la paz and the world’s most dangerous road

it’s been a long time since i’ve updated this blog. due to circumstances outside of my control, i wasn’t able to update for 2 weeks. then, once i start falling behind, it’s always a bit difficult to go back and try to write about what happened a while ago. anyways, i’m gonna try and pick up where i left off…

11/10/05-11/13/05

our initial plan was to spend just a day in La Paz, and then head off towards the jungle, leaving the rest of La Paz till later. well, a day turned into 2, and then 3, and then 4. i just couldn’t get myself to leave. there’s just something about the atmosphere in La Paz that i just really love. i love the way the city looks, i love the way there are street markets everywhere you look, i like the eerie atmosphere of the witches market, and i just like the vibe of the place. i would definitely say that La Paz has become one of my favorite cities on this trip. sure, it doesn’t have the wild nightlife of some places, or the intensely laid back feeling of some other places, but there’s just something about it… something i cant quite put my finger on.

actually, i think i just really love Bolivia in general. there are some countries that you go to, and you just feel excited and in a good mood every time you walk out your hotel door. that’s how i feel in Bolivia. i think part of it is cause i am really fascinated by the people here. they’re really friendly.. but in an odd reserved kind of way. i dunno… i wish i could explain it.

anyways, we spent the 4 days in La Paz not doing all that much. we went to a bunch of restaurants which was really cool because the restaurants there, which are considered “nice” by Bolivian standards, are still dirt cheap. we ate random foods and juices from street stalls, we checked out all the random markets, and just generally wandered around town.

one of the cool things we checked out while there was coca museum. Bolivia grows more coca than any country in the world. the indigenous people here go around chewing the leaves for their mildly stimulating effect. i hadn’t realized just how important coca leaves are i their culture though. coca is treated almost like a god here, and is used in all sorts of ceremonies, marriages, etc. the people here have been using coca leaves for centuries and centuries. the museum had some really interesting insights on how Bolivians have been oppressed by outside forces because of their use of coca leaves.

the people of Bolivia used coca leaves, until the Spanish came in and told them that it was a sin against the church and outlawed it. but then, when the Spanish government realized that their Bolivian slaves work harder (in the mines etc) if they chew coca, they decided to legalize it once again. apparently, the leaves aren’t sinful if the Spanish government is earning tons of cash. centuries later, the US government steps in with its war on drugs. cocaine is made from coca leaves, and so the US decides to blame Bolivia for the cocaine problem. this is utter crap, since Bolivia has been harvesting coca leaves for centuries and there is virtually no cocaine problem in the country. on the other hand, the USA which is only a small percentage of the world population, consumes 50% of the world’s cocaine. so really, it’s the US and other countries insatiable demand for cocaine that is the problem, and not the Bolivian people’s traditions. so the US steps in and tries to ban coca leaf growing and use in Bolivia. they pay the Bolivian government to destroy tons of fields of coca plants. in the opinion of the government, all coca should be eradicated… well, except for the coca used Coca Cola… apparently, if you’re a multibillion dollar corporation, you should be exempt.

the other really cool thing that happened in La Paz was that we saw a huge parade. Bolivians really know how to march. around 8am or so, the parade started. it was going on right in front of our hotel, so we had a great view of it. people were dressed in bright and colorful costumes, there was tons of music and marching bands, and everyone seemed to have a great time. the crazy thing was that several hours later, the parade was still going. this thing just went on and on and on. it looked like there was no end in sight. hours later, it just kept going. finally, it started getting dark… and the parade was STILL not done. i just couldn’t believe it! eventually, maybe at 8pm or so, the parade finally ended. amazing. and then they went on to have all sorts of fireworks at night. way cool.

i could probably have stayed in La Paz longer, but after 4 days, we decided we had better move on. we hopped on a bus heading north to rurrenabaque, a small town in the middle of the jungle. the scary part though, was that to get there, we had to take “the world’s most dangerous road”. the stretch of road between La Paz (perched 3,000 meters above sea level) and coroico which is about 100 meters above sea level, is pretty famous. this road has more fatalities on it than any other road in the world… about 90 per year. if you think about it, that comes out to about 1 fatality every 4 days, not a very reassuring thought. it’s not that the road is all that steep, it’s mainly that it is super narrow, and people take it fairly fast.

so, we get on a minibus in the morning and head out. the beginning wasn’t too scary. we started to think that the reputation was all hype… but soon we realized that we were wrong. the road got narrower and narrower until our minibus just barely fit. we were going over gravel at this point, and not only that b the gravel was wet in a lot of places from random waterfalls that washed over the road. looking to our left, it was just a sheer cliff… a cliff so steep that i often just couldn’t see all the way to the bottom. looking over the edge was a pretty terrifying. the worst though, was that sometimes we would come upon other vehicles that were coming up the mountain. for most of the road, there wasn’t room for two cars to pass each other, so our minibus would go in reverse, and slowly reverse to a wider spot. going on this road *backwards* seemed basically suicidal, and then the van cut sideways, to get as absolutely close to the edge as possible to make room for the other bus to pass. we were literally inches away from the brink, and we stopped right next to a cross with flowers next to it… a marker of where another vehicle had plummeted off the edge. i was scared shitless.

luckily, we made it to coroico in one piece and didnt end up being one of this years 90 casualties. in coroico, we ate lunch (our choices were fried chicken, fried chicken, or fried chicken). and then sat around waiting for the next bus. being here was like being a world away from La Paz. La Paz, 3000 meters up, was cold and cloudy and the air was thin. here in coroico, we were all of a sudden in the jungle. it was hot, humid, and there was an insane amount of mosquitoes. actually, i couldn’t believe just how many mosquitoes there were, especially since usually mosquitoes dont come out till dusk. well, this was mild compared to the mosquito infestation that we would witness in a few days.

despite buying tickets, the next bus we took had no seats for us. we had to half stand for a couple hours, and only then did we get a seat way in the back. the rest of the trip was uneventful. we ate more fried chicken (it seems like in some places that is all that they sell), were hot, uncomfortable, and dusty, and tried to sleep. we finally arrived, totally exhausted, in rurrenabaque at 3am and walked through the pitch black town to our hotel. we had made it!

*v

and here i am

it’s November 14th which means I’ve finished yet another two months on this trip. when I left, I wasn’t even sure if I could make it a whole year. when I hit the 1 year mark, I thought for sure I would be going home soon. well, now it’s been 14 months on the road. I’m still out here. crazy. surprisingly, traveling just doesn’t really get old. each new country continues to be exciting and incredible in its own way. here I am in south America, the last continent on my trip, and each day is still a new adventure. 14 whole months of nonstop fun.

it also means that I’ve spent 14 months writing about my travels in this blog. I started off updating pretty much every day. lately I’ve been writing a little bit less frequently, but still trying to post as much as I can. it’s funny, sometimes I feel like there are all sorts of people reading my blog… friends, family, and people I’ve never met in real life. other times I feel like I’m pretty much just writing for myself… which is ok too. but still, if you’re out there and reading, I’d love to know. be sure to leave me a comment at the bottom of this post. actually, this will be my last “2 month update” since I am practically positive that I will not be out for longer then two more months.

in the past, each two months I’ve written down a list of all the things I’ve done over the last 2 months. last time I didn’t though since it was my one year anniversary of being on the road and I wanted to write something a bit more interesting that just a long list. anyways, now I’ll post both lists….

in the previous two months: I saw Telepomusik perform at an outdoor festival in st Petersburg; saw the ballet Swan Lake in one of Russia’s most famous theaters; hung out w/ my friend Yan at his house in Prague; went to a church with lots of sculptures made out of bones; got new glasses and lost them; slept in an Ethiopian brothel; saw Ethiopian tribes people with huge 3 inch wide piercings in their lips; hitched rides on Ethiopian cargo trucks; saw a traditional ceremony where people get whipped repeatedly to show devotion; impressed and horrified Ethiopians with my tongue piercing; took a bus through sketchy rebel country where there had been a massacre a few weeks prior; met up with Joey; went on safari in the Serengeti where I saw lions, elephants, giraffes, etc; braved Kenya’s vast hooker population; saw a leopard, rhino, and more in NgoroNgoro crater; had a rifle waved at me at a hidden compound in the jungle; and chilled out on Zanzibar island.

in these last two months: I got the worst shave ever by an incompetent barber in Nairobi; I slept in an airport; I was horrified to spend one day back in the USA; I saw several hundred thousand penguins building their nests; I saw a rare species of black and white dolphin; I visited the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia; I barely survived a crazy hike in Tierra del Fuego Park; I exhausted myself on a 4 day trek in Torres del Paine; I spent 4 hours exploring a gigantic glacier; I saw one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls in Iguazu; I drank lots of Matè; I learned a little Spanish; I saw countless flamingos, huge salt flats, blood red lakes, and bizarre rock formations near Uyuni; and I saw llama fetuses, dried out frogs, herbs, and potions for sale I the witches market in La Paz.

not bad for 4 months time, eh?

one of the most common questions I’m being asked now is: when are you coming back?! I always respond with “when the money runs out”, to which people ask “well, when is that?”. the answer is I dunno. it’s always really hard to tell how long money will last. sometimes I spend way more money than anticipated, sometimes I spend less. it all really depends. currently, the bank account holds $4,000 for the two of us. whenever that account gets down to only 1,000, we turn around and take the next plane/bus/whatever to get back home.

can’t be much longer…

*v

bizarre last 24 hours… longer version

so, we finally left uyuni. we just couldn’t take it anymore and desperately wanted to get out. our next stop was La Paz, 12 hours away. we would have to take a night bus to get there which sucks, plus usually there is a transfer of buses in the middle of the night in Oruro. the last thing you want at 4am in the morning is to be woken up and told to switch buses. i was pretty sure that there weren’t any direct buses to La Paz that night, but luckily i found a bus company selling direct tickets with no transfer. sweet!

after saying our farewells to the Minuteman, we set off to board the bus. the bus slowly filled up till all the seats were full, and then even more people got on. when the bus set off, there were people standing in the aisle and others that were trying to sleep on the floor. i couldn’t believe that they would have to do that for 12 whole hours. the bus wasn’t very comfortable, and it was really difficult to sleep. plus it was insanely cold. it was too dark to really see outside, but we were going over some really bum py terrain and it sounded like we would take the bus across rivers since every once in awhile we heard splashing. the bus stopped every once in a while for bathroom stops (aka, everyone pile out and piss in a field).

eventually, we finally got to Oruro, the major stop on the way to La Paz. we had heard that theft is a very common problem in Bolivian buses. everyone’s stuff is stored either on top of the bus, or underneath, and often, when the bus stops, stuff goes missing. to prevent that, it’s best to jump off the bus and watch the baggage carefully to make sure no one goes through it. as soon as the bus stopped at the Oruro station, Caryn and i leapt up to rush off the bus and go watch our luggage. but, at the same moment, these guys got on the bus and kept yelling “la paz, la paz” over and over, so Caryn decided to stay with our “carry on”, while i ran out to watch the main backpacks. all of a sudden, several tourists came running off the bus looking like they were totally freaking out. it turns out, two small day packs were stolen from *inside* the bus.. basically right from under these people’s noses. the people’s cameras were in their bags.

so, there was this huge commotion as they searched for the police. right at that moment, another two travelers came up. they had just gotten their day-pack stolen a few hours ago when they arrived on a previous bus. so, it looks like there must be a thief, or group of thieves, that is boarding buses as they pull in, pretending that they are selling tickets to la paz, and robbing people. crazy. i was sooo glad that neither Caryn or my stuff got stolen. so, we stand around for a while, and people are trying to sort stuff out. finally the police arrive on the scene… but it was obvious that by that time it would be too late. it’s at this point that our driver comes up to us and tells us that we need to switch to another bus. nice… so much for their bullshit promise of being direct.

we get handed new tickets for the second bus, and then head over that way. these two girls are still dealing with the police, so they give their packs to some other people to put on the bus, and our drover promises them that the new bus will wait for them till they are done with the police. we get on the new bus, and within minutes he starts to pull out from the curb!! we all jump up and are yelling “stop stop!!” in Spanish. we tell him that there are still two people who are not on the bus, but their luggage is already in the bus. he says in Spanish “oh well, that’s your problem. this bus is leaving now”… and starts driving. we couldn’t believe it… what a fucking asshole. luckily, the bus then stops just outside the bus station to let more people on. the two tourists that helped carry on the packs don’t know what to do. they don’t really know the girls who are still at the station, but now they have their backpacks, with passports and everything!! they cant just let the bus leave. so, in the end, they get off as well, and take the packs with them. at the last second, just as the bus is about to leave again, the two girls who had their stuff stolen run up, but the bus starts to pull away. we all yell “Stop. stop. stop!!!” over and over, but the driver couldn’t give a crap less… he just drives away. i was so pissed.. how could he be such a dick to these two poor girls who just got robbed?!

i somehow manage to fall asleep, and when i wake up, we’re almost in la paz. la paz is the world’s highest capital city. it’s really high up in the mountains and looks pretty damn spectacular. mountains on all sides and it looks like the buildings of town are literally spilling diagonally off the hills. plus, the other cool thing about it is that almost the whole city is one huge street market. there are old Bolivian ladies basically lining every street selling every random thing under the sun. it really gives the town a lively and interesting air.

when we got off the bus, we got our packs out from under the bus and then noticed that one of Caryn’s sandals (which are strapped to the outside of her pack) was missing. we complained to the driver, who basically couldn’t give a shit less. he just staid if it’s not there, it’s not there. the sandals were actually really expensive (choco’s)… one hundred dollar sandals. Caryn told the driver that if they lost her sandal he needs to pay her 50 bucks, but he juts laughed and walked away. grrrr. the language barrier sucks because it makes it difficult to talk to people… but it also sucks cause in moments like these, where you are just furious and really desperately want to scream your head off at someone, it’s pointless cause they wont understand. sure, maybe it wasn’t necessarily the driver’s fault for the missing sandal, but he could have at least expressed some concern instead of not giving a shit… that and the fact that he couldn’t care less about leaving two people stranded in Oruro without their packs…. what a piece of shit.

we found a hotel, but unfortunately, they only had rooms with a shared bathroom. i went downstairs to ask if he might have any rooms with a private bathroom opening up after checkout time today. he thought ab out it for a bit, and then gave me a key to a new room. huh? i thought all the private bathroom rooms were full? so, i got up 5 flights of stairs to the top floor, put the key in the door, and then… what the hell?!? instead of seeing a small cramped bedroom inside the door, i see a living room… and then a dining room. huh? i walk inside, and realize that this is a full on apartment. there’s a large living room, dining room, kitchen, 2 bathrooms, 3 bedrooms and there are even maid’s quarters. i must be in the wrong place. i walk back outside… the room number appears to be correct. I’m almost worried about asking the hotel clerk about it cause what if he changes my room? in the end, we take it. and we end up having basically the whole fourth floor to ourselves, this huge 3 bedroom apartment, for just 15 bucks a night.

although we’re exhausted from the long bus ride, we decide to go grab some food before taking a nap. we walk through the streets of la paz, looking for this restaurant. all around us, old Bolivian ladies are selling sodas, cigarettes, shampoos, and… wait… umm… what the hell are those?? i peer across the street at what looks like a stack of tiny skulls. holy crap. wait a minute, where exactly are we? it turns out that we had accidentally stumbled upon the witches market.

there is a several block area in la paz called the witches market where they sell all sorts of weird stuff used for all sorts of different Bolivian superstitions. the ladies here sell all sorts of random amulets, statues, powders, potions, withered herbs and flowers, and most scary of all… dried out lama fetuses. apparently Bolivians believe that all new homes should have a lama fetus buried under them for good luck. this will prevent bad things from happening to the home. it was super eerie to be walking through this area, seeing all these bizarre corpses sitting in heaps. here and there you’d see an old lady waddle up, buy a potion, and waddle off to who knows where. on the ground there were lots of old mean telling fortunes using coca leaves. after only a few hours sleep, walking through this section of town was more than just a bit freaky.


stacks of the llamas

we finally got to the restaurant and sat down to eat. during breakfast i looked through a random magazine. i found an article that said that these lama fetuses are actually only used to bring luck for very small buildings. larger buildings apparently require a *human* sacrifice. wow. there actually was another really interesting article in the magazine. on November 9th of each year, the people of la paz celebrate “fiesta de las ñatitas”: the festival of skulls. for this festival, hundreds of people come to the cemetery and bring with them human skulls to be blessed by a priest. people also give gifts to these skulls, and there were photos of skulls wearing sunglasses, with cigarettes in their mouths, etc. absolutely crazy. we look at Caryn’s watch… it’s November 9th *today*. we decided that we absolutely have to see this ceremony. this could be the craziest thing ever. unfortunately, after doing some research online, it turns out that the holiday is actually on November *8th*, and the stupid article had the wrong date. we had missed it by one day. damn!!

after eating, Caryn went back to the room, and i went to go buy a bottle of water. i walked for a while up the street of our hotel, but all i could find were party supplies. so random. our hotel must be in the party supply section of town cause every single shop had humongous sacks filled with confetti.

as i continued looking for water, i saw a dude sitting on the curb wearing a ski-mask. the shoeshine boys in la paz wear ski masks so no one knows who they are. now, my shoes were still *insanely* dirty from the salt flats. i mean, they just looked like absolute crap. i looked at the guy, and he looked at me, then he looked down at my shoes…. even with the ski mask on, i could see his eyes light up. he frantically waved me over, and i finally got my shoes looking semi-decent. he did a really good job too… i didn’t know the shoes still had the possibility of looking OK!

now, with clean shoes, i went back to our palace of a hotel room to finally get some rest.

*v

bizarre last 24 hours… short version

last night we finally got out of uyuni. thank god. we took the night bus to la paz. sitting today with caryn at lunch, i was thinking about just how weird and random the last 24 hours had been. here’s the short synopsis of quotes:

  • “so this is the direct bus to la paz yes?”
  • “could this bus be any less comfortable?”
  • “wait, how many people just got their camera’s stolen?”
  • “i thought this was supposed to be a direct bus!!”
  • “but those people paid for their tickets and their packs are on the bus, you’re leaving them behind?!”
  • “you owe me $50 for my shoe you bastard!”
  • “i thought this was supposed to be our hotel room… what is this?!”
  • “what the hell are those things?! isnt that really freaky?”
  • “ummm, is that a large stack of dried llama foetuses??”
  • “just how much confetti do they have around here?”
  • “nice! i finally found a guy wearing a ski mask. i wonder how much this will cost?”

yeah… things can be weird while traveling in bolivia.

*v

can i finally leave now please?!

one thing I didn’t mention in my post about the Salar was that Tomas had a vicious cold. he was constantly coughing like crazy. to make matters worse, he never covered his mouth when he coughed. so, we spent 3 days straight sharing germs with him. he coughed in the car for hours, he coughed in our room, and best of all, he would just go and cough all over the food that we were all about to eat. thanks a lot. so, we had only just arrived back from the tour when we start feeling a bit sick.

fast forward *6* days…. we’re still here. in Uyuni. we’ve been sick for 6 days straight now, and have been unable to leave. it fucking sucks. especially since the money we have left for the trip is slowly running out and right now, every day counts. we cant really afford to waste 6 whole days just sitting in our room, blowing our noses and coughing. not to mention, that as I said before, Uyuni really isn’t all that interesting of a town for travelers. it really doesn’t have too much going for it. so each day we spend sitting around doing nothing, feeling like crap, and then go to sleep hoping that we will wake up the next morning feeling better. each morning it’s the same answer: no. I dunno if we got some really nasty bug, or if the altitude is preventing us from recovering as fast. it’s already difficult enough breathing when you are sick, without having the air being super thin. each time we walk across the courtyard to go to the bathroom, we come back panting and out of breath. ugh.

I just want to get better and get on with my trip!!!

the one saving grace about staying here is the Minuteman. an American guy from Massachusetts started a pizza place here in Uyuni called Minuteman Pizza. this place is the best ever. first off, the pizza is *real pizza*, not that sorry excuse for pizza you find in other places on the road. plus, he uses all these ingredients that you would never normally find in Bolivia: gorgonzola cheese, sundried tomatoes, etc. the pastas are hella good. actually, pretty much everything served at the restaurant is absolutely delicious. since we got back to Uyuni, we’ve eaten every single meal there.

plus, the guy who runs it is ridiculously nice and friendly. he’s always checking up on how we’re doing and not only called a doctor to come see us, but even hung out and translated for us since the doctor spoke no English.

so yeah… we’ve pretty much spent ages now in Uyuni. hopefully we wont be here for much longer…

*v

Salar de Uyuni

in the southwest corner of bolivia, there used to be this enormous salt lake. at some point in time, most of the lake dried up and left all sorts of bizarre things behind. huge salt flats, multi colored lakes filled with harsh chemicals, steaming geysers, and a landscape that, due to its altitude, is practically uninhabitable by all but a few living things. almost every description i’ve read of this area call it completely surreal or out of this world.

most tours of the southwest start from a small town called Uyuni. to get there, we took a train from villazon. the train ride sucked. we were seated facing backwards from the direction the train was going, and our window was stuck so we were hot as hell. when we changed seats to a place where we could open the window, buckets of dust poured into the cabin to the point where it was almost impossible to breathe. the bizarre spanish movie in the compartment was being played at a billion decibels. we sat there and counted down the 8 hours till we would finally get to Uyuni.

when we got to Uyuni, it was midnight and it was freezing. Uyuni is at 3,600 meters altitude, so it gets insanely cold there year round. the rooms in Uyuni fill up quick, so we had called ahead to make a reservation. several hotels had been full, but luckily, one had space left. we walked while shivering through the darkness to the hotel, and knocked on the door. after an eternity, a man answered and told us that they were full. WHAT!! we told him over and over that we had called and that we had a reservations, but he didn’t care. i couldn’t believe it. it was midnight and here we were stuck outside with no place to go.

we walked down the street, and tried asking at a hostel that had told us earlier that it was all booked. after thinking a bit, the woman said that she could give us a rom if we were ok with squeezing both of us into a small single bed. we were desperate, and at that point *any* bed sounded good. the next day, after sleeping, we realized that this hostel sucked pretty bad. most of the time they had no running water. yeah, i know this is bolivia and i shouldn’t expect much, but it’s not like we’re in some tinny village in the middle of nowhere. the town has running water, and if the town has it, then the hostel should provide it. instead, they would turn off the water for most of the day, leaving us unable to shower, brush our teeth, and the toilets would be in a hellish state since no one was flushing.

we spent our day wandering round Uyuni and trying to choose a tour company to go with. it was a tough decision. there are over 50 different companies here, and from what i’ve read they all suck for various reasons. almost all of them have a blatant disregard for safety or anything else. on a 4 days tour into the middle of nowhere, they don’t even bring the very minimal amount of first aid. Lots of these companies will cancel a tour in the middle for various reasons and not give people their money back. lots of them lied to their customers. and most disturbing of all, at times when customers have gotten extremely sick due to altitude or anything else, the operators have refused to seek medical attention and instead carry on with the tour.

Uyuni is a very desolate town in the middle of nowhere. all the buildings are drab, grey, and dirty. it’s a place where people pretty much just pass through in order to sign up for a tour. the only interesting part of town is an outdoor market made up of small stalls set up in the middle of town. Here old bolivian ladies sell clothing, fruits, pots and pans, and anything else you might need. we desperately needed to buy some warm clothes since we were told it would be ridiculously cold on the tour. after shopping for clothes and shopping for a tour agency, we finally settled on one called Esmeralda tours. they told us to come back the following day at 9am to pay for our tour and pick up our sleeping bags, and then the tour would start around 11:30.

day 1

there was no atm in town, so i had to do a credit card cash advance at the bank in the morning to pay for our tour. of course the bank’s connection was closed, so during the next half hour i frantically tried a few more places till i was finally able to get cash. arriving at the tour office our sleeping bags weren’t there. we sat and waited. and waited. and then waited. time was running out. we only had an hour and a half to buy more clothes, pack our stuff, and eat breakfast. finally, the sleeping bags arrived. we rushed out to go buy clothes, but for some reason, the outdoor market had vanished. uh-oh. if we didn’t find some warm jackets, we would be completely screwed. luckily, we found a store, and bought big puffy jackets for only 10 bucks each. we then rushed to get some food as fast as we could, and breathlessly ran up to the tour agency. of course, the jeep wasn’t there yet. nor were any of the other tourists.

after waiting a while, the rest of the people arrived. the whole thing was a complete mess. we were supposed to go with an australian and two belgians, but our group ended up being made up of completely different people. one of the people in our group had been told that the tour started at *9am* and had been waiting for 3 hours now. no one else in our group had been told that water wouldn’t be provided so no one brought any. actually, one guy was specifically told that water *would* be provided. most of the people hadn’t been warned that it would be cold where we were going, so some of them didn’t bring sleeping bags. nice.

finally, we set out. the jeep was kinda small and a bit cramped, but ok. our first stop was small village that gathered salt from the Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats). there they sold all sorts of random little souvenirs made out of salt: candle holders, statues, and even salt shakers. then, we finally dove out on the Salar itself. the salt flats are huge, about 12,000 square kilometers in size. driving through them, you look out and just see white in all directions. not just white, but blindingly white since the sun is reflected off the salt. it is truly an utterly bizarre landscape.

after driving through the white for a while, we stopped the car to walk around on the salt for a while. it almost felt like walking on hardened snow, and the salt made a soft crunching under my feet. When the rainy season starts, this whole area is covered by water, and now there are still some small wet puddles scattered throughout the salt. the harvest the salt, they put it into these small piles so the water soaks out of it. we all ran around snapping pictures like crazy. unfortunately, the color in the photos didn’t turn out too good because it was just so blindingly bright out there.

after a while, we got back in the car and drove on. nothing but white everywhere. there was a faint outline of tire tracks that the driver followed, but other than that there was nothing but white salt and blue sky. eventually, we came to our next stop, a hotel that was made entirely out of salt except for the roof. on the way there i was really excited about seeing it (wow, a whole *building* made of salt?!), but really it wasn’t all that impressive. walking around a bit, we found this crazy hole in the salt filled with water. looking into it, it was so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. why was there this super deep hole in the salt? we never found out since our guide not only didn’t speak english, but usually didn’t even volunteer any information in spanish either. really, he wasn’t a guide at all, just a driver.

when looking at the car, one of us notice that the gas tank on it’s roof, was slowly leaking and there was gas slowly pouring over the car. yikes! the driver rearranged the gas tank so it wouldn’t leak anymore, but the fact t that we were driving around in a jeep covered in gasoline with huge tanks of gasoline on our roof was a bit sketchy.

in our group, other than us, we had 5 people: two older guys (swiss and italian) who we didn’t talk to all that much, two guys a little younger than us who we got along with really well and had lots of fun with (mark from chicago and andrew from calgary), and a german named Tomas. it was about this point in the trip, that i began to realize that Tomas was a bit weird. ok, maybe saying he was a bit weird is an understatement. i was wearing my USSR shirt, and he came up to me and started animatedly talking super fast about how he is so sad that the soviet union fell, and then somehow changed topics of conversation 5 or 6 times to things that really made no sense. all of a sudden he was going on and on about german trucks “yes, it is the color grey! the same grey as the german trucks! you know this color yes? you have seen it, yes?!”. ummmm. what the hell? i did my best to get away from him.

the next stop was the isle of fish. it’s this large chunk of land jutting out of the salt flats. it’s actually quite a bizarre sight, since there is nothing but salt in any directions and then all of a sudden there is this large land mass with tons of cacti on it out in the middle of nowhere. the cacti out here were enormous, some of them up to 10 meters tall meaning that they were about one thousand years old! we hiked around a bit on the “island” and then we got fed lunch which was llama steak. who knew i’d be eating llama all the time now?

it soon became apparent that Tomas was more than just weird. he was absolutely nuts. he walked around talking to himself loudly in german all the time. he would pant like crazy all the time. he often would frantically look back over his shoulder as if he had seen something that wasn’t there. when talking to us, he would switch from english to german and then to spanish and back half a dozen times. he would just all of a sudden grab his head and pull his hair back as if he was freaking out. at one point he was complaining that it was extremely hot. when we said maybe he should take of his huge jacket, he just got all weirded out, and jumped up and walked away and sat down elsewhere. oh, and Tomas had a phobia of Chile, the country. everything he ate, he would scrutinize the package to make sure that it was not made in Chile. “chile is my enemy” he told us.

it’s really hard for me to explain just how crazy he was. this wasn’t just an eccentric or odd person. there was definitely something wrong with him. either he was literally insane, or there was something else. caryn and i started to really worry about Tomas. one of the possible effects of altitude is swelling of the brain, which causes a person to be disoriented and confused, and then eventually kills them. what if this was what was happening to Tomas? what if he really had a life threatening condition? we were really worried. the other people in the car just thought he was nuts and didn’t really care. what to do? we partially thought that maybe the driver should take him back. but that would ruin everyone else’s trip. plus, i’m sure Tomas wouldn’t have agreed… whenever we asked is he was ok, he would just get all weird, and not really answer us. so the only thing to do was to keep going. but it kept nagging us in the back of our heads.. what if the fact that we did nothing ended up killing this guy? ugh. what to do?!

we drove on through the salt. at one point, we stopped at this area where the salt was all cracked from having expanded. it made really interesting patterns in the salt. we started picking up huge slabs of salt and throwing them around at each other. i even got a video of andrew and i running at each other with huge slabs of salt and shattering them against each other.

eventually, we stopped at a tiny village called San Juan for the night. this village was so small, that it had hardly anything there. just a few scattered adobe houses and wandering sheep. i couldn’t help but wonder, why the hell people would ever live here? what do they do in their spare time? i mean, there was literally nothing here.. even Uyuni which was drab and ugly had much more to offer. if you lived here, wouldn’t you just leave?! well, i guess people do just leave… in fact, that’s a huge problem. tons of these small little villages are totally dying out because the children grown up and want to move to the big cities. a whole way of life is disappearing, and at the same time, the cities are getting overloaded with people who don’t know how to adjust to city life.

the 4 of us bought a bottle of rum and a bottle of coke from them only tiny shop that we could find, and walked to a few yards to the outskirts of the village to watch the sunset. it was cool to just hang out and shoot the shit, everyone telling random stories. Mark especially was totally hilarious and had a million funny stories to tell. Eventually, it got way too cold to be outdoors, and we headed back inside.

dinner was really good. there was tasty soup and this stuff called pique macho which is a mix of meats vegetables and sauce piled on top of french fries. it turned out that mark carries tabasco sauce with him when he travels, so we were able to make our food spicy. it’s funny, i’ve always joked about how i should bring hot sauce with me everywhere i go to add a kick to non-spicy foods, and i was surprised to find out that someone would actually do it.

during dinner, Tomas got really nuts. he would repeat bits and pieces of other peoples conversations and then mutter to himself. for instance, someone would say “i drove the red car when i was there” and he’d all of a sudden start muttering “red car! red car! red car!” and then switch to german. it was really freaky. eventually, caryn couldn’t handle it and had to leave the table. soon, all 4 of us were sitting in our room talking about Tomas. Mark and Andrew actually asked to switch to another room so they wouldn’t have to sleep in the same rom as him. they were afraid that he might go completely mad in the middle of the night and attack them. or that they might wake up in the middle of the night to a naked Tomas running around the room. yikes.

the thing is, there were just so many possibilities with him. maybe he was dangerous and crazy? maybe he was just harmless and confused? maybe he had a mental problem and wasn’t taking his pills? maybe he really had altitude sickness and could possibly die? none of us knew what his deal was, but he was really freaking us out. the whole time while we sat there, we could see Tomas pacing back and forth, back and forth in the kitchen alone. he continued to pace for almost an hour.

so here we were, on halloween night, in a village in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with dogs howling outside in the distance, and we are trapped inside a building with a deranged madman. it was literally like the scene of a bad horror movie. in the end, we all worked ourselves up into such a state, that we were afraid to walk down the dark hallways to the bathroom alone. the 4 of us creeped along the hall together with our flashlights. any little noise outside would freak us all out. mark and andrew even jokingly got their knives ready just in case.

eventually we all went to bed. caryn and i had a hell of a time getting any sleep. first off people kept waking up and going to the bathroom over and over waking us up. also, we heard the sounds of possible vomiting in the bathroom followed by Tomas’ distinct nose blowing sound. plus, often times it’s tough to fall asleep at high altitude. and, it was crazy cold. even under hella blankets.

Day 2

we were woken up at 6:30 in the morning. so tired! we staggered out of bed and had breakfast which consisted of stale bread with jam and tea/coffee. walking into the bathroom, i saw Tomas maniacally shaving with an electric razor, his face just inches from the mirror. at this point i decided for myself that it couldn’t be altitude sickness, the guy was just a freak.

today’s itinerary would take us to 4 or 5 small soda lakes with lots of flamingos. when we got to the first lake, mark and andrew took of running towards it. next thing we know, mark has somehow turned horizontal and has crashed down on the path in a cloud of dust. he ended up tearing the crap out of his hand and hip. of course, our driver didn’t even have a band-aid.

the soda lake was really cool. it was surrounded by a huge ring of white crust, and the lake would vary in different colors depending on the concentrations of chemicals in it. when we got close to the lake, we could see that there were lots of flamingos everywhere. the flamingos walked around and made high pitched whirring sounds. every once in a while you would see one start running and then take off and fly a bit.

after the first soda lake, we went to a few more. we saw TONS of flamingos. i had been really bummed that i hadn’t gotten a chance to see lake Nakuru in kenya where there are lots of flamingos, but now it doesn’t really matter. while we were sitting by on of the lakes, and caryn was helping mark bandage his hand, some people from another tour group came over to us and asked us about Tomas. they had seen him pacing back and forth and acting really erratic earlier. they were worried that maybe he needed help. maybe he needed medical attention? we told them that it was pretty much out of our hands. Tomas didn’t really answer any of our questions, and we really had no control. it was crazy just how much of an effect this one person was having on our trip. even people from other tour groups were being freaked out by him!

after all the soda lakes, we kept driving, continuing to slowly work our way higher and higher in altitude. by the end of the day we will have reached 4,200 meters… really high. the landscape, which was already dry, became even more sparse. the only things growing around here were these tiny little shrubs that often grew in circular patterns on the hills. there were pretty much no animals anywhere to be seen except for small herds of llamas and vicunas (smaller relatives of the llama). the color of the land was also very peculiar. we would see mountains where they would have 3 or 4 different varying colors on them varying from dark to light browns and yellows.

eventually we pulled up near this large rock structure in the middle of nowhere. everything was flat all around it, yet here was this huge thing with strange green and yellow mosses growing on it. it turned out that there were lots of vizchanas living on this rock. a vizchana is this little rodent-like thing which is kind of halfway between a chinchilla and a rabbit. they can grow to be quite large and are super fast with their huge rabbitesque feet. we saw one perched on top of the rock, and later i found a smaller one hiding in a crevice.

after driving for a bit, we came to another area that had weird rock formations. the most famous of these is the “rock tree” which is a rock shaped like a tree. how did this rock get there? what made it shaped liked that? our driver provided no clues…

we continued to drive on. at one point caryn told Mark that his hair looked like it was starting to form dreads. when he reached up to feel his hair, all of a sudden Tomas totally freaked out, grabbed his own hair and made this crazy sound like a wounded dog might make. a totally bizarre whine that didn’t even sound human and his eyes looked like he was all of a sudden totally terrified of something. then he just stopped. the rest of us looked at each other and shook our heads.

our final destination for this day was laguna coloroda, a huge lake filled with red water and tons of borax. we stopped and unloaded our stuff at the “hostel” we would be staying at. the hostel was pretty basic and the toilets smelled like death. well, at least it was in a scenic area. after taking some photos of llamas walking around, we headed out to the lake.

Laguna coloroda is a huge soda lake, and it’s really amazing just how red the water looks. the lake is surrounded by this weird grayish whiteish muck on all sides. most people who come here on a tour climb up to the viewpoint to get a good look at the lake from above, but the 4 of us, being idiots, decided to see how close we could get to the lake. the problem wa that the grayish muck was only solid in certain spots, and more mushy in others. we walked along, hopping from solid spot to solid spot, but as we got closer and closer to the lake, there were less and less solid spots. the consistency of the soft spots was really weird… almost rubbery, so you would feel the ground beneath you kind of bend downwards, but if you moved fairly quickly, you could hop away before the rubbery part snapped. so, we went on like this, jumping from place to place until we came to this river type thing.


the ground bends under your feet pretty far


river through the muck


flamingo print in the muck

we all took flying leaps across the river, and pretty soon, we knew we were screwed. the ground here was even less solid. every few steps the “rubber” beneath our feet would beak and our shoes would sink into the grime. it was absolutely disgusting. yet we were determined, so we kept trying to keep going, jumping all over the place, and progressively getting more and more dirty. finally, we realized it was a lost cause. we could go no further. everything around us was pure sludge. crap! we finally turned back, and trudges back through the sludge back to the hostel in our filthy shoes. all in all, it was actually really fun and pretty damn hysterical. my poor shoes though!!


Mark shows off his shoe


my shoe… disgusting!

we headed back inside and it was hella cold by then. we were at a super high altitude, so as it got darker, the temperature dropped like crazy. we all sat there and tried to keep warm waiting for our dinner to be made. as usual, Tomas was acting crazy. he went on a long rant about the carpentry work of the hostel door. later on, he was writing in his journal, and then just started laughing hysterically for like 3 minutes straight until he finally got up and started pacing back and forth. we finally got our food, and everyone scarfed it down. it tasted good, but really we wanted it mostly cause it was warm. during dinner, Tomas all of a sudden got up, went to the next room, and started yelling at the top of his lungs about how he was so angry about the state of the hostel, and went on to complain about all sorts of other things. the people in the other room, who hadn’t interacted with him yet, had no idea why this weird guy would burst in and start yelling. they told him to please go away and leave them alone.

we kind of felt bad for the guy. i cant even imagine going through life like that. being a complete weirdo, and having everyone around you not wanting to have anything to do with you. we wanted to help the poor guy out… but really, there was nothing we could do. and also, despite feeling sorry for him, he was just so annoying to be around. later on, our driver came in to tell us the plan for the next day, and Tomas started animatedly asking him a billion questions. we just had to leave the room. as we walked out, we saw that everyone in the other tour group was completely silent, trying to overhear what the hell Tomas was talking about. as we passed them, they asked us if we’ve had to deal with this the whole time on our trip, and felt bad for us when we said yes.

that night, caryn had a hell f a time sleeping. she really doesn’t do well with altitude, and we were really high up. to give you an idea, we were at about 4,200 meters… the very top of sierra-at-tahoe is only 2,700 meters. yeah, we were ridiculously high. plus it was hella cold. i think caryn got practically no sleep that night.

Day 3

we had a lot of ground to cover today so we were woken up at 4:45. it was still dark and no one wanted to get up. we did so anyways, and we all piled into the freezing cold car and put a sleeping bag across our laps to stay warm. the first stop of the day were some geysers. this would be the highest altitude we would hit. a whopping 4,800 meters. the terrain on the way to the geysers was bizarre. on one hand, we were pretty much driving through desert. but, since were so high up, there were snowy peaks right next to us. so bizarre. at one point, we saw these totally strange ice formations. it was this small field… in the middle of nothing ness, where there were tons of small sheets of ice that all stood up vertically. why was there ice just in this little area and nowhere lese? why were the chunks of ice all standing up vertically? so strange. other than Tomas, this was probably the weirdest thing i’ve seen in a long time.

the geysers were pretty cool. there were lots of them, and they were all different. some were just big pools of mud that bubbled and gurgled. others were large liquidy pools emitting steam everywhere. the geysers were loud too, hissing all over. walking around there kind of felt like being in another world (seems like so many things on this tour are otherworldly).. just lots of weird molten and semi-molten ground emitting all sorts of weird gases into the air. in true bolivian style, there were no safety precautions here. back in the US, there would probably be guard rails, or at least something or other keeping you back from the geysers. not here. you could walk right up to them and between them. at one point, i was walking across a very narrow ridge between two gurgling pools, and not realizing how slippery the ground would be, my foot hit the mud and slid sideways, right to the brink… but luckily didn’t fall off the edge. i don’t know what would have happened if i fell into a steaming geyser… nothing good i imagine.

we then drove on. we stopped at some thermal springs for breakfast. the water in some parts was quite warm and we had the option of going in, but all of us decided not to… changing clothes in the freezing cold didn’t sound appealing. we walked around for a bit, and it turned out that in a lot of places, where the water was shallow, it had frozen over. we all started running out onto the ice and sliding around. it was also fun to find spots where the ice was a bit fragile, so with every step you took, the ice would crackle and send cracks outward from your foot. of course, you had to be careful… sometimes the ice was too fragile and your foot would fall through. once again.. such a weird place. here we were walking on *ice* in the freezing cold on a body of water that was *frozen* over in some parts, yet *steaming* in others at the same time… and this bizarre body of water had flamingos walking in it as well.

breakfast consisted of stale bread and coffee. not very exciting. what was exciting was that our driver noticed a gas leak in the rubber hose attached to the stove’s propane tank. normally, this would be a bit of a worry. but our driver just tore up a plastic trash bag, tied it around the hole, and kept cooking. i kept waiting for the whole thing to blow up in a huge fireball, but nothing happened.


our driver

soon it was time for our last stop, Laguna Verde (the green lake). we stopped there briefly to take some more snapshots, and then hopped back into the jeep. Mark and Andrew were going to Chile, so the plan was to drop them off at the border which was only a few miles away. so the driver announced that we were heading to Chile… and Tomas went fucking nuts.

you might remember that i mentioned earlier that Tomas said that Chile was “his enemy”. i mean, the guy is so freaked out of Chile, that he turned over each plate and bowl he ate from to see whether it might be “made in chile”. he inspected every package of food to see where it was made from as well. basically, he had some REALLY severe issues about Chile. he started totally screaming and yelling and spinning around wildly in his seat, while everyone tried to reassure him that we were *not* actually going into chile.. just to the border. for the next 25 minutes, Tomas talked to himself super fast in german while wildly staring from side to side. he was absolutely petrified that at any moment, we’d be in Chile.

at the border, we dropped off mark and andrew, said our goodbyes, and then headed back. the rest of the day would be a neverending long drive back to Uyuni. a bit later, we ended up passing laguna coloroda again. WOW. i had never actually really seen the lake from a good angle. when we were right next to it the other day, i could only see a thin stripe of red, since i wasn’t looking down on the lake from above. but from this angle, the lake was one of the most incredible things i’ve ever seen. the water was this crazy shimmery color of red that faded to greens and blues in different sections. it was just so beautiful. the lake also reflected the mountain that was behind it, and there were tons of flamingos walking around on the lake, creating their own tiny little flamingo reflections. all of us just couldn’t stop taking photo after photo of this incredible sight. how often do you see a shimmering red lake!?

after the lake, we continued heading back. it was still another 6 hours to get back to Uyuni, and we were all exhausted. not only was i dead tired, but i was totally filthy from the dust constantly flying into the car, and hot as well. i desperately wanted to get home. meanwhile, caryn was feeling like utter shite. like i said earlier, she doesn’t do well with altitude, and we had ascended a ridiculous amount that day. high altitude makes it difficult to breathe. top that off with huge mouthfuls of dust, and two days worth of lack of sleep, and caryn was really really not doing well. But there was nothing to be done, but to endure the next 5 hours of bumpy driving. *sigh*. it wasn’t till around 7pm when we had reached Uyuni and she started to feel better.

so that’s it. wow, i think this just might be my longest post yet?! heh, i just cant say enough good things about the trip though. absolutely fantastic. it’s just insane how many diverse bizarre things we saw.. bizarre things that you can hardly find anywhere else on the planet, yet here they all were… all next to each other. ginormous areas where the ground is all made up of salt, lakes varying from red to green, tons of flamingoes, steaming geysers, and a landscape that was just unbelievable. all of this i just 2.5 days. the southwest corner of bolivia really is a world of its own.

*v

villazon

the border

today we had to go across the border to the Bolivian side of town so we could buy train tickets for tomorrow. i was curious to find out what this border crossing was going to be like. in the book, it said that there was tons of smuggling that happens across the border, so i was expecting crazy strict security, searches, etc. it turned out to be the exact opposite. we just walked across. that’s it. no search, no showing our passports, no anything at all. there were all sorts of people just milling about and crossing the border in either direction with huge bundles on their backs.

on the other side, it was instantly obvious that i was in another country. the atmosphere totally changed from what it was on the Argentinian side. loud Spanish music blared from random storefronts. the streets seemed really lively and colorful. old ladies sat on the curbs trying to sell ice cream, candies, popcorn, or anything else. this is what the north of Argentina was slowly making a transition to.

it was really interesting seeing all the old Bolivian ladies walking around town. they all wear these really wide pleated skirts that are usually in a bright floral pattern, thick stockings, an apron, bowler hats, and their hair is always in two long braids going down their backs almost to their waist. even thought it’s really hot outside, they look like they are wearing a million layers and are all bundled up. they almost always will have a bundle of something on their backs whether it be clothes, food, or a child. even the really really old looking women, will be hauling a lot of weight.

the train station

we walked for what seemed like forever to get to the train station. despite following the tracks for a long time, we never saw an actual station. eventually, we decided we must have passed it and turned back. when we asked a local, he pointed us to an unmarked building. wow… is it really that hard to just put up a sign of some sort so people would know that this was the train station? of course, with our luck, the train station was closed. we sat down and waited. at 3:30, the doors opened, and we went in. the train station’s hours were conveniently printed *inside* the station. you had to actually go inside the building when it was open to find out what times it is open. nice.

we go up to the ticket window, where we get told to take a number and sit down since tickets don’t go on sale till 4pm. we sit and wait. more people arrive, take numbers, and sit. 4pm rolls around. 4:10 rolls around. at 4:15, the guy at the ticket window closes the window and leaves. what the hell?! so we wait. 4:30 passes, we’re still waiting. only then do we finally find out what is wrong. it turns out that Bolivia is actually one hour behind Argentina. so it wasn’t 4:30, it was actually 3:30. good thing we found out about this time change today, instead of tomorrow when we went to catch our train. finally, the guy comes back and opens the ticket window. everyone in the place rushes forward and presses up against the window talking loudly, but surprisingly, he actually makes everyone sit down and we get to buy our tickets in order by number.

it never fails to amaze me how when you are traveling, the smallest thing, like buying a train ticket, can become such a fiasco. sometimes it’s the locals’ fault, like when they don’t put a damn sign on the train station building. other times it’s our fault, like when we don’t know the correct time. yet regardless of who’s fault it is, these situations just happen over and over again, and it’s all part of the fun of being in a foreign place. it’s definitely one of the things i like best about being abroad… the confusion of it all. it’s such a change from the predictability of life back home.

Spanish

during the train ticket fiasco, i went across the street to buy some water. i walked into a small shop and had this conversation with the woman:

“what would you like?”
“do you have mineral water?”
“yes, do you want a big one or a small one?”
“a big one please. how much does it cost?”
“4 bolivianos”
“thank you!”

the crazy thing is that this whole conversation, from start to finish, was in Spanish. yeah, i know that the conversation was very basic, and we didn’t discuss any tough subjects, but still… i had walked into a store and talked to somebody in only Spanish. for the last couple of weeks, Caryn and i had been studying a bit of Spanish before we go to bed. we have some book “Spanish in 15 minutes” or whatnot. we’re slowly going through it, but just in a short amount of time, i already know quite a few words and phrases. it’s usually enough to at least catch the gist of what people are saying to me if they talk slowly.

it’s been a lot of fun learning it, and it really makes a big difference in what kind of interactions you can have with people around you. in most other countries, if i walked into a store and the shopkeeper said “what would you like” in their language, i would have no clue what the had just said. i would have to hope that they understand English, or try to mime my way through it. but now i understand. and i can respond. i still have some time here in south America, and plan to keep studying Spanish each night. who knows how much I’ll know when i get home!

*v

The Far North

over the last several days, we’ve slowly been making our way to Bolivia. step 1 was to take a 27 hour bus from puerto iguazu to a city called Salta in the far north of Argentina. we arrived in salta after midnight, totally exhausted, and went straight to sleep. i woke up the next morning, stepped outside, and realized that i was no longer in the Argentina that i was used to. the north of Argentina is completely different from the rest of the country. here in the north, things are way more like what i had expected from south America. first of all, there are way more indigenous people here. in the rest of Argentina, pretty much everyone is of European descent, and it really feels super modern and European. the north is more like Mexico, with people selling stuff on the streets, outdoor markets, etc. not only that, but the food is different up here as well. first off, the food is spicier and they actually have salsa. plus, they have tamales and other things that you just cant find in the south. although i definitely had a good time in the south, the north is much more exotic and was kind of what i was looking for when coming here… I’m starting to get really excited for Bolivia!

Salta isn’t exactly an enormous city, but it’s not really all that small either with about half a million people. the town is really nice with lots of cool colonial architecture and a really lively atmosphere. the town has lots of really large ornate churches and a big park in the middle for people to chill out in. if we weren’t pressed for time, it would totally have been a cool place to spend a few days in.

one thing that i keep meaning to write about is Maté. Maté is this kind of herbal tea that people in Argentina are *obsessed* with. you drink the tea out of a small container made out of wood or a gourd (also called a Maté) by using a special metal straw (called a bombilla) that has a strainer built in. everywhere in Argentina you can see people walking down the street, sipping Maté. they sip Maté on picnics, on their work breaks, in town, at restaurants, while hiking on trails… basically everywhere. people here just cant get enough of this stuff.

i had been wanting to try it for a while, and when i met up with Caryn in buenos aires, it turned out that she had bought her very own Maté and bombilla. drinking Maté is this whole procedure. there is one person who is in charge of pouring. they fill the gourd with the tea, add a tiny bit of sugar on top, pour hot water in it from a thermos or kettle, and then pass it to the first person. when the first person is done, they pass it back to the person on charge, who adds more sugar and more water and passes it to the second person, etc, etc. we were only two people, so there was less passing, but it was still cool. my first few sips of maté tasted kind of disgusting. it was really bitter. but after a while i got used to it and started liking it.

the tea itself tastes good, and after trying it a few times, you just want more and more. i can see why people here are so psyched on the stuff! but also, part of what i like about the whole thing is the whole ritual of it all. passing the maté back and forth, just spending time hanging out and drinking tea. for some reason it’s *really* enjoyable. it’s a great way to pass some time in the afternoon so Caryn and i ended up drinking maté a bunch of times. in salta, we took our mate to the town plaza, and hung out drinking maté and people watching.

at night, we went to this restaurant that had live music. it felt a bit contrived and touristy, but was cool anyway. they had a guy on stage in a full gaucho outfit (a gaucho is an Argentinean cowboy) with a huge wide-brimmed hat, and puffy pants and everything singing and playing guitar. they even pulled people from the crowd to come up and dance with him, and Caryn was one of the people who did it.

the next day, it was time to move on. our plan was to work our way to the Bolivian border slowly because of the extreme altitude. most of Bolivia is extremely high up, and the border is at 3,400 meters which is ridiculously high. we had read tons of stuff online about the dangers of altitude sickness which apparently can happen from anywhere starting at 2,500 meters. so, so as not to get sick, we took our time and decided to stop in several towns along the way.

after salta, our next stop was tilcara, a tiny little town with only 2,000 people. old crumbling adobe houses lined unpaved and dusty streets. it really felt like there should be cowboys walking the streets here. we stayed at a small hotel with two really friendly dogs, one of which would try to jump on us every time we got near it. one thing i keep forgetting to mention is how many dogs there are here in Argentina. they are *everywhere*. any town you go to, there will be tons of stray dogs wandering the street in packs. dogs of all different shapes and sizes. one other thing about the north is that food is getting cheaper here. we went to dinner at a small restaurant that had set menus. for the price of $1.30 i got: soup, a large plate of gnocchi w/ sauce and some thinly sliced steak, and dessert. crazy.

after tilcara, the next town was humahuaca. now, i definitely felt like we were in Arizona. there were large cacti everywhere, lots of dusty land with small shrubs. humahuaca was a bigger city than tilcara, but it was still pretty small. there were a few churches to see, a couple of statues and monuments, but really not much else. there is supposedly some good hiking nearby, but we stayed in the town only one day, so we didn’t do any. at night, the restaurant that we went to served llama. should i try it? on one hand i felt like i should just try anything. on the other hand, llamas are ridiculously cute.. could i eat one? well, i ate it. it was actually really good. tasted fairly mild and looked like white meat… kind of like pork maybe. poor llama!

the next morning it was time for the final bus ride of our ascent. it was only a 2 hour bus ride to La Quiaca at the border. the scenery from the bus was amazing. all the towns that we had been passing through are located n a canyon, an this canyon is made up of rocks of all different colors. the canyon walls shimmer in red hues, green hues, yellow, and an almost blueish purplish color. the various layers or rock also made all sorts of different patterns which would change as you drove by them. the sky was an incredible shade of blue and driving through all this scenery while watching llamas and sheep running around was really cool.

so here i am. on the border of Argentina and Bolivia. already i see lots of old ladies dressed in colorful Bolivian clothes with large hats wandering round with babies strapped to their backs. Bolivia is just a few blocks away. the altitude here SUCKS. I’m tired, lethargic, and even walking across the room makes me start breathing heavily. as I’ve been typing, my headache has slowly been getting worse. hopefully these symptoms will go away soon… but regardless, I’m really excited to be here!

*v