Thursday, December 29, 2005

New Year in the driest desert in the world!

Arriving in Chile from Bolivia was an interesting experience.. we had this wee lady (all of 4ft nothing!) dressed in black, throwing her hands around screaming in the worlds squeakiest voice "Vamos, vamos.." to everyone, to get us all in and moving up the bus, so she could fit as many people as possible into the "collectivo" that would take us to our fourth country of the trip - Chile.... and to San Pedro de Atacama.... officially the driest desert in the world! The border crossing at San Pedro was interesting, with each of us having to squidge through a rather scabby and antiquated looking large sponge, presumably to take care of any "foot and mouth" disease we may be bringing from Bolivia? Hmmn, not very efficient to say the least! But as border crossings go, the process didnt take too long, and then it was into town to look for a fabulous place to stay- which Dom and I found at Residencial Vilacayo.... remind me to tell you about a weirdo and his hammock, but ill keep that for a little later!

San Pedro is an interesting place; at 2,440m a lot lower than the 5,000m we had stayed at during our Salar trip, super hot, hot, hot (it is a desert town after all) and tiny... (with about 3,000 people officially living there!). It is made up of about 4 main streets, with lots of dogs, and tons and tons of "gringos"...but not a single bank, which as many of those "gringos" and our friend Mark found out, is a bit of a bummer, meaning they have to trek 5 hours to Calama and back (the nearest town that DOES have such a modern convenience as a bank!) when they run out of casheroonie!

The town is really laid back and relaxed, exactly what we needed for a few days, and the perfect place to take it easy for New Year! I may have mentioned before that the "gringo tour" of South America is very small, and you end up bumping into people you have previously met, many times over!! So no surprise as we sat having dinner one night, when we heard a lovely Scottish "hullo" from Mark, our friend from Spanish school in Cuenca, Ecuador! Great to see him and find out where he had been on his travels!

We decided the three of us would take a trip out by bike to the Valle de la Luna the next met up at 12noon to head off! Hmmn should have reminded myself the last time i went a long bike ride, but more on that later! Valle de la Luna AKA Moon Valley, is exactly that! The strikingly eroded landforms showcase why the area is famous for its resemblence to the surface of the moon, owing to its different stratifications and the salt formations that have been caused by natural environmental factors! See how knowledgeable you can get when you travel! So, we had biked a mere 12km (ok that may not be much to you Tour de France types, but contrary to popular belief, I had now become a complete blob on this trip, and after the asphalt road gave way to the "bump, bump, bump" sandy pathway (and here i definitely use path as a massive overstatement), i was getting a wee bitty cansada to say the least! We talked to some lovely park guides who explained there was another 7-8km of fabuluous scenery to see in the park (ahh, you know that happy-sad feeling you sometimes get - lots of great scenery, more banging of your bum against the bike seat! Nah, just kidding!!) but first we had to explore the nearby caves....

The Valle really was incredible - and a bit of a secret ´cos there was no-one else there for the majority of the day, until the blobby fake tourists arrived later in the afternoon for the well-promoted sunset, in mini-vans no less! Huh - none of that rubbish for us! From scrambling through the caves, and biking across HOT sandy roads, to the beautiful sunset we watched from the top of the giant sand dunes, it was a fab, if somewhat knackering day! (especially when we had to ride back - post sunset - in the dark....not quite such great fun!!

So needless to say, I was delighted and wanted to hug and kiss the bike guy when we handed our bikes in! Phew - im getting old!
Time for dinner - we met the delightful Isadora, a fun young lady of approx. 3 going on 30, whose mum ran the local pizza parlour! We had great fun as she decided we all needed to clean our hands that were very "sucio AKA dirty".. then she proceeded to wash my face again and again througout the entire meal, with ice cubes no less, and then pat me down and say "Listo, listo" I was officially clean. Wanted to take her home with me!!!

Next day was New Years Eve - or Hogmanay as i explained to everyone in town! After pottering around all day, we had the girls and Mark come over for some vino and chips before we headed out that evening (did i mention Chile is about a million times more expensive than Bolivia, so we have had to resort to some serious budget reviews and doing things the "real backpacker" way... at least for a while!). All the bars were doing specials so we picked one that looked fun and hoped for the best. OK then- the company was great, the vino went down well, the food - yuk, it was rotten to say the least!!! But to be honest, we didn´t care as we threw caution to the wind and decided to liven the place up by grabbing some well-affixed hats from the wall behind us, and posing for each other again, and again, and again! We had a great time and so did the rest of the clientele, watching this daft bunch!!!!
After a while, we thought we would take a look outside and see what was going on, but after much review, we decided our place was pretty good, even with its Chilean folk/house techno style music (a treat in itself!), so we brought a bunch of young things back with us (about 50 - and yes, that was the number of people, not their age!!) that certainly livened things up! Lasted till after 3am -so a fun, albeit different hogmanay this year!!

PS oh, yes, the hammock story! On New Year´s Day, we were sitting in the courtyard of our hostel talking to Kate and Lauren, who were about to head off on a 24hr bus journey down to Santiago! There are a bunch of hammocks there, for folks to use - so we did! A little later on, this wierdo guy and his girlfriend, who were staying at the hostel, and had spent every waking moment snogging each other - yuk! and no jealousy involved, he was a dork! - came back from wherever, and said to Dominique "can i sit in the hammock". Now she had stepped up to let them pass, so very nicely said "well, sure, when im finished with it". Poor Dominique, as i had pretty much sat in it all day! He continued to say "no, can i sit in it" like 3 or 4 times, until he realised we were all looking at him very strangely. THEN he decides to tell us its actually his hammock that he had brought with him, and he wanted to sit in it NOW! Seriously, what a weirdo on a number of fronts! Tell us its yours and of course we will move. But more importantly, who the heck carries around a bloomin´ big hammock in their backpack as they travel around South America! What a tube! Oh well, we laughed it off and left him to it, hammock and all! So happy New Year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Its "Salar de Uyuni" for us......

Heading off today for Uyuni, a 6hr bus ride from Potosi, and the gateway to the world`s largest salar (salt flats to those not in the know!). Funny note - at the bus terminal where we were buying our tickets, we heard a constant barrage of the most horrendous mix of Christmas carol-like (i use that term very loosely here!) music being blared at full blast, in conjunction with some local Andean flute and pipe tunes of the area - yes, a real joy after a night of imbibing one cerveza de Potosi too many! And this music was eminating from the strangest nativity scene I had seen - of course there were the usual suspects, Mary, Joseph, Jesus,(actually there were about 7 baby Jesus`) Miss Piggy, a few T-rex`s and of course Winnie the Pooh..hmm dont remember all those folks being in the original but hey, its Bolivia!!!

As we arrive in town (Uyuni has a population of 14,000 and at 3,675m quite high altitude - this place is literally in the middle of nowhere), we are met by a lovely lady asking "Are you Estefanie???" (Spanish version of my name!)...Hmmn, I thought this a little strange; how was it possible someone in this far, far flung place knew my name? Ahhh....all became quickly clear when the tour rep told us our pals, Kate and Lauren, (who I`m sure you will remember from the dreaded pampas/mosquito trip of death AKA Rurrenabaque fame) had arrived here earlier.. and given our names to the tour rep who popped over to show us to our hostel - how´s that for 5 star treatment, eh! Awfully good of them! So Hostel Cactus it was! Even better - we organized to be on the same Salar trip as them starting tomorrow morning - yeh! Had dinner at Minuteman Pizza, yes for all you Yankees out there, Tim is a true blue Minuteman from Amhurst, MA and has been in Bolivia for 8 years, and of course i have to mention the food - BBQ chicken pizza- fantastic! And he was a very nice guy! Married a girl from Uyuni who he met in Amhurst and hasnt looked back - loves Bolivia!!
So - it`s Dec 27th! We are ready to head of for our 3 day Uyuni trip! Have to get our Bolivian exit visas first tho´, as we are heading into Chile at the end of this tour.. then its into our 4 x 4 jeep with Kate, Lauren and 2 new friends, Sarah from Vienna and Veronica from Germany, both studying International Business at university in Santiago (brainy boffins but very nice too)! First stop is Cementerio de Trenes (the train graveyard), just outside of Uyuni, interesting place full of rusting old trains....then onto Colchana, a wee pueblo outside of Uyuni.Then we arrive at the salt flats themselves. It is hard to put into words how bizarre they are. Beautiful but really bizarre too!

Salar de Uyuni, the worlds largest salt flat, sits at a lofty 3,653m and covers an amazing 12,000sq km. basically everywhere you look, for literally miles and miles and miles, you see brilliant white, and because it had rained so much, the water sitting on top of the salt flats, makes a perfect reflection of everything around it.. my pics wont do it justice.. but have a look anyway.....In the height of summer (or at least when it hasn´t been raining, the salt flats resemble cracked pentagonal earth that looks even more bizarre, but we didnt see that as we had had rain recently.. still incredible tho! Also there is a salt hotel, with absolutely everything in it, being made out of salt! I licked the wall outside - just to make sure you know! - and indeed it is!! Incredible!
Yup that´s me ......Onwards we drive, for about 2 hours, in blinding white and blue, thats all there is to see around you, except for a few islands far, far away that dont seem to be getting any closer! Its hard to describe - you think it should be cold and icy and that the white stuff everywhere is indeed ice and snow, but its incredibly hot and its all salt, salt, salt!!
Eventually, we arrive at the island of Incahausi, again another mind bend as this island looks like it belongs in the middle of the Mexican desert, yet seems to be surrounded by a winter wonderland (have to give credit to Kate for this interesting description of what we were seeing!).

After lunch we head off, with Juan our brilliant driver and guide, looking like he is driving directly into the middle of a lake! Seriously, we are going across miles and miles of a shallow lake, completely covering the salt flats with 4-6 inches of salt water. The front windscreen is impossible to see through, Juan looks out of his side window instead; his face becomes covered in a white film, again its the salt at work! It is interesting to see the very technical measures taken here to make sure the jeeps dont just STOP as they drive through the salar; you assume all this salt just eats through the cars! So Floriana, our lovely chef and assistant rally driver!!, puts gorse bushes she picked earlier from the side of the road, and uses them to cover the engine and keep the salt water off of it, while Juan ties blue plastic sheeting to the front of the car!!!And it seems to work, as we keep on going... although there are definitely some interesting sounds at certain points in the trip! We make it to camp the first night (the travel agency lets you know accomodation is very basic on this trip,, hmmn slight understatement here but no problem!).
Next day we say hello to a few llamas, have breakfast around 6am, then its off again! Tons to see today... again miles and miles of barren landscape, with nothing living in or on it,no birds, animals, vegetation, people, nothing! Kind of wierd with that lunar landscape feel again, but still very beautiful! Stop to take in the muy tranqillo mountain landscape. The scenery, although barren, is very beautiful... i love the little stone alters people build (asked Juan cos i thought they were a lovely tradition of the indigenous people; nah, daft tourists do it but hey, i like them so built one myself!).
Next stop, one of the many lagunas that we pass, this one is Laguna Canapa, filled with flamingoes! There are three types of flamingoes that come here to rest, and breed - James, Andino and Chilean varieties, and up to 26,000 of these birds arrive in February to lay their eggs, especially in the Laguna Colorada, an incredible red lake, which gets its interesting color from the red phosphorus that lies on top of the water and its the algea in this lake that the flamingoes love to eat!!
After lunch, its more driving (be prepared for a numb bum if you ever take this trip; incredible and very different things to see, but alotta lotta driving (nearly 500 kilometres in 3 days!)
One of the big draws in this crazy Desierto de Siloli (sand desert?) is the Arbol de Piedra (the tree of stone!) which some folks liken to the work of Salvador Dali - these stones/trees are all completely natural, but do have quite a funky feel to them! Lots of big rocks to climb.... as you can see, so had a bit of a stretch of the old legs before we head off again!

Next morning, (after a very interesting night in the most rustic/basic place we have stayed so far - no water (except from a barrel!, and lights out at 9pm when the generator goes off!) its up at 4am (well, not exactly as Juan and Floriana slept in a bit so woke all 6 of us up at 4;30am and wanted us ready to go at hmmn, 4;45am! Obviously didnt happen, but we did get on the road pretty quickly! The reason for the mad dash - to watch the sun rise from the geysers... i know i keep talking about lunar landscapes but i really cant think of a better description....the geysers were absolutely incredible and like nothing i had ever seen. There were tons of them, all spewing hot gases, the smell of sulphur was quite strong at times, and everywhere you walked (and its Bolivia, so you could walk all through the geyser field) you could see bubbling holes of hot mud just ready to explode! At times, the mist/geyser gases completely enveloped you so you couldnt see the person standing right next to you! Mad! and brilliant! As the sun rose through these clouds, ir really was beautiful to see.... and so cold, that my camera froze a few times! After the sunrise, we headed out to the agua caliente hot thermal springs, where some dafties actually got into the pool (remember, its still pretty darn cold out!) so us girlies felt that getting our feet wet was more than enough!!!
After breakfast, we took a team shot.....
then it was off to the Laguna Verde...Yet another beautiful laguna, this time the water was a crystal aquamarine color, apparantly brought about by the high arsenic content, so not so many flamingoes hanging out here!And then, suddenly, it was upon us! The last stop on our Bolivia tour! Time to say our fond farewells to the country, the people, especially Juan and Floriana, and to say hello to Chile! I loved Bolivia, it was an incredible experience and the people definitely made it well worth the trip! Everyone should go!!!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Down the mines in Potosi for Christmas... well, almost!

We have arrived in Potosi, to undertake the latest in the "gringo trek" of South America - the famous silver mine tour! Potosi, has at turns, been blessed and cursed by its renowned silver deposits. The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain, on the hill overlooking the town. These veins were so profitable that Potosi, at the staggering altitude of 4,070m, the worlds highest city (now dont confuse this with La Paz, which is the worlds highest capital!- keep up people please!) soon became the worlds wealthiest city. Millions of indigenous people and African slaves were conscripted to work the mines, and millions also died working in appalling conditions (which we saw for ourselves, more later on that!). Since the early 19th century, when silver production began to drop, the city began to have big economic problems. Nowadays the mines are still worked for silver and ore, with over 90% of the male population working in the mines because there are very few other jobs available. Miners are also very proud and sometimes it is a generational job, with fathers and sons working together, with the sons delighted to work side by side with their fathers.We were picked up for our tour at 8am by Oscar and Pedro, with Pedro being our key guide for the day! Both are ex-miners and very good at their jobs! Pedro is hilarious... first stop was to get outfitted for the tour, see for yourself, very fashion forward right! Then off to the miners market to buy gifts for the miners themselves, ranging from 96% proof alcohol and cigarettes, to coca leaves (isnt the lady lovely that i bought my coca leaves from!) and lots of soft drinks, to dynamite, yes, 100% real dynamite which anyone can buy quite easily in Potosi. You can find it in many shops, from Argentinian (the best) to Bolivian (ok) and Peruvian (absolute rubbish) apparantly, according to Pedro!

We drove up to the Candelaria mine and were taken through the "mineral cleaning" section first, where the rocks that are brought up from the mines, are crushed and flushed through a number of different machines and systems to sift out the silver and ore minerals that will make or break the miners, depending on how much or little comes out. Then it was into the mine itself. I was a little nervous, not sure quite what to expect. It wasnt the claustrophibic nature that bothered me, just the deep darkness that these men had to work in for 8-10 hrs a day in blistering heat. They dont eat anything during their shifts, just chew on the coca leaves, to get them through the day, and drink soft drinks... its incredible to think when you see how hard they work! Essentially, as part of the tour, you crawl around and up and down 3 different levels of mine shafts, where over 200 miners were currently working.. as the flyer says "this is not a touristy or modern mine" yes, that was very true!

The miners themselves were amazing, so incredibly grateful for the soft drinks and coca leaves we had brought, it was humbling as they rushed past us, pushing 2 ton trolleys of hand hammered rock to the easy job where those miners who had done their time and were a bit older, e.g. 40 yrs old, would shovel the rocks into large bags which were then lifted up and out of the mine on a mechanical hook. This was one of the few pieces of "technology" found in the mines. We as tourists, were asked if we would help out the miners by shoveling for a minute, which of course we all did willingly. I`m telling you, 5 mins doing this and you are breathing really hard, and your throat and lungs hurt.. it is such hard work, and these men bang through over 250 giant bags of rocks in a day! It is incredible. Everything feels so antiquated and old fashioned, everything is done by hand and as the guide book says " a visit to the cooperative mines is demanding, shocking, and memorable".

There is a museum within the mine itself, that explains some of the history of mining in Bolivia, the life the miners have, the fact that whenever they have tried to band together as unions for better wages or conditions, they have been shot (yes shot and killed!) even up to the 1980`s this was happening! There is also a statue to the god, Tio, who the miners give thanks and gifts to, in the hope he will keep them safe in the mines. One quite telling comment was about whether Cerro Rico had been a blessing or a curse for Potosi, as the people of the city have never been the ones to benefit from the amazing riches of the mountain; legend has it that if you laid out all the silver brought out of the mines to date, it would be enought to build a bridge of silver from Potosi to Spain and back again. A more chilling note is that legend also says you could build two bridges of bones from the 8 million people who have died over the centuries working in the mines in Bolivia, and especially in Potosi!

Post mine tour, and after Simon, one of the boys on the tour, got to blow up his own bit of dynamite (quite a bang, i have to say!), please check out Pedro being an idiot, showing us gringos how to put the fuse part into the dynamite.. it was back to the hostel for a badly needed shower (we were so filthy!), and then out for a walk about.
That night, we went to the plaza to meet up with Pedro and Orlando (well, i cant remember his name unfortunately so i think that was it!). They had asked the group if we all wanted to go out that night but everyone was leaving Potosi that afternoon except us, so of course we said, sure, why not! We met the boys at 8pm and they duly explained they had been invited to a party and would we like to come! Now i know all the guide books say be very careful about situations like this, but a) we were both together and b) we had spent the day with these guys and they were quite lovely so felt safe.. So we jump in a taxi and arrive at the party... only to find that it hadnt even opened yet and was still padlocked up .. hmmn good start to the evening!!

So we potter around trying to find a bar, which we do duly come across.. hmnn it was a strange place, that looked like it hadnt been touched for about 50 years, but we sat and chatted for a while and downed the local Potosi cerveza!! Then it was off to the party, which turned out to be Oscar`s (another miner guide from earlier in the day!) graduation party from the local tourism school (alot of the miners work all day in the mines, then go to night school to try and learn alternate trades, tourism being a big one!) When we arrived and walked in, it was a bit like that scene from American Werewolf where everyone turns round and stares at could feel everyone thinking "why are these gringos here"??? All the chairs were against the walls, the people attending sitting in their little family groups. Think school disco with older people! And lots and lots of Sprite bottles on the tables. Now as there was no bar, we thought this might be a non-alcoholic party, but no, the soft drinks were actually 96% alcohol with a little Sprite mixed in! So we popped out and picked up a few bottles of cerveza ourselves and then the party really started!

An interesting fact about Bolivian "bailar" (dancing). They for some reason, all dance in one line, men on one side, women on the other. When we asked the guys why this was, they just said, "thats just the way we do things". So Dominique and I decided we couldnt handle the line, and broke out of it with our respective partners, crazy right! There was a moment or two of "hmmmmn what are these gringos up to" then we managed to persuade a few others to join us in non-line dancing, from two lovely ladies in traditional dress to a few of Oscar`s graduating class mates and their partners! After that, we were the darlings of the evening, with boys vying to dance with us, ladies shouting "muy bailar, muy bailar", and giggling when we dragged them up to join in, it was amazing. We shared our beer, they shared their shots of god knows what proof alcohol but it would def put hairs on your chest... then we all danced in a circle, with everyone taking a shot in the middle. The indigenous ladies were shy at first then they were going at it full blast, making everyone put their felt hats on, when it was their turn to dance... one strange thing, there are a number of traditional dances in Bolivia. The most trad. would be the "cumbya" which i would call the shuffle. It is officially the most boring dance on earth, and i dont know why people bother dancing to it cos they seem so bored. Then there is the folk dancing, similar to that of Chile, called the "cueca" where you fling a hanky around as you dance with your partner (I kept being silly and pretending to blow my nose with mine,,, yes i know very classy!). We finished the evening off around 5am! What a great night, we were all exhausted as we had danced non-stop, but had made a bunch of new friends, met some of our miner friends families and made men who never dance, dance with us, and basically had yet another great experience with the warm and friendly folks of Bolivia! A brilliant night!

Christmas itself was a low key affair.. we had a great night out on Christmas Eve with two new friends, Anna from Sweden and Anna from Switzerland. I had llama for the first time and it was QUITE delicious i have to say! But Christmas Day was like any other day in Potosi it seemed, the shops and stalls were all open, people were going about their usual business, the only thing different i noticed were people everywhere carrying these big cakes all over the city.. must be a traditional thing! We had gone to the Red Cross Christmas morning (Anna from Sweden works for them in Sweden!) to help give out food to the poor, there were many people there, mainly the indigenous folks who originally had lived in the countryside... it was organized by the Red Cross youth, so quite impressive of them....

So onwards to Salar de Uyuni and the biggest salt flats in the world for our next exciting adventure! Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 16, 2005

A spiritual.. and very sunny week in Santa Cruz!

Dominique and I are heading off in slightly different directions this week. She is going to Sucre and I am flying out to Santa Cruz, to visit Fr Roger, a good friend of my family´s. I think you may remember me talking about the fabulous Bolivian airline industry earlier, yes? Well, this flight was no exception. I was supposed to fly out at 3pm, then it was changed to 5pm then to 6:30pm. No reason for this, when you ask, these things just happen! Oh well!
Finally got to Santa Cruz and Fr Roger picked me up, and wow it is hot here, abour 85 degrees. And how nice to be visiting a grown up who has a lovely house, with all mod cons. I have my own air conditioned room, a beautiful view onto the lush garden, BBC World to see what is happening outside of my rucksack world, my laundry done for me (do you know how smelly everything was after the jungle - peehew!), three course meals, i was in heaven!! Thank you Fr Roger! Check out my view - ahh heavenly!

My latest stop, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is Bolivia´s second largest city, and has mushroomed from a backwater cow town of 30,000 to its current population of over 2 million people! Some say the concurrent explosion of the cocaine trade may not be coincidental! The city itself feels much smaller than it is, with the grand Plaza de 24 de Septiembre and the city´s cathedral, two of the finer elements of the city, showing off its cosmopolitan background. I definitely liked Santa Cruz, and it was great to see it with someone who lives there, but it did feel a little strange after La Paz, to see a Vegas like strip and a mini Statue of Liberty above "the New York Mall", in the middle of Bolivia!

My main reason for coming here was to visit Fr Roger, who has been in South America off and on for years now, and in Bolivia for the last 4 years or so. It is amazing to see how much he accomplishes in a day, and how people rely on Padre Rolegio in so many different ways. For example, as well as running a number of new parishes that have just been built, in some of the poorer barrios of Santa Cruz, where people really do have very little from a material perspective (Sunday collections are usually around $10 for over 200 people), yet they are the sunniest, warmest folks, chatting away to me, putting up with me stumbling around in my awful Spanish, and asking me what i think of Bolivia and that my Spanish isnt that bad, and their English is much worse! They were so welcoming and warm.... Fr Roger also visits the Oncology ward of one of the city´s hospitals every day. In particular, he has a close connection with the childrens ward, and while I was there, i was lucky enough to attend their Christmas party! To see these children, who have been through so much, and their families, having fun and laughing together, even if it is just for an afternoon, was a sheer delight for everyone! The children were all beautiful, and happy and glowing, excited for Christmas and what it would bring, and for an hour or two, forgetting about their awful illnesses and problems. For some, the next day would be back to the worry of upcoming operations (or not depending on what the doctors would decide), but for that one day, i definitely felt so very lucky to be with them ...

We had also decided we wanted to tour the Jesuit Mission Circuit, which starts roughly 4 hours or so outside Santa Cruz. From the late 17th century, Jesuits established settlements called reducciones in Bolivia´s eastern lowlands, building churches, establishing farms and helping the Indians learn more about agriculture, music and crafts in return for conversation and manual labour. Remember the film "The Mission"? Its based around this area of Bolivia. Sounds like the Jesuits got a good deal, but they were the biggest defenders of the indigenous people against the Spanish, so much so that they were kicked out of Spain at one point because of this!

We had a grand time, driving over 1,000 kilometers in three days in the region of Chiquitania, and visiting not only the easily treaded tour of the iglesias de San Ramon, San Javier, Concepcion, San Ignacio de Velasco, and San Miguel but also the rarely visited Santa Ana and San Rafael. Whether you are a big church lover or not, you couldnt help but be moved by the beauty of these buildings and the sheer determination, due to the influence of the Swiss priest and main architect of The Missions, the Jesuit Martin Schmit. His work was then reconstructed many years later by Hans Roth, who lovingly restored all of these churches to their exact original form. From the gigantic pillars, each one an individual tree trunk, lovingly found and plucked from the surrounding forests, and carved beautifully, to the incredible baroque gold and silver alters, to the hand painted walls and ceilings, each church was different and equally beautiful in its own way.

I was also lucky enough to visit some of Fr Rogers friends, from Padre Ramon, living at Las Piedras, where the views are spectacular and the massive stones AKA piedras, are over 5 million years old, to having lunch with Sister Martine of San Miguel´s convent, who so kindly ran through bucketing rain and giant puddles with her habit around her knees to show me that incredibly beautiful church. Also one of my fave experiences was at San Rafael, where about 15 young children were sheltering from the rain inside the church, along with a slightly older (about 85 yrs older!) nun who had just popped in to say a few prayers. As she took advantage of Fr Roger´s presence to chat away to him, the kids were very excited about my photo taking and wanted one of themselves, so of course i obliged! They were delighted with the shots, and the giggles rang out as i passed the camera around and Julio, Carlos, Fausto, Bernard, Lilia and the rest of the gang saw themselves in the pics! They also sang some Christmas carols for us before we left.. i thought i was going to cry, they were so lovely and warm and curious... it was a great memory of the mission trip!

It was also great to be with Fr Roger during the elections, so i could get the inside scoop on the different nominees, their parties, policies etc. It was quite exciting to see Evo win with 53% of the popular vote. All over the country people showed their party lines with painted houses, roads, sides of mountains you name it, Evo and Tuto, blue and red, MAS and PODEMAS were everywhere...

And lastly, Christmas just isnt Christmas without the girls at the local supermarket dressed in Santa outfits to help you pick out your cranberry jelly or mint sauce. From red leather hot pants to satin minis, it was quite a sight to behold, mind you i seemed to be the only one to notice so it must be the done thing in Santa Cruz....

So yet another fabulous week of Bolivian adventure. It´s off to Potosi and the mines next, so stay tuned!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Blood, sweat and tears.. in the jungle!!!

Jetted off for Rurrenabaque and our pampas tour today. I´m sure you desperately want to know the difference between the jungle and the pampas. Well - jungle tours involve canoe trips up the Beni and Tuichi rivers with treks into the jungle itself. Pampas tours, that we picked, involve visiting the wetland savannas and seeing lotsa wildlife and trekking inland through the tall, pampas grasses. Oh yes, and did i mention the mosquitos! I´ll get to that later!

It is great to know how well the Bolivian airline industry works. Our 12:15 plane was cancelled till 3pm, without us knowing until we arrived at the airport, so fair enough, we hang around and have lunch. Then it gets close to 3pm, so we head over to board, only to wait, and wait, and wait, as we listen to our pilot chatting with his building contractor about an addition for his house. Oh, yes, then a few personal phone calls, then a chit chat with the ground staff THEN we finally get on the darn plane!

The flight took about an hour on a wee 12 seater plane. It was great as I could clearly see the mountains and jungle below us, as well as the Amazon. We arrived to scorching sunshine - so incredibly hot!! Rurre (as we locals call it!) is a really small town of about 15,000 people, a bustling frontier town on the banks of the Rio Beni, with dusty roads, flip flops are the "zapatos" of choice, and you really feel like you are away from it all..

We hung out in hammocks at our hostel, watching the river flow past, chatting to some new found friends, like Sara from Taiwan, ..ahhhhh the pleasures of the jungle! But how things changed! Next morning we were picked up -on motorbike- to go meet our group for the tour. I held on tightly to my driver, who couldnt really see cos my giant rucksack was in front of him... he giggled a bit and as i looked around i realized all the cool passengers dont hold on, but i didnt care.. i wasnt falling off! Our group (which would soon become "The Condor de Pampas" gang) was a great laugh! We had Sam and Michelle, Chris, and Sarah and Pete from Australia and Kate and Lauren from the States. (Notice everyone very relaxed and summery looking, except Amish looking me who wore long sleeves and long trousers, and 3 layers of clothing the entire duration of the 100 degree trip, and the damn mossies still bit through all of that!!!) Our new found friend, Roberto was our guide! What a character. To get to the pampas, we had to take a 4 hour rickety, bumpy ride in this wee van, that had the most cracked windscreen i had ever seen. Every time we went over a huge bump, the driver held onto it with his hand - so clearly he was a bit nervous too! We saw an anaconda at the beginning of this trip, which is meant to be very lucky -or so we thought!

Got to the landing site, where we all got into our boat which would take us to camp! Think big canoe...on the river for about an hour, beautiful views and the breeze was fantastic as it was hot, hot, hot! On our way, Roberto asked if we wanted to see some yellow monkeys. Now all the books say be careful not to upset the fragile ecosystems of these areas by feeding the animals or doing things that arent in keeping with the environment. So what do we do? Yup, feed the monkeys bananas. Roberto decided it would be fun to put some of the bananas on my head - so of course, the monkeys went bezerk! At one point I had about 10 of them crawling all over me, and i was convinced that i bit one of their tails! Thank god for my tetanus shot! We also saw paradise birds, pink dolphins, condor de pampas, funny animals called "cappiberas" (spelling?) that look like cute bears but actually belong to the rat family (can you believe it, they are too cute!), and lots of tiny tortugas (turtles to you!).

On to the camp, picture lotsa swinging hammocks, a beautiful view of the river, with us all sharing one big dorm room with mosquito nets on them. We had dinner by candle light .. it was all going so well, and then, the dreaded word - mosquitos!!!! It had started to become apparant that in the pampas (slightly different than the jungle) there were quite a few mosquitos.... well, to be exact, millions of them and they wouldnt leave any of us alone! I had over 65 bites just on one arm by the next morning. And i wasn´t alone.. so this began to put a damper on our pampas trip! As we headed off to the bar - yes, can you believe it, in the middle of the pampas you will find the Sunset Bar, that proudly serves cold beer, everyone began to realise the mosquitos would play a big part in whether we would enjoy - or want to desperately escape - the pampas! Beautiful boat ride home in the dark, looking for alligator eyes, which light up pink in the black darkness of the pampas night.. so perfect and worth all the scratching to sit in the boat, listening to the bullfrogs, looking for our alligators! (Oh yes, back to not upsetting the ecosystem, did i mention Roberto had 2 pet alligators who lived at the camp, Pedro and Carlos, who waddled up to the front door every breakfast, lunch and dinner time to get fed... didnt matter what it was, bread, soup, pasta, they would eat it with gusto!

Second day (after not being able to sleep all night due to the damn mossies...) we headed off to look for sloths (very hard to find, big brown blobby animals that dont move very much.. yes, that is my naturist and very technical description folks!). We were in the boat for hours in the blinding heat, with everyone now madly scratching as the mossie plague spread amongst the to our sloth area, and Roberto excitedly tried to get us enthusiastic about traipsing into the even hotter high pampas grasses and then mosquito infected grasslands to find the damn sounds whiney and we all duly tried to follow our leader, until Lauren, with the full consent of the group, asked very politely if we could "regresar, rapido" as we were all being bitten alive and at this point, didnt give a hoot about a sloth... So, back on the boat again, phew for the breeze... just lovely!

Roberto tried to cheer us all up before dinner by bringing an anaconda to us as we sat swinging in our hammocks, swatting the damn mossies again. We did show some interest, Dominique, brave girl, had a wee shot holding it, but then we returned to our usual topic of asking who had the most bites at this point, and in the most interesting places! Later we went swimming in this beautiful isolated lagoon area of the river, and swam with the pink dolphins. Well, technically we swam and they swam but we werent actually in that close vicinity but hey it sounds good! Did i mention the river was chocolate brown, you couldnt see an inch in front of you, and a girl we met who had just finished the tour had been bitten by a piranha on her leg... we saw the bite, it was pretty big! But the heat and the itches sent us scrambling into the water, i didnt care what colour it was, i loved it and didnt want to get out!

Third day the excitement was in the air! Yay, this was our last day in the damn hell hole called the pampas! Actually, we had a great laugh about how miserable we all were, so it was still great fun. Our last event was to go piranha fishing, very exciting and those wee critters are pretty wily i tell you! I didnt catch one but was proud to stand beside Sam who got the biggest one of the day. Their teeth are fierce looking, but we were the ones laughing as we tucked into them for lunch- seriously they were quite tasty!
We headed back to Rurre with sighs of relief! The bonding over our itchy experience meant we all met up for dinner and mucho cocktailes at the (yes wait for it) Mosquito Bar in town! Great cocktails i have to say. The girls were quite perturbed that the boys didnt ask us to play pool, so we had our own, 3 hr long game, with Australia vs. the US (and a half - that was me!). Dont know if it was the cocktails, the malaria tablets, the heat or if we were just rubbish, but the game went on forever with the Aussies beating us, just barely tho´! Oh yes, and we were all delighted when our waiter, who was 19, asked us all to go dancing with him - what more could we ask for! Of course, we didnt go, cos we were all too old and knackered (or was that just me!).

One funny story; flying back to La Paz, both Dominique and I nodded off, only to wake up to all of the passengers in front of us wearing oxygen masks. We didn´t want to panic, so looked ahead to see what the pilots were doing. They too, had their masks on.. hmmn this was slightly weird. Looked behind, no-one wearing one. But we felt fine, so why were they wearing them, and if things were dangerous, why hadn`t someone woken us up and given us masks?? We had to assume the answer was either a) these "mask" people flew alot and brought their own masks with them for the flight for a wee burst of oxygen when they needed it or b) a sneaky way to get rid of a few gringos, one or two at a time ...either way it was the strangest thing to wake up and see.. tried to capture it in a pic but doesnt really do it justice, oh well, funny at the time!

Another fantastic experience in Bolivia. This country has it all - natural beauty beyond compare, vibrant indigenous culture, the warmest, friendliest people who are so happy and willing to sit and chat with you for hours, amazing parks and jungles, its got everything, well, except beaches, being landlocked, but who needs them, not now anyway! Bolivia is fantastic!I will be very sad to leave it...