You’re Invited!

We’ve been home now just over a week – a very busy week, as it turns out!  At first it was like crawling back into an old discarded skin, or into bodies that were separate from our minds but somehow knew exactly how to move and what to do in this strangely un/familiar place, even if their occupants were in a stupor. Now it feels as if mind and body have merged and we can move forward feeling integrated and whole.

Consequently, we are ready to invite friends over to celebrate Earth Day with a Bolivian twist. As I explained in the final blog post of the trip (“The Sacred Leaf – Thanking Pachamama”), we brought back the makings for a mesa, or ch’alla, which we would like to share with you – or at least with those of you who can make it to Nelson next Sunday. (Even from Norway there might still be time, Cecilia….)

Date: Sunday April 21

Time: 2:00 pm (continuing as long as you want to stay but not later than 6:00)

Bring (OPTIONAL): 1) a handful of leaves of a plausible coca substitute (bay leaves, ficus leaves, lime leaves); 2) a combustible item from the earth for which you are giving thanks (or a symbolic representation thereof) AND/OR a combustible symbol of something from the earth that you wish to ask Pachamama for, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else (Note: EVERYTHING, ultimately, comes from the earth.)

We also plan to show slides but there will be ample warning given so that anyone who would rather drown in quicksand than watch other people’s trip slides can get a chance to slip away. We do promise to edit them down from the approximately 2500 we have right now….we don’t want to lose any friends over this.

There probably won’t be chicha as we don’t have time to make a fermented corn drink, but we’ll plan to make up a big batch of mocochinchi – a very popular drink made with juice, water, and cinnamon, that contains a boiled peach. We won’t serve it in plastic baggies, though – promise. You are welcome to bring along finger foods, but don’t feel that you have to.

You can RSVP by calling, emailing or commenting on the blog. We don’t know who has been reading this blog, so you’ll have to come out and identify yourselves if you want to come. We really look forward to seeing you!

The Sacred Leaf – Thanking Pachamama

While in Coroico, Erik and Felix took a guided hike to see some of the agricultural lands the Yungas region is famous for, the most important of which is coca. As in other parts of Bolivia, agriculture in the Yungas is carried out on steeply sloping fields, but these ones really put the “eeeeeee” in ‘steep’. By Erik’s estimation some were as steep as 60%!

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Not surprisingly, coca fields are terraced, not in broad swaths but in micro fashion, meaning that every row is a double-sided hill, each row being successively lower than the last, not so much like stairs but more like undulating waves (two feet down, one foot over, one foot up, two feet down, etc). Consequently, building a coca field properly is an enormous amount of work, as is harvesting it. Coca plants are woody shrubs, so their leaves must be individually plucked off, every three months, with 100% of the work being done by hand.

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In the Yungas, most of the coca is used for chewing, since the leaves are much smaller and more tender than those of the coca plants grown in the Chapare (the region of Bolivia where a great deal of the coca grown finds its way into the nefarious cocaine supply chain).  Coca is typically grown on very small plots of land – in fact, there are government-imposed limits to the amount of land any one person can use for growing coca – but it can net a farmer around $8000 (USD) cash per hectare per year, spread over four harvests. That’s probably an order of magnitude more than you can get for any other crop in Bolivia (not counting quinoa).

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As most Bolivians will tell you, there is a world of difference between coca and cocaine, even if the latter is made from the former. I won’t say much about the politics of coca – just like I’ve avoided blogging about Evo Morales – because I don’t know enough about either, except that the government, led as it is by the former president of the coca growers’ association, is very supportive of coca growing, emphasizing its legal uses and actively trying to invent more of them, while attempting to enforce the rules put in place to thwart illegal activity. This is very hard to do, and some people have told us that the amount of coca being grown (especially in the Chapare) far outweighs any quantity that could plausibly be used for household consumption in the country, even if every single family was using it for chewing, medicinal and religious purposes on a regular basis – the suggestion being that Evo is well aware, but turning a blind eye.

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Suffice to say that coca has great economic, cultural and religious significance; it is both commonplace and revered. As a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant, it is favoured by miners, trufi (mini-bus) drivers, farmers and anyone else who puts in a long day with not much food, and may explain why so few Bolivians smoke cigarettes. It is prized as a medicine, particularly for “sorochi” (altitude sickness) – tour operators, hoteliers and doctors all encourage its use. And it is central to the Andean religious practice of making offerings to Pachamama.

Several weeks ago I started a post to explain this thanking of Pachamama that is so central to Bolivian culture, but I never finished it.  It now seems an appropriate way to wrap up this whole blog at the end of an unforgettable trip: with the theme of thanks-giving. But it’s not quite so simple. The act of making offerings to Pachamama is multi-faceted and more reciprocal than just giving thanks. It is also a way of petitioning Pachamama for her blessing, and for that reason there are many types of offerings that can be made. The simplest ch’alla involves just pouring a little bit of alcohol (the first sip or so) on the ground. You can do this even indoors – in a bar, say. Or you can just dip your finger in your drink and flick a few drops on the ground. I’ve seen people do this in the street with regular beers, so it’s more of a habit or spontaneous act than an organized or formal affair, though I’m sure the intention is sincere.

Another form of ceremonial offering is called a mesa (not to be confused with the ‘mesa’ that is also Spanish for Catholic mass), though to make matters really confusing, this is sometimes referred to as ch’alla as well. When you do a mesa/ch’alla, you collect all manner of materials that symbolize what you want and/or what you’re thankful to Pachamama for, and burn them. Alcohol is sprinkled on the ground as an offering to Pachamama, and many coca leaves are chewed. It is a social and colourful occasion. Noisy too, since many fireworks need to be set off to ward away evil.

Early in the trip, we were invited to participate in a ceremony to honour Pachamama at our Spanish-language school in Cochabamba. While we don’t claim a deep understanding of the mesa/ch’alla, we can share our observations of how this one was done. First, the offering itself needs to be assembled, usually on a sheet of white paper (newspaper will do in a pinch). On the bottom is a pile of some dried plant or herb (we saw sprigs of rosemary and also something looking a lot like sage) representing things that grow – the fruits of the earth for which we are grateful. Next are small shapes made of corn flour (maizena) and sugar, some in the shape of valued material possessions (whether that be books, cars, toys, clothes or candies) and others having words or pictures drawn upon them to represent abstractions like love, health, work, education, prosperity, or fertility. Pachamama 2

Added to this are a couple of 2” by 2” sheets of silver and gold leaf (probably not real, judging by the sticky backing), and a handful of brightly coloured streamers and/or confetti. Fresh flowers are placed all around the outside of the pile, along with dried coca leaves. Some ch’allas include a llama (either a real dried llama fetus or a facsimile made from corn flour and sugar). If you have a llama, it should be placed so that it faces the east, the direction of the sunrise. Then you sprinkle incense over the pile, leaving some to be added later while the ch’alla is burning down.Pachamama 5

At the ceremony we joined in, the school’s founder, Joaquin, verbally acknowledged the four directions as he lit the pile. Then he sprinkled some alcohol on it, a little on each direction. He offered us each a handful of coca leaves and invited us to come up to the offering one by one and set the coca upon it while it burned. Some people also made offerings of alcohol – a little spill here, a little spill there – and/ or spoke quiet words of thanks.  Then we all gathered together to drink juice and eat cheese buns. Pachamama 7Pachamama 12

The mesa (ch’alla) we were invited to was a special one that is performed every year on the same day as Shrove Tuesday, which is also during Carnaval. But Aymara and Quechua people have mesas or ch’allas at other times of year as well. Here, I am confused, because I’ve read or heard such different things: 1) that many people do this every Friday, or every second Friday; 2) that every day of the week except Tuesday and Friday are good for doing it; 3) that it is done on average once every three months; and 4) that it is done whenever there is an occasion calling for it, such as wanting to wish somebody well or ask for health or a good job or a good harvest or a blessing for a new car. Yes, a car. In Copacabana it is common, especially around festivals, for people to bring their cars to the cathedral – all dressed up in streamers – for the priest to bless them in what seems to be the perfect blend of indigenous traditions and Catholicism (also a substitute for car insurance?) We saw a few newly blessed vehicles when we were in Copacabana.

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The day before we left La Paz, I went to the witches’ market and paid a woman to make up a mesa or ch’alla for me (minus the coca leaves, since I could be jailed for life if these were discovered in my bag by US authorities at our stopover in Washington…) I think it is most common for Bolivians to choose the individual ingredients themselves (there is a nearly endless array of possibilities) but for a small fee it is also possible to pay someone to custom-make you one, according to what it is you want to focus on (whether that is health, fertility, a good harvest etc). Ingredients are also chosen according to what the woman preparing it decides is appropriate for you (that’s the witchy part). So now we have one, which we successfully brought home through three countries (Columbia, the US and Canada), and we have to decide what to do with it.

Is anyone interested in coming over to our house for a ceremonial ch’alla??? (We figure anyone still reading this voluminous blog deserves a blessing and our deepest thanks for taking such an interest in our lives and adventures these past ten weeks.) Date TBA. It will be a bring-your-own-coca-substitute event (bay leaves, lime leaves or ficus leaves would all be suitable, I think). We’ll be giving thanks for all that we’ve seen and encountered and enjoyed, and asking Pachamama to bless Bolivia and all the wonderful people we met there. What an amazing experience it has been. Do let us know if you are interested.

And so we come to the end of our family’s adventure. After 40 hours of traveling which saw us miss most of two nights’ sleep, we are home, feeling both exhausted and ecstatic over little things that we used to take so much for granted: the warmth of the water coming out of the tap; the delightfully familiar sounds of CBC and Co-op Radio; the ability to make ourselves a soothing cup of tea; the diversity and safety of the foods that are available to us; and the ease with which we can do everything, including communicating with people. (And what’s this two-ply stuff? OMG it’s thick.) For the next day or two we are letting the pleasure principle rule (is there really a principle in that?) – savouring our oh-so-delicious real coffee, napping when we feel like it, and excitedly re-engaging with all the friends, activities and events that make Nelson such a rich place to live. This weekend there is the Deconstructing Dinner film festival, and tomorrow Quinn will be back singing with his choir, Corazon, as they perform five mini-concerts at Touchstones (Nelson’s museum & archives). The soccer season has already begun and it’s time to plant the peas and spinach (though we could probably still get in one last ski if we wanted to). Lots of work also lies ahead for both Erik and me, but it all feels like something we want to do right now, instead of something we have to do.

Felix said last night, “Before the trip I never thought about my bed being comfortable. But now I keep thinking that. There are so many things that make a bed comfortable. And my bed is all of them.” Then he paused. “I wonder how long I’ll go on feeling this way. I think forever.”

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The coati, Mr Bean, and the World’s Most Dangerous Road

At “T” minus seven, I was really thinking that we’d made this trip one week too long; with our patience depleted, and our curiosity lagging, it seemed we were just marking time until we could go home. But La Paz was cool and wet, as usual, and the idea of spending Easter weekend somewhere lower (warmer) was undeniably appealing.

Coroico, in the steep, lush valleys of the Yungas, seemed like a good choice. There are swimming pools there, which suggests a good time. Unfortunately, there are also “chuspis”, little biting bugs which look a lot like black flies (except that they are yellow) and leave a similar signature (a trickle of blood). Real party poopers those ones.  We encountered them immediately upon getting to the pool, and within minutes we had ceded the fight: okay, you win. We’re going inside.

And then it rained, and the power went out for most of two days, and there was really nothing to do. Because it was Semana Santa (Holy Week), there were lots of other visitors in Coroico, the majority of them Bolivians retreating from the big city. But the holiday seemed to be less about religious observance than it was about getting good and truly drunk. Two things, however, made the trip to Coroico worthwhile: one being a visit to the Senda Verde animal refuge, and the other being the chance to learn a bit more about Bolivia’s sacred leaf: coca. (I’ll write about that in the next – and last – post.)

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Senda Verde is actually in Yolosa, a short drive away from Coroico, at the bottom of the famed “World’s Most Dangerous Road”.  Being little more than one lane wide, and twisting and plunging as it does almost 4000 metres over a distance of some 90 km, the WMDR earned that moniker because of the exceedingly high number of plummeting-over-cliff-type accidents that used to occur there – something like one a week – until just a few years ago, when a new and much safer road from La Paz to Coroico was built. Now the old road sees mostly thrill-seeking mountain bikers, and for the dozens of mountain bike companies that lead organized trips down it, the title of “World’s Most Dangerous Road” serves largely as a brilliant tool for marketing, since the risk of biking it does promise a thrill, while not being truly extreme (except for those who are reckless and going way too fast, or who try to video themselves using their iPhones while riding. Sadly, a number of such cyclists have died in recent years while biking the WMDR – tragedies that didn’t have to happen.)

Quinn and I were seriously considering biking the road, but we left it to the end of the trip and the weather that last week was just too unpleasant to make the big-ticket item worth doing ($100 is a lot to pay if you can’t see that heart-stopping view for all the fog).

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But back to Senda Verde. Planned as an eco-resort, it only accidentally became a refuge after the owners started taking in first one, and then another, wounded or abused wild animal or bird that had been rescued from illegal possession and, frequently, abuse. Unlike at Parque Machia in Villa Tunari, the staff and volunteers at Senda Verde make no pretense of being able to rehabilitate these animals; they know the animals are much too conditioned to human contact (and/or emotionally scarred) to be able to make it on their own in the wild. Instead, they are cared for indefinitely, mostly by volunteers, both Bolivian and foreign. As a result, the animals are all right there, easy to see and interact with right up close. Which isn’t to say that you can cuddle the monkeys; many are downright dangerous, so much so that children under 10 years old aren’t even allowed on site. 169

Visitors are briefed on the do’s and don’ts of being around monkeys: DO let the monkeys climb on you if they want to; DON’T make direct eye contact (it challenges the social order); DO let them explore your pockets; DON’T let there be anything in your pockets for them to find, since they will never give it back (one tourist once lost $200 that way!); DO monitor your own emotional state (and leave if you need to) since the monkeys can sense fear and don’t like it; and DON’T reach out to touch or pet them, no matter how cute they look. Many bite.

With volunteers it is different, since part of their job is to give the monkeys the touching and cuddling they crave. But relationships first have to be built, which is why volunteers (who actually pay for the experience) stay at the refuge for a minimum of four weeks.  (Re: photo of monkey hanging by tail blocking path – the volunteer ahead was urging me to keep moving, but I couldn’t decide whether to pass on the bum side or the mouth side. Hmmmm)

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Felix had one monkey reach inside his pocket and then try to climb right up him. But he did exactly what he was told, remaining completely still and unreactive until a staff member pulled the monkey off him by the tail, handed him gruffly to an assistant and told her to put the monkey in the Shame Cage.

Aside from the monkeys, there were turtles and tortoises, a very friendly coati (South American relative of the raccoon), a toucan named Sam, and dozens of other birds, mostly macaws and parakeets. I was a little stunned and skittish when this little one (whose name is Mr Bean) landed on my shoulder and proceeded to lightly claw his way across my back and head! He even pooped right down the back of my shirt which, naturally, made me very happy. They say it brings good luck.

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There is an Andean Spectacled Bear at the refuge, but he only receives visitors at 10:00 every morning. Perhaps he is sensitive. He had had a bit of a traumatic experience a few weeks early when a column of army ants marched through. When that happens, the local people just open all their doors and windows and let the army ants through – “I think I’ll just go live upstairs for a few days…”  But somehow the bear got targeted and he freaked out so much he jumped right through the electric fence and ran away up the mountain. The volunteers had to go find him, tranquilize him to get him out of a tree, and bring him back to recover, standing guard to protect him from ants the whole time (and shifting their weight constantly from one foot to the other to protect themselves!).We watched several of the animals eating their dinner, which for the coati was a single raw egg which she appeared to play soccer with, dribbling it between her paws, before opening!  The birds mostly ate chunks of fruit and bird seed. We were entranced watching a macaw peel an orange, which he subsequently dropped on the head of an unfortunate duck waddling below. Big groan. (Oh, I should mention that oranges are green in Bolivia. So are mandarins, which are generally larger than most oranges. Lemons are orange and limes are yellow. Go figure.)

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Being at Senda Verde brightened our moods considerably, bringing back that rush of excitement and novelty that fuels the perpetual traveler. After Senda Verde, I felt truly sated. Our trip could end on a happy note after all.

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A Harper’s Index of Bolivia

Many people have asked us why we’ve been travelling only in Bolivia. There are many good answers to that question: it’s so geographically and culturally diverse; there are so many things to do; the people are very friendly and honest; it’s relatively safe; Spanish is easier to learn here; and, let’s face it, it’s cheap.

There is nowhere else in South America that we could have stayed so long or done so much.  We thought you’d get a kick out of seeing some of the costs. Note the ones that don’t fit the pattern, though (generally things manufactured outside the country). Oh, almost forgot. There’s also no tax.

It’s going to be quite an adjustment facing North American prices again.

$1 Cdn = 6.7 Bolivianos (Bs)

Cost of…

Four-course set lunch (“almuerzo”) for four people  – Bs 60   ($8.96)

Three-day course of altitude-sickness medication for three people – Bs 8  ($1.19)

One Chapstick – Bs 16   ($2.39)

25 bananas – Bs 7  ($1.05)

Four tickets to a professional soccer match –  Bs 80  ($11.94)

Four tickets to Carnaval in Cochabamba – Bs 320  ($47.76)

One roll gorgeous hand-made wrapping paper, one metre  fancy ribbon,  3 pcs coloured paper and one roll scotch tape – Bs 10 ($1.49)

Dinner for four (fried chicken, white rice and fries) – Bs 40 ($5.97)

One night at a mid-range (3 star) hotel (4 people) – Bs 250 ($37.31)

Cheap accommodations* (4 people) – Bs 100 ($15)

Soccer ball – Bs 80-450 (approx. $12-67)

One 200 mL bottle of Nivea sunscreen (SPF 50) – Bs 86  ($12.84)

5 Breakfast buns (white rolls) – Bs 2  ($0.30)

Tickets for four people by train, Uyuni to Oruro  (7 hours) – Bs 200  ($29.85)

3-day course of ciprofloxacin (cheapest price found) – Bs 6  ($0.90)

Two huge grapefruits (in Rurrenabaque) – Bs 1 ($0.15)

Visit to dentist (cleaning & check-up) – Bs 100 ($15)

Haircut – Bs 10 ($1.49)

Emergency hospital visit** – Bs 522 ($77.91)

* but beware the hard-rock mattresses, crumbling walls and pillows so musty smelling you have to throw them outside your room for the night

**including consult with paediatrician, 2 hrs IV rehydration treatment with fever medication, blood and stool tests, follow-up visit with paediatrician and partial course of medications for e.coli and amoebas at a private clinic considered the best in the country

As it’s meant to be?

Returning to Rurrenabaque was like a full frontal assault on our senses due to the stifling heat (magnified by pavement and unmoderated by any trees); the ubiquitous musty odours and stench of rotting garbage; the unsightly mountains of cheaply made plastic goods overflowing the little tiendas and sidewalk stalls; and the nearly unbearable noise of literally hundreds and hundreds of unmuffled motorcycles. Nowhere had we seen so many before!  Our hotel literally pulsed with noise, from a combination of a very determined drummer practising in the building next door, the creakiness of the nearly useless overhead fan, the late-night revelrie of residents and other tourists, and the ear-crunching jubilation of marching bands both in the evening and again in the morning, who were commemorating the day Chile’s theft of the Bolivian coastline (136 years ago) was made official. Reading, resting, doing laundry and checking email took up the better part of the day, and then were off to the pampas for a very different Amazonian experience, a few hours north and east of Rurrenabaque.

Originally we had thought that the ‘pampas’ was something like a savannah, but it’s really more like a never-ending swamp, without so many trees. I suppose ‘wetland’ would be a more neutral term, but ‘swamp’ better evokes the emotional climate of the next three days. To begin with, it rained – torrentially – most of the time.  (I know, I know, it was probably in the fine print somewhere – Warning: It sometimes rains in the Amazon.)  And we really have tried to put a positive spin on travelling in the wet season (not the time recommended by most guidebooks): the landscape looks very lush and alive; the crops are maturing and nearing harvest; baby animals born in the summer are still small and cute; and the load of tourists in popular places is not yet crushing. But there is not much redeeming about the rainy season in the Amazon; between the downpours, the near 100% humidity, and the bugs it can be just plain miserable.

Most of our time was spent trying to get less wet (there is no such thing as ‘dry’ here) and/or fighting to keep away the bloodthirsty hordes of misanthropic mosquitos which seem to have developed a hearty tolerance for DEET and clearly take a sadistic delight in biting right through clothing (especially backs of legs and bums, on which they could freely feast thanks to the sparsely woven, mostly broken plastic seat bottoms in the motorized dugout canoes). A lost cause if ever there was one.

After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the attraction of the pampas rests on tourists’ idealized projections of the Amazon and stubbornly hopeful anticipation of the possible: it is possible that you will see an anaconda or catch a piranha or swim with pink river dolphins. On the other hand, it is also possible (and much more likely) that you won’t. At least such was the case for us. Morning, afternoon and evening for three days we donned our repellent-soaked raingear and climbed in the dugout canoes in hopeful anticipation of exciting encounters with the exotic.

It wasn’t all a bust either: on the first afternoon on our way to the lodge we did see both howler and squirrel monkeys in the trees – a bona fide thrill that we will always remember. Our guide, Antonio, pulled the boat over to a narrow channel bordered on both sides by shrubby trees where there must have been a dozen squirrel monkeys. While we sat in the canoe, they scampered up the branches and leapt from one bush to the other, virtually right over our heads!

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The howler monkeys are very different – much bigger for one thing – and they hang out in much smaller groups in much bigger trees, draped over big horizontal limbs, or sitting ponderously, staring out at us with great intent, if not intelligence. (We were later told that howlers really aren’t that smart, but capuchins are really clever. Not sure where that leaves the squirrel monkeys, but gosh they are cute!)

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We also spied a black caiman, lurking watchfully under some other lodge. “Muy peligroso! (very dangerous)” said Antonio. “Muy, muy peligroso!”  And there were lots of birds, including neo-tropical cormorants, hawks, eagles, a couple of white egrets, a bird with a neck like a snake, and a locally abundant bird – resembling a pheasant on a bad hair day – that is known locally as a “stinking bird”, though we don’t know why.282

Other excursions, however, were less than successful: hunting for alligators by flashlight the first night turned up one single set of shining eyes in the blackness, plus eight boat passengers and one guide desperate for bug-free shelter. 340Same for the much-touted Hunting for Anacondas activity, which was pursued good-naturedly amidst the swarms mostly by Antonio (Quinn joined for a short spell) while everyone else waited in the canoe, jacket hoods pulled tight as they would go around grimacing faces, arms flapping palm branches to provide the reprieve of a faint breeze, and mouths muttering fervent wishes (between expletives) that Antonio not be successful so we could all just get moving again. When he found a mid-sized non-venomous yellow snake in a tree we grudgingly humoured him by going to see it, staying only so long as it took to snap one photo.

Two trips to see sunsets were similarly underwhelming given the near-total cloud cover, and the sunrise “sail” was cancelled. Fishing for pirahnas? Well, we did feel a few nibbles at our raw meat bait, but those responsible were scarcely bigger than your baby fingernail. Antonio caught one sardine. And the pièce de résistance, swimming with pink river dolphins, turned out to entail treading water for about two minutes (in the rain) in a spot about 100 metres from where two dolphins had barely surfaced. We could have stayed in longer but for the nagging thoughts of caimans possibly lurking in the depths below. (It is said to be safe to swim where there are dolphins around, as they keep the caimans away, but how many dolphins do you need? How close must they be? What happens if and when they swim away?) So much for playful interaction and nibbling toes.

One can’t expect a tour company to be able to alter the circumstances Nature provides, and you don’t get very far railing at the weather. We didn’t even try. Nature so obviously has the upper hand here: hours of deafening thunder (the loudest we’ve ever heard!) and sheets upon sheets of rain made it clear that our role was simply to endure. Which we did, whether huddled under bed nets biding time until the next meal, or doubled over in an open motorized canoe watching rainwater cascading off our hoods onto our soaking wet knees as the water level in the bottom of the boat rose around our ankles.

No one’s entitled to a good time – ya pay yer money, ya takes yer chances. And we’ve had more than our share of good times these past few weeks.  We knew we had no right to grumble. But the disappointment and the discomfort were real just the same, compounded when the lack-lustre food failed to fill our hungry bellies, when the muddy water rolled in under the door to flood our bedroom floor AGAIN, and when the dreaded abdominal cramps hit once again, confirming our suspicion that the hygienic standards in this camp kitchen weren’t passing muster. (Photo below shows our quarters – the VIP room!)

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Fortunately, we weren’t alone. Four young twenty-something Irish girls shared the van with us and sat at the same table in the lodge, making for much conversation and good humour.  Their lovely Irish accents alone brought out the smiles in us. Just listening to them talk – without even trying to get a word in edgewise – was always entertaining. (If you’re reading this, Aoife, Grainne, Charlotte and Rachel, thanks for the memories!) Then there was Federico, the neighbourhood alligator who visited the lodge every day as part of a territorial patrol. Apparently no one apprised the handful of 18-year-old British lads at the lodge of Federico’s presence, as they chose to go swimming in the river not more than a few metres away from Federico, until one of them noticed and they all scrambled out!

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The trip back to Rurrenabaque involved a 90-minute boat ride in yet another thunderstorm, followed by a seemingly interminable four hours of driving on the same bone-rattling, bladder-bursting road we had driven on the way out, only this time the knee-high puddles and axle-deep mud made for a lot less bumping and more sliding and slipping. We passed more than a few terminally stuck transport trucks, leading Felix to cross “Long-distance trucker in the Amazon” off his mental list of possible things to be when he grows up. Our driver probably should have been given a badge of courage, or at least a beer, for making it through, but he brushed off the thanks with a shrug. The tour operators must have anticipated the mood that would be shared by all their customers on the moment of return because when we finally got out of the van they were standing right there offering us cold glasses of the country’s finest: Coca-Cola. It was a gesture we truly appreciated.

We had held it together for those few bad days, and could still manage to smile for the camera. It was when we got back to La Paz that we started to come undone at the seams, letting out all our accumulated frustrations and irritations on each other, and finding ourselves no longer able to tolerate or transcend the difficulties and limitations of being yoked to one another and travelling in a third-world country. The end of the trip was in sight and we all very much wanted to go home.

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Welcome to the Jungle!

On March 21 we roused ourselves at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight to Rurrenabaque, which lies at the edge of the Andean foothills to the north of La Paz.  In many ways, this was the single biggest adventure we had planned of the entire trip. We would be nearly a week in an area renowned worldwide for its biodiversity, named as one of the top 20 destinations in the world by National Geographic and described in the Lonely Planet Guide as “the Amazon as it’s meant to be”.

The decision to fly to Rurrenabaque was an easy one:  $112 for a one-hour flight versus 21 hours on a bus.  We flew on TAM, the airline operated by the Bolivian military, but found it rather lacking in anything resembling military precision; the 7 a.m. take-off didn’t happen until close to 9 a.m. – no explanation given.  Felix asked me if we would be landing at an airport (funny question) and I assured him that of course we would; we had taken off from an airport so we would have to land at one. Wrong!  There was a runway, to be sure, but no terminal, no building whatsoever. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to eat my words. (How many other times in the trip have I offered equally naïve assurances, like “Surely this is the kind of place that will provide toilet paper” or “The bus is almost there now; it can’t be too much longer”??)

After some more waiting, while everyone’s luggage was carried from the plane one bag at a time and heaved on top of a waiting shuttle van, we were driven into town an d straight to the TAM office where an agent of the tour company we had contracted with was waiting. When the business formalities had been taken care of, we met our guide, Ronaldo, and walked with him about three blocks to the river. We climbed in a waiting wooden canoe about 25 feet long with an outboard motor, a few rickety, rusty folding seats, and a tarp hung over our heads across a few 2×4’s to keep off the light misty rain.

With our flight arriving so late, we had been concerned that the tour might have left without us. But as it turned out, we were t162he only ones booked for those particular days at the San Miguel del Bala eco-lodge: an accidental private tour! Low season for tourists, we guessed correctly. For the next 45 minutes we zoomed up the Rio Beni, whose current is so strong it would take only half that time to do the return trip the following day.

128Other boats passed us, many of them carrying mounds of bananas  to market, and  many of them powered not by a regular outboard motor, but by a pump (see photo). These have the advantage of working in very shallow water (presumably handy at other times of year)  and being very easy to repair, but they are bloody loud!

Pulling over at an unremarkable spot along the muddy shore, we disembarked and followed a short path leading to a round hut constructed of palm wood, woven leaves, and mosquito netting, the interior being furnished with seven hammocks and a dozen interpretive signs explaining the Tacana culture, history, and way of life, which mostly revolves around fishing. Within minutes, we were welcomed with glasses of fresh-squeezed tropical mystery juice and given a brief tour of the beautiful grounds of the eco-lodge, constructed of local materials by the 35 families of the community of San Miguel in 2005.

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We were surprised to learn how much has changed for the community in the past decade. In spite of their proximity to Rurrenabaque, most community members had not ever used a telephone before about 10 years ago (which is shocking considering that everywhere else we’ve been in Bolivia it seems as if EVERYONE has a cell phone – cholitas in Tarabuco, llama herders on Isla del Sol, you name it). In fact, when the first tourists came to San Miguel and the community was told that there would be visitors arriving the following day, the response of many was, “But how do you know? How do you know when they will come and where they are from? How do you know their names and what they like to eat?”  It must have seemed like some sort of magic or prophecy.

Ronaldo told us that the people were actually afraid at first, or at least very shy about interacting with tourists, because they didn’t understand what tourists wanted or why they were coming. Now, however, they are very comfortable with tourism, not afraid of visitors or bothered by their presence.  Many are now adept using the internet. And the eco-lodge appears to have brought them significant benefit s, not the least of which is the ability to stay in their village instead of having to take cash jobs in the city doing menial labour or selling Coke and Barbie dolls on the street. On the ground just outside the dining room of the lodge there is a stone-mounted plaque commemorating the opening of the lodge and acknowledging its builders, funders and supporters. A local resident is quoted as saying, “In my life I have slept so much, but never did I dream of this” (i.e., that this could be possible). The Spanish sounds more poetic.

189That first afternoon we took a hike to a place called El Cañon de los Picaflores(Hummingbird Canyon) which indeed had a hummingbird nest at its entrance, with two tiny hairy tufts inside, which we took to be baby hummingbirds, though we couldn’t get a very good view. Unlike other ca046nyons we’ve visited, this one was extremely narrow; so narrow, in fact, that one could climb past the deep water sections by just bracing one arm and leg against each wall and shuffling forward, Spiderman-style, at least at first. Soon, however, the water became too deep and we gave up trying to keep the water out of our wellies. Ronaldo got a great laugh out of the kids’ delight at just getting thoroughly soaked (they even dunked right under).

The second activity (while we were still dripping wet) was a visit to the San Miguel community, located only about 1 km from the lodge amidst patches of sugarcane, rice, corn, palms (including coconut), citrus and banana trees.  The atmosphere could not have been more peaceful. Two women gave us a demonstration of how sugar cane is pressed into juice. Actually, we were the ones who did the pressing as one woman fed in the lengths of raw cane into the press and the other twisted and turned the cane back on itself for a second pass through the press.

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An astounding amount of juice came out of just four lengths of cane, which filled a plastic pitcher exactly full, yielding five tall glasses of fresh sugar juice, which the women then served up to us on a silver tray. They advised us to try it straight up first, and then offered us a plate full of cut limes to squeeze into the juice, which balanced the sweetness very nicely.

The second activity was a demonstration of weaving with fronds of a plant that looks very similar to sugarcane (the exact name of whic097h we were told but quickly forgot).  After cutting it down with a machete, the woman doing the demonstration then thinned the spine of the frond so that the individual leaves arced off the spine in a perfect fan. She proceeded to weave the leaves over and under each other in a diagonal direction, producing a beautifully shaped shoulder bag in one continuous weave, finishing with a sort of braid that formed a reinforced bottom. As the bag was in progress, she invited both me and Erik to take turns weaving, which we did, finding it to be more challenging than it had appeared when being so smoothly executed by her expert hands. She then quickly whipped up a fan of similarly woven fronds, which the Tacana use mostly in the cooler months of the year to get their fires going. She explained to us that these fans were very important, as temperatures in July and August can drop as low as 17 or 18 degrees Celsius. (!)

Ambling through the community we saw the school, the church, the soccer field, some thatched-roof wooden huts, lots of chickens and pigs and dogs, kids happily bouncing on the limbs of a large, fallen-down tree (with no adults telling them they’re going to get hurt), and some children and adults preparing for a celebration of the anniversary of the school the following day.

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Ronaldo didn’t know exactly how old the school was, and seemed to say that no one in the village knew, but they estimated that it was well over 100 years, as the community had been there for at least 150 years.  While having a school isn’t new, the cheery yellow building that housed it appeared to be relatively new, as did the solar panel bringing it power, though the satellite dish looked decades old – and many years past any time at which it had been functioning.  In one classroom – for middle-school aged students – we saw the names of the students on the wall, a few wooden desks, a world map, a map showing the animals of Bolivia, and some  inspirational quotes on the wall, including one that said (translated): A home without books is like a body without a soul. One wonders, though, how many of the students’ very modest homes contained books. Ronaldo told us that most adults in the village, including himself, had not had more than a few years of primary education.

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On the second day we boated further upstream on the Beni, then hiked to a waterfall with a little natural pool for swimming, seeing some exciting sights along the way: a capybara, some turtles, an alligator, a BIG spider, lots more of those metallic blue butterflies, an endangered frog with tiny orange stripes (we knew it was an endangered variety because Felix remembered seeing it in the Natural History Museum in Cochabamba) and – most thrillingly – fresh jaguar tracks in the wet mud! (Photo  on left shows a capybara.)

146182Ronaldo also introduced us to many fascinating plants and explained their medicinal uses. The most versatile of these was the motacu palm: the wood is used for constructing buildings; the leaves for making thatched roofs and weaving mats; the roots for making medicine and the fruits for eating (and sharing with the birds).

He pointed out the açaí, that madly popular super-food, which is actually a kind of palm.  Among the Tacana,açaí is known to be good for the blood and to provide essential vitamins, especially for children who are too skinny. Its roots can be mixed with those of other palms to treat parasi239tes. Its fruits are surprisingly hard and dry – like wooden beads – and the skins have to be painstakingly peeled off and mixed with water to make juice. Kudos to whoever figured out how to do this efficiently on a large scale!

Ronaldo then demonstrated a way to get clean drinking water in the jungle:  using the machete you always carry along, you simply hack off a section of a certain woody vine (called “uña de gato”) about 2 metres long, prop one end on a branch, and position a cupped hand – or your mouth – directly under the other end to receive a steady trickle of refreshing, life-giving agua. Tea from this plant was traditionally used to treat back pain around the kidneys but I have since seen it for sale here in La Paz and it is being marketed as a cure for just about everything.

Ronaldo also explained for us the unsolved mystery of that strange tree with the multiple above-ground roots that we first encountered in the Chapare (shown also above, third photo from the top) : it is called a “walking tree” because of its ability to actually shift its location to one with more favourable conditions (e.g., better light) by killing off one or more of its own roots that are anchoring it on one side and sending down new roots in other directions. So “walk” it really does, albeit on a different timescale than that of animals. Erik was impressed.

226Ronaldo showed us a plant called “iridia” that was used traditionally to dye fabrics for weaving. Tearing off a fewyoung leaves, he rubbed them hard on his hand, then Felix’s, then Quinn’s, leaving a dim streak of green. We were (uncomfortably) unimpressed until we saw that after a minute or so the green had given way to a convincing red which then darkened to deep purple. Seeing what had happened to his hands, Felix giddily rubbed some across his cheeks, nose and forehead, painting himself like a warrior.

One final memorable plant was the chocolate tree, whose yellow pods (faintly resembling acorn squash019) grow straight from the trunks of the cacao. Once  the pod is cracked open, the seeds can be scooped out by hungry little fingers and sucked upon until the yummy, pudding-like coating is gone, at which point the seeds can be crunched (by those desperate for a hit of energy and indifferent to their strong, bitter flavour) or spat out, which is the more sensible thing to do, since the familiar flavour of chocolate can only be had by fermenting, roasting and crushing the seeds, a process which takes at least a week, and is significantly enhanced by the addition of sugar.

All the meals at San Miguel del Bala were amazing; we felt good and truly stuffed every time! The last one was the best of all: fresh-caught fish from the river steamed with carrots, tomatoes and onions in two different traditional ways – first, in a large leaf and second, inside a length of green bamboo. These were served with copoazu juice made from the creamy white fibres and goo that surround the seeds of this tropical fruit, closely related to cacao. It was by far the tastiest tropical juice we’ve tried! If only there was a way to bring it back to Canada.

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So that’s how we passed our first two days in the Amazon:  in delightful tranquility, under grey skies and light rain, but thankfully without oppressive heat or bugs. So far so good.

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Barron’s Typology of Bolivian Bathrooms (by Quinn)

Toilet

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Bathroom has toilet (not just a hole in the floor) – 40 points

Toilet has seat – plus 20 points

Toilet flushes – plus 30 points

Toilet flushes, but only by pouring water down bowl multiple times – plus 15 points

Toilet doesn’t flush – minus 20 points

Toilet doesn’t flush and hasn’t been flushed in a very long time – minus 40 points

Sink

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Has sink – 5 points

Sink has a tap – plus 10 points

Sink has running water – plus 30 points

Sink has soap – plus 25 points

Sink has hot water – plus 25 points

Water coming out of sink smells strongly of sulfur – minus 10 points

Water coming out of sink is brown and dirty – minus 40 points

Shower

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Has shower – 20 points

Water comes out of shower – plus 30 points

Shower has temperature control – plus 35 points

Water volume and temperature are inversely related (choose  one) – minus 20 points

Shower is in toilet stall – minus 30 points

Odour

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Bathroom has no odour – 40 points

Bathroom smells strongly of varsol – minus 25 points

Bathroom smells like sulfur and dirty toilet paper – minus 30 points

Bathroom smells like the above and a dead cow in a hot, humid room – minus 45 points

General Cleanliness

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Bathroom is clean and dry – 20 points

Bathroom is spotless and has been recently restocked and freshened – plus 50 points

Bathroom is wet and muddy – minus 15 points

Bathroom has suspicious, unknown substances smeared across the walls – minus 30 points

Toilet Paper                                                                                          

Bathroom supplies toilet paper – 25 points

Bathroom has trash can to put dirty toilet paper in – 30 points

Pile of dirty toilet paper is on the floor but contained – minus 25 points

Pile of dirty toilet paper is strewn about the bathroom – minus 40 points

BONUS

Used toilet paper can be flushed down toilet……JUST KIDDING, that’s impossible in Bolivia.

Check out this photo. What do you notice???

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Lake Titicaca (by Erik)

After a difficult week in La Paz while Quinn received medical care for his stomach flora, we were finally able to leave the big city on Saturday morning (the 16th) to go to Lake Titicaca.  Our four days on Lake Titicaca were to be among our best days on our trip so far.  Just getting out of La Paz, with its constant barrage of noise and diesel exhaust, and cold wet weather, was a relief.  And Lake Titicaca is a spectacular and generally sunny place.

In landlocked Bolivia, Lake Titicaca is closest you can get to the ‘coast’.  The lake is huge, about 8,400 square kilometers, with approximately half of the lake in Peru.  At 3,800 metres above sea level, and surrounded by mountains and terraced hills, the lake is clear, cool, and beautiful.   The water reminded me of Kootenay Lake.  It was even the same temperature!

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The small Bolivian town of Copacabana is on the south shore of the lake, and that is where we headed first.  At only 4 hours from La Paz by bus, it is apparently a popular weekend destination for Pacenas (folks from La Paz).  But the restaurants and shoreline are largely populated by gringos seeking the closest thing to a sandy beach resort in the country (wear your tuque in the morning though).

We were lucky to have been advised to stay at La Cupula, a funky hotel built on the slope above town. (Thanks, Susan!) For the first time on our trip, we ran into other travelling families (no less than three of them!) with kids about the same ages as ours: one family from Chilliwack on a package tour; one family from Houston, Texas who were nearing the end of a two-year stay in the country working as missionaries in Cochabamba; and, surprise, surprise, a family from Nelson, who live not ten blocks from us. We had a great dinner with them at La Cupula, sharing our stories and experiences.  Photo below shows part of the grounds of La Cupula where a campesina was grazing her sheep.

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We wanted to go to Isla del Sol, which is just a few miles off shore.  Isla del Sol is best known as the mythical birthplace of the Incan sun and moon gods.   First though, we took a boat to Isla de la Luna, a much smaller island nearby.   Isla de la Luna is a small agricultural island that in Incan times was apparently populated entirely by girls and young women, while Isla del Sol was populated entirely by men (more on that later).

Isla de la Luna, like Isla del Sol and much of the surrounding mainland, is almost completely covered in ancient agricultural terraces built in pre-Incan times.

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These terraces are a remarkable feat of engineering and hard work.  The soils in the area are generally poor and stony, and the slopes are steep.  Terracing the hillsides and building up the soils on the terraces is the only way to grow crops.  We saw crops of maize, beans, potatoes, quinoa, oca, peas, and oats.  There are also llamas, alpacas, donkeys, pigs, sheep, chickens, and a few cows on pasture all over the island.

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After a brief stop in Isla de la Luna, the boat then took us to Yumani, a small village at the southern end of Isla del Sol.  Our plan was to walk to the north end of the island, a distance of about 8 km.   When we went up— and up—and up—the pre-Incan stone steps to the ridgetop, we were wondering if we had it in us to go the distance (at this altitude).  But once we were on the ridge, the trail leveled off and it was a great walk.

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We arrived at dusk in Challapampa, a village in the north of the Isla. We had arranged our trip to Isla del Sol with Apthapi, a local community tourism co-operative working primarily with families in Challapampa.  There are several families in the co-op that rent out basic but comfortable rooms.  We stayed with Don Armando and Dona Rosa, a sweet older couple with 9 grown children.  They raise guinea pigs for food in a small pen beside their outdoor cooking fire.  They also served us dinner at the village co-operative restaurant (not guinea pig, in case you’re wondering!).

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We had a whole day to spend on the north tip of the island, where many of the most important Incan and pre-Incan archaeological and spiritual sites are located.  As we walked out of the village toward the sites, Juan, a local guide, offered his services.  Juan also works with Apthapi, the local tourism co-op.  We count ourselves very lucky that Juan showed up and that we had a guide to explain the rich history of the area.

The history of the area is too long and complex to explain here.  However, to summarize:  there have been three major civilizations that have been based in the area near Isla del Sol.  First, there was  the Chiripa civilization from about 10,000 years ago until 1,500 BC.  Then the Tiwanaku civilization from 1,500 BC until the Incans moved in from the west around 800BC.  Finally the Incan civilization ruled until the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s.  All inhabited Isla del Sol and considered the area as sacred ground.

We collected fragments of ceramics from all three civilizations (there are thousands of small pieces of ceramics scattered all along the cobblestone trails on the island).  The ceramics can be distinguished by their thickness, colour, and painted decorations: Chiripa ceramics are the darkest and oldest and weren’t painted;  Tiwanaku ceramics are the most painted and often show flecks of gold; and the Incan ones were the thickest (often as thick as your thumb).

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The archaeological sites on the island include a stone table on which the Incans ‘sacrificed’ virgins from Isla de la Luna to the sun god.  They also sacrificed llamas and other animals, but it’s the mental image of young girls (ages 2 to 16) being sacrificed at this alter that lingers.

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The sites also include a rock that was sacred to both the Tiwanaku and Inca.  The rock is facing the sacrificial stone table.  On the rock is the image of a man’s face.

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Off the north tip of Isla del Sol are three small islands.

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In the middle of these islands is a submerged Tiwanaku city whose rumoured existence was confirmed in the 1980’s by Jacques Cousteau’s diving team.  Lake Titicaca’s water levels have fluctuated significantly over the millennia, and there may be other submerged cities in the lake.  When Cousteau’s team examined the site, they found ceramic vessels filled with gold and silver figurines and other precious items.

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What struck us most on Isla del Sol, other than the stark beauty of the place, is the depth of history and the magnitude of cumulative human effort displayed in the agricultural terraces.  To think that this steep, challenging land has been cultivated for 10,000 years, and continues to be cultivated by hand in a similar way, is awe-inspiring.

The Devil, My Protector (by Quinn with input from Erik)

After arriving in Oruro, following our midnight train from Uyuni, Erik and I decided to visit San José mine.  The San José mine has been an operating precious metal mine for about 400 years.  Apparently tours are offered to the occasional tourists who show up.

When we arrived and stepped out of our trufi we found ourselves on the edge of a small, impoverished-looking mining encampment above Oruro. After walking about looking for someone to talk to about a tour, struggling through conversations assuring people that we were indeed tourists and that we wanted to visit the mine, numerous phone calls to send for a guide and about half an hour we were ready to go.  We were lucky to have Juan, a middle-aged Quecha miner, as our gregarious and thoughtful guide.

After putting on coveralls, hardhats, and headlamps, we made a visit to the local general store for 98% pure alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves before walking through the gated entrance of the mine. Juan told us that nowadays the miners pack everything out on their backs in woven plastic backpacks from each of the three or four levels of the mine using ladders which is especially impressive considering it extends 800 m down.  On our way into the mine we met several dirty, tired and sweaty miners coming up the ladder.  The sense of camaraderie among the miners was evident.

We made our way through the tangle of black tubes that transport compressed air down to the miners deep below and stepped through a passage to a brick hall dominated by a giant statue of the devil at the far end. The sudden heat and humidity hit us like a blast as we entered the hall and sat down next to the statue. Our guide talked to the statue referring to it as ‘Tio’ (Uncle) and talking to it as if it was a respected and very important relative. We offered some coca, liquor and a cigarette to Tio and another cigarette to Pachamama (mother earth) and talked about the mine.

So how do you offer a cigarette to Tio and Pachamama, you might ask?  Well, you light two cigarettes and place one in Tio’s mouth and another in a crack in the wall, and you wait until they have been smoked.  All the while you engage Tio in light and friendly conversation.  Tio is the devil (a reference to the hellish conditions deep in the mine—hot, strenuous and very dangerous) but Tio is also the protector of the miners, and daily offerings to Tio are intended to help keep the miners safe.

Our guide explained to us that the mine was previously state-owned and run but years ago the state abandoned the mine and it became a miners’ co-operative of about 800 men. The miners work in groups of about 8-10 and every group has blocked off their own area to hammer and blast. The different groups divide the earnings between themselves equally and completely fairly. We waited until Tio’s and Pachamama’s cigarettes had burnt down, gave them each one more, and set off into the working area of the mine.

As we walked through tunnels we saw the closed off areas where the separate groups of miners worked, veins of silver mixed with lead and what we speculate was pyrite or mica and pequeño (small) Tios outside doors to other work areas. At every Tio we stopped and offered coca, liquor and a cigarette before continuing. Near every statue of the devil it was a lot hotter and more humid than the rest of the mine and our guide told us that they placed the Tios where hot air vented out of the earth.

We only went into level zero of the mine.  The lower levels are a lot hotter and airless and, we expect, more dangerous.  Our brief tour provided us with a glimpse into the working lives of these tough and friendly San José miners.

Photo credit: The Walrus magazine (we didn’t have our camera with us, unfortunately)

Bolivia Rules (unwritten)

  1. Take off your hat and sunglasses when you enter a bank.
  2. Don’t antagonize the riot police at a soccer game.
  3. Always carry a spare set of dry clothes during Carnaval week.
  4. On the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz highway, don’t pass more than five transport trucks at a time (unless you feel like it).
  5. Always offer the first sip of your (alcoholic) drink to Pachamama by pouring it on the ground.
  6. Only cross busy city streets in the company of crowds (safety in numbers).
  7. Avoid carrying more than four couches at a time on top of your car.
  8. Always go to the bathroom before (well before) you get on an inter-city bus. (They may have toilets but they aren’t meant to be used.)
  9. Always ask permission before you take anyone’s photo. And never take a photo of any shoe-shiners working the streets of La Paz. They wear balaclavas for a reason.
  10. Try not to flinch when you see someone urinating (or worse) in the street.
  11. Show an appropriate degree of cultural respect (no gaping mouths or exclamations) when looking at dried llama fetuses and flamingo wings for sale.
  12. Always re-confirm your airline reservations the day before leaving AND again on the day of departure, or risk losing them.
  13. Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!
  14. Expect delays, especially due to road blockades, street marches and other forms of political protest.
  15. Be grateful for every minute of internet connectivity you get, no matter how slow.
  16. Don’t eat salad, unpeeled raw fruit or vegetables, juices sold in the street, warm tea, unpasteurized dairy products (e.g., most of the ice cream you see for sale) or yogourt/meat that has not been refrigerated (again, that is most of it). For the duration of your trip, these must be relegated to the realm of fantasy, along with non-instant coffee, whole grains, Silk creamer, chiropractic adjustments, a hot bath, Jhian Ghomeshi, a hot bath with Jhian Ghomeshi…(did I say that?)
  17. Don’t approach or try to pet any alpacas, pigs, chickens, donkeys or llamas you meet in the street, especially the latter, as they really do spit!
  18. Don’t worry about the frequent explosions you hear in the street or the sparks that fly when you plug anything into the wall. Es normal.
  19. Don’t expect HOT and COLD temperature controls in showers to be where they are in your country, or to turn in a logical direction.  Or to produce water of any temperature.
  20. Don’t bother picking up litter in the street. It’s like spitting into the ocean.
  21. Don’t haggle. People here are generally extremely honest; they’re not trying to take advantage of you. Don’t take advantage of them.
  22. Try not to confuse ‘jamon’ and ‘jabon”’ Otherwise you might end up showering with ham or getting served a soap sandwich. (Other words that are easily confused include ‘mantaquilla’, which means ‘butter,’ and ‘manzanilla’ which means ‘chamomile’ – as in tea.  We also find it amusing that ‘papa’ means both ‘potato’ and ‘Pope’.)
  23. Always offer your seat on the bus to elderly people, especially if they are shorter than your smaller-than-average 9-year-old child.
  24. Try not to stare at the intimidating, big, long guns often carried by security guards and police (frequently seen outside stores selling high-priced merchandise, including anything electronic).
  25. Be gentle when waking up vendors who have fallen asleep in their market stalls. (First you have to find them; it’s a lot like the scene where ET is hidden in the closet…)
  26. Don’t expect businesses to be open between the hours of noon and 3 pm. Generally, you’ll have better luck between 8 and 9 pm when the streets are amazingly packed with people.)
  27. Avoid eating cookies while hiking uphill at elevations over 4000 metres. You can’t swallow and breathe at the same time.
  28. Make an effort to learn as much Spanish as possible, even if only as a gesture.  Being unilingual is embarrassing when you realize how many languages most other people speak. (For many people in Bolivia, English is a fourth language, after Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish.)
  29. For young people with blond hair and blue eyes: Try to be tolerant – even if it means a forced smile – when Bolivians repeatedly pat your head while shaking their heads and muttering something you don’t understand.
  30. Always carry Tylenol, Gravol, Immodium, rehydration formula, and enough antibiotic to knock out a buffalo, at all times, everywhere you go.