On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure, Part II

I forgot the peanut butter.

In my defense, it’s not the kind of thing I’m trained to think of at 4:45 a.m., when none of the three cab companies I’ve called is picking up, and we need to get to the airport. Peanut butter is a camping staple; I’m not a camper. I’m more of an ‘I’m kinda outdoorsy but not actually skilled and currently overpacked for my round the world trip,’ kind of chick, and peanut butter is an addendum for which I’m not prepared. I will live to regret this.

Uyuni is forgettable for reasons previously mentioned. I will add only that, in our effort to find snacks to bring with us on the tour, we can find only two options. First is the local market, of which generally I’m a huge fan, mostly for photographic reasons. This one, however, has vegetables literally piled from floor to waist, most of which are potatoes and some of which I can’t identify.

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It also has very little fruit, very smelly meat counters, and cute but mangy dogs wandering through. In other words, I don’t trust this place. And Nurse Wratchet at Travel Companion’s Travel Clinic of Fear has definitely put the kibosh on – well, everything – which precludes us from consuming anything purchased in these smelly hallowed halls.

The second option is what advertises itself as a supermarket, but which is open only one of the four times we go by. It has a section called, “moldy bread.” It’s ten degrees hotter than the rest of town despite being indoors in a modern building, and is smaller than my last urban apartment. There are four types of dulce de leche in jars but no peanut butter and no loaves of non-moldy bread. When I ask two women who seem to be shopping, but who, it turns out, work there and are reorganizing shelves by putting their contents in a shopping basket and moving them around, they look flummoxed and then tell me that not only do they not have peanut butter, but there isn’t anywhere to get it in town.

We quickly pull together a number of sugar-based snacks (those of you who know me will think this would be my idea of heaven, but I’ve been eating so little sugar since I left home that half a Snickers made me high for three hours) and add six two-liter bottles of water (one each per day of tour), and get the hell out of there.

The next morning, we take a cab five blocks (Snickers bars and liters of water are heavy when added to my giant pack, Traveling Companion’s not large but very stuffed suitcase, two day packs, and the weight of our anxiety) to our guide company. It’s closed. A man comes and opens the door when he sees us standing there and then tells me to wait a minute and wanders off. A few minutes later, a woman arrives and tells me, in rapid-fire Spanish, that we are going across the street to her cousin’s tour company. “Es lo mismo – exactamente lo mismo,” she assures me.

It’s common for tour groups to be combined so that there are six people per jeep, but the bait and switch isn’t sitting well with either of us. The whole street is lined with people loading up into cars; I’d call it a military operation except for the lack of order and the abundance of unkempt hair.

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We really have no choice but to roll with it, and so we do. After about forty minutes of futzing around, we are loaded into a jeep with three Brazilians, an Irish woman, and a driver whose name is Reynaldo Garcia. When I ask him whether he prefers to be called, “Reynaldo,” or, “Senor Garcia,” I barely get the second option out before he responds, “Garcia, Garcia.” And then he says very little else for the next three days.

For the most part, we luck out. Although I have told Travel Companion four times that if the Brazilian make-out masters from across the aisle on the plane from La Paz end up on our tour, I’m pushing them out of the car in the desert, and despite the fact that two of our three Brazilians are a very affectionate couple, they are sweet both to each other and to us, and they do their making out quietly in the back seat. The Irish woman has been volunteering in Colombia for six months and is traveling down around South America on the cheap before heading home, and the other Brazilian is a quiet young tax attorney who checks for phone or wifi signal every time we stop, and otherwise keeps mostly to himself. We are blissfully free of alcoholics and chain smokers, and it seems all six of us are quite pleased to discover this. Murder in the Salar is looking less and less likely as we hop into the jeep and head out.

On the Road, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Find an Adventure, Part I

Step one: Follow the advice of travelers you know peripherally, who don’t need to shower more than once a week, think sleeping in the same room with six other people is heaven, find patchouli to be a remarkably endearing scent, and may or may not want to get you into an entertaining mess.

Step two: Do not solicit advice from other, more similarly minded travelers, for whom sleeping without the hair of strangers left behind on sheets and blankets may be a priority.

Step three: go to a very much still developing country, find the least populated part of it, and hop on a tour.

Back up. Step two B: land in the highest airport in the world, spend three days taking Diamox and sucking on diesel and too little oxygen.

I believe I have mentioned this blog should have been called, “flyingbytheseatofmypants.com,” so it will not surprise you that these are the steps my shall-remain-nameless (totally fantastic) Travel Companion and I followed in planning our trip to Bolivia, whose primary purpose was to go on a salar tour. What, you ask, is that? I had the same question.

It turns out much of Southwest Bolivia used to be a great salt lake surrounded by volcanoes. Times have changed, but salt has not.  Over 4,000 square miles of the area is still a great salt field, worked manually by salineros who shovel the salt into piles, let the water (still not far below the surface of the ground) drain, then collect it in a truck and take it to be harvested and packaged for sale in Bolivia, and beyond.  A few meters below the salt lies the largest lithium field known to man, projected to contain 50-70% of the world’s lithium stores, currently in the process of being extracted to power our electronic addictions. All of this happens at close to 12,000 ft of altitude, under some of the clearest skies you’ve ever seen. They are so clear, in fact, and the white flat beneath them is so flat, that the area is used to calibrate altimeters of some Earth observation satellites.

Before we get to the tour, Travel Companion and I have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, there is La Paz. Here, the airport is so high, it is actually called “el Alto.” All international flights seem to arrive between 2:30 and 6:00 a.m., for reasons I can’t understand, but which lead to a disproportionate number of people finding places to sleep in the small, humble airport until they can get into their hotels, hostels or onto morning flights to other places.  Lucky me, I found a random couch outside a ‘pay by the hour’ travelers’ hotel and happily took it. I donned my eye mask and ipod, and slept in cirque-de-soleil inspired contortion until six-thirty a.m. When the airport roared to life, I changed some money, grabbed a cab, and went to meet the owner of our rental apartment.

Because sometimes I am a moron, and because I was booking my Bogota – La Paz ticket when still in the midst of a severe state of travel panic (see The Terror), despite having read Travel Companion’s reservation six times, I still booked my ticket a day too early, leaving her to fend for herself (albeit with excellent instructions) to get a cab from the airport the next morning. As a result, when she showed up, I was a day ahead of her in the ‘adjusting to altitude and diesel’ environment, having spent about ten hours watching bad American HBO movies and eating peanut butter toast the day before. I’d also adjusted to Diamox side effects, like bouncing eyeballs and tingling extremities, especially hands, which make it difficult to sign your name, or unlock the apartment door.

Such is the state we were in when we headed out onto the diesel-fueled and diesel-fumed streets of La Paz to schedule the tour, at a Lonely Planet – recommended, bilingual tour agency with which I had been corresponding via email. I had been taking this whole thing casually, but my travel companion had been doing research, and she was scaring me. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for tour drivers to be drunk the whole time they are driving. Since we didn’t want to pay $600 each for our three day tour, our driver would also be our guide and our cook. He wouldn’t be bilingual, and blog-rumor had it he would only cook hot dogs. Also, it was likely to be cold – REALLY cold – at night and we would need sleeping bags, which we didn’t have. What if, as the nurse at the travel clinic had warned her, my travel companion got typhoid? What if we had a drunk AND irresponsible driver and ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, where no one found us until we had our own Bolivian version of “Alive” in full swing, minus the hot soccer players?

When we found the travel agency, we asked these questions as rationally and respectfully as we could. The kind agent tolerated my continuing to speak bad Spanish with her even when she answered me in English, and reminded us it wasn’t good for them if we had a bad tour. The last time they’d had a bad driver reported was in 2008. She recommended we bring some snacks and extra water, assured us we could rent sleeping bags from the agency, and booked our plane tickets to Uyuni for us. (We may not be willing to pay $600 for a better room, a bilingual guide or a cook, but we sure as shit weren’t taking an overnight bus to arrive the morning of our tour.)

Before we said goodbye, we were committed to whatever adventure we had just paid for, which would start with a 6:30 a.m. flight the next day. Unless the travel agent called to let us know it had been moved up to 5:30. In which case, we were pretty sure we weren’t going anyplace. We went to the grocery for bread and water, and returned home to our apartment for peanut butter toast.

On the Road, South America, Tourist

Cementerio de Trenes

There are really only two reasons to go to Uyuni: because you are sent there to work for a mine, or because you are touring the Salar and associated sights (see pictures here) and this is your jumping off point. It’s a shock to the system to land there unprepared. Sand is everywhere. A wind blows from far away and has no intention of stopping. It’s hot and dry in the sun and cold and dry in the shade. The food is blah, the scenery is sand-beige (except for the colorful skirts and mantels of women in traditional Aymara dress), and everything is overpriced, because everyone is trapped.

But Uyuni has a saving grace: the train cemetery.

IMG_4393While I appreciate that not everyone shares my love of a good cemetery, and maybe not my untested, purely nostalgic adoration of trains (we’ll see if I get over that in Vietnam, Morocco, or Europe…), surely most of you must agree that a train cemetery is a sight behold . If for no other reason than because it is like an adult playground for the tetanus-saavy.

Depending on to whom you speak, the origin of the cemetery is different, and I don’t know who holds the truth. Lonely Planet says the rusty, lopsided, off-track steam engines and boxcars date back to the 18th century, when there was a steam car factory in Uyuni. Wikipedia notes the name of the town itself, which wasn’t founded until the late 19th century, means, ‘the one with the pen/cemetery,” and holds to the more likely explanation for the train junkyard: Uyuni served as a distribution center for trains carrying minerals from Bolivia to the coast, starting in the late 1880s and collapsing suddenly in the 1940s due to mineral depletion.  Train cars and their engines, no longer used and suffering from exposure to, among other things, the massive amount of salt that is still harvested locally, were pulled away from the town to rot in this glorious, colorful, ghostly pile.

I had planned on walking out to the cementerio in the late afternoon, but quickly realized that, other than about four main routes in town covered in cobblestone, the rest of the roads – and I use that term loosely – in Uyuni are unpaved sand trails. Sometimes, they are nothing more than tire-worn ruts in the desert. It was completely unclear to me which way I should go, so I grabbed a cab and asked it to take me there and wait fifteen minutes, while I explored.

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Needless to say, I feel instantly in love. I had the place to myself, and late afternoon light added to the eerie beauty of this bizarre hallmark of a history potentially repeating. Uyuni is the closest city to one of the largest lithium fields on earth, which is actively being mined to charge our cell phones, cameras, and computers. It may only be a matter of time before trains are once again pulling minerals to the coast.

My cab driver thought I was a bit nuts for liking this. He doesn’t understand why tourists, many of whom showed up on their way back from Salar tours while I was still exploring, would want to see ‘junk.’ I don’t know if I explained it to him in any rational way. I told him in the US, we can’t do this; we are prevented by fences and wires and alarms. And fear. But as the days of our tour went on, I realized part of it is that as people, we just like to climb on things, and as adults, we do it far too seldom.

If traveling by train is more your style than climbing on one, you can still hop on board and make it as far as Oruro, or head toward Chile. But the truth is, wherever you take the train from here, you are likely to need to follow up with a bus or a plane, so I stuck to playing around these great spirits of a former life.

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South America, Tourist, Traveling

Fun and Guns for Everyone

Day two in Bogota, I took a long look at the map in my guidebook, then ditched it and went in search of two things: the tourist kiosk in Plaza Bolivar, and the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  The first was rumored to have the best maps of the city (important in a place where, in the last two years, some – but not all –  of the street names have been changed. Now, instead of 12th-16th streets, there are streets 12a, 12b, 12c, 12d and 12 (formerly 16th) street). The second has a basement exhibition on the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Anyone who knows me knows that, as much as a good diorama, I’m a sucker for a crime story with a drug lord.

Just southeast of the Plaza Bolivar I ran into a cache of guns. Still overwhelmed by altitude, and by the fact that I had just, with very little planning, left the country for six months (though it’s difficult to say which of these caused more trouble with my breathing), I overshot the tourist mark. Guns were everywhere. Soldiers protected each building en masse. (I later learned these were the  presidential residence, presidential offices, the presidential guard battalion, that national archives, and the national observatory where the Colombian constitution was devised – all gun-worthy locations.) Cadets in camo walked in twos and threes; policia in their neon yellow pinnies monitored street corners. Federales with semi-automatics stood at the gates and driveways of sandstone buildings. A map would have been helpful here.

I turned north, hoping to head closer to the Plaza, or a tourist zone. Both sides of the street were lined with stores  geared for soldiers – or their like minded family members. Booth-sized entrances were filled with military gear for the whole family: boots, badges, and pins for the already camo-clad dad. A stylish desert camo ¾ length overcoat to get the supportive wife through the cold season.

and Camo fashion for the moms

and Camo fashion for the moms

Surely junior wants in on the action – we have camo of all shapes and sizes for your little ones.

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

Back to school outfits for the kiddos

And while you’re at it, get them a shelf full of military dolls to remind them what their future occupational options may be! It’s a family even a revolutionary could be proud of.

Police are fun!

Police are fun!

Colombia has made a concerted effort to improve the reputation of its military, and it seems to be working. The police presence is everywhere, more as information posts and beat cops than mini dictators. Bus stations, street corners, your sidewalk taco stand – all of them are monitored by pairs of policia who are more than happy to try to answer your questions.

No where are they happier to do this than in the Museo de la Policia Nacional.  Here, polyglots serve military service as tour guides, and mine, whose name was Oscar, did not disappoint. For almost two hours, he toured me through rooms with thesis projects put to use as drones and bomb detecting devices; the history of Colombian police structure and the efforts to devise a public relations – and culture – strategy to reduce the ‘dirty cop,’ reputation of the industry; the development of forensic science; a wide-ranging sample of weapons and ammo. And at last, to the hunt and capture of Pablo Escobar and other cartel leaders.

It was worth every minute. The displays were thorough but not laborious, Oscar’s English (part of which he learned in school and most of which, he told me when asked, was “empiric,”) was so close to excellent that it was an entertainment for us both when he forgot a word and we would work to discover what he was trying to say. Along the way, other English-speaking cadets would join us for a time, add their two cents, and then move on.

This being only day two, I wasn’t settled in my solitary traveler status, which now feels like a lovely bubble I can pop whenever I want out , but which I can wear as protection when need be. I couldn’t help but think of everything I saw through the eyes of family I wouldn’t  see for quite some time.

For my dad, there were homemade guns, marked by their creators or decorated to suit the discerning owner.

Homemad crafts

Homemade crafts

For my niece and nephews, there were models of helicopters, trucks and airplanes, displays of badges from police around the world, and uniforms that would make for days of good dress-up.

My nephew's xmas present...

My nephew’s xmas present…

For the architects (my family has two), models and plans of houses, towns, and even a prison that drug lords built for themselves, and the Spanish roof tile on which Escobar landed after he was shot and fell out the second-floor window. For my motorcycle-loving brother in law, Escobar’s illegally imported Harley embellished with gold and silver décor.

An embellishment on Escobar's illegal Harley

An embellishment on Escobar’s illegal Harley

There was even a horse-drawn paddy wagon occasionally converted to an ambulance when need be. It was a blissfully honest, entertaining, military mess, and I loved every bit of it.

And it was just the beginning of my second day.

For more pictures of camo and ammo, as well as the rest of my pics from Colombia, click here

South America, Tourist, Traveling, Uncategorized

Parque Tayrona

There is nothing but the heat: heavy heat, drenching  you with sweat you didn’t think was left in you. Sweat so thick it covers you with a sheen, a sheet, that stretches your clothes. It explains why, even to church, women wear tight-fit synthetic clothing – cotton is for tourists and the ignorant. The blessing of even a slight breeze that licks the water from your skin like a fan, if just for the briefest of moments.

In the jungle of Parque Tayrona, on the NE coast of Colombia, the heat is the same, but the air fresher. In the shade, noises you don’t know move like large animals lurking in dry leaves, then  turn out not to be large animals but little lizards or iguanas or chameleons. Winter is just ending – the choice is mud or muddier, or, after a couple kilometers, the exposure of the hiking on the sand – hot, and glaring, no protection from sun and giving beneath your feet so that every step you take takes back a half. I choose the shade.

If you’re looking for dry ground, follow the red ants. They are larger than any you’ve ever seen, carrying mac trucks of foliage on their backs down the insect super highway, defying gravity and other rules of physics. Watch out for tree roots that spread across the jungle floor and up its rocky walks like giant snakes, reminding you of what you hope not to see. Butterflies the size of your head, in pantones that would make LG engineers cry with envy, wrestle and settle on occasion. In the distance, you can hear the crash of the ocean you hope soon to see.

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You can’t help but think about Vietnam. You’re dripping wet with sweat and effort for only a day, with the promise of a picnic and a swim in the near future, but what was it like for those boys? To be 18, 19, from someplace in the middle, someplace like Montana, where heat doesn’t sift through your skin and boil your insides, and be sent to a blanket of weather like this, humping a pack half again your weight, things you can see the least of your terrors. That’s some thing we did. To those boys.

At the entry, where you pay the exorbitant $37.500 COL ($20USD) entrance fee  – the price of being an extranjero) – you leave an emergency phone number with the guard. “In case something happens,” he says, and then gives you a ‘tour’ of the park map, carved in wood on the side of an entrance hut, and some admonishments. “Only on a marked path….Only Sendero Arrecifes” he tells me, because that’s where I’ve said I’m going. Only since he tells you you can’t swim there, you’re going to La Piscina, a bit farther down the way. The guard seems doubtful you can do this and make it back in a day.

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Wherever the trail leads to the beach, large signs warn you not to swim. More than 100 people have been lost in the surf, they tell you. At Arrecifes, where you can rent a horse for the trip back, or spend the night, buy a drink, or a bag, or an ice-cream pop, the trail dead ends into a soup of mud and there is no choice but to hike along the beach. The path to the sand sports a sign that says 200 people have been lost at this beach. It is not suitable for swimming. And then this:

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Your fearometer tells you that this says there have been caimans spotted in the lagoon, and not to swim in it. When the path actually turns to beach, there is another sign: 100 people have been lost here. You start to wonder if the caimans were responsible for 100 between the mud and the sand.

At La Piscina, the water is so warm it barely rinses off the sweat, and yet such sweet relief. First there is no one but you, and then, by twos, by fives, some hikers, a tour group, a family. The tide is coming in; you place your things on a high rock so as not to lose them. The jungle comes right down to the ocean here – the sand is being swallowed by the sea in this cove. Waves are full of bark bits and no one cares – you just want the pretense of cooling off.

On the way home, everyone walks the other way. They are coming to spend the night in a hammock between the jungle and the sea. One night, three nights. Couples looking for a private moment, backpackers on a cheap adventure, families who want to experience this national treasure. You can’t help but wonder if their kids will be whining from heat or boredom before night falls. You walk against this tide, think you could have spent the night with a group – but not alone. Not alerting to every sound – in the jungle, that makes for a long, long night. But to sleep by the sound of the sea, the occasional smell of salt in the air– it sounds sweet, it sounds like home. Next time, you think, already planning the return.

The ants go marching….