Bolivia, the Final Chapter

Maya Lapp

I’M HOME!!!! Okay, wait a second. Before I go into how I miss Bolivia already- the language, the culture the fact that empanadas cost 30 cents, stepping in torta de vaca, breathing in fumes, being crushed into buses- I guess I’d better back up to two weeks ago. I meant to write about Week 6 earlier, but we’ve been on the move the past few weeks. Having a blast, but no time (or equipment, aka computer) to work with.

For the last ten days of our trip we were taking another tourist trip around Bolivia, so when my dad headed to the clinic for his last week, my mom and I went along to say goodbye to everyone, despite wanting to stay at NPH with Zena. The three of us crammed in the school bus that took the older students to Portachuello every morning. When we got there, we had to wait to be picked up by the clinic car. Luckily, the few hours were not spent without entertainment. It turned out the school’s teachers were protesting against the principal, and the students didn’t have class, after all. While they piled back into the bus, we sat around in the plaza, flinching every few minutes as the protesters lit off rockets that sounded remarkably similar to gunshots.

At the clinic, we had one final meal cooked by Moomi, one last soccer game on the grass cancha, a few final hours shelling coffee beans with Don Pepe, and then my mom and I said our goodbyes to the crew. We had decided to just spend one night at the clinic, and then hitchhike back to NPH so we could spend a final few days with the kids at the Hogar. And what a trip we had!

Some people from the clinic were driving out to the small town of Santa Rosa, so they gave us a lift for the first leg of our trip. After leaving the car and waving them on their way, my mom and I started walking down the road. We were about seven miles from the Hogar, but, with any luck, we would be able to catch a ride in a truck or somesuch. Usually it isn’t hard to find a ride coming by, but minutes passed, and all that drove by were motos (motorcycles) and cars that didn’t bother slowing down to help us on our way. At last, after maybe a half hour, we waved down a truck and it slowed, pulling to a stop before us. I ran up to it and asked, “A San Ignacio?” (San Ignacio is the town closest to NPH.) The old man inside just grunted and shook his head. Disappointed, my mom and I continued on our way. The car drove off again, and in about a hundred meters the car stalled and a huge jug fell out of the back. I jogged forward to put it back in (taking care that he knew I was behind his car, as he seemed a bit old and out of it, and I could easily see him completely oblivious and backing up right into me). He climbed out as well and seemed to consider me a moment.

In the end, it turned out his car was half broken, and could barely keep moving. However, he offered us a ride to “3 km.” from where we wanted to go, so we took up the offer. (3 km. is about a 1.5 mi. unfortunately, I put it in quotes because you can’t trust Bolivian measurements for distance, and 3 km. could be 10 miles. In the end, it was probably more like 4 miles from where he dropped us off to where we wanted to go.) Along with the broken down car, this old man couldn’t drive to save his life. We wanted to start up a conversation, and he was willing to talk, but every time we started talking to each other, he took his eyes off the road and we would start drifting off the side. We decided not to question him too much, since we valued our lives.

After being dropped off by Old Nutcase, it was less than five minutes before we got our next ride. This time, it was a couple with a little boy, and they offered to drive us the rest of the way. The little boy was really shy, but adorable. My mom gave him this carrito (little car) and he broke into a grin from ear to ear. Lindisimo!!!

I would go into better detail about a final few days at NPH, but I’ve got two weeks to cover, so let just say, the saddest part of leaving was saying goodbye to the Divinos. The kids were happy as ever, but we also bonded with the tias of Divino, and their obvious sadness at our leaving made it that much harder for us to leave. We took a group picture with the Divinos, and some with the tias, and hid our tears, and moved on.

The plan for our final days was as follows. First, we’d spend a day in Santa Cruz, and then we’d fly to La Paz, then to Rurrenrebaque and the Amazon and a pampas tour, then fly back to La Paz and bus to Copacabana and Isla del Sol, then bus back to La Paz, spend two nights, fly back to Santa Cruz, then fly out to Pittsburgh. Confused? Yeah, you’re not the only one. It might be easier if I take it step by step.

Zena, my mom and I met my dad in Santa Cruz. We were leaving early the next morning, so basically all we did was eat shwarmas for dinner. Yup, that’s right, Arab shwarmas in the middle of Bolivia. When we went to the restaurant, my dad started talking to the guy in Arabic. The problem is, when you’re used to speaking one foreign language, it’s hard to start talking in another one. My dad kept mixing up his Arabic and Spanish so much it was practically a new language. Luckily, the guy managed to decipher most of it. (Ironically, when my dad doesn’t want to speak Arabic, he can’t seem to stop throwing in a word here and there. Usually, he doesn’t even notice until someone points it out. Sometimes I don’t notice it, myself.) We learned he was from Syria, and had been in Bolivia for eight years, more or less. He also spoke English and Portuguese. My dad guessed that he first immigrated to Brazil, because there are a lot of Middle Easterners in Brazil. (Fun fact: There are more people who claim to be Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon.)

We landed in Rurrenrebaque’s “airport” almost 24 hours later. More accurately, we landed on Rurre’s runway, as there wasn’t really an airport. When we got off the plane we were in the middle of nowhere. Just a concrete runway, and the rest around us was grass and trees. We took a bus to this tiny, ramshackle building that called itself an airport. Next day we made it into the Amazon.

There are two parts of Bolivia’s Amazon- the pampas and the jungle. The jungle is an area with more trees, more insect life, and more walking. The pampas is more of a boat tour, and has more grassland. That’s where we were headed. So far we had been lucky with tour guides, and Victor Hugo was no let down. As we drifted down the river on our first day, my sister and I could clearly hear him singing softly from where he was driving the boat. We couldn’t make out the words, but he was DEFINITELY singing. We just looked at each other and smiled. (Earlier, on the car drive to the river, my mom was analyzing the birds we passed, and he noted that he couldn’t lie to her about the animals they would see. He said that one time he told a tour group that a woodpecker was a bomber (firefighter). He’s a joker, that one.)

Also on our tour with us were two young women from Ireland, Sarah and Niamh (Pronounced “neev”. Don’t ask.). They were nice enough, but quiet.

If you count all the different species of birds, I couldn’t name half of the animals we saw, but I’ll try to give you an idea of some of the better ones. First off, the Hoatzin was EVERYWHERE. It’s this weird bird that has a spiked Mohawk kind of thing on its head. You can google a picture, if you want. The first time I saw it, I thought it was really cool, but after a while, the novelty died off. Other cool birds included: a HUGE jabbaroo stork, many wattled jacanas (my mom called them “Sam birds” after my brother) and a flock of blue and yellow macaws.

On our first day on the river, as we drifted down to the “eco-lodge” where we would stay two nights before heading back, we saw these cute little squirrel monkeys. They’re about the size of a kitten, and extremely curious. We were going through a very narrow section of the river, and tens of monkeys start surrounding us. They’re really curious, and came so close we could have reached out and touched them. Zena asked if they could swim, and Victor Hugo said, “Of course!” One time, he was on a trip with a biologist who didn’t believe they could swim and, lo and behold, one of the creatures jumps into the water, swims over, and climbs into the boat! I wish they had done that to us. They’re Zena’s new favorite animal, and I might follow her lead on that one. They’re might even surpass Divino is adorability! We also saw red and black howler monkeys, but they were just obnoxious, especially when they started howling in the morning when we were all trying to sleep.

As we arrived at the eco-lodge, our guide pointed out a large camion (like a crocodile) resting in a small inlet right next to where we pulled the boat up to dock. That was his favorite spot, and he could often be seen resting there, presumably waiting for some foolish gringo to fall in and present a meal. The next day, our guide would ask if we wanted to go swimming in the river right outside the lodge. I reminded him of the camion, and he just laughed, and said, “It won’t bother you!” Yeah, right.

Later that evening, we went out to see the sunset with about fifty other tourists. We all arrived on separate boats, but when we got to the designated location for sunset watching, there were at least fifty of us. As my mom noted, it was probably more fun to watch the other tourists all lined up sitting on the wooden walkway, drinking beer and laughing in ten different languages. A game of soccer started up, and I made sure to make an entrance, despite the fact that it was boiling hot and I was dressed in pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt because of the mosquitos. Unfortunately, the game only lasted fifteen minutes, or so, and we were ushered back onto our respective boats to head to dinner.

Where to start about the mosquitos? Swarms of them, so thick around you, even indoors where there are screens that are meant to keep them out, that it’s hard to eat. Zena starts clapping the air around her, and kills three in one go. Even though we’re all drenched in sweat, we coer ourselves from head to toe in an attempt to ward them off. It doesn’t work- they bite straight through our layers. When the Irish women first heard there were bats in our room, they weren’t too happy, but when they learned the bats would eat the mosquitos, Sarah suggested putting up a sign, welcoming more.

When night truly falls, we get back into the boat to look for camions. Victor Hugo suggested that we bring something to sit on, because, apparently, mosquitos have a particular liking for nalgas… aka backsides. We all followed his advice.

The sky is clear and beautiful, and I could spend hours just gazing up at the starts. Niamh (pronounced “neev”) and Sarah shout in awe at the fireflies, which they’ve never seen before. I smile, because they sound like children, but when you think about it, insects that light up on their own are pretty incredible, if you’ve never seen them before in your life. The air is cool, the mosquitos have died down, and it is bliss.

“Camion,” our guide calls out softly, shining his light straight ahead.

We all sit up and look around in anticipation. “I see it!” Zena says, excitedly.

My eyes search the darkness for a while, before they rest on a pair of red lights, glaring out into the darkness. It’s eerie, the way everything is pitch black except for those two red eyes. They look evil and haunting. Our guide takes the boat closer, until we’re almost upon it. It’s almost worse when the camion slips away, back into the water, because all you can think is, What if it’s coming this way? We see three or four more, before retiring for the night.

The next morning we have a late start, picking up boots, putting on long pants and lathering ourselves in sunscreen. We’re going on a python hunt.

Our hike started out in a boggy area, where we had to be careful not to step in a place so deep water would circumvent the tops of our boots. (The water we waded through looked more like septic fluid and it wasn’t so appetizing.) As we continued onward, it just got worse. Eventually, we all had water filled to the tops of our boots, and we stopped caring. It actually went faster, once this happened, because we didn’t bother being careful where we stepped, since we knew we were soaked, anyway.

Niamh (“neev”), joked about how we should be put in an asylum for looking for snakes that could kill us. Victor Hugo assured us that the viporas in the area weren’t lethal. The python isn’t poisonous, and the cobras won’t kill you. He claimed to have been bitten many times. It just hurt, and you got dizzy and nauseous, and stuff, but you wouldn’t die. Zena said that we should hope to be bitten by a python, so that we could claim to be bitten by a snake, but not have the terrible side effects of poison. I hope she was just joking, and isn’t being tainted by Bolivian fearlessness. Our guide also helped to still our fears by telling us to stop every so often so he could go ahead and make sure there were no camions blocking the way. I would like to think he was joking, but for the first time he wasn’t singing or making jokes, so I tend to believe what he said.

At the turnaround point of our python hike was a little island that jutted out from the bog. We all dumped buckets of water from our boots, despite knowing they would fill back up again the moment we turned around to head back. We walked around on the island for a while, still searching for the python. Instead, we found this unbelievable Great Horned Owl. It was the size of a bear cub, perched in a tree and staring right down at us. It was definitely the highlight of the day. We never got to see any viporas, which I’m not sure was a blessing or a curse.

After a quick lunch and siesta, we headed out for some piranha fishing. Piranhas can be found only in little inlets along the Amazon that are surrounded in trees- they don’t live in the open water of the river. I asked Victor Hugo if he’d care for a swim, and he politely declined. We were each given a slab of wood that had a fishing-line and hook attached (as primitive as fishing gets, which I was glad about, since none of us have fished more than once or twice before). We weren’t very successful. Victor Hugo cut up some meat for us, but most of the time the piranhas ended up eating it without us catching them. Our guide wasn’t any more successful, though. I caught a few, but they were all too small to eat. My dad was more successful, and managed to bring in a piranha and a sardine for our dinner. (They were still tiny, with hardly any meat, but it was enough for us to get a taste.) About halfway through our outing, our guide stands up and begins walking on the three-inch wide edge of the boat to hand something to my mom when, (I’ll borrow a Bud, Not Buddy line) Whoop, zoop, sloop! he tumbles over and lands in the piranha-infested waters. We all panic a bit, but he just calmly treads water a bit and assures us that he’s completely safe, since he isn’t bleeding, before pulling himself back into the boat.

We were on the river for the sunset, that evening, and awe-inspiring doesn’t cover the half of it. The world was quiet and the clouds dramatic and a fiery orange. You can picture it better than I could ever describe it, so I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Usually, the tour groups have the second night to themselves, for relaxing and enjoying the mosquitos’ company and the like, but our guide offered to take us out in the boat again that night to see some baby camions, and we jumped at the offer. Sarah and Niamh (“neev”) were excited about the fireflies, and the rest of us just loved the silence and stars of the night. Although it must be admitted that the baby camions were pretty cool, as well. I think he took a liking to us, which I’m glad about, because he said half the time there is at least one annoying person who messes up the whole chemistry of the group. I hope we were a light burden, as tour groups go.

Victor Hugo has been a tour guide in the pampas for almost ten years. He is self-taught about all of the information on plants and animals that he knows, and he wants to write a book about the life in Bolivia’s section of the Amazon. And, as I mentioned before, he likes to sing, although I’m not sure he always realizes he has an audience listening in.

Day three we woke up early to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day, and the mosquitos that morning made the nights look like nothing. I covered my head with a blanket and tried to ignore the myriad of insects crawling all over my body, but it was impossible. If you could stop thinking about the mosquitos enough to appreciate the morning noises of birds waking and monkeys swinging in the trees, it was a beautiful sight, but it was impossible to enjoy. It was all too much to endure before breakfast.

After eating a meal, everyone was more content, and we took off by boat for our final side trip before heading back upstream to Rurre. This time we were going to swim with dolphins!!! We saw many river dolphins while on the river, but this was our chance to see them up close.

Okay, so when you think about swimming with dolphins, I’m sure you picture (as I did) treading water and having dolphins swim up to you, poking their head out of the water so you can stroke their snout. The classic pose, young girl in the water sticking out her hand to stroke a dolphin that practically looks like it’s smiling. Nope! Doesn’t work like that, at least not where we were. I was calmly swimming along when suddenly I felt a mouth full of teeth clamp firmly on my foot. As is the natural reaction, I kicked out wildly, pulling my foot from its grasp and making contact with something hard that I would have thought was a rock, had I not known better. Another dolphin kept circling my dad, splashing him with its tail. He got his foot bitten, as well. We were lucky, because our guide had suggested that we wear socks, but one woman in a different group had her feet caught in the dolphin’s mouth and started to bleed. She stuck it out of the water to keep it from getting bitten again, and out pops the dolphin’s snout, super thin and full of pointed teeth. Not at all what I had imagined. No, these weren’t the friendly dolphins you see on TV. These were wild animals, protecting their home from intruders.

That same day Victor Hugo took us back up river after lunch. We went double-time, speeding up the river in half the time it had taken us to come down. As we road along, the rocking of the boat lulled me into a gentle sleep, until… I jerked awake, cold water dripping down my back. I spin around to glare at my sister, but Victor Hugo is grinning a little too widely, and his hand is still wet from where it dipped in the water to throw some at me. He laughs out loud, and I shake my head and turn back toward the front of the boat to hide my own smile. If he wasn’t our guide, I would tip him right out of the boat!

We thought our tour was over when we left Victor Hugo on the riverbank and started on our drive back to Rurre, but we couldn’t be more wrong. We were bumping along in the back of the truck when our driver pulled to a sudden halt. “Quiere ver un vipora?” he asked. We nodded, and climbed out of the truck. Right there on the side of the road was a boa. It was young, only a meter or so long, and the end of its tail was a different color, where it had just shed its skin. Our guide picked it up by the tail to show us. I’ve gotten so used to Bolivian attitude toward snakes that I didn’t question it, but Niamh (“neev”) called out a warning to him. He shrugged, “I got bit two months ago, and it just swelled up a bit. It wasn’t so bad.” No surprises there.

He let us each touch it before setting it farther off the road so it wouldn’t get run over by a car. So we headed down the road, again. Our next unexpected distraction came in the form of a sloth crossing the road. Two-toed sloth, to be precise. Boy are they ugly creatures! I’ve seen sloths, before, but never this close. We all got to stand within a foot of it, as we herded it off the road. Saying sloths are slow doesn’t give a good picture of them. Put a monkey on TV and start it playing in slow motion, and you might get some idea of a sloth. Except, as I mentioned just now, sloths are much uglier than monkeys. They have a squashed face that looks like someone just punched them, and their face didn’t bother returning to its original shape. Still, it was pretty cool to see.

Back to La Paz, and then by bus to Copacabana, and Lake Titicaca.

Okay, so you’re probably bored of Bolivian driving stories, but this guy was special. We were in this minibus kind of thing, because it was cheaper than a big bus. However, our driver wasn’t really up to par. At one point in our road trip a truck was coming in the opposite direction, and we were driving on the wrong side of the road. Real smart, I know. We took a regular-sized, more expensive bus on the way back, since we valued our lives.

My mom booked a really nice hostel for our stay in Copacabana. We got our own little building with a fireplace and kitchenette and… it was just nice. We mostly just hung out and played naipes (cards) while we were there. However, we did take a three mile hike that felt more like ten miles, since we were in super high altitude. We were walking to see some Incan Bath Ruins, but the people who were supposed to open it were nowhere to be found, so we ended up just walking back.

On our way through the city we encountered The German Shepherd. We were ambling through the streets when a huge dog came pelting at us, barking wildly. This was no friendly hello. His teeth were bared and he was jumping up and down, obviously seconds from taking a leap at us and sinking his teeth into our flesh. I ran and hid behind my dad. I’m not a big dog fan in the first place, so those of you who know me may think I am exaggerating when I say I feared for my life, but my parents admitted that they were scared, too, after we all got away safely.

Our next stop was Isla del Sol, on Lake Titicaca, where we spent two nights in a mud brick room (at least, I hope it was mud, and not some other substance than can look remarkably like mud when it’s dry but smells a lot worse) that barely fit the beds we slept in. We planned to walk from the south side of the island to the north, and back again (10 miles), but I got sick. Sore throat, cough, the whole shebang. It also didn’t help that the altitude made it so ascending twenty steps left you winded and begging for air. We even took altitude medicine, and we still could barely make it up the mountainside. I joined them on their hike to the north side of the island (admittedly, a beautiful hike), but I was dead on my feet and took a boat back to the south side to spend the rest of the day in bed with a fever while they made their way back on foot.

I mention the boat ride back alone so casually, but for me, it wasn’t as easy as that. It was the first time in my life I was going somewhere in a different country alone, with no parents or siblings to rely on for language or common sense. I was anxious something bad was going to happen, like they were going to forget to drop me off on the south side and end up carrying me with the rest of the passengers back to Copacabana, or they were going to try to tell me something, and I wasn’t going to understand, or they were going to try and make me repay the entrance fee to the island upon arrival, and I was going to have to try and explain (in Spanish) that I already paid it, or…. everything else bad that goes through someone’s mind when they’re on their own in a country that speaks a different language for the first time in their life. Luckily, everything went completely smoothly, and an hour later I fell into the lumpy bed in our hostel, where I didn’t get up until they returned.

Boat back to Copa, drive to La Paz, blah, blah, blah. We spent a day looking around the La Paz market, buying a few things for ourselves and friends (I also saw this awesome sword that had a cobra head on the hilt and a sheath covered in snake skin that we didn’t buy), looking at the Mercado de Brujas (Witches’ Market) where they had shrunken baby llamas, all that normal stuff you do when in a foreign city. La Paz wasn’t all that interesting, so we’ll move on to—wait a second. Before I forget. Remember my description of our hostel on Isla del Sol? Our hotel in La Paz couldn’t be more different. It was like an American hotel, clean rooms, hot showers, no cockroaches on the floors, even a TV! And for breakfast there was, drumroll please…. FRUIT! I LOVE FRUIT! I cannot live without fruit. It was the first fruit we had had in days (other than a few apples) and I was in heaven. Just a side note, there.

While in La Paz we also had some other great food. We had an entire lunch- sopa y Segundo- for 9 Bolivianos. That means we got a large portion of soup, pasta and chicken for just over a dollar. It’s going to be hard to pay $9.00 for a sandwich, now. We also got this incredible mango juice that was thick and creamy and delicious for 6 Bs. A little more expensive (just under a dollar), but one of the best drinks we had in Bolivia. And it was huge, too.

Back to Santa Cruz. Our last night in Bolivia. It was a great one. As my mom said, “Perfectly typical.” Since it was our last night, I’ll describe it to you in full.

First we board a micro to downtown. It’s crammed with people, so we are standing, crushed between (odorous) Bolivians, and can barely move an inch. Slowly, the micro empties, until there are only a few other people remaining, and we can finally grab a seat. A young man nearby who heard us tell the driver we wanted to get off near the Plaza Central offers to show us the way, so when we disembark, he pulls up a map on his smart phone and points us in the right direction. He was really nice, and even explained where we could catch another micro to take us home. Don’t you just love nice people? As many annoying, crazy, obnoxious people as we have met on our trip, we’ve met many who are willing to help, as well. It gives you hope in the world.

Our goal was a dinner place that had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. (Veggies, the other thing I craved above all while in Bolivia. They had hundreds of vegetables, but they never gave out salads for dinner. We went to one place called “Batman Chicken” that gave out chicken and three carbs- noodles, rice and potatoes. No wonder over 75% of Bolivians have diabetes.) It was pretty good. I had a typical Bolivian-style chicken, rice and fries, and three plates of salad. Our whole family also took some preventative meds. It’s no fun to get sick off of food while in a plane.

As we walked to where we had to pick up the bus, we went through a night market. It was beautiful. If you’ve never been in a night market before, it may be hard to understand how I call a market beautiful, but it was. Wares all around us, a muffled silence in the air that you never find in a day market… the culture was just so evident, and, in that moment, it was hard to reconcile with the fact that we were about to leave.

The flight to Miami was fine. Nothing special. It felt like we had just arrived maybe a week ago, and now we were leaving. We arrived in Miami to find our flight had been canceled to Pittsburgh, and we had to take a later flight, so we had three hours of layover time. I remember when flying into Miami, it seemed like there was so much Spanish flying around. Most of the employees of the airport seemed to be speaking the language, to the extent that some of them didn’t understand my English. This time, though, I felt surrounded by English. It was disorientating.

But nothing like when I came back to Pittsburgh. In Miami, I could push past someone and say, “Permiso,” and they wouldn’t think twice about it. In Pittsburgh, all I got was weird looks, and I’d remember I was speaking the wrong language. Yesterday, someone sneezed, and before I thought twice, I said, “Salud”. I passed a boy on the street, and automatically said, “Buen dia.” Small slips, but it was weird, like I no longer fit in to my home. I’ve traveled before, I know the feeling will pass, but coming home to a new culture, one you used to belong to, is always hard to accept. Looking at a menu and paying $5 for a piece of pizza, instead of 3 Bs., it just feels wrong (it was nice to have some American food though, I must say). Throwing toilet paper in the toilet? It was like a crime! I went to school to see the musical, yesterday, and the faces, the people, the language and culture, it was all so overwhelming. It’s nice to be home, and it’s sad that my trip is over, but that’s not what’s bothering me, right now. It’s hard to feel like you don’t fit in in a place that has always been, and will always be, your home. People expect you to start up right where you left off when you return from another country, but you can’t. You can’t be who you were when you left, because you’re not the same person, you’re someone new. I know the feeling will fade with time, I know I will slip back in to where I left off, but somehow, that is even more disturbing. To think how I changed can disappear so quickly… I know this experience will be with me the rest of my life. Traveling is something that will never leave me—it’s an experience that changes a person forever………

Maybe what I just said is contradictory, I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t make any sense. I’m just writing my thoughts as they come, because how I feel right now—how any person feels upon returning home—cannot be described, only experienced. A part of me just wants to be home, again. To be back to myself, to fit in. But another part of me doesn’t want to leave how I have changed. I don’t want to slip back in the spot that I left, because I don’t fit the same. It’s like trying use your neighbor’s key to unlock your own door. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m different, but the world is the same, and I don’t know what to do about it, yet. They have a word for it—culture shock. Everyone gets it when they return from a long trip, and everyone deals with it in their own way. I’ll learn how, but all I know is I want to keep my experiences with me. I don’t want to leave them, now I’m home. They are a part of who I am, and I can’t ever forget that.