Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sucre did not disappoint

Our hotel, the second night in Potosi, was probably the highlight of our time there, which was not saying much. The room was really large and we had a king sized bed, but the furniture was so stained that it was hard to feel comfortable sitting anywhere except in bed. So when it was time to check out and make our way to the bus station we were very relieved.

We had thought we had time for a quick snack, but after a quick consultation with a travel agent/tourist excursion booking office we realized that if we got in a cab right away we could make an earlier bus — which sounded like a great idea. Finding a taxi proved to be a bit more difficult than we expected, but we managed to make it to the station with a few minutes to spare. And, even though we were getting our tickets at the last minute, we managed to scoop seats one and two, which was an amazing feat.

The bus was full of tourists and we felt like our luck had finally turned and we were momentarily going to be on our way to a better place. There was one small glitch right away, but luckily it ended up not being a big issue.

The nice lady selling tickets seemed to have over sold the seats on the bus (two other people had tickets with our seat numbers). But for some reason, she was willing to give us priority. The bad news was that she took our tickets in order to figure things out and then disappeared without giving them back to us. The problem with that scenario is that tickets are collected just before the bus arrives at its final destination, which was several hours away. Was the bus driver going to remember that we indeed had tickets when we got on the bus, but they were taken from us from the ticket lady? We managed to forget about this for most of the trip, but, as we approached Sucre, we were getting a bit worried.

But our luck was indeed changing. The bus driver remembered that we had tickets and Sucre was beautiful. Our hotel, The San Marino Royal, was elegant, comfortable, and there were real restaurants and real food. We had arrived in heaven!

What a difference a few hours of bus travel make!

We settled into our lovely hotel room and went out looking for food. We ended up in an Italian restaurant and had, of all things, a pizza and a Greek salad, but both items were actually made with the right ingredients and tasted like real food! We savored every morsel. Still euphoric over the black olives and goat cheese, we walked around the corner and spotted the La Patisserie Salon de Te, where scrumptious French pastries were on display. We ordered the chocolate volcano cake and pecan torte, hot chocolate, and cappuccino and, as soon as it all arrived, we devoured both cakes to the last crumb between sips of our steaming and delicious hot beverages.

It had been so long since I had real coffee that I didn’t sleep a wink that night, but it was worth it!

Marc booked a mountain bike excursion for the next day and I caught up on ketubah orders and email with a nap to catch up on the sleep I missed the night before. Marc was back early afternoon after an exhilarating downhill and strenuous uphill ride with Marlena (from Holland), Janne and her boy friend (whose name escapes us both at the moment) from Belgium and Fidel, their local guide.

We all met for drinks and appetizers at the “Amsterdam” bar to debrief about the day’s events and later moved to a French restaurant that Janne had found on Trip Advisor called La Taverne. All I can say is AMAZING doesn’t even begin to describe the food. I think this may have been the best looking and tasting food we have had so far on this trip. Marlena chose a perfect Bolivian red wine to go with our dinner.

What a wonderful and delicious evening with a lovely group of new friends!

We said our farewells to Janne and her boy friend who were leaving the next morning. Marlena would be joining us the next day for a walk to the local waterfalls, which she and Marc had arranged with their mountain biking guide. We made plans to meet at the square at 10:00 am.

Marlena kindly brought us all hot saltenas (hot pockets of pastry filled with vegetables, chicken or meat) and our wonderful day got started brilliantly! We all hopped on a combi (local bus), which took us to the outskirts of town. From there we walked for an hour or so until we hit the first of three waterfalls. There had been a lot of rain the night before so the water was as they call it here “chocolate” coloured. We climbed from one waterfall to the next and rested viewing the gushing chocolate water as it churned up the brown clay as it moved its way down the mountain.

Our guide had brought a picnic lunch for us which we helped him assemble beside the third waterfall — fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, white cheese, corn, bread, and bananas for dessert. Out in nature after a few hours of hiking, this lunch could not have been more perfect.

From Sucre our next stop was to be Tupiza which was a long bus ride away. Our tour guide kindly took us to the bus station after our hike and helped us choose a bus company that was reliable (remember my post about buses …) we booked tickets for the next evening at 6:00 pm.

We took it easy on our last day in Sucre.

We stopped in at the Folklore museum and then took a walk to the Ricoletta Convent which was at a high point in town where you could view the city. There was a nice restaurant called something like Gourmet Mirador. The food was indeed gourmet! We had a beautiful salad and sandwich combo with fruit juice while taking in the view. Then we walked back to our hotel, picked up our bags and took a quick taxi to the bus station.

The bus station in Sucre is not at all like the beautiful historic centre of town. It is gritty and sour and for the first time in Bolivia I felt on edge and unsafe. I was glad when the bus arrived and we took our seats. 8 more hours to go until we were to arrive in Tupiza at 3:00 am. No toilet on the bus so it was sure to be an interesting night.

More on that later …

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oruro and Potosi

I said I would not take the time to write about these two towns that we spent a long time getting to and couldn't get out of fast enough. But for the sake of documentation, I will add a few photos so that I remember that I was there. In fact, when I looked through my photos, I realized I did not take one photo in Oruru. Not even a one. I guess that is telling.

There were only a few photos of Potisi. Unfortunately, I neglected to photograph the pile of dog poop in the treads of my shoe that took me hours to clean up. But I do have a few photos to share. We will leave it at that.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Getting a grip

I realized this morning, that not having my computer charger should not deter me from catching up on all of the things we have experienced before and since the calamity in the mining town of Calama (where my day pack was rudely taken from me). There had been a lot of really great and memorable experiences after our trip to La Paz (...that is, if I leave out Oruro and Potosi, which I will definitely not take the time to write about). And if I wait for my charger that may take another week or so to purchase, I may never catch up.

It has been a hard few days for me to get over the incident. All I could think about was writing about how it happened and how sad I was about it. Mostly about my little box of earrings.

I am realizing that I need to get this off my chest before I can move on and tell you about the wonderful town of Sucre and our overnight bus ride to Tupiza and meeting the nicest two Swedish boys you could ever meet - and spending four days with them discovering the salt flats of Bolivia. And of course how we all got food poisoning together. You know, the experiences that bond you forever ...

But first lets go back a few days. In the last three days we have been in three countries. We left our Swedish friends in Uyuni, where we finished our amazing four day trip. We boarded a bus to cross the border into Chile and stayed a night in Calama which is a very well-to-do mining town where stealing my day pack really should not have happened. Everyone drives a big car there and restaurants are full of local mining types drinking beer and eating steaks and fries. Everyone lives in a nice prefab house, dresses well, and from what we could tell, no one there had any need for my cute purple day pack or my camera charger and computer charger. OK, I admit it. I am still angry ...

Our plan was to leave Calama and take a bus (which we did, sans one day pack) to enjoy the wonderful resort town of San Pedro, before taking another long bus ride to Salta, Argentina, where I am sitting at a computer terminal writing this post.

Losing my daypack, my chargers and a few other replaceable items was traumatic and embarassing. Embarassing because our clean record is now ruined. Up until now, I could say nothing bad has happened to us in almost two years on the road. It is not that we let our guard down. It is simply a reality that shit happens and eventually even with the best of precautions, it can happen - even to us. Which means it can happen again, which is the traumatic part. Even though we are ok and nothing really bad happened, it still is amazingly unnerving.

And then there is the deep sense of loss. When you are traveling as long as we have been, with few possessions, you become attached to what you have in a very different way. Although you can replace things, the items that get lost or stolen along the way leave a deeper scar.

I had a small cardboard box of earrings in my day pack. I think there were 5 or 6 pairs in total. They were carefully chosen to go with my travel clothes and they were my most favorite. Each pair was from another country and they each had a story. Now they are gone. Sure I can buy new ones, but I will never be able to replace them. That stings.

I have one pair left that I was wearing. As luck would have it, they are white 9mother of pearl) and go with all of my summer travel clothes and we are now in warm weather. So I guess there is a silver lining to every grey cloud. And I hold on to that everytime I get mad about the man who tricked me into putting my day pack down for one minute to clean the shmutz off my big bag (that he put there to take me off my guard).

I am going to get a grip, and get past this because there are a lot of good stories to tell and I need to get to them all!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

La Paz update — photos included

(A few days ago, we had an unfortunate encounter with a scam artist, and my day pack, became his day pack. My computer charger and camera charger which will be of no use to him are now his along with a few other things that will be very unuseful to him but were important to me. Such is life on the road. The other very unfortunate thing is that we are now in Argentina where Apple products as well as Canon products are not available. I have found a work around for my camera, but a charger for my computer will have to wait until we hit Buenos Aries in a week or so. I know that without the photos, this post will not be as good as it could be with the photos I took to illustrate it, but I wrote this so long time ago and it deserves to be posted. I will add the photos once I have my computer back...)

We got off to a bad start in La Paz. It was raining cats and dogs as we arrived in town as the last night of a raging festival was in full swing with loud speakers blaring jarring music and streets littered with shmutz stinking from beer mixed with confetti, streamers and urine. Finding a hotel/hostal had proved difficult due to the busy festival and we had decided to wing it. As I said in the last post, our cab dropped us off a couple of blocks away from the Hostal Milton, which had received reviews like “Good choice for the price.” and “Not bad considering the choices in La Paz in this price range”. We had been on the bus all day and we’re tired and cranky when I took a look at the room. It was clean and cheap and it would do for at least one night until we got our bearings.

We got settled and went out in search of day trips to Tiawanaku, the last set of ruins on our list. Tiawanuku is said to be the oldest of the pre Incan sites — where it all began. We were extremely lucky and found a tour with an amazing guide who brought the history of the Tiawanaku civilization to life.

One of the things we are continually impressed with after several visits to Incan and pre-Incan sites is these civilizations’ division of life into three spheres. The life above represented by the condor flying free in the skies above, the life on earth represented by the puma and the life below the earth represented by the serpent. In Tiawanku we visited a temple representing the underworld. What we found there were depictions of what I thought was something like Noah’s ark. The walls of the depressed chamber contained carvings of faces, hundreds and hundreds of faces, all different. Some were people, some animals. The explanation we received was that these were images of spirits that would be reborn. Their belief of the underworld is not of hell, fire and brimstone, but of rebirth. Just walking around the structure looking at the faces was amazingly spiritual for me.

The next day we spent visiting museums and churches which are always a must in any large city we spend a few days in. Two notable visits were to the Coca Museum and the MUSEF (Museum of Ethnology and Folklore). Unfortunately, both did not allow photos, which was really frustrating. Especially MUSEF. The Coca Museum was very informative about the ancient ceremonial and therapeutic uses of coca as well as the political evolution of the use and misuse of coca after the Spanish arrived on the scene as well as multinational corporations, the likes of Coca Cola, who continue to take advantage of their clout in Bolivia. MUSEF simply blew me away. I have never been in a folklore museum so well curated and so full of amazing artifacts. Drawers and drawers of weaving pattern samples from villages all over the region — and no documentation in English and no photos allowed. I was in agony!! The museum covered weaving, pottery, feather work, masks of all kinds and musical instruments. Each area had a video component as well, which showed you how the villagers today still follow ancient traditions. Totally fascinating, even though I could not understand any of the documentation.

On our third day we bid the Hotel Milton good by and good riddance and moved into the Hotel Rosario, which is a museum in its own right. The Hotel was designed by artists with common walls of the hotel as well as the guest rooms adorned with beautiful fiber artworks. They took my breath away because they were modern pieces using found archival and tourist level weavings and trinkets. I had not seen anything like it thus far in Peru or Bolivia and I was very impressed. The pieces were produced specifically for the Hotel, so when I asked where I could find similar work, the answer was that these were in fact unique and commissioned for the Hotel. I imagine if I pressed a bit harder I would have found the artists, but of course, I would have no where to put any of these beautiful works, so I did my usual and took photos to remember them virtually rather than physically.

Behind the hotel is the local market where the indegineous people who have migrated from their farming communities to the city for hope of a better life do all of their shopping. We walked through the market for a couple of hours completely fascinated by the scene unfolding in front of our eyes. I was snapping photos like crazy trying to be discrete!

We did a city tour that afternoon on a double decker bus with earphones linked to information in many languages. Aside from filling in a lot of blanks about La Paz from a cultural and political point of view, and taking us through several neighbourhoods in the sprawling city, it also delivered us to the Valley of the Moon. This is a very interesting geological phenomenon just outside of the city limits. The attraction has been Disneyized unfortunately, and it felt a bit more like a set for a movie than then a natural site, but we enjoyed it anyways and took lots of photos!

On the way back from our tour we chanced on a great pub/restaurant called Sol Y Luna, where of all things, we had a middle eastern plate of hummus, babaganush, tsastiki, olives, and pita with a local beer they had on draft. We had had other great local fare in La Paz, but this just hit the spot, especially since everything was almost authentic!

Sadly the next morning we had to check out of the wonderful Hotel Rosario knowing the next few stops along the way would not have accommodations as comfortable, breakfasts as tasty, or hotel staff as accommodating.

Our next destination was Oruro, which proved to be so unremarkable that even though we contemplated staying two nights, we backed out of our reservation only to get on a bus to Potosi, which we liked even less if that is at all possible. Both towns offered us horrible accommodations at inflated prices. What I will probably remember most about Potosi is that I stepped in a large pile of dog poop just outside our hotel, which took me a good part of the afternoon to get out of the deeply treaded walking shoes!

The good news is that our next stop was Sucre, a mere 12 hour all night bus ride away. And even with that ominous introduction, our stay there was glorious from every perspective.