24 diciembre 2006

arriba, abajo, al centro, a dentro

Last night was one of the more miserable I´ve experienced.

After spending the day meandering around a relatively uninspiring Uyuni, I had a beer at an empty gringo bar and made my way to the bus about a half hour before departure. It was actually one of the more comfortable Bolivian buses I´ve been on, and left only a few minutes late, at around 8:05pm.

All the roads surrounding Uyuni, and headed north to La Paz are gravel and dirt, and it´s been dry around here lately. The main roads are banked and planed regularly by crews with steamrollers, etc. I´ve seen a couple of teams settling the dust as such. At around 8:50, the bus suddenly slipped off the shoulder and plunged to the left, all of us at 45 degree angle to the ground. I instinctively shifted to the right, as though my meager weight might prevent the bus from tipping. We hit the desert floor (about a four foot descent) and promptly came to a halt. Everyone poured out of the bus and we could immediately tell that this bus was going nowhere anytime soon. Front and rear wheels were halfway covered in sand, and the terrain was all brush and sand hills. Ten or so dudes gave it a tokenist´s effort to push it out of the sand, but with no result.

Another La Paz-bound bus stopped then, and there was a great commotion as to whether people would try to board that bus, or wait for our own. Two other Americans and I made the mistake of waiting until the very last minute to get on the second bus (thinking there wasn´t room, and that perhaps a more reasonable solution would be presented), and found ourselves standing in the narrow aisle with three or four others without seats.

Long story short, we spent the next 7 hours alternately standing, crouching and laying on the floor, straddling other people´s bags and getting elbowed in the face by restless sleepers.

During the couple rest room breaks we watched stray dogs lap diesel fuel out of puddles beneath the buses. I saw one drinking grease straight out of a bucket next to a stand where a woman was frying llama steaks. Someone puked into a urinal next to me.

When we finally got to Oroua (?), about three hours south of La Paz, they unloaded everyone, and a new bus showed up. There was a frantic movement for everyone to exchange their existing tickets for new ones. It was then that I almost began killing people. It seemed clear for a moment that I and the four other people who had been forced to stand for the past seven hours would continue to do so for the remainder of the trip. The crowd was too frenzied, there certainly was no reason to the order the drivers were assigning seats. We vowed to one another in broken spanish, however, that regardless of what our tickets said (or didn´t say) we were walking onto the next bus and sitting down in the first seats that presented themselves.

Fortunately, everyone but one person (a local, making only the three-hour trip) had a seat on the final bus, and I managed to fall asleep relatively quickly after the well-rested mob had stopped their reinvigorated chatter (all the ruckus was apparently much more amusing to those who´d been able to sleep the past several hours).

Then, at 6:30am this morning, at the same time that the driver´s assistant came around to collect the newest tickets, a papaya-seed-selling fuckwad televangelist stood up and began what was to be a 45 minute schpiel ("...just two a day and it thins the blood, prevents diabetes, invigorates the heart, the head, the lungs, improves sexual function, tastes great, that´s right señores, it even tastes great! and did I mention the cost of this amazing natural remedy? Well, let´s not talk about price just yet, did I mention it thins the blood?..").

I had seen these snake oil charlatans on the street in La Paz before, and had found the entire display charming and entertaining, right down to the handing out of individual papaya seeds, and the looks of actual wonder on the faces of passersby, but when this guy stood up this morning (and people actually bought the stuff!)...

Well, I haven´t slept yet. And I don´t feel very well. But tomorrow is Christmas, so happy happy happy happy

23 diciembre 2006

viaje en camión para tarabuco, bolivia

Erica asked that I post this. I took some video of our first experience hitchhiking in Bolivia (from Sucre to Tarabuco for the market). If you'd like to see it, please right click here, and save to your computer before viewing.

The file is big (30mb), and I don't need ATP sending virtual assasins to cancel my ticket back to the states.

valió la pena

I've been in Bolivia for a little under a month. I'm now in Uyuni, about 10 hours south of La Paz, as the bus flies. I've just finished an amazing three day jeep trek south through the altiplano to the border of Chile and back, which I did a bit reluctantly, but after hearing much from other travelers. It was the sort of trip that could have been made or ruined by the weather, or by the rest of the travellers, with whom I was stuck in a jeep for three days. Among the others were a pair from Belgium/Holland, who had just finished a several-month stint on the most recent iteration of Belgium's version of The Amazing Race. He was a cameraman, and she an executive producer. The other notable character was a Marcus Reynerson clone from the Vancouver area. It was a good group, and I think I'll wind up meeting up with at least one of them on their way south to Patagonia after the new year. Many photos soon to come.

Before this trip, I had been staying in La Paz with the family of my most recent Spanish instructor, Gabriela. It was with great remorse that I wrote Ivan to tell him I'd finally been introduced to the infamous subjuntivo. The week was an interesting one, and for the most part relaxed. I explored what I could of a labyrinthine La Paz-- a city which is 85 percent marketplace-- during the busiest and most commercial time of year. I made a couple local friends at a little bar down from where I was taking classes, and whiled my afternoons stumbling my way though conversations about futbol and women. I took naps in the park. I attended a surprise birthday party for a friend of Mae Lin, my Bolivian hermana por una semana. Get the gringo drunk is apparently a wildly entertaining party game. It is nice to be cared for, however. I've got some photos and video of the live folklorica in the kitchen.

This evening, I train back to La Paz to spend Christmas with the family, which should be fun. Then, I've got to pick a path back to Buenos Aires, where I've arranged for a room in an apartment not far from the congress (con cama matrimonial) for a couple weeks.

* * *

Those who know me well know that I am a sentimental man. But perhaps only Dan will understand when I recount the tears which welled in my eyes and spilled onto my sun-burned cheeks during a dark, Bolivian bus ride when, just as Aulë was about to bring his hammer down on his beloved, his newest and greatest creations, the dwarves, Iluvatar replied, "Thy offer I accepted even as it was made."

I read only about forty pages of the Silmarillion in Oxford before Dan wrenched it from me at the end of our last summer there, and only recently came across another copy, accidentally, on the shelves of a hostel in Sucre, Bolivia.

Lord forgive me, caballeros y damas, but with nothing to trade in the book exchange I sneaked off with the only book worth reading...

* * *

After spending a few days in Sucre, we arrived in La Paz where we participated in our second organized tourist event, when we mountain biked the Dead Road, just outside of Coroico. Considering how well publicized it was, it was remarkably dangerous. Val, who has since left us (but not before having her wallet and credit cards stolen on her last night in La Paz), banged her knee up pretty good on the Dead Road, but that was our crew's greatest casualty.

After that first stay in La Paz, Erica continued on to Copacabana, on the eastern shores of Lake Titicaca. After a few days there, Erica and I decided to split for a while, and I went back to La Paz. That about brings us up to date.

If I weren't being pulled back to Buenos Aires for the new year, I would probably make a home around La Paz for a while. It's a city in which I can easily imagine myself living. Despite its unorthodox transit system, and inhospitable car traffic (the worst symptom I've seen of the automotive hubris ubiquitous in South America), everything La Paz works on its own bizarre (but somehow beautiful) internal logic. Not unlike Buenos Aires, it is possible to get within three blocks of anywhere in the city in a very short amount of time. But unlike Buenos Aires (so far as I can tell) the system in La Paz, has no central organization. It's based mostly on the trufis, minibuses or cars, which follow a set of standardized routes through the city. The result is that the trufis run every 4 minutes or so, are fiercely competitive (with designated callers to yell out the stops to people on the street), and crossing the street along the prada is like trying to swim across the Mississippi river.

And yet the people are genuine, and excited to share what they've got...

* * *
Happy Christmas everyone. I'm tired of this internet place. Hope you're all well.

02 diciembre 2006

la coca no es la cocaina

I realize my sense of time in these posts is choppy. I'm trying to make up for lost time. I should remind you that Erica is, in some ways, keeping a better record of our day to day happenings, and that I myself use her blog occasionally to remind me of what I've been doing these past few months.

For instance, it's true that our first bus in Bolivia (yesterday) slid off the road and got bogged down in a ditch, more than once. It was pretty funny. There were three collegiate gringas on the bus with us who put things in perspective by losing their pink flip flops in the mud, and sing-songing their oh-my-gods about how close they had been to mor-ee-en-do.

It's also true that the Bolivian bus wasn't so luxurious as its Argentine counterparts have been. Though, in all frankness, I think this whole continent needs to be instructed as to the meaning of lumbar support. Can I really be the only person for whom this is an issue? I don't think I've spent a single, solitary comfortable minute-- be it by chair, couch or bed-- since September. Enough with the complaints.

I made an eight year-old friend on the bus, with whom I shared a seat and some bread, and who ogled me throughout the conversation as though I were a talking sack of coca leaves. His mother, seated across the aisle, was among the Andeans wearing a comically-undersized bowler hat and a lampshade as a skirt. When the family got off at Potosi (the last stop before Sucre, and the highest city in the world, supposedly), I was treated to a personal demonstration of their packing methods, which include no fewer than seven wool blankets per person, each of which is wrapped specifically to form a sort of backpack/food sling/baby carrier. Each of the children slept with one of these blankets during the bus ride.

* * *

As a method for trying to engage the culture(s) on some level, on this trip I've kept my focus on (1) the language, and (2) the drugs. The meat fixation in Argentina was too much for me, and while I didn't completely abstain, neither was I able to make any friends by way of a common enthusiasm. I am convinced, however, that I have been drinking as much if not more yerba mate than do many well-seasoned Porteños, and drinking mate in public is a pleasant invitation to share company.

Yesterday, we discovered coca. We arrived in Bolivia at about 9 am, and spent the better part of the day in the border town of Villason before our bus left for Sucre at about 7:30 in the evening (we should be in Lapaz by Thurs).

I was struck immediately upon walking down the main drag of the town by the large baskets-- the size of urban garbarge cans-- all overflowing with leaves. I don´t know exactly what the legalities are, but I saw no coca in my time in Argentina. Here everyone seems to be using it, and it´s being sold everywhere-- including shops that otherwise respectively sell only woolen items, electronics, juices, etc.

I bought a bag (probably about a pound) for roughy 30 cents. I haven´t been given any formal instruction as of yet, but rolling the leaves into a ball about the size of three pieces of bubblicious, and chewing for a few minutes gives a numbing effect, and after another few minutes of holding the wad in my mouth and chewing occasionally, I can feel my heart pounding, and an accompanying light-headedness.

They sell it here to help with altitude sickness, and I´m sure my headiness is due in part to the rapid altitude change we´ve experienced inthe last day. Here in the Andes, "los coqueros" have been using coca for time out of mind, and that there is speculation that the word "coca" at one point simply meant "plant". They still sell coca pouches here, which are used to carry the leaves while paseando (wandering about), and are still sized to fit specific quantities of coca, which, in turn, are measured by how much time and distance the coca will last the wanderer. One "cocada" is the amount of time and/or distance it takes one to travel on one wad of coca. Apparently Andean people actually used these measurements of distance until relatively recently.

Here's a good, short account from another couple travellers. They deal peripherally with the issue of legality, North American influence (i.e. the "war on drugs") and the truth of coca's relation to cocaine, but I'd like to do some more research. Incidentally, I was nearly forced into buying a t-shirt this morning which read, "La coca no es la cocaina," but thought better than to make myself a gringo statementist (as though simply being a gringo weren't enough of a statement in this country).