Hola de Uyuni, Bolivia!
I have extremely sad news to report- Before leaving La Paz the 2-month beard became an extremely itchy and hideous nuisance. I'd complain to hostel owners about the prickliness of their pillows, only to be embarrassed when they pointed out the fact that it was actually mi barda. The last straw was drawn when I took an extended hot shower in front of a mirror and decided that I honestly didn't recognize my own face... I wanted me back, so I begrudgingly decided to enter a barbershop in La Paz where a man awaited wearing a white butchers jacket, and craftily utilizing tools that I only believed existed in Dr. Seuss books, gave me a classic double cut- Both beard and hair were sliced in a brilliant 30-minute display of pelucaria expertise that featured pump-blowtorch sterilization, paintbrush shaving cream lathering, single-blade shaving-fancy, and antiquated scissors with ancient-clipper-endings. I left feeling like a new man, my old self...Adam was back.
That afternoon I took the 9-hour busride to Cochabamba, a rarely traveled city whose cuisine is supposedly just as tenderly sweet as its given name. Before leaving for South America I'd been put in touch with a 24-year old student/model named Dari who had been giving me great travel advice, so when she agreed to help host me in her fair city I had to seize the opportunity... The bus-ride through the mountains was delayed by a protesting pueblo blockading the single-lane highway in an effort to attain gas from 18-wheel tankers, so the spectacular ascent through the Bolivian mountain-range provided both a topographic and social education for the lone gringo on the bus. The planned two-day stay quickly turned into four, as Dari immediately whisked me away with a friend to an amazing churascaria called Buffalo. Churascaria means that it was a restaurant with a set price ($5) for a buffet and constant merry-go-round of waiters offering you as much meat of every variety as one can consume. I voraciously ate to the glorious point of achieving the "meat sweats", which is when an individual eats so much beef that their face becomes flush and an internal heat (often cow demons calling from within) forces the person to sweat from beef saturation. Only after completing this feat, do I consider myself a real man. They call me "Hombre Real."
The greatest part of having a local host is that you stay away from tourist traps and get to see a native area through native eyes. Fortunately, among many other things, Dari had really nice eyes. After Buffalo, we went to a great local bar where I conversed with a bunch of Bolivian 20-somethings over Taquina cervezas and finally headed to an underground dance club that played everything from The Doors to hardcore reggaeton. The next few days consisted of eating amazing food all over the city (pique macho might be the greatest dish ever), touring the massive Cancha market, visiting Bolivia's most prestigious and expensive university ($250 per month), drinking and dancing at various pubs/clubs, walking the city streets, and taking in a lively futbol match with Dari and her father... If one wants to learn how to curse in Espanol, my best advice would be to attend a South American soccer game. 25,000 strong continually sang, jumped, danced, screamed, and most importantly, spat obscenities with fervor. Cries of Spanish expletives rained onto the field like luminous verbal confetti for two hours... And when our squad finally scored the eventual 1-0 game-winning goal in the 80th minute of play... Insane Celebration. I swear some of these men were happier than when their first-born child emerged into this world.
Leaving Cochabamba was pretty tough as I ate like a king and was amongst amazing company the whole time. Dari was an excellent host and because Cochabamba is a truly Bolivian city, I only saw one backpacker/caucasion in four days, which made for an extremely authentic experience. I then took the overnight bus to Potosi, the once-richest and highest city in the world at 4200m. Upon arrival at 6:15am I took a local bus to the city centro, grabbed an American desayuno and hopped on an all-day tour of the infamous mines. The mountain overlooking Potosi, called Cerro Rico, once produced enough silver to allow the city its own mint (called Casa de la Moneda, "House of Money", which I visited two days later)... Today its resources are heavily depleted yet 15,000+ miners work over 300 mines daily in search of silver, lead and zinc. There is no government intervention or assistance, no bosses or leaders, only small cooperatives that are usually family-based and they thus determine their own hours, risks and exploration sites.
After changing into proper garb, exploring the mineral factories, and purchasing gifts of soda and dynamite for the workers (just once I´d like to get soda and dynamite for my birthday), we headed into the mine. Within about 30 seconds it became blindingly apparent that this was no tourist gimmick; we were being taken into a legit mine that was meant for tiny Latin workers, not 6´4¨, 230lb quaterbacks with laser-rocket arms. Surprisingly though, they had a large lounge setup with flat-screen TV´s, internet portals, Skype headsets and two NBA Jam Tournament Edition arcade machines!.. I kid. They had shovels and headlamps. We spent over \n2.5 hours inside of that crazy mine- crawling, coughing, feeling nauseous (many people left), watching the men work, and helping shovel exploded rocks for two minutes before sitting down from exhaustion. I spoke briefly with a 36 year-veteran of the mine who was doing a 12 hour day, and also a 24 year-old who sat beside his 15 year-old brother, both of which began working the mines at age fourteen.
Finally we blew up some dynamite outside with the extras we had purchased, and after returning to the city I gorged myself on llama steak. Like my brother Cornelio Guibunda, it was dark, slightly thin and extraordinarily sweet. I had few hours to kill so I entered the magnificent San Francisco Church, only to find myself and one other visitor being taken around by the Spanish-speaking guide. Right away this other visitor seemed weird to me. A 30-something Canadian caucasion male, he dressed every bit the part of a NYC hipster. A tight black jacket over his plain grey t-shirt was tucked crisply into jet-black pants, which were strangely squished inside his shiny black galosh boots. It was sunny and pretty hot outside. The best part by far, was that he wore a massive white Karate Kid headband with three huge Japanese letters, meaning "Fighting Spirit" as he later explained. This was definitely the kind of guy who sipped on $6 lattes daily and then bought 1-ply toilet paper to wipe his ass. Don't ask me what that means, just believe it as truth. Everytime I would translate the guide's Spanish for him, he would rapidly nod at me and say "Asah!" A Canadian white guy. He soon mentioned he'd lived in Tokyo the past 7.5 years, but I swear he said "Asah" over 50 times in the hour we were there. As he rode off afterwords in a light green mountain bike with a huge frontal breadbasket, I cracked up but immediately felt regret that I never got his name... fortunately the fates were kind.
Unfortunately though, I mistakenly missed the last bus of the night to Uyuni, so the following internal dialogue ensued- Problem= What to do? Solution= Toss a coin to see whether I stay in Potosi or head to Sucre for the night. Problem= Toss completed. Is this side the heads or the tails on a 5 Boliviano coin? Total mystery. Solution= Suchre seems more mysterious, I'm going there... After eating a street hamburger I took the 2.5 hour taxi ride straight to Suchre, for a whopping $3.15. I quickly checked into an alojamiento for 2 bucks a night and went right to Joyride Cafe, a local watering hole where I bled blackink thoughts of reflective appreciation onto the lined pages of my journal... Knowing that my 24 year-old friend had been in that dirty mine 12 hours a day during the past 10 years while I attended basketball practices and frat parties was incredibly humbling... Perspective. Appreciation. Humility. A very powerful day.
The next morning I walked the streets of Suchre, Bolivia's "People's Capital" and widely regarded as its most beautiful city with an all-white interior. After viewing the entire city from the gorgeous lookout at La Ricoleta Cafe, I hopped the bus back to Potosi only to miss the Uyuni bus for the second straight night. As frustrating as this was, I had to find some element of positivity and therefore decided it was fate, so I looked for a purpose in my Potosi presence that eve... which became immediately obvious when I noticed the raucous crowds headed to the futbol stadium. One of the biggest matches of the year against a Venezuelan squad started in an hour, so there was only one thing to do- Drain 2 litres of Potosina beer, get as distastefully drunk as possible and join the rowdiest fans in futbol mayhem... The night was a blast, although we tied 2-2 (more screams of "Puta maricone!" from all directions), and I stupidly ate a 45 cent hamburger and fries combo from a street vendor both before and after the game... An Immodium morning followed.
So the next day I boarded the seven hour bus to Uyuni. Sometimes you really hit the jackpot with your bus seatmate- a pretty girl, an intriguing conversationalist, or a knowledgeable local. On this day, I lost, and I lost badly. As the obese 50 year-old Bolivian with just four yellow teeth sauntered towards the vacant aisle seat to my left, I didn't think much of it. But when he sat down, I was smacked with an odor unfit for this Earth. I'm 85% sure that in May of 2002, during a drunken game of Truth or Dare, this man chose dare... to which his compadre jokingly challenged, "Okay, okay I've got it. I dare you to become the shittiest smelling man to ever exist on this planet"... As his friend chuckled heartily, this man looked him sternly in his patched eye and said "You don't think I've got the cajones? Alright, I'm gonna do it." Since then he has showered twice a day in 4-month old rancid milk and blow dries himself with bottled hangover breath... I would have called him out for later forging his son's ticket, but I was too scared of being stabbed with a poisonous fart.
That night I got some solid rest and the next morning joined six Israelis, all my age, on a 3-day jeep tour of the Salar de Uyuni. To say that it felt like we were often on another planet would be a gross understatement. The enormous salt flats are one-of-a-kind with miles of bleached white land, often with an inch or so of water creating a wild mirror effect. As our truck came upon the first tiny salt pyramids, a dark blur flashed past us... It was the crazy Canadian riding his bicycle into the water! Sadly, after 3 hours of riding on dry salted land he got stuck and had to turn around, so I had time to find out his name and seven-year occupation in Japan. I expected, "Well I was an accupuncture specialist, and my name is Ted," Nope, way way better. "I worked in facility maintenance, and my name is Vinna." Vinna!? Vinna!!!? Life is a trip man. Anyway, in the middle of nowhere was a huge island of cacti, later a forest of tree-like rocks, soonafter thermal pools, geysers and amazing colored lakes with pink flamingos... The 3 days were a gorgeously wicked goodtime, especially considering the seven of us shared some hysterical conversations, sing-a-longs and one excellent Shabbat dinner with cheap wine and stale bred... I'm now back from the tour, heading to La Paz and then there's another week in southern Peru.
Bolivia was a country I originally did not intend to visit. Most just don't go, so I figured why bother. A planned five days has unintentionally blossomed into two weeks. In those two weeks, between the jeep and bus rides I've probably spent well over 40 hours staring out the window through disbelieving eyes, inhaling the oceans of stunningly diverse landscapes. This is by far the least traveled of the major South American countries, but it's offered so much through its natural beauty every single day...Rigid outlines of silhoutted mountain ranges rested each morning on a technicolor horizon, only hours after the same sky was peppered with salty stars. Angry geysers hissed sulfuric fuy and thermal pools sweated steam into the chilled air as the sun awoke. Lemon-dry plains stretched towards cloud-shadowed mountains that mocked the goats, llamas and alpacas below with brown contempt. Vanilla swirls were both lost and found on the slopes of cherry clay mounds. Tired volcanoes waned through rear windows, begging to be noticed by the charitable passage of time. Lakes appeared without warning or provocation, each dyed a different shocking color- blood red, topaz blue, oak brown, jade green- perfectly placid mirrors only disturbed by the occasional movement of the resident flamingos, which lazed about like brazen birthday candles. Ruined stone walls stood as skeletal reamins to what once was, or what never became. Dirt roads caved through lush countrysides like dried veins, snaking from peak to valley with vericose intent. Serated sand dunes flexed cracked surfaces from the 10,000 winds of natural expression. Towering mountains appeared and passed like tracing paper, witnessed by the lone few in passing...
Traveling through Bolivia is a road not taken by many, which is simultaneously its greatest weakness and strength. I urge anyone who ventures to this part of the world to spend some time in this magnificent country. Two roads diverged and during these past two weeks my experience has been within the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
Challenge the assumptions,
Key Trip Statistics
Showers with Heat- 8
Beard Status- Deceased
Song of Choice- "This Must Be the Place" by Talking Heads... Checkout String Cheese Incident's "This Must Be the Place Jam" for a rehashed and extended jam version.
Book Selection- "The Giver" by Lois Lowry... forever great.
Quote of Note- "He not busy being born is busy dying." -Bob Dylan
Random Person- Teddy "Sometimes Serious, Sometimes Delirious, Always Tiberius" Farkas