Thursday, December 30, 2010

Crazy Town South America- La Paz, Bolivia

After our long relaxing stay in Sucre we said goodbye to our Spanish teacher and guesthouse hosts and took the bus to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz.  We reserved our tickets early so we got the front seats on the second floor of the bus.  Unfortunately the movie (which we could not see) was extremely loud and could not even be drowned out with earplugs or Ipods. The trip was pretty annoying to say the least.  We also encountered our first locked bus bathroom and random people sleeping in the aisle and on the stairs. At the rest stop we ended up peeing on the side of the road after making the decision that it was probably safer (health wise) than the “bathroom.”   

When we finally made it into town at about 6:30am, we checked into the Cruz de los Andes hostel in the Rosario neighborhood (which is pretty much backpacker central). The famous Witches Market was right down the street, where we saw lots of dried llama fetus and trinkets.  
The first full day we just relaxed, walked the Brado (main street) and Dan ate the “World’s Hottest Vinadaloo” at the Star of India restaurant. It was pretty spicy but they really get you with the portion. Dan was full up and sweaty for the rest of the night.  The free tee shirt was basically about 90 bolivianos because that’s what we had to spend on beer for Dan to get that curry down.

The next day we took a tour to Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan ruin on the altiplano two hours outside of La Paz. Our tour included the cutest, happiest baby ever (escorted by a young Argentinian couple), an older German guy who knew way too many languages, a Mexican man who drew lots of sketches, a Brazilian women and another Argentinian couple.  Our tour guide was very well informed and explained everything in Spanish even we could understand (and then in English too!).
It was really interesting to see the ancient monoliths (statues) and half excavated pyramid. The people of Tiwanaku (year 100- 1300 AD we think) were pretty fucking smart. They built their temple according to the sun’s cycles, so they knew what day of the year it was. They also carved a hole in one wall that closely resembles a human ear. When someone speaks into it, their voice is magnified and could be heard across the temple (which our tour guide demonstrated). Conversely, if you put your ear next to the hole you could hear someone whispering from meters away.  When the Spanish conquistadors came, most of their civilization already gone, but that didn’t stop the Catholics from attempting to behead and bury their monoliths and use their stones to build churches in La Paz (still there today).
After a long day of learning we headed to the expat pub, Oliver’s Travels.  It was slow night but that didn’t stop the English bartender from enticing us into a game of trivia with a newlywed couple on their honeymoon.  This strange game of trivia involved listing actors who had been in every movie of two separate trilogies. Basically we just yelled out actors we thought of until we got one, and then we had to figure out which trilogies they were in.  In the end we got free shots and had a great time. Dan also wrote the fifty states and their capitals faster than the barman had ever seen. His list is now proudly displayed behind the bar.
The next day we attempted to walk down past the seat of government (hoping to catch a glimpse of Evo Morales) to the ritzy Sopacachi neighborhood. It took us forever mostly due to the lack of oxygen at 11,160 feet. Plus all the stairs and exhaust, it was pretty rough. We did see the famous San Pedro prison, but we weren’t invited in and that’s cool with us.
La Paz is an amazing city that was built in a crevasse. I don’t think anyone ever expected it to get as big as it is now, the poor Bolivians living on the mountainsides are constantly trying to wedge themselves downward, while the rich simply build up to the sky. We thought it was a mind blowing place to visit. Next on to Copacabana! 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A is for Atheist

I don't believe in god and neither does Amanda.  I don't believe in the actual existence of god, Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah.  I give more leeway to polytheistic religions, Greek mythology, Hinduism, Incan mythology for example.  While Shiva, Zeus, and Pachamama do not exist in a literal sense, they are something that monotheistic gods are not, that is a useful and true way to describe nature and other human beings.  While the god of the Bible claims to be omnipotent and omniscient, the god Shiva represents destruction and the god Brahma represents creation.  In this way the god of the Bible is useless to describe forces in nature or in human nature that actually exist, but the religion of Hinduism describes the more ineffable elements of reality rather clearly.  Neither Shiva nor Brahma exist, but the concepts behind them do.

We don't believe in god because there is no reason to believe that any supernatural forces exist.  There is no evidence for their existence and the definitions of the metaphysical beings that people do believe in are contradictory in ways that make their impossibility easy to demonstrate in only a few sentences.  

I remember when I let go of believing in god.  I almost remember the day.  I was 16 years old, and I was at church.  It had been a long time coming, I realized when I was in 7th grade that when I prayed silently, I was talking to nothing.  I realized this but I wasn't ready to let go yet, it can be hard when you have an hour long class every day on the subject of religion with tests, and everyone you've ever met has been Catholic.  It stewed in me.  I tried to believe that the wafer at Mass was Jesus and concentrated on feeling different after I had consumed it, because if it really was Jesus I should feel differently after consuming it.  But I never felt anything, and when I did the feeling proved artificial on further examination.  First I admitted that Jesus wasn't the piece of bread, then I admitted that he wasn't god, then I admitted that there was no god.  The process took about three years.  And when I reached the last step, I began one of the happiest weeks of my life.  The whole world was new, guilt was transformed into joy.  Anything was possible, but evil was still evil and good was still good they were just slightly redefined.  I was able to completely develop a moral code that rested on what is actually moral and what is actually not.  Taking the "Lord's name" in vain or challenging authority was no longer wrong.  The only rule was to be good to others, to love, and to admit the truth of life regardless of how painful or unpopular it is, or its consequences.

There is no god, no one to tell you what's right and wrong, no being watching you from the sky, no hereafter, no sin, no salvation.  That has been my freedom, my joy.  I feel prouder to be an atheist than anything else that I am.  I'm happier as an atheist than I was before or could have been other wise.

So on this holiday season I'd like to take this opportunity to tell anyone who might happen upon this blog who has their doubts, but feels constrained by the ideas that have been fed them since early Childhood, who feels the weight of guilt or fear at their own ideas at what they know deep down inside like I did when I first started questioning, come out.  But come out intelligently, don't get kicked out of your house at 16 by telling your insane fundie parents that you don't believe.  If you're under 20, please play the game until you can keep yourself afloat.  After that, come out and let everyone know that you don't believe, you're not afraid, and you're still a good person.  There are always more of us around you than you think.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Altiplano Part 3

This part of our traveling experience took three parts to write because it was so intense.  We spent three days in a Toyota 4x4 from the 90s rambling over pathways recognizable only by the ruts of former AWD vehicles.  It was dusty; we didn’t have any showers; we didn’t choose our meals, our hotels, or our route.   We saw places on this Earth that I, even with my geographic expertise and vivid imagination, had never even conceived of.

Pitch black on the outskirts of a town with no streetlights we woke up at 3:30 in the morning on the last day of our tour.  We’re lucky that we had such a good driver.  He didn’t speak much, and he didn’t know any English, but he drove safely.  More people die on the Salar de Uyuni tour than the Death Road near La Paz every year because too often drivers are reckless or even intoxicated on roads that don’t exist.  But our driver was excellent in the desert night, feeling his way over the rough terrain cautiously, as the gloaming revealed the silhouette of a ridge on our left and a plain on our right.  After an hour of driving we reached the edge of white ground.  The sky was lighting quickly and we were worried that we would miss the sunrise proper, but we were right on time.  We stopped in the middle of the salt flat, any distance was impossible to determine, the horizon was as flat as the ocean, and the sun rose like molten metal being poured upward into a perfect invisible mold.

It was truly too early for this.  Up at 3:30, in front of the sunrise until about 6 am, we still hadn’t eaten breakfast, but somehow the altitude decreases your appetite as does the frigid air.  We drove across the flats to Incahausi, an island of rock in the center of a long dry sea of salt.  It has big saguaro cacti, seriously.  We took a half hour hike around the island and came back to a basic breakfast of bread, butter, jam, and tea.  There were also llamas.  It seems ridiculous for llamas to be there because the nearest non-salt-flat land had to be over 50 kilometers away, but again, it’s impossible to tell how far away anything is on the Salar. 

When we got back in the car, we stopped on the other side of the island and took pictures.  The far edge of the Salar was not visible, which proved to be the point.  On a white space without any objects to give the eye perspective, many photographic tricks are possible and we amused ourselves by exploring the possibility for hours.  We had so much time because another 4x4 had broken down, the one that Kev and Alison were on, right where we were set to take pictures and our driver and the other driver for our tour group were helping their driver fix the vehicle.  It took a very long time for them to fix it.
So we were a little late since we had decided to wake up for the sunrise and were supposed to be in Uyuni at about midday, we were now on schedule to arrive in Uyuni as if we hadn’t woken up for the sunrise, at about 3pm.  This will prove to be very important.  We sailed across the salar, stopping briefly at a small place with many flags and a village with a market where we bought two small pieces of salt for about 15 cents. 

The outskirts of Uyuni are covered in plastic bags blown by the wind and caught on desert brush.  And then you come to the train graveyard, covered in the same trash that covers the desert around it.  The rusty piles of metal resting on warped tracks are the town proper’s greatest attraction.  They’re bizarre and dangerous looking and covered in graffiti that ranges from the banal to the intellectual.   Amanda climbed on them and acted like a train conductor, but I don’t know if I’m still officially immunized for tetanus so I declined.

On to Uyuni, the driver, since we didn’t arrive at a reasonable hour, billed the tour company for lunch at an almuerzo familiar place above the immigration office (bizarre right), which was alright.  It was simple, first quinoa soup, then some meat in sauce and rice.  We went around the corner to check into our hostel, the cheapest place we’ve stayed in, only 14 dollars a night for both of us in a private room sharing a bath.  Then since we were still illegal in Bolivia because we’re shifty Americans and the only nationality that needs a visa which costs 135 dollars to enter the country, we went to the only ATM in town.  No dice.  It’s Saturday.  That means that it won’t be fixed until the bank opens again on Monday.  So instead of heading off to Sucre on Sunday, we were stuck in Uyuni after the immigration officer, who was a very nice man, locked our passports in a safe at the immigration office.  We rested in Uyuni and on Monday when the ATM was fixed there was a line across the street, and we only had an hour to get money, get a visa, and get on the bus to Sucre at 10.  I waited in line, as Amanda went to the immigration office to fill out the paperwork, when I finally got money I sprinted there.  They put our visa in our passports with time to spare and we were off to Sucre after showing off the skills that would make us favorites if we were ever on The Amazing Race.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Altiplano Part 2

One of the bizarre but heartening things about the desert in Southwestern Bolivia is the rock stacks of obviously human origin on the side of the road or out in the middle of the sandy, rocky plain.  There is a human hand in even the most inhospitable, remote climate, and the desire to make one’s mark is beyond cultures down to the very root of what it means to be human.

Three days we were on the move.  Through shivering valleys, along dirt paths grooved by all-weather tires, in frigid motels, we shambled.  The second day we woke up at 7 a.m. in a below-freezing hotel.  We rented a sleeping bag the night before and spread it over the both of us in two full beds pushed together for three dollars to supplement the blankets and duvet on the bed.  We ate breakfast and breezed out of the hotel, past the blood red spectacle of the Laguna Colorada.

Our first stop was the rock tree.  When I was told about this at the tour agency, I thought it sounded lame.  A rock that looks like a tree?  Well I’ve seen a rock that actually used to be a tree in New Mexico.  A red lake is novel, but a rock tree is trite.  What I didn’t know was that the rock tree was in the midst of a boulder forest sitting in the middle of a sandy valley bed.  It was one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole trip climbing the rocks.  A little bit of physical exertion is a welcome relief from a bumpy, sedentary, day-long ride.  Amanda said that they must have been washed down into the valley by a glacial flood.   A similar thing happened in the Midwest as well, look it up.

 Then another flamingo Laguna, but this time there was an ominous portent.  Salt.   Cracked, soft white ground on the shore of the lake.   Our approach to one of the world’s most mysterious tourist attractions was becoming real.  Even as we began this journey, I didn’t know what to expect.  I thought to myself that the people who recommended this must be crazy, but I knew that there must be something in it.  Salt?  I’ve seen salt, used it on my food even.  I’ve driven through Utah and seen a pretty gigantic salt flat, why is this one so special?

Another Laguna, this one had the most flamingoes.  It was nice but it’s already been described.  Lunch already?  Ok.
After lunch we stopped to stare at a volcano from a distance of perhaps several kilometers (it’s pretty hard to tell distances in the desert).  It was big and the ground around it was obviously volcanic.  It was much harder, less dusty, and more porous than in the rest of the desert.  It was here that I found my desert voice.  On the base of the rock formation I stacked six stones, and then on the underside of the formation’s promontory I stacked six more precariously on an edge.  I’m proud of that one because it conveyed the way the desert spoke to me and it’s not in an obvious place, only someone on a tour who wanders around the side of the rock would see it.

After another hour we reached the real portent of things to come, the “pequeno” salar.  We stopped and viewed it from the side of a mountain and Amanda and I collaborated on a rock tower. It looks like a sandcastle does when you drip wet sand onto it slowly.

As we crossed the salar we saw the loneliest train in the world heading toward Chile and crossed the impossible train tracks in the middle of the salt flat.  It made me wonder where the people who built it were living when they built it.  We walked around on the chalky ground in the frigid air for a minute and crossed the flats to an impossible little town between the smaller salar and the largest salar in the world, the Salar de Uyuni.  Our hotel was a five minute walk from the town, and was mostly made of salt.  The floors, bedframes, tables, walls, stools were all made of salt bricks.  It wasn’t the ensuite ritz that we were led to believe it would be, but we had a private room with twin beds.
We walked into the town to find a tienda, but we didn’t buy anything.  4 dollars for a bottle of wine?  Steep.  The roads were dirt, and there was a soccer field on the edge of the town that looked rarely used because there were llama toilets scattered around it.  And near our hotel there they were, the llama herd.  Amanda, being our resident llama expert, explained to us how you can tell if the llamas are happy or angry by the position of their ears.  It was evident that the ones we got close to didn’t appreciate our presence very much, so we left them alone and settled in for the night.  We would have to wake up at 3:30 in the morning the next day to see the sunrise on the salar.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Sweet Life in Sucre

Dan hasn’t completed the last half of our adventures in the desert blog yet, but I thought I’d write a little about what we are doing at the moment.  We are currently in Sucre, Bolivia. We finally got our visas and have been here 13 days. We are staying in an amazing guesthouse (La Dolce Vita or The Sweet Life) in our own little suite.  The owners of the guesthouse are on vacation so we pretty much have the place to ourselves, although there are always some random Germans around (this can never be avoided in South America J ). 

                                                                             We have been spending our days pretending to be independently wealthy. We wake late in the morning, do some light yoga and exercises, then go out for lunch.  In the afternoon we read and watch educational videos (Dan is studying economics).  I usually take a siesta and Dan looks at the interwebs until about 3pm when we get ready for the day and do our homework. At 4:45pm we head to school where we take Spanish classes and teach English until 7pm.  Then we cook dinner and retire to our room to watch TV shows or a movie. Then we cap off the day with Dan reading out loud from “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquiz.  To put it simply, it is AWESOME. We have six more days here then we are off to La Paz and making our way to Machu Picchu by December 22.

One note: We have been fairly sickly here, this was to be expected.  My digestion has troubled me from my first day in Bolivia, and Dan for about a week, so we had to do a three day antibiotic regimen.  This appears to have taken care of the problem, and we are hoping to be healthy from here on out, although we aren’t holding our breath!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Altiplano Part 1

We were relieved to leave the town of San Pedro de Atacama which I hated with a passion and embark on our tour of the Salar de Uyuni despite the prospect of spending three consecutive days in a 4x4 vehicle and spending two nights in yet unseen accommodations.  We left at 8 that morning and stood in line at the Chilean immigration office for an hour or so.  After that it was on to Bolivia and all the uncertainty that entering that country brings for American citizens.  A full account of how to enter Bolivia as an American is forthcoming in a separate blog post. 

We drove up the mountains to the border where a small hut stood with the sign Migracion Bolivia.  Everyone else on the trip had their passports stamped, but we had ours confiscated and then given to the tour director who gave them back to us.  We ate stale ham and cheese sandwiches in the brutal wind and elevation that pushed noonday, spring, desert temperatures below 0 or thereabouts.  We split into two logical groups, all 6 Australians in one car, and the spare nationalities in the other.   Amanda and I were with an Englishman, and 3 French people.  We started off in our 4x4 vehicle over dirt roads that were rarely really roads at all, more ruts carved into the desert floor by decades of 4x4 tours.

Not far from the border we reached our first stop.  We paid the admission fee to the ‘park’, about 16 dollars each and rolled down the hill to the first lake.  

We hadn’t seen natural water for a while so to see a large oval of light green water broken by islands of white with flamingos dipping their beaks was surreal.  There was no rain; rain was unimaginable as were rivers, glaciers or any other water source but here we were buffeted by the cold wind’s dust on the mossy shores of a lake at an altitude rarely reached by the North American Rockies’ peaks. 

We walked around and took pictures and got back into the car and set off again.  A half hour later we got our first flat tire.  Our driver and another driver who wasn’t far behind were very industrious in fixing it and we were off again.  We stopped about a kilometer (it was very difficult to tell distances the entire time) from some figures of little stone huts or just stones on a hillside which is supposed to be the site that inspired Dali to paint one of his more famous works.

Not far from there we came upon the hot springs.  We changed into our bathing suits in the car, ran through the cold air and jumped in the warm water.  Our friends from La Serena, Kev and Alison, were there with another group so we mingled, marveled, and fancied ourselves very interesting people for participating in such a novel experience, bathing in a small shallow pool of strangely warm water in the middle of a frigid high altitude desert.  My shoulder got sunburnt and we changed back into our clothes with only a towel to preserve our modesty.

Then we were taken to some mud geysers.  The sulfur was strong, but the smoke was warm.  We looked down into the thermodynamic craters, but I was slightly unimpressed having seen a much more colorful version in Yellowstone about nine years ago.  From there we went to our hotel for the night which was not made of salt but which did have a lunch of hot dogs, salad, and mashed potatoes.  I was starving as it was three in the afternoon, and I hadn’t eaten much before that, but I lost my appetite about halfway through what I thought I’d be able to eat.  We had climbed a substantial amount that day, and the altitude was affecting me.  We were in a valley at 4500 m (about 13,500 ft), which is higher than any point in the continental USA.  The acknowledgement of that was a surreal experience for me because I’m always amazed by facts and comparisons and singularities, but Amanda was not impressed and told me her head hurt.

 After lunch our group decided to go to the Laguna Colorada nearby.  It was the most interesting sight of the day.  The wind was whipping up to at least 60 mph, but it felt a little warmer.  This laguna was deep red and much larger than the first green one.   Carine, our French traveling companion, offered us some coca leaves and we chewed them like tobacco at our gums.  This took away my headache for the most part and rid me of the tiredness that had hung about me since I had woken up at 7:15 that morning after being largely unable to sleep the night before.  All of a sudden I bounded down the sandy hill, eyes wide in appreciation of the amazing natural wonder in front of me.  There were many more flamingoes and the deep red of the sea against the sandy mountains was awe inspiring.  Amanda and I walked along the shore and upon observing piles of black balls she informed me that they were llama toilets because llamas pick one place to defecate and continue to always go there until the lead llama chooses another place.

We returned to our hotel, drank coca tea all afternoon in the dining room with our English companion, Adam, exchanging stories and insights.  It wound me up so much that I ended up spilling hot water on myself.  We ate pasta for dinner.  And as the coca had dropped our energy levels like a stone after it wore off, we went to bed in our below freezing room with the promise of breakfast at 7 am the next morning.

 PS.  The joys and consequences of coca tea are similar to, well, you know, hot chocolate (wink, wink), so we don’t touch it anymore.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Life in the Desert


After the excitement of Santiago we headed north toward Bolivia. We decided to stop over in La Serena, a small coastal town before San Pedro de Atacama (on the Bolivian border), just to break up the monotony of the bus rides and to check out the beach.  La Serena is a small, peaceful town with all the shops pretty much closed by 9:30pm. Their main claim to fame is the beach, so we rented bikes (at an outrageous price of $20, which we negotiated down from $32) and enjoyed a nice, but chilly, ride along the ocean. It was spring time, but we could tell things pick up in the summer time. We met an Australian couple who were also headed to San Pedro, and a couple of fun Swiss girls headed south; our hostel was a great place to meet people and that was good considering there wasn’t a whole lot more to do!

After a couple of days we jumped on a bus headed to the very north eastern corner of Chile, the little town of San Pedro. We only booked two nights at a hostel that was described as “right outside the town” but for some reason still outside our budget. The bus ride ended up being a bit fucked up, our connecting bus in Antofagasta left 15 minutes before the ticket said and we ended up walking to the center of town to catch a completely different bus so we didn’t have to wait four hours. Then we had to catch another bus in Calama, and it was a pretty messed up trip all around.  In Chile usually everything runs behind schedule, so this situation took us completely by surprise. Because of the confusion, our ride to the hostel wasn’t there (we were 1 ½ hours late) so we took a taxi. 
$6 Coffee!
San Pedro is a small, dusty, hippie town whose main purpose is to provide tours. They had tons of hiking, mountain biking, sand dune boarding and, most importantly for us, tours of the Salar de Uyuni (the salt flats of Uyuni).  The largest salt flats in the world are actually in Bolivia, but San Pedro is very close to the border so many tours depart and arrive there. San Pedro is stupidly expensive.  We were only there for two nights, so this wouldn’t have been a problem except none of the five ATMs were functioning when we arrived, or the next day either for that matter. There are no grocery stores, and pretty much no way to do things on the cheap.  I grew up in hippie country and I simply don’t understand how anyone could spend any amount of time in this place. It definitely had the dirtiness, drugs and artistic vibe to foster a laid back hippie style, but the prices were INSANE. It’s amazing how many wealthy people enjoying being dirty and at the mercy of the elements. Personally we do not enjoy having dust lung.  We lucked out and had just enough money to get though until the last morning when the ATMs started running again, we booked our tour to the salt flats and got the fuck out of there.
 I’m not really into the desert, being white as fuck and pretty much allergic to the sun, so I wasn’t a big fan of San Pedro.  Dan couldn’t believe a town completely reliant on tourism would not have good internet access or ATMs that worked, so overall we didn’t really like it there. The only good part was we were headed to one of the “can’t miss” sights in South America!