Thursday, December 10, 2009

The first two months

So, we´ve been in South America now for two months, three more to go, and have spent most of our time here on farms in both Bolivia and Peru. We have yet to make much mileage but this will soon be remedied. Things have been going quite well so far, no major hang ups to speak of, just normal travel fare. Bolivia made us pretty sick. Peru has greatly impressed, we found jars of peanut butter in a store that actually uses their refrigerator for something other than keeping beer and coke cold! Here is a quick overview of the past two months.

We left San Francisco on Oct 1st, laid-over in Miami and then had a direct flight into La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and the world´s highest airport at around 12,000 ft. La Paz is a huge, crazy, crumbly, busy, smoggy, noisy place sitting in a steep bowl with houses clinging to the sides, great big snowy mountians in the distance and lots and lots of honking. We found a hostel alright and then went about the business of trying to find the bus that would take us down into the Amazon Jungle where our first farm was located. This process took us the better part of 24 hours and almost got me pickpocketed, the guy´s hand was in my pocket when I realized what was going on and when I grabbed on to my pockets with both hands his accomplice threw dried corn meal at my face to distract so they could make a getaway. Nothing stolen. The search for the bus left us huffing and puffing and out of breath from the altitude, alas, we did come from sea level. After just one full day and two sleepless alititude sickness nights in La Paz we boared a glorified schoolbus and rode for twelve hours, across the alitplano, a desolate no vegetation wasteland which streches across a good portion of Bolivia. Ramshackle adobe houses and barefoot children, skinny cows and huge trash heaps blurred by. We passed by an incredible snowcapped montain range, all of the peaks close to or above 20,000 feet before decending down down down a windy steep road into the hot humid stickiness of the Amazon Basin. Before arriving half a day later at our dusty destination of Apollo we narrowly avoided a head on collison with another bus. Luckily our bus didn´t plunge the several hundred feet it could have into the river below, the other bus swerved into the cliffside and got stuck in the dirt gutter. Not to worry, no one was hurt and Bolivians are rather handy people, they all climbed out of the windows and looped ropes through the bus and heaved and hoed and had that bus upright in no time. It looked like this may not have been the first time...

Our taxi ride from Apollo to Bruno´s farm was just as interesting. I thought, oh a taxi, great, the two of us will have a nice pleasant ride and should be there in about an hour no more of this bus tipping nonsense. Not only were we not the only passengers but we were accompanied by a canine and bags upon bags of food and clothing. The grand total was 7 adults, 2 kids, 1 baby, a puppy and tons of cargo piled on top of a toyota wagon meant for a mere 5 people. I was sitting between the driver and the passenger. Where you ask? Oh just on top of the stick shift. Yes every time the driver downshifted he punched my left buttcheek and no, no it wasn´t very comfortable. The lady with the baby was nursing and the puppy took an interest in Elise´s arm and wouldnt stop licking it and the two kids that were sitting in the back had the misfortune of the gasoline tanks leaking on them. Not only was the ride very uncomfortable but the driver needed all of the men to exit at one point so that the car could make it up a certain moderately steep section of road. All in all we arrived safely.

Our ridiculous ¨taxi¨

Bruno´s farm was 18 days of eyebrow raising, head shaking, adventure including a teepee, the Bolivian drug police, machetes, guns, orange wine, lots of rice, a few hikes, a waterfall and a cemetery. There were a lot of other volunteers from all over the world and we made some very good friends there. For a more in depth account of Bruno´s, check out Elise´s blog at

Elise on a mountaintop in Bolivia

We left Bruno´s with some good friends, our bus had only two flat tires on the way and drove through an immense thunder storm, so nothing too bad. We spent a few days in La Paz recuperating before heading down to the beautiful yet bug ridden ¨resort¨town of Coroico. Elise and I spent our time trying to gain back a little bit of weight, lounging poolside, reading, doing crosswords, napping in hammocks, and watching the very very drunk bolivian revelers celebrate Dia de los Muertos. In Corioco we chanced upon two Argentinian brothers who we had met at Bruno´s and journeyed back up to La Paz together, but only after my pair of kakhi pants went ¨missing¨at a Bolivian laundromat. Oh well, down to only one pair of pants now. Our bus this time couldn´t downshift into first. The driver had to get out a few times and crawl underneath to work his magic.

The view from our awesome hostel in Coroico

After only one night of solid solid sleep in La Paz we bussed it (no problems!!!) to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and quickly caught a boat out to the Isla del Sol. After a brutal uphill section on ancient Inca stairs we thought that perhaps we were hiking on the right path but it took us to a cliffside and then a rocky traverse along the water and finally to a pebble beach (not the lovely one we had been searching for) where we found a clearing in a field and set up our tent and tried to sleep through another huge huge thunderstorm that lit up the world behind my eyelids and shook the ground with bass. In the morning, groggy, we awoke to the sound of farmers...right outside our tent...farming. After laying in complete motionless silence for a few minutes we jumped out of the tent, greeted the man, wife, and son, who where breaking up the hard earth with a primative looking metal blade and took down our tent, packed up and dashed off. At a crossroads Elise wasn´t feeling well and so we split ways. She headed back to the port to wait while I stashed my bag and hiked to the North end of the island to see the Inca ruins and the rock where God created the sun and the moon. The ruins weren´t impressive but it was a beautiful day and I enjoyed streching my legs on the long hike. We took a boat back to the mainland, found a room, found some food, visited the cathedral, saw the Virgin of Copacabana (the main reason Bolivians make a pilgrimage to Copacabana) and enjoyed a nice sunset.

Cholas on Isla de la Sol
Sunset over Lake Titicaca
The next day we hiked up the Calvary hill, soaked in the views, napped in a hammock and caught a little bus to the Peruvian border, walked across at sunset, went through customs, and then spent a few hours getting to Puno where we had a nightmare of a bus change because our tickets were taken from us and never returned and we didn´t know about the exit charge and didn´t have any Peruvian money and had to go to the ATM just to pay the Nazi ticket lady the equivalent of 30 cents to leave the station and board the most horrible night ride of a bus packed full of enourmous cholas and all of their bags stuffed full of only God knows what. On the upside I did meet a nice Columbian and his brother who chatted with me and then gave me a smelly old Bolivian Christmas sweater as a parting gift. We arrived in Cusco, Peru just at sunrise, hung over from the bus and with nowhere to stay.

Not to worry though, we kicked it in the main plaza, got some breakfast, searched and found a bus that would take us Santa Maria, close to our next farm, ate some sandwhiches and set off. The ride seemed very very long to me because the old mummbly man sitting behind me had soaked himself in urine before we even left and seemed to have a fascination with digging his knee into the back of my seat. Yet, we enjoyed wonderful amazing scenery as we snaked our way through the Sacred Valley, up over a snow patched pass, and down into the cloud forest, distracted slightly by the spanish dubbed Jet Li movie that was blasting through our skulls. The hostel in Santa Maria had a gorgeous faded mass print of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower and I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. A year ago, so long ago, I was in Paris, living with one of my best friends. Another life.

In the morning we made peanut butter banana sandwhiches and got into another crowded taxi which dropped us off in a Jurassic Park looking valley on a dusty road with a sign pointing down the hillside to ¨Quellomayo.¨

Our valley, Quellomayo

We spent four full weeks and a morning at Quellomayo with a British man, his Peruvian wife, and their extended family. We had a great time working on various projects around the house/soon to be restaurant, building a solar shower, rocks paths, painting a giant map on a rock, gathering fruit, clearing land, etc. The food was wonderful, there was an incredible amount of fresh fruit, mangos, pineapples, papayas, avacados, passionfruit and many many more. We took a few memorable trips during our time there. An overnight camping trip for the anniversary of Vilcabamba where we saw some Inca ruins and watched a few cock-fights and a Peruvian rodeo and a bullfight. We spent Thanksgiving at Machu Picchu and had an incredible day in the rain and fog and clouds and sun. We didn´t eat turkey but we did have peanut butter and oreos, an adequate substitute in my opinion. The last weekend we spent at Quellomayo we celebrated three family member´s birthdays in the only way that is appropriate, random family members showing up in their VW van, others walking in from the next town with their possy, with a rifle for shooting something or other, little kids running around, a pinata, candy, cake, a whole roast pig, tamales, lots and lots of beer followed by coke and rum and a blaring stereo and dancing and blurry memories of finishing the night by taking a bath in the pooled up stream down the dirt path.

Elise on top of Wayna Picchu with Peanut Butter and Oreo

We are back in Cusco now, wandering around, peeking in churches and eating more peanut butter and bananas. Our next destination is Arequipa and then on up the coast hopefully to the Equator.
Elise with the next day´s breakfast. I wish I was kidding. The rest of the pig was lunch and dinner.