here today or tomorrow . . . however, in accordance to how things usually work, I reckon it’ll be here on Monday or Tuesday. Such is life, I suppose.

La Paz is still full of surprises. The other day, while walking around the main market area (about ten blocks square), I heard a crazy commotion. Turns out I had unwittedly stumbled upon a huge parade, complete with dancers, fireworks and an amazing brass band. But wait . . . was that a second commotion I heard? As it happened, I was standing on the convergence point of two identical parades, each with their own brass band trying to out-play the other. Naturally, I sat down and watched. Very quickly a stage was set up and a folkloric band (it’s the only way I can think of to describe it. Bolivian music is called by the people musica folklorica) began to play. Traditional Bolivian music has guitars, the little Bolivian mini-guitars that resemble and sound like mandolins but are made of armadillo shells, and pan pipes. What a thing to stumble upon . . . and plus I was the only gringo there.

But the last is just the prelude to my real adventure, which, if you haven’t guessed already, was alluded to in the title of this post.

The old road from La Paz to Coroico was officially dubbed by the UN a few years ago as the World’s Most Dangerous Road. As I learned from my guide, there were at least 200 deaths a year on this road from traffic accidents. There is now a safer, paved road linking to two cities, so this road has become a biker’s paradise. Indeed, the municipal government of Coroico now charges 24 Bs. a biker to use it, and has renamed it as the Bicyclist Park.

Anyways, the ride is 63 km long, starting at about 4400m altitude and dropping to about 1100m. Essentially, it is four hours of downhill sweetness. It was truly amazing . . . you start on a paved section for about 15 – 20 kms, going through an incredible valley ringed by jagged peaks. In the valley are old stone fences and herds of llamas, but these I only really observed at the stops, because despite the fat tires on the bike we were getting up to 60 km/hr. Very exhilerating.

Then on to the death road, as it’s affectionately called by gringos and tour companies alike. It is essentially a narrow logging road with a sheer drop-off to the left. I really can’t describe it well — look at my photos on Flickr, on the set entitled, well, you can guess I’m sure.

We had many stops for picture opportunities (fortunately the guides took photos and we got them on a CD — hence me having pictures despite having no camera), and at each the guide had a chilling story. An Israeli biker lost control and went over the edge here, a German over there. At another place he pointed to where a bus of 25 people went over. One glance at the pictures and it will be needless for me to tell you that there are no survivors. Ever.

The most chilling was the story of a poor French girl. She had stopped with her tour group for photos, but noticed a truck coming up the road (crazily enough, the road is still occasionally used during the dry season, or about May to October). While still straddling her bike, she walked backwards a few steps to give the truck more room on the corner, but backed up a bit too much . . .

I was quite concerned about oncoming traffic, until the guide said the road ahead was totally washed out by a massive landslide. Perfect. Traversing that, carrying the bikes, with the drop-off below us, was more than a little nervewracking, but hey, it’s an adventure!

Honestly, it was so cool. I haven’t had so much fun since, well, snowboarding at Mt. Washington I suppose. I mean, 63 km of downhill!!!! Actually, the last couple kms were hellish, as it was flat and we had to peddle. Plus, it was in the rainforest, with tropical heat and humidity to add to the pleasure. Then, within sight of the end, there was a massive flooded river of orange mud, and I got totally covered in this viscous, neon mud. The locals nearby thought it was hilarious . . . an orange gringo (still with a big shit-eating grin, of course).

Then we piled into the van and headed to a jungle mini-resort, where we had hot showers, a dip in the swimming pool, a three course lunch, and of course (and most importantly) ice-cold cerveza. Then back to La Paz for a very early night.

The whole day, with everything included (even snacks and the ugliest t-shirt ever) cost $35. Viva Bolivia.

Due to the horribleness of my t-shirt, I bought a new one. It features a picture of a coca leaf with the inscription “La hoja de coca no es droga.” If you can’t figure out what that means there are numerous tranlators on the net. Anyways, I love it, and I will sport it with pride back in Canada. My death road t-shirt, however, will meet its demise on some god-forsaken cutblock in northern BC.

Anyways, I’ve just signed up for another tour on Saturday, with a German fella and a girl from Quebec. At 3am Saturday morning we’re off to Oruro for the famous Carnival. We get transportation there and back, prime seats for the parade, food (no beer, damnit), and actually that’s about it. We expect to get very drunk with the locals and engage in an epic water balloon war. Supposedly that’s what you do.

Anyways, somebody send me an email!

‘K Bye.

The Delicate Art of Coca Chewing

•January 26, 2008 • 2 Comments

Howdy folks,

So after a couple days of depression due to my stupidity-induced theft (that is, I was stupid. But now I am smart), I’m on the rebound. Last night was a crazy party (I got back to the hostel at 6:00 am), and tonight, being Australia Day, will be even crazier, as about 90% of this hostel is Australian. But in the same way that I don’t write about the pizza I eat (the best I’ve EVER had), I won’t write about the parties.

Instead, I’ll write about chewing coca.

Essentially, you cram your cheek full of the leaves, which have a strong bitter flavor. You then gently masticate the leaves and work them with your tongue until it forms a nice, moist bolus. Next is the critical part. You add to the bolus a bit of this gummy ash, which is sweet-tasting, which acts as an alkaline. This releases the drug in the leaves (which when concentrated is cocaine) into your mouth, and you get a nice stimulating buzz and your mouth goes all numb.

So today I went off to look for the ash, as I had leaves but no alkaline, and what’s the fun if you can’t get a buzz? So in the market area of town (essentially the whole town is a market area but in the main market zone) I asked an indigenous guy where I could get it.

A note: the indigenous people here dress traditionally — ponchos and toques for the men; big skirts and bowler hats for the women: the whole works. The best part, though, is it’s not an act for the tourists — this is just how they dress. I love it.

Anyways, I asked this guy where I could find it. He waved his hand vaguely up the hill, but then beckoned me to sit down. Out came his bag of coca, and we sat and had a chew together. It really was great. We were sitting, watching the tourists (who couldn’t stop staring at me, this gringo, sitting with a native), dipping into the bag of coca, and conversing (very rudimentary, of course) in Spanish. He showed me the finer aspects of the chew, like removing the stems and exactly how to maneuver the ash into your cheek. It was great. Many old native women (yes, in bowler hats) walked by with big smiles and little shakes of the head as they watched me add to my ever growing bolus (by the end your cheek should be bulging). I felt most accepted by the local people.

Then my new friend (Martin, with a Spanish accent), told me he’d go get me some alkaline. So I gave him 5 Bs, and with a warning to watch his wares very carefully (alpaca table clothes and bags he made himself, all beautiful), off he went. So there I sat, and who should come by but this Norwegian girl I met on the plane. I think she got quite a kick out of me sitting there, “working,” and chewing coca. “You look like you really like La Paz,” she said.

I do.

So tomorrow afternoon Martin asked me to come by again for a chew (and bring friends to buy my things, he added), and I think I just might have to. This time I can share my own leaves with him.

Anyways, that’s all for now. There’s more, I think, but I forget.

‘K Bye!