Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sucre, Bolivia

I have now been in Sucre for two months, and I am preparing for the process of obtaining a yearlong visa. So, I guess you could say the gamble paid off. I am not sure if I will stay for the entire year, or maybe even longer, but I am focused on life here and not thinking of moving anytime soon. I know what you are thinking, and no, the trip is not over, and no, nobody is pregnant.

So why here? Well, I could recite the list offered by the guidebooks:

· The city is an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, and political capital of Bolivia.

· Sucre is picturesque sitting in a bowl at 9,000-ft surrounded by mountains.

· At 9,000-ft the weather is comfortable with warm days in the upper 70’s and cool evenings in the 50’s.

· You are guaranteed a clear blue sky almost everyday.

· The city core is completely walk-able and there are several green spaces throughout the city, giving it convivial energy.

· The population of 250,000 is neither too big nor too small, and assures enough services to make certain you get want you need.

· There are two universities here, the oldest dating back to 1624.

· There is ample history in the region, with the signing of the country’s Declaration of Independence after Simon Bolivar kicked out the Spanish – starting in Venezuela and ending here. Che Guevara was captured and killed not far from here.

· Sucre is centered in an area rich with indigenous cultural tradition, offering a chance to travel back in time.

· And, it is damn cheap.

All of these things make Sucre an enjoyable and very livable place. However, there is something else here – there must be, because I have been to other livable places, and had no problem moving on, i.e., Medellin and Mendoza. I am not the only one either, many travelers that were originally passing through either stayed, or soon returned to live here permanently (whatever permanent means). So, there is a vibe or energy that attracts certain people and to ignore that attraction seems unnaturally to me at this point.

Of course, it could be me too, or the combination of Sucre and me? Once I reached the bottom in Ushuaia and began my journey back up, I vowed to have a different kind of trip. I stowed the travel guide and made up the trip as I went along – no longer a tourist. I had no expectations, and I wasn’t going to chase down any more “attractions”. No more “must see” sites. If the tour buses went right, I would fake right, and go left. It was liberating, and I could feel the trip changing.

I arrived in Sucre on April 27th tired. I knew I had spent too much time in Patagonia, and the cold winds and dirt roads had taken a lot out of me. My body, had held together long enough to get here, and then shut down. I knew it was coming, and should have paid more attention to the warning signs, but it was almost like it was inevitable – I needed a “shut down”. So, after a few days in a hostel popular with “overlanders”, I moved into an apartment and remained in bed for four days. It was the sickest I had been on the trip and was eventually forced to take a course of antibiotics, which did the trick.

With time, I seem to have found a groove here. A typical day for me is to wake and have coffee on my patio (I found a great apartment in the French Consulate building with a large patio and views of the nearby mountains for $250 /month), and on good days I do a little yoga on an old camping mat before showering and heading out - always walking. On my way to Ñanta I walk through the Mercado, which is always bustling with activity. There I pick up a salteña ($.25) from a street vendor (an empanada like food popular for breakfast here; filled with beef or chicken, kalamata olives, hard-boiled egg, raisins, peas, potatoes, spices (a bit sweet), and if I have time, I will stop at one of the many juice stalls and custom order fresh fruit smoothie (.75) and try to get through some of the local newspaper that is always on hand. I love the energy in the market and try and pass through at least twice a day.

Once at the center, I collect my two kids and walk back towards the market to the dentist’s office. The dentist is a good example of how the more fortunate here understand the strife of many of their countrymen and try to help out when they can. She has reduced her prices and allows special times to see only our kids. The office is nothing fancy and I may be asked to help out during a particular difficult extraction, manning the water and suction devices, or handing the doctor tools that I do not know the names of. This is all part of the Bolivian experience – expect anything!

Back at the center, we work on homework or art projects. The kids go to school in shifts so there is always children there working. I may stay and have lunch with the kids or start back towards town and stop for lunch at one of the local “tipico” cafeterias.

Lunch is my favorite meal here. Most places will have a small blackboard posted out on the sidewalk with the day’s two course offering. There is always a soup, usually of chicken stock, rich with potatoes and vegetables, with rice or pasta. Some places offer a choice of two main courses, but in most cases there is only one entrée offered, so you just sit down and the food comes – no wasting time looking over menus. The main course is usually chicken or beef over a bed of rice, and more potatoes. (The Incan’s were the first to cultivate potatoes, and it was their gift to the rest of the world). Sauces are usually a bit “picante” and have a little kick to them. The drink is usually a Kool-Aid type mix. I have only been surprised once, when two chicken feet surfaced in my soup bowl, but those were easy to work around. Lunch is always 10-Bolivianos, or $1.40.

After lunch, I have two hours of Spanish instruction with an attractive woman who is equipped with patience and a good sense of humor – both necessary if you are going to try and teach me anything. Every Friday we have class on my patio and end the session by cracking open a bottle of Bolivia’s finest, which isn’t always that bad (Bolivia’s wine and fruit region is about four hours south of here).

Evenings are cool enough to put on a sweater but not much more is necessary (July and August is at the height of the winter here), and walking through town has changed moods with all the white colonial buildings illuminated by up lights mounted in the sidewalks. The parks are filled with families strolling before a late dinner, and the vibe is sociable and always safe. (I have never felt threatened here.)

There is a large international contingent in Sucre, so dinner can be as interesting as you like it. German, Dutch, French, and others offer their culinary influence and a four-course dinner with wine and espresso- for two people can be had for around $30. It’s a good place to pretend you are a big spender.

There are plenty of bars and discos, and Bolivians cannot be far behind the Japanese in their love of karaoke, however, it is not for me.

Weekends, I often times take the bike out to one of the nearby villages, or I am involved with an outing with the kids from the center.

I am not sure when I will leave, and I realize that time here is exhausting resources that will ultimately take away from the total length of the trip, but I also know that I am not ready to leave South America. And for me, Bolivia offers what I like best about the continent, and at a value. I have seen much of South America, and to a degree, experienced it, but this is an opportunity to get off the bike and "live it". Experiencing it in a way that is impossible when only staying a week or two somewhere. I am making friends and relationships that I will carry with me when I leave, and memories that will last a lifetime, which has always been the whole point of the trip.

Desert Relief

After leaving San Pedro de Atacama, I continued north through the desert. Not as hot as you would think as long as you kept moving, but dry ... very very dry. The scenery was anything but interesting, after the first 30-minutes of riding, it was like someone kept pushing the replay button: sand, power lines, more sand, roadside trash, even more sand, trucks carry ridiculously large tires, followed by sand - repeat. The road was essentially a truck route for supplying the many different mines of the region. Thankfully, I had motivation to keep going. I knew that by the end of the day, I would be sitting on a beach dipping my toes into the cool Pacific.

Iquique, Chile is an odd juxtaposed place, sequestered from the rest of the world. It is one of the few places in northern Chile where the rugged terrain gently meets the ocean, rather than the inapproachable seaside cliffs. You would never suspect that there is an ocean nearby until you cross that last set of mountainous dunes. Then it’s a crazy set of switchbacks down to the water.

I found an aging mid-century hotel that had lost its original luster but sat on premium real estate at the edge of the natural harbor. My two days there turned into four, doing nothing but walking on the beach, eating fresh seafood, and having the lapping of the waves lull me to sleep.

It was all very relaxing, but Bolivia laid heavy on my mind. I was a half-day’s ride from the border and two days away from my goal of finally reaching Sucre. I was feeling tense. What if Sucre couldn’t live up to my initial impression made back in October? What if my memory of the place was being too generous? I had driven 1,000-miles out of my way to follow a hunch, not to mention another two weeks riding down through northern Argentina for a third time if it did not work out.

After four days of R&R, I loaded the bike up with two 4-liter jugs of extra gas. It would take me less than four hours to cross the entire width of Chile and enter Bolivia at the sleepy border crossing of Pisiga Bolivar. I say “sleepy” because at 3:00 in the afternoon the Bolivian border guard was still taking his nap, and answered my pounding on the door with annoyance, sleepy eyes, and “bed-head”. I met his annoyance with a double dose of my own. I am usually more patient, and do not expect anything that resembles competence at borders, but I was only halfway through my day’s ride, with only a quarter of a day’s sunlight left, which was not enough to get me to Ouro before dark. There was a lot of dirt road to cover and no place to stop before there. I sat down at his desk, with no less that 18-different rubber stamps on display – I kid you not.

By 4:00 I was back on the road, still wondering, “would I like Sucre?”