Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(4) Back to Reality

Sunday, Dec. 11th

A 4 am wake up call comes early.  Especially when you don’t get to sleep until around 2ish because you’re still excited about your Baylor quarterback – shout out to Robert Griffin III – winning the Heisman.  Things like that don’t happen everyday.  So proud to be a Bear and so proud to have such a great person representing my school and my team.  Seriously. 

Anyways.  A 4 am wake up call.  Shannon and myself had a taxi to catch at 4:30 to make it to the airport in time for our La Paz -> Santa Cruz flight.  We left Chantelle at the hotel with her man, the two of them heading off for a new Peruvian adventure in a few days.  Made it to the airport, FINALLY made it through all the departure taxes and airport taxes and expired visa fees (only set me back about $100 US – really Bolivia??  that seems excessive), and managed to make it to the gate in time for breakfast and a lesson in patience.  Evidently our flight was delayed.  But it’s okay because Shannon and I can easily waste time talking about absolutely nothing. 

Flew to Santa Cruz…deboarded the plane….reboarded the exact same plane…and flew to Miami.  Check the passport, pick up the large suitcase, go through customs, get an RG3/Baylor shout out (the Baylor nation is far reaching), recheck the large suitcase, and find the gate for my DFW flight. 

Interesting security story: so I have to go back through security in Miami after I go through customs and recheck my checked bag.  Shoes are off, scarf is off, stuff is on the conveyor belt.  Body scanner...got that over with.  TSA agent approaches, “Ma’am, I’m going to have to pat down your bun.”  Who knew my curly hair was large enough to pose a national security threat?  I mean, true, it was slightly out of control, but is it really possible to smuggle potentially dangerous items in my bun?!  Moral of THAT story: calm the mane pre-security. 

A quick goodbye to Shannon in Miami.  Then dinner.  Nothing like french fries and a snickers to tell you you’re back in the States.  Flew to DFW, flew to San Antonio, and finally made it home to cuddle with my precious puppy, Rosie.  So glad she didn’t forget me. 

I love being home.  But I’m expecting that travel bug to rear its head not too long from now.  More adventures to come.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #27: Giraffes can live longer without water than camels.  Nice try, camels.  You're not that cool.  

(3) At the Copa, Copacabana!

Wednesday, Dec. 7th

Another overnight bus back to La Paz.  This time no trouble from the passengers behind me, but a broken down bus and a 4 am move to bus #2 made for an interesting and relatively restless night.  BUT that was my last overnight bus.  We decided Wednesday should be a lazy day…giving us time to recover from Uyuni and prepare for Copacabana/Lake Titicaca.  Plazas, chocolates, and a fantastic mirador (giving us a fantastic view of the city) made for a full afternoon.  I’ll skip the part where we spent two hours on a bad side of town trying to get Shannon a replacement visa. 

Plaza Murillo
View from Mirador Killi-Killi
Shannon and myself

Thursday, Dec. 8th

An early morning to catch a bus to Copacabana, and we were off to Lake Titicaca!  Lake Titicaca is located on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and sitting at 3,811 m (12,500 ft) above sea level, it is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.  And by volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America.  

We arrived in the early afternoon, checked into a nearby hostel, and ate a quick lunch.  Complete with fresh trout from the lake.  These two days in Copacabana (actually only about 24 hours) were intended to be slightly lazy, a time to relax and recover from a weeks worth of Bolivian travels…and that’s exactly how they went.  We – Chantelle, Shannon, Shannon’s Bolivian manfriend Alexis, and myself – all wandered up and down the Copacabana beach, taking in the views and the sun, riding in swan boats, and doing a little shopping at the local market.  We also made a pit stop at Copacabana’s cathedral. 

It was late afternoon when we began our climb up Cerro Calvario, a local “mountain” with an easily accessible summit.  Perfect place to watch the sun set over the lake. 

Beautiful Lake Titicaca
The city of Copacabana
Watching the sun set

Friday, Dec 9th

On Thursday, we were blessed with perfect weather.  Friday was a different story.  Clouds and rain kept us in bed a little longer, but we eventually pulled ourselves up and made our way down the shoreline for some quality Lake Titicaca time.  It was cold.  And it was windy.  But that lake is beautiful…so I didn’t mind donning my fleece and scarf to get a few “I dipped my toes in Lake Titicaca” pictures.  Just one more lake to cross off my limnological bucket list!  Next up on that list – Lake Baikal. (Zac Foster - you’re coming with me, right?)

Cholita on the dock

Somehow Chantelle and I managed to waste (waste being a relative term) the rest of the dreary morning in a local café, discussing life, love, dogs, and travels.  Then it was back on another bus and back to La Paz.  A quiet night of picture sharing and facebooking and movie watching.  We were too tired for anything else. 

Saturday, Dec. 10th

My last day in Bolivia!  So what’s a girl to do when her two travel buddies are both spending time with their mans??  Shop…obviously.  Clearly I needed MORE alpaca gear.  Can’t have too much alpaca.  So I wandered La Paz all by my lonesome.  Managed to score some great deals with the local market peoples, get one last and LARGE serving of the most delicious ice cream in the world, and stop at a local music festival and take in some tunes and dance with the natives.  All while not getting robbed.  That all made for a pretty grand day.  Spent the evening packing and repacking and reorganizing and impatiently waiting for the Heisman announcement.  RG3!!!

FUN SCIENCE FACT #26: The average person accidentally eats 430 bugs each year of their life.  Nothing like a little extra protein.  

(2) Little Orphan Tourists

Sunday, Dec. 4th

A day spent shopping, lounging, and basically just killing time until we could catch our bus to Uyuni at 9 pm.  Salt flats in our future – nothing in La Paz could really hold our attentions.  Except maybe the witches market (Mercado de Hechiceria).  Llama fetuses everywhere.  Evidently, if you’re building a house, you can bury a llama fetus beneath the cornerstone as an offering to the Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Don’t want to piss off the Pachamama. 

So what are these salt flats of which I speak?  Salar de Uyuni, or Salar de Tunupa, is the world's largest salt flat, at 10,582 sq. km (4,086 sq miles).  It's located in the southwestern part of Bolivia, near the Andes, and sits at an elevation of 3,656 m (11,995 ft) above sea level.  Home of several species of flamingoes and a pretty cool volcano, it is also the site of 50-70% of the world's lithium reserves, which are currently being extracted.  

Monday, Dec. 5th

Day 1 in Uyuni was a complete disaster.  I tried and tried to plan ahead, but Bolivia constantly challenged my controlling nature.  First problem – my bus situation.  It’s an overnight bus trip from La Paz to Uyuni, so clearly people are going to be leaning back their seats, trying to catch a few precious hours of shut-eye before heading out to the salt flats the next morning.  Given my work schedule for the past three months, both my bedtime and my wake up come early.  A 9 pm bus departure means I’m getting on that bus, propping up my pillow, and going to sleep (well, at least trying to go to sleep).  This was not the night for me to get stuck in front of two cranky Europeans who thought the use of their cupholders for a beverage, of which they easily could’ve held WITH THEIR HANDS, was clearly more important than my need to slightly recline my seat to a comfortable resting position.  It’s a sleeper bus…PEOPLE WANT TO SLEEP.  Whatever.  Finally, a few hours later, I was able to re-recline my seat.  Not that I got any sleep though.  In that 12-hour bus ride, I probably managed to squeeze in about an hour/hour-and-a-half of useful sleep.  

So we get to Uyuni.  A little bit of bus trouble caused us to pull up about two hours later than planned, which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I had arranged with our tour company to pick us up at 7 am.  Clearly they were not there at 9 am when we unloaded our bags.  A phone call and then a short drive, and we were sitting in the tour office waiting for our salt flat adventure to begin.  That’s when things got interesting.  Evidently, because our bus was late, our pre-booked two-day tour was now impossible.  They tried to convince us a three-day tour was better.  No.  Bus tickets back to La Paz had already been paid for…..we only had two days to see as much of the salt flats as possible.  So then we were informed that the English-speaking guide (that we were promised), wasn’t going to actually be guiding us.  Now it had to be a Spanish-speaking guide.  Well, we don’t speak Spanish.  But there was no changing it.  Our guide spoke Spanish and no English and we were just going to have to deal with that.  There was much confusion in making this tour happen.  Strange, since I had been in constant email contact with these people for three weeks, and as of Saturday (two days before our tour was supposed to happen), everything was set and perfect and wonderful.  Ugh.  Anyways, somehow we managed to snag a jeep around 11:00 am to start our “tour” with our “guide.”  Also in the jeep with us, a Bolivian family scheduled for a one-day Salar de Uyuni tour. 

Train Cemetery.  

Shannon, myself, Chantelle
Making sure the salt was salty.  It was.

Train cemetery?  Check.  Salt pyramids?  Check.  Lunch at a volcano?  Check.  We thought the morning was making a turn for the better.  We were wrong.

Lunch ends at 2:30 pm, at which point our “guide” and our one-day-tour-Bolivians unload our bags from the jeep, reload themselves into the jeep, and leave.  Yes, that’s right.  We were left at a volcano hostel with nothing on our schedule for the rest of the day.  Okay now I’m mad.  This was not what we paid for…I had the itinerary that I was promised, and we were not sticking to it at all.  But we are a creative group of girls.  We managed to entertain ourselves…thanks to the really adorable hostel puppy, the local flamingos, and the pack of llamas grazing in a nearby field. 

Our volcano - home for the next 24 hours. 

Salar flamingos 
The night was spent at the hostel. Not like we had any other choice.  But I had been promised a salt hotel (beds of salt, tables of salt, etc.), so clearly my anger was not fading.

Tuesday, Dec. 6th

The morning came early.  We ate a very unsatisfying breakfast of stale bread and cold eggs, and then headed out in search of mummies and a mirador (lookout) a little further up the volcano.  Keep in mind that every other group had a driver to take them up the volcano to these touristy attractions.  We had no guide.  We had to hike.  I love to hike, but I don’t like surprise hikes at altitudes to which I am unaccustomed.  It was an exhausting hike.  The mummies were pretty cool though.  We didn’t make it to the mirador.  We opted to go back to the hostel…since lunch was planned for 12:30 pm…and we were not going to be late for lunch. 

Making our way up the volcano...

Mummies.  We were very close to mummies.  
We made it back with time to spare.  Time enough to walk out to the salar and take a few “perspective” pictures.  And we were not late for lunch.  Lunch however, was two hours late.  A new “guide” with some new one-day-tourists pulled up to our hostel, food was consumed (though it was not the food I was promised by the tour agency), and then we left to visit Isla del Pescado (Fish Island).  Isla del Pescado was on the top of my list of Uyuni spots...lots of cool cacti, and I had been promised two hours to explore the island, so my mood was slightly more pleasant at this point. 

We got 40 minutes at Fish Island. 

Our tour was ending, we were on our way back to Uyuni, and I was not pleased.  I was going to march into that tour office and demand my money back.  And that’s exactly what I did.  I was promised caverns, a salt hotel, an English-speaking guide, a llama meat barbeque, and two hours at Fish Island.  We got none of those things. 

A very long story short, I managed to pull a partial refund.  This is not easy in Bolivia.  Businesses run differently here, especially in a small, isolated town such as Uyuni, where tour agencies dominate and they can basically so whatever they want.  Evidently, the tour agency I had originally booked with was unable to follow through with the promises that they made, and thus dumped Chantelle, Shannon, and myself on another tour company.  Well, these little orphan tourists were not going to be bullied (okay, well I wasn’t going to be bullied).  I spoke my mind, made my case, almost made a grown Bolivian man cry….but my mission was accomplished.  Only minor guilt set in when I realized all the yelling that had actually taken place.  But hey, don’t take advantage of me because I’m a girl or because I’m white or because no tourist ever complains like that. 

Good news - I got to see the salt flats with two great travel companions.  we got some great pictures and made some interesting memories.  Let's just say I won't be recommending that tour company any time soon.  But I do highly recommend the salt flats.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #25: Blood sucking hookworms inhabit 700 million people worldwide.  Yummy. 

(1) Hey let's go to La Paz.

I recently (as of like two days ago) returned from Bolivia to the good ol' US of A...and I have to say that it's great to be home.  But I do miss those silpanchos.  We wrapped up this season of the Titi Monkey Project at the end of November, and then I headed off for ten days of Bolivian fun.  And of course, I have written a blog detailing each day.  It's lengthy.  So I have decided to break it down into four, more manageable sections.  This is the first section.  Prepare yourself for the following three.  

Thursday, Dec. 1st and Friday, Dec. 2nd

Vacation task #1: buy bus tickets form Santa Cruz to La Paz.  Bus tickets in Bolivia are not a “reserve in advance” type of thing….so, going into Thursday (with our plan to leave Thursday night) we had no idea what bus we were taking or what time it was leaving or how much it was going to cost us.  We find the bus station, find a reputable bus company, and purchase three direct tickets to La Paz.  This was not only a good test of our Spanish skills, but also a good test of that poor bus man’s patience.  Our bus was set to leave at 3:30 pm….only three hours earlier than we had anticipated….THREE HOURS EARLIER?!  There was still so much to do!  A rushed morning turned into a rushed early afternoon, but all our Santa Cruz tasks were wrapped up in time.  Our favorite taxi driver, Pepe/Tio Taxi, who had been driving us to and from monkey work each day, was there at the house to pick us (and all of our bags) up and take us to the bus station.  So glad we got to see him one more time!  Such a sweet thing.  It was kind of sad leaving the Quinta Totaices; it was my home for three months.  But new adventures were on the horizon, so I reluctantly turned in my key and hugged Yuvinka and Mirian goodbye. 

Our bus departed the station right on time, but not before we stocked up on snacks.  See, this little road trip from Santa Cruz to La Paz is only about 900 km, but given the current state of the Bolivian road system, it can take up to 24 hours to get there.  24 hours on a bus??  Yeah.  24 hours on a bus.  Good thing I had an iPod full of great music (thanks to Zac and Anna) and a backpack full of snacky foods to help the journey go by quickly. 

Bolivian road trip foods: cuñape and achachairu

I would say overall the bus journey went relatively smoothly.  Nothing broke down, nothing tipped over.  The only issue I had was the clearly inappropriate movie choices they decided to play for the first 4 hours of the trip….lots of fighting, lots of bones breaking, lots of screaming, lots of guns, lots of murder, lots of dead people.  There were children on that bus!  The worst part was the volume at which these movies were played. I could hear the screaming through my headphones.  That’s a little ridiculous.  Oh well, if that’s my only complaint, I guess it’s alright. 

Lucky for us, our bus arrived in the city of La Paz around 7:30 am, only 16 hours after departure!  We fell asleep to palm trees, and woke up to snow covered mountain peaks…accompanied by a 40-degree temperature drop.  Finally some beautiful weather! 

The mountains of La Paz!

We collected our luggage, which, praise the Lord, arrived in the city with us, and then headed off to find our hotel.  Clearly we were checking in a little early, but our very accommodating hotel fixed up our room and had it ready a few minutes later.  And woah, our hotel was amazing.  We definitely made the right choice in our decision to splurge just a little for a nice hotel.  I thought we deserved it.  Also keep in mind that “splurging” in Bolivian standards is a whole different ball game when compared to “splurging” in the States.  Things tend to be a little more on the inexpensive side…which is great news for us and our bank accounts!

An early check in left us the entire day to explore the city.  Also to acclimate to this new altitude.  Santa Cruz sits at 416 m (1,365 ft), while La Paz rests at about 3,640 m (11,942 ft).  That is a big difference.  Altitude sickness is no joke, but I had been in super-hydration mode since Monday, so it was not a problem.  Even so, walking up and down all these hills, when you’re not used to hills OR a clear lack of oxygen, it’ll get your heart pumping.  So, we wandered the city at a cautiously slow pace, enjoying lunch at this hole-in-the-wall off one of the plazas and even getting to do a little souvenir/alpaca shopping.  La Paz is the perfect place to pick up some great alpaca gear for some even greater prices. Full advantage was taken. 

Iglesia de San Francisco

Everything was perfect, we were all falling in love with the city, from its climate, to its architecture, until we had our first encounter with a pick-pocketer.  Chantelle and I are walking in front, and all of a sudden we hear Shannon getting into it with a La Pazian.  Somewhere, somehow, this little thief had managed to unzip the INSIDE pocket of Chantelle’s bag and take out her camera.  Good thing we had Shannon there to wrestle her down and pry the camera out of her sticky little fingers.  We’d heard stories about the thieves in La Paz, and it only took us a few hours to experience them.

A little more shopping, a little more eating, and then we crashed.  An overnight bus journey makes a stationary hotel bed VERY inviting.  We all slept, and we all slept well.

Saturday, Dec. 3rd

So what do you do when you’ve got a few days to kill in La Paz?  Bike down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” obviously.  The North Yungas Road (also known as the Road to Coroico, El Camino de la Muerte, or the Death Road) is a 64 km (40 mile) road leading from La Paz to Coroico.  It's basically known for being really really dangerous - extreme drop-offs, narrow road (only about 3 m), a lack of guard rails - and in 1995 it was christened as the "World's Most Dangerous Road."  It is still a usable road, but since the construction of a newer/safer route in 2006, fewer vehicles choose to travel this particular path.

We met up with our fellow cyclists early in the morning, and then loaded up a bus to make the ascent to our adventure’s starting point.  Finally, at 4,650 m (15,260 ft), we layered up  - it gets pretty chilly up there, got a safety brief, and then hit the road.  The first part of the ride was paved, giving us plenty of time to get accustomed to our new mode of transportation.  Now, I know how to ride a bike…but, I have not actually ridden a bike in about 4 or 5 years.  It all came back pretty quick.  It had to…seeing as we were flying down paved descents at speeds I personally have never reached on two wheels.  Seriously I’ve never gone that fast on a bike.  Oh, and did I mention all the cars and trucks that were also on this paved road?!  We hadn’t even made it to the actually Death Road yet!

A few more paved kilometers and it was back in the bus to make our way through the uphill bit of the journey.  Several minutes and a sandwich later, it was back to the bikes.  This time on a gravel road…a gravel Death Road.  Because we were headed in the downhill direction, we had to ride on the cliff side of the road.  Note the absence of barricades.  Yeah that’s a legitimate cliff.  64 kilometers of cliff-side mountain biking, and 3,450 km (10,350 ft) loss in elevation, but we all made it out unscathed. 

First glimpse of the Death Road!

Narrowest part of the road...site of the largest ever
single-vehicle accident (102 casualties)

Bonus for Chantelle and myself – three awesome ziplines above the forest canopy when we reached our destination. 

Overall, I would have to say that biking down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” was not as terrifying as I had anticipated.  The scary part?  Driving back UP the road in a bus.  At one point, we stopped, opened the door, and the cliff’s edge rested about 4 inches from bus’ wheels.  When you open a bus door and that’s what you see, all you can really do is laugh and take a picture. 

Death Road mountain biking - definitely ranks in the top five coolest things I’ve ever done.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #24: At over 2000 kilometers long, The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth.