Friday, July 16, 2010

Happiness Is.

Wednesday June 30

Unbelievably big news today: I found a packet of shampoo. There I was, carrying out what I thought would be the mundane task of watering each plant around the house for exactly one minute (...¡y no más!, I had been warned), when something wonderfully, colorfully plastic caught my eye across the patio. As luck would have it at that very moment a swarm of perniciously aggravating biting ants found their way to my ankles, seeking painful revenge for the village I had just flooded; the colorful treasure would have to wait.

Ankles pleasantly on fire, I re-engaged in a more vigilant watering routine which serendipitously led me straight across the patio, where, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I found my treasure. There, on top of the doghouse, a small plastic package waited for me. Nothing short of resplendent in its beauty, I dare say that despite its dusty coating, this marvelous package shone with catchpenny strawberry-graphic brilliance. I cautiously...hesitantly... fearfully, asked Teodoro to whom this incredible treasure belonged and he answered...{gasp}...that it was mine. Angels sung from the heavens as the clouds parted and rays of glorious, golden light found their way to my hands. I watched in awe as the packet floated into the air and hovered just above my outstretched arms, slowly turning, shimmering, glistening in the radiant streams of sunlight. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and pearly white unicorns fluttered and chirped, danced and tittered in a prodigious peal of utter jungle magnificence; rainbows more incredible than this one burst from the mountainous horizon and arched clear across the sky to land at my feet, where Teodoro and I joined hands with a leprechaun and together the three of us joyfully danced to the angels' songs for hours and hours and hours. At least that's how I remember it.

After the celebration subsided I had to wait six hours before I could actually use this gift from the heavens, but it was worth every minute. Yes, the day now behind me, I sit writing by candlelight with the message that I have just washed my hair for real for the first time in nine days, and it was absolutely marvelous. I didn't even care that the water was freezing cold, nor did I care that I had to fumble around in semi-darkness in my tiny, windowless enclosure, my foot held firmly against the door to keep Bilde and his sister from barging in. I didn't even care that I had to share my tiny enclosure with a terrified tree frog who literally flung himself from wall to wall in search of an escape as I ducked and swayed in the near dark to avoid being hit. I just kept rejoicing in the suds that foamed on my head. Three times I rinsed and repeated; my hair squeaked when I finally decided enough was enough. Strawberry Biosilk con 50mL acondicionante gratis, you just made my life.   

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Tuesday June 28, 2010

Teodoro told me yesterday that his family will be coming for a visit later in the week. He was rather vague on the details (as usual) but apparently the adults and any children who are old enough will be heading further up the mountain to find work harvesting coffee and the youngins will stay behind at the Casa del Cafe. We also will be hosting an as-of-yet undetermined number of people (Teo says 30 but I'm skeptical) all weekend for a workshop on improving coffee production methods to enhance marketability.

In light of our expected visitors we've spent the last two days getting everything here in tip-top shape. I am by now all too familiar with the Spanish words for “broom” (which out here incidentally doubles as a mop), escoba, and “squeegee on a long stick,” goma, as together they have received nearly 100% of my attention for two days running. What's the best way to clean infrequently used bedrooms in the middle of the jungle, you might ask? Remove everything absorbent and tenaciously spray down anything that remains with a massive hose, of course. Herein lies the necessity of a “squeegee on a long stick.” My tasks were as follows: 1. Observe pre-wash soaking of ceiling, walls, floor, and furniture. 2. Run in with matted-down plastic green escoba and ferociously scrub ceiling, walls, floor, and furniture clear of all bugs, stains, and debris. 3. Quickly exit as wash cycle commences without warning. 4. Observe wash cycle from safe distance. 5. Clean shoes. 6. Run to far side of room with goma and ATTACK three inches of standing water with the intensity of a small Hispanic man.

Task number 6 was hands-down my favorite; not because I enjoyed it really, but rather because if at any point my ATTACK was not intense enough to generate foot-tall waves of bug-filled water that completely soaked my only pair of shoes, I was scolded in Spanish and given yet another demonstration of proper goma technique.

Stupid Gringa...don't they teach you these things in your fancy American universities...?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Apparently Blogspot decides for you when its photo importer will work properly; apologies for the messy layout of today's posts!


Sunday June 27, 2010

I awoke this morning to Teodoro banging on my door at 5:30 AM. ¿Ya estás lista? (are you ready??) Uhh quince minutos...! (fifteen minutes...!) I respond, kicking off my sleeping bag and frantically patting the nightstand with both hands in the pre-dawn darkness until I feel the small rectangular box I seek. Strrrrike. My world is illuminated. In the flickering light I rush to put my contacts in, throw on long pants and a t-shirt, and double-check the contents of the backpack I had packed the night before. I got halfway out the door before realizing I was deliriously hungry from having foregone dinner for sleep the night before after an exhausting day of work up the road. Fail. I poured a ration of granola onto my super fancy collapsible plate, shoved a handful of walnuts into my pocket and grabbed my spoon as Teodoro came running Ya están! Ya están! Sube! (They're here, they're here! Head on up there!). No time for manners, I shoved the spoon under my door and rushed up the dark driveway shoving handfuls of granola in my mouth, trying to choke it all down before arriving at the beat-up old van that awaited us at the top of the drive. Teo ran up behind me Ven! (come on!). I ran up the remainder of the drive after him, stuffed one last handful of granola in my face as I tapped the remaining crumbs out onto the ground mid-stride and jumped through the open sliding door. Teo hopped in after me and the van took off down the mountain, not even bothering to wait for us to close the door.

Caranavi was our destination; my heart swelled anxiously at the thought of electricity and, more importantly, telephones. It had been nearly a week since I'd spoken English, and though I'm loving the immersion, I was definitely looking forward to the effortless free-flow of dialogue in the mother tongue.

The pale yellow hues of dawn grew stronger by the minute as the road jostled us back and forth. My feet pressed hard against the rubber-covered ledge that ran along the floor behind the front seats—a futile effort to keep myself from sliding off of the shabby vinyl upholstery as we bumped and bounced down the mountain. In my peripheral vision I could see Teodoro's head bob to the rhythm of the road in unison with the tacky tassels on the blanket that rested atop the dashboard. I munched on walnuts and turned my gaze to the window, where the sun was gaining speed as it cast its spotlight on the grand, eternal show that is the jungle. Raptors surveyed the valley floor from their perches atop trees that clung to the side of the cliff to our left. Vultures circled round and round, riding the early morning thermals out of the valley and up, up, up until their immense wingspans were no more than a speck of black in a sea of blue. Green parrots dipped between dusty brown trees and the familiar operatic black birds with long yellow tails were already hard at work reinforcing the tear-drop shaped nests that hung high above the road. A pair of toucans provided a welcome splash of color as they hopped around the dusty canopy at road level. Life was everywhere.

I settled into the pace of the dawn and the feel of the road and began to reflect on what had been a week full of firsts. Though the struggle of life in a foreign language was perhaps the most outwardly taxing item on the list, other major adjustments had been made as well—like the fact that I hadn't seen my reflection in a week, or heard the news, or flipped a light switch. Nor had I had a hot shower, tweezed my eyebrows (I was bound to forget something essential at home), or, for all intents and purposes, washed my hair (in a moment of tree-hugging traveler bliss I would later come to regret, I had opted to bring only uber-lightweight-biodegradable-fully-non-functional-travel-shampoo-plus-conditioner-leaves packaged prettily in a little mini recycled-plastic container with a flip top...This'll be great, I thought.....Fail.). I hadn't heard a phone ring (or even seen a phone, for that matter), I hadn't spent a single ounce of effort wondering what I was going to wear that day (answer: whatever pant/shirt combination I washed the day before), and believe it or not, this nutritionally-conscious, sustainable-agriculture-loving, farmers'-market-going yuppie vegetarian hadn't eaten a single raw vegetable in ten long days (turns out I like not being ill more than I like plates full of lettuce). Another thing I hadn't done was truly miss any of these things with the exception of a phone and the internet to connect me to loved ones. Well, that and shampoo, I suppose....we can't all be hippie superheroes. The week may have been full of firsts, but upon reflecting I was amazed at how easy it had been to fall into step here, just around the bend from Civilization and a good two hours past Nowhere. The gentle rhythm of life in the mountains...the sun, the roosters, the labor, the descansos...the simplicity of it has an appeal that's hard to deny.

We arrived in Caranavi around 7:30 with two goals: make phone calls home and purchase vegetables for soup. Being too early to do either of those things, Teodoro showed me around town a bit. We passed small shops with their mini aluminum garage doors pulled halfway up as shopkeepers ducked in and out in preparation for the day, we passed tired-looking women in stained blue smocks as they neatly arranged boxes full of bread, bags full of dried cereals, and crates full of eggs along blankets on the sidewalk. We passed groups of insufferable young men ...Ayyyy guapa....! (“borrachos,” Teodoro said quietly amidst a backdrop of crude catcalls as he led me to the opposite side of the street), we passed entire families on single motorbikes, we passed early-morning ice cream vendors and fruit juice makers, we passed half-finished buildings and wandering chickens, we passed emaciated cows sifting through trash, we passed singing church congregations, and finally we stopped for breakfast. We each paid 4 Bolivianos (roughly 50 cents) for an api con buñuelos, or in English, a sugary thick red corn-based drink served piping hot with a side of fried dough. Hearty...

At last the door of the Punto Cotel raised all the way up; I disappeared into a phone booth for a glorious hour of effortless conversation (thanks, boyfriend...).

I exited the phone booth feeling renewed, and with a bit of a spring in my step I rejoined Teo as we made our way to the market. On the sidewalk we approached a garbage bin-sized bucket full of colorful plastic brooms that surrounded a perch upon which sat three parrots. Imagine my delight when, as we passed, I realized the birds were chatting away in Spanish, not English! As we neared the market, the road and sidewalk filled with colorful tarps and long wooden tables, all brimming with bright piles of vegetables and exotic fruits. More women sporting dirty blue smocks over their layered skirts called out the names and prices of their goods with the practiced tongue of an auctioneer: TomateCebollaZanaoriaBetarugaUnaPesetaParaDos—Dos, OoooonBolivianoooo! We made our way up the line, selecting two cuts from a humongous dark green winter squash, a bunch of Swiss chard, and a huge bundle of celery. Inside the market was more of the same plus a line of vendors separated from the rest of the floor by a row of glass cases, in and around which hung bright red and pale pink carcasses. Fluorescent hand-lettered signs that were stuck to the glass announced prices of various cuts, as the men who ran the booths were far too busy cutting, hanging, and rearranging to announce the deals themselves. We moved deeper into the market and purchased liter bags bags full of carrots, onions, tomatoes, peas, broad beans, and small purple potatoes, as well as two plastic grocery bags filled with dry pasta, a can of powdered milk, candles, and matches. Everything disappeared into the large potato sack that Teodoro had slung over his shoulder. When all was said and done, I had paid approximately $11 for a sack of local, organic produce that would last us all week. Take that Davis Square Farmers' Market....

Then we waited. There was only one taxi leaving Caranavi and heading in our direction that afternoon, and it didn't leave until 1:00 pm. We found a bench in the town plaza and took turns guarding our vegetable loot so each of us could see the sights (honestly there were not a whole lot of sights to be seen), and at 12:30 we headed to the taxi stand to make sure we could claim two seats (or maybe one and a half)
Our taxi was a small station wagon. In that small station wagon we fit 8 adults, a toddler, and a puppy in a box, and the trunk was 2/3 full of vegetables and other luggage (all 100 pounds of Teodoro squeezed into the other 1/3). Up we went through the clouds of dust, sailing at break-neck speeds over ruts, craters, and small canyons, always on the edge of the precipice. Our driver seemed to have a bit of an ego, and though he clearly was more comfortable (and more capable of) driving at a reasonable pace, every time another car came up behind us wanting to pass he would speed up to keep the car at bay. All this accomplished was gravely aggravating the drivers behind us (who maintained a steady rate of honking the entire time) and quite possibly giving himself an aneurism as he nervously sped on, obviously uncomfortable with the pace. As I may have mentioned before, one hundred percent of drivers here are absolutely terrible. Not only are they perpetually in an extreme hurry to get wherever it is they're going, but they're always trying to find the least bumpy route to take them there to boot. What this equates to is that regardless of whether there are other cars on the road or not, your driver will constantly swerve all over creation just to miss a few rocks and dodge a pothole or two. Because of this unrelenting swerving, all preconceived social norms of driving on a particular side of the road go out the window; rather, it's a complete free-for all in which, if you are occupying a particular space, the other vehicles on the road are expected to not occupy that same space....may the most aggressive driver win. God forbid a large truck come from the opposite direction at a narrow part of the road, at which point you get to experience the whole thing, terrifyingly, in reverse. All of this happens, of course, while terrible Bolivian music blasts from the stereo, tassles from the decorative blanket on the dashboard sway wildly back and forth, trinkets hanging from the rear view mirror and/or suction-cupped to the windshield clang loudly on the glass, and your driver, invariably, is constantly rolling up and down his window (manually) in his best (but wholly futile) effort to keep the dust out. It's absolutely incredible.

So back to my terrible driver on this particular Sunday afternoon. When he would finally decide enough was enough, after minute upon minute of racing white knuckled around hairpin turns whilst violently jostling the car and its contents back and forth, the passing car would lay on the horn and flip us the bird as they disappeared into a trail of dust. Though comfort was merely a pipe dream and death was never more than a few feet away, I loved every minute of it. I literally laughed out loud recalling how my worried parents, bless their hearts, told me over and over again, “if it's a question of spending more money to be safe, don't even hesitate. We want you to be safe—if you need money just ask!” The idea of a “safer” way seemed laughable, as I sat with my left shoulder jutting forward, right arm awkwardly jammed up against the door, eyes squinting against the constant storm of dust that sailed in through the open window. This was the only way. The only taxi from Caranavi to Tupac all day. Up we went.

The first passenger got out an hour or so into the ride; suddenly feeling like I had all the room in the world (there were now only four bodies and a puppy in a box in the backseat), I settled in for the rest of what I anticipated to be a (comparatively) comfy ride. At this point, however, our egotistical driver did not continue forward, but rather jumped out of the car and ran up the path after the recently departed young female passenger. I watched him nervously knock on the door of her family's small, one room abode; I watched him fidget and rock back and forth on his feet as he waited for her to reappear. I had just about decided that our driver was going to ask this poor girl out when he came running back down the path with a huge grin on his face (success!?). He reached into the trunk and pulled out an empty potato sack. Hmmmm....It wasn't until the young girl reappeared with a brown and white chicken nestled into the crook of her arm that things began to make sense. Into the bag goes the chicken, **slam** the trunk door closes. The head count in our small station wagon is now at seven adults, one toddler (who has by this point wet herself, the lap she was seated on, and the seat beneath them), one puppy-in-a-box, and one chicken-in-a-bag; however this status was not to last. It immediately became clear that our driver does not often deal with live animals because he fully neglected to secure the opening of the potato sack in any way. No sooner had we peeled out into the road did I turn around to see a curious, cautious chicken head emerge from the bag and look right at me {{pause, head cock, stare, chortle chortle, peck, stare}}. Sensing her impending demise, this cautious emergence lasted mere seconds before all hell broke loose; next thing I know the chicken is flapping and skwaking all over the trunk, risking life and wing to get to the open window by my head. I lurched forward in my seat as beating wings ruffled my hair and a pointy beak aggressively tapped the back of my neck. When I turned around to face my assaulter, I caught a glimpse of Teodoro watching the scene unfold next to him with calm disregard; our driver, equally unconcerned, didn't appear at any point like he might even be pondering the idea of pulling over to address his misbehaving dinner. Thank God for the young girl sitting to my left who calmly placed a hand on the chicken's shoulders (do chickens even have shoulders??) to keep it in the trunk and prevent it from pecking and scratching my eyes out. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing hysterically out loud for the next 30 minutes as we sailed up the mountain to our destination...

Best. Cab ride. Ever.


Thursday June 24, 2010

I am being watched. Bilde, the four year old from next door has returned with his truck; he hides behind the eclectic row of exotic plants to my left. Through the bushes I see his hands tightly clutching the rope as the truck twirls just above his feet. The clean yellow polo he donned in the mid-afternoon heat has been replaced this morning by a navy blue hoody and a dingy white jacket with a busted zipper. Any advances we made towards friendship during our afternoon chupa have been forgotten overnight, but his curiosity is too strong for him to stay away. I smile at him as he peers through the bushes, then turn back to my writing. I hear the brush of tiny feet on grass as my pen crosses the page. I look up, he stops; the truck sways back and forth a few times before dropping to the ground with a soft thud. Buenos deeeeas I say. The truck raises and Bilde stares without responding. I turn back to my writing. Again I sense movement; slowly, cautiously, he inches towards me until I raise my head. Freeze. I smile and stick out my tongue. Dimples flash as the truck drops and he brings his hand to his mouth, bashfully looking away; I snap a photo and return to my journal. I hear plastic truck wheels slowly gain speed and I'm reminded of a game we used to play in elementary school in which the rabbits could only advance toward their den when the fox had his (or her) back turned. I play along. The truck drops in front of me

Here my journal entry ends mid-sentence as my attention turned to the giggling boy who then sat down beside me. He flipped through the pages of my moleskine and ran his finger along the words, finally asking ¿Qué cosa? I picked up my dictionary to double check the word “journal” before responding; diario, I said, but his attention had already turned to the miniature masterpiece in my hands, it's worn blue and red cover indicative of how often over the years Oxford has been my most indispensable traveling companion. ¿Queeeeeé cooosa? He repeated, slightly awestruck as he reached a tiny brown hand across my lap and pulled the dictionary out of my hands. Diccionario I say, before realizing that a four year-old living in the depths of poverty without so much as a telephone to connect him to the outside world would have no reason to know what a dictionary was. ¿Qué...? He asked, slightly disinterested, as he sped through all 600 pages flipbook-style, causing the bangs that sat neatly on his forehead to dance in the handmade breeze. He giggled and repeated. Un libro, I said (“a book”).

His seven year-old sister bounced towards us on her way to school, a halo of wispy black strands framing her face and her long black ponytail swishing from side to side as she made her way across the lawn. She looked surprisingly well-groomed despite the dust and the jungle, dressed in a clean white blouse and long royal blue skirt that gathered at the waist, creating wavy ruffles through the length of the fabric. As she neared, however, I realized she had not eluded the jungle after all—thick stripes of spotted black mildew ran around the collar, spread across the shoulders, and traveled down the front of her blouse, weaving around the pearly white buttons like the ubiquitous trails of tiny black ants I was constantly trying to avoid (those bites hurt). I thought of the bags of perfectly good clothing I had tossed without a second thought into the large donation bins at the GW in Somerville a couple weeks before, glad to be rid of them simply because they no longer fit perfectly or the style was slightly dated. I sat humbled as she veered to the right with a shy smile and walked up a small dirt path behind the house to the road; she disappeared between (freshly weeded) rows of coffee plants and orange trees and my attention was drawn back to the present by Bilde poking my arm over and over again. As I turned he grabbed my hands and pulled me to standing.

Games ensued for the next twenty minutes and Bilde never let go of my hands as he pulled me in this direction or that. Together we hopped in circles on one foot, he ran round and round as fast as he could as I twirled in the center trying to keep up (and not fall over...). I lifted him up by his hands and he pulled his tiny feet up so he could swing back and forth before I carefully set him down on the tile in a heap, the muscles in his legs and torso limp with giggles.

After twenty minutes of hopping and twirling and lifting and running I was feeling pretty well spent, and as luck would have it at that very moment Bilde's father came over to take a gander at the gringa himself. I introduced myself and asked his name; jibberish reached my ears as he put together a string of words that had to contain more than me llamo Guido. I nodded slowly and smiled, bringing the conversation to an awkward silence before he pulled out the faded photo album that had been tucked under his arm. Guido on one side, Bilde on the other, we thumbed through page after page of family portraits taken in a variety of settings; each photo was described in what I'm sure was great detail by Guido, and was often even augmented by Bilde, but I understood almost none of the stories and descriptions they so lovingly recounted. Asking politely for him to repeat what he had just said was completely useless: his thick, back-country accent was more than my rusty Spanish could manage. I made myself feel marginally better by thinking of my late grandmother's farmhand Orvilee, who, though I sat politely through hours of conversation he had in “English” with my father and grandmother on her farm on Dark Hollow (pronounced “Holler”) Road in Tennessee, I never understood a single word that he said in the twenty plus years that I knew him.

Guido kept coming back to a photo of a younger version of himself with his wife, a baby girl, and an older man. The baby wore a long white dress and her face and head were adorned with what looked like several strings of little white baby's breath flowers. He kept pointing to the older gentleman and speaking. It's like he's trying to tell me something....I thought to myself and almost laughed out loud. I tried to use the clues I'd been, white dress, flowers, photo, South America. I looked up baptism in my dictionary. Bautismo? I asked. He nodded and again pointed to the man, and the background with a verbose stream of unintelligible dialogue; I strained to hear padrino, hermana, La Paz, and teléfono. He got up and started walking toward their house without stemming the stream of (one-sided) conversation; Bilde grabbed my hand and pulls me along after him.

I sit timidly on the edge of a hard straw mattress in a one-room home that is substantially smaller than my kitchen in Boston. Judging by the lack of fold-away cots and/or extra blankets, the small bed underneath me sleeps a cozy five each night. Sunlight streams through the open seams between the roughly cut boards that make up the walls of the hut, running vertically from dirt floor to palm-leaf roof. As Guido searches through a pile of belongings that lay untidily atop a small wooden structure in the far corner (and by “far” I mean I can almost tap it with my foot if I straighten my leg out from where I'm seated), Bilde shows me with great pride the short list of treasures his world contains: the truck, a flashlight, a ball, a shoelace, a cup. He disappears out the door and comes back a short while later with a mouth full of yucca before sitting beside me on the bed and picking at the plastic on the bottom of his filthy white flip flops. Guido finally pulls a clean yellow envelope from the pile and steps closer to me as he pulls out a baptism certificate for both Bilde and the older daughter, pointing to various lines on the paper. He pauses as he points to names labeled padrino and madrina (godfather and godmother) and underlines them a few times with his finger. I smile and nod, feeling accomplished as he confirmed that I had indeed heard him speak those words earlier. He then points out that he does not have the same certificate for the baby. I again hear the words hermana, La Paz, madrina, bautismo, and teléfono as he gets up and points to a weekend in July on a calendar on the wall. Gaining confidence after my recent successes with what I now fancy to be Nancy Drew-like deduction skills, I nod. I think he is telling me that they will be going to La Paz in July to visit his sister, where they will have their baby baptized. He tells me it would be great if I could attend, as a bit of cultural immersion during my stay here. How nice! I think to myself as I write down my name and the phone number of the office in La Paz and hand it to him. He seemed perhaps a bit overly excited and grateful for the slip of paper but I didn't think much of it. Several minutes of cloudy conversation and hesitant nodding followed as an uneasy feeling in my stomach started to grow. At one point he got up and pointed to the calendar again and waited for me to respond. I nodded politely. Satisfied and excited, he shook my hand and sent me on my way with a shirt full of freshly picked mandarinas, saying that he would come bring his wife to meet me as soon as she got back.

Over lunch I asked Teodoro what he knew about baptisms in Bolivia. He went into a long dialogue about 
how children couldn't be baptized until they had a godparent who had agreed to care for them both morally and financially to supplement what the parents were able to provide. Hmmm.... He went on to explain that there were several organizations in Bolivia that connected Bolivian children with Americans who provided supplementary funding each year to help pay for their Bolivian godchild's education, wardrobe, schooling, etc. Oh dear. He concluded by saying that he was the godfather of Bilde, and that Guido and his wife were always looking for godparents for their children. Right. Suddenly everything made sense...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Vegetarian Sins

Wednesday June 23, 2010

Today I helped slaughter a pig.



Thursday, July 8, 2010

Casa del Cafe

June 22, 2010

After a hearty post-arrival dinner of squeeze peanut butter and Magic Crackers—which was thankfully augmented by Teodoro with a candlelit fried egg sandwich—I said my goodnights and headed to my room, hand carefully shading the flame of a small white candle stuck to an empty sardine can that Teodoro had handed me as I exited the kitchen. Closing the door behind me, I raised the candle high above my head to check out my new diggs in the flickering light. Not bad; the far wall was almost completely windows (With screens! ...That only had a few large gaping holes in them...!), a set of bunk beds lined the right-hand wall, on the left sat a single bed with a pillow and two neatly folded thick wool blankets, and a small aisle separated the beds in between. A wooden night stand flanked the end of each bed, and a white plastic chair sat next to the door. Perhaps most importantly, no fist-sized spiders were anywhere to be seen. I set to work unpacking my backpack. Despite the fact that I had seen Teodoro diligently shake out the pillow and the two blankets that were folded at the foot of my bed, I was not game for waking up with large, hairy arachnoid bedmates and opted for my sleeping bag and “travel pillow” (read: my softshell jacket and wool sweater stuffed inside a reversible nylon stuff sack with a marginally fuzzy lining). I fumbled in the semi-darkness to put together my mini-tent of mosquito netting, hung my headlamp from the headboard of my bed so I could find it in the dark if I needed to, and blew out the candle at 7:45 pm.

Sleep was a restless series of strange, vivid dreams induced by the anti-malaria medicine (a common side-effect), paranoid half-awake struggles to position and re-position the mosquito netting appropriately, and a substantial amount of tossing and turning on the thick, soft foam mattress that left my body lying quite comfortably in a deep V as my hips sunk towards the floor. Though the sun would not rise for another three and a half hours, morning started at 3:30 AM as the neighbor's roosters began to exchange territorial cackles with those of a neighboring roost. Perfect. I laid in bed and used every ounce of extra-sensory perception my weary brain thought it could muster to will them to shut the hell up. Fail.

At 4:30 a beautifully foreign chorus of chirps and twitters slowly began to join the show, gradually replacing the waning hum of the cicadas and other nighttime singers as they took their time finding cozy cracks and crevices to nestle into before the first glow of daylight.

By 5:30 the grand show had risen to an unbelievable crescendo as if, in cumulative presentiment, the jungle sensed the speed at which their world spun towards the warming rays that would soon set the day aflame. I listened in awe to deep, haunting calls of some absolutely magnificent creature; the sound of which is entirely impossible to describe or imitate (a video clip of the morning chorus is on it's way, I promise).

At 6:00 the sun finally made its debut and Teodoro's battery-powered radio clicked on in the next room as the screams of a hungry infant and the playful yells of kids echoed across the yard. At that point I officially recognized the futility in my attempts to hang on to the last threads of sleep and grabbed my Spanish grammar book, eager to get in a bit of studying before whatever the day had in store for me.

At 9:30 Teodoro handed me a hoe, swung a pickax over his left shoulder and stooped to pick up a worn machete with his right hand. He pointed to the steep slope that ran up to the road at a 60 degree angle behind the Casa del Café and explained that we would be weeding around the coffee plants growing there. For several seconds I looked up and down the slope, aiming to identify the coffee plants we were caring for, until I realized I hadn't the foggiest idea of what a coffee plant actually looked like. Whoops. I suppose that detail had gotten lost in the shuffle of travel clinic appointments, blood tests, vaccinations, embassy registrations, and goodbye bar-b-ques. No worries, Teodoro was an excellent teacher. Small landslides of earth tumbled down the slope with every step as I followed him up the mountain and struggled to keep myself from sliding down with them.

For three hours I slowly ascended the slope, hoeing down and tearing out every weed in sight around the foot-tall, year-old coffee plants that speckled the hill with regularity every four feet or so. Rivers of dusty earth buried my boots and continued down the slope that I was constantly on the brink of sliding down; I tried not to think of all I had learned this past semester in Tim's class about the erosion-mitigating benefits of ground cover and root structure as I tore two-, three-, and four-foot-tall weeds from the ground with my bare hands, their roots ceding their hold on the dust with a series of satisfying pops. Smaller weeds were altogether worse, as Teodoro had instructed me to rake them from the ground with the hoe, sending what surely amounted to bagfuls of earth rolling down the mountain as I neatly piled the freshly fallen autotrophs in long horizontal rows between the coffee trees (my half-hearted attempt to slow the erosion I was enabling while I carried out my weed-destroying mission). I will admit that I relished in the destruction of larger weeds, which I hacked down with murderous intensity, repeatedly driving the blade of my hoe with force against stems that were sometimes two inches or more in diameter until the carcass lay defeated on the dust in front of me, ready to add to the pile. The weeds usually had the last laugh, though, as I often looked down to find my clothes covered in hundreds of fuzzy green burrs the size of BB pellets, frequently found tangles of dandelion-like feathery seeds in my ponytail, and too often found myself picking thorns of all sizes out of newly torn skin as blood dripped from my fingers to stain the dust at my feet.

Despite the slope, the neighbor's chickens quickly found their way to our work space and maintained a comforting proximity as they cooed and hummed and scratched for newly revealed bichos in the freshly turned earth. The motion they added to the surrounding environment had a soothing effect that left me unconcerned by strange noises and movements my senses detected around me while I worked.

Though I tried my best to appear enthusiastic and ready to keep going indefinitely, after three hours of battle in our war against the weeds, breakfast now six hours behind me, I was all but out of steam. My back and my legs ached from constantly bending over, my ankles, having spent the last two hours bent to a 45 degree angle, were ready for flat ground, and my already bloody hands had now begun to blister. As if sensing the impending demise of my American body that was unaccustomed to such extended feats of physical labor, Teodoro appeared with his pickax and machete. Descansaremos he said with a nod and continued down the mountain (“let's rest”). I willingly followed as he explained we would go harvest yucca (a tree he had pointed out to me earlier in the day whose root tubers are a staple food in the region) for lunch.

I followed him to a narrow strip of cultivated land on the far side of the property, where, after spending the morning in the shady pseudoforest I was surprised by the intensity of the mid-day heat. Teodoro approached a yucca tree and then did a funny two-step as he turned in place, looking for something in the surrounding banana trees. He approached the nearest palm (below, left) and almost without warning axed off a dying four-foot long leaf, which he then folded in three and placed in a shady spot on the ground. Sientate, he said calmly with a nod and a smile, pointing to the leaf. The fatigue in my legs trumped my ego; I gratefully sat, feeling slightly pampered in the shade as I watched all four feet, five inches of Teodoro deftly swing his machete with amazing precision, chopping down each pale, spiny branch of the 9 foot tall yucca tree he had selected with minimal effort and pile them neatly to the side. Branches out of the way, he now set to loosening the roots with his pickax so he could tear the entire root system from the ground in one piece. I sat sweating in the heat despite my seat in the shade, and was slightly terrified when I looked down at my bare arms and found no less than a dozen crimson pools growing before my eyes on their surface. As I wiped the red away to determine the source I watched a tiny fly I had previously taken to be a fruit fly land on my arm and leave yet another carmine pool in his place as he flew away. Definitely not a fruit fly. I untied the long-sleeved shirt I still had tied around my waist from earlier that morning and pulled it over my head as the bites began to swell and the intense itching set in. I pursed my lips to an irritated smile as I remembered in my moment of need that I had forgotten to purchase cortisone cream before leaving the States. Boo. I cursed my oversight as the burning on my arms became nearly unbearable and for a split second I felt the urgency of panic set in. Two hour drive from relief I told myself. Thankfully the sheer absurdity of driving two hours down the mountain to purchase something that would make me only marginally more comfortable provided a strong grounding, forcing me to reassess the meaning of need. I decided a good distraction would probably be more effective than cortisone anyway and got up from my privileged place in the shade to help Teodoro dig up our lunch.

The yucca was absolutely delicious! Its white flesh had a hearty flavor reminiscent of potatoes but the long, soft fibers that ran lengthwise down the tuber gave it a much creamier texture. I contributed a can of tuna to the meal (a comparatively expensive addition here in this impoverished region, believe it or not) and made several clumsy attempts at conversation with the quiet, enigmatic man I was to spend the next two weeks with. They didn't go very far. 

After lunch I resumed my grammar studies in the shade that remained on the tiled porch as Teodoro sat on the edge of the tile, chupando (literal translation: “sucking”) his way through a five gallon bucket full of oranges as we waited for the heat of mid-day to pass. I watched as the four-year old neighbor boy made his way across the field that separated his family's homestead from the Casa del Cafe. His navy blue sweatpants with a blown out seam in the bum cuffed at his ankles, revealing tiny, dirty feet in tiny, dirty white 
flip flops, an odd contrast to the clean pale yellow polo shirt he wore. Shyly he approached the porch and stopped a good distance away, a toy truck dangling from a once white, now brown rope that he absent-mindedly twirled around his fingers as he stared at the strangely pale newcomer. I said hello and invited him to join us, but he stood his ground and did not speak back as he began to tangle the rope around his hands and elbows, drawing the plastic truck in and away from the unfamiliarity that was me. I turned back to my book for a couple minutes before looking up again to meet his curious gaze; I smiled and began making funny faces. His head rolled to one side as his lips spread into a grin, revealing adorable dimples in his brown cheeks. His arms began to lower in front of him and the weight of the truck slowly unwound the rope from his elbows. I stuck my tongue out at him and his grin widened, head still cocked to the side, eyes never leaving my face; he laughed as the truck landed with a soft thud on the grass in front of him. Encouraged, I tried again: ¿Cómo te llamas? The truck raised as the rope found its way around his elbows again, his smile faded and eyes remained fixed on me. I looked at Teodoro to judge his reaction; the pile of orange peels and the flattened white remains of the fruit post-chupa had grown considerably as he watched the exchange in front of him with curiosity. I turned again to the boy and smiled, resuming my silliness; again the truck dropped as the boy doubled over in fits of giggles. Finally Teodoro spoke, and the boy joined the chupa on the edge of the porch while I snapped photos of the event from my corner in the shade. Teorodo's dog Beethoven emerged from his makeshift doghouse inside an old piece of machinery that sat beside the porch to join the fun shortly thereafter. 

At 3:30, feeling fairly refreshed after our descanso we set back to work on the hillside. The constant coos and scratches of chickens followed us at ground level while the buzzing of large pollinators and deep hum of tiny shimmering humming birds swarmed around my head. The perpetual chorus of birds overhead completed the symphony which moved in a flowing rhythm, accompanying the scrape scrape scrape of the hoe and the calm pish....pish... of the pickax. I had by now identified the magnificent creature whose pre-dawn songs had so captivated me that morning: a large black bird who traveled in groups, their long, brilliant yellow tails setting ablaze the tallest tree in the forest we worked in as they built their long, drooping nests that hung from almost every branch. I frequently stopped to watch from below as their calls echoed across the clearing; perched high above, I watched one bird dip forward as he began his song, continuing the bow until he was almost upside down on the branch he clung to. He then quickly snapped back upright with a small hop as he completed the call with a hollow shriek. Unbelievable.

At 5:30 Teodoro again anounced descansaremos, this time adding nos ducharemos (“time to shower”). Sweaty, filthy, bleeding, blistered, and exhausted, the idea of a cold shower didn't sound too bad as the sun started its descent towards the mountains on the horizon.

Calle de la Muerte

Monday June 21, 2010

At 7:30AM Jaime and I left the house in Valencia that I'd spent the weekend at and headed into La Paz to make a few quick stops before heading to Caranavi. By 8:45 we were on the road, heading up, up, up towards the summit of the ring of mountains that had contained me since Friday. I'm starting to realize that nothing happens quickly in Bolivia: before summiting the mountains we made no less than half a dozen stops to pick up this and that...fruit, toilet paper, air pressure for the tires, fish, paper towels, coca leaves, water, a freshly handmade straw know, the usual. Up we went, past the treeline where the dry, grassy groundcover rendered the sharp peaks almost dune-like against the impossibly blue sky. Up we went, past beautiful shimmering reservoirs and snow-filled ravines. Up, up we went, and the crisp brown of winter grass gradually gave way to dark rocky cliffs as we neared the cumbre. A smattering of woolly sheep and long-necked llamas clamored over boulders and breakfasted on sprays of dwarf grasses that poked through the rocky soil on either side of the road. The day looked good.

We pulled into a highway checkpoint around 11 AM as we neared the summit; both sides of the road were lined with vendors selling all manner of sugary edible delights, newspapers, and toiletries. They walked from vehicle to vehicle, shoving hands full of goodies into open windows to entice travelers to purchase their wares; “Jugos frescos, yogur, helados, dos Bolivianos, DOS Bolivianos!” Jaime flagged down a vendor and bought a newspaper, a Red Bull and a small, unmarked plastic bottle of moonshine while I took photos of the kids running around the bed of the pickup in front of us. Slowly we worked our way through the line and up to the summit, where Jaime superstitiously sprayed the cumbre with drops of moonshine before taking a swig himself.


Thus began our journey towards Calle de la Muerte....Jaime alternating swigs of moonshine and Red Bull and me politely trying not to notice. 

Onward we went, now heading down, down, down, as the sharp peaks of La Paz began to soften under a blanket of mossy green forest, giving the mountains a decidedly romantic character as they emerged from the low-lying clouds of early morning. The first half (65 kilometers or so) of the highway is in great shape—paved for the most part, guard rails here and there, and center lines painted (even if they're not heeded). Our hunter green Kia Sportage 4 x 4 zoomed onward like a champ, despite a speedometer that didn't move and a low fuel light that constantly blinked due to a fuel gauge that always hovered just above E (not to worry though, the speed limit is in all cases “as fast as possible,” and we had a 10 gallon container full of gasoline in the back seat just in case. And if all else failed, there was always the faded silver and pink decal of Christ that donned the center of the windshield, his outstretched arms raising a good six or seven inches from the wipers...that had to count for something, right?).

We stopped briefly around noon at what I would call a Bolivian mountain strip mall (read: a small collection of rather rickety buildings in the middle of nowhere, clinging to the side of the cliff) to eat Trucha, a traditional meal for the area. Trucha consists of a whole fish, butterflied and fried, on rice with a peeled, boiled potato, minced onions cooked with an array of spices, and something I could not identify, which may or may not have been a potato that had been buried under the ice for several months as it went through some sort of curing process (I think that's what Jaime was trying to tell me...?). I tried to ignore the strong smell of rancid fry oil that hit my nostrils as we entered the cramped establishment; I tried not to notice the flies buzzing around the single lightbulb that hung from the ceiling; I did my best to put from my mind the image I had in my head of the fish Jaime had purchased from the outdoor market earlier that morning (read: whole, raw fish laid out on a small, unfinished wooden table in full sun, under the watchful eye of a woman who sat ungracefully on a dirty plastic stool. With perfunctory rhythm she worked through the stack of fish on her left and added them to the pile on her right, swiftly dropping the cleaver in her left hand to each carcass as her right hand tossed the body to the right and returned for the head, her fingers eagerly plucking it up and bringing it to her lips for consumption. Flies circled as fish goo oozed onto the stained wooden table. Ice...? What ice?); and I tried not to think about hugging the toilet all night long in a place that may or may not have any sort of plumbing. I ate. Delicious!

Bellies full and sun shining down overhead we continued onward, down, down, down, as the heat, humidity, and vegetation grew with every bend in the road. Raaaaaadio Morrrrrrrrena blasted over the open windows while Jaime sped onward, unhesitatingly swerving around every car we approached with a honk and a wave. The road was a free-for-all, and though double yellow lines, speed limit postings, and signs that read “No Adelantar” (“No Passing”) were all present, neither the cars nor the trucks, nor the buses that sped down the mountain payed them any mind.
The smooth road transitioned slowly to dirt; we passed through several unfinished sections including a couple that had at one time been finished but had fallen victim to landslides during the rainy season at the start of the year. Men covered in dust worked unsettlingly close to the precipice to repair the damaged road without so much as a hard hat for safety as cars swerved by, kicking up rocks and thick clouds of dust. I had been foolish to think that we would leave the dust behind us as we descended into more humid regions. Around kilometer 65 the rocky dirt road narrowed and Jaime told me the paved portion was now behind us. Calle de la Muerte underfoot, Jaime zoomed on as fast as possible and the radio turned to static. Signs read “Conserva la Izquierda,” directing cars to drive on the left side of the road; I can only assume this was so the driver had a better view of how close the vehicle was to the edge of the road. Every time we approached a vehicle the dust was so thick you couldn't see ten feet in front of the car. Despite the lack of visibility, Jaime never let up on the accelerator as he swerved to dodge large rocks, potholes, and other vehicles, but he never led us astray. It was useless to try to talk above the noise of the car as we raced onward, and to tell the truth I didn't think Jaime needed any distractions as we traveled inches from the barren edge of cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet to certain death. Every time a vehicle came from the other direction, Jaime maintained his speed and waited until the very last minute to swerve to a skidding halt in one of the pull-offs that was barely large enough to fit a single car, somehow managing to downshift into neutral, roll up both of our windows to keep out the dust, and fiddle with the radio all at the same time as the front of the Sportage missed the oncoming vehicle (the driver of which had at no point even considered the possibility of slowing down to avoid a collision) literally by inches. No sooner had the back of the passing vehicle cleared the front tires of the Sportage than Jaime floored the accelerator sending us careening blindly into the thick cloud of dust left by the passing vehicle.

Even more fun was coming upon a vehicle traveling in the same direction that was moving slower than Jaime wanted to go (or for that matter, any vehicle coming upon any other vehicle that was traveling at a slower speed, as everyone has the same driving habits). Jaime would honk several times to announce our presence to the car in front of us, at which point the other car was expected to pull over to the side to let us pass. If this didn't happen quickly enough, Jaime would swerve to the right several times, looking for any opportunity where the road might be just wide enough for two cars, at which point he would floor it in an attempt to accelerate ahead of the car. This might seem like a fairly normal passing maneuver until you consider the fact that the dust being kicked up by the car in front of you was so thick you could barely see the glow of its taillights even though they were less than ten feet in front of you, which meant you also couldn't see the edges of the road, nor the bumps and rocks in your way, nor any oncoming traffic that might have been just around the bend, traveling, of course, as fast as possible. Side note: I actually saw a public service announcement on TV regarding Bolivians' tendency to pass with near complete disregard for oncoming traffic. Though I couldn't hear the dialogue of the announcement, the text that appeared below the speaker at the end of the announcement read “We need help,” as if it were an announcement for drug addiction or alcoholism. I thought it was pretty hilarious.

Thus we sped onward, swerving from side to side, bouncing up and down as the car rumbled over the rocky, uneven terrain, and periodically jerking to a halt and rolling up the windows to avoid the ever-present dust. The Sportage took the beating like a champ (or so I thought...), and despite our proximity to danger (see cliff, left), the smile never left my face. The views were spectacular—lush, beautiful mountains as far as the eye could see, the deep valleys and ravines that separated them providing space for a plethora of agricultural establishments—bananas, tomatoes, coca, citrus trees, and other unidentifiable crops planted neatly in rows along the valley floor or on terraces cut into the sides of steep mountains. We passed tiny homes and even smaller stores with sagging brick walls that somehow stood despite their lack of mortar, their corrugated tin roofs barely covering the small rectangular footprint of the building. We passed through small pueblos that lasted no more than fifty meters and consisted only of a handful of homes on either side of the road, a number of small stores, and one brightly painted cement building with plastic tables and chairs and a hand-painted sign out front with the menu (everything con carne). Women in bright,often metallic skirts with long black braids sat outside their stores on plastic chairs or sacks of grain, fanning themselves against the heat, squinting against the sun and the dust as they watched our car go by. Children in dust-stained clothes peeked their heads out of front doors and looked up from their games as we rumbled by. Everything, everywhere within 20 feet of the road was always dulled by a thick coat of dust.
My favorite image of the trip was on the outskirts of one of these towns; the buildings now behind us, the view to my right had once again returned to the dingy brown of dust-covered jungle foliage on the mountainside. As we sped on, for a split second the dust broke as we passed a small child in tiny pink shorts, head raised to the sky as a gush of crystal clear water poured over her, redirected from a hidden mountain stream. Her jet black hair streamed in meandering rivers down her face and from her huge grin escaped shrieks of glee as she waved her tiny arms and stomped her tiny feet in delight. The leaves around her glistened deep emerald green, the pinks and reds of wild azaleas burned at her feet, even the soil of the mountainside behind her, the same dusty soil that dulled everything else in sight, had a deep, fertile hue at the touch of water. The whole scene had a vivacity that was startling after mile upon mile, hour upon hour of dust. The car moved on, and the split second of reprieve, the glorious feast for the eyes of color and life, was gone just as quickly as it had appeared.

At 3 pm we finally hit the valley floor as we crossed the river into Caranavi (left). Here we stopped so Jaime could pick up a handful of odds and ends and drop off the straw mattress we had tied to the roof of the Sportage back in La Paz. Legs well-stretched and our vehicle a little lighter, we tore out of town as Jaime announced it would be another hour and a half drive to our destination. “Una hora y media?” I asked, trying not to sound surprised as I recalled Jorge's words earlier that morning, telling me that I would be 30 minutes from town. “Sí. Nowhere to go but up, we left town on a dirt road that snaked around the mountains through the jungle. The road was similar to Calle de la Muerte, except that it had larger rocks, deeper potholes, creeks running across it here and there, it was narrower, and it was more certain to have drop-offs that sent chills up your spine around every bend. Excellent.

We passed through a checkpoint and drove on for a few minutes, at which point Jaime pulled to the side of the road and stopped briefly to look for something in the car. Satisfied with whatever it was he was looking for, he once again brought his foot down hard on the accelerator; the car shook violently from side to side. He stopped, we looked at each other. He again tried the accelerator, and again the car jerked back and forth, clearly not drivable. Jaime let out a frustrated sigh and got out of the car; I followed and watched as he did a once-over of the passenger side front wheel. He grabbed the floormat from the driver's side and laid it in the dust under the car before sliding underneath the front of the vehicle on his back. He fiddled with something for several minutes before deciding that the wheel had to come off; he grabbed a jack and a wrench from the trunk and I helped him remove the wheel (and by “helped,” I mean I held the lug nuts so they wouldn't get lost in the dust (see right)....clearly this man needed no help). Wheel out of the way, he showed me the reason our trusty Sportage had the shakes: the threads on the stub axle had been completely stripped, causing it to break loose from the suspension knuckle; our front passenger wheel was no longer connected to the axle. I nodded and asked if he wanted me to walk back to the checkpoint to get help...though I hadn't the foggiest idea of what sort of “help” would even be available here in the middle of nowhere. I smiled and almost laughed out loud as I thought of how many times over the years I'd taken for granted the fact that AAA was always just a phone call away from bailing me out of whatever flat tire or blown-out belt my old Buick Regal had thrown my way. Jaime shook his head as he went back to the trunk to grab a length of blue and white nylon rope no more than 1 centimeter in diameter. I stood in the dust, holding the lug nuts and watched as he tied one end of the rope to the axle, tightly wrapped it around a few times and then swung the wheel hub into place, fitting the stripped end of the stub axle into the suspension knuckle. Not satisfied with the fit, he walked across the road to find a large rock, which he used as a sledge hammer to bang the two pieces together before continuing to wrap the rope around. As he wrapped, he turned to me and said this quick-fix should make the car drivable but that we'd have to turn around and go back to Caranavi to get it fixed. I nodded and smiled before counting the lug nuts in my hands to make sure I hadn't lost any, suddenly paranoid that I would somehow screw up the only task I'd been competent enough to help with. Five. Phew. As he tied off the ends of the rope, Jaime's quick-fix was actually looking more sturdy than I ever would have thought possible. Apparently Jaime thought so too, because as he lifted the wheel to put it back on the car he said that rather than return to Caranavi, the best thing to do would be to move on ahead “as quickly as possible.” I laughed, thinking it was a joke, and handed him the lug nuts one by one.

Back in the car, Jaime tested the strength of his emergency roadside fix before flooring it on up the mountain. A trail of dust behind us as we sped away, Jaime gave me a big smile and said, “I never remain stranded in the road....” Sweat dripped from his sideburns and soaked the baseball cap he wore sideways on his head, a smear of dust stretched across his cheek. I clapped and sang his praises the best I could in Spanish. We drove on this road for another fifteen minutes or so before turning off onto an even narrower, less well-maintained road with deeply worn tire grooves and dips in the road deep enough to get stuck in, but thankfully few drop-offs. The jungle closed in around us, its cool, humid air a welcome respite from the oppressive heat we had encountered in Caranavi and the highway beyond. Butterflies of every shape, size, and color fluttered amongst the (still dust-covered) vines, fruit trees, ferns, and undergrowth. Chickens meandered in and out of the road, appearing from and disappearing into the dust-laden weeds that lined either side of the road. Strange, colorful birds with strange, beautiful songs swooped down over the road as they traveled from side to side sounding the alarm as we disrupted their world.

We continued on as fast as possible; I cringed and bit my dry, dust-covered lip with each dip in the road, painfully aware of every creak and moan of the tire underneath me. Each time we hit a big rock or bottomed out on this bump or that dip, Jaime would get out and check the wheel; each time he gave me a big thumbs up as he stood up to get back in the car.

We pressed deeper and deeper into the jungle and for a moment I began to panic. Though there were clearings here and there along the road that contained two or three small ramshackle buildings with palm-leaf roofs, the poles and wires that carried electricity and phone communication were now long behind us, and the fact that Jaime had, for the first time all day, stopped checking his cell phone every five minutes indicated to me that cell phone coverage was also gone. I checked my watch; according to Jaime's estimate we still had at least another thirty minutes to go. I took a deep breath, smiled, and reminded myself that this was exactly what I had signed up for; the panic faded as a rush of excitement swelled, thinking of the challenges I would face in the next two weeks. 

The jungle around us began to open up as we ascended, affording incredible vistas of the surrounding mountains which absolutely glowed in the orange tinge of the setting sun. At 6:00 PM, nine hours after leaving Jorge's house in La Paz, we finally pulled into the driveway of Casa del Cafe, the community center of the ProAgro coffee cooperative that I would be working with for the next two weeks. We pulled up to a fairly large white cement building with ceramic tiled roof. Jaime honked the horn and from one of the closed doors along the hallway that ran through the center of the building emerged a small, sinewy man in a flimsy cowboy-style hat. He had no idea who I was, nor that I was supposed to be staying the night, but he knelt down on the tiled floor with a piece of stucco to draw us a map to the house of a man named Evaristo who apparently knew more than he did, and sent us on our way up the mountain. We collected Evaristo and headed back down the mountain so he could explain to the sinewy man named Teodoro that I would be staying in one of the rooms there. 

Teodoro immediately set to work cleaning out the room while Jaime reinforced the Sportage's bum wheel with a length of wire and a piece of rubber he cut from a tire inner tube, both acquired from Teodoro. I beamed my headlamp on the axle for Jaime so he could see in the growing darkness and politely averted my eyes while Teodoro meandered in and of my future room with a small artillery of insect-killing paraphernalia. I tried not to think about whatever it was he was having so much trouble eliminating in there as I repeatedly heard the muffled bangs of the broom I'd seen him enter with, followed by the psshhht pssshhhhhhht of the large aerosol can of insecticide he'd run to grab from another room. After a couple minutes of silence Teodoro quietly emerged, non-nonchalantly sliding his sandaled foot across the tiled floor towards the grass at the edge of the porch, hoping he would get there before the American girl noticed the huge (now dead) black spider with legs as thick as pipe cleaners that he pushed along with his toe. I, for my part, pretended I didn't see it and instead turned my eyes to the pink and orange glow that was subsiding behind the incredible string of mountains in the distance....