Arequipa, Peru: 11-13 March 2015

Arequipa, Peru

11 march 2015 –
8:27 – waiting in the Irish cafe on the main avenue in Copacabana. It’s my last day in Bolivia and here are the famous road delays they warned me about: the main street running down to the water, usually loud with the shouts of bus company employees pushing tickets out of town – today it’s silent. The cafe owner tells me the local government neglected to connect running water for a nearby community, and they’re blocking several of the roads to the Peruvian border in protest.

8:57 – in the main square I find the Irish couple I met in the cafe and together we negotiate a minivan to the border with a driver who claims he can get us there on back roads. Our driver Luis checks the radio and asks police at a roundabout where there’s an open road to the border. We’re on a rutted muddy country lane for about a kilometer, then a wider paved road littered with debris. We see people running along this road – young people, teenagers, with racing numbers pinned to their stomachs. I ask Luis about this – is it part of the protest, or an unrelated race? He says it’s a race of some kind but I don’t completely understand his answer. He seems intent on driving so I don’t press it. As we get further from Copacabana I start to see the real signs of the blockade – old brick buildings torn down, bricks scattered across the road, trees pulled over to block the lanes. More teenagers racing. Luis stops the van in front of a large group of men and women gathered with a Bolivian flag outside a government building. He says this is as far as he can drive us; “they’ll stop us if we try to go further.” But a few of the men on the edge of the group wave us through. Luis drives carefully past, everyone waving us on. “Que suerte”.

Past the blockade more bricks and trees scatter the road but it’s only a few minutes more before we’re at the Bolivian exit migration office and shaking hands with Luis and shouldering our backpacks and heading inside.

The office is quiet – the tourist buses won’t go along the roads that Luis knows, so there aren’t many people passing through today. We’re stamped out with no fuss, and we exit Bolivia on foot, walking the 100 meters down the road and through an arch and into Peru, where we get stamped in just as quickly. An enterprising taxi driver asks where we’re going. “Puno” we say – a town a couple of hours away where we can catch buses to other parts of Peru. He says he’ll take us for 5 soles (about $2). This seems great. He drives for about 5 blocks and stops. “Here’s the bus for Puno,” he tells us. I sigh.

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12:15 – the minivan we eventually find near the border stops at a terminal in Puno. It’s a local terminal so we get directions for the inter-city buses and walk the few blocks there. The buildings around the terminal are bare, raw red brick and exposed cement and concrete, bare rebar sticking out the top. The road is broken gravel and mud. I pass a heap of trash and rubbish and quickly glance away as I see a young boy squatting to defecate in the tall grass. Supposedly Bolivia is poorer than Peru but this part of Peru certainly looks worse.

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At the terminal I find a cheap bus to Arequipa. As I board, the bus drivers use a little hand-held video camera to film me (and the rest of the passengers) as I write my name on the passenger list and I get on the bus to find a comfortable seat on the second floor.

14:19 I look up from my book and find we’re passing through a perfect grid of industrial brick buildings. At regular intervals a side street opens up and I see it goes on perfectly straight for dozens of blocks. I can see the hills at the edge of town but I can’t see far enough along the side roads to see where they end. Each street is equally long and straight and busy. Once we pass a stadium with SAN ISIDRO written on the side.

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The afternoon deepens and the landscape changes, becoming more beautiful and more open. Rolling green hills and mountains host herds of sheep and alpacas. As we turn west a mountain range rears up ahead of us, sharp peaks dusted with ice. I see a solitary cone away to the south that looks like a volcano. Behind the mountains, the sky lights up with a brilliant sunset.

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An hour after dark we’re in Arequipa. I get a fleeting impression of narrow streets and bright streetlights and screaming taxis jamming the avenues, and then I’m stepping into a cool colonial house divided into dormitories, and because they overbooked I’m in a private room for the night, and I’m tired from my journey and curling up to sleep.

12 march 2015
I wake up early and make myself breakfast and sit on the terrace at the hostel drinking coffee and watching the morning haze rise. In the mornings in Arequipa I would go to the central market just as the stalls were opening and hear the vendors greeting each other and smell the fresh bread and fruit, and I would buy some brown eggs in a little plastic bag and a fresh mango and cook the eggs with tomatoes and onions and garlic and eat them on the terrace at the hostel where I was staying. From the terrace I could see the volcanoes early in the morning before the air got bright and hazy: Chachani which is a series of peaks all together; Misti which is a huge cone off by itself; and sometimes the little cluster of peaks further south called Picchu Picchu.

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Arequipa by daylight is lovely. I could see the buildings downtown, all white, crowding together. Here and there are the stone towers of cathedrals and churches. On the other side of the hostel’s wall is the flat roof to an old spanish-style building with a tiled courtyard and wide stone steps leading up to a promenade. Farther out I could see the buildings march away into the hills, becoming more modern and less beautiful as they fade.

Out from the hostel I turn right and walk down to a wide pedestrian avenue lined with modern-looking chic clothing stores, high-end pharmacies, and little pastry shops. The pedestrian street opens onto the principal Plaza de Armas, dominated at one end by a huge stone cathedral and lined on the other three sides by airy colonnades. Hordes of pigeons splash in the central fountain tucked among tall palm trees.

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From the plaza I turn east and walk along a cool street of big square buildings made out of white stone. As I pass huge, two-story arched entrances, I look inside and see dark stone entrances that open up into bright courtyards.

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Around the entrances to these huge doors, which once led into the houses of rich Peruvian aristocrats, stone carvings mix Spanish baroque ornaments with designs from the indigenous cultures living here when the conquistadores arrived.

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In the afternoon I take a free walking tour. Our guide points out the white volcanic rocks that were used to construct the old aristocratic houses and are now broken into small pieces to line modern buildings. He tells us about the people who lived here before the conquistadores – prior to the rise of the Inka empire, people farmed here in small villages. The mild climate attracted Inka explorers and so they stayed, relocating the existing population to other areas of the Inka empire. Arequipa was conquered like the rest of Peru, and eventually freed from colonial rule like the rest of Latin America, and remained a small rich town until the 1970s, when the city exploded in a manufacturing boom. This part of Arequipa’s history is written in the shabby, industrial suburbs that grew rapidly out from the pretty colonial center.

We tour old streets that date back to the 16th-century founding of the city, visit a little alpaca wool workshop, and do a quick food tasting of potatoes, chocolate, Pisco.

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Late in the day I find a restaurant serving an enormous fixed-price menu del dia for 12 soles – there’s a little ceviche appetizer, a bowl of rice soup with a chicken leg in it, a huge plate of rice and potatoes with chicken breast, and purple corn pudding for desert. As much steak as I are and loved in Argentina, and as much as I enjoyed the market chicken in Bolivia, I think Peru has the best food of all the countries I’ve visited in South America.

13 march 2015
This morning I finish the last of my coffee as the outlines of the volcanoes disappear into the haze and pollution as the day warms up. The sunny terrace starts to get too hot after a couple of hours, so I come down and finish packing my things to leave behind the reception desk at the hostel while I take a day trip to a nearby hot spring. The French receptionist gives me directions to the buses going to Yura and the hot springs. “We went there once… but they were closed,” he tells me in Spanish. “We got there too late. You should go now.”

10:45 – I get into a city bus for Yura and pay two Soles to the bus assistant whose job is to yell YURA! out the door as we pass groups of people on the street, and to collect money. The bus driver is a talkative older man who can’t stop laughing as we’re driving off. He bought a bicycle horn to replace the bus’s regular horn and he’s giving himself the giggles honking the bicycle horn out the window of the bus.

It’s an hour to Yura, and we pass over the Grau bridge and head uphill past the airport and into the manufacturing sector of town, which is barren and industrial looking as you might expect. The suburbs keep going and getting poorer and people get on and off. When old men or ladies with little children get on I give up my seat. Once I sit down next to a man about my age and we introduce ourselves. He’s from Trujillo, visiting Arequipa for a law seminar, and is on the way to the hot spring too.

After the corrugated metal outskirts of Arequipa finally peter out, we drive along a gently curving highway through dry desert hills dotted with grimy kiosks until we come to a narrow valley. Just as we come around a curve I see a series of pretty, tallish adobe and stone buildings in a kind of colonial style. There’s a flagstone walkway next to a map showing a layout of the small town, with hiking and horse trails leading up to Inka ruins in the mountains. I wander into the hotel with Alberto, my friend from the bus, to buy tickets for the hot spring.

There are four pools in the complex but none of them are natural like the springs I’m used to in Nevada. Alberto wants the swimming pool but I veto this, remembering the spring Patrick and I went to with children wearing swimming diapers and flailing pool toys at each other and the pool so packed with people that there wasn’t a foot of space. I think the bath with five separate pools looks the best, least likely to be full of screaming children.

Because this spring is part of a resort complex and not an undeveloped pool like I’m used to, the baths are indoors and we have to pay 1.50 soles extra for bathing caps. I put mine on and feel like I’m in the 1950s and dip into the first pool. The water is tepid and smells of sulfur and I come out shivering. The plaque by this pool says the water relieves rheumatism. The following pool, which is even cooler, is supposed to relieve gastrointestinal complaints, so I shiver there for ten minutes and try to explain celiac disease in Spanish to Alberto. The next pool, which is the hottest, claims to soothe arthritis. I don’t have arthritis but I stay in this pool for a long while anyway to keep warm. The water in this pool is being aerated somehow and fizzes like a soda (perhaps this is good for arthtitis). The last two pools are even colder and are meant to relieve eye complaints. I dutifully dunk my head under the cold water and open my eyes to check if I still need my glasses when I come out. My vision has not improved so I go back to the hottest pool and talk with Alberto for another hour.

If you don’t have a better option for going to a hot spring, this one isn’t bad. I don’t have a lot of faith in the supposed curative properties of hot springs – besides the mental and physical benefits of feeling relaxed and happy, and the lithium content of some natural pools which do have antipsychotic properties – so for me this was more of a curiosity and a nice way to spend the morning.

For lunch Alberto and I eat at a restaurant across from the pools (I order a ceviche that nearly brings tears to my eyes) and catch a bus going back to Arequipa. Next to me on the bus is an old lady who talks longingly about how much she would like to go to the US to work, but can’t get the proper visa. It’s a story I’ve heard from a lot of Peruvians. There’s no work in a Peru, they say.

Back in Arequipa I grab my backpack from the hostel and wave down a taxi and pay the driver extra because he talks to me about his family and his kids (both in their 20s) working in mines and the tiny salary he makes each month, and then in the terminal I find a bus leaving for cusco in 10 minutes that has cama beds for cheap, so I pay a little extra for a fancy leather seat in the lower floor of the bus and settle in to a kind of tired stupor as the light outside fades and the long miles roll away under the bus wheels to Cusco.

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Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

La Paz: 5-8 March 2015

La Paz Blog

5 March 2015
We rise slowly and methodically over La Paz in a teleferico (a suspended cable car). I’ve read a lot about this city and it’s as impressive as they say – buildings seem to have been absolutely poured into the valley, spilling up onto the sides until the hills become too vertical to support any further construction. The buildings become shabbier and poorer as we rise. Far away in the heart of the valley I can see the tall, modern-looking skyscrapers of downtown.

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We pass the poorest of the buildings we’ve seen so far – just shacks – crest the very edge of the cliff that lines the valley, and the teleferico glides along a slow u-turn and the doors open to let us out. At the edge of the terminal we see a long street covered in market stalls extending as far as we can see. We’ve come to the 16 July market in El Alto. Roman and I stroll down the first street, where for about $10 I buy an alpaca sweater that I think would have cost $100 in the US. We keep walking and pass the vendors selling car parts – booth after booth after booth with rows of gears in all sizes and steering wheels and seatbelts and chrome floor mats and entire engines in differing states of repair.

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The car engine booths slowly give way to the furniture section, and as we’re passing a side street I smell something amazing and we turn to investigate. On a nondescript corner between two furniture shops a woman is cooking under a plastic awning, surrounded by a pans filled with soup, rice, chicken, potatoes. The amazing smell is coming from the deep-fried chicken spitting in a shallow vat of oil. I desperately want some of this chicken. Roman and I stand politely by the row of pots while the cook talks with other customers, the two of us trying to figure out the etiquette for ordering. I err on the side of being too polite when I travel – I hate to be an inconsiderate foreigner – but I think the way it works here is you go up and shout at this poor lady and eventually she brings you your food. After about ten awkward minutes waiting for her to notice me and ask what I want to order, someone in line says “let the foreigners go first” and I point to that fantastic chicken and she grins and tells us to go have a seat inside. In another ten minutes there’s an enormous pile of rice under this beautiful golden chicken breast, ringed with potatoes and a little shredded lettuce and onion and tomatoes, and I kid you not readers it is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten – and I grew up in the South.

After we have eaten the glorious fried chicken and enough rice to feed at least three grown men, we pay the bill – 26 bolivianos, about $3.50 – and stroll back out onto the market. The furniture section seems to go on nearly to the horizon, so we turn inwards to the center of the market, thinking we’ll wander for a bit. Every time we turn a corner I expect to see the end of a street where the stalls get emptier and further apart and eventually stop. But this market doesn’t stop. It’s as large as a small town. You can buy everything in this market: flowers, toilet paper, beds, carved stucco Greek columns, puppies, cocoa leaves, ducks, jewelry, shoes, bicycles, cars, toilet seats. We never find the end, and after maybe an hour of wandering in the rain we start to ask for directions back to the teleferico and people point and give us vague directions and after another twenty minutes or so we’re climbing back into a gondola and looking down on the city with the enormous market of El Alto still buzzing behind us.

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In the afternoon we find decent coffee – like me, Roman misses good espresso – and wander central La Paz. In the evening we cook in the hostel’s sad excuse for a kitchen, and investigate the bar next door, and meet new people and run into friends we’ve met in other cities on the road.

6 march 2015:
Roman takes a bus for Copacabana and I sit down for a long day of writing and catching up on plans for the next leg of my journey, through Peru and Ecuador.

In the evening, despite my repeated reminders to myself that I am not an 85-year-old woman, I fall asleep at 21:00. I wake up a few hours later when my roommate comes in – an American from Vermont. After a few minutes of conversation he brings up cocaine. I didn’t know this, but it seems La Paz is a major cocaine hub in Bolivia, and like Medellin and Cartagena in Colombia, it attracts its fair share of tourists mainly traveling there to get high. This style of traveling baffles me, readers, and I am an open minded person but I think this is a pretty pathetic reason to travel. After many attempts to get me to come with him, my roommate leaves for some kind of famous cocaine bar and I decide to do something more interesting, like drinking cocktails and playing pool at the hostel bar. I meet L—–, a German, and play a game of pool that lasts probably an hour because we’re both so bad at it. To console ourselves we decide to look for a drink at a bar downtown.

Up an old brick set of stairs in a narrow alley we almost miss a little low wooden doorway, but a woman just outside hears us speaking English and gets our attention and invites us in. She’s Bolivian but speaks almost perfect English after having lived in Bermuda for many years. She introduces us to the tiny bar, called Bocaysapito (mouth of the toad), so named for a black road statue enshrined in a little alcove in the back of the bar. We learn later that you’re supposed to buy the toad a drink and stick a lit cigarette in its mouth, and the toad will grant you a wish. The superstitious residents of the bar crowd together around old wooden tables and along benches, everyone sharing space and talking together around candles and pitchers of very strong Fernet and coke. Someone is playing folklore on an acoustic guitar. We find ourselves at a table of bohemian-looking Bolivians who fill little two-ounce glasses for us from the pitcher. The woman who invited us in talks to us about Bolivia, about the president Evo Morales, about the future of the country. She introduces us to the owner of the bar, a man with a dark sun-stained face and long hair. This is about the time we stop paying for drinks and stop looking at the time on our phones and dive into the conversations around us. Sometime around 2:30 the music stops and sometime around 3:30 everyone else gets kicked out of the bar, but we’re still talking and we’re at the owner’s table and we light another candle and keep talking and pouring Fernet.

Around 5:00 suddenly everyone is starving. “Let’s go to las velas!” . We’re in a taxi for ten minutes then and out into a little concrete market with a sign outside that says LAS VELAS and inside the concrete stalls are sleepy women with their long braids tucked behind their shoulders to keep them out of the little fires under their grills, and on the grills are the late night comfort foods of La Paz: golden chicken and grilled sausages and near the entrance, two ladies selling anticucho, which is meat from the heart of a cow. They cut it into thin ribbons and grill it and serve it with spicy peanut sauce and a little tennis-ball-sized boiled potato, for 10 bolivianos a plate (about $1.50). It tastes smoky and rich like most grilled meat and we each eat several little plates with the healthy appetites of people who’ve been up all night drinking.

The sky is getting light as L—– and I climb out of the taxi in front of our hostel. There’s a little terrace on the top floor of the hostel where we look out at the city as the dawn grows and brings to light what little color there is to see in this grey city.

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7 march 2015
L—– and I spend the day wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop. Neither of us slept much after being up all night, but we enjoy the sleepy day, watching the rain from under the eaves of dark cafes selling drinks that always seem to come in tall clear glasses with the milk and coffee layered like a parfait.

Late in the afternoon I meet Brayan, my Couchsurfing host in La Paz. We take a public bus to his family’s home near the stadium and he opens the door to a guest bedroom where I’m staying for a couple of nights. I eat with the family around the dining room table, talking shyly with Brayan’s parents and brother.

8 march 2015
Brayan and I go again to the El Alto market where he buys a slew of house plants and I buy a pair of the sturdy flat shoes the indigenous women wear. I figure if those shoes stand up to working and walking and carrying sacks of potatoes, they should work just as well for traveling.

In the evening I eat another helping of anticucho from a street vendor near Brayan’s house. It’s my last cold night in La Paz. From the view at Brayan’s house I look out across the valley sparkling with the lights of the city, houses draped like a blanket into the crannies of the hills.

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Bus blog: Torotoro to La Paz, Bolivia

Torotoro to La Paz

4 march 2015:

6:45 – We’re up early to pack and buy breakfast. Eggs this morning, peach juice, coffee, and the fruit salad Frances makes so well. While we’re eating, Macedonio swings by to tell us the minibus is ready and we can leave as soon as we’re finished eating. We hurry with the bill and our bags and head out the door.

8:40 – The minibus is not ready. Macedonio is nowhere in sight and the ticket agents at the little minibus kiosk tell us they’re waiting on four more people before the van will leave. The minibus system is faster than the bus and only a little more expensive, plus you have more control over departure times and stops, but the downside is that the minibus does not leave until it’s full, which can sometimes take a few hours.

9:40 – Macedonio has come and gone and we’re still missing two or three passengers. I chat with a Bolivian man waiting for the same bus (he cans and exports palm hearts for a living), pet the friendly stray dogs, and catch up on writing.

10:20 – we collectively decide to buy the empty minivan seats so the van can leave. I take one last bathroom break.

10:45 – After a few more frustrating moments of waiting, the van rumbles slowly over the cobbled streets, across the river, and out of town. Including the driver, there are 13 of us stuffed in a car only a little bigger than the average American family van. The scenery out of Torotoro is stunning. It was dark when we first arrived, so this is my first time seeing this landscape. We leave the jagged-edged bowl with its striped layers of earth behind and begin weaving in and out of green hills. Occasionally our driver brakes hard for a herd of goats or a stray cow. We pick up two more passengers along the way (I’m still not sure where we managed to fit them).

The curves in the road make me dizzy, so I close my eyes and listen to music. I would sleep, but the bus driver honks every time we round a curve, which makes sense – the road is not quite wide enough for two cars to pass and most of the curves are blind turns. What I don’t quite understand is why he also seems to be honking at water crossings, trees, and large rocks. The peculiarities of Bolivian road etiquette are still a mystery to me.

When I can open my eyes again I watch closely as we pass small groups of buildings – not towns or even villages, just clusters of houses every now and again along the road. They’re all dirt and adobe, some with corrugated metal roofs held in place with bricks or stones. Sometimes there’s no glass in the windows. Sometimes there are no doors. I see a lot of political slogans painted along the walls, all of them pro-Evo Morales, the current president who is running for his fourth term. In the doors of the occasional kiosk plastered with coca-cola slogans sit indigenous women dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit: black sandals, a knee-length skirt and petticoat in a sold blue or green, long-sleeve knitted sweater, and wide-brimmed hat sitting atop two long, shiny braids hanging down to her waist. She sits with her neon striped blankets tied around her shoulders, a tiny son or daughter peeking over her shoulder from within the shelter of the blanket; or with the blanket spread in front of her, various sweet snacks tucked inside for sale.

14:40 – we climb out of the van on a busy street in Cochabamba, stretch, shake hands with Macedonio, and grab a taxi into town for a hurried coffee and a menu del dia.

16:32 – we’ve just missed a bus departure to La Paz, but the noise in the terminal tells us we won’t have trouble finding another. The terminal at peak hour is a madhouse. Women and men shout destinations like they’re selling food at a county fair: “La Paaaaaaz! ” “Oru-ru-ru-ru-ro-O-ruuuuuuu-ro!” “PotosiPotosiPotosiiiiiiii!” It’s surreal. The noise is deafening. We weave through vendors all but screaming in our faces, like soldiers running through enemy fire, to a company advertising cama and semi cama seats for La Paz. Our taxi driver advised asking for a company with a semi cama option as a security measure (buses in Bolivia have something of a reputation). The El Dorado booth looks clean and professional. The woman selling tickets signs us up promptly for seats at the very front of the bus – seats with a panoramic view – and assures us that the bus leaves “al punto” 18:00 – exactly at 18:00.

18:15 – the bus does not leave exactly at 18:00. The bus driver is sound asleep in the front seat. We check with the woman who registered our bags and she assures us the bus will leave in “just a little bit”.

19:02 – having a seat at the very front of the bus gives me an excellent look at how close the bus driver pulls to other buses and cars as we crawl out of the terminal, an hour late. I am genuinely surprised that the bus is leaving so late; the microbus this morning was one thing, but this is a major bus company and generally they leave punctually. The bus weaves rapidly in and out of traffic as we navigate the suburbs of Cochabama. The driver honks at everything. I lose count of the number of obstacles and other vehicles we nearly hit.

19:30 – the other passengers on the bus complain loudly and bang on the windows and floor. “Vamooooos!” We’ve stopped to pick up passengers in Quillacollo and everyone is more than anxious to be on the way.

20:30 the bathroom that was advertised in the el dorado ticket office is apparently “closed for the duration of the trip”. We stop next to a line of about 15 identical restaurants serving chicken prepared in various quantities of oil, and several men and one or two women get out. The men turn their backs to the road. The women squat in the shadow of tractor-trailers parked in a long line. I find a deserted concrete corner behind the line of restaurants. When I come back, the bus is already pulling back on to the highway. I yell and bang on the door and they slam on the brakes so I can jump in.

22:08 I’ve decided that the best strategy for surviving the journey with nerves intact is to close my eyes. We’ve already passed long lines of trucks on mountain roads with short blind curves. A few times the bus driver has begun passing a few cars on a hill, only to slam on the brakes when another car comes flying at us in the opposing lane. Now I think I know what they’re talking about when they say going by bus in Bolivia is rough on the nerves.

0:43 we make a stop to let off a few passengers. I eat an apple with peanut butter – an excellent gluten-free travel snack, readers, if you all are curious how I stay alive on long bus trips. The lights in the upstairs level of the bus come on and stay on. According to the information our taxi driver gave us, we’re still three hours from La Paz.

2:35 and it seems we made good time to La Paz, and we’re groggily shouldering our backpacks and deciding whether or not to take a taxi to our hostel, which turns out to be just a few minutes’ walk downhill, and then we’re falling into our bunks and trying not to wake the other guy already asleep in our room, and then we’re out.

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

27 February 2015

18:30 – Roman and I arrive exactly on time and find our bus parked behind Sucre’s terminal, looking far shabbier and worn than in the picture the man at the ticket office showed me. My armrest is fraying and the seat squeaks as I sit down, but it is actually pretty comfortable. As I get up for one last bathroom run – there’s no bathroom on the bus – a man in an aisle seat grumbles about the supposed “semi-camas” (reclining seats) that the bus company advertised. The seats aren’t terribly uncomfortable, but the guy at the ticket office was definitely exaggerating when he said the bus was a “luxury”. Truthfully, I think I prefer the cheap local bus to a luxury bus anyway, at least for short trips.

18:49 – puffs of black smoke drift by my window as the engine rumbles to a gentle start. The sun sets before long and I’m asleep soon after.

3:00 – Roman and I drag ourselves groggily off the bus and into the terminal. It’s big and echoes like a gymnasium – even at this hour – with the shouts of bus company operators screaming out destinations. We’re both a little dazed. We don’t have a hostel to go to – there don’t seem to be many traditional backpacker hostels in Cochabamba – but we can’t stay in the cacophonous terminal, either. After sitting and blinking sleepily for a few minutes we decide to try one of the hostels listed in Lonely Planet. We take a taxi downtown to the first place the book suggests – depressing and barren-looking as a jail. We walk through deserted streets to another potential hostel – no room. Finally we find a cheap hotel with clean rooms and soft beds and pass out for a few hours.

28 February 2015

Roman and I switch hostels – we try a hostel listed on hostelworld in the hopes of finding a backpacker crowd, a few other travelers we can exchange tips with. But the hostel – rather a beautiful guesthouse – is completely empty. We pay 100 bolivianos each for beds in a dormitory that’s empty except for us.

Cochabamba by daylight is much lovelier than at night. Like Sucre, there are colonial buildings, but the city has a decidedly modern feel, and a far busier pace. It seems to me to be a wealthy city. We eat more mysterious Bolivian food in a pretty restaurant, then go in search of a tour operator to take us to the nearby national park Torotoro. We ask for directions to tourist information centers, which we never find, and eventually end up stumbling on a tour agency that seems about to close for the siesta. A friendly Bolivian man inside gives us some options for a tour of the national park. The prices are good – about $150 each for a three day tour – and we arrange to leave the following day.

In the afternoon we walk up to a huge hill dominating Cochabamba, on top of which stands the largest Jesus statue in the world – taller even than the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We ride the cable cars up – signs at the bottom of the hill bluntly state that people who walk up are likely to get robbed – and come out on top of the hill to a view of a huge city sprawling through two adjoining valleys. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate downtown Cochabamba, while the city spreads out away from them, big and urban and busy.

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In the evening we go to a restaurant called Casablanca where I try ceviche – actually a specialty of Peru – that must have the juice of 20 limes in it. On the way back to the hostel we stop by an Irish pub where Roman orders a quinoa beer, which we’ve started seeing more of in the Andes. It turns out to have been made from barley with quinoa added in for laughs I guess, meaning it’s not gluten free. I think this seems like a cruel joke and if makes me glad I haven’t ordered one.

1 march 2015

A new day, a new month, the beginning of my sixth month of travel. I check my calendar and see it’s actually been six months plus one week since I left the US. It doesn’t feel like that long. I thought by now I would feel tired, lonely, worn out, ready to go home. Instead I feel relaxed. The more I travel, the more I get used to living out of a backpack, the more Spanish I learn and the more people I talk to, the more I come to know myself well and really understand what I want to see and do when I travel. I travel better the longer I’m at it. And the trip doesn’t feel long. In fact it feels more like two or three different trips than one: there was the time before I could really speak Spanish, when I was more of an outsider; there was my long stay in Buenos Aires and my depression there; and there was the day I left Buenos Aires and really started moving and the road trip began. And now in some ways it feels like another trip is just beginning.

A new month, a new day. Today Roman and I decide to visit the nearby town of Quillacollo where there’s meant to be a large Sunday market. We take a “trufi”; not quite a taxi and not quite a bus, it’s a minivan that I would normally say seats about 8 people plus the driver, but I think we squeeze in 12. As in most countries outside the US, personal space is much much smaller than what Americans assume is the norm – so sometimes you’re pressed in between two strangers. Four people squeeze together on a bench seat, and special folding seats built into the aisles spring out to make use of every available spot. When someone in the back wants to get out, the people in the folding seats have to get out too to make way.

We grab a trufi in Cochabamba and take the 45 minute trip to Quillacollo. We keep thinking we’re going to miss the market – it’s always a gamble when you take public transit somewhere you’ve never been – but finally we’re in downtown Quillacollo and there’s no mistaking it. It’s a madhouse, throngs of people everywhere and the trufi inching through the crowd of people crossing the street. At first all we can see is the crowd, locals bustling back and forth and around the street, indigenous women with brightly colored striped blankets tied on their backs (sometimes there’s a baby tucked back there, or a load of potatoes or rice), and here the style of hat they wear is a simple wide-brimmed hat in white or tan, a sort of lacy texture with flowers tucked in somewhere.

Once we’re off the trufi and slipping into the moving tide of people, there are the stalls selling fried fish, batteries, razors, heads of pick axes, secondhand clothing, toothpaste, underwear; ragged plastic tarps swaying loosely as the ladies running the stalls slap their towels languidly at clouds of flies. We wander the aisles. Each street has its sellers: a street for shoes piled neatly in stacks, a street for fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a street for bouquets, a street for restaurants. The food market takes place under a pavilion in the center of the block of stalls, divided into alleys. There are pyramids of bananas, oranges, cactus fruit, huge papayas and avocados, piles of peaches, apples, and mangos. In the butcher stalls we see piles of chicken heads and feet.

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We stop to drink fresh-squeezed peach juice with cinnamon and a sweet peeled peach at the bottom of the cup. While we sit with our cups an old woman approaches Roman and tries to negotiate the sale of his backpack in Quechua (an indigenous language). She’s at it for about five minutes before we finally make her understand that we don’t speak Quechua.

Later we rest in a plaza and eat chantilly, a cup of red jello with a quivering tower of soft meringue on top. Four teenage boys have a small speaker hooked up to someone’s iPod and are practicing breakdancing in the center of a gazebo. Old couples, young children, and teenaged girls in indigenous clothing eat chantilly under the tall graceful arches of the gazebo and look on as the teenagers slide their sneakers over the polished stones and make flips and headstands one after another.

In Cochabamba we meet Eddy, the travel agent who takes us by taxi to the bus for Torotoro. At the stop we’re waiting in our squeaky seats for a few minutes when it becomes apparent that the bus company made a mistake and all the seats on the bus have been sold to two different people. After an hour of scrambling, every seat is full and people are sitting on benches squeezed in the aisle. Two skinny kids share the seat next to me. I offer my seat to the older boy when I see his head start to droop and he nearly slides onto the floor. He falls asleep right away with his head on Roman’s shoulder while I stand in the aisle.

Roman and I take turns standing for the rest of the winding, bumpy road to Torotoro. Sometimes the bus leans a little going around a curve and I look down and see a cliff half a meter from the bus tires. Just after midnight we’re in town, a few adobe buildings fading into darkness, and our park guide greets us yawning and points us to a cheap hotel where we bang on the door and stumble into our room for the night.

Sucre, Bolivia: 23-27 February 2015

Sucre
23-27 February 2015

I spent a quiet and slightly aimless week in Sucre. It’s the official (constitutional) capital of Bolivia, but only the judicial branch of government is based here and I found the city quiet and relaxed. The buildings and streets are lovely, colonial. I read that Sucre was built to be a retreat for the wealthy people of Potosi – a sort of resort town.

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The first place Boris and I visit is the central market, which is deservedly famous. It’s housed in one enormous building with concrete partitions dividing the counters. On the perimeter are the fruit and vegetable stands, run by old ladies who all call me “mamita” and try to convince me to buy extra fruit. The day I leave on the bus one very savvy businesswoman almost convinces me that it’s a good idea to buy a watermelon to bring on the bus. But my favorite is the woman who sells eggplants – I can’t find them anywhere else – she gives me a little bit of basil for free when I buy tomatoes and onions to make a salsa.

Further in the market are the meat counters – all varieties of beef, pork, and chicken – these are the counters with the big concrete partitions. The meat portion of the market is strange and a little mazelike. Further in there are stalls selling flowers and cakes and even shampoo, and on the second level a row of restaurants selling typical Bolivian food for very cheap. Boris and I stop at one stall where a woman convinces us to try a spoonful of delicious beef stew. We agree to eat there and ask for plates of the stew (or at least, we think we do). In a few minutes she brings me a plate of some kind of rice and chicken soup, and Boris gets a slice of some kind of meat in a mysterious sauce. Neither of our plates look like the beef stew the lady convinced us to try before. We shrug and eat what’s in front of us. Maybe the stew comes later. (Eventually the meal is over and there was no stew, but it was a good meal anyway). I think this is kind of how it goes eating in restaurants in a foreign country. You smile and point at things and sometimes they ask you a question and you say yes even though you have no idea what the question was, and suddenly there’s something unidentifiable on your plate and you eat it anyway as it’s delicious, and when the bill comes your entire meal is $3 or $4 and you leave bewildered but happy. At least, that’s been my experience.

Boris signs up for Spanish lessons, which a lot of people do in Sucre where prices are cheap and there are many schools available. On Wednesday evening, the school where Boris takes classes organizes a trip to a local football game – Sucre’s team against a team from Brazil. I tag along – I’ve never been to a football game before – and we go as a group, meeting at the school to walk together en masse, 40 gringos looking probably a bit bewildered as we traverse Sucre at night. As we get close to the stadium we hear a crowd singing racously (I’m not able to make out much except “dale Sucre!”), waving flags with the Sucre colors and banging drums. They block a major road for several minutes. I’m amused that the police aren’t breaking up the parade – there are buses and cars stuck on the other side but no one really seems to care. A few men light colored flares and set off little fireworks. We follow them for a few blocks, then break off and enter the stadium through a side door. There’s a special section reserved for the official fans. We sit in the general crowd, buying popcorn from the ladies squeezing through the concrete bleachers. People wave colored balloons, sing, and whistle as the teams come onto the field to warm up. As a dancer and musician I can’t imagine being onstage to warm up, but I guess it’s different for sports – it’s not a rehearsed performance.

The game begins with fireworks over the stadium, and, I’m sorry to say, this is about the most interesting thing that happens. The teams can’t seem to keep control of the ball – someone is always kicking it out of bounds or losing control or accidentally kicking it to the other team. At the end of 90 minutes the score is 0-0, and since it’s just a regular game, there’s no overtime or penalty kicks.

On another afternoon I decide to give football another try and go with Boris to watch a football match at the pub Florin. It’s a team from the Netherlands versus Rome. I find this match more interesting, and the teams seem to play well. After a little while another Dutch guy joins us – a friend of Boris’ who lives in Sucre. We stay for a while after the game ends, drinking, then go to the central market for dinner. We find a spot upstairs and for 10 bolivianos each (around $1.50) a formidable-looking woman serves us each a giant plate of rice covered with a thin-cut portion of steak, a huge helping of french fries, a fried egg, and a sausage. It’s more food than I can hope to eat even with the alcohol munchies. We take our feast back to the house of Boris’ friend – actually an old building he’s bought in order to convert it into a bar. The rooms are huge and airy and filled with tables and chic couches the friend built himself. We stay up in the lounge long after our enormous feast is gone, drinking wine and rum and listening to hours of electronic music and talking into the night.

I spend time in Sucre cooking, writing, and generally relaxing. The day before I decide to leave, I meet a Swiss traveler named Roman who’s headed the same way I am, to the small town of Cochabamba, midway to La Paz. We decide to travel together, and the next afternoon I’m shaking Boris awake so I can say goodbye and heading out to Sucre’s small bus station where Roman and I hop on a night bus to Cochabamba.