Bolivia, Week One!

Maya Lapp

I apologize beforehand if I ramble. I don’t have any organization to this article, and I’m just planning on writing whatever comes to mind at the time. Hopefully most of it will be in some sort of order, but I’m not making any promises. Still, I’ll try to at least start at the beginning…

No matter how much you plan for a trip, there’s always the last minute rush, but to add on to the frantic hubbub as we prepared to drive to the airport Friday a neighbor who was on her way to pick up her husband at the airport called to warn us the tunnels were closed. I can’t say that helped to lighten the mood at all. Still, we made our way to the airport and onto Miami without any trouble.

A little side note: I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to Miami, but I swear they speak more Spanish than English there. I went to order a hamburger (the last American food I would have before arriving in Bolivia- I thought I’d take advantage of the chance) and the waitress didn’t understand me because she only spoke Spanish. Ay caramba!

We took an overnight flight to Santa Cruz, with a short stop in La Paz. Then we had to get our visas, and that took FOREVER. Of course, since This Is Bolivia (TIB), there was only one man giving out visas, and he was in no hurry. There were around ten people from our flight waiting for visas, and each one took at least a half an hour. When we finally had our visas, we got out of the airport in less than five minutes. No security, our bags just lying out in the open for anyone to grab, and we were out the door. Zena was there to meet us with a few volunteers from the office my dad will volunteer at and a fellow Austrian volunteer at NPH, Cornelia, who joined us for our first week of vacation time before we begin volunteering.  We took jumped in a car to stash over half of our luggage (mainly items we brought up as donations to NPH) in a small house in Santa Cruz the medical office owns.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped onto Bolivian soil is that Bolivians seem to expect you to just guess half of what they’re saying. They don’t just drop the ends of their words; they drop the ends of entire sentences. It’s like they just assume you know what they’re talking about. And of course, most Bolivians do, but the rest of us foreigners get a bit confused. I just hope I get used to it, or else it could be a long two months.

As soon as we had our extra bags stored, we bounced our way back to Santa Cruz’s bus terminal. The week’s plan was to take a 14 hour night bus to Sucre so we would arrive in the morning, spend the day in Sucre and take an 8 hour night bus to Uyuni, where we already had a two day tour booked in the Salt Flats. I must say, when I was told we were going to buy the first bus tickets, I didn’t expect it to be something like a market. As we walked through the bus station, all around us were men and women calling out their wares. “Sucre, Sucre, pa’ Sucre!” “Para para para para La Paz!” “Cochabamba! A Cochabamaba!” At first the cacophony of noise was overwhelming, but slowly I grew accustomed to it, and it sounded rather like music to my ears. Each vendor had their own call, their own cadence, and they blended together into song. We booked tickets on a bus with semicama (“semibed”) seats, which basically means they can lean back really far and have a footrest. They were surprisingly confortable, but the driver put on this violent movie really, really loud that didn’t help with anyone’s sleep.

I was going to describe bathroom conditions as I went along, but I realize that’s probably not necessary, so before I go on, let me just say I had some new experiences with different types of bathrooms. Or lack thereof, as it were. And I don’t just mean the old hole in the ground. At some of these places, a hole in the ground would be welcomed. If you catch my drift.

I’ll also give a short note on food, since I’m sure my description of the bathroom conditions has whet your appetite. Surprisingly, beans aren’t that common here. Veggies are also a rarity. They stick mostly to rice and meat dishes, although they’re really into fried dough, as well. Bolivians add sugar to everything, and I can’t say I’m a big fan of that, but I’ve already had some pretty good tamales and these things called salteñas. They’re basically potato-meat-spice stuffed bread roll things. Kind of like non-fried empanadas. Some are better than others, but it’s like that with everything. I had an amazing grilled chicken dinner for 14 Bolivianos (Bs.) (around $2.00).

We arrived in Sucre on a Sunday, and on Sundays in Sucre, everything is closed. It’s a dead town. We did have a hostel or anything, so we spent most of the time in the market and park, waiting for our next bus trip. Our next bus was much like the first, but apparently it had overbooked, because there were some people sitting in the aisles. We arrived in Uyuni at 4:30 in the morning, dropped off on a corner with no place to go. It’s freezing cold, we have all our layers on, so what do we do? We go for a walk, of course! Luckily, a street beggar took pity on us and pointed us toward a café that was open early. Thank goodness for Noni’s. We stay there all morning, since the tour company we booked, Red Planet, doesn’t open until around eight. (Around 7:30 Zena reminds me it’s my birthday. Waking up at four in the morning wasn’t in my seventeenth birthday plans, but hey, I’m in Bolivia, right? Can’t ask for much more.)

Our tour starts that same day, and we’re taken out by a guide named Louis. He spoke English very well, but we told him to try to speak mostly in Spanish, so we could practice, and I was surprised how much I could understand. Our first stop was a train graveyard thing, but luckily we quickly move on to better sights. We learned about the process of refining the salt so it’s okay to eat before moving onto the Flats themselves.

Bolivia has the largest Salar (Salt Flats) in the world, and there are few sights more breathtaking. Louis drives us around to different areas, and each one is better than the last. I really can’t describe it with words, so I’m not even going to try. Even pictures cannot capture the beauty. It’s more than just beautiful; it’s incomprehensible. As the Grinch would say, “The words that best describe it are as follows and I quote: vast, amazing, and incredible.” That’s about the best I can say. The only way to get an inkling of what it’s like is to look at some photos. Let it suffice to say I can’t imagine a better birthday. We were out on an exceptionally beautiful day, too. I would know this even if Louis hadn’t said we were lucky, because I saw him taking out his phone to get some photos, and he’s seen in a hundred times before.

The Salar is so vast once you’re in the middle all you can see is salt around you and mountains in the distance. With the beauty surrounding me, I would have thought it impossible to fall asleep, but after three nights of travel and little sleep, I fell asleep while we were driving from one point to another. When I woke up, everything looked exactly the same. If you don’t know how to navigate by looking at the mountains, you could get lost in an instant.

We spent the night in a hotel made of salt bricks. We had to pay an extra 10 Bs. For hot showers, but since the last one I had was in Pittsburgh and I was covered head to toe in salt, I would have paid much more. Plus, we got to sleep in actual beds for the first time in four days! A guide of another tour gave us story time after dinner, telling us about some of Bolivia’s history and recent developments the new president has brought forth. He seemed very excited about all the modern things that were being built. It seems the new president has been doing a lot for Bolivia’s indigenous population.

The next day Louis took us out again, this time to explore some different sights. We drove to an area with volcanoes (mostly dead) on all sides, and nearly reached to Chilean boarder. Our highest stop at over 3,500 meters was a place of rocks that had formed by volcanic lava centuries ago. It was a beautiful place, but after climbing only a few feet we were left gasping for air, despite having taken pills to prevent altitude sickness.

Upon returning to Uyuni it was back to the busses, again, meaning another night of bad sleep. When we arrived in Sucre this time, however, the city was hopping. We relaxed for the day and spent the night at a nice hostel, storing up energy. Our next experience was a two-day trek in the mountains with our guide Juakin. The first day was a hard 18 km. hike with overnight backpacks and all, which started downhill on an old Incan trail, but turned into a steep climb. We had a fun time practicing our Spanish, trying to teach him English, and trying to learn some of the local indigenous dialect, Ketchwa. My mom became great friends with the other woman on the trip, Cynthia, who came along as a translator/cook kind of person. By the end of the 48 hours, you would have thought they’d known each other their entire lives.

Of course, long treks are never complete without a large does of fear. There were many narrow areas (maybe a foot wide) with long drops (maybe 200 ft. cliffs) that got my heart thumping, but there was only one area my whole family feared for our lives. It was a typical narrow section with a typical long drop to the side, but the difference lay in the terrain. The path was made of this sandy material that crumbled away and slid out from under your feet. My whole family felt this way- it wasn’t just my usual over-anxiety. Once our guide got over and dropped off his pack, he helped the rest of us across, getting even closer to the edge and laughing to himself silently the whole time at our obvious clumsiness. But we all made it out alive, and what’s life without a little risk? As terrifying as moments like those are, it’s those kind of moments that stick in your mind forever and make the best memories.

The views we saw on our trek were amazing, and after a while we got bored of using the same few words (amazing, wow, incredible, etc.), so we asked Cornelia and our guide for some new suggestions. They came up with “Geil” (German: guy-el) and “Imasuma” (Ketchwa). The saddest part came when our guide told us much of the view would be destroyed soon by the entrance of a cement factory. We asked if there was any way the factory could be prevented from coming it, but the prospects didn’t look great.

The rest of the trip went without any problems. We stayed the night in a large cabin, telling stories and jointly making a sopa mortal (“amazing soup”). We got a late start in the morning and finished with a light afternoon of walking. (We also stopped on the way at a fossil museum run by a local, and were help up by a herd of goats/sheep/cows blocking our path, for a while.) That night we cooked loobi u ruz (a Arabic dish of green-beans and tomatoes) with Cynthia and met her nine year-old daughter, Greta, and her husband, John. One thing that’s amazing about traveling is you meet people and become so close to them, sometimes. Sometimes you stay in touch and become lifetime friends. And sometimes that’s the end of it- you never see them again.

There’s a lot to do in Sucre, but we opted to relax after our frantic week. At one point, while we were relaxing in the park, a shoe shining boy came up and sat down right next to us and started to have a conversation with me. I’m still a bit wary of my language ability, but it was really nice to be able to try it out in a real conversation- especially with someone my own age. It’s so different than anything we do at school. It was really funny, because he started listing countries and their capitals, and asked if he was right. I just nodded and said, “Sure” because who knows the capital of Bosnia? The schooling in Bolivia is mostly rote memorization, which is kind of sad. Still, he seemed like a smart kid, and I hope he isn’t shining shoes the rest of his life. He also asked if I had any friends or boyfriends (yes, pluralized boyfriends) back home. Hah! Right!

We spent another night at the hostel, and then took another night bus back to Santa Cruz. Cornelia left immediately for NPH, and Zena followed not long after. Sam also took off, but he headed back to the U.S.A. and Penn State (sucks for him!).  I’m hanging out with my parents in the Santa Cruz house that belongs to the medical office, having a longed for time of tranquility before we head out to volunteer. We did an incredible amount in just over a week, and although it was wonderful, I’m ready for a break from the rush before diving back into things. ¡Hasta luego!Bolvia Salt Flats