Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas 2010

Three days before Christmas the poor started coming to town. Campesinos from nearby mountain villages come to Sucre every year in hopes of receiving food and money from charitable hands.

Women, burdened with a blanket-load of supplies and three or four small children in tow, walk the city knocking on doors or following the stream of people to the next church or organized handout location. Once there, do-gooders dole out individual packets of milk, yogurt, bread or cookies. You can always tell where a “gathering” had taken place from the trash strewn about - the charitable groups never think of bringing a trashcan.

Though Sucre experiences this pilgrimage every year, there would be no facilities waiting for these people. They sleep in the parks or huddled in doorways. To make matters worse, it is now the rainy season and spontaneous downpours are good for washing the urine from the streets, but it does not bode well for those who put it there.

Christmas day I sat in the main plaza and soaked it all in. It was an incredibly sad thing to witness, but at the same time it had a palpable energy to it that was hard to walk away from. Every 20 to 30-minutes a SUV or truck would stop curbside along the plaza. A silent alarm would seemingly go off as children, dirty hungry children, would sprint across the plaza in their Chinese plastic or tire tread sandals to receive what was being handed out. Attempts at forming a line never came to fruition because everybody knew from experience that there would not be enough for everyone – it was first come first serve, survival of the fittest. Within 10-minutes the now empty SUV would close it’s doors and drive off.

I came across a couple young girls that spend time at the center where I volunteer. As we chatted and watched the “well off” kids play with their new Christmas toys around the statue of the city’s namesake, they told me that they were not having a very good Christmas. They did not get any toys, “We never do”, was their very matter-of-fact reply. Not bitter, they were just stating the facts with a smile on their face and a shrug in their shoulders, reinforcing what I have learned during my time here – Bolivians, especially children, accept their fate with great attitude and absolution, a cruel symptom of an ugly class system. They know they are second-rate citizens and matter little. Mid-sentence, they were off, reacting to yet another plaza stampede.

The day after Christmas the Bolivian government announced a 70% increase in gasoline and an 85% increase in diesel fuel. Everything will soon be more expensive. The poor just got poorer. In response to the announcement, the transportation union and drivers announced that they would go on an indefinite strike starting the following day. No micros (small buses) or trucks would be running for the time being. For now, there is no ride home, and when there is a ride home, it will cost twice as much as it did to get here.

Just another day in Bolivia.

(update to post: an hour before midnight, New Year's eve, the president bowed to recent protests and demonstrations and rescinded his fuel hike.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Class of 2010

December 9-12 2010

My recent trip to the campo occurred during high school graduation. I never plan it, but I always seem to show up during some sort of festival. This is not a reflection of my good luck, but a reflection on how many celebrations are on their calendar.

It was also well into summer now and the mid-day temperatures were not as pleasant as I had experienced on previous trips. Everyday from about 11-3:00 was spent in-doors reading or sleeping, but Saturday’s graduation would all-day event. Make that an all-weekend event.

Ten boys and two girls stood atop a make shift stage in the basketball/soccer court under the 100 degree mid-day sun. The boys’ wore new grey suits, and the girls a grey skirt jacket combo. The sun was relentless and the boys’ jackets soon became heat shields during continuous speeches. Outside the school gates were tables of cheap plastic flowers and other worthless Chinese made trinkets that are traditional gifts for the grads – stuff that that nobody should ever want or have.

Later, under the cool cover of darkness, I returned to the basketball court. The festivities had continued through my naptime and into the late afternoon. Now, most of the town folk were sitting around tables with a bucket of chicha acting as a centerpiece. (Chicha is the two-week old fermented corn beer that is popular in the campo.) A band was playing (“more drum machine please”) and there was some line dancing by the new grads and some adults. I got an eye full and left, but the party was full-tilt until 2:00am.

The next morning, during my coffee and bread, Damian approach and said that we had some work to do. I pointed to the cornfields where I had done some work with a hoe the day before, and he said no, and pointed in the opposite direction. Santusa came along and we all walked down the street to a neighbor’s house. Today was to be a party and feast in celebration of graduation. I wasn’t clear on the details but it sounded like we were going to prepare a special meal where the graduates would all stop by and partake.

Damian took me out to the woodpile and asked if I could chop wood. It was 8:00 in the morning and this was the last thing I wanted to do. My experience with their dense wood and dull axes was not my idea early morning fun. Also, wearing flip-flops, I didn’t want to have to travel two hours to the nearest hospital with a chief complaint of only having eight toes. I took a couple of half-hearted swings, and that was enough for Damian - I had failed my audition. He abruptly took me back inside the mud-brick courtyard and into one of the small dwellings. There I crouched onto a small wooden “pedestal” and began peeling potatoes with the old ladies. This was more my speed.

I soon poked my head into the adjacent room where Santusa and some of the other women were working. My stomach did a quarter turn when I saw an entire cow dismantled on the concrete floor atop a blue tarp. For a split second, in my brain’s eye, it appeared as though they had spread out of the parts and were trying to reassemble the cow, like you would a car engine or other complex mechanism. Of course the cow was not to be so lucky and within three hours the group had carved up all the “parts” until there wasn’t much left, but a head and a fetus (never figured out this part).

Soon the party moved outside, slicing and dicing onions, greens, tomatoes, and more potatoes – always more potatoes. Huge pots of soup were bubbling and plastic tubs filled with salad. There was no shortage of toothless grins or laughter, both were in abundance. I wish I could say that I saw someone wash their hands sometime during the day, but I cannot. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger", right? Later, I ventured next door where men from another party house were roasting an entire pig in one of the “pizza ovens”. They were standing around the grill shooting the shit drinking corn beer, while the women were inside doing everything else – hmm, just like any BBQ back home.

Eventually the meal was prepared and the receiving room was decorated. The family’s proud graduate appeared in her finest blouse and pleated skirt and it was finally “go time”. I had gotten it all wrong; the graduates did not visit the different houses, the party house hosted a single graduate, usually a family member. The people of the village traveled to each house congratulating the person of honor by pinning money on a “money scarf” hanging around the graduate’s neck. Once the money has been given, you are energetically thanked and presented with a dentist cup of warm herb infused alcohol, some chicha, and a complete meal - whatever they had been preparing during the day.

I was a bit intimidated when I entered the crowded room, not knowing the exact protocol. People lined the walls drinking with music blaring and everyone having a good time. (Sometimes, being the only outsider, I often think that I should leave them alone to their rituals and celebrations, but I am almost always proven wrong and welcomed wholeheartedly.) I approached the table where the person of honor stood. On the wall behind her was a makeshift alter of plastic flowers mounted on a hanging blanket, and her new diploma authenticated by all its various rubber stamps. Streamers of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling completed the shrine. She stood covered in white confetti waiting for me.

Once face to face with her, I suddenly felt like I was at prom, not knowing where or how to pin the money, so I just handed her the 20 Boliviano note ($2.85) and shrugged my shoulders. She motioned for me to come forward and remove my hat, and she “blessed me” with a handful of white confetti over on my head. Her father patted me on the back and thrust a cup of chicha in my hand, as a woman put a plate of food in the other. I found a place along the wall to crouch and soaked it all in. “How cool is this?”, I thought and soon found three more house where my technique improved, but I got to the point of not being able to eat anymore food as good as it all was.

Thanksgiving 2010

Thanksgiving this year was spent in the jungle. Silvia and I had taken a flight to Cochabamba in order to catch a bus for a three-hour trek over the mountains to Chapare. A long way to go just to sit by a pool, but what the hell it was a holiday.

Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city was hot and humid, and noticeably more green than Sucre’s dry landscape. The presence flowers and lush gardens was a welcome change, but nothing else about the city impressed me. It was dirty and industrial. The next day we arrange for three seats in a Toyota minivan. The third seat was my idea of upgrading ourselves to first class. At $3 a seat for the three-hour journey, $9 secured the whole row for us.

The van did not have air conditioning, and the air coming in from the windows was thick and sticky. In the row of seats in front of us were a young mother and her two kids, and a young girl of about 12-years old traveling by herself. Her mother had sent her off with a couple of bags of flowers that were stowed in the back, and she sat with a floral table setting in a plastic bag in her lap. I suspected that someone was getting married.

Thirty minutes out of town we started to climb. The higher altitude meant cooler temperatures, and once in the clouds, we were closing all the windows due to the chill. I thought of the movie Scarface, because these were the mountains where Tony’s Bolivian connection lived. I caught myself looking out the window for the mansion compound in the dense mountainside, but reminded myself that the drug lord was a fictional character, besides, “the house would not have been visible from the road you dummy”.

The road was terrible, and it was impossible to relax or sleep. The constant switchbacks, road construction and our driver’s obsession of passing trucks on blind corners were anything but relaxing. Our driver did redeem himself when he handed a lone construction flagman his bag of coca leaves, which was a very nice gesture. He then opened his glove box and pulled out one of two other plastic bags of the leaves.

I offered to place the young girls flower on our floor space to get it off her lap, and let her read Curious George (in Spanish) on my Kindle. You could tell that she was not used to traveling alone, but I think the extra attention helped.

What goes up must come down, and what I thought was hot weather before in Cochabamba now seemed like sweater weather. We had dropped down into a completely different ecosystem and it was now 100-degrees with equal humidity. Palm trees, giant ferns, banana and papaya trees, everything tropical and dense. This was also one of the main coca growing areas of Bolivia, or at least the beginning of it. The area is known for its cocaine production, but also as the childhood home of the country’s current president, Evo Morales. He made news about five years ago when he became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Before his political career began, he was a coca farmer in Chapare.

Part of our two-day stay included a two-hour jungle hike, which took me away from the pool and I could have done without, but what I did find interesting were all the homes that we passed along the way that had coca leaves drying out in front of the house. We also passed many coca plants alongside the road, which were pointed out by the taxi driver, and then came across many small coca fields during our hike in the national park. All of which was on the up-and-up because it was for personal use.

Coca is completely and totally ubiquitous outside the cities in Bolivia, and commonplace enough within the cities. It is used on a daily basis by many people. It is used in almost every religious ceremony, both by chewing it and by using it as an offering. It is used as a medicinal remedy, and to alleviate fatigue and the effects of high altitude. Historically, the Incan elite chewed it, and to chew was to be Incan. It many ways, it was, and still is, the cornerstone of their cultural identity. Recently, a team of international researchers discovered that coca leaves have been chewed by inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia for over 8,000-years!

I have chewed coca leaves many times, and always have some coca tea on the shelf in my apartment. I like it. The stimulating effect is very mild without the jitters you get with caffeine, and I do think it has helped me at altitude. The only noticeable side effect is that your cheek can go slightly numb after awhile. Many people include a pinch off a calcium rich stone that helps release more of the leaves active chemicals. The leaves contain several alkaloids, but only one is extracted to make cocaine, and that is a very complex and difficult process to complete. The everyday indigenous person has zero interest in cocaine.

The point is that the leaves represent so much more here than just the production of cocaine. It is a major part of people’s daily existence, so when a UN agency on drugs reports that Peru and Bolivia should “abolish or prohibit activities … such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea”, it is absolutely and utterly impractical. The UN list coca leaves as a dangerous controlled substance, along with cocaine and opium. That is like putting poppy seeds on that same list.

Now I don’t like the current president here. He is a “Chavez high-fiving, want-to-be dictator”, but he has been able to stand up the US and DEA regarding the eradication of coca leaves. Bolivia refused to follow the US’s demand of spraying herbicide over coca fields. The US cut off funding, and subsequently the DEA and US ambassador were kicked out of the country (there was other finger pointing going on as well).

When I was in Colombia, a country that does spray herbicide from low flying planes, I read in the newspaper several times about indigenous people coming out of the jungles with untreatable skin lesions and dying of respiratory disorders. People in loin clothes with sticks through their noses who have been living peacefully on their own for who knows how long, but now are getting dump on with toxic herbicides, not to mention the animals and everything else that lives in the jungle.

Of course this is an incredibly complex issue, and there are a lot of problems here associated with the drug trade, and wherever the drugs end up, but you cannot eradicate an entire culture and way of life during your quest for a remedy. There is nothing in the American culture that you can compare it to. We have plenty of vices that would be hard to give up, but nothing that connects us to who we are and where we came from like coca does here.

(more coca news)

Stay in the Campo: Follow-up

Since my initial visit to Santusa’s, we have kept in close contact. I have made many drop-in visits on the bike, even taking friends on occasion, and stayed again for a multi-day visit. When they are in town visiting their son, they stop by to say “Hi”. They are open and honest good people that show empathy towards others, and through them, I have experienced everything that is good here, but also what keeps this country down – prejudice and an archaic class system. Santusa and Damian treat me as an equal, and I them. I would do anything for them, as they would for me. Whenever doubts creep into my head about what I am doing, or if I simply get into a funk, just being around Santusa makes it all better. There is such a positive energy about her, always giggling or laughing, in spite of a difficult life. So, during my last visit when they asked me to be Padrino, or Godfather, to their youngest son I was incredibly touched. In their culture, a Godfather is someone to stands up for a child during the major events in their lives, i.e., graduations or weddings. It is a position of great honor just to be asked, and once you accept, you become part of the family. So, I am now considered their brother, and they are my brother and sister. If I am here next December I will stand up with Carlos during his high school graduation. They know that I may not be here, but with the relationships that I have made since "pausing" the trip, it will be incredibly hard to leave.

Follow-up to the follow-up:

  • · The pottery pieces were dated from between 1200-1800, which could pre-date Incan times, or not.
  • · Yale has not returned any of my calls.
  • · When I went back to the States in October for a visit I was able to sell a lot of Santusa’s textiles at Write Around the World’s fundraising auction (and I brought her back some decent sewing scissors). Now, some of my most favorite people back home also have a piece of Santusa.
  • · Damian has become accustomed to riding on the back of the bike, and I think sits a little taller now when we enter the town’s center square.
  • · The black poncho that Santusa made Damian when their oldest son was only two is now one of my most cherished possessions, and keeps me warm on many a chilled mornings while drinking my coffee and answering emails.
  • · That feeling of contentment is still with me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stay in the Campo: Part 2

Part II

Day 2 continued

Sunsets are beautiful here, but where are they not? Here, there is burst of activity as all the animals are brought back from pasture. It is the closest thing there is to a rush hour. Besides the playground noise coming from the nearby school, the days are pretty quiet. But twilight is a convivial time of socializing before dinner. However, I noticed that Damian had socialized too much and had apparently continued the San Juan festivities throughout the day and was now red-eyed and staggering. Santusa was annoyed but mostly embarrassed. She has plenty of work to do, but now has to also had to take care of an inebriated husband.

As much fun as I was having on my own, the stay was not turning what I had hope for, and I thought about leaving a day early, on Saturday. I knew that they had to be at the Sunday market early to sell their textiles, so I would skip out the day prior and reduce Santusa’s workload by one less male dependent.

When I later mentioned this idea to Santusa, she immediately jumped on it and insisted that I stay, and told me how she wanted me to give Damian a ride to the market Sunday on the motorcycle, on my way home. He was really looking forward to it. I could tell then how much she really loved him. Not because of a ride on a motorcycle but the sincerity in her voice. I will stay I said.

My original intention with the trip was to help out more and be part of things, but in reality it just wasn’t practical. I had tried helping the nephew chop wood, but with the dull axe and cracked handle, I ended up with a bloody splinter in my hand, which Santusa freaked about and wanted to care for. “What a pansy-ass thin-skinned weenie of a gringo”, I thought. I went back to my room to lick my wounds – after I broke the handle of their only axe, ARGH!

Around 8:00pm Santusa came into my room with a bowl of hot soup, chicken based, with root vegetables and pastas. This whole time she would enter my room unannounced and just sit and chat. As a second language, her Spanish is slow and clear and I understand her better than most. She is patient with me – a nurturing mother to her core. I have taken to leaving my door open all the time, for the fresh air and view of the mountains, but also with the hope of initiating more of her visits. On this visit, while I ate my soup, she told me more about her life. How her father left them when she was an infant and how her mother raised three girls in extreme poverty. She managed to only get through the third grade, but continued to study Spanish on her own (her mother only speaks native Quechua). She started weaving at eight years old, but had been spinning wool before that. She is my age of 46, and Damian (one year older) is her first and only love. Moving up to present day, she told me about how her eldest son, of 26 years, will soon finish the medical program in Cuba and will return as a doctor, how her middle son is now in University in Sucre studying music, and her high school senior will be going to University next year to study English. I tried to express what a fine job her mother did and how she in turn has also done a great job with her children. I tried to explain how it is every parent’s ambition to give their children a better life than what they had, no matter where they are from. She asked about my life and my family with genuine concern and interest. Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me how difficult it was for women in her culture living in the countryside. She spoke of the prejudice among her own people, and how poorly she is treated when she attempts to go to a restaurant in Sucre, because of her indigenous dress and darker skin. I thought to myself, "here is a woman putting three boys through college, who runs her own successful business, creates amazing art, and lives a decent and honest life". Others here should be so lucky to live up to her standards.

Day 3 - Friday

Still in bed, Santusa entered my room with a bowl of fresh scrambled eggs and bread, and said that she needed my help downstairs when I was finished. The eggs were damn tasty, as I threw them down as fast as I could.

When I got down stairs into the salon, she and her mother were setting up a new loom. She was going to start a shawl and I was going to be able to see the process from the very beginning. What a great opportunity. This video explains it best.

Later that night Damian and Santusa came in with bowls of sopa de mani, or peanut soup. It doesn’t taste anything like peanuts but is a rich thick soup with a peanut stock and various vegetables, sometimes with chicken. Earlier, I had noticed Grandma crushing peanuts on the grinding stone, but hadn’t thought much of it. I had had this soup before in Sucre, and know that is reserved for special occasions and events, so it was special that they were serving it to me now. The soup was far better than anything I had tasted in the city, everything being fresh and made from scratch it was not surprise. We sat our empty bowls down and laughed over the video footage that I shot earlier that day. Apparently weaving is women’s work and seeing a grown man “flub it up”, was quite comical. We said good night, after Damian agreed to take me on a hike in the morning to look for proper fossils and some Incan ruins. The visit seemed to be turning around into what I had hoped for.

Day 4 - Saturday

We set out after breakfast. Damian carried a small pickaxe and had strips of rawhide wrap around his corduroy blazer. I felt underdressed. We followed the dry riverbed as he pointed out plants and salts clinging to rocks that were used in the production of dyes for the wool. I don’t understand him as well as Santusa, but we get by. Later, we come across an ancient stone bridge, and then remnants of a stone silo used for grain storage, next an aqua duct system originating from the river, all dating back from the Inca times in the 1400’s.

This area was the southeastern corner of the Incan empire back in the day, and the rulers placed some the empires best warriors along this border. They were fierce and fought off many invasions from other tribal people. Today’s Tarabuquenos are direct decedents of these people and they are very proud of their history. In many respects, not much has changed. Seeing these ruins was amazing, even more so knowing that not many other people have had the opportunity to see them.

The sun was intense. I opened up all the vents on my ExOfficio safari shirt, rolled up my sleeves, and put on my floppy sun hat. Damian forged ahead still wearing his wool cap and blazer, and only drinking water after practically forced him to. Before we turned around to start heading back, we stopped to collect firewood. The straps he had been carrying were to bundle dead branches and to haul back over his shoulders. As he ingeniously secured the near 50-pound bundle to his back, with nothing more than a leather strap, I thought how the engineers at REI would capitalize on this and create a specialized wood carrying apparatus available online for $99.

As we walked back, I was started feeling it. The relentless sun and climbing, had taken its toll. I offered several times to carry the wood, but I think he knew, as I did, that doing so would have about killed me. We never found any fossils, and never really looked, but had a good time, and I had finally had a chance at some alone time with Damian.

Closer to home, I was trailing behind Damian and his burden by about 40-feet carrying only my Chapstick and empty water bottle. We were walking through some plowed fields, me with my head was down focusing on my dragging feet, when I noticed some chards of terracotta. I began filling my pockets.

Over a lunch of chicken and rice with a fresh green chile sauce, I proudly and excitedly pulled out some of the pottery pieces and laid them out on the table. I had collected only those pieces that had paint showing on them. Naturally, I was planning on calling the anthropology department at Yale to notify them of my monumental discovery once back in Sucre, until Damian and Santusa shrugged their shoulders and gave me a, “oh, those things”, kind of look. They told me that they are common after the fields have been plowed up. I didn’t care, this was the coolest thing ever – cherry picking ancient pottery off the ground! I virtually begged to go back out there to look for more, almost tugging on Damian’s pant leg. He agreed that after siesta and after we shucked some dried corn that we would go back out. We did, and it was the perfect ending to my “Day of the Inca”. Besides his "hiccup" involving too much San Juan celebrating, Damian proved to be a very kind man, and we eventually connected.

Day 5- Sunday, Market Day

The morning was cold, damn cold, and at 7:00 it was hard to peel back the heavy covers and get started. Eventually, the bike was loaded, which included a bag of old pottery chips, and Damian mounted on the back. At we rolled out, my riding suit was completely zipped up to keep out the cold, while Damian wore a down coat under his long poncho, wool cap, his white wool “shorts” and sandals. Thirty minutes later, we were setting up their spot at the market as the sun finally began throwing down some warmth. I grabbed some street food, said good-bye and headed off on my way home, to Sucre. I had arrived in the campo with curiosity and naive interest, and left with a new set of friends. Friends that would soon become family.

Video montage of my four day stay in the campo.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Seattle Event

I am now in the States visiting friends and family. I will be returning to Bolivia in early November. If you live in the Seattle area, please plan on coming to our celebration on November 3rd! All are welcome.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stay in the Campo: Part 1

Wednesday June 23, 2010

Today I am leaving to spend four days in the campo (countryside) with my new weaver friend Santusa and her family.


I got a late start (not sure if I have ever gotten an early start), but only have an hour and a half to travel, and all on good roads. Before leaving I went to the market to buy a frozen chicken, sausage, and various groceries as an offering to my hosts. I also brought my own stash of food and water to keep with me, as I don’t really know what to expect.

From the brief time I have spent with Santusa, I know her to be incredibly kind. In almost any other situation I would feel awkward showing up at a near stranger’s house with my bags asking to stay. Not only are we strangers on a personal level, but culturally, we could not be more different. Right? I was excited about the opportunity, but couldn’t stop thinking; what will we talk about - how would we talk? What will I do all day, and more importantly, how will I avoid being an complete and utter annoyance?

Her village is fourth on a string of five along a stone road. The village consists of about 25 small houses scattered along the foothills and dry riverbed. There are no shops or restaurants, only a school, small church and the remnants of the old hacienda that use to own and manage all the land in the area.

Upon arrival, Santusa came out to greet me. She insisted that I park my bike inside their walled courtyard. I had to take off the panniers to squeeze in through the courtyard door but made it. I unpacked the bike and moved into my upstairs room. I would be staying in Edgar’s room, the son that was going to University in Sucre. I gave her the chicken, along with the frozen sausage, some canned fruit and a box of Fruit Loops. She seemed pleased. We had a lunch of vegetable soup and Coca Cola together in the salon and she showed me a couple of artifacts that they had recently found nearby on their property. (Her husband Damian was working in the fields, and here mother was up in the higher pastures with the cows and sheep.) After lunch, I got out a book on the local weaving style that I had purchased at the textile museum in Sucre. Several of Santusa’s pieces were in the book, and she knew everybody else’s work by sight, so she wrote their names down in the book for me (it irritated me that the publisher did not give credit to any of the artists, but she had now remedied that). We then looked over a couple of her recent weavings; the large matrimonial piece that she was working on the last time I was here, and a smaller calendar that she had done. Both were beautifully detailed and full of color.

I decided to take a walk and stretch my legs, and let her get back to her chores. I knew that she must have a lot to do and I did not want to interfere. I picked up a cow path near her house and followed it. I passed an adobe brick production site, and soon came across three young boys collecting firewood from the dried shrubs scattered about the dry landscape. They did not know what to think of this gringo walking around in their “neighborhood”, and took their time quietly sizing me up. I broke the ice with a couple of basic questions, which provoked them to laugh at my Spanish, which was followed by goofing on me in their native Quechua language. I acted angry and chased them around with a stick- my interpretation of the village idiot I guess. They laughed, and taunted me even more. We had fun. Before heading I back I learned a couple new Quechua words, and that “Don Julio” was slang for penis. I guess boys are the same everywhere.

Meanwhile back at “la casa”, a neighbor was firing up the outdoor adobe oven. I had seen these stand alone igloo-looking ovens throughout the campo, and I took to calling them “pizza ovens”. Eventually, the neighbor’s wife and daughter started bringing over discs of dough on wooden planks. I wanted to help, but also tried to stay out of their way. We filled several large baskets of hot bread, enough for both families for weeks. After all the bread was finished, Santusa’s son Carlos made a pizza out of the bread dough, some canned tomato sauce, and the sausages I had brought. “So it is a pizza oven.” By now the whole family was together and we sat on the floor eating pizza. (The bread did not have much flavor, but was dense and filling.)

The evening air was comfortable with nothing more than long-sleeves and with a moon two-days shy of being full. It was also the eve of the catholic holiday, Day of San Juan.

After dinner, Damian opened a beer and then poured a clear alcohol out of a five-gallon plastic jerry can and into a small empty water bottle. Along with a nephew, who was about 22-years old and back visiting from working the vineyards in Mendoza, we gathered some dried reeds and walked a bit until we got to an adobe stable of sorts. There, us men, started a fire and past around plastic dentist cups of the beer and “hooch”. Damian passed out coca leaves to pack in our cheeks as well. Before drinking, Damian would mumble a couple of words and then pour a couple of drops of the beer or alcohol onto the ground. I gathered that it was for Pachamama, and not for his “fallen homies back in the hood”. Pachamama is the Quechua name for Mother Earth, and is the cornerstone for their pagan-like beliefs. Tonight was a good example of how the Catholic practices forced upon the Incans by the invading Spanish have remained interwoven with their traditional beliefs. But at the time, I was not thinking of any of this, my immediate concern was whether I was expected to also poor some hooch out onto the ground? It was obvious that I was an outsider, so would I be mocking their beliefs by doing the same, or disrespecting the occasion by not following along? I compromised and didn’t pour, but later started giving an offering –which made no sense at all. I eventually asked, “es esto para pachamama?, and he replied yes. He did correct me once when I happened to have both the Dixie cup of beer in one hand and the herb-infused alcohol in the other. “It is bad mojo to have drink in both hands. It is a sign of abundance and hence bad etiquette” (I am paraphrasing).

Once our fire was out, we headed back to the house. On our way we found 86-year old grandma sitting by her adobe sheep shack with her own fire going. She is adorable, and takes on a Jabba the Hutt type appearance when she squats down to sit. Her black amilla dress takes on a shapeless form, her body somewhere beneath and her black leather montera, or Spanish helmet influenced hat completes the effect. As she sat in the glow her wrinkled face was always smiling, and she had Damian and the nephew cracking up with the stories she was telling in Quechua. Eventually some other neighbors ventured over, and I bowed out. I loved being witness to it all, but also felt like I was intruding a bit. I had several more days and didn’t want to wear out the welcome on the first night.


I had just gotten up and was writing in my journal when Santusa appeared with a bowl of baked squash for me. The squash was mildly sweet, like a spaghetti squash and cooked just right, not overdone and mushy. Soon after, she brought in an electric kettle, a bucket of water and some bread. My coffee dilemma had been answered, and I unpacked my jar of Nescafe. I ate in my room, but later came down the stairs to find all the adults huddled around Grandma’s wood burning “kitchen”: two adobe walls and a corrugated metal roof. Although, there is more modern kitchen, they prefer to be outside on the ground huddled around the fire. I also noticed a few dried out gourds in the pizza oven. Apparently, the night before a couple young neighbor girls brought over some of the vegetables and placed them whole in the oven to slowly bake over night. The firing of the stove had proved to be a very communal event and every bit of heat was used from the precious firewood.

After breakfast I decided to go for another walk through the village and explore in another direction. The morning was brisk and it felt good to get moving in rising sun. It wasn’t long before I was spotted by two older women in traditional dress. I blended in like a …., well, I didn’t blend in. If it would have been a lone woman by herself, she would have looked down and avoided all eye contact, but as a pair they were a bit more bold. As I approached, I gave a “buen dia” and smiled. Just as I had passed one called out to me. She wanted to know if I wanted to see her weavings. (I have experienced this in other villages, walking through the main street word gets around, and by the time of your second pass women or children invite you into their homes to see their textiles, hoping you will buy. It is a great opportunity to visit different homes, but also puts you in the position of rejecting their offer, although I have purchased several things this way.) As we sat on her concrete floor, she brought out only a few things, some of which were items of clothing obviously in use. I graciously declined.

From there I walked by the old Hacienda. It was the house and compound of the primary landowner of the area, where all the locals worked his fields and filled his coffers, before agrarian reform. The wife of the original owner was still living in the house, though the land has since been divided up.

Lunch was ready when I got back and Santusa had made a delicious picante de pollo, baked chicken in a red chile sauce over a bed of noodles. She is always busy, spending most days alone managing the household. We ate together and talked some. Afterwards, I went up the street to an area where she told I should look for fossils. Sitting in the dirt amongst a scattering of rocks I realized how much I was enjoying myself. I was a world away from my conventional life, and absolutely loving it. Not knowing it then, but this was what I use to sit in my office and daydream about; different cultures, new experiences, and a slow peaceful pace. I found a couple of rocks with some shell imprints, but mostly just sat in the sun. Content.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Road Home

I decided to try a different route for the trip home. I would try the more eastern, and quieter border crossing of Bermejo, and then stay the night in the Bolivian city of Tarija. I would be making the trip back in two days, rather than the more relaxed three days I took to get down.

The border crossing was in fact much easier and faster and I was able to roll into Tarija at dusk. The next morning was bitter cold. I did not have the luxury of waiting around while it warmed it up, and there were no guarantee that was going to happen anyway.

What I did not know was just how cold it was going to get. Within an hour outside of Tarija I was climbing over a dirt road mountain pass with thick fog, snow and freezing rain. I couldn’t see more than 15-feet in front of me, or the cliff’s edge to my right. I was limited to about 25-mph. Trucks, however, had no problem going much faster around the hairpin switchbacks. I was losing valuable time and body heat. Finally, I crested the clouds while topping out at 12,500-ft. Once above the storm below, the sun was warm and revitalizing. I turned up the iPod and the throttle. I would be home by dark!

While loading up the bike earlier in the morning, I had talked to one of the hotel owners. He mentioned that there was now a road blockade in Potosi and that I would not be able to get through. Road blockades are popular here, and it is the chosen way to get the desired attention from the federal government when things are not to their liking. In this case, the miners and other workers were protesting the lack of work projects in the area and a border dispute with the neighboring district of Oruo over mining rights. Blockades stop all traffic coming in and out of the targeted city, cutting off food and gasoline supplies – cutting off everything until their demands are met. The good news is that the blockades are usually peaceful and everybody has learned to live with them.

No worries for me though, I had found a small road on the map that would by-pass the city of Potosi and connect with the asphalt road to Sucre. I would avoid the strike and save time by cutting off a significant chunk of unnecessary road.

The dirt road north was filled with zigzagging detours due to road construction, a real time killer. The only town along the route with a gas station was completely out. There was no way I would have enough fuel to get all the way to Sucre. I bought a warm Coke and a pack of knock-off Oreos and took a break. It’s all I would have to eat for the day, and I didn’t finish either.

I made it to Puna, where I would catch the small dirt road – again, no gas. The shadows on the ground were getting longer. It would be dark in a couple of hours and I need to get to the paved road before that happened.

My “small dirt road” bypass turned out to be a bombed out disaster of a trail filled with craters, large rocks, and pockets my favorite talcum powder-like Bull Dust! The only thing worse, would be trying to do this in the dark. I was now exhausted, my shoulders felt like cement, and I was completely fatigued. The cold, altitude changes, and the already 8-hours on the dirt had taken it's toll.

I had no choice but to push hard and race the setting sun. I was standing up on the pegs and going as fast as I possibly could go. On my GPS I could see the thick red line going west to east across my screen and me, the arrow atop a perpendicular thin blue line heading north. I was so close. Once I reached that red line, it would be 80-mph to my front door, an ibuprofen with a scotch chaser, hot shower, and straight to bed. It was all I could think about. Meanwhile, there was no avoiding the potholes and rocks. On several occasions, after a bone-jarring impact I made a mental note to check for bent rims when I got home. Then BLAMO, another deep hole – “also check for cracks in the frame”.

Coming to a fork in the road in the middle of a small village. I stopped to ask a man for directions. He pointed out my direction, but mentioned that I would not be able to get through. “Por que?” “Bloqueos”, he replied. That’s not right, I thought, and headed out again. I asked someone else, and they said the same, and suggested I use a walking trail. No thanks. I kept going, but the news started to sink in. I was so tired. Then it happened. I entered a long patch of bull dust going too fast. I fought it for as long as I could, but eventually with the front wheel “swimming” in one direction, and the rear wheel seemingly in another, the road won and I went down (thanks to Adam for adding “drama” to the above photo). I will never admit to wanting to cry, but I was completely and utterly frustrated. I was so close, but the carrot dangling in front of my face was now fading from view. I somehow managed to pick the bike up without unpacking it.

Eventually, I hit a patch of paved road that connected to the main highway but I also started coming across people walking in the opposite direction. I started asking every other person about the situation. ARGH!, the blockades where not just in the city of Potosi, but the whole department (or State) or Potosi. Again, I had no choice to continue.

It was now dark and I was the only vehicle on the road. It was a creepy feeling. Finally, I reached the first roadblock, a line of rocks across the road. In the photo above I had turned from the crowd of people mingling in the road behind me to snap the photo. I got off the bike and tried to talk to a couple of guys about getting through. I could see a gas station down the road and ask if I could go there. Nobody was in charge, and these guys were just standing around, so of course they said “yes, it was okay”. What did they care? I crept by, but could feel the glares. I made no eye contact with anybody. At the gas station, naturally, I was told that they were all out. I asked if I could just stay there and sleep next to the bike in the parking lot, it seemed like the safest option, and I was down to only one bar on my gas gauge. He told me that I could get through to the town of Betanzos where there were a couple of hotels.

The road was strewn with boulders and people milling about, from either being stranded or because of the “excitement” of the event. Once in town I was pointed to a hotel. They had a room for $3 and I could bring my bike in through the front door to park in the back. Oh, and the owner of the hotel had a few liters of gas that he would sell me in the morning. That was the good news. The bad news was that my bike was not going to fit through the door, and up the salmon ladder-like flight of stairs. I would have to unload the bike and take off one pannier. I loosened my mirrors and fished my handlebars through the doorframe and powered up the stairs, while both bar-ends scraped each wall. I looked to the hotelier see if he minded the scratches, but he just nodded.

The hotel was full of stranded workers already in bed at 9:00. I locked all the gear to the bike and pulled the cover over it. I took only my remaining cookies and water up the two flights of stairs to my room. I had two more cookies, stripped down to my Capilenes (long underwear), relieved my bladder into an empty water bottle, and fell into bed. Usually, after a hard day of riding, there is always a sense of accomplishment, but on this day I had none. I couldn’t remember being this tired.

At the crack of dawn, the Mrs. of the house said that I would be able to get through the blockades. I loaded up the bike and bought 10-liters of gas out of a jerry can. I followed in the direction of the crowd of people. Again, I was the only vehicle moving, I thought there would have been a line of cars and trucks wanting to get out. As I passed the people walking I started to hear disparaging remarks being shouted at me, it was a tense scene. Then I approached a line of men, four deep, standing across the road. It sure didn’t look like the blockade was over, but I was not going to stop to ask. With my feet, I paddled the bike up to the crowd in first gear, the choke still on. I couldn’t let the bike stall, or to get pushed over, I just needed to move through the crowd slowly, never allowing the bike to come to a stop. Men instantly gathered around the bike. It was obvious that many of them had been up all night drinking. Many started grabbing at the gear on the bike acting as though they were taking something, shouting who knows what at me. Thankfully, the crowd continued to part and once there was no one in front of me, I hit the throttle, half hoping that I was dragging someone behind me.

Since being home the blockades lasted another 16-days, with tourist being trapped the whole time. The town was seriously close to running out of all food and drinkable water. I was lucky, my inconvenience was minor compared to what others had to endure.

Currently, there are blockades throughout the department of Ouro.


On July 19th, I somewhat reluctantly left Sucre during a window of good weather to head down to Argentina with the sole purpose of initiating Bolivia’s arduous visa extension process. Bad weather had been passing through on a weekly basis, and there had been a road blockade a week prior in the southern Bolivian district of Tarija.

However, once I was on the bike I was fine. The day warmed up and I was reminded how good it felt to be “going somewhere”. I would also be traveling on familiar roads and stopping in familiar towns with familiar hotels, which offered a since of ease about the trip. Once in Argentina, I would be meeting up with some past acquaintances that I never thought I would see again.

The road to Potosi was paved and clear, the weather perfect, south of there it would be dirt roads and construction all the way to the border. I would stay the night in Tupiza in the same hotel as I did back in October. It had ample parking and was poplar with overland travelers and jeep tour operators so it would be a good place to get information on road and weather conditions from the northbound travelers.

Do to recent rains, many of the riverbeds had some "flow" to them. In Bolivia, the usually dry riverbeds are incorporated into the road system. Nothing was too deep, but I did get stuck while crossing one riverbed. I just so happened to be wearing my GoPro helmet camera when it happened and was able to film it (video). It was not the most dramatic video ever shot, but what it does show, is how fast and friendly people come to your aid, even without asking. I always ride alone, but in many respects, I am never really alone.

The next day I crossed the crowded border of Argentina a La Quiaca. From there I had two hours of driving in the open plains battling some pretty strong crosswinds. Once in the mountains, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn for the 5th, 6th, or 10th time (?) and entered the town of seven colors, Purmamarca, for a repeat visit. The next day would be an easy three-hour ride into my destination of Salta.

I had passed by the city of Salta on two previous occasions, writing it off as a congested larger city (Argentina’s 8th largest) that I thought best to avoid. I was wrong. Salta is one of the better-preserved colonial cities of Argentina, and has loads of charm. It was founded in 1582, and was a major hub between Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, when the Spanish would transport their gold and silver laden loot from Peru and Bolivia (Potosi) in caravans to the Atlantic coast. The city is said to be the most Spanish of all Argentine cities. I thought it very reminiscent of Seville, with it’s main-square encompassed with orange trees, colonial buildings, and outside cafes. I liked it!

Friday, I got my passport stamped without incident.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Rubber Stamping Conquistador

Tomorrow, July 19th, I leave Sucre for a 2-3 day journey to Salta, Argentina. My original plan was to leave today, but due to a cold front that came up from Patagonia, the weather here and in Argentina has been terrible - with road closures because of ice and snow. According to weather reports I have a one-week window of good weather before the next front hits.

I must be out of Bolivia by July 25th, the end of my initial 90-day period. Based on Bolivian logic (a contradictory term in it’s truest sense), I must leave the country in order to apply for an extended visa, before being allowed re-entry. My suggestion of, “Why don’t I pretend to leave Bolivia and fill out the paper work here?” did not go over so well - with the immigration officer looking at me like I was the idiot. So, I am traveling two days for a rubber stamp. Of course, I am screwed if I am denied re-entry (anything is possible here) because I am leaving a lot of important belongings in my Sucre apartment.

Once I have the sacred stamp in my passport, I will have 30-days to complete the visa application process. This will include a city tour the medical and bureaucratic establishments of Sucre. I will need; blood tests, chest x-rays, fingerprints on file, bank account reports, police background checks, two different letters from an attorney, a letter by an notary, a letter from where I am volunteering, and tax and utility records from my landlord (who, like most people here, does not claim the income and is unable to furnish the tax information. I will have to worry about this later.) On my best day in the States, I would not wish to tackle this mission, but here it’s going to be a completely different “sport”. Once I have the visa, I am good to stay in Bolivia for up to one year, and will be able to leave the country and return as I wish – enabling me to go home for a visit.

Within two-hours of leaving Sucre, I will be passing through Potosi to pick up the dirt road heading south. At 14,000-ft Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world. I have traveled on this particular road twice before, and in exactly the same spot both times I have encountered a hailstorm. Bizarre, but I have heard the same from other travelers. I could be wrong, but I am convinced that the spirits of the over eight million men killed in the nearby Cerro Rico mines are sending an unwelcoming message to gringos that get to close, and who can blame them. (Yesterday, this portion of road was closed due to snow.)

The longer I am off the bike, the more anxious I am about getting back on it. I don’t know where this comes from, because once on the bike I am always reminded how “kick ass” the experience is and how much I have missed it. I have always felt safe and confident on the bike, and have enjoyed every mile (well, enjoyed some more than others), but for some reason I get a little apprehensive. To overcome this sensation, I go through a process of psyching myself up, so by the time I need to go I am “jones-ing” for the road. Usually, just the process of packing the bike with some old Stones on the iPod will do the trick, other times it takes a little more.

This trip is going to be damn cold, so I have needed a bit more motivation getting back into the saddle. After watching the movie “1492” yesterday while keeping warm under the covers, I have decided to go with the visualization of a Spanish conquistador preparing for battle. This should do the trick, and because I always cheer for the home team, I have vowed not to slaughter or pillage during this particular trip. My Gore-Tex “armor” has been reinstalled inside my riding suit, heated electric vest has been dusted off, and winter gloves are laid out and ready to go. My stallion has fresh oil and the seam in right pannier has been welded shut again. Ready for battle!

Tonight, I will offer up some coca leaves and rum to those 8,000,000 spirits and see if I can get a little help deicing the roads.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tarabuco and Beyond

It can take as little as 10-seconds to pass through many of the roadside villages in Peru and Bolivia. Many times, just a blur, but I have always wondered how people live in those places. The ground is dust, the road dirt, and the houses are of bricks of earth (adobe). Donkeys and cows meander through the streets at will, and dirty kids run around barefoot. No stores, gas stations, restaurants, only a small church or school if they are lucky, nothing more. I never had much reason to stay longer than my 10-second “fly-by”, but I was curious.

During my initial visit to Sucre back in October, I was introduced to the textiles of the area, and I wanted to learn more upon my return. Every once in awhile during my “10-second tours” through the dusty villages, an old woman would appear in a brightly colored shawl, or a man strained with a load of firewood on his back would be displaying a brilliantly designed poncho. These images would always stand out against the monochromatic dirt background. The people seem to have compensated for their rather drab environment with color, texture, and artistic expression.

So, since being back I have read as much as I can about the textiles of the area, visited the local museum several times, visited the textiles shops, and on Sundays, visited the market in Tarabuco.

Tarabuco is a small town about an hour southeast of Sucre, and is connected by a beautiful twisty road through the mountainous countryside (or campo) making “the getting there part” half the fun. Once there, you walk through stalls and stalls of goods sold by the indigenous people for the indigenous people. It is also where the local craftspeople take their wares to sell to visiting tourists. Of course, this is also the social event of the week where people from neighboring villages meet, and because of this, they don their best traditional clothing. I thoroughly enjoy the trip every time I go, always seeing something different, and return well fed from the traditional food stands, and with a cheek full of coca leaves.

During one of my Sunday visits, I came across a woman whose collection of weavings was just a little bit better than everybody else’s. An American woman, Alisa, was sitting there with her. She was here doing research for her masters program from the University of Florida on Bolivian women in the textile industry. We talked for a while, I bought a small weaving, and we made plans for me to visit the family she was staying with in a small village about two hours from Sucre.

Later that following week I ventured out to find their home. The town was not on any map, (GPS or paper), there would be no road signs, and due to some road construction, I would have to take a detour. My landlord was familiar with the area and drew me a small map, which included one dry river crossing. After my fourth dry river crossing, I knew that I was lost. An hour or two later, I finally found the rock-paved road that I was looking for (see video).

It was a great visit and I immediately hit it off with Santusa and her husband. I was able to watch her weave for a while and ended up buying a red wool shawl (or manton) in the traditional Tarabuqueño style. The 80-year old grandmother made some lunch, and then Alisa took me for a walk to visit some of the other weavers in the area.

It was a great introduction to village life and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I asked Santusa and Damian if I could come back and stay for several days or a week once Alisa departed for the States, when her room was vacant. They seemed as excited as I was and we agreed to touch base later. It was a beautiful ride home at sunset, now knowing the way “out”. I was filled with a sense of wonder and satisfaction, and could not wait to come back.

Video: "Do You Ever Get Lost?"