After an uneventful bus ride across the barren altiplano I wound my way into the beautiful and historic Sacred Valley of Peru towards the city of Cusco. Getting into the valley, we lost a little bit of elevation so we started seeing some more trees and the climate became a little less frigid. Incan ruins started appearing everywhere, along the sides of the road, in the woods and in small villages. This valley, and the city of Cusco, was the center of Incan civilization. Finally I arrived at the Cusco bus terminal and took a taxi into downtown. The center of the city was really impressive, but it was also overrun by tourists. The entire city was built over an ancient Incan city so all of the foundations of the beautiful colonial buildings and churches are the original Incan buildings and walkways. It was absolutely fascinating and filled with history. I could have spent a week just exploring all of the museums, ruins and historic locations in and around the city, but I realized quickly that this city is very experienced with tourists and does a great job of separating them from there money. I decided that I really just wanted to see Machu Picchu and that I could come back to Cusco when I am a little more financially stable to fully explore and appreciated the area. I checked into a cute little hostel right in the center of the city and spent the next few days exploring the city and planning my trip to Machu Picchu. I also met up again with my Norwegian friend, Magnus, and we explored the city together. Finally, I was ready to head off to Machu Picchu. I decided that the cheapest way to get there was to take two busses to the town of Ollantaytambo and then catch the train down to Aguas Calientes, the village just below Machu Picchu. It was still going to be extremely expensive but definitely worth it to have such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I caught one larger bus from Cusco over a very scary mountain road to the town of Urubamba, where I had to catch a minivan bus the last half hour to Ollantaytambo, where I had half a day to spend before taking the evening train down into Aguas Calientes. Ollantaytambo was a spectacular and very unique little village. All over this region of Peru I saw Incan ruins, but Ollantaytambo was a continuously inhabited Incan village. It was never a ruin and it is what Machu Picchu would be like if people were still living in there. People have been living there since the 13th century in original houses (unlike Cusco which was colonial architecture built on top of the original Incan city). The streets are tiny, narrow alleyways with water running down the middle for irrigation and drinking (I'm not sure if people still use the water to drink). I spent the afternoon walking around the magical little village, so glad and surprised that I had the chance to go there. While there are lots of tourists in the town, it is missed by most who either take the train directly from Cusco or trek into Machu Picchu. That evening I boarded my train and headed down to Aguas Calientes. I was met at the station by a staff person from the hostel where I had made a reservation and he took me back to an adorable little hostel right alongside the river; it had a jungle theme and was open air. I quickly went to bed, however, in preparation for my early start up to Machu Picchu the following day.
I woke up at 5 AM in order to make it out to the bus going up the mountain by 5:30. I wanted to be on one of the first buses up in order to make sure that I would be able to make it up Huayna Picchu (they only allow 400 people a day, first come first served but, for all my worrying, I was number 25) and so I would be able to spend all day walking around Machu Picchu. I had a really full day! As soon as I was let into the ruins, I headed straight across to the Huayna Picchu trailhead and waited for them to open it. When it was opened, I headed up the extremely steep trail up to the top. Huayna Picchu is the mountain that is typically shown behind Machu Picchu in all of the photos taken of the site. It is a tiny little peak that has almost sheer cliffs on every side. Somehow, though, the Incas decided that they would build a trail/stairway up the sheer cliffs in order to construct a sort of lookout/defense of Machu Picchu, about 1,000 feet below. It was a treacherous trail (signs warn that people have died on the hike up) that ends at an incredible lookout point on top of the mountain, in the ruin. It is absolutely astonishing that Machu Picchu in general, and that guard tower in particular were ever built. It is our tendency nowadays to build in valleys and easily accessible locations, but in that time higher, treacherous, poorly accessible locations were safer because they were easier to defend. That was the basic reason why Machu Picchu was built in such an incredible location, perched up on a high ridge in the middle of breathtaking mountains and cliffs. After spending about an hour just gaping at the scenery around me, I set off with three American girls down the backside of Huayna Picchu to a location known as the Temple of the Moon, a temple and complex of cave dwellings on the other side of the mountain from Machu Picchu. It was a scary trail way down to a fascinating location that was away from the crowds that swarm Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu because of how difficult the trail is and how long of a hike it is to do the entire loop. That location really felt like the lost city in the jungle, which Machu Picchu at one time, before the crowds came, must have seemed. We were quickly ushered out by a guard (you can't linger too long) and headed back on the tiring, up-and-down hike back to the main complex.
After a badly needed lunch (I had skipped breakfast in order to make it up to Huayna Picchu and then hiked 4 miles and 3,000 ft on an empty stomach) I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the main Machu Picchu complex. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money to hire a guide and there weren't any signs explaining what you were looking at, but I used my guidebook to figure my way around the complex. It was an absolutely fascinating city up in the mountains, filled with temples, jails, agricultural fields, housing, a parade ground, royal living quarters and guard stations. I took many photos and got lost on a number of occasions. Later in the afternoon, I took a side hike out to a place know as Inca Bridge, one of the old routes that the Incas used to take to get up to Machu Picchu. I hiked out to a spot and got a view down to an old "bridge," which was basically a ledge cut out of a sheer cliff over which ran a trail (not used anymore). The very last site I went to see at the end of the day was another hour-long hike up to the famous sun gate. From here there is an incredible view down over the entire complex. This is the main entrance of the Inca trail, the historic entrance to Machu Picchu and the current end point of the Inca trail treks into Machu Picchu. Apparently the view over the complex at sunrise from here is absolutely breathtaking, one of the highlights of the trek. Unfortunately, you have to be on a trek in order to get here at sunrise, so I missed that experience. I headed back down to Machu Picchu and then decided to walk back down to Aguas Calientes in order to avoid paying for the bus again (what I'll do to save $6!). By the time I made it back to my hostel, I was absolutely exhausted! I ate a quick dinner, showered and then fell into a deep sleep. The following morning I woke up late and made my way to the 10 AM train back to Cusco, stopping in Ollantaytambo again to take a bus. I spent one more night in Cusco then got on a bus to head to the city of Arequipa, Peru, the white city.
Machu Picchu, while very expensive and touristy, was one of those amazing places, truly one of the wonders of the world, that you just have to try and go and see. The entire time I was there I felt a deep sense of amazement that you can only get from a few places in this world (I felt the same way at Iguazu Falls). I know that this experience is one that I will hold with me for the rest of my life.
After saying goodbye to the poverty-stricken sprawl of El Alto, I made it back into the bleak rural countryside of the altiplano heading towards the Bolivian city of Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The lake is like a blue gem in the middle of the barren, brown altiplano; the water is crystal clear, very deep and very cold. We first reached the shore and had to cross a small strait on a barge. Our bus was put on the barge and we got on a small boat and followed the bus across the strait. Then we got back on the bus and it was another half hour into the scenic town of Copacabana. Copacabana is in a beautiful spot on the shores of the lake, but it is very touristy. I found a small hostel and walked up to the top of the hill above town to watch the sun set over the lake. Beautiful! That evening I met up with a few friends that I had been travelling with for dinner and drinks, but my night was cut short by my hostel's 11:00 curfew. That was fine, though, because I was getting up early the following day to head out to Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Incas.
I woke up, frozen, bundled myself up and headed to the waterfront in order to catch my boat which was heading to Yumani, the village at the southern end of Isla del Sol, at 8 in the morning. I made it in time and headed out on the boat over the sapphire-colored waters of Lake Titicaca. We arrived at the port of Yumani and discovered that the village, and my hostel, was about a kilometer and 500 steps up the bluff. At 13,000 ft elevation with a large backpack, 500 steps takes about 45 minutes, but I finally made it and checked into an adorable little hostel. I had only one day to explore the island so I set off on a circle walk around the small island. I started walking along the main tourist route which follows the ridgeline of the island towards Challapampa, the village on the northern end. This route offers incredible views both directions across the lake and the altiplano to the Cordillera Real (the line of 23,000 ft peaks that make up one of the highest parts of the Andes). The trail also goes by a bunch of different Incan ruins, the most impressive of which is the "labyrinth" which is on the site of the sacred rock which is the supposed Incan birthplace of the sun god and where his son, Manco Capac, the first Inca, emerged. After leaving the ruins, I headed down into Challapampa, an extremely poor, traditional little village. I had lunch here then walked back towards the southern end of the island along a trail that went along the shore, through the villages and was not used by many tourists. This trail was amazing and the villages were incredible; very traditional, poor and not too effected by the tourism of the rest of the island. I finally made it back to my hostel, very worn out. The following morning I watched the sun rise over the mountains and the lake then headed back to Copacabana on the 8 AM boat. Isla del Sol was an amazing place and seemed very authentic. Unfortunately it was overrun by tourists which has led to a situation where you are constantly asked for money, particularly by children who almost constantly beg. This situation was new to me so far in my trip (Paraguay doesn't have many tourists, Argentina and Uruguay have strong economies, and Bolivians are very shy and are rarely forward) but I was told that this was something I had to get used to in Peru. After arriving in Copacabana I got on a bus and headed towards the Peruvian border, the last leg of my trip.
My first stop in Peru was Puno, a town I was warned was an awful place, but which was the setting-off point to see the floating islands of the Uro people. I arrived and immediately got on a boat to go visit the islands. They were a truly unique sight. The Uro people decided to build and live on floating islands in Lake Titicaca in order to avoid raids from the Incas. The islands were built out of reeds and were anchored to the bottom of the lake. The Uros lived pretty much independently of all possible conquerers and have still, to this day, preserved much of their heritage. Of course now their entire livelihood comes from tourism so, needless to say, the excursion was very touristy, but was still fascinating. We visited one of the 52 islands (each island is a family and has its elder and all of the islands make up the Uro community which has about 2,000 inhabitants) and the elder and our guide explained how the island is built and the history of the Uros. After a small lecture, we got to walk around the island, take photos, look at the houses and buy their arts and crafts. Then, we got in a traditional boat and headed off to a different island which held the school and was sort of the center of the whole community. There, the school children sang traditional songs for us and we had the opportunity to give them gifts (although no begging which was nice). Finally we headed back to Puno. While the whole excursion was completely organized for tourists, it was still a unique and amazing experience that exists nowhere else in the world. That night I had a delicious dinner of alpaca and stayed the night in Puno. The following morning I got an early bus to Cusco to begin my exploration of the Sacred Valley of Peru.
I was sad to leave Bolivia, a truly amazing country, but excited to see the wonders of Peru. Peru is definitely a country that has been more discovered (despite the large number of tourists in Bolivia now, it is still way off the beaten path), but its sights are world-famous. Lake Titicaca was also an amazing place to visit and was just another one of the regions extremes: the highest navigable lake in the world.
I made my way over to one of the highest neighborhoods of La Paz and the starting off point of the road that crosses up through a 16,000 ft pass in the Cordillera Real and down 12,000 ft. to the jungles of the Amazon Basin; the "worlds most dangerous road." Because of my fears of busses plunging off of cliffs, I decided to take a minivan down; still risky, but much less stress on the breaks. I got lucky and was put right in the front seat next to the driver; prime views and easy access to the door handle in case of break troubles. The ride, however, was not scary at all (it isn't really that dangerous a road now because a few years ago they totally redid it and now it is a huge, well designed paved highway) but was absolutely beautiful! Craggy, barren, frigid mountain passes slowly giving way to warmer temps and lusher, heavily forested ridges and finally to the steamy jungle below. In the 82 km from La Paz to Coroico, we lost 12,000 feet of elevation and the temperature went from about 45 degrees in La Paz to 25 degrees in the pass to 85 degrees down in Coroico. It was really one of the most incredible bus rides I have ever been on through what I think are arguably some of the most impressive landscapes in the world. When I finally arrived in Coroico, I new I had found a true gem; the nicest place I visited on my trip.
Coroico is a small, colorful village tucked away in the jungle on top of a steep, narrow ridge with snowcapped peaks looming above it and lush, green jungle below. It is quite touristy, but it definitely has not lost its charm and is one of those few places in the world that really feels like paradise. After a tasty lunch on the plaza I went searching for a hotel, hoping to find a place quickly in order to spend the afternoon enjoying the warm temperatures and tropical air after so much time spent on the frigid altiplano. I found a small hotel called Hostel Kory which rented me a room for 3 dollars a night. The hotel had a breathtaking view of the mountains and valleys and a luxurious swimming pool which, in any other country, would have made the rate at least 100 dollars a night. I checked into my room and went for a small walk on the road heading out of town and finished the day with a dip in the pool and a cold beer on the deck. The following day I set out on some of the incredible hikes that the town had to offer. In the morning I headed up Cerro Uchumachi to get panoramic views down towards Coroico and up towards the highest peaks of the Andes. It was a tiring but satisfying hike! I made it back down to the village for a good lunch in the town comedor then, after my siesta, set off again on a hike out to a waterfall on the other side of town. After a sweaty walk in the tropical afternoon sun I arrived at an extraordinary waterfall on the side of the mountain and bathed in the pure, fresh, cool water. Feeling totally refreshed I headed back to town for a beer and dinner. After a hearty meal I sat in the plaza where all of the locals participate in the evening social ritual of walking around the plaza for hours, talking and socializing with each other (much like the Italian passeggiata). A few local girls approached me, curious, and we spent the better part of an hour talking about life in this beautiful town. I later headed back to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening finishing my book. The following morning I headed back up the road (less exciting going up but still incredibly beautiful) to La Paz.
Coroico was an amazing town and was definitely my favorite place on my entire trip. While places such as Machu Picchu were definitely more incredible, Coroico is a place that I would want to come back to or even live in (or at least have as a getaway place). I wish I had spent more time there, but I was short on both time and money and wanted to push on towards Peru. After spending another night and day in La Paz at a loud and raucous hostel I caught a bus from the hectic cemetary district to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.
When we got on the bus in Sucre, we had paid a little bit more in order to take the "ejecutivo," or executive, bus in order to have a little bit more comfort on the overnight trip across the bitterly cold altiplano. Getting on the bus, it seemed fairly nice, much like the Argentinian busses, and the heater was definitely working as the bus was extremely hot and stuffy. We quickly took off our jackets and were sweating, but we felt that this was at least better than a cold bus. And there was a bathroom! But we shortly found out that it was locked, even though the lady at the ticket agency told us we would have a bathroom (I guess we HAD one, we just couldn't use it). Then they filled the aisle with people lying down, so even if the bathroom wasn't locked, we couldn't have made it there without stepping on someone. Oh, well I have a strong bladder. We set out right on time and I'm very glad I had Magnus, my Norwegian friend for company. They even had a movie on this bus which they started after all of the children begging for money made their rounds and got off the bus. The film, however, was Mad Max, a good movie (sort of, in a campy, 70s sort of way) butit was kind of unsettling to watch a movie about gangs of road pirates attacking and killing people as I was about to set out on a night trip through desolate terrain in a country that has a history of road pirates attacking and killing innocent travelers (it is almost akin to watching Alive as an in-flight movie on an airplane). After about two hours, the bus broke down on the side of the road in a completely uninhabited part of the altiplano. Two hours went by while the drivers were trying to figure out what was wrong with the bus and the heat and number of people on the bus was stifling (although it did give me the opportunity to relieve myself in the bushes on the side of the road). We finally got going again and continued on our way to La Paz, fortunately with no more incidents. As we were getting in to the city, I woke up shivering and absolutely frozen. I looked over at Magnus and he was curled up in a sleeping bag trying to stay warm, then I looked at the window and realized that ice had formed on the inside of the window, near where I was resting my head. I decided that the bus company either turned the heat on all the way before leaving and then cut the heat while we were traveling in order to save gas or the heat had been the sacrifice in order to get the engine up and running again. Either way I was miserable and glad I would not have to take any more Bolivian bus rides. Coming in to La Paz, however, was absolutely beautiful and the austere majesty of the city immediately struck me. I knew that this would be a place that I really liked.
Magnus and I got off the bus and headed over to Calle Sagarnaga in the ramshackle, beautiful and touristy market district to find a hotel or hostel. After much debate we decided to split a room in a cheap, but nice, hotel rather than room up with a bunch of people in a cold hostel. We settled into our room and spent the day exploring the city, starting with our neighborhood. The market district is a sprawling maze of markets, steep, narrow streets and historic buildings that offer a variety of goods and curiosities. In the witches market you can buy dried llama fetuses and a variety of other products for the novice witch doctor or shaman and then up the street in the black market you can buy just about anything, legitimate or otherwise (mostly otherwise). Throughout this neighborhood there are also many street food vendors selling delicious salteñas and freshly squeezed fruit juice. We met for lunch then headed out to a childrens park and observatory on a ridge, overlooking the entire city. What is amazing about La Paz is its geography. It is a brash, bustling, dirty Latin American city, but it is situated in a huge, deep valley and the houses and sprawl of the city literally climb almost 2,000 feet straight up the extremely steep valley walls. Also, at an elevation of 11,942 ft., it is the highest capital city in the world. The weather is surprisingly mild in the city because the bowl of the valley catches the heat of the sun and protects the city from the bitter altiplano winds, but 2,000 feet above the city, in the sprawling slum of El Alto, the day and night time temperatures are 20-30 degrees colder (and, of course the houses are flimsier in this depressing slum). The wealthiest part of the city is actually in the lowest portion of the valley and I think La Paz may be the one city where the poorer neighborhoods have the views and the wealthy neighborhoods are tucked down in the foot of the valley. It was a crazy and chaotic city, but it was a lot of fun and a really nice place to visit.
The following day I set out on an excursion up to the Tiwanaku pre-Incan ruins on the altiplano about 70 km from La Paz, near the shore of Lake Titicaca. This was the site of a very large and advanced society that lived, the Tiwanaku people, that lived up in the Andes long before the Incan Empire. The ruin was in the process of being reconstructed to look how it was once believed to appear. It was a very interesting excursion and my first taste of the many ruins I would encounter on the next few weeks of my journey. I also made an excursion down to a park called Valley of the Moon, in the southern suburbs of La Paz, that looked very much like the South Dakota Badlands. It was a valley made up of very intricately eroded sandstone in a very moon-like environment. One amazing moment when I was in the valley was when a man in traditional Andean dress began playing a flute and a guitar on top of one of the pillars of rock in the middle of the valley. While he was doing so that the tourists would give him tips, of course, it was a beautiful and haunting performance, particularly in that spectacular setting.
After spending one more night with Magnus, we decided to part ways for the time being and I packed up my bags to head 12,000 feet down the "Worlds Most Dangerous Road" to the tropical Andean foothill city of Coroico. This was a journey that I was a little nervous about taking (about 1 bus a month plunges off this road killing its entire load of passengers) but was also very excited about. It didn't let me down.
I left Potosí on a cold morning and caught a direct bus to Sucre. The ride was only 3 hours on paved road the entire way and we lost about 5,000 ft of elevation. A Norwegian guy, Magnus, who I had seen but not talked to in the Potosí hostel sat down next to me and we began talking during the bus ride. He was a really great guy and we ended up traveling together over the next leg of our trip, one of the benefits to traveling solo. Getting off the bus in Sucre at 12:30 was like entering a different world. It was warm and sunny and both looked and felt like Southern California. I was so happy to be able to walk around in a t-shirt after my last few frigid nights on the altiplano. We checked into our hostel, a little HI place near the bus terminal and then headed out to check out the city.
Sucre is considered by some to be the second capital of the country (and some even consider it the only real capital) because it is the home of the Supreme Court. It is also, without a doubt, the nicest city in Bolivia, seeming more like an Argentinian or a European city rather than a Bolivian city. The historic core of the city is entered through a gate and is filled with exquisitely maintained, whitewashed, red-tile roofed buildings, museums, universities, plazas, markets and an absolutely beautiful central park filled with fountains, ponds, walking paths and the impressive, but gorgeous, government buildings. It is a very sophisticated city as well with fine restaurants, chocolate makers and lots of cultural activities. The climate is also incredible; warm days give way to cool nights with very little rain. We first went to the market and had a $1 full meal at one of the little stalls and then headed through the central plaza up to monastery on a hill overlooking the city. We got a tour of the monastery which was still functioning as a monastery but was also opened as a museum and was filled with religious art and flowered courtyards. After leaving the museum, we went up to a restaurant that was perched up on top of a little hill that gave a view out over the whole city. It was there that we heard about Museum Night. That day was officially "International Day of the Museum" and all of the museums and churches of the city (more than 30) opened there doors all night long, from 6 PM til 6 AM and didn´t charge admission. They also had live music in all of the museums. We decided to get prepared and go museum hopping that night. We went to 4 different museums and saw everything from religious artwork to military equipment from the Chaco war to mummy children and heard 5 different traditional bands and a comedy group. We went out to dinner at a nice restaurant that night and finally dragged ourselves back to the hostal at about 2:30 in the morning.
The following day we got up late and continued to explore the city. I was tired of museums but spent the day walking around the plazas and checking out all of the sights. During the day there was also a parade through downtown and a soapbox derby, of all things, through the center of the city, starting on top of the large hill and going down through the sloped streets to end in the central park. It was fascinating to watch these small cars flying through the city streets. After a leisurely day walking around the city and soaking up the sun and warm temps we got tickets on an overnight bus to La Paz, Bolivia´s main capital and prepared ourselves for another dose of the cold, altiplano weather.
Fri, Aug. 29th, 2008, 10:37 pm
Now, I've been back in the US for quite some time now, but I've decided that I really need to get back on this blog and write about my adventures before I forget them all. While my writing I believe is fairly good, I would never make a writer because I have such a hard time getting the motivation to sit down and actually write. Anyway, here goes the next leg of my adventure.
I left my hostel in Uyuni at 7 in the morning (after thawing myself out) to eat some breakfast and catch a bus to Potosí, only 200 km away, but apparently a 7 hour bus ride (which should have given me an idea of what I was in for). After getting put on another bus with a different company (because the company I bought the ticket from didn´t sell enough tickets to fill the bus) we set off at about 9:15 in the morning. The bus was half full of gringos and about half full of Bolivians, mostly in traditional garb going to the extremely remote villages spread across the altiplano that we would encounter on the way. The roads were absolutely atrocious, but I really rather enjoyed the bus ride. We wound through barren mountains on tiny, narrow dirt tracks that did some switchbacks up mountainsides that I almost couldn´t believe a bus would make it up, then through scruffy but absolutely beautiful little villages filled with people dressed in traditional clothing, working in the fields and leading llamas. At one point we stopped in this tiny little village to give the driver a break. All of the houses were mud huts with straw roofs and the poverty was extreme, but it was the most precious little village set in an extraordinarily scenic valley. We all got french fries at a little store there while we were waiting for the bus driver to head out again. After 3 more hours of bumpy dirt road, we finally hit asphalt in the city of Potosí, the highest city in the world.
Potosí, has an almost magical charm to it, and a very dark history, both of which I was to discover in the following three days in this small city perched up at an elevation of 13,500 ft, just below a mountain with an elevation of 15, 827 ft. After taking a taxi with two Spanish girls through the narrow, winding colonial streets of the city, we arrive at the Koala Den, our fun, cozy little hostel in the center of town. I found out that I was put in a room on the 3rd floor of the hostel and realize that at that altitude, it takes all of my energy just to walk up those 3 flights of stairs. By the time I get to my room I am completely out of breath. But, I am right on the roof with an absolutely amazing view of the city below me and the ominous Cerro Rico above. After settling in, I spent the afternoon and the following day walking around the city, taking in the sights. Magical is the first word that comes to me when describing the city. It looks like the mystical little city in the clouds. It is full of beautiful colonial buildings, churches and plazas with extremely steep, narrow cobblestone streets (many far too narrow for vehicles and kept as walking streets) and constant views out at the barren mountains below and above the city (the entire city is built on one long, steep hillside). I spent the day checking out the street markets, visiting the churches, eating salteñas in the plazas and taking in this spectacular city, all the while taking frequent rest stops to catch my breath. I did feel a sense of the dark history that lies underneath this beautiful facade, and this was to come clear to me on my amazing, but incredible tour of the Potosí silver mines; the source of wealth for this city that was at one point the richest city in the world (the expression vale un potosí is still used in Spanish to mean something that is very valuable) but also the cause of death of 8 million people throughout the last quarter of a millenium.
The second afternoon, after trying to work up my bravery, I piled into the shuttle with a number of my other fellow hostel guests to head up to the mines; an experience that turned out to be one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences of my life. The first stop was at a house in one of the highest neighborhoods of the city, the poorer, more frigid neighborhood where the miners lived, to put on our gear. Gear consisted of a plastic suit, boots, a headlamp and a handkerchief to cover our mouths and protect us from all of the deadly chemicals that we would be breathing. After getting suited up we went to the market to buy dynamite and coca leaves as gifts for the miners. Our guide, a wonderful guy named Oscar, also recommended that we chew coca in order to help us deal with the conditions that we will find in the mine which were: almost no oxygen, extreme heat, explosions, dark, narrow passageways and toxic dust. We had also been warned by our guidebooks that this tour is only for people in very good health that do not suffer from respiratory problems, asthma, panic attacks or claustrophobia. We had to sign a release that the tour company was not responsible for our death, that usually more than 50 people die a year in these mines (miners, as far as I know no tourists have died) and that most miners have a life expectancy of 10 years after entering the mines. Also, more than 8 million people have died in this mountain since people first started mining for silver. It was with this knowledge that we took shots of 96 proof alcohol, gave an offering of alcohol to Pachamama, strapped on our dynamite, popped in our coca leaves and headed into hell.
We started walking down a very dark passageway that had tracks for mining carts, which we periodically had to dive out of the way of, and had a high enough ceiling to walk upright (or at least your average Bolivian could walk upright, I had to duck). After going about a half a kilometer into the mountain down this flat hallway, we began our descent down a steep, narrow passageway that required our squeezing through on our stomachs. As we got lower, things began to heat up. One member of our party, a French guy, began to get a splitting headache from the lack of oxygen and the noxious dust that we were breathing. We go a little further to an area where we see men and boys working. One of the boys that we saw down there was probably between 8 and 10 years old and, which means that with the conditions in the mines it is unlikely that he will live to be my age, 25. We finally got to the end of a tunnel where we met a friend of Oscar, Basilio. He was repeatedly hammering on a spike trying to break away chunks of rock. He informed us that he was 37 (an old guy) and that he had been working down in the mines since he was 17. He sometimes works 24 hour days using only coca to survive and for much of the first ten years, he barely made a dollar a day. Now, he owns his own part of the mine and only earns what he extracts. That particular week, he actually struck it lucky and made a large sum of money (about $100) but many weeks he goes home with nothing. It was at this point that the French guy got too sick and had to be taken out. The guide left two English girls and I down in the end of the tunnel with Basilio while he took the other guy out. We sat there in the belly of the mountain, feeling slightly panicky and very upset, listening to the incessant hammering. After about 10 minutes, Oscar comes back for us and takes us further down into the mountain to level 3 (there are 5 levels all together, with level 5 being the deepest). In level 3 the temperature was almost 100 degrees compared to the 40 degree temperature outside (they say in level 5 the temperature gets as high as 130 degrees and the men work in just loincloths). Fortunately, level 3 is as deep as we will go. We meet up with another group of guys down there and help them out shoveling rock into buckets that will be pulled up by a pulley system to be processed. After working for about 15 minutes it is time to head up. One of the English girls and I decide to go up the harder way while our guide takes the other English girl up the easier way. The hard way wasn´t too bad, just steep, but the lack of oxygen really hit me. I couldn´t breathe and I told my companion to stop while I caught my breath. I felt as if I was having an asthma attack as I was gasping for air. Eventually I calmed down a little bit and we continued, shortly encountering our guide. It was at this point that the English girl I was with made a comment about feeling claustrophobic and wanting to get out. The other girl started having a panic attack and began crying, saying that she couldn´t breathe. We had taken off our handkerchiefs and were breathing all of the awful dust, but it was still better than having our extremely small oxygen intake blocked even further by them. Oscar and the girl´s friend both calmed her down and we began, slowly, going up the last leg back up to level 1 so as not to overexert ourselves. Once we got back up in the cooler air and a little closer to the exit, we began to feel much better. The last stop in the mine was a little museum they had set up in a side tunnel. In the museum was a bunch of memorabilia as well as a statue of "El Tío", the devil. The miners, who are almost exclusively Catholic, pay their respect to the devil when they are in the mines because they believe that that is his territory down there and that God can´t help them in Cerro Rico. We poured the devil a shot of our 96 proof alcohol and lit a cigarette, sticking it in his mouth, then headed out of the tunnel. When we finally saw the true light of day, we almost cried with relief. We were down in the mine for almost 2 hours (compared to the lifetime full of 12 to 24 hour days that the miners have to spend down there) and those were 2 of the most difficult hours of our lives. We were so happy to be out and breathing really air (even if it was still weak air at almost 15,000 feet of elevation).
After leaving the mines, we exploded a stick of dynamite (almost killing, and certainly deafening, a dog) then headed down to the processing factory to see how the silver gets chemically extracted from the rock. Then, we were brought in the van back down to our hostel, ready for a hot shower and a beer. While the mines were an absolutely terrifying experience, I am still so glad I went on the mines tour and would almost have to say that it was actually one of the highlights of my trip. We can look at photographs and watch advocacy videos of the horrible working conditions, but actually being down there and experiencing what these men have to deal with every day of their lives is a truly lifechanging experience. I coughed for almost two weeks after leaving the mines and while I can´t be sure that my cough was related to what I breathed down there, I can imagine that it effected my cough and if just two hours down there effected me for two weeks, I can´t even begin to imagine the damage that it is doing to the miners down there. Very few miners used masks (although a couple did and I even saw one young boy using a full gas mask) and most just live with their lot in life, accepting the fact that they will die of silicosis after spending just 10 years in the mines. I also felt good that I had put myself up to the challenge of going down in the mine and had come out just fine. The following day I went to a museum that talked about the atrocious conditions in the mine when they were first opened up and the reason for those 8 million deaths. That night, I was struck by a sense of terror and many nightmares about the horrible things that had happened and were continuing to happen in that city and caused by our sense of greed for the silver and iron that comes out of that mountain (now the silver from Cerro Rico is not used for money but is used to make computer chips and microprocessors). I felt strongly that I did not want to spend another day in Potosí and made plans to head to Sucre the next day. It was not such a magical city in the clouds, but a frigid, dark, evil place. The following day I got on a bus and headed down to Sucre at a much lower elevation and a much warmer climate.
Now, looking back more than 3 months, I really feel that Potosí was one of the highlights of my trip. Now that I have been able to put it into perspective, the city absolutely fascinates me. It is such a beautiful place that has such an intense history (evil and dark, yes, but also very interesting). Being in Potosí was one of the rare occasions where this history really hit me and seeing the present day suffering and the contrasts (much of the town is very wealthy and comfortable) that exist there really made an impression on me. It wasn´t a completely good impression, but it was a place that I have been unable to stop thinking about both in positive and negative ways. For that reason, it really was one of my favorite cities and definitely a place not to be missed for travelers to Bolivia (whether or not you do the mine tour, however is a different question although if, after my description you feel you can handle it, I would also definitely recommend going on that tour as almost every one I have talked to has said it was a life-changing experience.
More to come on Sucre and other locales in the amazing country of Bolivia...
Sat, May. 31st, 2008, 06:28 pm
Here is my entry on Bolivia. This is being written in Peru, but its hard to stay caught up on my blogs while travelling.
I left Salta, Argentina and got on a cold overnight bus to the Bolivian border. The border towns of La Quiaca, Argentina and Villazón, Bolivia are high, cold, barren, austere places. I got off the bus in La Quiaca and the cold hit me like a freight train. I could barely hold on to my bags I was shivering so hard. I pulled myself together, though, and started walking towards the border. Crossing was easy and when I got to the Bolivian side there were many street vendors selling beautiful hats and mittens made out of alpaca fur for about $2 each. I quickly bought these but by this time the intense, tropical sun came out and started warming everything up. On the Bolivian altiplano (which is between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, Villazón was about 12,500 feet) the nights are extremely cold, well below freezing and sometimes as cold as 0º F, but the days are quite warm, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s and a strong sun. I had a full day to kill in Villazón, which was a pretty uninteresting place to spend a day but I walked around the town, ate lunch and read my book in the plaza. That afternoon I caught the train heading north to Uyuni and the salt flats. The train ride was amazing until the sun set, then it was just cold and dark. Leaving Villazón we saw herds of llama running across the dry, barren plain and at this point I really felt like I was up in the Andes (although the altiplano is deceiving because it is in the mountains but it is very large and very flat). After that the train wound through these remote little communities that looked different from anything I had ever seen. Brown little thatched-roof mud huts that blend so well into the surroundings that you almost don´t even notice that they are there. They are quaint in there own way, but the poverty is extreme and it looked like a very desolate, sad place to live. Finally at midnight my train pulled into the Uyuni station and I shivered my way to the hostel that I was staying in, which was just as cold as outside. At least I had a warm bed (the room was cold but, thankfully they had piled about 7 different blankets on top of the bed) and the promise of a warm shower in the morning (they only turn hot water on between 8 in the morning and 6 in the evening). Welcome to Bolivia!
The following day, I started to explore Uyuni, a bleak, miserable little town in one of the most desolate parts of one of the most desolate places in the world. There was not a tree in site (bushes could barely even grow there), except for the few that they had tried to plant in the streets and the bitter wind rips right across the flat, high-altitude desert. The reason to go to Uyuni, though, and it is a very good reason, is the salt flats which are near town. I spent that first day wandering around Uyuni, going from tour agency to tour agency looking for a good deal on a salt flat tour (the only way you can see the flats). I finally found what looked like a good 1 day tour for about $20 leaving the following day. The other nice thing about Uyuni is a place called Minuteman Pizza. It is an incredible pizza restaurant owned by an American guy from Massachusetts who married a Bolivian woman and moved down here. He makes wonderful American-style pizza, salads, pastas and hearty breakfasts and is a really nice guy to talk to. I ate there 3 times. The first night he let me do half and half pesto chicken and spicy llama meat pizza. It was great! After a good fill and some more shivering, I went to bed and prepared for heading out on the flats the next day.
The Uyuni salt flats are an absolutely amazing site to behold. They cover 12,000 square kilometers of southwestern Bolivia (or about 66 times the size of the Bonneville Flats in Utah) and are completely flat and completely white. It is a surreal landscape! On our tour we first stopped at a small town on the edge of the flats called Colchani that makes there living harvesting salt (although looking at the town, they don´t make much of a living). They stopped here so we could look at a llama and buy souvenirs. Afterwards we continued on to a place called the salt hotel. It is an entire hotel that is made completely out of salt. For environmental reasons, though, they don´t allow guests to stay there anymore, but visitors come in to look at the hotel. Then, we headed 70 km across the salt flat to Isla del Pescado, the highlight of the journey. Driving across the flat itself was absolutely amazing, though. For hundreds of kilometers in every direction, all you could see was salt. We passed a spot where all the salt was black and the driver explained that a week before I was there, there was a horrible collision between two tour jeeps that left 13 dead (5 Japanese tourists, 5 Israeli tourists and 3 Bolivians) and one driver critically injured. It was amazing to think that you have 12,000 km of empty salt to drive on and two jeeps happen to have a head-on in the middle of that. My driver said, though, that the endless salt lulls you to sleep and while the jeeps can drive anywhere the flat, most keep to one route to minimize the environmental impact. It was probably just a horrible coincidence but one of the papers said that they might have been playing "Chicken." We can only hope that this isn´t true. Anyway, Isla del Pescado. It is an "island" in the middle of the salt flat that is covered with tall cactus. We arrived at the island and were given the opportunity to walk around. It was completely surreal. We were walking on this desert island with these fantastic, 1,000 year-old cacti, that was surrounded by a white sea of salt, with volcanoes and mountains in the distance. It is truly like no place I have ever seen and there really is no other place like it in the world. After walking around the island we went back to the "shore" where the the jeeps were parked (docked?) and had lunch. After lunch we played out on the salt and took pictures. The endless, flat, white salt plays tricks with perspective in photographs, allowing you to take many funny photos where people are emerging out of a hat, sitting on someone´s finger or are being crushed by a thumb. We took quite a few of these photos and I will put them up when I put up the rest of my pictures. After fooling around on the flats, we drove back to a place called the "Ojos del Salar" where water bubbles up on the salt flat from deep underground. Finally, we headed back towards Uyuni and a place called the Train Cemetary. It is a bunch of rusted old trains littered across the barren desert. It was very interesting to see, but it was also very bleak and depressing. It was, however, a wonderful tour and it was made even better by the travellers I was with. I got on the tour with a Canadian couple and a Spanish couple and we had an excellent time together, talking and chewing coca leaves. Afterwards we all went to dinner at, you guessed it, Minuteman Pizza. While Uyuni as a town was a bleak place, it was definitely worth it for the salt flats, which was a really incredible and otherworldly experience.
More on Bolivia to come...
Fri, May. 9th, 2008, 01:54 pm
So tonight I head out of beautiful Argentina and on to adventurous, cold Bolivia, so I will catch you up on everything so far in my 2 1/2 weeks in this country.
After leaving Paraguay our first stop was Córdoba, Argentina´s second largest city directly in the middle of the country. Córdoba was a very beautiful city with lots of churches and amazing plazas. The weather was nice for us as well. We checked into a hostel called Córdoba Backpackers which was definitely a party hostel. The atmosphere there was crazy and we had a lot of very rowdy guys in our room. It was fun, though. I can´t say that I had the greatest time in Córdoba, but it was definitely fun. On our first night we met up with some guys in our room and had a barbecue out in the patio of the hostel. The other nights we ended up going out to clubs and bars, but nothing spectacular. Our days were spent walking around the city, drinking tereré in the plazas and visiting churches and an art museum. All in all a fun time in Córdoba but nothing really memorable. We decided to get out of Córdoba and head for the mountains; not the big ones yet but a smaller chain of mountains called the Sierra de Córdoba, which was right outside the city.
That Sunday we got a bus up to the small town of La Cumbre, which was about 2 1/2 hours from the city up in the mountains. It was an absolutely gorgeous place that reminded me a lot of Southern California. The mountains were semi-arid and fairly dramatic (although nothing compared to the Andes). We booked a night in a beautiful and very quiet little hostel in the town. The people there were very friendly and it was just a nice, relaxing atmosphere. We were only going to spend one day there but we had such a nice time that we decided to spend two. Alyson (my travelling companion) was also sick and wanted the opportunity to stay in one place and try to get better. We spent our days hiking in the local mountains. On the first day I took a hike up the mountain right above town to the statue of the Cristo Redentor, a large statue of Christ with the stations of the cross on the way up. From the statue I hiked up a small trail up to the top of the ridge to get a spectaculor view of the town and the valley below. That first day it was still nice and very warm, but by the second day, it had cooled off dramatically and had gotten down to near freezing that night. The second day I set out hiking again, starting out at the Christ then continuing up the mountain and winding over a ridge to a big dam. From the dam I took off walking along a road for about 15 km through the lonely, beautiful countryside to the next town down the road, where I caught a bus back to La Cumbre. The last day I went hiking for the third time and set off with Alyson and another friend we met in the hostel named José. We did the same loop but after going to the dam took a shorter route straight back to La Cumbre. The town was very nice but very yuppy! Golf courses, summer homes, etc., but the hiking and activities around the town were wonderful. After two relaxing days up in the mountains, we headed back down to Córdoba to catch a bus to Mendoza.
We got into Mendoza on a wednesday morning and headed out to our hostel, Hostel Internacional Mendoza. This hostel also had a very good atmosphere, laid back but still kind of a party hostel. After checking in our bags we decided to head out and explore the city. Mendoza is a really beautiful city with lots of lush, tree-lined streets despite the fact that it is in the middle of the desert and receives almost no rain. What it does have, however, is a constant supply of fresh water from the Andes, which loom right above the city creating an impressive backdrop and a wonderful environment in the city. My only complaint with Mendoza was its lack of energy. It was a very quiet, peaceful, well-organized, pleasant city, but wasn´t necessarily all that fun. It was also quite fancy and was kind of inaccessible on a backpackers budget. Anyway, we had a lot of fun hanging out around the city. The day after we got in was a national holiday so we couldn´t really do anything, but we went walking around their beautiful central park then coincidentally bumped into a few friends from Peace Corps and went out to lunch. The following day I set out with Alyson on a bike tour of all of the local wineries. This was a lot of fun! We rented bikes for 20 pesos and then got a map and set out going from winery to winery. The winery area, primarily in the city of Maipú, is not like Napa Valley, because it is actually a poorer, hectic, more run-down area of the region. The wineries were beautiful, though, and once you got out of the city the scenery got amazing. Dry desert, vineyards, tree-lined country lanes and the Andes in the background. Our first winery gave us a tour of the winery and a free sample of the wines. After that, we headed to a little place that makes artesanal licors and chocolates. For 5 pesos we got a tour and a tasting which included four shots shared between four of us, chocolate samples and samples of jams and jellies. For the shots we got a shot of chocolate, cherry, and mandarin licors and a shot of absynthe. The absynthe really hit us as we got back on our bikes and headed to more wineries. At most wineries you needed to pay for a tasting and, being poor backpackers, we didn´t end up doing those tastings. We ended up a one beautiful winery for lunch, though, where we had an amazing (and very fancy) lunch and a bottle of the winery´s malbec. Ouch! for the backpackers budget, but it was worth it. Then we continued on to an olive oil factory (more free samples, yay!) and ended, worn out from drinking and riding a bike, at an organic winery where we tried some wine and bought another bottle to take with us. We had a great few days in Mendoza and, at this point, Alyson and I decided to go our separate ways. She went straight up to Salta and I decided to take a bus up into the Andes to a hostel in a ski resort called Los Penitentes, which was right at the foot of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas.
The trip up to the Andes was absolutely breathtaking! Three hours of windy roads steadily climbing up to an elevation of about 9,000 feet through some of the most barren, spectacular mountains I have ever seen. I had the good luck of getting the front seat with the best view possible of the mountains. We finally reached Los Penitentes, which was practically deserted. It is a ski resort but it isn´t ski season yet so no one was there. I finally found my hostel, Campo Base Los Penitentes, amongst the cluster of buildings and it was a beautiful little mountain cabin with a very relaxed, quiet atmosphere (at least now that its not ski season). I ran into three British girls there and we ended up talking for a while and having dinner together. That afternoon I went hiking in the mountains right around the hostel. 2 km up the ruta the hostel host told me there was a little suspension bridge across the river which led to some nice hiking up to a ridge. I found the bridge and crossed, which was a harrowing experience and then started up to the ridge. I started to feel the altitude on my way up but took it easy and got to a nice spot to sit and read for a while before heading back down. The following day I wanted to head up to see Mt. Aconcagua. I was told that the entrance was in a town 6 km up the highway towards the Chilean border. I wanted to take a bus up and then walk back but I ended up missing my bus and having to walk up and back. It also turned out to be 10 km up instead of 6, so I wound up with a 20 km, very tiring round trip and since I was limited on time, I didn´t even have the chance to walk around and check out the mountain. But, I did make it up to an amazing viewpoint and got some incredible photos of the mountain so it was really all worth it. The landscape is so amazing as well, that I didn´t even really mind that I was walking on the highway. That afternoon I caught the bus back down to Mendoza and was planning on heading out that night to Salta, but all of the bus fares were sold out so I ended up staying one more night in Mendoza. I ran into the English girls again and found out that one of them had just been robbed of all her documents, passport, plane tickets, insurance etc. so I hung out with them and helped translate to get their bus ticket changed so they could go back to Buenos Aires to figure everything out with their consulate. What a bummer! I really hope that that doesn´t happen to me on this trip. The following morning I got on an 18-hour bus ride up to Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina.
I got into Salta on a Tuesday morning tired out from my busride and check into the hostel. As I´m checking in, I run into Alyson again (who was supposed to have already left but who at the last minute changed her bus ticket to meet up with some friends) so we decided to meet up and spend another few days in Salta. Salta is another amazing city and I think it is my favorite of the ones that I have visited. It is situated in a valley between a lush, green low range of foothills and the stark, brown and ominous Andes. The city is very busy and hectic, it almost feels more like a third-world city in Paraguay or Bolivia, but at the same time is small enough to be very manageable and has the same charm and class as some of the fancier Argentinian cities. There are beautiful churches, plazas, museums, shops and there is also a chaotic and wonderful city market which has fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, crafts, dried fruits, clothing, music and probably about 40 different little restaurants, all serving the same local specialties: locro (a hearty corn soup that is called Pozole in Mexico), humitas (cheese filled tamales that are sweet or salty), tamales (the meat and potato filled version) empanadas (filled with meat and potatoes) and papuchas (delicious french fries served in a triangular pouch and topped with a huge variety of toppings) as well as the Argentinian standards of pizza, pasta, steak, and milanesa. Salta also has a huge hill right above the city with a chair lift that takes you over the roofs of the houses all the way up to the top, where there is a Christ (like all Latin American cities) and a beautiful lookout point over the city and the valley below. They day we went up there was beautiful (after that first day it clouded up and got cold and rainy for the rest of the time we were here) and was a spectacular day to hang out and look down at the city. I took the chair lift up then walked down the 1,070 stairs to the bottom. The rest of our days were spent wandering around the city, checking out the plazas and the museums and going out to restaurants and bars in the evening. In Salta there is an archaeological museum that has the best naturally preserved mummies in the world of small Incan children who were sacrificed to the gods. I saw two mummies, a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old girl. It was fascinating but also quite upsetting. Our other job in Salta was to get our Bolivian visas, which are kind of a pain and cost $100, but after a little effort, we finally got them.
Now I am in my last day in Salta and I am getting ready to head off to Bolivia. Tonight I take an overnight bus to the border where I will catch a train up to the Bolivian town of Uyuni, right on the edge of the famous salt flats. Bolivia sounds cold, uncomfortable and rough but absolutely beautiful and amazing so I will see what my adventure holds in store for me next.
So, I left off with my painful goodbyes to everyone in my site. On Wednesday of that week, the 16th of April, we had our despedida for the volunteers. We paid a fee and got dinner at a fancy restaurant with unlimited drinks and entrance to a VIP area at a nice club, also with unlimited drinks (uh oh!). Needless to say, it was a lot of fun but unlimited drinks mixed with low self control leads to a very miserable next day. The following day was our official closing ceremony in the Peace Corps office which was a nice little ceremony where our bosses gave a few speeches, they handed us certificates and we ate cake. We were all terribly hungover, though, which kind of put a damper on the ceremony. Then, as of that Friday, I was officially not a Peace Corps volunteer any more. That was a thrilling day! Not that I didn´t enjoy being a Peace Corps volunteer and I had very mixed feelings about leaving, but knowing that I wasn´t a Peace Corps volunteer any more and that I was a free man was an extremely liberating feeling.
The rest of the week was spent in Asunción hanging out with Peace Corps friends and saying goodbye to a few more families that I knew from site but that lived in Asunción. One of the very interesting things that happened, though, in that week that I was in Asunción, were the major elections for the new president. A lot was at stake because the polls showed that the Liberal Party candidate was up and might cause the Colorado party to lose its power. The Colorado Party had been in power for 61 years and was the party of the dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, and since the fall of the dictatorship has been the center of political power in the country (making it seem like the democracy that Paraguay has had for 19 years seem almost more like a farce). Also, in the history of Paraguay for the last 197 years, power has not changed with out some sort of violence or a coup. Paraguayans, in general, did not feel that the power structure was going to change and the the Colorado candidate was going to win again through corruption, but everyone was a little bit nervous about violence. So, knowing all this, I was warned to keep a low profile on the day of elections (particularly because I was going to be in Asunción) so I decided to go hang out at my friends apartment, cook and watch movies all day. We had been tuning in to the television all day, but particularly after 8:00 when the results were coming in. Fernando Lugo, the Liberal candidate, won by such a margin that there was know way the Colorado Party could have tried to steal the vote through corruption. Everyone was shocked when Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado candidate, conceded the presidency to Lugo just an hour after the results came in. The Colorado Party had fallen and it seemed like the whole of Paraguay (even many who were forced to vote for the Colorados) breathed a sigh of relief. The most miraculous thing, though, was that there wasn´t even a single incident of violence. No protests, no riots. Completely peaceful and now, a week later, there still hasn´t been a single incident in Paraguay. We will see how long this lasts, though. Many Paraguayans think that this is too good to be true and a number of people have told me that they would definitely not want to be in Lugo´s shoes. There is still the possibility of a coup happening and regardless of what happens, Nicanor, the current Colorado president, will probably do all he can during his last 3 months as president to make Lugo´s job difficult. I was really happy to be in Paraguay on this historic day (and very relieved that nothing happened to make me have to escape quickly from the country) and I am almost disappointed that I am not still in Paraguay to see what happens over the next few years. Of course, I hope the best for that country which I have come to love so much.
After all of the election drama, I quietly left the country on Wednesday, April 23rd, rumbo a Córdoba, Argentina. It was sad leaving Paraguay, my home for the last two years and an amazing country that will forever have a place in my heart, but, it was also exciting.
Now, for my next adventure!
Sat, Apr. 26th, 2008, 10:05 am
End of Service
Hello everyone! I am writing this journal entry from the lovely city of Córdoba, Argentina. I have already finished Peace Corps, left Paraguay and now I am on my slow return trip home. Anyway, to go over what it was like to finish up my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
In the information packet that they gave us they said that leaving the US was hard, adjusting to life in a foreign country and the first few weeks in site were harder, but that leaving site was absolutely the hardest part of the whole Peace Corps volunteer experience. This was absolutely the truth! Leaving site and saying goodbye to everyone was such a horrible, sad, upsetting experience although at the end I left with a feeling of sadness, but also a very warm feeling of having been loved so much here and, of course, a sense of relief for finally being done.
My close of service procedure really started when my follow-up volunteer came to visit my/her site. I didn´t get the married couple from Indiana like I had originally thought, but instead I got a really wonderful and hard-working volunteer from Virginia named Shinhee Kim, so I am still very happy with how everything worked out. She came on a Wednesday and I met her on Thursday. When she first came she was extremely nervous to be my follow-up. I have developed a big reputation around Peace Corps Paraguay as an extremely hard-working volunteer who did a lot during my service so the new trainees were naturally very nervous about being selected to be my follow-up. But, like I said to Shinhee, I think my success in my site was just as much from the support and interest I received from my Paraguayan counterparts in site than it was from my ability, so I told her that I was sure that she would be just as successful. She really got that sense as well in the site visit and was very warmly recieved by all of my friends, co-workers and families in Comandante Peralta so that by the end of her visit she felt much better about her future site. I really believe that she will do a great job as well. She has a great musical talent and has many interests and abilities that are very different from mine, which is why I think that they put her in my site, so that she can do her own thing, do neat and interesting activities that are different enough from mine so that she won´t have to deal with the constant comparisons. Anyway, it was a great future site visit for her and it was great to feel that I am leaving my site in such good hands.
The main events of my last week in site, though, were all of my despedidas, or going-away parties. First, on Thursday, Ña Sara, Rosanelly´s sister organized a little going-away toast for me and a welcome toast for Shinhee at her house. At this I knew what was in store because one of the señoras, Ña Amalia, who was one of my many Paraguayan mothers, burst out into tears as I was leaving. The following day was my big, official despedida at the school. The teachers all organized a huge acto cultural with songs, dances, theaters and speeches all for my going -away. The invited the directors of Peace Corps Paraguay and made a huge event. All of the students were there and a huge number of parents came out (there were probably about 300 people in total). Everyone was crying. Some of the children came up and read poems to the extent of "Adios, my friend. Please don´t ever forget us. We all love you so much." This really did it for me and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. Afterwards all of the parents came up and kissed me goodbye and we took hundreds of photos to leave as souvenirs for the kids. After the big acto, we had a pig asado and a nice white tablecloth lunch at the school with all of the teachers. This event was a really memorable event in many ways. For one, it was very sad, but at the same time it was very happy. A lot of the skits and songs were funny songs that kind of uplifted the atmosphere. While I did feel really sad about leaving, the most amazing sensation that I felt was the outpouring of love and acceptance. While I can say that in general my community accepted me, many times it didn´t feel like it and I totally felt like such an outsider. With this ceremony, though, I totally realized how much the community in general cared for me and really appreciated my time and work in Comandante Peralta, which made me feel profoundly happy and satisfied, despite the sad situation. Afterwards, we had a party at my house and drank a bunch of beer with all of the teachers.
Then, on Saturday, I had another going-away dinner at Ña Pablina´s house. We made a point to say our actual good-byes on Monday so this dinner wasn´t too emotional, but the three boys, my "nephews," I noticed, were very attached to me that night so you could tell that they were trying to deal with the fact that I was leaving soon. The following day, Sunday, we had another big party. This one was a going-away party for me, a welcoming party for my follow-up and a quinceañera, for Daisy, who I consider my little sister or niece. This was an amazing party! I bought a suckling pig and we killed it and roasted it all day on the grill and then ate a huge and wonderful lunch followed by delicious birthday cake for the quinceañera. It would have been a sad event but fortunately there was this guy, José, who is a big joker that can sometimes be obnoxious but who was just funny and enjoyable that day. He lightened up the whole scene and made it just a fun party. After eating, my families gave me a number of beautiful gifts, then I handed out a few gifts then gave away all of my clothes. José made a hilarious scene giving away my clothes to all of my families that left everyone rolling on the ground with laughter. It was a wonderful party! Then, on Monday, I had my final going-away party at one of the small schools that I worked with. The parents of the school prepared some snacks and gave Shinhee and I a little toast. After 5 going-away parties, I was very tired out with saying good-bye.
Monday was the hardest day, though. I was planning on leaving on Tuesday morning so Monday was the day that I had to do my real good-byes to my closest families. This was a very upsetting day! I spent the morning in my house packing up my bags and sending Shinhee off then prepared to head out in the afternoon to say good-bye to families. I said good-bye to a few families that I was close to and then got to the house of Ña Pablina. She prepared me a special snack then we sat and talked for a while. When it was time for me to leave, though, we all broke down. We spent 20 minutes hugging and kissing and crying. The 3 little boys were very sad and the littlest one, 7-year-old Matias, would not let me go, crying and hugging me. I finally broke away, feeling again my two feelings, both the outpouring of love that I received and the deep sadness of leaving people that I loved so much, not knowing when I would be back to see them again. After leaving Ña Pablina´s house I went to Nelly´s house. We avoided tears there by making plans to see each other again in Asunción (which never worked out) but it was good to at least make the plans because good-byes are so tiring. Finally that evening I went to say goodbye to Alcides, Miguela and the boys and there was another round of food, hugging and crying. That evening I went back to my house completely heart-broken to get the rest of my things together to leave the following day.
Tuesday was the day that I actually left my site, at about 8:30 in the morning. As I headed out to the highway to wait for the bus, the teachers had the entire school come out to the highway to send me away. As the bus pulled up all of the children were shouting my name and shouting "adios" and "chau." It was quite the scene and I got many surprised looks from the passengers as I got on the bus. Then I pulled away, waving out the window like in the movies and left my site for a long time (until I can make enough money to be able to come down here again). That day I headed to Guarambaré to have a charla with the new trainees and spent that night in Naranjaisy, saying good-bye to my original host family. On Wednesday I finally headed into Asunción, where I had another entire round of goodbyes.
To be continued...