I woke up at 3:45 am, estactic to begin a trek through the Lares Valley of the Andes to Machu Picchu. I chose this trek because I couldn´t get on the famed Inca Trail. The passes sell out about 6 months in advance, but I was not disappointed, because I heard it was totally overcrowded and you couldn’t get a shot of the mountains without a million people in it.
The Lares Trek was cheaper. I bargained via email with the trekking company I had chosen, and I got them down to $350 for 3 nights and 4 days, including entrance-exit fees and train tickets to and from Machu Picchu. Still, it was a splurge for my measley budget. The Lares Trek was also to feature cultural highlights, including trekking through several indigenous villages, which I was very excited about. The part I enjoy perhaps most about travel is the varied cultural interactions.
At any rate, the guides came to my hostal at 4am, after a previous misunderstanding of whether the trek was even happening or not. They told me it would be two guys and a couple, but when I went to the car, they told me that the guys had come down with a fever. So, it was just an Austrailian couple my parents age and me. I didn’t mind this, but I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be meeting anyone my age. There are loads of people that do these treks, and also loads of companies, and I thought it would be cool to meet someone my age to share the experience with, but no.
We drove to Calca, a small town in the Sacred Valley, with the guide and the cook in the front of the car, and the horseman in the truink, hiding under a blanket. We went through a police checkpoint, and they sifted through our car, and they found the horseman, which was awkward, but they let us pass. We kept driving until Calca, where we picked up a bus that took us to the town of Lares. The bus ride was freezing, and the fog was so dense that I couldn’t even see off the sides of the cliffs we were winding around, which was probably for the best. Once the fog cleared, the scenery was stunning. The town of Lares, not so much. It is another poor shithole town in the middle of nowhere. I had a meager breakfast (not included in price) with Rob and Louise (Austrailian couple) of rice, banana and eggs, and then we loaded up in the bus for the trail head.
They had given us the option of visiting the Lares Hot Springs, but we all declined, we didnt want our legs feeling wobbly for two hours of hiking. So then, we hiked for about four hours, because Louise is very very slow, and Rob was getting quite ahead of us, and when we reached our campsite we realized we had lost him, so the guide had to retrace his steps and find him. But I am getting ahead of myself…the hike was beautiful, although 90% of it was on a road. It started out very hot, but then got cold as we climbed in altitude. We came to the town of Huacauasi, which means “House of the Bull” in Quechua, and before actually reaching the town saw many alpacas and llamas grazing in the fields, and Quechua women tending to flocks of sheep or weaving in the countryside.
Our guide, Miguel, walked with me during some of the trek, talking about how some American women come to see out a Latin lover, especially divorced American women, and how this was a problem because they became jealous of the Latina women…it was stupid and I could tell it was some sort of passive aggressive attempt to hit on me so I simply denounced men to him and said I was too busy doing my own shit to bother.
When we got to camp, the horseman and cook had found a shack to cook in, and they served us a lunch of some weird fake chicken patty, some rice, and some soup. We always had soup for every meal…then we didn’t know what the hell to do until bedtime since it was only 2pm, so we wandered around town. It felt very strange, like exploiting people, because here were these white gringos camped by a waterfall outside of their village, and we were just poking about, there could not have been more than 100 people that lived in this village.
I couldn’t tell sometimes if I was wondering through someone’s yard or just the village. There was a descent looking school with an enormous soccer field, and sometimes the kids even played volleyball. We didn’t really interact with them though, and I started getting disappointed beacuse I thought that was part of the trek, interacting with locals. Miguel, our guide, exhibited his first signs of suckiness by taking a siesta in his tent while we explored on our own. We saw lots of wild animals and small children tending to wild animals, and we looked at them weirdly and they looked at us weirdly and since niether of us spoke Spanish sometimes we tried to have broken, half assed conversations in Spanish. Pictured: Herd of llaamas in a Huasawasi
When we came back to camp, we had popcorn and then dinner, and my stomach was feeling really weird and semi explosive. But I still ate becuase there was nothing else to do. It got dark at 6pm, and we had no fire. So we could either stand outside in the cold and the dark or curl up in bed. They set up a single tent for me, a triple for Rob and Louise and then one for the horseman, guide and cook, but I asked Rob and Louise if I could bunk with them for warmth´s sake. They were very sweet about it, and made room for me, and when Migeul saw this he said something about bunking with me…goddammit I am so sick of S American men.
Anyway, I journaled for a bit and then went to sleep at 730 pm. There was litereally nothing else to do, nobody even brought cards. About eleven pm or something I woke up because it felt like a science experiment was taking place in my stomach. My entire torso was on fire, and I was burping and farting absolutely pure sulpher. It was extraordinarily painful and uncomfortable, and I couldn´t go to sleep until about 1am. I was in a LOT of pain, and I dont know what it was from. I had to go outside to poop three times, and the only thing that made it bearable was the billions of Peruvian stars lighting up the night, for as far as the eye could see. I was about to go into my own tent and die, becuase I thought I was keeping Rob and Louise awake, and the pain suddenly subsided and I could fall asleep.
The next morning they said they hadn´t ever heard me getting out of the tent which was good, because I felt really bad about it, and I don’t know what made me sick, but it was very painful. It’s probably my body rebelling against this purley starch and white bread and Snickers diet South America has put me on.
In the villages, the people dress very colorfully, albeit not practically. Everyone wears sandals, and just wades through ice cold water in them and doesnt’ bother to dry their feet. Their feet look like hobbits feet, and are very dirty and overgrown toe nails, and the womens legs are bare, and this cannotbe warm or comfortable…the more colorful dress or hats they wear indicates that they are single. It’s strange seeing so much poverty and very minimal living conditions but elaborate dress. The fabrics they were are thick and very intricate, they cant be cheap or easy to come by.
The sanitary conditions are horrendous. There is shit everywhere, mostly animal, but what’s the difference? The toilets for this village are all outside, and it’s basically a shack with walls around it and a hole dug into the ground. Nobody washing their hands…and they wonder why they get parasites. I am starting to get worn down by the unsanitary conditions and want my music and my bed and the sun..hiking in Colorado is NOT this foggy and wet.
This morning we woke up way too early, Miguel was still in bed by the time breakfast began, and what was breakfast? The same taste as my burps from the horrific night before..EGGS deep fried in a shitload of oil. I fed some to the wild dogs that are rampant…we finally hit the trail, the only day of three days were we were actually hiking on trail. My spirits started high; even though a cloud was rolling in, I felt confident and hopeful that it would clear. After all, today we would be seeing epic Andean scenery.
As it turned out, I couldn’t see shit, except that all I could see was shit. The fog and clouds turned over and over endlessly, and I was soaked. Worst of all I was freezing, and all three of us had packed our rain coats with the horse, who was nowhere near us. Our fantastic guide, Miguel, had won again by telling us to get our rain jackets out. I mean, he’s been doing this trek for 10 years, you would think he knows the weather patterns. The Andes are not like Colorado, because it’s this bizarre sub tropical type climate, so I was not used to rain and nasty shit in the morning. I could see no mountain peaks anywhere around me, only fog and rain and freezing rain. All I could see for miles around me was tons and tons of alpaca and llama shit. Millions of pellets EVERYWHERE. It is unreal. I mean I guess all they do is eat and shit, but I was getting in a very sour mood, and kept thinking to myself, I cannot believe I flew this fucking far to not see fucking anything and to only look at fucking alpaca fucking shit. Fuck. Sorry, I know it’s vulgar, but it was terrible. I could see nothing but poop on the ground, I can’t reiterate that enough. I was heartbroken.
Oh - and while we were soaking, Miguel negected to mention that he was carrying around three rainjackets in his backpack…so now all my shit was soaked I put a raincoat on so that i wouldnt get even more soaked, and at that moment in time, decided I would NOT be tipping him out.
I summited the ridge at over 14,000 feet alone - Rob was far ahead and poor Louise was dragging ass behind me with Miguel. She has Reynaud`s disease, which is where you have extremely bad circulation and your hands turn blue, so she was miserable. I felt really bad for her since I run cold myself. Anyway, I made my way up the ridge and back down towards camp, becuase I was very tired and very cold and very hungry, and the clouds finally let up, but no sun was coming through. I seriously talked to myself and pretended I was in the Lord of the Rings and I had to get the ring to the fires of Mt. Doom to get myself through the misery.
I got to camp, and Jose (the cook) had some steaming soup and a big ass plate of shitty looking tuna and rice for me, which tasted like pure heaven after that bitter ascent. The scenery started looknig really beautiful, and lo and behold the sun started coming out, and then Louise finally made it down ,and the afternoon ended up being really lovely. I sat outside and enjoyed my 80th cup of coca tea (lived on it during the trek, it is very good for an upset stomach) while a little boy from the nearby village poked around curiously. I gave him a piece of candy; all children we encountered expected a bit of candy from you, They asked for a propina, (tip) but at least they didn`t really want any money. William showed off for me (he was only 5) by rolling around on the ground and down a small hill. He rolled through a ton of shit, but he didn’t care.
I can’t stress enough how dirty those kids are. Their faces are absolutely caked in dirt, it looks like they’ve been eating out of a pig trough. I don’t know why they don’t bathe, except probably because the water is freezing and they would have to work really hard to warm it up…there are no trees so how does one start a fire..anyway although the high Andes are gorgeous, there is no way in hell I would live there. It’s a harsh climate with only enough vegetation for the stupid llamas to eat (grass) and then shit out…the llamas really do look like retards, with big bulging blue eyes, and sort of like alien giraffes that are furry or something, very dumb expressions.
While I Was watching William roll around in poo, a woman came outside our little shack where we were having lunch and set up a blanket with her wares. She was awesome because, unlike everyone else in Peru that is selling something, she didn’t annoy the living hell out of me by begging me to buy something. She dressed very brightly, and was very clean, and was super smart becuase she had hauled up powerade, Coca Cola and clean water from some village far away and was selling it in the high mountains. She also had her ridiculously cute little girl with her, whom she had dressed adorably and very clean, so she knew we would want to buy shit from a woman with a cute kid.
She sat there, whipped out her radio with some Spanish soap operas followed by native music (that sounds extremely Asian, it’s strange) and just hummed and sang while she hand made these gorgeous bracelets. The bracelets were brightly colored and featured alternating colorful llamas. I couldn’t believe she was making this all from hand, it was very impressive, and she sold the bracelets for only 3 soles each, or 1 USD each, and so I bought 5 of them from her, and have been wearing them nonstop ever since. They are gorgeous bracelets, and I loved that they were handmade, and that she was a smart entreprenuer who let her work speak for itself and trained her daughter to be so damn cute and even let me take pictures with her and of her.
She tied all of the bracelets on my wrist since I was too lame to know how to do it myself and it was the best part of my entire trek. Of course Miguel was just eating and not telling us about her life or the lives of people in these villages or anything, but it was a nice exchange that wasn’t forced or felt intrusive or exploiatve. This entire time, William was showing off by trying to ride a pig, and the pig was squealing and freaking out, and it was really just a wonderful moment. And the sun was out and I was warm.
We had to move on, for it was a two hour downhill hike to the next town, Patacancha, which was much more put together than Huacawasi, although still small and poor and remote. We ended up setting up camp in some random dude’s backyard
, with lots of chickens running around. That night, for some reason, dinner took three hours to prepare, and it was some sort of nasty unidentifiable meat, along with pototaoes doused in ketchup and of course, soup. Before dinner, we had lots of time to kill as usual, so we tried walking around “town” which once again is this weird interaction where it feels like we are explointing people and going to a zooand making them uncomfortable except they are equally as curious as us and twice as dirty. At this point I hadnt even taken any layers off for close to three days, it was that cold, and only got colder that night.
After dinner, I cuddled up with a horse blanket, and had to decided between gagging from the smell and sleeping. It reekd but it was so cold that night that our water bottles froze. At this point I started hating Miguel. He would never tell us the right things, or just lie blantantly about stupid shit. For example, he said that in this farmer’s backyard we were camped in, he had laid down straw under our tents to make us more comfortable. When we picked up the tent the next day, there was no straw underneath it at all. He also told us things would take 6 hours and they would only take 2, or things would take 20 minutes and then they would take 2 hours. I just hated how completely disinteretsted he acted. He just shouldnt be a guide anymore because h
e clearly did not give a shit.
I know that these sights are common for him but the rest of us paid out the ass and flew really far to see these things probably for the only times in our pathetic lives. No explanation of flora and fauna, or villagers lives, or anything. He just pointed to the trail if we didnt know where it was. He sucked. Anyway when we were wandeing about town, I saw a PIG with the HEAD OF A DEAD SHEEP in it’s mouth. It seemed like a really bad omen, but I was just already cranky, and tired from sleeping in the freezing cold, so maybe the bad parts had already happened and there was no bad omen. Pictured: Children wait for us on the trail - they come down from their homes.
Either way, I don’t like Andean camping compared with Colorado camping. The scenery is just as good as Colorado, except in Colorado you can actaully see shit because it’s not covered in fog, and there are wildflowers whereas there is nothing in the Andes, and you dont freeze to death either. If I hadn’t done a ton of camping and hiking in incredible scenery already, I probably wouldn’t have been as bothered by this, but I live in one of the most beauitful places in the world, and although the Andes are gorgeous, I still prefer Colorado hiking and camping.
This morning we headed down to Ollayantaytambo, and it took about 4.5 hours (he said it would take 6 hours). The “hike” was ridiculous, all on roads and we even had to hike through a construction sight. We did see a few Incan ruins but overall it was super lame, all downhill, and they gave us a meager breakfast of only white bread and jam, not enough to hike that long on. I was exhausted and just really over it. We did meet a guy my age from Massachusettes who was hiking the Lares Trek solo, which irritated me becuase it could be done without a stupid trekking company, and I was disappointed in mine, since I had saved this part of my trip for the end, as the crown jewel, intentionally. Pictured: Rob and Louise dish out some candy to a child approaching in a Quechua village on our hike down.
After getting to Ollayantaytambo, we ate the last meal they prepared for us, and then had some free time, away from our awful guide, thank God. I used this free time to go to Hearts Cafe. I had been thinking of their giant chocolate chip cookies, the only thing keeping me sane during some moments on the trek. I sat down, salivating, and about bitch slapped the waitress when she told me I could only have ONE cookie. I had asked to pay for three. She cut me off like an alcoholic at happy hour. I was NOT happy. I ate my one meager cookie and had my free time, meeting up with Miguel and the Aussies for our last dinner together, at some shitty touristy restaurant the trekking company had picked.
We then boarded the train for Aguas Calientes, the last city in the Sacred Valley, and the place that one must visit before making it to Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes lacks character, and prides itself on totally ripping off tourists by adding a “Machu Picchu tax” to everything - food, hotels, Snickers. Before boarding the train, however, we watched two Peruvian girls in the train station completely go at it…they were throwing boiling water at each other, and just in a total fuss, it was hilarious. They broke a lot of shit and really smacked the hell out of each other, but it was still really funny.
The train, PeruRail, takes about 2 hours, and winds through some gorgeous countryside, but our cheap ass tour operator put us on the cheaper night train to get there so we missed all of that. When we got into Aguas Calientes, it was about 930 pm, and we were ready to sleep. But we had to deal with more bullshit, namely that they told us we would have our own rooms (my own room and the Aussie couple their own room) and they put us all in a room together. Seriously. One big bed for them and then one single bed for me. Now this couple was charming and all that shit, but sleeping with them was getting old at this point.
So we argued with the hotel staff, then they argued amongst themselves, and then finally we gave up. They really sucked. We took freezing cold showers (ironically in Aguas Calientes, no less) and had to prepare for a super early wake up call. Miguel informed us that we would need to meet him at 430 am to get bus tickets that take us up to Machu Picchu since we elected not to hike the mountain that spits you out onto the ruins.
Woke up this morning, before the alarm, really excited about what I was to see today. We ate our awful whitebread and coffee “breakfast” at the hotel and Miguel went and got bus tickets. The asshole got me a round trip ticket when I requested a one way, and didn’t get me a student discount, either. We waited in line just to board the bus, and this process took about one hour. Then once the bus got to the top, we had to wait in another line - the whole p;oint of getting up this early was so that we could climb up Huyana Pichhu, the mountain that is in all of the famous shots of MP. We got a ticket for the 10 am slot and made our way to meet up with our tour guide (thankfully NOT Miguel). We saw our first sights of Machu Picchu through what else? FOG. It was sadly anti-climatic, becuase you couldn’t see a thing through the fog and light rain. Everyone was freezing, and at least we started the tour where we could learn about ruins right in front of our faces since the views were awful.
We learned that Huyana Picchu stands for “little mountain” and Machu Picchu stands for “Big mountain” - and that the actual ruins don’t even have a name. We learned lots more but truthfully, I was totally worn out from hiking the Lares Trek, and then getting no sleep and getting up at 4am and not eating very nutritous foods, that my retention rate wasn’t very good.
But you can really appreciate the imposing magnitude of the city-fortress from the view at Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), rising some 200 meters higher. The place must have been used as a kind of lookout point rather than as housing or as fortifications because the ruins are only of minor importance.
-Che Guavara, The Motorcycle Diaries
I hiked up Huyana Picchu, in the fog, not able to see a single thing, and the hiking was quite slippery and treacherous, and if you made one wrong move, it might be lights out for you. There were points when I thought, My God, people that don’t have much hiking experience could really eat it on this route. There were times that we had really solid ropes to help us up; getting down I did a lot of sitting and scooching on my butt. I hiked up to various terraces, and through caves, to reach the top still in the fog. But the sun was trying desparetely to burn off the clouds, and eventually, with much patience, we were rewarded with an excellent view of the ruins down below. It was phenominal.
The clouds dispersed and there she was, Machu Picchu in all her glory.
After making my way back down from Huyana Picchu and into the ruins, as I climbed farther towards Machu Picchu, the scene started becoming a little bit more familiar. Then, it all came into view. The lush Peruvian jungle in the background, the stunning rays of light falling just perfectly on all of the Incan stonework…it was truly a sight to behold.
I spent the rest of the afternoon climbing around the ruins, resting with bare feet and taking a nap on the agricultural terraces, watching the llamas wander around and graze, and walking to the Incan Bridge a ways off from the ruins. It was nice to get away from the crowds.
I happened to be in Machu Picchu during the 100th year of the “discovery” of Machu Picchu, which is sort of an oxymoron since Hiram Bingham was merely the first white person to stumble across the place - it was being inhabited by Quecha speaking peoples the entire time. Machu Picchu was not more crowded than I was expecting it to be, it was about what I was expecting, and it wasn’t insufferable. I met two nice English guys that I spent the rest of the day with - we had some lunch in Aguas Calientes, and then I hopped on my train and headed back for Cuzco, where I would finish out the rest of my time in the Sacred Valley.
I would like to close out by saying that Lima was really quite a dissappointment for me, with an electric fence around my hostal, daylight hours ending at 530 pm, and very little left in my bank account, I had hardly anything to do. I read 1/3 of Anna Karenina, all of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and wrote this blog post.
I did meet up with my friend that I met in Copacabana, George, but I think we were both sort of sick of each other’s company in the end. We explored some of Lima together - walking towards the beach, eating some ceviche, and a cicharon (Deliciously fatty meat sandwhich) and some fresh fruit smoothies, but besides eating, there was not much to do. I think the worst part is that I was completely checked out by this point, only concerned with school and finances and jobs and student loans. That and a couple in my hostal had their shit jacked out of their cab while it was at a stoplight, as in someone jumped on the back of their car and broke in the back window to steal their things. I was just ready to go home and sick of being on the move for 5 weeks.
But no hard feelings, that’s how it always is when anticipating a homecoming. I’d like to close with, what else, a Che Guavara quote. I think he describes Machu Picchu, and the influence of tourism (although it’s not flattering to us gringos) perfectly:
The most important and irrefutable thing, however, is that here we found the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas - untouched by a conquering civilization and full of immensely evocative treasures between its walls. The walls themselves have died from the tedium of having no life between them. The spectacular landscape circling the fortress supplies an essential backdrop, inspiring dreamers to wander its ruins for the sake of it; North American tourists, constrained by their practical world view, are able to place those members of the disintegrating tribes they may have seen in their travels among these once-living walls, unaware of the moral distance separating them, since only the semi-indigenous spirit of the South American can grasp the subtle differences.
I neglected to include a quote from Che Guevara´s Motorcycle Diaries in my last post about Lake Titicaca. Here goes…
The sacred lake reveal only a small part of its grandeur. The narrow tongue of land surrounding the bay Puno is built on hid it from view. Reed canoes bobbed here and there in the tranquil water and a few fishing boats filed out through the lake´s entrance. The wind was very cold and the smothering, leaden sky seemed to replicate our state of mind.
I read that book at the beginning of my journey, and I´ve found the quotes to match up quite nicely with my travels, and sometimes even the way I perceive things. Even though Che was a communist, he was one hell of a traveler. Here is another quote with regard to the Sacred Valley, since this is what this post is about. This book was written in 1951-1952.
…the blonde head of a North American can occassionally be glimpsed. With his camera and sports shirt, he seems to be (and, in fact, actually is) a correspondant from another world lost amidst the isolation of the Inca Empire.
My journey to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a beautiful spanse of land, dotted with small cities containing Incan Ruins, with Cuzco being the capitol, began with the bus ride from Puno, with my Swedish and Polish companions. After an early breakfast, we boarded the bus to Cuzco. They were both quite enjoyable to travel with, but they also reminded me of why solo travel can sometimes be nice (occasional bickering and difference of opinions). Nevertheless, we set off bright and early for Cuzco, stopping among small Peruvian towns during our 7 hour journey northward. We passed through many towns that were downright disgusting, with people leafing through trash, feral animals everywhere, and the general appearance of poverty. In a few of the towns, the driver let women get on the bus and try to sell food, they go up and down the aisles asking if we want anything, so different from the states.
The bus station in Puno was also just as bad as Puno itself…luckily the bus was not overcrowded and we had plenty of room to spread out. They played an American movie, Date Night with Tina Fey, except it was in Spanish, so I had no idea what they were saying. I slept some, read some, looked out the window a lot. The countryside was absolutely incredible, much nicer looking than the Bolivian altiplano. We got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, but the scenery was incredible, and we were right near a farm, with tons of sheep and curious children running to the roadside. Paulina, the Polish girl I was with, started a conversation with them. Pictured: The children chat with us as we wait for our bus tire to be fixed on the roadside in Peru.
It´s incredible how Peruvian children already learn the trade of carrying babies and other objects in blankets on their backs. There was a young girl with her sister cradled in her sack on her back…then they open the little blanket and let the baby roll around in it. After quite a long time, we FINALLY got to Cuzco, which was surprisingly hot, around 2 or 3pm. I decided to head straight for Ollayantatambo, in the true heart of the Sacred Valley, because there was a woman by the name of Katty waiting to receive me there.
My friend Laura had met Katty a few years ago on a work related trip to Peru, and we connected via Facebook just prior to my trip. Katty owns a hostal in Ollayantatambo, and I didn´t want to miss out on a chance to see the Sacred Valley through a native Peruvian´s lense, hence the reason I booked it there so quickly.
I found my way to a collectivo, at the bus station in southern Cuzco, this is how people get around the Sacred Valley, and I like it because it gives you a chance to actually intermingle with Peruvians. Nobody owns a car, so you basically just all climb into a van together and it´s relatively cheap. The collectivos or combis take you to all parts of the Sacred Valley. So I crammed into one of these, being the only white person, and headed for Ollayntatambo. It was an absolutely stunning drive…winding through the Peruvian Andes. The Peruvians like their Guns N Roses and Michael Jackson, along with the standard Peruvian wallowing (in Spanish of course).
In general, the Puruvians are more outgoing and friendly that Bolivians. They are curious and certainly aren´t hesitant about asking you to buy their shit. They are still short, but have longer faces. When I got to Ollantaytambo, I instintively walked straight to Chaska Wasi, Katty´s hostal. Although dimly lit, it´s very comfortable, with lots of posters and flags from all over the world. Katty has 3 white cats, Chasko, Chaska, and I forget the little one´s name. Chaska means “star” in Quechua, and Wasi means “house.” I haven´t learned much Quecha otherwise (this is the native tongue of many Aymara people and was the language of the Incas) but it is interesting to hear and to my ignorant ears sounds similiar to Spanish.
Katty was throwing up and hungover when I arrived in the hostal, so I ended up blogging that night while she rested, and ate dinner alone at a nice little place in town. While at dinner, I was wearing my KU shirt, and a man sitting at a table next to me noticed, said he was from Independence, Missouri, and invited me to sit at his table (he was eating alone as well). Turns out he is some famous archeologist that has been studying Machu Picchu for 10 years or something. He gave me some of the articles he´s published, and talked my ear off for about an hour about mummy hunts he´s been on, things he has discovered, wild South American stories. His name is Paulo Greer, and as it turns out, the next morning at breakfast, a girl said she went to one of his lectures at the South American Explorers Club in Cuzco.
It was an interesting conversation, over a massive and delicious burrito and an Inca Kola. Inca Kola tastes like bubble gum, and at first I was absolutely hating it, but then it´s grown on me over time. It looks like the first pee you´d take in the morning, BRIGHT bright yellow. Anyway, that concluded day one in the Sacred Valley. I decided I wanted to spend a week here between the ruins and Machu Picchu , to fully appreciate the world that was the Inca´s.
Sacred Valley Day Two
Katty was still under the weather, so I decided to go explore the ruins of Ollantaytambo alone in the morning. “Olla” is flanked by ruins on either side of the town, making for a striking composition. The entire town is still comprised of Incan ruins and stone; you can walk the cobbled streets and really feel the history in the streets. I really enjoyed having my base as Ollantaytambo, because most people only passed through the town on the way to Machu Picchu. I spent three days there, and was really able to get to know the vibe of this small town.
I was not happy when I learned that I was not eligible for the student discount for the tourist ticket. It´s the only thing that gives you access to all of the Incan ruins in the Sacred Valley. I was planning on paying 70 soles and I had to pay 130 soles. The woman at the first entrance would NOT give it to me based on the fact that I was 26 for one month (to the day!) that I requested a ticket. You have to be a student AND under 26. Total bullshit. So I wandered around for an ATM, I didn´t have enough cash. One ATM kept acting like it would give me money but then wouldn´t…a nice American couple spotted me having trouble and told me where I could get cash. HOWEVER this ATM still somehow ate my money, and the next day Katty had to call the Peruvian bank and then I had to call my bank to get my cash back. Anyway, when I went back to the hostal in a huff, Katty said that actually, a French couple in the hostal was getting ready to leave for some other ruins in the valley, and would I like to join them to cut down on the cost of the taxi? I decided yes, especially since this meant that I might be able to get a discount at the other entrance…
We were treated to a spectacular view of the Peruvian Andes as we first drove to the ruins of Moray. These ruins were once used by the Incas for agricultural experiments, creating micro climates within each circle. The Incas experimented with what kind of crops would grow the best where in each circle. It was stunning, and I wandered all around the different circles, hopping on stones and hiking down through the vast expanse of Moray. There were tons and tons of French people; the Isrealites seem to have disappeared, but the French were all over the place! Pictured; Ruins of Moray
After this, our driver headed towards Salinas, another Incan ruin. These salt pans were used by the Incas for salt production (obviously) for trading and for salt licks for their mules. Speaking of mules, it´s so interesting to me how in all of the town around the Sacred Valley, animals are just a part of the daily life. There are mules being herded in the streets, dogs, horses, cars just honk at them to get out of the way like it´s no big deal. Pictured; Ruins of SalinasI did in fact have to pay for the entirety of the ticket, and I was pretty pissed, but I still coughed up the 130 soles. At any rate, the ruins of Salinas were quite interesting, seeing all of the natural salt pans that are still in use to this day. I ate some lovely fried bananas salted with this salt…yum! After walking around there for a bit, I went on yet another cluster of an adventure. Katty told me that I could easily hike through the ruins, then take about another hour and see some lovely scenery, and that at the bottom of the hike there would be taxis and collectivos waiting for me to take me back to Ollantaytambo because this was a touristy route. Well, that was partially true.
The route did take about an hour, and then I ended up walking through some random town that looked as if it had been abandoned. Then I crossed into some form of civilization, and I couldn´t find a place to catch a combi or a collectivo anywhere. I asked in Spanish, “¿Donde es collectivo para Ollantaytambo?” And, since my Spanish is shitty, as in it doesn´t really exist, I didn´t quite understand the answer back. I finally realized, after about 30 minutes and walking to the edge of town, that people had been meaning to tell me that I basically had to stick my thumb out and catch a ride with a cab passing through the town.
I finally realized this when I had a half English half Spanish conversation with a family that had just jumped out of one of these such cabs. So, the stupid only white girl in this town stuck out her thumb and got a ride back to Ollantaytambo. It was really confusing, and hard to get used to the fact that how you get from town to town via highway is by hitching a ride NYC taxi cab style. It´s like combining the methods of a huge metropolis with a rural lifestyle. But I made it back, and was starving. Pictured; The streets of Ollayantantambo
Katty decided to prepare a delicious lunch for the both of us. That woman can COOK. I was nervous becuase she had loads of veggies, but I wanted them so badly because I´ve been eating like a frat boy. Lots of white bread, too many Snickers, just really awful things, and no veggies because they are washed in the dreaded water that could potentially make me sick. But the food was amazing, and I dove in and took the risk. Annnnd…nothing! The veggies were cooked anyway, but it´s still nerve wracking knowing that everyone gets barfing at some point during their travels.
We both relaxed after cooking on her roof deck, which offers incredible panormic views of the Incan ruins. After stuffing ourselves, I went out to get us dessert, only to discover Hearts Cafe, a quaint little diner in the main plaza of Ollantaytambo with chocolate chip cookies to die for. I brought dessert back, and we settled in to watch Amelie. It was fun having a girls night, and feeling like I was in someone´s home, rather than a hostal. I cuddled with the cats, got fat off cookies and milk so thick I was practically chewing it (you can forget anything less than whole milk here, and it comes served warm), took a steaming hot shower, and settled into bed.
Sacred Valley Day Three
This morning, I began my day with the usual Peruvian of white bread and jam…at least Katty got hers warm from a bakery down the street, this made it wonderful and soft (many hostals have it from the day before, not good), as well as a delicious coffee she served with condensed milk and raw sugar. It was incredible…good coffee has been surprisingly hard to come by in South America. Pictured; The ruins of Ollantaytambo.
But the race that created Ollantay left something more than the conglomeration of Cuzco as a monument to its grand past. Along the Urumumba River, over more than a hundred kilometers, the signs of the Inca past are scattered. The most important of them are always high in the mountains, where their fortresses were impenetrable and secure from surprise attack.
-Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries
I visited the ruins of Ollayantantambo today, marking the spots where the Spanish actually lost a battle to the Incas. The ruins are incredible, on both sides of the Olla, with the views out over the Andes from the intense climb to both just breathtaking. On the way to the ruins, I had the first urge in my entire life to drop kick a two year old. This little shit asked me in some stupid whiny voice for either my Snickers or some money…either way I scowled NO very meanly at him, and when I looked back, he was still staring me down like Children of the Corn. After seeing these ruins, I came back and met Katty, and we hitched a collectivo with a French brother and sister that had been staying at her hostal to Urumbumba, another little town in hte Sacred Valley. Katty took us to her favorite restaurant, where she had an enormous trout, and I split a plate with the French guy. We both tried cuy, or guinea pig…it was seasoned quite well, but the problem is that you can´t help but think about how you are eating a rodent. That and I had just fed Katty´s pet guinea pigs earlier that day.
Later, after lunch, Katty showed me around Urumbumba, a city in the Sacred Valley most tourists blow through. We went to some markets so she could get supplies for the hostal, and the markets had no gringos in them. I was able to snag some pure cacao from the jungle for baking, as well as 1 kilo of the delicious coffee she serves each morning, also from the jungle. Things are cheap when you go with a Peruvian! We also enjoyed some delicious fresh squeezed juices; all of the juices are fresh and puply in S America. We ran lots of errands, including a store that only sells cat food, and then made our way to the main square.
pictured; Katty buys things for the hostal at the open air market in Urumbumba
Here we met two middle aged women clearly going through some sort of mid life crises. They were both American, and looked like burnt out hippies, and made it a point to say in front of me how much they were glad they weren´t in the states, how they loved feeling like a Peruvian (and “I´m living like one, paying rent month to month”) but then talked about potentially buying more Peruvian property. I was completely annoyed…the US doesn´t want your weird ass back anyway. Katty also disliked how they talked about buying up her country as if it were candy. The funny thing is how I have met totally weird people traveling. Just because you travel doesn´t make you an interesting person, or compassionate, or even aware..there are still plenty of morons. I wanted to say, “Look, ladies, you are gringas. You aren´t Peruvian and I´m sure you are a joke among the locals. Go take a shower and have a reality check.”
Anyway, Katty then took me to some Incan ruins that lie towards the northern part of town, where absolutely no tourists were. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, with the smell of the countryside. She tried to point out flower formations in some of the Incan ruins, but I couldn´t make them out. After awhile, my power to fully absorb things starts to diminish. Then we headed back to the main square, via a little motorcycle taxi, and jumped in a collectivo back to Ollantaytambo.
Once back at the hostal, we were pooped and took time to just relax. Two American guys I had met earlier in the day at the hostal just came back from their adventuring, and we decided to watch The King´s Speech before turning in for bed. These two American dudes also told me that they had been obsessing over Snickers, without me even asking or anything…it is starting to become a pattern. Since I ate such a full meal, I went back to Heart´s Cafe and just got two enormous, buttery chocolate chip cookies for dinner and milk. Yeah, this is the life.
Sacred Valley Day Four
Today I woke up and after breakfast, headed for Cuzco with the two American guys that were at Katty´s hostal, Dean and Ryan. They were fine, but had that law-school douch-iyness about them. I sort of started to like them less as the day progressed and they talked about this wild time they had at a Peruvian party, where some girl shoved cocaine up their noses. I was like yeah guys…you are SO fucking cool… idiots. Wandering around with them for the day was fine, but I came to the realization, after one month of travel, that surface level companionship gets really old. It´s something I would have never considered before but it´s true. My name is…I do this…I´ve traveled this long…I´m going here…shoot me. I didn´t even bother to exchange emails or facebook with them by the end, because I just stopped caring.
I don´t mean to be rude but that´s how it is. You´d think that being travelers is enough of a commonality to really bond you, but it´s not. Like I said, just becuase you aren´t traveled doesn´t make you interesting, and just because you are traveling doesn´t mean you aren´t a total ass clown.
In the collectivo on the way to Cuzco, we were the only people on the bus at first. We made lots of local stops, and during our first one, an enormous, old, jolly Peruvian man sat his fat ass right next to me, ectastic. He asked me where my compañeros where…I pointed to the guys, then declared that Dean was mi novio…he asked why we were sitting so far apart then, Dean played along and said we just like our space. South American men are so slimy. The guy in my Amazonion tour held my hand, this guy on the bus…more on my Machu Picchu guide later…A Colombian taxi driver gave me his number…the machismo mentality is very much alive and, regardless of social class differences, they regard all women the same. It´s annoying because 1) they are not attractive 2) they take the liberty to just act like they have a right to very forwardly hit on you 3) we have NOTHING in common, at all. This stupid guy proceeded to fall asleep once the bus got more crowded and splay himself all over me and smash me against the window. I was pissed and made it pretty visible. Pictured; Me in the Plaza De Armas, Cuzco´s main square
The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is “evocative.” Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like the disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch its bottom. ….the (Incas) forifying the centoer of their conquered terriroty - the navel of the world - Cuzco.
-Che Guavara, The Motorcylce Diaries
Once in Cuzco, we dropped off their shit at their hostal, dropped mine off at mine (they tried to convince me I should stay at theirs, and even though Kamila, from my previous travels, was also staying there, I don´t like the noisy party hostals with bars in them by the name of the Horny Llama…no joke there…I prefer my old people hostals on the top of the hill.) Anyway, we had lunch at a place they had found previously, where we each had an enormous quarter of a chicken and fries for only 12 soles (about 5 USD).
We then walked to the ruins that lay atop Cuzco, Sacsayhuamán (litereally pronounced SAXY WOMAN) which was quite the haul up the hill above Cuzco.
And here grew, as a necessary defense for the empire, the imposing Sacsahuaman, dominating the city from its heights and protecting the palaces and temples from the wrath of the enemies of the empire. The vision of Cuzco emerges mournfully from the fortress destroyed by the illiterate Spanish conquistadors, from the violated ruins of the temples, from the sacked palaces, from the faces of a brutilized race. This is the Cuzco inviting you to become a warrior and defend, club in hand, the freedom and the life of the Inca.
-Che Guavara, The Motorcycle Diaries
These ruins are quite impressive, and the view of Cuzco from the top is fantastic. As in every ruin in the Sacred Valley, llamas and alpacas roam freely. The Spanish removed many of the stonework the Incas did and used the stones for their homes in Cuzco, and you can see these ruins quite clearly when in the town. After hiking up here, I stupidly lost my Lonely Planet Peru book (set it down for a good shot and forgot to pick it up). We made our way back into town, where I had to stop by the office of the organization I was booknig my trek with, to see if we were even still going. They were so unorganized they hadn´t returned any of my emails and I was getting really annoyed.
Turns out we were going, and I needed to be ready by 4am the next morning, and someone would come by my hostal later to debrief me. This, coupled with the disgustingly over touristed vibe of Cuzco, made me wish I was back in Ollantaytambo. Cuzco is overrun with people begging for your attention, to look at a rip off painting, buy sunglasses, buy stupid fake alpaca shit..it is AWFUL. It has lost any and all genuine feel that Che described. I don´t find it charming at all, especially knowing that all of the massive churches were merely imposed by the Spanish during their conquest. Too many t shirt shops and Irish pubs. There is even a McDonald´s in the main plaza.
We did, however, succumb to one of the pestering girls offering a massage - one hour for 20 soles, so about 7 bucks. I needed it. The girls are obvioulsy not trained, and we went to the back of some shitty store and laid down on tables that they had merely cut a face out of the top of the table. It was hilarious and dilapidatd, but it was still good value for 7 bucks for one hour. I figured that between my hairy legs, peeling skin, and disgusting bug bites, I was the most heinous person they had ever massaged, and I don´t care, it felt great.
The boys invited me to come eat with them by their hostal, but I had enough of their company and we were parting ways that night anyway, so I went back to my hostal. I had a meeting with the trekking company guy back at my hostal, who explained everything in Spanish and I followed a lot of it, and then told me that I had to be ready by 4am tomorrow. I was really excited.
I then made friends with two other Americans, from Missouri and a weird German girl, and we all went to grab some dinner. I had chicken with quinoa, trying to prepare for tomorrow´s hike, but it was rather heavy. They prepared the quinoa with loads of cheese and spices - trust me it was delicious, but very heavy. These peolpe were nice company, and we were also parting ways the next day, so I couldn´t even tell you their names anymore.
For the next four days, I trekked through the Lares Valley, and then saw Machu Picchu. However, this post will not contain that adventure…it´s for the next insanely long one. After Machu Picchu, I returned to Cuzco. I spent my fourth day in the Sacred Valley bumming around Cuzco in the morning, absoluetly housing a massive plate of heuvos rancheros from the famed Jack´s cafe (Austrailian run joint in town) and then caught a collectivo to the tiny town in the Sacred Valley of Chincherro.
Chincherro, from what I had read, was less touristy than nearby Pisac, featured more Incan ruins, and on Sundays had a locals market, where women haggled over vegetables. I went, and was the only gringa to get off the collectivo. I wandered around without seeing a white person for about twenty minutes. I stumbled across a strange Mass procession, and then went into a Women´s Weaving Workshop that I had read about, and watched the women of Chincherro weaving. It was really interesting; some of the looms are so massive that the women sit and toss a ball back and forth to make a huge blanket. Pictured; The woman who carves into gords in the Chinchero market
I then followed the crowds into the Sunday market, where I found other white people, but not nearly as many as in Cuzco. I bought some stupid things I did not need, like a hand carved soup spoon for 8 soles, and big bag to carry some of my crap, and then this elegantly carved gord. This woman was impressively carving away at these gords - the handicrafts I´ve seen outside of the touristy parts are truly impressive - and so I bought a small one that can hold sugar or something for only 15 soles. Five bucks for an elegantly handcrafted piece of work. It was truly impressive.
I felt like shit this entire day, because I had a four day hiking hangover from my Lares Trek and then hiking all around Machu Picchu the next day. I could barely get up and down stairs, my energy was depleted, I was totally worthless. It didn´t help that my hostal was at the top of the giant hill in Cuzco, either. I did visit the ruins atop Chinchero, but they all start to sort of look the same; Incan cut stone that has been destroyed. After this escapade I decided I needed to head back to Cuzco, because I was crashing and very tired.
I waited on the road side for a collectivo for about 10 minutes; this method is just not very efficient, but it´s interesting being the only gringa in a giant bus of Peruvians. That part never gets old, because I feel like I´m actually experience life here. I was not bowled over by Cuzco, because I think it has an identity crises. Since it relies solely on tourism, the menus, the shops, EVERYTHING is catered towards tourism. I hate that when I travel to a place; it´s the same disappointment I felt when in Venice. A city like Rome, who knows who it is, is much more attractive and interesting to me. I don´t know what Cuzco is really like, because it´s full of tourists and Peruvians catering to tourists, and is dominated by non traditional, European inspired architecutre, highlighting it´s confused existance. I much prefered setting up camp in Ollantaytambo, with it´s semi-genuine feel. At least in Ollantaytambo, a little boy yelled ¡Gringa! at me, which was hilarious.
That night, I could hardly find any place to eat, because since it was Sunday, many things were closed. It was frustrating and I ended up back at Jack´s cafe, and who did I run into? The same historian I had met about a week ago in Ollantaytambo. We had dinner together again, he talked 90% of the time, and repeated stories he had already told me, and told me about a parasite that sand flies carry that I am now convinced I have, but that´s probably becuase I´m relativly bored. It takes a lot for me to be bored, but when the sun goes down at 6pm there isn´t a whole lot to do. I did find Marie Antoinette (with Kirsten Dunst) last night on TV and watched that. It is one of the times I do wish I was traveling with someone else to keep me entertained…it was a lonely day and yes, it was boring. Sunday is a good day to travel.
At any rate dinner with the historian did depress me a bit becuase he kept telling me how the ruins I had seen were actually not genuine, that things had been replaced or rebuilt or whatever for tourism, and it made me feel like my entire trip to the Sacred Valley was a fucking scam. I don´t know what is true and I don´t really care. Sometiems I think obsessing over the past and history is just stupid anyway, especially when you do it excessively.
My last half day in the Sacred Valley, I wandered around a bit and sorted things out with my horrendous tour operator from the Lares Trek (more on that in the coming post) and picked up some delicious looking baked goods at a local bakery, where nobody spoke English and no gringos were inside. I can´t wait to try my pie de mango (mango pie!). I neglected to mention that yesterday, I also found a street in Cuzco during my wanderings with no white people on it, and things were cheaper, and there were loads of tacky looking bakeries, and I was able to snag a massive slice of chocolate cake and a cup of coffee for 3 soles (1 USD)!
I am glad I spent this much time in the Sacred Valley, as all other tourists I´ve met spend a day in Cuzco then speed off to Machu Picchu. I´m happy I saw a vast amount of Incan ruins and got to know the area. But I´m ready for Lima now, the coast, and some cebiche….
This post will otherwise be named “The Bolivian - Peruvian border crossing from hell.” I think it´s important to keep your wits about you when traveling, and remember to see things as adventures rather than total pain in the ass inconveniences. But my patience was truly tested with regard to Lake Titicaca.
There has been (and STILL is) a border blockade between Bolivia and Peru. This is a result of upcoming Peruvian elections, and the fact that Peruvian miners are treated like shit and are striking and creating blockades in protest for better working conditions. So it was time to get schooled the hard way in South American politics, and have my life affected by them, too.
I learned that the border was closed, putting a dent in my plans to get to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca in one day, and spend a few days with the native peoples of Isla del Amantani for a few days. You can shepherd with them, they show you how to weave, and it´s all interesting because they only speak Quechua, no Spanish. Certainly no English. I learned through some friends that had made it across the border I had met in Bolivia, as well as other travelers at my hostal, that the crossing was possible, you just needed to find a loophole, most likely by boat. So I decided to head for the border crossing and just wing it.
I booked a bus to Copacabana, the last city on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, late the night before, and jumped on (after much confusion, as is par for the course for ALL transporation in S America) with an English girl and American guy from my hostal. This was the tourist bus, full of gringos headed for the border. I sat next to George, from California, and we got to know each other over the course of 4 hours on the bus. Scenes of the Bolivian altiplano flashed by our bus window - impoverished families living off the land, with sustainable agriculture being their means of survival.
Women herding llamas, sheep, donkeys and horses in their traditional bowler hats is the scene to be had. Their homes are constructed of scraps of metal for roofs as well as stones, and it is COLD there, so I don´t see how anyone keeps warm. At any rate, on the beginnig of this epic failure of a journey to Lake Titicaca, we all had to get off the boat, and into a small one that seemed like it would sink, and watch our big bus take off across the little pond as well. We were with a shitload of Israelites again, driving through really nasty looking Bolivian towns. Makes you wonder just how bad the economy in Bolivia would be without tourism.
Arriving in Copacabana, we learn that there is indeed a way to cross the border, and it involves leaving in a boat at 8am the following morning. Before that time, however, I must cross the Peruvian-Bolivian border (somewhat illegally) on foot and get stamped out. This was, in hindsight, completely ridiculous and unncessary, but I didn´t know it at the time. The border, on the Peruvian side, near Puno, which is the Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, was (and still is) blockaded by tons of rocks, trees, and burning tires. Some people did it on foot, and it was like the seventh circle of hell from their reports.
So, after a lunch of fresh lake trout (very delicious!) with an Irish girl, the English girl, and George, we all checked into a hostal. Funny how you meet someone on a bus and just ask if you want to share a room. It isn´t something I would do in America (I shared a room with 2 twin beds with George) but it´s actually safer than getting a room by yourself, in my opinion. The restaurant, like many in Bolivia, had no toilet paper or soap in the bathroom. The hygenic conditions are absolutely horrendous. Nobody washing their hands…women just lifting up their skirts to squat and piss in the street. However, I will say that Copacabana held more charm than I was prepared for. Pictured: Trash all over the place, Copacabana. Pretty standard.
At lunch, everyone was talking about the strike, what they had heard, how to get across to Peru. So here was the setup. Peru is one hour behind Bolivia. That means that if the boat left at 8am Bolivian time, that is 7am Peruvian time, and Immigration office doesn´t open until 8am. Therefore, you had to go to the Bolivian border by taxi, get stamped out, walk across the border to Peru, lie that you were leaving that day, get stamped in, then walk back across the border to Bolivia, spend the night, and get on the boat first thing in the morning. It was assinine. But it soudned like a cool adventure, one that I was a little nervous about because of the walking bit, so I asked George to go with me. He was very nice and obliged, and it was the farthest thing from dangerous, it was actaully comical.
We had heard things were on fire, that it would be a 30 minute walk to Peruvian immigrations..instead it was just a slew of backpackers, figuring out what the hell was going on, just the same as us. I lucked out, and heard a poor couple in front of me say they were leaving tomorrow, and were refused to get stamped out. So I lied and said I was leaving today, and I got my stamp. Coming back to Boliva, no Bolivians even checked my passport! It was a total cluster, and I could have gotten away with not even paying to get into Bolivia that way. Pictured: Archway between Bolivia and Peru, full of backpackers. After this expedition, with my passport stamped and ready to go the next day, George and I poked around Copacabana, and then decided to climb the Calvary Hill. At an altitude of about 12,500 feet, this hill was no small feat to climb. It was lined with crosses along the way, each cross had a stone that villgers placed on it. This symbolized their continued worship of Pachamama. Even at a Christian site, there was still reverance being paid to their old religions, which I find inspiring.
The summit of this hill was quite stunning - we could see out to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) which has historical significance in that this is where the gods first set down the first Inca ruler, Manco Inca, and his sister-wife (total Missouri style). This is the birthplace of the Incan culture and religion - the Incas then chose Qosqo as the seat of the Sacred Valley…and Machu Picchu later on. Anyhow, we could see all of the Lake, the Island of the Sun, and the town below. On the way down, a kid asked for money - this is something standard in South America and something that I find depressing, irritating, and just fucking annoying. I am not a gringa ATM machine. Pictured: George at summit. Lake Titicaca on left, stations of the cross, then Copacabana at right.
After the hill, we walked to a stunning church, which houses a statue of a Black Virgin Mary, which has not been moved, because it is thought that she keeps the town from flooding around Lake Titicaca. We ate dinner at a cozy joint in town, running into everyone on the bus along the way (it´s a very small place), and I got a massive pizza with leftovers for the 10 hour boat ride the next morning.
George and I were discussing tourists deaths we had heard of, including a tragedy recently in Brazil at Iguizo Falls, and both agreed that the most danger we have felt has been in transit. It is ridiculous how much people blow social danger out of proportion - I haven´t ever felt threatened in a way more serious than being in any metropolitan area in the United States. The worst has been transportation, which was confirmed even more the next morning. I am ready to be done with Bolivia and just move on.
The next morning, I boarded a bus with all of the Isrealites, a British couple, and then me. We all were dropped off at the Peruvian-Bolivian border, and then made to walk to some random location off the lake. We waited for HOURS until someone decided we could finally board a tiny boat to take us to the bigger ferries. The ferries were overloaded, they were dangerous, and I was on two mini boats with Israelites trying to convince the Bolivians (who don´t give a rat´s ass) that there were too many people, and that it would be an uncomfortable ride. During these shouting negotiations in these tiny boats, someone came outside of the ferry, and I asked how many seats were left. He said one or two…so I said farewell, sorry gotta go, and snagged the last seat in the boat. It pays to not go along with the group mentality.
Pity, too, becasue the Isrealites all ended up crammed on the top of the boat or in the back for the duration of the 10 hour chug across Lake Titicaca. It. Was. Awful. It was stifling hot inside, and it was cold outside, and the boat rocked at a dangerous angle; being so top heavy, this was by far the most perilous situation I´ve put myself in thus far on my trip, and I won´t be repeating this again. It sucked and it was terrifying. Pictured: Someone sleeps in the only room left on the boat, outside. Suck!
A quick word on the Israelites: They are coming in hordes after their mandatory time of service in the army. They told me that they choose South America becuase it´s cheap. Some people get VERY annoyed with them, some tour groups actually discriminate and wón´t take them, because they want to cut lose after years of service and just party. I met two French guys who (thank God, actually praised the beauty of America for once) were working in Vancouver. They said one night they got so angry about being woken so many times in the hostal that in the morning they took spoons after breakfast and clanged them all over everything to seek revenge. I´ve met some very nice Isrealites and some stupid ones too, just like EVERY nationality I´ve met (yes, dumb and awesome Americans as well). I think generalizing is the most dangerously closed minded thing one can do while traveling.
The other awful thing about this boat was that it was chock full of a shitload of couples just pawing each other…the PDA was HORRIBLE and I wanted to just explode..between being still for 10 hours, cramped, nervous, and disgusted…by the time I arrived in Puno I was not a happy camper. We decided to detour to the Isla del Uros, something I was very excited to see, except that it was dark by the time we got there (it´s a 30 min boat ride from Puno) and I decided I would just come back the next morning before heading further into Peru. Well, the Uros Islands were like Disneyland, except they were full of children that asked for money in English. I didn´t return the next morning. Too bad, too, because the original concept of floating reed islands is really interesting. I also had to forego my stay with the natives of Isla del Amantani, because after a 10 hour boat ride, I was in NO mood to freeze my ass off in an island after an additional 4 hours each way to get to the damned island.
But I get ahead of myself….thank God for Snickers. George confessed they had been his go to snack for his trip, and the weird thing is that it´s been my obession as well! I can´t stop eating them, and I never eat them in the states….they were the only thing that saved me on that boat. When we landed in Puno (I´m skipping over 10 hours of hell here, these posts are long enough as it is, just suffice it to say that I read everything I had in my entire bag, including the entire history of Peru) we got off the boat, and I asked the tri-lingual Polish girl I had been sitting close by and her Swedish male companion if they wanted to get a room together for the night. We packed our shit together and got in a taxi, and headed for a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet.
They had hot showers, that was all that mattered, because beyond being an absolute shithole Puno is FREEZING. We booked a bus to Cuzco in the morning, I decided to say screw it to the rest of my Lake Titicaca plans and just get my ass to the Land of the Incas. I felt like shit, was dizzy and sick of wasting days to travel, and just wanted to move on in my travels. The day ended with some alpaca steak (not bad) and some pisco sour, a traditioanl Peruvian alchoholic drink. Unless something drastic happens, it´s safe to say this will go down in the log as the least favorite part of my trip.
Although often on our travels we longed to stay in the formidable places we visited, only the Amazon jungle called out to that sedentary part of ourselves as strongly as did this place.
-Ernesto “Che” Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries
Let me first begin by apologizing for that totally shitty post I last wrote. The quality was horrendous and it was completelty scatter brained and uninteresting. Now, for the Amazon.
I left La Paz early Sunday morning, and boarded a plane to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, a common launching point for Amazonian expeditions. The goal was to get to Madidi National Park, one of the most pristine parks in the Amazon Basin. This park centers around Rio Beni, a tributary of the Amazon. I kept screwing up that morning - I never heard the call for my plane to Rurrenabaque, only the final boarding call, so I had to run to the plane saying ¡lo siento! (I am sorry!) and was the last one on the plane. This plane was completely full of Shalom! …. Bolivia in particular has been a major base for Isrealites, even the food and the singage is in Hebrew…very weird.
We landed on a grassy strip, with a jungle looking airport, and although the plane was small and the flight a little jolting, it was totally fine and sort of hilarious. Then the people from the Eco Lodge I booked forgot me at the airport. Fortunately there is only one airline, and one bus that takes you into town for that one airline, so I jumped onto the bus as the last person AGAIN after some prodding from the guy on the bus. He dropped me off at the Chalalan office (eco company I was booked with) and they were a bit confused, but apologized and reimbursed me for the bus fee, then took me to my hotel.
The hotel they put us up in Rurrenabaque was wonderful, and yes, sort of too romantic, making me think this would be nice to share with a BobJoeFredShane or something…swinging hammocks under the shade of palm trees, lovely mosquito nets draped over everything (they really help add charm to the otherwise pesky situation of South American mosquitoes). I had my own room and bathroom which was also a welcome change from hostal living. I spent the day in Rurrenabaque poking around the markets, looking at the weird meats that the local women were selling, eating by myself (again) at a lovely restaurant…there was not much to do here except eat and sort of hang out, it got very hot in the afternoons. By nightfall my feet had been totally massacred by mosquitoes….
Rurrenabaque has a total small town feel. I donẗ know how it survived pre tourism industry, because everything is catered towards that. Lots of agencies going on pampas tours, or just restaurants and the like…the tourist season is year round because the weather is a steady temperature, and it is very nice, they have wet and dry seasons. I was thinking though, that although these climates are lovely, I would miss the change of seasons terribly. Even though I bitch about being cold a lot, it would be really sad to only have the same scenery all of the time and no change.
It gets dark early here, because these countries are so close to the Eqautor the sun sets about 630 pm every night, so there is not much to do, and I was not feeling like going to a bar alone, so I did some yoga and started a book that Kaitlyn gave me…I was, for once, sort of bored. I went to bed super early, and listening to all of the Bolivian children screaming and playing, and the Bolivians driving their motos around and around and around…got kind of annoying.
Day One in the Amazon
The Chalalan EcoLodge put up everyone going on the Eco Tour in the Hotel Oriental, so we all were there already, and met at breakfast. I spotted a girl sitting alone, and asked if I could sit with her. Kamila, an Austrailian, and I became fast friends. Turns out everyone else was already paired off - a Canadian couple on their honeymoon, a German and a Swiss together, two Austrailian girls, and then us, the two solo female traveler oddballs. And we had a blast.
After breakfast and the normal introductions, we all got on the boat, it is a 6 hour boat ride up the Rio Beni to the Chalalan Ecolodge campgrounds. It is a gorgeous boatride, with jungle on either sides of the river, and we even spotted a capybara within about an hour on the boat. It is the largest rodent…it looks like a giant gerbil. We also already saw a big caiman, which is essentially a South American alligator.
Kamila worked in marketing in Sydney, is 31, and reminds me a lot of my cousin, Aislinn. She has a great sense of humor and was really fun to be around. Once we docked at the Chalalan Eco Lodge area, we had to walk about half a mile into the jungle to the actual lodge, which sits on Chalalan Lake. The lodge is run by indigenous groups that have lived in the area well, forever, and some of them only speak Tacana or Quecha, not even Spanish. This lodge helps sustain their communities (many of them don’t leave the jungle) and also adds to the protection of the Madidi National Park. Everything is solar powered, the bread is cooked in an old school adobe oven…so lighting was slim at night, but candles were lovely, and showers were freezing, but the jungle is very warm. Pictured: Chalalan Lake
Upon arriving at the Ecolodge, we were treated to a delicious lunch - the food was incredible for the 3 days I was here, we had an amazing fresh fish that was wrapped in a rainforest leaf and cooked over the fire for hours to perfection…and lots of plaintains, and fresh juice, and vegetables that did not make us sick :) I am really glad that I picked this eco lodge, because it was an environmentally friendly way to go in terms of exploring the rainforest and the jungle. Because tourism is new in Bolivia, there are not many regulations on how to go about showing it to people….so on the pampas tours that leave from the town of Rurrenabaque, there are often many incidents that involve the manhandling of animals, or dumping trash and cigarette butts into the river…it is NOT ok. This place is built all from mahogony found in the forest, once it has fallen down naturally, and as I stated solar powered, and I never touched an animal once, becuase that disrupts the ecosystem. We were priveleged enough to see them in their actual habitats.
Kamila told me that on her pampas tour, someone picked up a baby anaconda, and then a tour guide actually smashed a banana on her head so that the monkey would come near…it is NOT good to feed these animals or domesticate them; it’s the Amazon for God’s sakes!
After lunch, we were able to rest for a bit, and then went on a walking tour for about an hour or so. Kamila and I were paired with the Canadian couple..they met on eharmony and were doing some tour de world for like 7 weeks. Now we all know that in my previous backpacking experiences, I have NOT had good fortune with Canadians. However I wanted to keep my mind open…but this was changed after we got into a boat to canoe around the lake, and I had to assist our guide, Sergio, in paddling. Kamila said, “If you get tired Erica, let me know and I will take a turn.” How nice. But after awhile I could tell Kamila was getting tired, and I said, “OK, how about team Canada pitches in?” I mean come on…anyway I know it’s not ALL Canadians, but I have yet to come across one that blows my socks off. They are also not interested in talking to me as much as Kamila because I am not exotic, I’m just the dumb American.
Anyway, we learned a lot about the flora and fauna of the area, including it’s use in indigenous medicine practices, as well as in rituals, and what animals eat these plants, etc. We spotted a parasitic situation: there is a moss parasite that basically goes into an insect, then grows out of it’s brain..pretty cool. We would stop and listen and our guide (this is Sergio) told us what we were hearing..what birds and animals and such. It was pretty amazing…the trees are incredible, the way the vines rely on the giant roots of other jungle plants to thrive. We saw giant termite nests and sacrificed our legs to sand flies and mosquitos…
The boating around Chalalan Lake was really lovely at dusk, and we ended up seeing a shitload of yellow squirrel monkeys and brown cappuchino monkeys. They were FREAKING OUT and screaming…really hilarious, they just jump around the trees like cats, really fearless, I was waiting and hoping for one to eat shit and fall in the water..but nope.
After monkey sightings, we all sat down for an incredible dinner. Our guide explained to us that we were being treated to fish wrapped in a rainforest leaf, as well as local vegetables (they are big on the beats). It was incredible. The fish had slowly been cooked for an hour to perfection. We also had plantain soup, and for dessert, fresh papaya with honey.
The only downside at dinner was that I had to sit across from the German guy who, when I tried to make conversation about how I adored Germany, and always had nice encounters with Germans, retorted that it was just because I was in Bavaria, and blah blah blah. He then went on to make jokes that I did not find funny at all, including about being an “extreme Muslim that would not be allowed into the United States.” And stated that he “had a backpack full of bombs.” He was a really negative old ass, and was the epitome of what Americans characterized Germans as maybe 50 years ago - balding, sharp nose, beady eyes, with a language that can’t help but sound like barking SS orders.
I get SUPER SICK of anti-American sentiments. The Canadians made a point to talk about a show that makes fun of Americans, and how they are ignorant with regard to Canadian politics. I asked them how much they knew about American politics? They responded that they only knew what was on their television. Ok, so I get it, we are an imperalistic nation that does a lot of bullshit and plays it off like we are saving the world. But don’t blame me, and what do you want me to do, write a fucking letter to Obama? Get real. I don’t go around criticizing your stupid country, that is NOT why I am traveling anyway, so shut up. Go write to your mom about it or tell somebody who cares. He even had the audactiy to say, “Poor girl, from the United States.” Well, especially from someone that has never even set FOOT in my country, they can shut the hell up about it. Most people (Americans too but espeically foreigners) only go to LA, NYC or Florida. Doesn’t even count. Try the wild west, or the deep south, or the midwest for what America is REALLY like. Then you can talk to me about MY country.
After dinner, we went on a night hike, looking for caimans eyes, as well as other nocturnal nightlife. We spotted tree frogs (pictured)and yes…we saw a TARANTULA coming out of it’s hole! It was so scary…like the size of your hand! Not to mention that before this, Kamila had an ordeal in her room, where a giant spider was crawling around…the guides came and made it leave with a hanger. We also saw fish sleeping.
After our night walk, we were treated to a native song and dance demonstration by all of the workers of Chalalan Lodge. They showed us, then had us participate. I have so much fun doing the native dances with people, although it makes some people really uncomfortable. I danced 4 dances and 2 with the same old dude…then we did a coca ceremony with the natives. I felt privelaged that they invited me to do this with them. This is the way that they honor Mother Earth, or Pachamama. I do not understand why anyone would ever come into an area and proclaim a tribe’s religion unfit, but that is what happened all over South America as the Spanish came and pillaged gold and raped the women…they spread Catholicism, so these indigenous peoples claim both religions, but at least they preseved part of their culture through this terrible conquest of the Spanish and were able to share those traditions with us.
We had some alchohlic milk thing that they specially ferment, and we had to take this cup with three coca leaves, 2 dark green leaves with a light leaf sandwiched in the middle, and ripped the leaves, making a wish or a prayer, and then tossed the ripped leaves onto the earth. Then we spilled most of the drink onto the earth, blessing it, and drank just a fraction of the alcohol at the bottom.
Then we were invited to chew coca with them. There is an adhesive structure that helps release the coca leaf’s natural benefits, so they put this together for us, and basically you take the wad and shove it into one side of you cheek, and just suck on it, don’t chew it, just softly sort of mash it and then, slowly, your mouth goes numb and maybe your throat a little too. Now for you, my fellow gringos, let me reiterate that this is NOT a drug. It is less potent than marijuana. It has natural soothing effects for the stomach and is served in restaurants as tea. This is a wonderful natural thing that the natives have done for thousands of years. Pictured: Dried coca leaves for the coca ceremony.
The natives ended up dancing and singing until 1 am, but I, with my new Amazon nickname (by the guides) of Erikiña, had to go to bed. I was worn out. I slept incredibly well the first night in the Amazon, sandwiched between a room with spiders (Kamila’s) and a Nazi.
Day Two in the Amazon
This day started with an early wake up call - Sergio asked us to be up and at breakfast by 630 am. Because of this, I was woken to the sound of Howler monkeys. It seriously sounds like the wind or like a toilet flushing, but mostly like wind through the trees. It is this super strange, collective noise from these massive monkeys (that we would later spot high in the trees). Then, we headed off on an extremely long, 4.5 hour walk through the jungle.
Sergio continued to make weird animal noises to attract jungle animals, and explained the edible funguses and medicinal uses of the plants, which we got to see in action when the Canadian dude got bitten on the neck by a massive ant. Nobody understood how the hell it worked it’s way up to his bare neck, but my guess is that it’s some anti-American karma at work. Either way, it was cool to see Sergio put a plant to work to heal the bite.
I was a little sad that I didn’t get to see any toucans or macaws up close, although I did see them flying in the distance, but seeing animals like that is a privelage, not a right.
After our massive hike we were allowed some time to do whatever we pleased, and Kamila and I both took to the hammocks outside our doors and read some of the National Geographic issues on the Parque Nacional de Madidi (where we were, the Bolivian Amazon). Then we took naps and lounged about, talking about politics and all of the differences between the US and Austrailia and everything in between, until our afternoon walk and canoe session, which was awesome.
The first thing we did was piranha fishing. Sounds terrifying, it’s not. Pirnahas will only attack you if you are mortally wounded and bleeding out all over the place in the water…if you stick your toe in they won’t even nibble it. But we DID use hunks of raw, bleeding meat on primitive sticks to catch them. Kamila, me, and the Canadians all tried our luck with total failure, except for Kamila, who caught not one, but THREE piranahs. We don´t understand how she did it, but she did…they are not all white and scary as you’d think, they are yellowish and greenish, with yes, big scary teeth. Pictured: Kamila with her catch!After piraha fishing, we went on yet another small hike, to a lookout where we could see far off into the distant mountains surrounding the Amazon. At this point, my skin was peeling straight off my back from my time in Playa Blanca, and Sergio started peeling it off for me. I asked him if he had ever seen skin do that, and he said, “Only on snakes and insects.” He has also never seen snow. It’s strange to me to only know one climate, and one skin type.
Anyway, I was totally fascniated with this plant he pointed out. I love how the jungle (and all of nature, really) holds such fascniating wonder and power. This simple green plant, indistinguisable to me, makes a purple dye. This is how native Aymara and Tacana people made colors before Yellow #4. So with these leaves, you rub them in your hand, and they create a purple dye that lasts several hours. I was completely obsessed and rubbed my hands to the darkest purlpe. I even tried to apply some to my face…didn’t really work but at this point I had been in the jungle a few days and I was imagining myself as an Amazonian warrior princess; Erikiña. Pictured: Manos Morado (purple hands).After our hike, we came back, relaxed, and played cards. Both nights we played card games - the first night was cards with the Bolivians, some sort of game similiar to Gin Rummy, and the second night the other Austrailian girls showed us a game called Shithead. It’s fun to play in the candellight while we wait for dinner - as I stated earlier, it gets dark by 630 in Bolivia, almost year round.
Before the card playing, however, Kamila tried to teach me how to play hackey sack. I suck and it’s hard, but it was a lot of fun, and one of our Bolivian guides joined in. Then he tried to convince us chicas to come play soccer with him and the guys behind the kitchen where all the lodge workers live (I know, totally Dirty Dancing style!) I am not athletic in the sports sense, I don’t play sports and I look like a complete moron, but I decided that I wouldn’t have another chance in a good long while to play soccer with a bunch of Bolivians in the Amazon, so I did. Kamila watched and laughed as my white, lanky ass (two heads taller than everybody) scrambled down the field. I looked like an idiot and felt like one when they would move out of the way for me to shoot a goal, but after a bit I just went to the sidelines so they could have their real fun, and nobody complained when I got out of the way. Pictured: Ballet move or soccer? Futbol with the Bolivians. That night, there was a night boat ride to spot caiman eyes around the lake, but both Kamila and I decided that a must needed rest and reading sounded more appealing (we saw caimans last night, anyway). We were in our respective rooms, conjoined at the ceiling, dozing off to sleep, when we both heard a loud THUD. In a panic, we each flipped on the lights, and I heard Kamila´s Oh my God… There was shit on her floor, and as she looked up, she saw a huge SNAKE making it’s way from her room back out onto the roof. We don’t know if the snake fell from a tree onto the roof and shit itself or what, but either way, between that, the spider, the cockroaches in her bathroom (I only got a small beetle this entire time) she came and slept in the other bed in my room. We tightly wound the mosquito netting underneath our mattresses to protect ourselves as best we could from whatever the Amazon was drumming up that night…I did not sleep well after this.
It’s a pity too, because that was perhaps the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Especially in South America..the pillows are either flimsy or have enormous lumps in them. Anyway, after a night of tossing and turning (sometimes huge moths would smack into the screen and wake me - because although this place was wonderful, it was exposed and open with screens everywhere), we woke up for our final breakfast and departure back to Rurrenabaque. It only took three hours by boat this time, since we were going downstream. When the natives guide the boat, it is really inspiring to me. First of all they never wear shoes, so they have these enormous, hobbit like feet. Secondly they really just connect with nature in a way that people in North American don’t, because they live in it and know how to use it. It makes me feel like a total loser that has to go to the grocery store for sustenence, but it’s inspiring to see people that know how the rivers work, the animals live, and the plants soothe.
Kamila and I walked about town together until my flight left for La Paz - she didn’t leave until the next day for La Paz and was putting off going back to the city as long as possible. I was not looking forward to returning, either. La Paz is interesting but it is also very dirty and my hostal was absolutely freezing.
But, we ate at an Israel-influenced joint (I had falafal) and walked around town, laughing at the Bolivian army or whatever it was doing drills in flip flops. I left the warmth of Rurrenabaque for the chill and altitude of La Paz, yes after a flight full of Isrealites and a fear of crashing. I returned to my hostal after 3 days of little contact with the world outside of the jungle to learn that the strike on the Peruvian-Bolivian border was still going on, and that crossing into Peru was still not possible. I was pissed. And so, stay tuned later this week to hear how that entire fiasco went down…it was not pretty.
I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel, or perhaps it’s better to say that traveling is our destiny, because Alberto feels the same. Still, there are moments when I think with profound longing of those wonderful areas in our south. Perhaps one day, tired of circling the world, I’ll return to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely then at least for a pause while I shift from one understanding of the world to another.
-Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries
I started my trek to La Paz with a horrendously long day of travel: Cartegena, Colombia to Bogota, Colombia, then to Lima, Peru, finally to La Paz. Started traveling at 8am and finally was in bed by 3am the next night, but I essentially flew almost the length of the US maybe? Either way, it was a long ass day with way too many long layovers.
In the airport in Bogota, I was met with bad attitudes of the airport staff. There were two options for eating past airport security in the international boarding area: Dunkin Donuts, and some shit I didn´t know. I make it a priority to choose things that are challenging and more local, but I went up to the counter to order, and was rudely told to sit down. I hate when I am trying in Spanish how sometimes people just react with disgust - that is what happened here, so I ordered what I knew wouldn´t kill me, and then gave up and went to Dunkin Donuts. I at least knew how to ask for milk, and knew when he was asking if I wanted it hot or cold, and had a more pleasant experience.
I was a little freaked out, because I did not get my travel visa for Bolivia before leaving the US, and I knew that I had to have $135 in US cash to enter the country, as well as proving my yellow fever vaccination, and also a bank statement with proof of funds, and showing I had booked a hostal, and a travel visa application. But the guy did not care, he just wanted my cash. He didn’t even check my other documents…I do not blame him, the way we treat other countries with regard to visas or even just passing through our country is absurd.
I shared my dorm with two guys from Norway (dont know what is up with me always landing with only guys in mixed dorms) and they told me that they had a layover in Miami, and that they had to pay just to PASS through the United States, and were questioned profusely, and had to re check their baggage. I am just happy that people are so pleasant to me with the way we treat other travelers and tourists.
I was greeted at the airport by a friendly man they had arranged for airport pick up. I was pretty proud of myself, because (since he spoke slowly) we were able to hold a conversation for the 20 minutes to the Adventure Brew Hostal in Spanish…he told me that altitude sickness was common after I asked, to eat small meals including sopa (soup) and no carne (red meat). I had been taking Diamox for 24 hours at this point for preventative measures…and that shit is weird. It makes your fingers tingle sometimes, you have to pee a lot, and it also makes pop taste like shit. But I guess it worked because I have had zero altitude sickness…and the problem was not altitude, since I live at altitude and have for years, but the fact that I was at sea level for one week and was not acclimatized anymore. Additionally, La Paz is just under 12,000 feet, so that’s above tree level in the USA. I also bought coca candy at the Lima Airport and had some coca mate immediately upon arrival at the hostal. Pictured: La Paz
At any rate, La Paz is very similar to Colorado with regard to the climate. It is warm in the sun and during the day but at night it is mucho frio and coming from the Caribbean climates was a total shock to the system. Aside from the altitude and climate, I feel like I am just waiting my turn to come down with some sort of food poisoning…Bolivia is not over developed and this means that the water standards are sub par and food poisoning is common. Most people have spent a night and a day barfing up everything…so we shall see how long until I spend the night with my head in a Bolivian toilet.
At any rate, shit here is ridiculously cheap. My hostal is something like 8 or 10 bucks a night, and a giant bottle of water is less than 1 USD…you can buy gorgeous socks, scarves and other handmade items at the market for about 2 or 3 USD…its sort of insane. 1 Boliviano = 7 USD.
Waking in the morning, I checked my email to tell my mom I was alive and sat down next to an Isreali, Niv. We got to talking and went down together to have the free pancake breakfast the hostal serves each morning. I met his friend, Dana (they all just finished med school and are starting their specialties after this trip, common theme down here, people on breaks from school). The boys in the Isreali group of friends were going to the San Pedro prison, a place my Lonely Planet distinctly advised me not to go, so Dana and I decided to go around the markets of La Paz.
We had a wonderful time together for planning a day together knowing one another about 5 minutes. We just really enjoyed the same things and had the same tastes in everything, so we marveled at fabrics, colors, textures, yes we were girls and “shopping” around, but we both love handcrafted goodies, not stupid upscale crap. We tried our hands at bargaining, which at times felt stupid because lowering the price by 10 Bolivianos only decreased it by about $1.50. Regardless, she is very easy going, very intelligent and we really had a fun time. We also went to the more non touristy market, where they have an outdoor grocery store. It is so weird…indigenous women selling cocoa puffs, and soap bars and deoderant…and yes you can even negotiate the price on that stuff to an extent. There is no Wal Mart or Target or really even a supermarket, literally they sell shit outside, and it is always the same stuff too, like rows and rows of only toiletries,then rows and rows of only tools and carpentry supplies. Pictured: Open air grocery store.
The Witch’s Market was the most interesting part of it all, though. The indigenous Aymara women sell everything from llama fetuses, to baby llamas all dried up and dead, to small figurines to give worship to Pachamama (mother earth, the primary god around here) to small offerings of dried flowers combined with animal bits and parts for people who are in times of trouble. It is truly incredible. The sight of them - with their bowler hats, traditional massive skirts, and very round bodies is truly a thing to behold. I believe that since no younger women are dressing this way, visitors to Bolivia in about 10 years will be hard pressed to find women dressed in this fashion. Pictured: Dried, dead llama babies and fetuses for sale in the witch´s market. I can´t get these damn photos to look right!
Bolivian women are not like Colombian women - they are squat and rather round, with very brown skin. Same with the men. I focused on the women because it was harder to find men in the indigenous dress. They have these long pieces of cloth they wrap around their backs, and they carry anything from babies to food to whatever they need around in those sacks. People are carrying things on their backs ALL the time. I don´t know how it doesn´t hurt them…like massive loads of things. Another strange thing is how they dress up people in zebra costumes to assist pedestrians in crossing the street; like full on zebra outfits. I don´t get it.
We ate some delicious Bolivian food, a mixture of different salsas and mostly vegetarian things…haven’t gotten sick from it. One trick to not getting sick so far that has worked for me is eating at places other travelers have recently eaten and not gotten sick at. Another trick (totally not related) is in crossing the street. In La Paz they dress people up like zebras to help you cross the street, it’s very strange, literally giant zebras with red flags acting as a crosswalk. But sometimes on the narrow sidestreets, there is just endless traffic, and if you waited for a clear break in the traffic you would never cross the street. So I pick a local, usually a slow moving Aymara woman with her giant bowler hat and full skirts (moving slowly) and I attach myself to them so that I can get across the street when they choose to do so. Pictured: An Ayamara woman selling potatoes. One of my hip shots I took as to semi-respect their culture and fear of the camera.
I have felt pretty stupid in La Paz. First of all, not being fluent in Spanish is annoying, because the bad part is that I know enough to get around, ask how much things cost, ask for basic directions, but since I know how to ask for those things, they fire back a really fast string of Spanish at me, assuming that I am fluent. Then I end up understanding absolutely nothing. That and things are slang, or are abbreviated (don’t veruses do not), so I end up sounding about 5 years old, and sometimes I just smile an idiotic smile in a pathetic attempt to gain some sympathy.
Wandering around the market with Dana was really wonderful, because I also learn alot about Israel, and Israelite customs, foods, etc. Although being with Americans is easier, it is nice being with people from far flung countries to learn about their lives as well. Maybe it’s because they grew up speaking English so they are already bi lingual, or maybe I am just a total retard, but they seem to catch onto Spanish a lot quicker than I do. And since they are more fluent, whoever I am with speaks it much better than me and usually does the talking, so I am left not able to practice and I don’t learn anything new. I can already tell…because in the hostals the main language spoken is English since there are loads of travellers from England and Austrailia, but also just because it is the language even the forgeiners know, so I am left feeling SO so dumb. I also feel like a peon because everyone is traveling for a significantly longer time than me. Of all the people I have met, aside from Kaitlyn and Jon, everyone is traveling for a really, really long time. The longest I have heard is a year. Most people are averaging about 6 months, so my time down here is nothing compared to them. Met lots of other solo female travelers, including a girl from Boston (who, as a first, speaks less Spanish than even me).
Anyway, Dana was very helpful to be around, because she had already been in La Paz for several days, so she showed me around all of the markets, and explained some of the weird puffed treats they make…it is really hard to describe without photos. We talked about the mandatory years they must serve in the military, all very interesting.
I turned in fairly early my first night in La Paz, because I was tired and I am still suffering my stomach illness.. and I have resorted to my antibiotics to see if they help. Otherwise still just trying to down a lot of fluids. This morning (Saturday) the Israelites were all departing, and when you latch onto a group and get a good thing going, it is easy to change your plans and hop on with them…I have not met anyone that is planning on going to the Amazon Basin yet. Everyone is biking the Death Road (the world’s scariest road, google it) and as for me, I have no interest. Once again, though, I am not the only one in the world that had the idea of taking the La Paz to Lake Titicaca to Cuzsco to Macu Piccu route, so most people I have met at my hostal here in La Paz are taking that route and not the Amazon.
Regardless, that is a big part of what I was looking forward to on this trip, so I was determined to make it happen. I had read about a company that did Eco Tours to the Amazon, which I think is important because as tourism develops in Bolivia, I truly do think it is my responsibility to not participate in the manhandling of wild animals, or destruction of rainforest. So this was a little bit pricey, but I have been really good otherwise about money so I decided to go for it. I told the company I would stop by their La Paz office today (Saturday) and set things up. What a day it was.
First of all, after I said farewell to my Israelite friends, the first thing I thought was, “OK, I need to be like a parasite…find someone else to latch onto.” Once again, the computer seems to be a good place to meet people. There was a super hot French dude checking his email when I came to check mine, so we started chatting. The thing that is key to solo travel is not being afraid to just go for it and say, “Do you want to hang out today and explore?” So I said that and of course he said yes, because backpackers are always open minded. The altitude was hitting him hard, so he decided to go back to bed, and I said I would meet him back here at 11:30 after figuring out my plans for the Amazon. No problem, I had 2 hours. WRONG. I was then set on a whirlwind that lasted the entire day full of problems. She set everything up for me after chatting for awhile, and then I went to the ATM to withdraw the cash. It is a LOT of Bolivianos, but it is not that much US money. After two withdrawals of the max amount at the ATM, my card stopped working. Now, here is the hard part. There are not ATMs around the markets, so I had to track down one on the main drag, Then I had to go back and explain to her that I did not have all the money, so we tried my card. Didn’t work. OK…then I decided I had to track down a plae that made international calls. So I did, but Skype didn’t work on any of the computers…luckily I found a place that made international calls, so I called my bank, and they put me through to the fraud deparment.
In between this fiasco, I was 30 minutes late meeting my super attractive new French friend, so I hauled ass back to the hostal, only to find he was gone..Pictured: People dressed as zebras assist folks across the street..
Ok, financial problem solved, though, right? Hell no. I went to the nearest ATM and it wouldn’t let me withdraw the amount I wanted. I tried another and I got a little out…what the hell? I had to go track down ANOTHER international phone service, and I couldn’t find one for a long time, and then I got through and the fraud department said it wasn’t them, that I had reached the maximum capacity of withdrawing…I didn’t even KNOW this was possible, had to call the other part of the bank, got it resovled, had to wait for that shit to go through, tracked down another ATM, got the correct amount of money out…then hufffed my way back to the office to give her the remainder of the money. AND SHE WAS NOT THERE. What the hell is up with people taking seistas…I mean she knew I was returning within the hour…people just SHUT DOWN in the middle of the day, I have even seen the Ayamara women just putting up pieces of cloth to get some shut eye in the middle of the day, ridiculous. So then I was screwed but I wrote down her cell number and at this point I had lost my map somewhere AND my sunglasses…huffing around La Paz, alone, and scratching everywhere from a mixture of peeling skin and mosquito bites, with a gurgling stomach partially due to whatever is wrong with me and partially due to hunger.
So I went to ANOTHER phone station, tracked one down, called her cell, she said she would be there in 15 minutes. Then I GOT LOST. Like really, really, 1 hour of walking around LOST. La Paz is very safe, much moreso than I had anticipated, so that was not the problem, but I was just stuck. I did manage to find the restaurants I wanted to eat at later that I knew were safe, so I decided ok, I can remember the way back here from her office…but no. I got SO TURNED AROUND and it was horrible. I FINALLY made it back to her office, paid for all the shit, totally worn out…then went up the hill and guess what? The damn restaurant that I had started from (point A) and got lost for an hour until I got the office (point B) were about 3 BLOCKS APART. fml fml fml….I spent that entire time of an hour wandering in the exact OPPOSITE direction, I took a left instead of a right when it was UNDER my nose the entire time.
I decided ok fine, I am going to go eat. I sat and ate alone, for the first time ever in a restaurant, and I had a lot to think about. I was thinking how yeah, this kinda sucks. My stomach hurts, I am meeting up with a tour group to see the Amazon but not any friends I know that would be cool to share it with, lunch yesterday at this place with Dana was much more enjoyable..ok, ok, for the first time on this trip I was lonely. I will admit it. It was not fun, I didn’t like it. But then again, I had traveled with a significant other the last time, so the whole “Oh, traveling alone means that you have nobody to share the memories with” is bullshit. Because the person I shared those memories with is in no way shape or form in my life anymore, so it puts a different spin on traveling alone.
All in all, there are days that it sucks and is more difficult, and there are times I think well, whatever, if I had waited until someone could go with me I may not have ever made it here at all, and that is certainly worth the times I am feeling a bit down about (althought this truly doesn´t happen very often, I still think it´s reality and worth noting).
Anyway, back at the hostal later I met up with Thomas again, the French guy I had asked to hang out with before and then accidentally ditched out on. We ended up talking for hours, and he is a really interesting guy. My stomach was killing me so I had water at the bar upstairs in the hostal, but listening to his life story was really something…he was born in Tahiti and then spent the first 6 years of his life sailing around the world with his parents. Probably the reason for his travel bug. He is traveling for about a year, and it´s always amazing to me how someone that lives a life in a different world speaking a different language has many of the same thoughts as you. In a mostly English conversation, sprinkled with some French and Spanish (he is fluent in both) when at a loss for words, he told me how he is a chiropractor, and how some of his friends say of his travels, “Oh, Thomas, you are so lucky.” He said, “What they don´t understand is that it is my choice, I saved money and I made the choice, they can make the choice too.” He also stated that some people didn´t understand his desire to travel after so much education and a good paying job. He said, “I say to those people, fuck off. I want to see the world, and I want to open my mind.” Really interesting dude.
I am disappointed that I didn´t get to make it to El Alto, the little community north of La Paz, and I have my damn credit union to thank for that day of misery running around. But all in all, I found Bolivians to be nice people, on the quiet and shy side, not really interested in you or your business as long as you keep the peace (after all, Paz means peace en español) and a pretty safe place to be.
Next stop: Rurrenabaque, and the Amazon Basin.
The trip was decided just like that, and it never erred from the basic principle laid down in that moment: improvisation.
Ernesto “Che” Guavara, The Motorcycle Diaries
Ah, Playa Blanca. A sweet spot just outside of Cartegena, Colombians and foreigners alike flock to this beach for mucho sol, and a few days away from it all. I met up with Kaitlyn and Jon, the sister and brother I met on my flight to South America, who I bummed around Bogota with. They were in the area, and Martine from Switzerland was heading up this way as well, but I just had to send him a Facebook message saying, “We´re going to be sleeping in a hammock on the beach. No internet service. Hope to find you if we can!”
We headed out in the afternoon, and missed the 9am boat to Playa Blanca, because I had a wonderful bowel illness as mentioned in the last post, and because I wanted to take full advantage of hoarding all of the food I possibly could until check out time. I arrived at their hostal in the early afternoon and we set off, choosing a local´s route as recommended by the hostal owner. This route was not in Lonely Planet.
First step was to take the public bus to a place called Pasacabaya. Public busses in Colombia redefine haphazard. A guy litereally stands in the doorway of the bus and yells out the final destination into traffic. You REALLY have to know where the hell you are going. Then you have to dash out in traffic and jump on, there really aren´t bus stops. So we caught the bus, which of course, just haphazardly humps along at whatever pace the driver wants. At a stoplight, we stopped so he could get a coke or something. In the stifling hot markets, we stopped so somebody could load some bags of shit onto the bus. The driver just sat and read the newspaper. The bus will eventually go where you want it to, but just on it´s own time. Two Colombians got on our bus and started rapping, reminded me of things that happen in a NYC subway. It was pretty incredible. People also get on the bus and hand you shit and then walk back through and if you want it you pay or you hand it back.
Finally, we got off the bus and made our way through a neighborhood to get on a ferry powered by a tiny, tiny motorboat. This little motorboat was powering a huge barge…the river crossign was very small, and cost us 50 cents USD. It lasted all of five minutes, and once across the river, we were to hitch rides on a moto with some local Colombians. This ride, like everything in South America, is completely negotiable. The best tactic if you don´t get the price you want is to walk away. I´m getting good at it in shops; I was able to barter my way from paying 25,000 pesos to 15,000 pesos for some coca tea today by doing just that, walking out the door if my price was not met. But this was different. However, Kaitlyn is fluent in Spanish and is firey, so the hostal owner told us it would be 10,000 MIL pesos (or 5 USD) for us to hitch a ride with Colombians on their motorcycles. They offered us 20,000, and the battle ensued. They wanted to settle on 15,000 per person or nothing, and Kaitlyn started walking. This is entirely ridiculous, because we probably would have had to walk about 10 miles or maybe more, but we had made a friend on the barge, and he was waving to us to come with him, so we had a small bargaining tool. They relented and we paid the 10,000 peso per person price. Hold onto your butts: Jon and Kaitlyn on the motos
And then we were off, I was clutching the sweaty back of a Colombian dude, as were Jon and Kaitlyn on their respective motorcycles, riding down a dirt road with dust coating my eyeballs. We passed by cows in the road, and villages, and people waving hello to us, the gringos on the backs of these Colombian motorcyles. As Martine says, “These adventures are fun, once you survive and can look back on them.” Yes, I will say that it was totally unsafe in that we weren´t wearing helmets and trusted the locals to take us on their motos. But it´s the way locals go, and beleive it or not, you can trust what hostal owners and locals tell you.
I´m really tired of explaining Colombia´s virtues to people, or trying to create some understanding that it´s not some shithole country. All I can say is that if someone told you that, there is a high probability they have not been here.
We arrived at Playa Blanca after about 20 minutes on the moto, and immediately changed into suits and jumped in the water. Next, finding a place to stay. There were many huts lined up along the beach, some tents and some enclosed rooms, but we were on the hunt for hammocks. We landed with Rafa, our generous host for the next two days. Rafa owns a shack with 6 whimsical hammocks, a shack on the beach for lounging, and some cooking utensils to prepare some food. Not much else. I never saw him in a shirt the entire time we were there. He seemed like some sort of zen master because his voice was so soft, and his demeanor so kind and peaceful. He reiterated to me by the content way he lives his life the ridiculousness at which Americans can choose to live their lives. This man doesn´t have health insurance, or home owners insurance; if shit hits the fan he´ll just grab more dead palm trees and construct another home. He doesn´t bust ass for 80 hours a week on Wall Street. His happiness is defined quite simply, and it´s clearly working, because he´s got to be about 50, and I guarantee he isn´t on medication and he´s certainly not overweight. Kaitlyn and Rafa and one of the many “beach dogs”.
He fed us a delicious meal…Jon had pescado straight from the ocean, while Kaitlyn and I settled for veggie plates, with arroz con coco, patagon, y vegetable. That would be rice made with coconut, fried plaintains and vegetables. It was to die for. We settled in for the night in our hammocks, swathed in mosquito nets, chatting about the absolute absurdity of that day´s moto journey. We really didn´t sleep much; Rafa owned chickens and a rooster, and the damn thing started crowing at 3:19 am (Jon looked at his watch). This was followed by a sunrise before 6am…the sun sets around 630 or 7 pm here, almost year round, and on an island with no cell phone service and no internet (how awesome is that? I have NOT missed my phone) you just go to bed when it gets dark and get your ass up when it´s light. Holding a coconut in a boat made of dead wood on Playa Blanca.
Hammocks are relatively comfortable to sleep in but they just add to the grime of not showering for days on end. It´s funny what you put up with when you backpack. I´m typing this while wearing my dress for the fourth day. It´s the thing that reeked the least in my bag (damp things in a damp environment stuffed in a compression sack does not equal a pleasant smell). You can turn your underwear inside out…not wear deoderant and just not shave for awhie. What´s the point? Everyone smells like the same brand of ass: sunscreen layered with BO layered with sea salt. It´s actually sort of nice to feel so wild…similiar to mountain camping trips. Sidenote: My clothing smelled so horrendous that, after Playa Blanca and in my hostal, I aired it out on the bunk bed. The hostal owner actually grabbed me and told me in Spanish that my shit smelled and that I needed to take it outside to let it dry. Then he cleaned the entire bunk area because yes, it was that bad.
The next morning we walked along the length of the beach until we couldnt´walk anymore, all the while followed by a series of wild dogs that adopted us. Rafi fed them, and since we were staying with Rafi, they would bark when anyone came near us. They pissed me off a lot, because they woudl beg, and they would jump on you, but at night it was nice having all five of them sleeping under our hammocks, barking if anyone new passed by. One had a disgusting tumor like thing bleeding out of it´s back…oh well, the life of a dog on an island. Kaitlyn decided to join the gang at this point and get her hair braided as well. We then became the fiercest bunch of gringas on the island, I mean, would you mess with that shit?One thing that does get super old is always having to tell people No when they come up to you offering you jewlery or massage or hair braiding. It´s how they make their living, but it gets old saying No all the time, and gets old being pestered. Other than that, Playa Blanca is just an incredibly laid back, low key oasis on the Caribbean Sea. The water is an indescribable blue. We were pretty lazy, napping and reading and swimming and really just relaxing.
Later in the afternoon, Jon taught me how to snorkel for the first time. I wanted to have a panic attack while practicing, because breathing through your mouth all the time is incredibly unnatural, let alone trusting that it works under the water. But once I trusted in it, it was incredibly easy and incredibly fun and really just amazing. We explored the little coral reefs that dot the shore, and I saw many schools of fish, and fish that multi colored polka dots that didn´t even look real, and some fish that were as big as the ones on Jon´s plate the night before. It was an incredible experience to see marine life up close and personal. I can´t even imagine what scuba diving is like. I got comfortable enough to where I´d be submerged for up to maybe 5 minutes at a time, and as a result, I horribly burnt my ass. I didn´t sunscreen it and now I can barely sit on anything. Jon wanted to teach me how to even dive with the snorkleing mask, but I was too scared. Maybe next time!After snorkeling, we decided to feast again on Rafa´s delicious food, and, on this island they even had Pepsi. I was totally in heaven. Rafa had it in some cooler in the back, and the bottle looked like it was from 1973, and it tasted every bit as delicious. We were lounging with our dinner in one of the huts, and who comes walking up to us but Martine! He had found us…this is so much more common in backpacking than you´d think. But hilarious because I gave no indication as to what time or where we would be, but he still managed to find us! As I previously mentioned we all move in very similiar circles and do similiar things, so the four of us were reunited over a week and hundreds of miles away from the last place we had seen each other. It was hilarious seeing him walk up the beach in his straw fedora looking hat, and he was so excited to be at the beach he dove right in. Martine washes up onshore!
The four of us lounged around the rest of the evening, until a man selling shell necklaces with a Chicago Bulls jersey passed by our tent, and started a conversation with Jon. One thing lead to another and the Colombian asked Jon if he´d come back to his little village and play basketball with him. Jon decided to go, and no, the FARC didn´t kill him, he had a great game of basketball with the Colombians in one of the communities we passed on our motos on the way to Playa Blanca, and he made new friends. Pretty awesome experience if you ask me.
While Jon was out we enjoyed a leisurely Caribbean sunset stroll, complete with stray dogs and picking up snails or shells and generally just feeling the sugary sand between our toes. I felt like my entire body was a giant sugar cookie for 2 days Exploring the beach, a bar at nighttime. Coco Loco is a piña coloda in a coconut!.
We went to bed early, turning in with the sun, and had to anyway because we were catching a 6am boat the next morning. Rafa would wake us around 530 and then we´d jump on the boat. Except it wasn´t what we thought it would be, at all, but that´s the excitement of travel, especially travel in a country that isnt over developed by tourism yet. We had to get onto a commuter boat that was taking people from Playa Blanca to work in Cartegena, and it was full and didn´t even dock, we had to wade out into the water.
I was wearing the dress I´ve been in for four days and I had to jump onto the boat with half my clothes soaking, and had the fortune of flashing the ship as I was getting on. Probably the whitest skin they have ever seen in their entire lives, compounded by the fact that I look like a giant ass roasted lobster, and so does Kaitlyn. We bitched the entire boat ride becuase it hurts to sit or to move or to do anything really…these dumb gringas forgot that sunscreen washes off in the mar (ocean), and in our vanity decided getting tan was a priority. So we fried.
At any rate, the commute boat was pretty terrifying, but it didn´t seem to bother anybody else. We were in a speedboat, maybe going 30mph although it felt like 80, and we´d crash down right on top of waves, which was extremely painful on the ass and unbelievable terrifying for a landlocked girl. We got completely ripped off, and had to pay more than expected for our ride, but things are so unregualted price wise that most of the time it works in your favor to barter down, but that´s not always the case. We ended up in a fish market outside of the city center, and grabbed another frantic bus to get ourselves back to the hostal. All in all an abosolutely insane ride to and from the island, with incredible rest, relaxation, views, and of course company while there. My bed for two nights.laya Blanca was just what the doctor ordered to rest my head, heart, and body after a trying week. Spending the entirety of two days in the fresh sea air and exposed to the outdoors is what a girl like me needs to recharge her batteries. Spending the day at the ocean for 10,000 COP per night and 5,000 COP per meal (this equates to 5 bucks a night for a hammock, and not quite 3 bucks per meal) is much preferred to any upscale hotel with people on their Blackberries and Iphones. There´s no other way to truly live.
Strange, isn´t it? Each man´s life touches so many other lives. When he´s not around he leaves an awful hole, doesn´t he? You see, George, you´ve really had a wonderful life.
Clarence the Angel, It´s a Wonderful Life
This won´t be your typical review of Cartegena, Colombia - her gorgeous beaches, warm Caribbean sea, stunning colonial architecture leftover from the Spanish invasion. My experience of Cartegena was very different, because, as in Medellin, I spent the majority of my time in the slums skirting the touristy part of town.
The El Centro of Cartagena is stunning, with colorful, romantic looking architecture. It reminds me a bit of the old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia - a port town, invaded over the last few centuries by a variety of pirates, using very high, stoned walls as a means of protection. And, like Dubrovnik, this is where expensive stores and a tourist mecca has come to flourish. It´s very, very safe to be here, but things are expensive and even though you might feel a tiny pulse of Cartegena, the true heartbeat lies in the outer area, behind the walls. It also made me think of New York City, where the real life and real people don´t inhabit the hell that is Times Square, you´ve got to get to an outer borough to see how people live. Pictured: Cartegena´s old city.
At any rate, Cartagena is stifling hot. I suppose living at altitude for the last 3 years has truly taken a toll on my body, because I´ve had a hard time adjusting, which I wasn´t even anticipating. It is MUGGY. It takes my clothes days to dry (I wash them in the sink) and my hair takes hours. Sometimes I forget my face lotion and it doesn´t even matter…you sweat just sitting in the shade in the early morning hours. I don´t understand how people have come to just have this heat as part of their lives, but they do, and they sometimes carry rags around to wipe the sweat off their faces. It´s almost pointless to shower. Although it has done wonders for my skin.
As I write this, I´m currently suffering some form of heat exhaustion and dehydration from sweating so much, with a bad case of diarreah. It´s been off and on since 2am, but I don´t feel sick otherwise and have a healthy appetite. Hoping it will pass soon, otherwise I´ve got antibiotics with me. I really feel like a weird, pasty white mountain person, because the Caribbean heat made me feel like I was going to pass out the first day I was in it, and then I´m obviously suffering some sort of illness as a result.Pictured: Me in El Centro, old town Cartegena
Cartegena is completely different from the other cities, Bogota and Medellin, in that the Caribbean attitude is very much alive here, very laid back, very hot, the culture has a bit of a Jamaican influence as well. CFCA put us up in a 3 star hotel, which I very much disliked. It is all inclusive, so it´s like a club in the evenings, and there are restaurants on almost every floor, and you have to wear a wristband during your stay, but everything is unlimited, including alcohol. The only thing that you DO have to pay for is internet, which really pisses me off. Because of this, I´ve horded bananas and bread and other food, and filled up water bottles with wine. Dos vino tinto por favor….double fisting glasses of red wine up to my room and stashing it for my upcoming stay in Playa Blanca.
Which brings me to another point. This is not a vacation, but I´m about to take one. Backpacking is tiring, carrying your shit on your back, and then communicating in a foreign language, and trying to immerse yourself…this is exploration. It´s not relaxing. So, it´s smart, and I´ve learned, to take breaks and insert vacations into your traveling. Taking a break is necessary or you´re going to get sick (like what´s happening now). So, after Cartagena, I am meeting up with the brother-sister duo I met in Bogota (Kaitlyn and Jon) and we´re heading to Playa Blanca to sleep in hammocks on the beach for a day or two and do nothing. It´s going to be nice.
Now for my view of Cartegena. I met my sponsored child, Yuranis (pronounced YUR RAN EE), the first night I was here. It was very uncomfortable because they had the children come to this swanky hotel to meet us, which I found to be inappropriate. I didn´t like seeing them here because it misrepresents how much money I have and it probably made them feel weird since they live in shacks. Regardless, they had a small presentation by the group that runs the projects in Cartegena and then the most anticipated moment of my trip (next to Maccu Piccu), I met her. She was at the front of the line, holding some yellow carnations and beaming. She knew who I was and I knew who she was, and in the line they had them waiting in to meet us she looked like a puppy anxiously wagging her tail. She came to me and we hugged each other in a long embrace, and it´s much more intense than I thought it would be. I softly said, ¿Como estas Yuranis? and she softly said Bien. Then we sat while more presentations were given, and I met her grandmother who tends to her, and then they were off, because it was getting late at night. Pictured: Yuranis and I shortly after meeting
I was lucky enough to spend the next three days with her. The next morning, we came as a group to her school. Fortunately a wonderful woman on my trip, Jane, had a sponsored girl at Yuranis´school as well. It´s a giant parade in which Yuranis and Lesma (the other sponsored girl) were the center of attention. They were able to give presentations and speak on behalf of the entire school (who were all there, and parents and the neighborhood too) and express their gratitude. It´s a really big thing for them, like having the entire neighborhood celebrate your birthday. They had a school band play for us, which was fantastic, and native dancing and singing. Then the school band led a parade through the entire barrio (neighborhood) and different groups of sponsors stopped off to pay visits to differnent homes. I, of course, was only going to Yuranis´home. Pictured: The parade with the entire school in Yuranis´barrio.
Yuranis lives with 16 people. After speaking with her social worker (via a translator of course) I learned that her mother abandoned her when she was months old. Her paternal grandmother takes care of her and acts as her mother. Her father is around and I met him, but he kept to himself and was not very excited or thanked me, not that I needed it at all, but it was a very different experience than the welcomes we received in other homes. Her grandmother had an intense look of sadness mixed with gratitude in her eyes when I was around, I just said con mucho gusto to her several times, meaning “It gives me great pleasure.” It´s a sort of “your welcome” that Colombians use.
Yuranis´father has another family with a different woman, and the rest of her family (aunts and great grandmother) seemed very indifferent to our house visit. This is strange because it´s such a huge deal in the community. Other homes typically made a great show of it and cleaned up - the women were non chalantly breast feeding and just sort of looking dazed in the kitchen. When we asked if Yuranis would like us to meet her family or to show us her home, she said she´d like to show us her home instead. She seems very well adjusted, my assumption is because she never knew her mother at all and so didn´t know the pain of abanondment in that way…her abuela has always been her mother to her. Pictured: Yuranis and I in front of her home, she made a sign for me! I don´t know why these pictures always turn sideways!
As one sponsor on our home visit stated, Yuranis probably had it the worst of any sponsored child we had visited. She sleeps four people to one bed, with her grandmother and two younger cousins. The other people in the home that comprise the 16 people are various aunts and cousins. At first I was shocked at this and immediately thought of purchasing her a bed…then realized this means a cot would be pulled out in the living room, and realized this was a horrible option, because sexual abuse within the family is a huge problem, and sleeping with her grandmother offers her some protection.
Yuranis is 9 years old and in the fourth grade. She has the biggest, brightest eyes, and a smile that makes you want to say, “Ok, whatever you want.” Her living conditions were much, much worse than I anticipated, and her personality is much, much more bright than I could have ever imagined. It made it very difficult. She was extraordinarily affectionate to me, her madrina during my visits, sitting on my lap, having her arms around me, kissing me on the cheek. Not all sponsored children behaved this way, and so I am lucky, but it made it very very hard on me. She wants to hold my hand to go everywhere, shows me off to her friends, is just so happy to have someone care for her. Pictured: Typical home in Yuranis neighborhood.
I think the hardest part about it all is that she was dealt such a shitty hand. Abandonment by the father is very common, but by the mother is rare. I just don´t understand how someone could abandon a child, especially one like Yuranis. Her mother obviously has no idea what kind of little girl she left, but I can attest to a character and a demeanor so full of life it´s contagious. She´s just a happy little girl. Her living conditions were also of sub par sanitarily speaking - I took very few photographs in her home because I didn´t want to make her uncomfortable, but her clothes hang on a wire above her bed, there is one bathroom for 16 people, and sick looking cats in the kitchen, and an alleyway in the backyard that reeked of urine (probably because there is only one bathroom). It made me just want to pick her up and put her in my backpack. She doesn´t know any different, so she´s content, but beyond the living conditions, the lack of opportunity to further one´s education and for women in general is so astounding, that I look down the road for her and it looks bleak. I´ve made up my mind that no matter what, if she wants to go to college or whatever it might be, I will continue to support her Pictured: Yuranis with my glasses on.
She asked me when she first met me if I had any children, and I told her no, only her. The bond I´ve felt towards her has surprised me. I´m not a huge “kid” or “baby person” - I´ve never worked with children or felt a strong draw to them or to babies, so I was very shocked to feel what I felt towards her. I wanted to protect her wherever we went, I wiped the sweat off her face with my shirt, I tickled her and scratched her back, it was very comfortable, and felt very natural. I even had to tell her no a few times, with regard to swinging my digital camera around, or being quiet in Mass.
Needless to say, I´m locked in. I would do anything for this little girl. I didn´t know I would feel this way, but I do.
At her home, I gave Yuranis some presents I had brought for her…a pink recorder (because we all learned to play those in the 4th grade, and I was right on this one, she loves it!), some sidewalk chalk, some toys for the beach, a felt coloring picture of a mermaid, some pretty, sparkly pencils for class, and a game of Connect 4 - something you can play not speaking Spanish or English. We played Connect 4 while all of the children in the neighborhood watched. That´s another amazing thing about this trip, that sponsor visits are so important and exciting that the neighbors come in the house without asking, and the children crowd around the windows and peek through them just to get a glimpse. I also bought Yuranis a beautful flowered purple headband, which she loved and wore the rest of the day. She looked adorable. I let her win the first and third games we played, but showed some tough love and had her lose one game….it´s good discipline or something, right? :)Pictured: Yuranis and I play Connect 4
After this, we had a snack, and then it was time for the sponsors to visit the Cartegena main office and headquarters. I haven´t really focused much on this portion but these people do an incredible job. Every city has multiple offices who then take care of subprojects of schools. We visit with these adults, and ask them questions and also give them feedback. They brought in mothers and also some children as well as teenagers to share their experiencs and talk about their pain points. This was helpful and informative, and of course the issue of women feeling like they have no options, and the common issue of no fathers and unplanned pregnancies came up once more. It´s frustrating seeing this wall come up time and again. I didn´t realize, however, that each country´s CFCA office is staffed by natives. I thought there would be an American working down here but no, it´s all Colombians who know the area and the painpoints better than anyone else.
The next day consisted of a different school visit, but Yuranis was allowed to accompany me. Same story - lots of gifts, and lots of applause and special treatment, and this time more dancing! I love the way Colombians dance and I love when they ask us to participate, although I might be the only one that feels that way. :) After some dancing and fun, we got to have lunch with our sponsored friends. You´d be surprised what is difficult. First of all I had a one hour bus ride and sat next to Yuranis and used my little phrase book to have some conversation with her. At the restaurant, it just breaks my heart watching her woof down her food. Her grandmother did give me some fruit as a gift (which I can only eat things in shell or with a peel otherwise I might get sick) as well as a small present, and it just kills me thinking about how much that gift might have cost them. At any rate, I intentionally didn´t eat all of my steak, and asked the program director if they would be able to take home our leftovers…she said yes. So we gathered a bunch of really good leftover food from this restaurant and sent it home with them. I just couldn´t even really eat thinking about how her and her grandmother needed that food more than me…it also made me want to vomit coming back to this three star hotel, the comparison was just really strong. As someone pointed out, “Where there is great wealth, there is bound to be great poverty.” The disparity between the two is very big.
That afternoon they let us wander around Cartegena and guided us to some neat spots, one of which was a church on top of a hill, so we could look out over the entire city. Then we walked the walls surrounding the old city, and were able to wander around the inside of the old city, and see the peddlers selling their wares. It was nice to have a break, and I liked spacing it out like that, because it gave me more energy for the kids in the mornings. Pictured: A woman carves fruit in the old city of Cartegena. She does it for tourits, although modern day fruit vendors (minus the costume) still sell colorful, luscious fruit.
The next morning I got up super early and swam in the ocean (finally!) and even at 6am, it´s like a warm bath. It was nice being out there without all of the peddlers - they are super persistant. If you are sitting the Afro Caribbean women will come up and just start rubbing you, and that´s how they get you! I finally relented and did let one rub my feet for a while. Yes it feels a little demeaning but at the same time that´s how this woman makes her living. Also I got my hair braided, corn rowed, whatever you want to call it. I look sort of bald but it´s nice not having to worry about it at all. I thought she might rip my hair out, but it was a fun thing to do. Not sure how long I´ll keep it like this. That day we met the children at a sort of retreat center in the country. There were dogs and roosters and chickens roaming around freely, even during the Mass we attended outside under a giant tropical tree, with the priest in flip flops. I dig Caribbean Catholicism. Pictured: The scavenger hunt ensues, is the clue under the bus?
We played games with the children, including dancing, and then a hilarious scavenger hunt. I thoought I was going to die from running around in this heat, but it doesn´t seem to bother them. I just watched it all happen because I couldn´t understand any of the clues, but one thing we had to do was wrap the sponsored child on each team up like a mummy with toilet paper. That was hilarious. I told Yuranis that she made a bontia mummia. After Mass and games, we shared a delicious asada or BBQ, with all the sponsored children, their parents, and some mothers from the neighborhoods. Noone came from Yuranis family…. Saying goodbye was awful. I started crying, and I think it might have confused her. However I pulled it together and managed to smile a lot before we got on different busses. Our busses sat next to each other and she kept looking at me and waving out of her bus. It was the hardest thing I´ve had to do in a long while.
I got home and had to sit in my room a long while and just think about shit. What to do? It all seems very daunting when they have so little…but will people in her family resent her if I bought her a bed? Will I become just a gift giver, should I offer some sort of incentive like her passing each grade will result in a bunk bed this year, a bike the next? At the last dinner with the CFCA group, I had a few mojitos and then started brainstorming. I was inspired by my friend, Danny´s moustache bash for prostate cancer this past November. I decided that crying about the situation wasn´t going to do any good, and that I wanted to buy two bunk beds, becuase in her room, her brother Edwin sleeps in his own, and then it´s a cramped situation with Yuranis, her grandmother, and her two cousins. That way Edwin doesn´t resent her, everyone can spread out and have more room, and still sleep in the same room as the grandmother, offering protection. Yuranis as a momia, a mummy, during the scavengar hunt. Biggest, brightest smile.
So, this summer, upon my arrival to the states, I´m going to throw a toga party for Yuranis. The bunk beds might be a tad bit of my budget (thinking 300 USD or so for two), and why not make it a party? I´ll get a keg, and do like Danny did, have people pay what they can to help raise money for Yuranis to have her own bed for once in her life, or at least only share it with one person instead of three. Living in a shack without a mom is rough enough, at least having your own bed would be nice. With bedsheets as togas, this could be a really great time, and the staff at CFCA Colombia would get a kick out of it too.
While I did enjoy the beauty of the old town of Cartegena, I was priveleged to see the true Cartegena. The old city, which is what people rant and rave over, already has a CROCS store, and Gucci and a bunch of other horrible shops such as those, so in my opinion the rustic charm is not in the old city. I couldn´t really find much to do except look at expensive things I couldn´t afford (although the street vendors colorful handicrafts were wonderful, and I did snag a handmade bracelet on the cheap.)
Cartegena, and Colombia in general, is not dangerous per say, but it is very poor. Some of the most inspiring and insightful moments I couldn´t capture on camera, becuase yes, someone could potentially grab it, although I don´t think it´s any more likely to happen there than in the NYC subway. The street vendors, public bus rides, and boat rides, and my time spent with the CFCA project captured the true Cartagena away from it´s touristy center, and I was able to find a people who are working towrads their futures, a better Colombia, and were more than happy to lend a helping hand with regard to directions or otherwise.
The past week I´ve spent in Medellin and Cartegena has been nothing short of life changing. I´m so happy that Yuranis is in my life, that sponsoring her has lead me to Colombia, and inspired me in a new and gigantic way.