Noseeums United...the Bolivian story continues

Trip Start Sep 1999
Trip End May 2004

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Where I stayed
villa Tunari

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, May 18, 2003

Bolivia Part 2 : Its all about the people. Forget the backstreet alleyways and markets. Meet the Paramilitary Shoe-Shine boys of La Paz. They are armed only with their battered wooden boxes and oversized black balaclavas. But believe me, they can point a shoebrush with real threatening menace at your feet. It's really admirable how many of them will keep insisting I shouldn't walk around this dirty, smoggy city with dirty shoes. My shoes consist of a strap of cloth on a rubber base. Still the boys are dementedly determined to polish them. Maybe this should act as warning to anyone who feels like taking up shoe polish sniffing, as it clearly can seriously affect your health and mental state.

I was intimidated enough one day to let one of the hooded boys loose on my unsuspecting hiking boots. The plan was that he would help to waterproof them. At least I thought this was what he was getting at. Unfortunately the industrial stength "shine and seal" he put on them couldnt be scuffed through in a lifetime of trying. And believe me, I tried. When I went walking I stopped to scratch at every stone and waded through every mud pool for a week, without putting so much as a mark on my gleaming toe caps... with every bloody step I had my reflection beaming right back up at me. It was, I have to admit, a tad embarrassing.

The markets here are incredible. There's plenty of people to watch amid the clouds of flies swarming over the Bull tables which ooze with decapitated cow heads, their bloody tongues flopped out in a last minute death Moo. There's usually a big pile of yellow/purple ball sacks and bizarrely, piles of noses there too. Never sure which soup or stew I've eaten may have contained the noses and bollocks but they were popular enough with the locals.

The women are all traditionally dressed with their quirky hats and puffball skirts and nifty pink leg warmers underneath (never a good look, in Bolivia or the 80s!). They all carry things in their backpack blankets. Its hard to tell exactly what but I have seen them unloading about 50kgs of food, half their house contents or a couple of sleeping kids.

The markets have floor-to-ceiling displays of vividly coloured fruits and vegetables and plenty of colourful old women buying them. Old people here come in a standard design - stunted and hunched over from all the back breaking load-carrying years. The women always have their hair plaited, swinging behind them like two horses tails reaching to their bums, with woolen adornments at the end. They also have the most amazing ancient leathery faces. Its hard to get a picture as they hide from you once they see a camera. The older generation still believe that taking a photo takes away a piece of your soul.

Buses are another favourite people-watching opportunity. They are like mini theatres. There's always a seated captive audience and street sellers lining up to perform their 3 minute between-stops sales pitches at supersonic speed. There is a strict hierarchy of sellers. The higher the price of your bus ticket, the better the salesman, his clothes and what he is selling.

At the bottom of the heap you get scruffy opportunistic kids. They thrust sticky week-old sweets into your face whilst delivering the deal-sealing line of "Gringo you buy". That's it. The sales pitch is over. Money is exchanged. Then as one distratcts you with a cheeky grin the other tries to steal your backpack, watch, money or soul.

At the top of the food chain there are the suited, booted and briefcased professionals selling gold chains. This is the Bolivian equivalent I guess to travelling insurance salesmen. Equally geeky but strangely watchable.

Then there's every level in between. My definite favourites are the angelic dirt-streaked boys selling nothing but their dubious musical talents. They sing 8 bars of an unidentifiable Bolivian song for a few cents a time. To be fair to these little entrepreneurs, most Bolivian music is pretty unidentifiable. In Peru we suffered an overdose of Simon and Garfunkels' " El Condor Paso" in panpipes, churangas and ponchos. But at least it was vaguely recognisable. In Bolivia even the professionals can make everything sound like a collection of the worst advert jingles in the world. There is also an addiction to the irritating 1980s synthesised backing drumbeat. Every long tedious bus journey would be incomplete without a tape of this god-awful music.

But you get plenty of time on long tedious bus journeys to think about what you really need in life. Fresh and motivated at the beginning, you wouldn't look twice at a book of religious poems in Spanish. Three hours later and it's suddenly a must-have object. Two hours before you also wouldn't consider eating some rotting bird carcass if it was the last meal in the world. However at some point you start salivating for the 2-day-old fried bit of meat of dubious origin hanging off a dirty stick that is being offered through the window at the bus stop. I was once sorely tempted to buy a folding ruler.In my defence, it was 7 hours into a trip. But I wimped out and bought some delicious fluff-coated boiled sweets, prised from a grubby set of seven-year-old hands, for one Boliviano instead.

In La Paz, police watching is a great sport. Returning from my epic mountain climb (read on...) we thought someone important had died because everyone in the city was crying and holding handkerchiefs to their faces. We stepped out of the car. We stepped into an empty main street. This should have given our tired brains a small clue as to something out of the ordinary going on. We had been deposited by the caring taxi driver right into the middle of No Mans Land. In front of us was a wall of riot police. Their reputation was for having exceedingly short tempers and very loose trigger fingers. Behind us was a mob of students throwing fireworks, shouting abuse and waving paper banners. The police had only their body armour, helmets and guns for protection against this pesky firework assault. We had nothing. The police suddenly charged, running past us firing rounds of tear gas. I ran up the nearest street clutching my throat. Police are great to watch but from a safe and preferably gas-masked distance.

As if this potential welcoming committee wasn't enough, just prior to that I had "climbed" a big mountain overlooking La Paz. For the record, I did this for the adventure and because it was there. Strictly speaking, I didn't quite climb it.

Climbing 6088 metres in 24 hours is not within the international guidelines for safe climbing. As a novice, I didn't think this was an important fact. Full of the joys of spring and fresh air we started the climb at a dizzying 4700 metres. As the oxygen thinned dramatically, we hiked with fully loaded backpacks up loose shale inclines and over huge rock boulders. Still, the sun was shining. We gratefully pitched base camp on a rock ledge at 5200 metres. The view from the dinner spot was spectaular and took our minds off the congealed starchy spaghetti and coco tea actually served up for dinner. Our restaurant was all glistening snow capped peaks and rolling clouds with condors circling in the thermals.

The forecast was for a film-worthy summit attempt, in companionable silence, on pristine snowy white slopes. We were told that we might not need headlamps as the night was to be romantically backlit by a full moon ...all the way up to watch a beautiful sunrise against cobalt blue skies at the aforementioned summit.

That was the plan anyway until it all went Pete Tong at one in the morning. We awoke to visibility of less than a metre, a howling wind and swirling snow. With 5 layers of clothes to put on, we fumbled around in two sets of fingerless gloves for about an hour trying to get dressed. It was 15 degrees below zero. Finally we were roped up together with crampons and, picks in hand, ready for the "stroll and climb" for 7 hours up near vertical ice slopes to the summit. NO PROBLEMA!

The first 3 hours were a slog, one weary foot at a time, with my calfs and ankles screaming at the exertion and unnatural slope of the land. It was uninspiring, dark and directionless. We were a line of trussed-up zombies, shuffling along after a bit of rope suspended eerily above the ground. We couldn't see each other, just the rope disappearing off into the murky gloom in front of us.

I hit a vomiting wall at 5700 metres. I hit near-meltdown claustrophobic panic with every minute more of the enclosing pea-souper fog. Stopping was only ever a footstep away. The invisible mountain peak was still a staggering 4 more hours of footsteps away. Given these statistics even my frozen brain realised that mind over matter was no longer an option. Claustrophobic vomiting fear was the only thing on my mind. I sat down and thought about it long and hard. And then turned my sick stomach and aching body back down towards camp. I collapsed in the tent and died for 7 hours, waiting for the rest of the group to get back to camp.

Hindsight is a great thing. Although I'm still disappointed not to have made it, if I had the same conditions again (no visibility and no friends for encouragement)I probably still couldn't complete it. I have to take solace from the fact that I climbed in one day higher than most people with ever do in a lifetime.

The last eight days afterwards in Bolivia were wonderful and surreal. I was working as a volunteer at an animal refuge. It was picture perfect, situated on the edges of a thick jungle with the river wending slowly past and 5 hours from the nearest bank or internet. Even more perfect was that I was re-united with our Ecuadorian travelling crew, who had acquired some new members (basketballing Jordan, sista Gillian....) With great company, my new guitar, a hammock, $1.50 bottles of rum, apple empanadas freshly baked by the woman next door and the sounds of the evening jungle, time after work was filled with nothing much and everything special.

During the daytime I couldn't be an individual animal carer with full time animal responsibility as I couldn't commit enough time (2 weeks minimum). That gave me plenty of time to play over lunches and in quiet times. I was sitting designing new visitor information boards all day with a baby capuchin monkey nestled fast asleep under my hair and hugging my neck. Or looking after a scruffy injured parrot perched on my shoulder. It was a REAL and unique experience in life. Parrots, toucans, monkeys, big cats (we didnt get to play with the jaguar, pumas or ocelots too closely though).....Everyone was permanently smelly, dirty, drenched through with either torrential rain or boiling sweat, pissed on, shit on, tired from the 11 hour days without a day off...I was covered head to toe in bites from the animals, the mosquitoes and the infamous "no see ums" ( it out...). You could tell what animal people worked with by studying the pattern of bruises, teeth marks and scratches on their body parts. My poor room mate had more bruising than skin on her legs from her darling "cat".

The location was a combination of Indiana Jones and The Terminator. It had everything a good script needs. Uneasy history - it is a primary coco leaf growing area. Motivation - greed and big bucks money, as the area services the cocaine industry. Backdrop - dark jungle, pressure cooker heat. Foreground - innocent backpackers wandering the village.

The chief combatants in this area are the cocoa growers and the police. The former have a penchant for demonstrating and closing roads. The latter have a history of randomly shooting the former dead, to re-open the roads again. Every day a team of 16 black-booted and camouflaged police outriders would stream across the bridge four abreast, huge AK47s slung across their backs and designer shades in place. The helicoptor would thwud-thwud overhead a few times a day. It wasnt exactly a shining example of low key community policing.

Ironically Villa Tunari and this area are probably the most difficult places in South America to actually get cocaine. As a Red Zone the police have the right to stop, search and arrest for any drugs found. Its straight to jail, do not Pass Go, do not collect $200 and definitely no Get Out Of Jail Free card for gringos. Coco leaves are easily accessible though and also legal. Most locals have these huge hamster-pouch cheeks and sit all day chomping through massive amounts of cellulose with their 2 teeth!

All of this I was sitting contemplating alone last night, between 11 and 3 in the morning. I sat like a lost soul waiting for a bus at the side of the road, with the snarling packs of stray dogs circling me hungrily. It might not be for everyone but I found sharing time with wild animals, 40 international volunteers and nothing to do but work, rest and chill a simple and addictive way of life. It was the same as working with horses in Oz or being with the Dive Crew in Byron Bay. Before de-camping roadside, I had a traditional travellers send off courtesy of Trina. I made my first attempt at fire poi. I had been learning with a wooden staff for a few days, which last night Trina kindly set fire to for me. The boys gave me some rum. With the whooshing of fire balls passing close to my hair, even the rum did little to calm my nerves.

As the hours passed and the dog pack grew, I was a little melancholy (and cold and a tad nervous...). I was also still adding to my impressive collection of 400 souvenir insect bites. It does look like someone loaded a paintbrush with red paint and flicked tiny spots all down my legs, the No-see-Ums preferred dining spot. It also feels like someone inserted small itchy lumps of cotton wool under my skin across my shoulders and back, the mosquitos' preferred dining area.

At this point in my night there were happily buses passing every 15 minutes. Maddeningly they had got the passing bit down to a fine art but not the "stopping for passengers" bit. Some would teasingly slow down to have a good gawp, sometimes even opening the door for a better view, before accelerating straight past me again and leaving me in a cloud of choking dust. For some of my 4 hours watching this routine a local man decided to join me. His English was non existent. My Spanish is only fully workable with a dictionary to hand and a light to read it by. So on a dark dog-infested street we compromised with polite chitchat in Spanglish and sign language. On a previous bus ride to Villa Tunari I had talked to a doctor for two hours about studies, health care systems, financial aid and his lawyer girlfriend (I think). Last night the conversation was less challenging. In between gesticulating wildly and shouting in two languages at the disappearing backs of buses, we sat and threw rocks at the prowling dogs. These were two satisfying moments of international bonding.

More than anything else my roadside companion wanted to take home to his family a list of traditional English firstnames. Dont ask me why. In case you ever wondered, there are an awful lot of these names you can write down in 2 hours together.

It was a fitting end to a country and its people. After always travelling to somewhere new before, I was now embarking on the first leg of my journey home.

Bolivia has been a great place to be. There is still so much jungle I havent trekked through, mountains I havent climbed and hikes I havent hiked. If it wasnt for the promise of Tango-ing in a square in Buenos Aires tomorrow, I would be a little sad today to be leaving. So I think that this is the last email from South America. See you on another continent sometime...
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