Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bolivia: Madidi National Park

Jungle fever! Being this close to the Amazon, we couldn`t resist a short foray into its green and rainy depths. Landing on a grassy landing strip in Rurrenebaque, our oxygen-deprived lungs breathed a happy sigh of relief at the low altitude, and we joyfully stripped off layers of fleece. The next morning, we motored up the fast-moving cappuccino-colored waters of an Amazon tributary to Chalalan Ecolodge. This place got big props from fellow travelers and rave reviews from the Lonely Planet, so we dug deep in our wallets to enjoy three glorious nights in jungle splendor.

Chalalan's accolades are well merited, one of the few truly community-run eco-lodges in this rare swath of the Amazon, Chalalan makes the most of it's local flavor. Started in the 1990's by the neighboring community of San Jose De Uchupiamonas (say that three times fast), Chalalan is built by locals, with local materials, uses local guides, and proceeds have already funded a school and medical clinic. It's a beautiful spot and one of the few places where you can actually stay in Madidi National Park, near relatively untouched rainforest.

We had a little paradisaical cabana with a requisite hammock out front, and we spent our days tromping through the National Park and sweating our way through our limited supply of clean clothes. Twilight meant beer and sunset swims in the Chalalan lake, braving the hopefully-sated appetites of the resident caymans. It was kind of funny to jump headfirst into the dark, but blissfully refreshing, water at dusk only to don headlamps and search for flesh-eating aquatic reptiles along the shore mere hours later. Really, that's only a slight exaggeration.

Our first night walk started with a hunt for the elusive boa constrictor. And admittedly some part of us perhaps wanted him to remain hidden. Particularly disconcerting was the fact that our search began in one of the lodge's main buildings, where evidently boa's like to congregate in the rafters. Ahem. We did find one in a tree nearby. And during the day spotted capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, all sorts of spiders, and...the grand pooh-bah...a giant ant-eater! While giant ant-eater might not conjure up the same awe as seeing, say, a snow leopard or jaguar, it is a super impressive (and big!) animal to witness in the wild. Our guide had never seen a full-grown one before (and he grew up in the jungle), so he was foaming at the mouth with excitement. And no, sadly, we do not have a photo. Doh!

Perhaps in our best interest we did not see the bushmaster snake. This fella is particularly notable for the fact that if you threaten his awaiting-to-be-hatched eggs at any point, and even if you do so completely unwittingly by walking down a jungle trail, this snake will follow you for up to 500 meters before striking. And likely killing you. Fun facts to have in the back of your mind as you stumble through the steamy jungle.

By far our favorite animal, though, was the capybara, the world's largest rodent. He's endearing in a way that only the world's largest rodent could be. We're thinking this will be the focal point of the best-selling children's book we plan to write and illustrate in our free time.

Truth be told, jungle walks searching for animals can be really rather boring unless you really know your trees and plants. It's 10,000 degrees out. You're covered in way too much long-sleeved, long-panted clothing to keep from getting rare jungle rashes and bites, your sunscreen mixes with bugspray in your eyes, and it feels like you're trying to exercise in a sauna. And the scenery is pretty unchanging.

On the positive side, we were lucky enough to be lumped in with a group of fun-loving souls in our jungle paradise. And coca-leaf chewing, leche-de-puma drinking, and awkward dance events were made all the more delightful by the company we kept. This extends wholeheartedly to the entire Chalalan staff. Many of whom joined us in a hilarious tri-lingual game of cards on our last night. Explaining the game Bullsh#$%#t in English, Spanish, and Quechua was a cultural experience not to be forgotten (no, really, if you don't have the card, just lie, that's what you're supposed to do!).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Haircuts Around The World: Rurre

It was jungle hot and humid outside even in the early evening. We were in the jungle region of Bolivia and it was an amazing contrast to La Paz. We wandered the streets looking for haircut alley. What immediately caught my eye were the pictures of potential new hairdos all over the walls. We carefully scanned them all but never found one that seemed to fit my demanding tastes, so we settled for the clipper #1 on top and a trim up on the beard.

It did not take more than 30 seconds before I was dripping in sweat. The barber joked to Kathleen by asking her what the translation was for "flood," as he noted my forehead. The cut on top was simple and straightforward. I began to get a little nervous about the beard as he reached for a guard that was a little too short, but it all turned out well. The Bolivians don't sport beards very often, so I don't think he gets much practice. The best that I could get was a once over with clipper #2, a pat down of my brow, and a push out the door. Not a bad cut but none of the fancy moves I have had the pleasure of experiencing so far on the trip. In any event, a haircut for less than $2 is pretty good. Overall I would give this a 4 out of 10.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bolivia: Sucre

Sucre is known as the White City of the Americas, and it lives up to its moniker with striking white architecture and all the colonial trappings of grandeur and elegance. It`s a really beautiful city, and the setting is superb. It feels like the perfect place to start a Once Upon A Time fairytale. We spent our days strolling its streets, admiring its churches, climbing its bell towers, and poking our heads into all of its museums. Including the Natural History Museum, where Eric was nearly attacked by a condor!

It was in Sucre where we embarked on our most cheesy tour....taking the Dino Truck to the Parque Cretacico, Bolivia`s Jurassic Park. Bumping along in the back of a pick-up truck outfitted with bench seats and dinosaur claws, we made our way to the cement factory where the world`s longest track of dinosaur footprints were found while excavating cement. To be fair, and despite our goofy photos, the place was impressive. They discovered the footprints a mere 25 years ago, and the once-flat earth has since been tectonically pushed into a steep wall, but you can easily see scores of various dinosaur prints. It`s pretty incredible. The museum is well done, and they have all these recreations of dinosaurs that are supposed to be anatomically accurate based on skin fossils and bones. Best yet, they have piped in sound!

On a completely unrelated note, we also discovered that Che Guevara stayed in the same hotel as us! We didn`t think he went in for colorful patios with garden fountains and cable TV. Who knew?

Speaking of political figures, we had a really interesting and shocking conversation with a taxi driver en route to the bus station. He was the first non-Evo Morales supporter that we`ve met. Instead, he advocated for a hard line leader with a military presence in Bolivia. He said that the reason Chile was so rich, was because of Pinochet and that Bolivia needed a Pinochet. When we questioned the death toll under Pinochet and suggested there were other ways to affect economic change, he said the deaths were necessary to get Chile where it is today. We decided to keep our traps shut. But undeniably Bolivia suffers from losing coastal access to Chile, and jealousies and comparisons run rampant.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bolivia: Potosi

Today we landed in Potosi, supposedly the highest city in the world at 4,070 meters (13,300 feet!). Our bus ride was mostly uneventful, save for three tire changes done the old-fashioned way (i.e. no power tools). Our hotel, while lovely, was remarkably Being John Malkovich-esque. Poor Eric must have clocked his noggin` about twelve times.

Potosi has an amazing history, as it was once the richest town in the Americas, and more populous than Paris. That was back in the good ole days of colonialists plundering the rocks for silver. Potosi`s Cerro Rico, literally rich hill, meant decades of wealth in the 15oo´s. African slaves were used, locals were used, basically anyone who could be exploited was, and the town has the gorgeous colonial architecture, stunning cathedral, and impressive historic mint to prove it. These days, people still mine Cerro Rico, but it is subsistence living of the most dangerous variety. Nearly all miners die of black lung within 10 to 15 years of entering the mines, and accidents and cave-ins take at least 20 lives a year. These days nickel and tin are sought after, as the silver appears to be mostly tapped out. The style of mining is little changed since the mountain was first dug into. A handful of miners have escaped the work to become guides for popular tours that lead curious travelers straight into the heart of the mountain to witness the work in progress. And we were curious.

There is all sorts of etiquette, ritual, and preparation that goes into visiting the mines. First we had to suit up with headlamps and protective clothing. Next, we stopped to buy gifts for the miners. As the mines are all cooperatively owned, miners are responsible for buying all of their equipment, and supply shops line the road leading up the mountain. The most popular and appreciated offerings were dynamite, coca leaves (to stave off hunger while working, as you can`t eat in the mines because there`s too much arsenic in the air), and alcohol. The rot gut of choice is a potable 96% grain alcohol. Basically it`s as potent as you can get without killing yourself, and a striking nod to the difficulties of mine work that may need to be forgotten in a drunken stupor. And yes, we tried it.

Gifts of coca leaves and alcohol are also left as offerings to Tio, the devil that oversees the hellish work in the mines. Literally Tio means Uncle in Spanish, but it`s a euphemism for the devil in the mines. While Bolivians are by and large devout Catholics, most miners believe that God leaves them at the entrance to the mine, and they have to pay their respects to the underworld in order to be kept safe in the belly of the earth. During the Miner`s Carnival, a llama fetus is buried at the mine`s entrance, and fresh llama blood is splashed around the entry to appease Tio.

Donning our headlamps, we bow our way into the mouth of the earth, following wagon tracks. The natural light disappears, and the dark wet cold is replaced by hot, narrow, damp passageways, loud with the hissing pipes of condensed air that run down the shafts to power drills far below. We walk briskly, ducking low to avoid chutes, and breathing heavily in the thin smelly air (14,000 ft). We crawl up a narrow chute to watch how they winch up heavy rubber baskets filled with earth from the depths of the mine. Shortly after this point, the claustraphobia, heat, fumes, dust, altitude, and general sissiness conspire to make Kathleen question whether she really needs to venture further into the mine. The answer, after a few more meters of descent and rising panic is no. Luckily the guides are prepared for this, and the incredibly sweet and kind Renaldo leads Kathleen back into the sunshine. Meanwhile, Eric continued down into the depths.

We proceeded down another three levels, sometimes crawling on our hands and knees or working our way down ladders (avoiding at all times the many holes that go so far down you can´t see the bottom). We stopped on the third level to say hello to the miners that were filling the rubber baskets that were being raised to the first level by a motor. We even had a chance to pick up shovels and pitch in to help. The saddest part is seeing the fourteen and sixteen year old kids that were working in this group. We shared some of our gifts and then proceeded to crawl down to the fourth level. Here we found a separate collective of six miners, working only with hand tools, who had to carry whatever they found out with them on their backs. The conditions down here were horrible, it was hot (they did not wear shirts) and it was incredibly hard to see and breathe. No breathable air is forced into the mine, and we were taking in only what came through the small entrance way four levels above and the noxious chemicals and gases, including silica dust, arsenic gas and acetylene vapors among other nasty things. We gave them some dynamite, coca leaves, alcohol, and soda and made our way out as quickly as possible.

While outside, Kathleen chatted with miners on their break. None of whom was shy to ask about how much money we make or how much airplane tickets cost. Questions that we are embarassed to answer in a country where the average annual income is less than $3,000. All things told, the whole experience was eye-opening and valuable. We had the luck of seeing a German documentary on the mines called The Devil`s Miner a few days after our visit that deals with the plight of a child miner. We highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bolivia: Tupiza

Heading eight hours south on a bus ride that had us alternating between photo snapping and Hail Mary`s, we made our way to the stunning red cliffs and lush desert scenery of Tupiza. The environs are the former stomping grounds of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and you can easily imagine the two outlaws hiding in dry box canyons whistling Hollywood theme songs. It`s an undeniably beautiful landscape with an American Wild West feel to it. We have all sorts of screenplay ideas based on it that will undoubtedly make us our millions. But more on that later.

We signed up for the impressively-named Triathalon, an athletic smorgasborg of hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The day began with pedaling past sunflowers, pueblos, green gardens, and red rock fin formations. Trading our iron steeds for the real deal, we saddled up and rode up a dry wash toward the Valle des Machos (can you spot the macho in the picture?), where phallic formations give the valley its name. It was like riding into a film set, trotting past cactus (mostly of the hallucinogenic San Pedro variety) and stark desert scenery. For lunch, we had the Tupiza speciality, tamales made with llama meat. Tasty! The day ended with a white-knuckle (at least for Kathleen) descent of close to 1,500 meters in the late-afternoon sun. Eric weathered a loose brake, then a missing brake, then 2 flat tires, but still managed to beat Kathleen to the bottom. Doh!

Traveling to and from Tupiza, we also had a sobering look at Bolivia`s striking poverty. We knew from reading that more than half the country went without electricity, heat, or running water---a real tragedy in a land of cold, harsh climates. From the local bus window, we saw evidence of this everywhere. People eking out a living where they could, taking care of hygiene wherever they could (no wonder you can`t drink the water), and working long hard hours regardless of age (young and old). At the same time, we found everyone to be incredibly helpful and kind. We hope that Presidente Evo Morales is able to turn the economic situation around to everyone`s benefit, and we have been trying to interview locals about their views on him and politics in general.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bolivia: The Salares and Uyuni

Crossing into Bolivia was like stepping into the final frontier, both literally and figuratively. Since we are flying home out of La Paz, it marked the last border crossing of our journey. And since we were entering via dirt roads in a barren landscape, it had a middle of nowhere feel to it. Crossing borders always has a bit of an exciting nail-biting anticipation about it. Will someone plant illegal drugs in our bags? Will we get thrown into a dank prison where our Spanish will really improve? One never knows.

Once we were stamped and approved, we hefted our backpacks onto 4x4s for a three day trip through Bolivia`s famed lakes and salares (salt fields) toward Uyuni. This has to be one of most visually stunning sections of our travels, a veritable nature freak show of the most beautiful variety. We gawked over lakes that glowed white, red, and green. We zoomed our lenses on flamingos, hoping for the perfect shot (didn`t happen). And we traversed a landscape ranging from brilliant hues of red rock, to endless patches of fresh snow, to looming volcanoes. Incredible. Fitting that one of the surreal rock landscapes is called Desierto del Dali (yes of Salvador Dali fame). Undoubtedly the altitude played a role in our out-of-body experience, as we reached 5,000 meters (16,400 feet!) at the geyser field, where one bubbling fumarole glowed a devilish red. Belching, gurgling, spitting and hissing, the fumaroles created an awesome landscape fit for Jabba the Hut.

We had been warned that car trouble went hand in hand with enjoying the views. Careening our way over bumpy, gravelly, non-existent roads through the stark landscape, we understood why. Luckily our group of ten travelers was a hardy upbeat bunch. For us, breakdowns meant hack circles, or snowball fights, or whatever else the landscape dictated.

A highlight of the trip was staying in a salt hotel, where virtually everything (beds, tables, chairs, walls) was constructed of salt. The floor was the most incredible, just pristine sparkling grains of salt that made for an exfoliatory experience on bare feet after showering.

On our final day, we rose before dawn to watch the sun rise over the salt flats. Being the rainy season, the flats are under a few inches of water, making the landscape a jaw-dropping mirror-y mirage. Driving along, it`s impossible to discern the skyline from the earth, and distant land masses look like floating islands. Words can`t describe it and pictures don`t do it justice, but suffice to say we`d head back in a heartbeat. Nearing Uyuni, we saw the salt being raked into pyramids for drying and selling. And then we visited the train cemetery, where old steam engines go to sleep and to be photographed in black and white.

Arriving in Uyuni, we experienced our first taste of Bolivian culture. Nearly every woman we saw was dressed in the traditional fashion of two long braids, a bowler hat, apron, and a full skirt. Unlike parts of Peru, where traditional dress is often used as a money-making venture for tourist photos, here it`s simply tradition. We didn`t get nearly as many photos of people as we would have liked because we felt intrusive, but we loved wandering the market where everything from dried llama fetuses to blue jeans were on offer. What with it being Valentine`s day and all, we treated ourselves to some good dark chocolate and decadent t.v. watching. Chocolate kisses to you all as well!