See all the Isla del Sol pictures here…
Back in La Paz and on second thoughts not much has changed: it’s truly an insane place. There’s no stop signs or round-a-bouts. There’s some street lights but no one seems to really pay attention. Instead there’s a system of honking: if you’re about to speed through an intersection, you honk and hope. If anyone gets too close, you don’t slow down, you just jab a series of short honks. Dogs chase the wheels. Indigenous women and children fly out of the way. It’s chaos, but it seems to work. At some of the busiest intersections you might see an odd sight; various characters trying to protect the pedestrian public. Individuals in zebra suits or the rather elaborately costumed ‘seven dwarfs’ (Snow White apparently had the day off) who run into the intersection during red lights and prevent pedestrians, and themselves, from being hit.
As you walk around, one of the weirder aspects you might notice is the attire of the swarms of shoeshine boys. Ashamed of their role in society, they mask their faces almost completely to prevent identification. At times I faced five different masked youths, only their eye sockets visible, and always had to apologize for the fact that my worn out sneakers really didn’t need a shine. They look vicious, but they just want to shine your shoes. Booths sell blackmarket items and any DVD you could can imagine. At times, especially around the plethora of food stalls in the center, a wonderful smell will reach your nostrils – perhaps the ‘broaster’ chicken (which is neither broiled nor roasted but fried), only seconds later for it to be replaced by a stench of fetid water or the decay of raw meat.
Don’t get me wrong, as the highest capital city in the world and pleasantly surrounded by mountains, La Paz has it’s charm. It’s a somewhat elusive charm, but if you observe it without recoiling, you might find it amid the chaos. Life bursts from every crevice. Multitudes of people hustle in every direction. There’s a stunning amount of photocopy shops and lawyer offices, both which probably fuel each other and in turn the huge amount of governmental bureaucracy that the whole system feeds upon. Modernly dressed business types swarm next to out-of-place looking indigenous women, known as cholitas, who wear an absurd amount of pleated petticoats. On their backs, on top of ornately woven shawls, they carry colorful sacks stuffed full of goods and even the occasional kid. Their whole amorphous caricature is crowned by a precariously placed bowler hat, or summery bonnet, that covers dark hair twisted into long, twin braids. Many of the park benches are occupied with young (and less visually appealing, even occasionally quite old) lovers who are happy to put on quite a show – usually led by the extremely assertive males. And how could I ever forget the value meals? No, not MacDonalds, which graciously has yet to permeate Bolivia, but the incredibly cheap lunches offered by hole-in-the-wall restaurants. As you negotiate the streets, scampering for safety when sidewalks often just disappear, you will see many chalk boards outside small doorways advertising meals that are currently being cooked. There’s usually just one set menu which is comprised of a little appetizer, a salad, a main course and a dessert – often for just 10 Bolivianas. That’s less than $1.50 for a damn decent meal! In truth most Bolivian is fairly bland for my taste, but that’s nothing to sneeze at – well, hopefully. I didn’t see the kitchen conditions.
After surviving Death Road I retired early to the Hotel Milton with a bottle of Pacena – the local brew – and a hand-packed sack of home made potato chips. I watched the Spanish version of Law and Order and finally passed out.
When I woke up it was still dark outside and Law and Order had been replaced by an infomercial for Cellufree, promising to finally remove that cellulite if you just plastered these miracle strips to your body before bed time. I was in a cold sweat and had wrestled all the sheets into a ball so I was now lying directly on a stained mattress. Waves of nausea seemed to emanate from my very bones themselves, shuddering to my intestinal area. For a while, as I always find with food poisoning, I writhe around in bed for a while until I realize it’s not going away and I summon the courage to go purge myself. I worshipped the porcelain deity until the sun rose while Cellufree’s spokeswoman unsympathetically observed my misery.
After what seemed to be the 5th run through of Cellufree, I pulled on some clothes and went downstairs. I had to call the US Embassy to check the status of my passport as today was meant to be the day that I could pick it up. After that the place was to head to the Bolivian immigration office to get a new departure ticket. Oh let me tell you about the dire importance of departure tickets: a piece of paper so incredibly important that if you want to leave the country without huge hassles and paperwork, you better not lose it when they hand it to you upon entering the country. I crossed the street trying not to wretch at the smell of the neighboring butcher and entered the centro de llamadas, where those without cell phones go to make calls. As I stepped into the booth I could hear the cholita in the booth next to me screaming into the phone how someone owed her 4 Bolivianas. Ater working out the cryptic system of dialing the US Embassy put me on hold for 15 minutes. The cholita was now close to tears and for a moment and as I looked at her, I felt like I was going to vomit all over the glass that separated us. I sat down and tried to breathe in a calm, slow pattern. Finally I was taken off hold:
“Sorry sir, it’s waiting to be approved by the consulate – can you call back later?” I didn’t tell her that made me want to vomit. Instead, I gratefully made it back to my room without public embarrassment and spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to eat some bread that I’d nicked from the dining room. On my third visit to the centro de llamadas the Embassy told me to come in the following day to pick up my new passport. That night as I lay there I suddenly realized that 1000s of miles away, the Mindshare crew was preparing for tonight’s event. And I was nauseous and alone in this crappy hotel room with sickening, green wavy wallpaper. I watched the clock. In LA, the doors of the 740 Club had just opened. Flipper the English door man was no doubt there, flanked by one of our sexy female volunteers, handing out badges. The two Adams were probably looking sharp and welcoming the first arrivals with wide smiles. The Syyn Labs posse was probably gathered around clinking beers and talking about new developments. As I fell asleep I realized that over in LA, the presentations had begun, and people were probably having a blast. When I was eight years old, I got sent to boarding school in England – I don’t get lonely or homesick much as a result – but this was surely the loneliest and most pathetic moment of my trip. Just sleep it off big guy.
The next morning came and things initially seemed rosier, no doubt helped by a strong course of the antibiotic Cipro, which I’d picked up the day before. I was hungry and so after a refreshing shower – the one perk of Hotel Milton, besides the friendly staff, was the shower. As I ate my Americano breakfast (which is just like the Bolivian breakfast of bread and coffee, except you get a scrambled egg too) I considered my situation: Team Bolivia had now given me a double whammy, scoring against Team Doug with a out-of-left-field passport theft and a food-poisoning goalie error. I actively try to not be superstitious at all, the logic being that as soon as you let a couple of superstitions into your life it’s a slippery slope of blame and expectation. However as my mother always cried:
“Bad things come in threes!”
I know it was stupid to think but I couldn’t help it, I had to finish this game before Team Bolivia scored a third time! As I washed down the dry bread with an incredibly sour, freshly squeezed orange juice (it might have been lemon juice) I continued playing games in my head. I pondered the decision I’d made to stay in Sucre an extra day. Besides missing the company of the lovely Kim who’d I made tentative plans to meet with in La Paz, the decision had seemed to set me on a path of unfavorable occurrences. I couldn’t help think that if I’d come a day earlier, I would have not been on the same bus as the passport thief and probably would have avoided food poisoning. Eventually after an audible “You can go screw yourself”, directed at th voice in my head, which seemed to get the attention of a French couple at the table next to me, I downed my cafe con leche and left the dining room and caught a taxi to the US Embassy.
After clearing the assault course of searches and detectors at the entrance I found myself at the passport window. I had been happy with the picture but out of respect they had stretched my face into a long, cartoonish version of me. “you can go screw yourself too” I thought to myself this time; it was only good for three months anyway.
“If you lose this one, then you’ve got problems. We can’t do a third so easily.” The clerk warned.
“Sure thing, gracias amigo.” I pocketed the passport and pushed through the series of bomb proof doors back into the chaos of La Paz.
The next stop was the Bolivian Immigration so I could get my visa renewed and a duplicate departure card. After reeming me for $80 and sending me on to the third line and disgruntled characters, I ended up next to a fellow American called Khaled. Khaled was in the process of trying to sort his life out after his entire bag had been stolen in an elaborate charade at a local restaurant. Some guys in suits had caused a distraction in one direction while his bag was lifted off the seat next to him. Before he knew it the men, and his bag, were gone. Besides all his money, cards and passport, it had contained his professional USD$1200 camera and worst of all, all of his photos from the last few months.
“I’m slowly making peace with it.” he said, although I could sense a deep underlying remorse, “All it took was a second! The worst thing is I was going to use those pictures to make some money. So they even robbed that from me!”
At this moment in my self-pitiful day, I finally had a moment of clarity and Khaled’s story got my mind back into a positive trajectory. Sure, a few annoying things had happened, but it wasn’t so bad. Khaled was certainly worse off than me. More importantly, to distract myself from negative thoughts I was determined to find a something serendipitous in the coming days so I could say to myself: “If I hadn’t come to La Paz a day late than BLANK wouldn’t have happened!” A far more positive task for your brain to be assigned. After a few early goals against Team Bolivia (the salt flats and the mines), the score was now neck and neck. This was turning out to be quite a close match. Stay on your toes boys, it’s not over yet!
By the time that we got to the front of the line they utterly disinterested looking clerk said that the head honcho who okays new visas wasn’t coming in today, so we’d have to come back on Monday.
“How can what takes one minute at the border take so long at the head office?” Khaled asked her. She just look at him, shook her head, and said:
After saying goodbye to Khaled and planning a celebratory drink for Monday evening at a local bar, I booked a side trip to Isla del Sol where I would pass a few days while my visa was finalized (I made sure to make some photocopies before leaving the immigration office). After pushing passed shoeshine boys and cholitas I had finally found a somewhat civilized cafe where I was able to recover from the day’s bureaucracy with a cappuccino and a slice of apple tart. I checked my email and saw a message with an alluring subject: “Are you in La Paz?”. The last time I’d seen Ted Reilly had been over two years ago in the delightfully decadent town of Vang Vieng in Laos. I’d spent the day with his merry throng of traveling buddies floating down a river in inflated inner tubes and getting increasingly imbibed as we swung off rickety structures into the cool water. The next day we’d gone our separate ways – he’d continued south and I headed to Hong Kong to begin the first leg of the http://www.tuxedotravels.com. The email read:
“What´s the game bro? Are you coming to La Paz? if so come visit me at the Adventure Brew Hostel – I’m the bar manager here…”
I left the cafe and decided to track him down. As I entered the Adventure Brew – which proudly makes it’s own beer, I recognized Ted’s delightful face coming down the stairs.
“Look at that good looking chap!” Ted blurted loudly in his thick English brogue.
“Well hello gorgeous!” I said, instantly remembering why we’d enjoyed each other’s company. Ted showed me around the place and took special pride in the theme nights that he’d arranged for this weeks bar schedule. Poker night, quiz night and costume night were among the offerings.
“It’s the easiest job in the world – but don’t tell them I said that! I’ve already been here six months and just renewed for another six!”
“Are you serious?” I asked. ”Honestly Ted, I have to ask, just what the hell is keeping you in this place?” Ted stood up and walked to the bar window, which offered a great view of the city.
“Look at this place!” He exclaimed, “It’s like we’re in India!” Haha, it was true, La Paz certainly felts like it had been sprinkled with the Delhi mayhem.
“But we’re not in India, Ted.”
“I know, that’s what makes it so crazy!” His smile told me more than his words. He was happy here – and who can argue with that?
Before leaving the Adventure Brew Hostel I decided to book my final night in La Paz there after I returned from Isla del Sol. On the wall was a flier for ‘Cholita Wrestling’ that promised a unique experience – portrayed by a drawing of two cholitas grinding teeth and pulling each other’s braids. This flier seemed to underscore one of the main things that was depressing me so much about La Paz. As I walked back to the Hotel Milton, I couldn’t help but look at the colorful indigenous women and feel sympathy for them. It reminded me of that trick that fancy waiters can do with table cloths; the entire natural setting had been whipped from underneath them and replaced by a loud and filthy city. While most of them are selling goods, many of them are begging, hunched into a right angle and in the worst cases uttering barely audible whimpers. It’s just so incredibly wrong that this many old women are begging – but people speed by, no time to notice them. And lets be fair, of course it’s not just here; all over the world tragedy is on display every day – in many cases far worse than the lives of these cholitas. The vast populous of this planet is so occupied with inane and completely inconsequential distractions that there’s no bandwidth to notice or to care. One day we will understand that when any of us is suffering, we are all suffering. As I reached my hotel I found an old cholita sitting on my steps.
“Hola gringito.” She smiled, proudly displaying her gold rimmed teeth.
My bus left La Paz early the next morning and I found myself sitting next to a lively and colorful English girl.
“What did you think of La Paz?” She asked.
“The only thing I really enjoyed about La Paz has been leaving it.” I said rather bluntly.
“Oooh, crikey… but me too!” She giggled, “I didn’t want to say anything, you know, so not to offend anyone, but I bloody hated it!” We both laughed and shared our war stories. As we ascended to the heights of the city the downtown apartment blocks gave way to shoddily constructed brick shacks that seemed to be literally stacked on top of each other. The town’s poorer folk live in these areas, overlooking the prosperous lower sections. Soon, after skirting the hillside and weaving over crests, we reached the countryside. I felt like I could finally breath freely again.
It turns out that Jen was a surfer and made me promise that when I returned to California that I would take it up:
“It’s bloody heresy that you live in California and don’t surf.” She playfully, but harder than expected, punched me in the shoulder. “Just get a board and strap it on top of your ride. Or put it in the car with you. Once I slept with three other surfers and two boards in a rental car our Route 1 for a month – that’s how brilliant California is!” I promised her I would give it a shot.
Eventually the talkative Brit tired herself out and fell asleep, partially on me. After having to get off the bus and boat across a small stretch of water (while the bus precariously went on a separate raft) we got back on the bus and finished the trek to Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is not the only name that schoolkids, (and even sometimes immature adults) can get a kick out of in Bolivia. How about the charming town of Poopo. I’m serious. If the butchering of Inca words wasn’t so well documented than I would have been certain that a 7 year old had made these names up.
Eventually we hit the town of Copacabana. Hardly comparable with Brazil’s town of the same name, but Bolivia’s Copacabana still maintains it’s own quaint appeal, sandwiched between two hills and a pleasant waterfront. As I waited for the boat that would take me to the island, I had a coffee at a waterfront cafe. As I was looking out at the crystal waters, a shoeshine boy came up to me and gave the regular pitch, which was met with my regular excuse. However Javier was so sad that my shoes didn’t really require shining that my heart finally melted when he pulled out a grimy USD$1 coin:
“You can change me?”
I gave him a couple of dollars in exchange for his grubby coin. His intense depression lifted only mildly as he thanked me and shuffled on his way. Then two familiar faces approached, Cam and Adelaide from the Uyuni Expedition. I love how you run repeatedly into travelers on the same circuit. We exchanged stories and they gave me some Isla del Sol tips, where they were just returning from. Their next stop was Peru, and they might even make it to LA by the end – I humbly offered my tour guide services if they did. My boat had arrived and so I left the cafe and said goodbye to the sweet Australian couple. After walking down the most wobbly and hammered together pier I’ve ever been on, a group of tourists boarded the boat for Isla del Sol.
The name aside, Lake Titicaca is no joke friends. The Inca’s believed that the lake itself was the birthplace of both the sun and moon, as well as many of the first Inca rulers. It’s incredibly deep in parts and throughout the ages the water level has risen, submerging an Inca settlement that has only recently been discovered. As we approached the rocky hills of Isla del Sol, a stepped texture that cut into much of the exposed hillside became apparent. These are the remains of the original terraced irrigation system that the Inca had built by 1500AD, some of them still being used to this day. Only a few thousand people live on the island, most of whom live by means of a subsistence lifestyle, augmented by a handful of tourism bucks. As we pulled into Challa, the main town on the southern tip of the island, I caught a glimpse of the Inca staircase that ran from the shore to a series of paths that spread out towards the top of the hill. Each side of the stone staircase was areas carpeted in lush grasses and foliage. The source of water required to maintain this is a gushing spring that shoots out of the hillside into a series of mini canals near the top of the stairs. As I hopped off the boat I was already more relaxed and thoroughly looking forward to the weekend on this beautiful island.
“Hi, I am David and I will show you to your hostel!” A little local kid wearing a baseball cap and a power rangers t-shirt was facing me off on the pier. Normally I would have made an excuse and continued on my own esteem, but I instantly liked this kid. He was honest looking, sweet and I decided to entertain the whims of my new tour guide. We began to ascend the stairs and due to the steepness combined with the altitude (Lake Titcaca is one of the world’s highest navigable lakes) I was quickly gasping for breath.
“The Inca have a saying,” David said, also breathing heavily, “Ama sua, ama llulla, ama khella! Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy!” He grinned. “Come on, just 10 more minutes, gringo.”
After reaching a pleasant hotel near the summit, I tipped David a couple of bucks and checked in to my $6, lake-view room. Not too shabby! I wondered how I was going to return to my pricey LA loft, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it didn’t necessarily have to. I put the future out of my mind, for in the present I realized, having only having eaten a little of Jen’s Toblerone hours earlier, I was damn hungry. The hostel restaurant wasn’t open so I found a nearby spot and feasted on some quinoa soup and llama steak. Feeling revived, I continued the rest of the climb to the top of the hill, to a town called Yumani. After exploring the various indigenous stores that were selling all sorts of soft alpaca woven goods, I found a little cafe on the cliffs edge. As I stared out on one of the most beautiful scenes I’d ever witnessed I felt almost overwhelmed. The splendor of the island, the deep blue of the lake flanked by the mountains of Bolivia and Peru in the distance filled me with intense emotion. I found myself wanting to say things to far away people. To express to my family and close friends the gratitude and love that I had for them. I wanted to write a poem to all the lovers who I still care for. During this trip, which has provided so many close iterations of city life juxtaposed to more rural journeys, I’ve realized that being in nature always brings out my humanity – it literally makes me feel more human. Isla del Sol is such a blaring contrast to La Paz, a place where the locals, while still having to work hard, actually seemed happy.
After the sunset, I headed back to the hotel and passed a similarly awestruck tourist couple.
“Is this place for real?” I asked.
“It’s beautiful!” One girl exclaimed.
“I know, but seriously, is it for real?” I said.
“What do you mean?” Her manfriend asked.
“I mean, it is so perfect that it seems fake. I’m wondering if after the tourists leave if they all go somewhere else and live in shitty shacks like La Paz?”
“Oh, I see. I’m not sure.” He replied.
“Haha! Me either, if it is real, it makes me wonder why more places couldn’t be this awesome!” My initial oddness evaporated and we all agreed how nice that would be and went on our separate ways. As I descended the rest of the cobbled path to my hotel an old thought was rekindling in my mind. For some time my group of Burning Man friends have been talking about starting a permaculture style village. A place where we could have fun, learn survival skills and in a semi-joking way then have a place to go live if the world’s social order has a melt down. When I see places that are actually doing it, I realize it’s not that out there of an idea. If the NIKKEI and DJIA and the rest of the world markets collapse, I guarantee that life on Isla del Sol wouldn’t change too drastically. Of course, I always have a habit of over romanticizing things; much of these people’s daily work is incredibly hard, back-breaking work. But ideally this will happen enough in the future that robots will do the hard stuff and we can spend our free time playing strange instruments, making art and designing fun outfits to wear while we dance and sing around a fire and consume home brewed mead. As I said, I have a habit of romanticizing stuff.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of a nearby donkey, which means a few raspy gasps followed by a couple of loud, complaining honks. I decided, rather thank joining any tour, that I would go explore the island myself and do a round trip hike to some ruins on the northern tip of the island, 8km away. Over breakfast I approached a group of tourists who were pouring over a Lonely Planet guide book.
“What are you guys up to today?” I asked.
“We’re going to visit the floating islands.” One girl said.
“Oh, I heard that’s cool!” Actually I’d heard it was a bit of a tourist mecca, perched on top of floating reeds in the lake. However, I also heard that it was pretty interesting in that the inhabitants use the reeds for food, clothing and other things besides just floating on. I also heard that recently a large area of the island had been sawed off and let loose, because that family had become Mormons. Apparently when neighbors had disputes on the floating islands, they could just saw each other free – how convenient!
“Can I take a picture of that book’s map?” I asked.
“Well I’m going on a hike and I figure at least having it on my camera is better than nothing!” They laughed.
“That’s a good idea actually!” I didn’t bother telling them that I was a Technomad, and this is just one of our many meat-space hacks.
There is no motor vehicles on Isla del Sol, just a series of paths and the occasional staircase. I decided on a counter-clockwise route that would take me through a small town near the north of the island, where I planned to get some lunch before continuing to the ruins. Then I would head back to Yumani, over the Inca path that followed the crests of the island’s hilly terrain. At first I followed a path but I soon veered off into the terraced hills, surprised by how large the were up close. At times I had to climb on all fours and find zig zagging routes through them while being careful to not step on the crops of any that were still functional. I passed numerous grazing llamas, donkeys and a large pig, sitting in a muddy hole that it had dug. It watched me suspiciously as I passed. After getting lost numerous times I eventually found the path that led me to Challapampa. In this tiny town that sat on a beach lined isthmus I ate some more soup (Bolivia loves their soups) and fantastic Titicaca trout. A friendly chicken joined me for lunch so, not having any grain readily available, I gave him a french fry. It seemed to welcome this and pushed it around in the dirt for a bit before gobbling it down. It eyed my up with a beady orange eye until I gave it another. It seemed satisfied and clucked its way back onto the dirt road, on its way to do whatever chickens do in their spare time.
After lunch, on my way to the ruins, I came upon a local family doing their washing by the lake side. The wife was holding a large blanket on the surface of the water while the man was beating the hell of it with a stick. A couple of kids were playing in the pile of dirty laundry and I seem to remember a llama was keeping them company too. After getting lost some more (the Lonely Planet map was hopelessly inaccurate) I eventually got to the Chincana ruins, a series of corridors and roofless rooms with tiny doors. Within the labyrinth is a sacred well that the Inca would use for purification purposes. There were other things to see like a sacred table and sacrifice slab but I didn’t linger too long, evening was approaching and I still had a few hour walk back to Yumani. The return trip was way more direct and blazed over the crests of hills, led by the trail that was still paved in many parts. The sun ended its day in a glorious blaze of reds as I neared Yumani, arriving just after dark.
I had planned to finally do some gift shopping (first time in 2 months) and bought some presents for my family at a store that was still open. I dropped about USD$50 on such a large bundle of woven items that the ecstatic store owner estimated that it had collectively taken her close to 300 hours of work. Luckily I was able to get rid of some big bills on her, although how she’ll change them, I have no idea. The change situation in Bolivia is absolutely ridiculous. No one can break any notes larger than 20 Bolivianas but the ATMs only spit out 100s and 200s. Even at the end of the day at my hotel in the capital they would look at me and apologize for not having change. Where are all the small bills people? What the hell is going on?
Completely exhausted I entered a tiny pizzeria that had only two tables. The whole place was lit by a kerosene lamp and a couple of candles on the tables. Against the rough stone wall next to the door sat a pizza oven. A jolly looking man in an apron emerged from the kitchen, strutted over to me and shook my hand.
“Buenvenidos amigo!” I instantly thought he was awesome. He sat me down and fussed over the table, arranging the napkin and candle a couple of times before asking me what I’d like.
“Una pizza por favor. Que me recomienda?” He proceeded to ask me if I liked a long list of ingredients. Before he was able to finish, I just replied:
“Que tu piense!” Saying that whatever he thought was good, I would enjoy. He smiled and shuffled off to the kitchen, humming a little song as he gathered the necessary items. After some moments a women came in:
“Aaah, buenos noche senor!” She was obviously his wife and proceeded to ask me the basic travel questions while she rearranged the candles and napkins again.
Eventually the most amazingly delicious pizza emerged from the oven in the corner. The pizzeria owner and his wife brought it to me and placed it before me, both staring at it with pride as he served me a slice. I took a bite. They watched. I took a bite; it was really damn good pizza.
“Senor,” I began quietly, slowly rising to a crescendo: “Este es una pizza SIN comparicion!” They were both delighted at my exuberant confirmation that this was the best pizza I’d ever eaten.
As I ate the fantastic pizza, which literally had about 10 different toppings, and drank some smooth and mellow red wine I read my Kindle by the light of the candle. It already felt like a strange juxtaposition to be reading on such a hi-tech device in such a low-tech context but even more so because I was still chomping through Kurzweil’s: The Singularity is Near. Seriously, this book mush be like 600 pages at least. What do these people know about the Singularity? I asked myself. Not much probably. I imagined that they had never even been on the Internet. In fact, they probably didn’t even have cell phones. And that very fact provoked an interesting realization that it didn’t really matter. Advancement will continue to move forward, as long as it can, at an increasingly accelerated rate. It’s unfortunate perhaps, but inevitable, that all humans will not be in the foreground of this; the digital divide is too great. However, the local people of Isla del Sol were once claimed by the Inca, then by the Spanish and today by Bolivia. So whatever forces supposedly lead them, such rural groups are somewhat expected to follow – but if it doesn’t really affect them negatively, they probably don’t really care. They just get on with living in the present.
The next day, on the boat back to the mainland, I sat on the roof of the boat with a large group of friendly tourists. I told them about the TED conference (which some of them had heard about) and about Mindshare in LA. They were excited about a more accessible version for our age group and asked a lot of questions. Throughout the trip, I’ve always seemed to be a handful of years older than most other travelers and take a bold, perhaps even overemphasized pride in the age difference. I talked about my theory of living by iteration and my determination to not just go back and repeat the same loop. It was funny, at one point they were all just looking at me for what I was going to say next. I apologized for my compulsive social behavior so I interjected some questions of my own. After a couple of minutes one girl turned to me and said:
“You know, I never looked at it like that. This time, when I go home, things are going to be different. I’m not going back to a job I hate, just so I can save up to have the next escape.” You go girl!
As the bus descended into crazy La Paz I felt so relaxed that it didn’t even phase me. After getting off, I calmly negotiated the traffic and checked in to the Adventure Brew. I walked down the main street towards the immigration office so I could pick up my freshly visa’d passport. I barely got stressed when a large parade divided the street and blocked my way (it was Bolivia’s yearly display of aggression towards Chile for stealing their coastline). I waited calmly as immigration looked for my passport among stacks of papers spread across 3 desks. I didn’t flinch when they told me I need more photocopies. I almost didn’t flinch when they stamped my passport and then told me I also needed to photocopy the stamp. Take a breath. “Gracias senor.” I calmly walked passed begging cholitas when I went to pick up my bus ticket and quietly observed the insanity unfolding in every direction. Just chillin’. Isla del Sol: Goal #3 for Team Doug.
On my final night in La Paz I met up with Khaled and a few English girls he was having drinks with. He’d since hired a private investigator – who had also offered him his services as an assassin. The shady character, who’s Khaled had engaged for a retainer of USD$20 per day, was currently scanning the black market for the camera but we both knew it was a futile affair. The rest of the night unfolded into such a display of debauchery that I can’t even write about it. However if you meet me in person, just ask what happened in Bolivia at Route 36. Either way when getting out of the taxi the following morning at 8am, just a couple of hours before I was due to leave La Paz, I handed the taxi driver a 50 Boliviana bill. I expected him to refuse it for its size, instead he tore the corner.
“Este es falsificado.” He handed it back, it was a counterfeit!
Goddamn, Bolivia! You got me! That’s the third! I paid him in small change and retreated from the morning sun into the dark hostel.
A couple of hours later after having not slept at all, I boarded the bus that would take me to an overnight train and then to another bus into Argentina, arriving 30 hours later. Traveling in such a manner is incredibly helpful for development of one’s patience. Four hours after leaving La Paz, after the bus had gotten stuck in a muddy road and we’d all had to walk for a mile, I found myself at the train station in Oruro standing next to a tall, sexy brunette. Maybe I’d stood next to her. Or vice versa. I can’t remember. She looked eastern European.
“There better be something to eat around here. I haven’t eaten all day.” She was slim and she was hungry. As a burly guy with extra fat stores you can deal with long times without eating, but when you’re quite slender and lean I suppose immediate sustenance is more of a pressing issue.
“I suggest we load our bags onto the train and then you follow me. I will bring you to where the food is – it’s a gift I have.” I smiled.
“You’re American?” Sexy accent.
“No, I’m Californian. Big difference.” She laughed.
“I haven’t met many Americans – they always seem to travel in large groups.”
“That’s not how I travel. I roll solo. Nimble and free.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Anna. I’m from Latvia.” We shook hands to make it official.
After loading our bags we had twenty minutes to find some food so we quickly walked down a few blocks until we found a market. After buying some bread and chocolate for the train (actual food was incredibly elusive) Anna stopped by a juice stand.
“We should have some smoothies.” She said. “You’ll thank me on the train.” Her accent made it sounds like I had no choice. I liked her strength. The stall lady whipped up a concoction of milk, mangoes, bananas and sugar.
We clinked the glasses and watched each other humorously as we downed the delicious drink in a few large gulps.
“OK, we gotta run!” Anna’s athletic frame moved through the streets with the grace of a gazelle while I hobbled behind her, completely filled with smoothie. We made it onto the train a few minutes before it left.
As we found our seats in separate carriages, a softcore mariachi musical soap opera was playing on the screen. The man would do a macho song. The women would do a tearful retort. The man then followed with a remorseful song. The woman dramatically sang a bold response and tossed her head around. And so it went on. After an hour or so, Anna found me:
“Do you want to know something funny?” She asked.
“Sure.” I smiled. Truthfully, it didn’t really have to be funny, because just listening to her talk was enjoyable.
“There’s a food carriage the next car down.” We both laughed. “It’s full right now, but come find me in a little bit and we can go get something to eat.” She smiled. “It will be our first date.”
Some hours later, after a dramatic farewell on the platform, Anna left for Uyuni and I continued to the border. However, by chance she was heading to Salta directly afterward and we planned to meet there in a few days for a second date. And Team Doug hits one into the back of the net in overtime! The crowd goes wild! The referee blows his whistle and announces the final score: BOLIVIA 3 : DOUG 4!
Going into Bolivia, I had known it was going to be more challenging than Argentina or Chile but it was also one of the most beautiful and diverse countries that I’ve ever visited, bringing me across salt flats, deserts, mountain passes and humid jungle. The communities I passed through ranged from small miners towns to lush farms to quaint, colonial style villages to the urban chaos of La Paz. Even as it had tossed me around like a rag doll, I had enjoyed it and rolled with the punches. However it was the last two weeks of my trip and I was feeling exhausted from all the adventures. Knowing myself well enough, I knew I needed to relax and get my head ready for my return home. The emails have already started: “So when exactly are you getting back?” Soon enough amigos.
At the border I hopped on a bus headed into Argentina and decided I’d just jump off at the first town that I liked on the way to Salta (incidentally home of the empanada AKA saltena). As we headed south my thoughts came full circle and I realized that if I’d left Sucre early I wouldn’t have been on that train and I wouldn’t now have a sexy date for Salta, where the outdoor cafes and candlelit restaurants are apparently lovely – but even more so when you can share the experience with a lovely person.
Appropriately enough, I was excited to get back to Argentina for the very reasons that I’d wanted to leave in the first place: the functional, laid back and easy way of life.
Oh and also some damn good meat.