Entry #065: Thursday, March 6, 2014 (La Paz, Bolivia)

As of me writing this ("this" being the intro, which I ironically write after everything else in the entry), I have only about seven hours before I hop on a bus and make a nine-ish hour trip to Puno, Peru. While it's definitely only been a week in Bolivia - a short time compared to many of the places I've been - it definitely feels like much more than a week, because man, stuff happened, and I went places and did things. What exactly were these things? Well, let's take a look.

So, Monday was an interesting day. It began with me waking up, and heading to the airport, and then waking up. Wait, what? Yeah, I apparently had a vivid dream about waking up and going about my day, which seems like one of the dullest dreams one can have. I suppose I should have been suspicious of the fact that in my dream, I didn't get woken up by my alarm, but whatever. When my alarm did go off, it grated as though I were a block of cheese. After all, I had only gotten four hours of sleep. In any case, I got up, packed my things away in my backpack, and then waited out in the front of the hotel. It was definitely quite chilly at that point, and the wind was blowing right through me. I was surprised at how many people were out and about at 4:30, but was less than thrilled that Roger was a bit late, both because my flight was at 6am, and because it was just cold. He eventually did arrive, and drove me to the airport. With an "hasta mañana," I hopped out and went into the airport. And I was dismayed to see that the line to check in was absurdly long. What was interesting about the line, though, was its ethnic makeup. It seemed as though every single Japanese tourist in Bolivia was in that line. There were at least sixty of them. That reminds me of something I was told by...a Norwegian, I think? Europeans and Americans prefer to travel alone or in pairs, where Asians prefer to travel in large groups. The more I think about it, the more their observation seems to be true. Unfortunately, this large group looked like it might keep me from making my flight. I quickly asked the guys in front of me (who were probably the only Bolivians in the entire line) to hold my place while I asked somebody if there was a special line for people who weren't checking in baggage. When he said there wasn't, I went back to my place, and these two women behind me started giving me sass for cutting them. Even when I had the guy say that he saved my place, they still grumbled in my general direction. Not that it really made much difference to them, because I got my boarding pass within thirty seconds. I didn't have much time, though, so I rushed to the gate. Security was almost laughably lax, so I was able to move through quickly, and got to the gate just as they were letting people onto the runway. The thing was, our plane was on the opposite end of the tarmac from our gate, so we had to take a long walk. I ended up passing most of the people in front of me, though not maliciously or even knowingly; sometimes I forget how fast I can be compared to others. As we got up to the plane, the smell of the engine's exhaust hit me like a ton of bricks, and I almost instantly felt nauseous. (The same thing happens to me on boats; I think I might be especially sensitive to exhaust.) Once I got inside, though, everything was fine. We took off, and I ended up sleeping through the majority of the forty-minute flight.

When I got to the Uyuni airport, I saw amongst the crowd a number of men holding signs with names on them. I figured I'd be getting picked up here, as that's been the course of things so far. But all of these signs had Japanese names on them. I doubled back and checked again. Yep, I definitely wasn't Tsuyoshi Hirimoto. I sat down and checked my itinerary. It said I was supposed to be picked up at 7:15, and it wasn't even 7am yet. In fact, the itinerary thought that I'd be taking the 6:30 flight (and Lord, I would have loved that extra hour). So, mystery solved, I just had to wait. And wait I did, until I saw a couple people come in with makeshift notebook paper signs. One of them had a Japanese name on it, but the other had "RR" at the end. I checked, and sure enough, it was for me. I greeted the drivers, and was immediately struck by the fact that neither knew any English; like, not even a single word. Also, they spoke very quickly, which made it difficult to understand them. But I was able to gather that we were to pick up somebody else, so we had to wait another 15 minutes or so. The guy, Kohuke I think, was really nice and spoke good English. I wasn't expecting there to be another person doing this along with me, but I was pretty happy there was...or was there? See, this is where things started getting really weird.

First off, it turns out that Kohuke was on a three day tour, so they brought us to this agency office, where we were supposed to sign in for our respective tours...except that it wasn't the right agency. For either of us. They kept asking if I was Abid, and when I convinced them I wasn't, and showed them my itinerary, they told me I had to go to an agency called Monte Blanco. Kohuke, for his part, had to go to an agency called Uyuni Tours. So we went down the street and found the offices for both. However, in Kohuke's case, it wasn't the same Uyuni Tours that he'd been in contact with, and in my case, the Monte Blanco offices were just flat-out closed. And the drivers just kept going on and on about getting breakfast, not even responding to our concerns that we can't get in touch with the organizations who were supposed to be going on the tours with. I asked multiple times for them to call the Monte Blanco phone number, but they never did. In short, they were providing no help. Eventually, some other woman came out of nowhere and told me to come to breakfast. More out of frustration than anything, I acquiesced and went to a nearby cafe, where I got a really simple breakfast (because the prices were surprisingly high for what it was). As I was eating, this same mystery woman came up and said that I'd be picked up from the cafe at 9am to go to the Salar (salt flat). I was really getting frustrated now, because I didn't know who anybody was. I didn't know this woman, and I didn't trust her. I mean, I wasn't expecting this to be a kidnapping setup or something, but I thought it might have been that she saw me wandering around and thought she could just give me the tour, but then charge me. At this point, all I wanted to do was either go to the hotel or talk to the company. Since she also spoke absolutely no English, she got some other guy to translate, and he told me that it was an off-day (possibly because of Carnaval), and so the Monte Blanco offices would be closed all day. This didn't make me feel any better about the whole situation. I repeated that I just wanted to go to my hotel, because at least there I knew there was something confirmed.

I finished my breakfast well before 9am (and, discovering that I didn't have to paid for it, immediately wished I had sprung for something more elaborate), and so decided to spend the extra time walking a bit around Uyuni and seeing if I could find some agency that I could talk to. See, there were a couple names listed on my itinerary. Monte Blanco was the top one, but there was also one called "Next Level", and another called "Wholesale". What they were, I had no idea, and I couldn't find any sort of office for them. Before long, though, the 4x4 that took me from the airport pulled up, and the one driver told me to hop in. At this point, I just kind of gave up. I threw my proverbial arms up and put my faith into whatever the day was going to bring me. That said, I asked the driver what company he worked for. He didn't give me a straight answer. In fact, he didn't really give me an answer at all, which didn't instill me with much confidence in my decision. We then drove out to some shack in the middle of nowhere and parked. It definitely didn't seem like the salt hotel I was scheduled to stay in. He then said he was going to grab lunch. When he came back out, he brought with him a cooler, that one mystery woman, and a sheet of paper that I had to fill out with my information. Atop the sheet was a logo that said "Wholesale". Okay, that made me feel at least a tiny bit better, in that this was at least tangentially on par with the itinerary. Though I gotta say, I can't think of a worse name for any service-based company than Wholesale. It just makes everything about it seem like it's a bit barebones (like, for example, the fact that they can't even speak even the most minute amount of English, which seems like a major oversight for a tourism company). I then had to remind myself that I was not paying for this with my own money, and so I really had no right to complain. But jeez, they could have made the whole thing less confusing for everybody involved.

After dropping the mystery woman off back in town, we drove out to the Salar, which for those that don't know, is the largest salt flat in the world. It's 12,000 square kilometers, and is apparently over 10 meters thick in the center. The salt is also quite edible, or at least I hope it is, because I ate some of it. After getting in for some distance, we started coming across the salt hotels. The driver nearly drove me to the wrong one, which again shook my confidence in how much he actually knew about what I was supposed to be doing here. However, we finally arrived at the one that I was supposed to be in, called the Cristal Semaña. So, basically, the concept behind these hotels is that they are completely comprised of salt. They're not, but a good majority of it is. The basic walls everywhere are salt blocks with some manner of salt grout between them. The floor is salt, hardened in the rooms and loose in the hallways. There are statues and carvings throughout, all made of salt (including a snow-, er, saltman). Even the bedframes and nightstands are made of salt. However, the ceiling (and, I'm assuming, the roof that gets pelted with rain) is comprised of plaster, beams, and plastic sheeting up top. Also, the shower walls are made of plaster, because a shower wall of salt would be an oversight of Epimethean proportions. Now, I've heard from some sources that these salt hotels are illegal, as they're off the water grid, but it seems weird that there wouldn't be any sort of enforcement of it. In any case, I wasn't going to be bothered with the legalities for one night; I figured it was unlikely that there'd be a SWAT raid during my stay there. And as it happened, I wasn't even able to check in until 2pm, so there was nothing else to do but go onto the salt flat proper.

There were a few places we stopped. The first was a relatively watery area. Apparently, there are two sides to the Salar, one during the dry season and one during the wet season, in which I've read it becomes like "the world's largest mirror". I think we're definitely in the dry season at this point, but there were still a few areas where it was pretty wet. You'd occasionally sink a little bit into the wet sand, and in some places, like this first stop (I think it was called Colchani?), there were full-on puddles, deep enough to mess up a good pair of shoes. And this was where we saw the first of many, many people taking wacky photos. (And no, I'm not going to judge, because I did them too.) One of the most common ones is a forced perspective, where the landscape makes a close object seem legitimately larger than a person standing in the background. The big Japanese group that was there at the time (one of them, I should say) was doing a lot of this, including with a toy T-Rex. The fact that they didn't use a Godzilla toy made me oddly, and perhaps racistly, disappointed. After getting a few photos there - and I should note, taking photos is really the main draw of each of these stops - we hopped back in the car and headed out to a building that was, maybe, owned by this company called Dakar. Now, I've seen this Dakar thing ever since coming into Argentina, and it's been confusing me ever since, since the logo is just the name and a drawing of a dude dressed up like, I think, a Mameluke. Apparently, though, it has nothing to do with Senegal, and is instead some manner rally racing organization, that's doing well enough for itself that it was able to build a huge statue of its logo in the center of the Salar. As for the building, it was in that certain state of disrepair that I couldn't tell if it was being constructed, or if it was abandoned. Again, I walked around and took pictures, and that was about it. Also, I found a dead, flattened, and preserved bird in the salt.

We continued on, making a couple little stops for photos. Now, this day was probably one of the most lonely I've felt on the trip. This really would have been a good one to have someone else to talk to. It would have also been good for photos, because whenever I wanted some interesting photo of myself, I had to ask the driver. And trying to translate the less-than-normal concepts into Spanish proved very difficult. I even struggled - and ultimately failed - to have him take a close-up of me. I actually wonder if the fact that I've been taking thousands (literally, dozens of thousands) of photos nearly every day for a year has objectively made me a better photographer. Like, when strangers ask me to take their pictures, I take a little bit longer to find the right angles that will give the best framing of them and the background, and then take about four or five variations on that. And occasionally, I've been given what seems like genuine compliments about them. But about three-fourths of the time I give the camera to a stranger, the framing will be all off, and an important part of the background will be cut off or something. It wasn't quite that bad with the driver, though he did have a tendency of tilting the camera about 25 degrees in every shot. Thank God we live in the age of Photoshop, no?

Anyway, we then started driving to Isla de Incahuasi, a rocky island pretty much in the middle of the Salar. It was a long drive, and as you'd expect when driving through an enormous salt flat, the terrain and view didn't change much. Occasionally, it seemed like the ground ahead of us was rising, as though we were approaching a hill, but it turned out each time to be an illusion. But as we were driving for well over an hour, and as I was still recovering from a lack of sleep, I found myself nodding off again and again and again. However, we got to the island eventually. The main feature of this thing was that it was full of giant cacti, just spread throughout. I got a ticket, and then walked around the rockiness of the island for about an hour. From high up, you got even better views of the endless expanse. And it was during this walk that the feeling of loneliness was most pronounced, though I'm not exactly sure why. After the walk, I went into their "museum", which I'm using quotes with because it was a pathetic little single room with a mock-up of a sacrifice to Pachemama (though they were missing the majority of their English informational pages). You could call it an exhibit, sure, but museum was much too generous. I then met up with the driver, and we had lunch, which included some steak, vegetables, cheese, avocado, and lots and lots of quinoa. I tried having as much of a meal conversation as I could, but like I've mentioned before, I'm not really at insightful conversation level yet, so it was mostly about family and such. When we were finished, I took about twenty minutes to wander around a bit more. I found a dog, on which I found two places that made her leg kick. She seemed a bit sad when I left, but I had more pictures to take, after all.

We then drove our way back to the hotel, and I found myself nodding off yet again. When we got there, the driver said he'd pick me up for sunset. I then went into my new room, admired the saltiness of it, and got comfortable. I noticed then that I was a bit sunburned. Not as bad as I've been in Australia or New Zealand, but enough to remind me that, right, there's no atmosphere up here, I need to lather up something fierce. Or else I should have just kept my jacket on, which would have been much easier of a task if it weren't surprisingly warm (I had been warned that this area would be in the 40s). Sunburns aside, I had some time to kill before sunset, so I just did some writing and watched some videos until it was time. I went back out and caught up with the driver, and we drove out to this area where there was some bubbling water (which I've read is called the "eyes of water"). I don't know what the cause of this bubbling was, but it did smell a bit, and we were near a non-active volcano, so it might have been geothermal. I then watched the sunset, which is always something I enjoy doing. I was, in particular, looking for a green flash (too hard to explain, look it up), but unfortunately didn't see one.

So, we drove back to the hotel. There was a little bit of time left before dinner would be served, so I decided to turn on the room's TV and see what was on. As it turns out, it was on the local version of Discovery Kids, so I spent the next half-hour watching some kids show (called Lalaloopsy or something like that). Truth be told, while the show's plot seemed a bit contrite, I actually enjoyed watching in order to practice listening to Spanish. I recall that watching kids’ shows is actually a good way to help immerse yourself in another language. Maybe I could try doing it with The Simpsons to, since I already know the English versions by heart. After that was done, I went up to the hotel's salty restaurant, where they informed me they had prepared a table for one especially for me. I almost laughed aloud at how pathetic that sounded. Dinner itself was fine, though not as filling as I was looking forward to; it included a quinoa vegetable soup, and a plate of pasta and some type of red meat. I asked one of the servers what kind of meat it was, and after a moment, she responded in the most bald-faced lie ever, "Pollo." Not sure if she was confused or just thought I was a simpleton. I then went back down to my room to do more writing and relaxing - being out in the expanse of a salt flat, there's not much night life around here - before going to bed.

Tuesday was a bit smoother. I was able to quote-unquote "sleep in" until 7:30, the latest I've been able to stay in bed for a week. I then got up, got my stuff ready, and went to the hotel's restaurant for some breakfast. I don't know why, but I was a bit surprised that the majority of all their dining options were salt-free, except for some cheese. It wasn't particularly special, but it hit the spot. I then grabbed my bag, went downstairs to check out, put some sunscreen on (I was being careful this time), and went outside. After a few minutes, the driver showed up, and we headed out for the day. As it was, we were actually driving to a few points of interest outside the Salar. The first was the cementerio de locomotoras. I figured that this might have been a cemetery for railroad workers from the days when Uyuni was still a big railroad junction. But no, it was actually a train cemetery; that is, a cemetery for trains. For maybe a good half-mile along this track (though not actually on it), there was just abandoned train car after car, of all types. You of course had your engines, but there were also passenger cars, oil cars, flat beds, and others. And thanks to the rain and super salty conditions of the area, every single one was the purest rust you could imagine. Well, except in the parts that had graffiti, which was pretty much everywhere. There were also a couple of swings set up to hang off of the engines, which I thought was pretty nifty. On the whole, I maybe spent about 30-45 minutes just walking around there, taking in the environment and atmosphere. Also, keeping an eye out for knife-wielding bums. Like, seriously, if there was ever a crazy homeless guy hideaway, this would be it. It would have also been a good Street Fighter background. But there was no fighting, and the only people I saw appeared to be small families eating breakfast. Overall, an interesting place; I liked it. 

After that, we went back into town, first to pick up our lunch for the day, and then to get gas. But it turned out there was no gas. Like, the town was out for the day; they'd just have to wait until the next day. I'll admit, this struck me as being pretty darn weird. I mean, coming from the US, you'd never expect gas to just run out. Again, something to keep in mind when I'm back home. But thankfully, we had enough in the tank to last us through what we needed. Our next stop was another town called Pulacayo, a bit northeast of Uyuni. Along the ride over, I suddenly realized that the radio station we'd been listening to since I got here was a super religious one; the realization came when the DJ started just, flat-out, reading Bible verses. That made the variety of music that it had (which I wasn't paying attention to before) somewhat funny. Also along the drive, we saw some spectacular views of the valley, as well as some wild llamas. When we finally reached Pulacayo, my first impression was that it seemed like a ghost town, which I later found out was a pretty apt judgement. Anyway, we got to the tour office, which was more or less one step above a shack with a single guy inside. When we asked for a ticket, it apparently came with a guided tour...by him. And I gotta say, I don't know if he was dumbing down his speech to toddler-level or what, but I found myself understanding pretty much everything he was telling me, and I was able to ask questions back, and there was actually some back and forth. I think that hour or so may have been the most confident I've been with my Spanish on this trip by a wide margin. In any case, he showed us some of the numerous trains that used to run in the area, as well as the silver mine that used to be the towns main economic resource. He also talked about the history of the town itself, which was very much dependent on that mine. The place used to have somewhere between 22-27,000 people in it, but in the middle of the 20th century, the mines were closed down, and other industrial work soon followed suit. Today, the town has only 800 people. So not quite a ghost town, but that's a pretty significant drop regardless. We ended the tour back in the office, where I was absolutely charmed by an original Victrola machine, which still functioned perfectly well (and was playing an old vinyl record of some 1930's American hick music).

We then left Pulacayo, at which point it was lunchtime. We drove to a hill, where we set up the trunk of the 4x4 as a makeshift standing picnic table. We then had to reoirient the car, as it was so windy that nothing would stay put. The lunch included pasta, potatoes, vegetables, and a chicken whose color seemed so off-putting that I was spending a couple minutes figuring out in my head what my excuse for not eating it was. However, when I did a little extra digging, I found out that it was not, in fact, undercooked, but was actually ham stuff inside the chicken. I've honestly never heard of such a thing before (I know about Turduckens, of course, but this is two different classes of animals here). But it tasted just fine, so I was able to disregard all the excuse planning I had made. We then talked a little bit more, and I tried to talk about all the different types of landscapes that California has. After that, and getting a final few pictures, we drove back to Uyuni, where I just meandered for ten minutes or so, and then headed to the airport. And when saying my goodbyes to the driver, I handed him a tip. By the look on his face, he wasn't expecting it and seemed pretty happy. Yes, the relationship began in not the most ideal of circumstances, but it ended fine, and I figured that that money would do him better than it'd do me, especially considering all the money I hadn't spent on this. I still never learned his name, though.

I quickly realized by the line of luggage leading up to the check-in counter that I was maybe a little bit early. So, I set my backpack down and waited for maybe a half hour. When I finally did manage to check in, I was a little disappointed how the conversation began fully in Spanish, but near the end, when I messed up one line, the lady handing me my boarding pass switched fully to English. I know they do it to be polite (just as I try to speak Spanish to be polite), but ugh, it just jabs my ego in the love handles. Anyway, I sat down and waited some more. And then looked up and saw that the plane was delayed by a good 45 minutes. So, I just continued waiting. (While there, I noticed they were selling chocolate bars "con quinoa". I was genuinely curious how they did this; whether it was ground up or if there were just quinoa kernels sticking out of the chocolate like like little popped rice things.) When they finally opened up the gate, I was front of the line...but was told I had to pay the airport tax at some desk. Why I couldn't have paid when I got my boarding pass, I'm not sure. But it did mean that I had to move to the back of the line. Not that it made much of a difference, as the plane had still not landed, and so we all ended up just sitting and waiting in a different room. When the plane did arrive, we all made pretty good time in getting on board, though, and the flight over had some absolutely astonishing views of the mountains and clouds and flats. And even when we landed, you could see some pretty spectacular clouds; I'll have to check my photos to compare them to the reigning Australian champions.

Immediately upon leaving the arrivals gate, I was accosted by a taxi driver, offering me a ride. I gently declined him, saying I had someone picking me up. "Well, if he doesn't show up, I can take you." I replied with one of the most scumbag ways you can respond to anything: "I'm sure." I then looked around for Roger. I didn't think he'd be holding a sign with my name, but still, I wasn't recognizing anybody. I walked down to the distant end of the airport and didn't see him. I made another loop around the entire terminal and still didn't see him. A bit confused, I had to go to a local phone service office to call him. I told him I was at the airport, and he immediately became frazzled. In his concern, he spoke a little too fast for me to fully understand the nuances of what he was saying, but the gist of it was that he forgot, he couldn't make it, and he was sorry. I told him it was okay, hung up, and then thought of what to do. The WiFi in the airport mysteriously didn't work at all, but thankfully I had my WikiVoyage Offline app (once again, very useful if you're planning to travel), and it mentioned that I could take a taxi for 60 bolivianos, or I could take a shared mini-bus for 4 bolivianos. The choice was pretty obvious. I got in the mini-bus, and had the distinct feeling that all the others in the crowded space were well aware that there was a gringo among all the locals. It was fun, though, and I was able to get off at the San Francisco plaza, just a short walk to my hotel.

During this walk, I noticed that the whole place seemed a lot more muted than before. I was guessing that this was because Carnaval was over, but basically, there were maybe one-tenth of the stands that were there previously, and one-fiftieth of the people. Before heading into the hotel, I went to the travel agency next to the hotel and bought myself a ticket to Puno, which ended up costing 80 bolivianos (about $11.50). Interestingly, if I had gone by plane, it would have cost no less than $500, would have taken no less than 5 hours, and would have also required a taxi ride. So buses are still proving themselves a worthy means of transport on this trip! (Really, I think the only one that hasn't was from Mombasa to Arusha.) I then went to the hotel, got my laundry, went to my room, and oriented myself a bit. I chilled out for a while, and then went out for dinner. Unfortunately, it seemed like La Paz was dead. There was nothing going on anywhere. And a bunch of restaurants were closed. So, I was considering walking to the place where they had the llama fillet (because really, llama fillet), but I passed by a street food stand that was selling sandwiches and stuff. So, I got enough food for dinner, and it only cost $2. It was then that I realized, the street food here really doesn't seem that traditional, and for that matter, I didn't recall seeing any restaurants that seemed to have traditional Bolivian food. It was just all fried potatoes and meat, with very few veggies and, astoundingly, no quinoa anywhere. In any case, I went back to the hotel, ate my dinner, and then spent the rest of the evening doing work (such as looking up some options for doing things in Puno) and doing writing before going to bed.

The next morning, I woke up, ready to go to take a bike ride on the Death Road! Before we start, I should give a little background. The Yungas Road - more popularly the Death Road - is a road that connects la Paz with the northern Bolivian Amazon. It's name came from the fact that it is, or at least was, pretty legitimately dangerous. Imagine the following: you are on a one-lane dirt road, and next to you is sheer cliff going down more than 1,800 feet, and there's no guardrails. Now imagine that same situation with an oncoming car. That's basically the deal. It's gotten safer in the recent past, but apparently, 200-300 people are estimated to die on it each year. As for cyclists, it seems to be a safer deal - only 18 people have died biking the road since 1998. Was I going to be #19 (which, incidentally, was my number when I played elementary school flag football)? Only time would tell!

According to my itinerary, I was supposed to leave the hotel at 7:30, transported via some 4x4. So, I sat down in the lobby at 7:20. I then waited. The girl at the reception desk asked if I wanted to have some breakfast, which would be ready at 7:30. She'd watch for my pick-up. I agreed, but only went up for a very short time; I didn't want to take any chances. I just powered down the same basic foods that I'd been getting in all the Bolivian hotels, and then went back down to the lobby by 7:35. I then waited. And waited. At 7:45, I was getting nervous. I waited some more. At 8pm, I asked the reception to call the company. No answer. I waited some more. At 8:20, I asked them to call the agency that booked everything. No answer. I waited some more. At 8:45, I asked them to call the company again. There was an answer, and they told me to wait. And at 9:15, a representative from the biking company came into the lobby, and told me that there was a problem, the transport was long-gone, and I couldn't go on the tour that day. We then walked to their headquarters, where I was told that it was because an email exchange got buried, so they didn't have my information. However, they seemed terribly apologetic, and offered - pleaded, really - for me to go on the Thursday trip. However, this created a bit of a quandary for me. I only had Wednesday and Thursday left before my bus out. And I wanted to go on this biking trip, but I felt I needed to visit the Andean Valley quinoa plant, and meet the folks there, both because, well, quinoa has had a huge influence on my life, and because the folks there were responsible for setting me up with everything, so to not visit them would make me the worst man alive. If I could visit that day, everything would be fine. If not, I'd either have to try to push back my bus ride, or just not do the biking trip.

So, I walked back to the hotel, and immediately sent an email to Javier, the CEO of Andean Valley and apparently the epicenter of kindness and generosity in Bolivia, to see what the options looked like from his end. Before long, through, I got a call from Orlando (the guide I had, in case you don't remember). He apologized profusely for the issue, and said he would check if I could visit the plant today. A short while later, he called again, and confirmed that I could. We would meet up for lunch, and then head out. Okay, everything was apparently going to work out okay. It was 10:30 by this point, and we were going to meet at 1pm, so I decided to use what time I had to visit some of the places I hadn't been to before. I first went out to the biking company and confirmed my trip for Thursday. They actually seemed more relieved about it than I was.

I then continued down the street, and went to the San Francisco Church. It had a museum attached to it, so I went inside. They offered to have me go in a guided tour, but they noted that there were no tours in English, so I declined. I was on a tight schedule, anyway. There was some English descriptions alongside some of the exhibits, though it was pretty clear that these were fantastically condensed descriptions, being about one-sixth the length of what was written in Spanish. There were a few main types of things the museum was exhibiting: paintings that used to hang in the church, old artifacts (benches, wine barrels) that were used by the old inhabitants of the church, artifacts from when the revolutionaries back in the 1800's used the church as their staging grounds, and a general history of the role of religion (Catholicism and the Franciscans, specifically) in the history of Bolivia. However, I was utterly perplexed by a statue of a Dilophosaurus in their garden. Are the La Paz Catholics not as conservative as what I've been led to believe about South American Catholicism, or did someone just convince them it was a demon? After leaving there, I walked to the Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore, which showcased the culture of the many peoples of Bolivia through the ages. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that it was literally Spanish-only in their descriptions. Like, not even the bathrooms or exits had any English on them. I think I remember seeing that they had either a book or an audio-guide that was available in English, but again considering the fact that I constantly had one eye on the clock, I had to be satisfied with simply walking through and looking at all of the artifacts briefly. But it was nice, and I'm sure it would have been a marvelous experience if I really had the time to go through and look properly. 

I was considering going to the third museum in the local area, the Museo de la Coca (about the plant and cocaine, not soda), but I calculated that I'd only be able to spend about three minutes in there before having to leave, so I instead went back to the hotel. After maybe 10 minutes, I got a call that said that Orlando was in the lobby, so I went downstairs to meet him. We left the hotel, and as we were walking to lunch, he apologized profusely for this issue, as well as for Roger not being at the airport. After mysteriously stopping at a currency exchange place, he even offered me a $100 bill as recompense for the issues. Now, being a penny-pinching money-grabber, the site of Ben Franklin literally waving in front of my face was tempting, but I figured three things. First, I never paid for any of this to begin with, so it's not like I was out of money on the deal. Second, mistakes happen, and in the grand scheme of things, this wasn't the worst I've experienced, even on this trip. Third, that money was probably coming out of Orlando's pocket, and I can assume that it would serve him and his family better than it would me. So I declined twice, and said that it's just a part of life. We then went to a restaurant that I was told was traditional Bolivian food (I had specifically asked for that). However, after looking at the menu, I realized that "traditional Bolivian food" isn't the kind of wholesome, healthy stuff one might expect of a poorer country's heritage. It was the same kind of deal as on the streets: meat, potatoes, frying oil, and miscellaneous other doodads. And mayonnaise. Seriously, South America, you have issues. And in the entire menu, there wasn't even one mention of quinoa. I ended up getting Pique Macho, which is basically little bite size pieces of beef, sliced hot dogs, fried potato pieces, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, onions, and peppers. And mayonnaise, which I scraped off. It was supposed to be spicy, but I had to ladle on basically an entire saucer full of salsa before it really rang my tastebuds. When I was about three-fourth's done, I saw someone with ashes on their forehead, and I realized it was Ash Wednesday. It was Ash Wednesday, and I was sitting here eating an sizable lunch containing multiple types of meat. If that doesn't hit me in my Catholic guilt center, nothing does. Though, to be perfectly honest, I might be a bit lax on Lent this year. Normally I go full vegetarian, and also give up a variety of other things, but this might prove a bit difficult when I'm traveling (and especially when I want to try new things). I'm sure God will be fine with one off year. Not content to just be bad with meat, though, we ended up going to an ice cream cafe when we were finished. I tried getting the most basic option (a fruit salad with some ice cream on top), but this turned out to be served in a huge container, and contained three scoops of ice cream. I didn't want to eat the whole thing, so I strategically dug down and ate the fruit salad, letting a portion the ice cream melt in the meantime.

After this, we grabbed a taxi and took a ride up to El Alto, the former-district-and-now-independent-city on the top of the basin. For the most part, it's the poorer part of the area (the rich people tend to live in the lower parts of La Paz, where the weather is much less capricious), but it's also where some of the industry is located. And it was here that the Andean Valley processing plant was located. Almost immediately, the first thing that hit me about the place was the smell. Everyone knows that smell is the sense most directly related to memory, and this was no exception. The smell of processing quinoa is just such a familiar one to me - one that I even remember as far back as when I was in early elementary school - that smelling it here just made me feel good. We then went inside, and I met Fabiola, who was the assistant general manager and one of the folks to help make this all possible for me. She hugged me like I was an old friend and asked how I was doing; it was all very sweet. I then went in and met with Javier, who basically just seemed like the nicest guy ever. We talked for a while, partially about my trip, and partially about the company, and its relationship with my dad's company, and with my dad specifically. While I always knew my dad was a great person, especially in terms of being simple and honest in his business, I found it quite overwhelming how much respect and love everyone seems to possess for him. Like, nobody had any need to suck up to me, but wuite literally every person at the company spoke more highly about my dad than I can recall anyone speaking about anyone else. I was quite pleased to see such a positive working relationship, especially considering the impact it has had on my life and that of my family. I was then given a tour around the plant by Ariel, their head of production, where - after putting on a lab coat and face mask - I got to see each step in the process taking the grain straight from the field and cleaning it until it is fit for human consumption. I think I remember seeing some of the steps before (part of me thinks that some of it used to be done on my dad's end when I was a little kid). It was somewhat surreal, too, to see all the completed bags with Quinoa Corporation printed on them, ready to be shipped to the US. After the tour was done, I chatted a bit more with Javier, who unfortunately wouldn't be able to have dinner with me because of a prior meeting, but he wished me well and offered me the opportunity to come back at any time. I left his office, had a chat with another nice girl (with exceptional English) named Carolina - I swear, literally everyone at this company seemed to be a classy and kind individual - said my goodbyes, and left.

We took a taxi back to the hotel, where Orlando said his goodbyes to me, and then went off to continue with his day. I went into the hotel and relaxed for a while before deciding to go to dinner. While part of me either wanted chicken or llama fillet, I figured that since I now knew it was Ash Wednesday, I should at least try to be a little good and avoid further meat. I had remembered seeing a place that offered vegetarian cuisine, so I walked down to that area. It turned out to be in the back of this small, dimly-lit gallery. I walked back and forth in the gallery to even find it, and when I did, it turned out to be an even more dimly-lit little joint, with no customers, and only a single employee with her back turned to me, slowly cleaning a butcher's knife with a rag. If there exists a sketchier scenario, I've yet to see it. I silently backed out before the lady realized was there, and just decided to make things easier for myself by going back to that Italian place and getting another of those good veggie pizzas. I brought it back to the hotel, ate, and then spent the remainder of the evening writing before heading to bed, to wake up even earlier and try the whole Death Road biking thing again.

And it actually worked this time! I woke up and went down to the lobby to be picked up at 6:45. Unfortunately, this meant that I wouldn't be able to have breakfast in the hotel. Interesting note: I've had a booking at this hotel for a full week, and in that week, I was only able to eat breakfast once, and even that was a rushed half-breakfast. Anyway, I waited a bit, until a gentleman came in, asking for me. When I presented myself, he told me we were going to be walking to the office. Basically, it was completely pointless, since I knew where the office was anywhere and didn't have to be there until 7am, which was about the time I needed to get there. In any event, when I arrived, I saw that I was in a group of six, which I thought was great. I've heard that these kinds of tours often have fifteen or so people, so having less than half was pretty cool. I mean, I think that six is a great group size; small enough to be personal and intimate, but big enough to not be awkward if you don't get along with one or two of the people. In this case, there was myself, two guys named Chris (one from the US, one from Ireland), a Peruvian girl named Claudia, and a Czech couple whose names I could never comprehend. Those two kept to themselves quite a bit; they spoke absolutely no Spanish, and barely spoke any English, at least to me. (As the day went on, I could tell doing this trip was the guy's idea, as he was pretty adventurous, while the lady was a bit of a milquetoast.) I got along just peachy with the rest of the folks, though. We suited up and then headed out.

On the way up, we stopped in a small one-horse town for breakfast (while I knew we'd have to pay for it, I thought it odd that it says on their website that breakfast is included with the tour). There wasn't really much breakfast-y there, so I ended up getting a piece of street-fried chicken and potatoes (though I really couldn't eat the potatoes), as well as a couple snacks for later. This seemed to be the go-to plan for everyone else, so as we continued our drive to the starting point, the van began to smell of fried chicken. Once everyone was finished eating and we reached the starting point at a place called La Cumbre (4,700 meters above sea level), we got a quick briefing, got our bikes, and began going. We started off downhill - well, really, the whole road (64km, I think it was) was 85-90% downhill - and to be honest, it was really easy. We were on well-paved asphalt, there were two lanes, and you barely ever felt in danger. In fact, the only real thing that stuck out to me was the fact that it was absolutely gorgeous! Like seriously, they could leave behind the whole "World's Most Dangerous Road" angle and change it to "The World's Most Beautiful Road". I can also understand now why some people refer to Bolivia as "the Nepal of South America". A lot of the mountains we were biking to reminded me of the mountains that I was going through in the Himalayas. Not the Everest's and Lohtse's, but the smaller mountains that straddled our paths. And the vegetation was familiar, particularly in color. Most specifically, it reminded me of the area around Namche Bazaar. But yeah, awe-inspiring vistas everywhere you looked, which I suppose is somewhat dangerous in its distracting nature. And the weather! Oh, my! I was warned that this was, in fact, still rainy season, and that I should be ready for wet and cloudy, if not stormy, weather. But no, as is often my luck, it was a beautifully bright and sunshiny day, with only a few clouds here and there (and between some of the mountains) providing some character. From a visual perspective, I couldn't ask for anything more.

What I suppose someone could ask for more of would be danger. I thought things were going to start getting hairy when we bypassed a tunnel to go on a gravel path, but once we got past the tunnel, we went back onto the asphalt and continued on asphalt until we stopped at a checkpoint called Unduavi, where we had to pay 25 bolivianos in order to continue (which the literature says goes to support our personal safety on the Death Road, as though that doesn't sound a smidgen contradictory). After getting past there, and going past a police checkpoint, and continuing a little further, we came to a fork in the road. On the left was the new road, which was apparently only built in the last seven years or so. If you're a trucker or other person traveling this area because you have to, you took this road. To the left, though, was the Old Road, the one that really gave the Death Road its reputation. In fact, now it was called "The Way of Death". So now it began in earnest.

And really, it didn't take long before the difficulty ramped up a bit. Okay, difficulty might be the wrong term; it wasn't necessarily difficult, just tricky. 'Cause the thing is, this was fairly steep downhill road, and a dirt road with potholes and bumps on top of that, and covered with rocks of various sizes on top of that. So while there's not much physical strain, there is a lot of coordination necessary, and sometimes no matter how well you think you're doing, you're still going to run into something. I had a few close calls myself. The first was closer to the beginning, when I was going over a pretty large rock. I forgot to stand up off my seat, and so I was basically pushed off. All that happened though, was that I just went forward and ended up in the "standing-over-your-bike" position. Later, I barely managed (again, thanks to large rocks) to make a turn without either falling down or going over the edge of a cliff. There were a couple points that were just like, foot-high drops, and a number of other precarious situations, all of which could have resulted in a nasty spill onto yet even more rocks. But I didn't. My guardian angel - the hardest working one in the industry - saw that I was getting on a bike in rough terrain again, sighed, rolled up his sleeves, and made sure it all went well. That said, I didn't come out completely unscathed. With the steep incline, I had a lot of weight pushing down onto the handlebars, and the almost nonstop bumps left me with pretty sore palms. But between that and...y'know...death, I think it's a fair trade.

Along the way, I saw some cool birds. I'm not sure what species they were, but they were definitely some type of bird of prey. Very big, and very neat. The second time I saw one, it flew right in front of me. There was nobody around, so I basically jumped off, threw my bike down, and tried to get some close-up shots (though he never got that close again, unfortunately). This kind of thing, along with a mix of my love of taking in the environment and discomfort with going quickly down steep rocky inclines meant that I stayed closer to the back of the group, though not nearly as far back as the Czech lady, who arrived as much as ten minutes after everyone else at our break points. But then there were some points you just couldn't stop at to take photos, like this one spot of the road that is, again, one lane, has a waterfall going right over it, and a cross on one side, being splashed by said waterfall, signifying a person who's died there (there were many such markers). You see something like this, and you just wonder, how was this used by all transportation - cars, trucks, buses - less than a decade ago? It's hard to believe.

About four-fifths of the way, though, I realized I'd been going about this whole thing like a chump. At the very get-go, I had raised my seat up, because I didn't want my legs to get too bent. But this had actually made it more difficult going down, because it pushed my body forward and altered my center of gravity quite a bit. So, for the last couple bits, I put the seat down so that I could sit further back. Of course, it just so happened that after doing this, we entered the 10-15% of the trip that went uphill, meaning that I screwed myself over for that part, as well. Also, less than two minutes after taking off my goggles, a bunch of cars passed by, spewing dust and exhaust in my face. Still, I managed, and we finally found ourselves at the last little challenge - a water crossing, about thirty feet wide, ten inches deep at its worst, and filled with large rocks. I watched almost everyone else in my group - including the guide - trying to go through, and stopping in the middle, until they had to just stand in the water, completely soaking their feet. When I went through (not actually knowing what gear I was in), I tried taking a strategic route, and just peddled my heart out. And I almost made it. I was about two feet from the far edge when a big rock wobbled my balance a bit, and I had to put my left shoe down ever-so-briefly to push myself back up to position. Even so, when we compared, I came out with the driest shoes, so there's some success.

Shortly after that, we finished (which seemed really fast to me; we could not have been riding for more than four hours) and sat on a little bench and had some celebration drinks. I should note that in addition to being 64km after the start of our trip, it was also at 1,200 meters above sea level, a 3,500 meter decline. We stayed there for a bit before getting back in the van and being taken to a hotel with an amazing view of the mountains. Once inside, we were able to go down and take a shower, and then we were brought up for a (fairly late) lunch. It included salads (three of them), soup, and fish. It also included what I can only describe as a lemony, carbonated custard for dessert, that everyone gave up on after two bites. I can only imagine the blow to a chef's ego when every single dessert comes back barely touched. While eating, we talked quite a bit, anecdotes about traveling and South America (and elsewhere for me), as everyone seemed to be a pretty seasoned traveler. After lunch, we went around the eerily empty, almost Shining-like hotel, and decided to play some pool. Hilariously, their pool equipment was so old and unkempt that pretty much all the cues had they tips completely worn out until they looked like the heads of Franciscan monks. Still, we managed a good game (I lost badly) before we got word that it was time to head back to La Paz. 

And it was a long drive. A long drive. Like, I wasn't checking when we left, but it took us no less than four hours to get back to La Paz. It was a much quieter ride than pretty much the rest of the day had been, because I think most of us were talked out. I just enjoyed watching the environment pass by. Then at some point, I dozed off, and as though Poseidon himself were trying to punish me, when I awoke, a massive layer of fog had rolled in, obscuring everything. However, this only made me feel even more fortunate to have had the day that we did. Irish Chris noted that he had done this same trip a month prior, and that time, it had been foggy from the beginning. So, definitely some blessings to be counted there. Eventually, we got back to the office in La Paz, where we each received a free t-shirt (I'm not sure what I'll do with mine at this point, but we'll see) and a DVD of all the pictures the guide had taken (or, in my case, flash drive that I had brought with me, since my laptop has no disc drive). I then said my goodbyes to everybody, and headed out. Because it was kind of late, I pretty much gave up on my idea to have a llama fillet - it's okay, there will always be plenty of llamas out there, just ready to be eaten - and just went to a nearby Mexican food place to get a burrito. I then stopped by a nearby store, where I got a box of cereal for the next day's breakfast, as well as a bottle of sunscreen, to serve me for the rest of the trip (and possibly afterward). Only after this did I realize that, whoops!, I had spent pretty much all that was left of my cash, and I didn't think about getting lunch in Copacabana tomorrow before finally going into Peru. Sooooo, either I find a place that accepts credit cards, or I eat more cereal for lunch. Anyway, after that blunder, I went back to my hotel room, ate, and then did some writing and packing, which leads us here.

And wow, that's been Bolivia. I genuinely can't believe I literally only arrived here one week ago. It's been an incredibly busy week. Some things got a little wacky, but niggling details aside, I was very happy to experience all the things that I was able to. If there was one more thing I would have liked to have done, it would be to visit an actual quinoa farm, but I'm sure that would have required a lot more time. Still, I've been told that I'll be welcome in Bolivia any time I like. And hey, my visa is valid for five years, and five years is a long time, so who knows what the future will hold?

But now, it's on to Peru!

1 comment:

  1. You never fail to amaze me with your exciting adventure stories, so glad that you're sharing this with all your followers of this trip.