Salt flats, buses, pre-incan ruins, and monkeys. A journey through Bolivia.Buenos Aires, Spring 2012

So after almost missing the bus to Jujuy, Argentina from Buenos Aires because I was busy buying bananas, I set out on the 20 hour lift to the north of the country. Jujuy was a good first step in leaving the developed world. After doing a case study on Unilever’s detergent for “Emerging Topics in Marketing,” seeing people wash their clothes in the river lent some verisimilitude to my perceptions of the situation. On my morning run before leaving for Bolivia, I had to yell at a few dogs while running through the slums. Little did I know that while Northern Argentina is poor, Bolivia is a whole different world. The night I spent in Jujuy was fine…I ran along the river, and had dinner with some Dutchmen who had been working on an organic farm in the area. They were paid $350 pesos per week, fed three meals per day and housed for the whole time. Not a bad option if you’re looking for something to do. I would try that for a stint or two if I had the time. I walked across the Argentina-Bolivia border from La Quiaca to Villazon, paid US $135 (in perfect bills) for my Bolivian visa, and caught a bus to Tupiza. I had dinner with more Dutchmen, a Spaniard, and a Canadian who I met in the hostel. Here I started to not drink the water. The next morning, I hopped on a bus to Uyuni, Bolivia. Dirt roads, cows, farms and other livestock lined the route. At one point we had to fill in a stream with rocks so the bus could move along. I can’t imagine trying to make my way across Bolivia in mud season. “Big sky” is an understatement on the altiplano. With so little light pollution, you can see everything. I only knew one southern constellation that the time, but nonetheless it was very impressive. In Uyuni that night, my run to the train graveyard upped my tolerance of dodgy places. Lo interesante is that if something happens, there’s no one to help you but yourself. All of the police are beyond corrupt, and you can’t just leave such a geographically-isolated place. I took a one-day tour of the salt flats. Totally sufficient. We stopped in at the train graveyard on the way. It’s probably coolest at sunrise, but c’est la vie. I was hoping to buy a hand-woven alpaca sweater, but everything was machine made, and of reasonably poor-quality. I picked out a purple hooded sweater. The armpits are already ripping, but I can sew them back together. The expanse of white was mind blowing. You have to be there to really get it, but hopefully my video will help. It's in my other Bolivia post. It’s like standing in the middle of a frozen lake, except that you’re on the bottom of the lake, and all of the water has dried up. In some places, there is in fact water under a meter or so of salt. It flows subterraneously and bubbles up in the “Eyes of the Salar.” From Uyuni was the eight-hour bus to Potosi. My iPod saved me on this one. Music that you share so many feelings with helps with being alone. If you don't listen to Trampled by Turtles, you should check them out. I travel alone for a reason, as it’s hard to find people who would be tolerant of moving along at the brisk pace I take. It has its advantages, but being the only American in the midst of people who I tell that I’m from Canada, and having to be constantly alert is mentally exhausting. Traveling through Bolivia let me take another step in being travel-savvy, to say the least. Potosi is famous for once being the richest city in the world. The Spanish extracted “enough silver to build a bridge from South America to Spain,” and the city is still known for its mine. There are daily tours, which I opted out of. Asbestos dust, arsenic gas, and dynamite in a MINE in BOLIVIA with ceiling held up by wood are not appealing to me in the least. Everyone was all psyched about the mine, but after asking people who came back if they would do it again, and receiving a firm “no” for an answer from everyone, I’m happy with my choice to not go. I slept surprisingly well at 14,000 feet. No problems. So other than the mine and a old national mint museum, Potosi doesn’t have much. I continued on to Sucre, which was a landfill, and caught a bus from there to Samaipata. Places like Sucre seem to be one step up from Haiti. Foreign direct investment and selling to the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid is a must here. Argentina’s private recycling firms would serve the region well. I’m not informed enough to comment on the economic situation further. That will come in time. The 14 hour bus ride to Samaipata was… Yeah. I’ll leave the details to a good imagination. Sitting in a bus seat for 14 hours, on a winding, bumpy, mountainous dirt road was the flip side of the highlight of my trip. The best part was not stopping for 6 hours to use the bathroom. A actual plus was eating 15 bananas along the way. Arriving in Samaipata at 0300 was…good? At least I wasn’t on the bus anymore. With very little sleep, and delirium setting in, I finally found a hostel after walking around the town alone for a good hour. In Samaipata, the food… With an extensive organic farming community, and bananas at 60¢ per dozen, things go well. The exchange rate doesn’t hurt either. Paying the equivalent of $7 for a pitcher of starfruit juice and a large chef salad is something no one should ever complain about. This was also at the most expensive restaurant in town; at other meals I opted for the $2 chicken and French fries off the street, or just bananas for next to nothing. Six miles outside of Samaipata is the pre-Incan site, “El Fuerte” (The Fort). Very impressive, all of it. About a mile outside of town is a rehabilitation center for injured animals. As they say, many choose not to leave, and it’s a very interactive zoo. Upon entering, Simon the spider monkey climbed up onto my shoulders. We spent some quality time monkeying (I’m sorry I had to) around. Another (howler) monkey whose name I didn’t get (she wouldn’t tell me) took a nap on my lap. I suppose other primates enjoy contact with other beings just as much as humans do. That night I caught a taxi (40 Bolivianos = less than six dollars) to Santa Cruz. There I spent time catching up on my reading for school, and eating lots of salad. After not eating fresh vegetables (washed in non-potable tap) for about five days, greens, reds and purples were where it was at. Santa Cruz is completely different than the rest of Bolivia. Hollister and Abercrombie are common, and one third (fact check me) of Bolivia’s tax revenue comes from the city. Prices are higher, and Bolivian yuppies speed around town in their SUVs and Mustangs. People beg on the streets in Quechua, and franchises are common. I arrived in Buenos Aires on Sunday evening, in need of some social-contact and a good door. I’m now a completely different person than I was two weeks ago. It’s not about running around on giant beds of salt or playing with monkeys; it’s about getting there, and reflecting on the life you lead, and your own moral fiber. Originally, my parents weren’t keen on me going to Bolivia. It made them very uncomfortable, but after sending a book of emails on how everything would turn out alright, and that I was competent enough to go by myself, I got the go-ahead. One thing I thought I was ready for was the uncertainty or “sketchiness” of Bolivia. It required that I develop a whole new level of awareness very, very quickly. Let’s just say my peripheral vision and barometer of place-you-should-not-be risk are a whole lot better than they were in January, and March (last month) for that matter. It’s going to be very strange to return to UVM, and not have worry about leaving my laptop around in Kalkin or the living room. Meandering through a third world country makes you call into question everything you care about, and thus love it all that much more. Pentathlon, school, family, friends, and the life ahead of me now hold a new level of clarity…or at least they will for a little while. Was it because I spent a week thinking? Was it one continuous long-run, or was I living in a dream? -Not a dream in the Madrid sense (lack of weather and thus lack of feeling), but a dream in that things could change so quickly, with every decision seeming so critical in the short term. Everyone I’d met that had traveled through Bolivia said “go to Bolivia.” I took their word for it. What I came back with however, was something completely different than I expected, and all things considered, I won’t soon give it back.
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