living in bolivia
When the doors finally open
(here is the link to my photos, but the are in reverse to the story)
So, I have some serious backtracking to do, around 5 months of blogging to catch up on. Where does one begin but from where I last left off? So perhaps get yourself a cup of tea to help enjoy the read.
I arrived in Cochabamba with great excitement. After over a year of travel I was ready to stay put for a while and call a place home. I wanted to do a longer period of volunteer work and Cochabamba seemed to be a great place for this. I was also looking forward to having a kitchen again, ohhh how I had missed one.
But unfortunalty things started off to a very very slow start. I had found a hospital on the outskirts of the city with an orphanage that I was exited about. But I ended up being a glorified gardener for a week and decided this was not was what I signed up for and moved on. Since this was over the Christmas and New Year period, it took some time to find a new place to work and a place to live. My first impressions of Cochabamba had not started of so great.
So the option that took my interest was a place called ‘Educar es fiesta’ (to educate is a party). They work with street kids, kids from poor and violent backgrounds and have a circus tent for performances and classes. They were keen to have me on board and design for them and I loved the idea of being around the circus again.
To be honest for a start I hated it and had to wonder what I was really doing there. But by this stage I had paid for two months in an apartment (with a kitchen, yeah hah!) and was also keen to stay put for a while. I found that people were quite closed and took a long time to open up to me. Very different from what I had been experiencing in my other travels. I had made the choice take an apartment solo and not live in a volunteer house thinking that I would meet many people from work. This did happen, but it took a while for this to take place.
But keep reading. Things certainly do get a lot better.
After a month and a half things started to change. They started to see what I could do for them and they really opened up to me. I started to make friends, and locals, not just other gringos (tourists), which is what I was looking for. Once this happened, I started to enjoy the place and ended up staying longer to make the most of it. It was well worth staying for to get to this point as in the end they really loved having me on board.
My savior was a lady called Paola who I worked with. Her door was always open and she would always chat to me no matter how bad my Spanish was. She introduced me to some friends, one couple a graphic designer and artist who were fun to drink red wine with and dance. She has become a wonderful friend to me over my time there.
So what did I do there? For a start I did a lot of design. I gave them advice on their existing materials, presented a talk on design and worked on a dossier for their circus space ‘El Tapeque’, which was the only circus school that Bolivia had to offer. After some convincing and with the help of Paola we managed to set up our first photo shoot in the office. After seeing the photos the boss Queso was finally convinced enough that for the second photo shoot he stepped in for his own photo session. He was a very funny somewhat strange man to work with, part of that being cultural. But over time I gained his respect and he treated me like I was one of the team, throwing me a good bye dinner and riding me around on the back of his bike to the printers. When the dossier finally came back from the printers we were in the office drinking wine. It turned into a wonderful moment to ‘salud’ the project when it came back. The first thing Queso did was to take one out of each packet and present them to me with great appreciation.
From spending time in the tent I had got to know a group of young performers. The first photo shoot was of Raymundo who has an interesting story. Queso met him working at the cemetery and in the streets. He has spent the last few years growing up around theatre and circus Raymundo has developed into a very fine performer. He is able to express himself and though his performance. There was the very checky Alijandro, the juggling coach. I became instant friends with the little stilt walker Mario. He was excited by my collection of circus videos and my collection of Australian music.
There was also a really nice team to work with that also in time opened up to me. As my Spanish got better this also helped. There was Ceci, the mum of the office always fixing you coffee and api. Benjo the funny fix it man who loved jumping on my machine and playing in illustrator. Juan Carlos the music coach and Hernan who loved trying to speak to me in English.
Victor was the tissue and trapeze coach. He was Bolivian but had gone to Chile to train then was heading to Brazil to train. I was lucky to spend a small amount of time training with him and a group of kids. It was a strong reminder to me how much I have missed training.
I also got to spend a lot of time working with kids in school of Ushpa Ushpa, which was based on the outskirts of the city. We would ride out to the schools in the mini with a door that would fly open on roundabouts. The area as little as 7 years ago was a neighborhood of blue tarps. Now there are buildings, but it is still a very poor area. At first I helped out with the music class and the juggling class but later took some drawing classes as well. Anytime I pulled out the camera that also turned into a class with everyone wanting a turn at taking photos.
Over my time there I got to know some of the kids well and they would always happily greet me when I arrived. I had a somewhat proud moment in my last week. There was an anniversary celebration in the circus tent and ‘my’ group of kids performed some songs from the music class. Seeing how much the kids enjoyed it almost bought a tear the eye.
I think one very satisfying thing was to work in a place that actually worked. Well in a strange kind of Bolivian way it worked. But what was most important to see what they did and how much the kids loved what they were doing for them. It was nice to be a part of something that was doing such good.
It was a challenge at times, working in another culture and another language. This certainly took some getting used to for a start. But as time went on my Spanish improved and I also got to understand how the place worked. It was certainly an experience worth sticking out from what it started as to what I turned into. I actually found it somewhat hard to leave the place behind in the end.
Sometimes after a show there would be a music session with wine in the office. Nice moments. There were also drumming sessions for communities where I also banged the bongo. I also enjoyed trying to explain to Alijandro why ladies do not always like woof whistling.
While in Cochabamba I started to visit regular places and make day-to-day regular encounters. The old couple that ran the corner store were delightful, always greeting me with a smile. The old lady would always call me ‘jovencito’, (young man) and add cito onto the end of every word…choacito, pancito, heladito. I had two markets that I visited, the small and personal 25 de Mayo Mercado, which I had my regular ladies for potatoes, nuts, tuna and cheese. After time I enjoyed the regular chats with them, to the point that the potato lady informed me I had been cooked my black potatoes all wrong. Since there are over hundreds of potatoes in South America it was great to get the advice first hand.
The other market was the labyrinth of ‘la cancha’. Normally a market visit could wipe out and afternoon searching around the maze for what I needed. By the end I got to find my way around quite well and got better at lugging everything back on the blue and red Mercedes Benz buses.
Dried potatoes, big potatoes, purple potatoes, chochalo humitas, (corn cakes), yucca, quinoa, platano, giant popcorn, mangos, peaches and cherimoya…I was at heaven in the markets.
Normally at home I say cheers once or twice in the night. But not here, one the beers get flowing the ‘saluds’ get flowing as well. I like this, cheering your way though the night. An interesting custom when drinking is to pour some on the ground first for an offering for Pachamama, mother earth. This is not always practical especially on a tiled floor, which by the end of the night your feet are sticking too. Still, better than the last gay bar, which used to be a ‘salchichería, a hotdog restaurant that would close and then transform in to a disco. Ohh how I miss the peel!
With an improvement I can now talk politics. In a country that has had over 70 presidents in just 200 years with 13 of those killed, it is a place that has had a long bad run. One guy they called the gringo, as his Spanish was worse than mine. One guy lasted 3 days. Even the liberator Simon Boliviar declined the offer of president as he had different ideas for Bolivia. At least now for the first time they have an indigenous leader, in a country where around 60 percent are indigenous. Even they only got the right to vote when Evo Morlaes first took power. In the countryside there are vote evo signs painted on rock faces and the sides of houses. They stand out like glimmers of hope, written on the rocks. ‘te amo evo’, I love you evo. Many people seem to have a love for the president, somewhat of a different feeling in how I would describe out prime minister. I cannot quite image billboards on the highways saying I love you Kevin Rudd.
But in all places not all people are so happy with Evo. I was reminded that the waypalla, the indigenous flag that Evo would like for Bolivia is not for all and does not represent the same thing for all Bolivians.
Potosi I was lucky enough to visit twice. I passed though there on the way to Cochabamba but made a second trip to take more photos. This place has a remarkable history, a silver mine of over 500 years. The Spanish first exploited the mine where much of Bolivia’s wealth came from. Reportedly millions of slaves died in the mines that now produce more waste than silver. The mine, ‘cerro rico’ is part of the Bolivian coat of arms and has also appeared on many bank notes over time. This colonial town is the highest town in the world at 4300 meters above sea level. It was just as fascinating for me the second time around. This time I spent more time talking to the miners and the history of the devil belief of the mines.
Nearly everyone plays an instrument. It seems that you can hand the guitar to half the people in the room and they can pick it up and bash out some great tunes. I’m always amazed at the amount of people who play when you look at the hundreds of bands that accompany the dancers during carnival. This inspiration resulted in me of buying a violin in La Paz and also a zampoña (a panpipe) that I am currently carrying in the rucksack (the zampoña that is, not the violin…. that’s at home waiting for me). I did try playing a tune on the charango for the first time for some locals when I was in Ocuri. It got a good laugh, but I think that is one instrument that I won’t be buying.
So then it seems that the other half of people in the room knows how to dance, be it salsa, the diablo, the morenada or some version of a folk song.
Oruro was a great example of that. With the biggest of festivals that Bolivia has to offer the streets are blocked off for two days while thousands of people dance and play music for two days and nights solid. All of the folkloric dances are on show from the diablada, the morena, the tinkus, the osos and china supay. The costumes are the most magnificent that I have ever seen, with meter tail devil masks that have been intricately painted, to full fluffy white bear suits to tiny little beaded dresses. The parade is an array of colours as the dancers simultaneously dance past. From the edge of the crowd people throw water bombs and spray foam in between each group. Trumpets are tooted, beer is drunk, songs are sung and dances are danced in a magnificent celebration of folkloric dance.
As I had overstayed my 90 day stamp for Bolivia, I need to make a boarder crossing for a new 90 day stamp. My best option was northern Chile, which was an area yet to explore. I wanted to head this way to Arica and to Iqueque to get my fix of sand and sea again. A bike ride around Arica I passed llama carvings in mountain sides and felt the fresh air of sea in my lungs again.
Close to Iqueque was the ghost town of Humberstone. It was once a very productive nitrates mine that was actually fought over in the war of the pacific in 1893 with Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Both Peru and Bolivia lost land and Bolivia became landlocked like it is today. The mine became a town of schools, hospitals and homes for all the families. Even some of Santiago’s finest actors moved to the theatres there. But when man made nitrates became cheaper, the mine closed down the town also closed down. It was a somewhat strange experience being in a whole town but with no one in it at all.
In the northern part of Chile is the Chuquicamaca copper mine, the largest open pit mine in the world. And yeah, it is huge. 3.7km long and over one km wide. The trucks that cart the copper from the mine are the most giant trucks I have ever seen in my life. Interestingly, another piece of land that was robbed from Bolivia.
My last stop in Chile before heading back to Bolivia was San Pedro de Atacama to see one of the driest places in the world. And perhaps one of the most relaxing too, along with the best coffee. Dirt roads, adobe red brick houses and a very tranquil vibe. Surrounding the area are desert formations that make you feel like you are really standing on another planet. The wide open skies that make it seem like very star is visible.
While in Sucre each day I would head to the market for my fix of Buñuelos dipped in Api or Tojori, or even better a ‘mezcla’ (combo of the two). Each day the lady smiles as she pours the api into a glass as though she is pouring liquid gold to fill the hearts and stomachs of all that pass by her. She calls everyone ‘mi corazon’ or ‘mi amor’ (my sweetheart or my love) or the ever popular mamita or papi. She told me that she serves up to 100 litres of tojori every day, along with the other 6 ladies selling the same gold. Even having to pass the meat section every day to get there, it was well worth it.
Api. Ok, so what is api? Typical of the Altiplano – the Andean High Plateau – api and tojori are drinks prepared with corn cultivated in the surrounding high valleys. Prepared out of blue corn, the api is purplish while the tojori is yellow and prepared from yellow corn. Sometimes a colorful glass containing both – they do not mix due to their different densities – is served. The drink is very thick and contains huge amounts of carbohydrates since glucose is added to the corn; it reaches 400 calories per hundred grams.
Each day I return to the market for lunch. The floor is littered with food scraps and becomes a feeding ground for the pigeons that rustle below your feet. I am reminded of my dislike for pigeons, but better on the ground than flying over you while you eat I say. Each day the ladies battle it out to get you to sit at their table, sometimes forcefully grabbing you by and arm and dragging you eat at their place. After a few visits I found the best ‘sopa de cereals’, a soup thickly packed with quinoa, wheat with a hint pepper. It’s also always nice to be warmly greeted by a familiar face upon arrival each day.
The second day in Sucre was going to be a day of wondering the streets for photos, but I never made it much further than the park. As soon as you sit down in a park it’s like the shoeshine boys, the ‘lustadores’ magically appear from nowhere. Each place you get a different reaction, but in Sucre the kids liked asking you english questions to get you talking and convince you for a shoeshine. This day one of the kids asked if I could help him with his English homework, so I threw him a boliviano to go by and pencil so we could. With this a group of shoeshine boys gathered as if wanting to join in but also being to scared to speak what English they knew. The honking horn of the ice-cream man passed by and the kids begged me for one. At this stage there were nine of them, but at 16cents a pop, how could I say no. Felt kid of nice sitting around with the shoeshine boys as we hastily ate our ice creams in the melting sun.
After my market lunch I returned to the park to find the shoe shine boys still there. One of them had a flat soccer ball in his bag, which he pulled out and invited me to play. So Robert, the kid who I helped with his homework and three others had ourselves a game of soccer in the park using their shoeshine boxes for goals. What fun I say! And how badly do I play, in comparison to any South American kid!
After a couple of day in Sucre I headed off to find Macha, a small down where I had heard about a festival of the ‘Tinkus’, a traditional Bolivian dance. Of all the Bolivian dances during carnival las tinkus is a favourite. During my visit to Oruro for the grande carnival one of the tinku dancers came up to me and gave me one his scarves, that they tie around themselves. A black and white checked scarf with pink and blue pompoms on the ends. It was a nice moment of kindness, chatting to this tinku, a moment where I felt like I became part of the carnival.
Macha, as I found out, was not the easiest of places to get to. The reports from the information office to the shoe shine boys in the street to the people at the truck stop ranged quite lot from times or ways to get there. So after a cup of mochachinchi on the street I found a man with a truck that was heading that way. While bouncing around in the back of a truck winding out way up in the hills, I enjoyed standing up and looking over the edge with the locals, watching the landscape pass by. I made instant friends with the blokes up the back of the truck with a packet of biscuits to share. But after half an hour the truck was struggling, not coping with the hills. So we turned around and bounced our way back to Sucre.
The second attempt turned out to be much more successful. One of my favourite blue and red Mercedes Benz buses arrived heading to Ravelo, a town along the way. Crammed into the back with knees pressed into the seat in front of me and a campasino woman sleeping on top of me, a young girl named Alijandra who’s mum lived in Ravelo started chatting to me. Her mum had a restaurant there, where they fed me well and looked after me and helped me get on a truck to the next town of Ocuri.
I was lucky to meet Simon on that truck. He chatted away to me the whole way. It seemed that the whole truck was listening to the conversation as; a few times we got some laughter and comments from others. Simon was actually able to explain the festival to me some more, which was great to finally get some accurate facts. For a start this festival was not tinkus, it was actually Pullay, similar costumes but a different dance. There were actually two festivals, one in Macha and one in Ocuri, but in Macha everyone gets really drunk and fights. Having already being warned how dangerous it could be I decided to say in Ocuri for the ‘safer version’ So after three hours bouncing our way along the road as the sun was setting we arrived in Ocuri. Hanging over the edge of the truck watching the town pass by I decided it would be a nice place to stay. Either that or face another three hour open truck ride in freezing alti-plano conditions.
The next morning I was awoken by a group of dancers getting into it in the courtyard of the alijimeno where I was staying. Before I could even head to the taps to brush my teeth I was greeted with ‘gringo!’ and a cup of chicha. I kindly declined by saying I’d like to start my day with breakfast first and then I’d join them later. So what is chicha you may ask? It’s like an inca beer, fermented corn that campesino ladies (chollo’s) brew up in their homes. It has a taste like, well, something fermented. It has scummy foam on top and small chunky bits down the bottom. It is often nicely served in a dried marrow shell as a cup, but nonetheless chicha is perhaps not my choice drink. Everyone drinks it, even the kids from a really young age. Next to chicha is Ceibo a pure 80 percent alcohol. Until now I only knew that the miners drank this stuff and that people poured it on the ground for mother earth (pachamama), but it seems the campesinos are into it too. I can in part understand that it is going to keep you warm as it is so damn cold in the altiplano, but wow, hard core drink. I did manage to escape the whole festival with only having to take a few swigs of the stuff, much to the disappointment of the locals.
So while I sat there and had my breakfast and declined chicha and ceibo, I chatted to some old guys. The rest danced around and drank chicha and danced around and drank more chicha. So by 9 in the morning a few of the guys were already quite drunk, but I was ready to hit the town and explore.
On my way out I encountered a gringo hating dog. Yeah, he would only bark at me, no one else. Every time I would leave my room the dog would follow me half way up the street barking, which meant every one would look at me making it even more obvious to ‘look at the gringo’. Apparently there was another tourist that stayed there that kicked the dog, which is why it hated gringos. Normally I love all dogs and they like me, but not this one.
Not that the town was that big. There was a main square, a church, a small market, thousand campesinos and me, the only gringito in town. A guy who has a market stall started chatting to me. I bought him an ice cream and he told me some more about the festival. Each time I would go back to the square I would by him an ice cream and we would chat. As we stood there it seemed to be quite easy to meet people, with people taking an interest in the gringo and wanting to chat to me.
So the tinkus that were not tinkus but pullay danced all day, for two days and two nights solid. They drank chicha and ceibo all day and danced and ran though the town. As I found out quite quickly the dance was basically four parts. First running round in circles, stomping your feet. Second was standing and stomping your feet. Third was to jump in the air. And last but not least was to run though the town to another spot and do the same all over again. All of this while someone runs around whipping at the dancers feet, to keep them in line and keep moving. Yep all two days and two nights of this. So with that the next time a local offered me chicha at his house I went for it. When in rome….
So my new found friend and a full belly of Chicha went for a walk around the town looking for groups dancing in parts of the town. Some of the groups were quite shy about having photos taken, so with the help of my new friend we popped into the closest house and I bought a bucket of chicha. It cost me like 4 dollars, enough to get a horse drunk, but also a way to make instant friends. It became like an opening to the circle as the bucket of chicha as presented and I was allowed into the centre. This meant dancing and drinking for a while and a chance to get in and take some photos. After a full day of this I retired to my room with a belly full of chicha, some great photos and the sounds of the groups running though the streets.
As the men get drunker and drunker and the night gets colder and colder some groups take to fighting each other. Thankfully Ocuri was the tame version. Tinku in quecha means to find or to encounter in English, and the fighting is reflective of fighting over land. As one lady expressed that mother earth does not like blood being split, indicating that this was not always liked by pachamama.
By the way as you will see from the photos the costumes are great. The men wear diamond coloured socks and hard leather hats adorned by strings of coloured wool and little pompoms. To top it off the men have bright colourful feathers sticking from the top of their helmets.
Interestingly I spent a lot of time explaining to people that I was not there searching for a ‘cholita’, a young campesino girl, as much as many of the men were ready to introduce me to some.
On the second day I had it all planned, a morning of more dancing and then leave, but had a miscommunication with the owner of the gringo hating dog and found out that there were no buses or trucks that day, only in the morning. That day I was lucky to meet a man who claimed to be the president’s cousin. He spoke quite highly of the president and explained about some of the areas like Ocuri that still had no access to roads and communications. I shouted him an egg burger and we went up on the hill and watched the sun set over the village. On the second day I managed to escape without drinking too much chicha from the many new found friends I had made in the town.
La Paz is a city that seems to excite me, even if this is the third time to pass this way. A city of contrasts from the colonial cobbled hilly streets of the Mercado de brujas (witches market) to Zona Sur, a modern neighborhood with brand name shops and rubbish bins in the parks. From the thousands of people that work in the streets everyday next to the high rise buildings of centro. From the campesinos that walk side by side next to the people in suits. The poverty and the wealth. The antiguity and the modernity. From the children of 6 years working the streets selling gum, the lady of 80 selling teas or the beggars, the streets are lined with people working them in a world of contrasts.
The city of la paz is set in a valley which is dominated by mount Illimani, a mountain over 6000 meters that overlooks and protects the city. She evokes respect as by day she dominates the skyline. On the edges of La Paz is el alto or the altiplano, the highlands where another million people live.
The shared buses or trufis ‘gritos’ call out their destinations as they amble though the traffic. You jump on wherever you want and you get off where ever you want. A great system, well except for what it does for the traffic. Now days walking in the street with cars passing by in normal. Zebra crossings have no relevance though and nor do red lights.
The witches market is a sensual delight, with incense burning and colourful displays of offerings for Ch’alla for Pachamama. You can buy every thing here from dried llamas fetus’s, charangos, san pedro juice, fabrics, clothes and souvenirs. The deeper you go into some shops the better the finds, from Diablo devil masks to complete corporal dancing costumes.
Bolivia and South America has certainly been an eye opener to kids working on the streets. From kids hopping from restaurant to café selling gum, kids selling lollies on buses or kids selling at traffics lights. Or like the shoeshine boys from Sucre, after school they come to the park to work. For many kids they would spend their first formative years growing up on the streets, along with their mother who is working them. Or for many others, most of their childhood is growing up on the streets.
La Paz would have to be one of the coldest places I have stayed in so far. Even walking on the top of a glacier was not as cold as this place. I have invested in Llama socks jumpers and jackets my tinku scalf and taken to wearing hobo gloves a lot of the time. When the sun comes out in the day you just want to bask in it and dethaw.
I found a ‘torte de Australia’, Australia cake the other day. Had never seen Australia cake before so I thought I had better try this. It was a 7-layered cake, with chocolate tiramisu and vanilla with cream and actually quite tasty. Not sure how it got it’s name but it was nice to eat a small piece of home.
Vegemite is a really hard thing to explain in Spanish.
The Bolivians really seem to love greet and goodbye kiss.
Long necks are the go, with 5 plastic cups for your friends. Beer drinking is to be shared.
While in Cochabamba I did have a guy pull a knife on me. The first time in over a year of traveling that I’ve had that happen. Lucky the guy was drunk and I was able to walk away without any issues. Still, certainly gets the heart racing.
During my time in Cochabamba there was a two-day transport strike, so not a single bus on the roads. The reason for striking was for the right to drink on the job. Yeah, drinking on the job. I was really not sure I was hearing this right the first time round, thinking it was getting lost in translation. But no, I had heard right.
So if I could only count the amount of times I’ve spoken about Kangaroos. It certainly seems the number one thing that people associate to Australia. I take great delight in sharing that Kangaroo meat is eaten by Australians and exported to many parts of the world. It is like the Kangaroo for us is what the llama is for the Bolivians. Though, I cannot bring by self to have that llama steak.
Interesting enough I finally looked into an answer to the common question ‘how many kangaroos there are?’ and found out they out number us, two to one. Cane toads, 10 to one. Australia even has more camels than any other country in the world, according to wiki. It’s always interesting when your asked about your country so much what you really do and do not know about the place.
One of the things I love about Bolivia is the rich culture. In many cities it is quite modern, but there is such a strong indigenous culture of Quechua and Aymaran people. Ancient cultures live alongside modern. Traditional songs are popular and many people can speak a native language, regardless of their ancestry. While the arrivals of the Spanish certainly changed things, the cultures have never been lost, they still lived on and are strong today. No doubt these cultures were affected, but I look at this in contrast to our Aboriginal culture. It seems that the culture was preserved here, but for the Aborigines it has been somewhat lost.
So where to now? I guess I have to admit the travels are coming to an end, so after Bolivia I’ll be coming home. In part I want to keep traveling, but also feel ready to come home. I know there are a lot of great things for me when I get home. But until then, the travels continue on.