Friday, August 27, 2010

San Ignacio

Tuesday July 20, 2010

Apparently the roosters in Chijchipani were well behaved as poultry goes; at 1 o'clock in the morning I found myself quite envious of the leisurely 3:30 AM wake-up call that was customary at the Casa del Cafe. Shrill territorial cackles made their rounds through the village, rising over a more localized banter of high-pitched squeaks coming from above; every ten seconds or so the unpleasant chorus was interrupted by a loud, reverberating bang as a bat clumsily entered the lair from his nighttime rendezvous (I thought they used sonar...?). I wished for daylight and fumbled through my pack to find my earplugs.

At 4:30 AM a dance party commenced at the house behind the Centro de Acopio. Or at least that's the only reason I can possibly imagine that anyone in their right mind would ever crank such intense bass-throbbing music at such an unholy hour of the morning. My soft foam earplugs were no match for the natural amplifier that was the concrete, cavernous, and largely empty Centro de Acopio. I grabbed my headlamp and shuffled sideways through the door into the damp night where I was instantly greeted by ferocious growling and barking from somewhere in the surrounding darkness. I did not take the time to locate the source and hurriedly slid back into the safety of the warehouse and shut the door; the bathroom could wait. Instead I put my double-X chromosomes to work unpacking and organizing my belongings into something that resembled a (temporary) home. Aside from the concrete floor, to help with this endeavor I had four small chairs, a pile of junk that was capped with a Coleman-like double burner camping stove (alas, no fuel), and the far edges of my gymnastics-mat-turned-bed. What I did not have was electricity, a (working) stove to cook on, or internet service despite my fancy Tigo USB drive. Luckily I hadn't really expected any of those predictions to come true anyway; I know better by now. I stacked and stowed various items that I would be using with frequency and left the rest in my pack.

The azure glow of dawn finally illuminated my windows and I tried my luck one more time with the door. Again I was met by aggressive canine warnings; I retreated slightly until I noticed that the source of the ruckus had his tail between his legs. I took a step towards him and the barking crescendoed, but backpedaling paws betrayed his feigned confidence. A few more steps in his direction made him turn on his heels and bark his way deep into the jungle. I took a first look at my surroundings: a scruffy lawn stretched out in front of me until it abruptly ended in a mess of weedy bushes. There, a worn dirt road materialized to the left of the patch and a narrow footpath swept to the right. The smell of wood smoke hung in the air and the faint sounds of children and cooking floated over a thin line of greenery that separated me from my neighbors. I looked off in the distance to see that the fog from the previous day's journey had pursued me up the mountain: a ghostly mist enshrouded the cascading hills in front of me and a thick swath of low hanging clouds blew steadily overhead to settle into the valley to my right. I was looking forward to exploring.

After getting ready, I ate breakfast, grabbed a newspaper I had picked up in La Paz, and waited. At 7:45 Lucio's head appeared, bobbing above the weeds as he plodded along the footpath; he wore stained khaki pants that were tightly rolled at the ankles against the mud, a dirty white t-shirt, and a taupe hand-knit sweater vest. A silver-dollar sized hole was worn through the vest just to the right of where it stretched over the beginnings of a middle-aged pot-belly. Heavy boots dangled oddly at the end of his legs as he walked, as if their weight alone was fueling his forward motion by inertia. His face was weathered and looked tired, but both of these attributes quickly faded when he stopped in front of me and an easy, goofy smile rose from the corners of his lips. Buenos deeeeas, Ingeniera...did you sleep well? “Yes, yes, of course!” I lied. Out of respect they've christened me Ingeniera (“Engineer”); I'm not exactly sure why, as I'm certainly not an engineer...but I go with it (¿Cómo se llama? Catereeeeen, I say. Aaaahh, que nombre mas bonito tienes, Ingeniera. (what a pretty name you have, Ingeniera)). He asked me if anyone had brought my breakfast by yet. My mind cringed; not only was I a little wary at the idea of eating food prepared by someone who most likely is not overly concerned with the virtues of handwashing, but more importantly, knowing the depth of their poverty I was bound and determined to be as small of a burden as possible while I was here. I tried to assure him that I wouldn't be needing breakfast, that I had brought my own food and had already eaten. He smiled and said, not to worry, Ingeniera, Gregorio will be bringing you your breakfast by any minute now. Right...

Together we worked out my schedule for the next two weeks; each day I would be working with at least two, sometimes up to four farmers, harvesting, washing, peeling, eating, living, and breathing coffee. I scheduled in time to go to Caranavi on the first Saturday, and Lucio explained that during my second Sunday there, the region would begin their Fiestas Patrias festivities of dos de agosto (Patriot's Day, 2nd of August) (read: everyone will be too busy dancing and drinking to be driving their taxis into Caranavi, making my planned Monday departure back to La Paz impossible). We decided it would be better if I took off a couple days early. Not sure what to expect of the next two weeks here and conscious of the multitude of unfamiliar discomforts I had run into in the last twelve hours, I was content to agree with shortening my stay by 48 hours.

A short while later a small, happy man in flip-flops appeared on the dirt road; he carried a plate and a steaming cup. I assumed him to be breakfast-bearing Gregorio. ¡Buen día, Ingeniera! He said while pressing the plate and cup into my hands. Aquí tiene su desayunito, I'll be back in fifteen minutes. I smiled big and sputtered gracias...mucheeeeeesimas gracias about ten times while lowering my head into a series of quick short bows (apparently I thought I was in Asia)--trying every way I knew how to show my gratitude for the food that he and his family were sharing with me. He disappeared around the bend, leaving me standing in the lawn holding a plate piled high with copious amounts of rice and potatoes and a solitary egg on top. There was no doubt that the egg came from one of the hundreds of chickens that wandered about the town scratching and pecking its way across the dirt; its fluid yolk shone a radioactive shade of tangy yellow that only comes from a healthy diet of grubs and greens. Over the course of my time in San Ignacio I would learn to be grateful for those chickens for many reasons. Not only did they provide incredible eggs, but they were also more than willing to hungrily snatch up the evidence of anything that I could (or would) not eat. My problem was most often the former: at each sitting, Bolivians eat about three times what my grazer's stomach is accustomed to; it didn't seem to matter how many times I told everyone that I'm not a big eater...plates continued to arrive piled high with more starch than I could ever hope to consume.

I followed Gregorio down the main dirt (mud) road, up short stack of steep earthen (muddy) stairs, and around a winding, dirt (mud) trail up the mountain through the forest. We stopped at a tiny run-down shack in a small clearing to pick up a handful of harvesting paraphernalia, continued up the mountain for another fifteen minutes, and finally stopped. We'll work here today, he said, handing me a small tarp and instructing me how to tie the four corners into two knots and sling one knot onto each shoulder. He then gave me a small purse and instructed me to wear it diagonally across my body with the pouch on the opposite side as the tarp sling. I followed him to the nearest tree. He plucked two fistfulls of coffee cherries for demonstration; in the first hand the cherries were perfect specimens: the deep cranberry red skin was unblemished and unbroken. Cafes especiales, he said with a nod. Normally, these would go in the big bag, pero porque la lluvia ha fregado todo...(but because the rain has ruined everything...), they'll go in the small bag today. He opened his other hand to show me precisely how the rain had ruined everything: like any other fruit, too much rain spells doom for coffee; the once prefect skin had split and turned black along the opened edges; fermentation had set in. When the bean is exposed to air in this way its flavor changes, and it can no longer be considered specialty coffee. Gregorio explained that this coffee would be sold as regular organic coffee in the local market. We harvested for three hours, chatting and laughing the whole time; Gregorio is quite a character. At midday his wife and their two smallest children joined us and we ate lunch: more rice and potatoes and a nice big hunk of chicken. To refuse perfectly good food amongst such poverty simply because I choose not to eat meat seemed like an overly privileged and spoiled thing to do; I put my big girl pants on and dealt with it. After a solid six years of vegetarianism, the tough, well-exercised meat of these very free-range chickens did not go down easy, but I slowly worked my way through it bit by bit. My efforts at politeness paid off: after lunch Gregorio and his wife gifted me the baby.

Lucio washing coffee
The afternoon involved more hiking, more harvesting, and more hilarity, this time with Lucio. He and his wife had an ease of conversation about them and they enjoyed poking fun at everything about me from my shoes to my grammar; they had me in stitches for the entire afternoon while we worked. In the evening all of the men in the village convened outside of the Centro de Acopio so we could communicate to everyone my itinerary. While waiting for the last few stragglers to arrive the men asked all sorts of questions about Americans and the United States. Chief among them were a) why are Americans all so tall, and b) how much does abc or xyz cost in the U.S.? I wasn't quite sure what to say when the men laughed about how the value of my round-trip tickets from Boston to Bolivia was equal to two full years of income for the average family of 6 in San Ignacio. I thus had even more drive to make sure I was not a burden on their lives during my stay; before the business portion of the gathering commenced, I reiterated my sentiments from earlier in the day to Lucio. He chuckled his good-natured Lucio chuckle, said Okay, Ingeniera, and ten minutes later I listened to him instruct the group that I was to be fed breakfast, lunch, or dinner by whomever I was working with when mealtime struck. I stared at him. Frankly I should have known better; trying to tell a Hispanic not to feed you is about like trying to tell your cattle-raising southern grandmother that you no longer eat meat: first he'll take personal offense that you don't want his food, then he'll quote the Bible to give you a number of concrete examples as to why you really should eat his food, and then he'll decide that you can't possibly be serious and will go ahead and serve you anyway. Not hungry...? Pshhh. Not hungry. You must be absolutely starved to be so delirious, for heaven's sake. Have some pot roast.

Exhausted after a night of almost no sleep and a full day's work, I crashed into bed shortly after the meeting ended at 7:30. Unfortunately, sleep was again not in the cards for me: at 11:30 I was awakened by an ominous pain that had taken hold in my stomach; apparently my well-intentioned meals from the village today were laced with a little something extra. The agitated churning rose well above the bat chatter and I set up camp on the concrete outside, anticipating a long night ahead.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Return to the Jungle

July 19, 2010

The morning shone bright outside as I busied myself at the house in preparation for my next departure into the unknown. As usual, details have been few and far between. I know that I will be heading further into the jungle this time to a small town where residents are extremely poor. I have been told that I will work with a different family every day and that my accommodations will not be as comfy as they were in Chijchipani. Despite these warnings I also have been told that I will have electricity, that I will likely have a stove to cook on, and that with my new marvelously phenomenal Tigo USB internet drive (borrowed from FECAFEB), I will probably even have internet access. Jaime and I planned to leave in the Sportage at mid-day.

I heaved my pack securely on my back and dangled my daypack off of one shoulder in front of me, locked the door to the house and headed out to the main road to await transportation. I have discovered that a multi-day internal frame backpack in an urban setting is fantastic under one and only one circumstance: when it is on your back. At all other times—say, for instance, you want to put the pack on or take the pack off, or you want to find something inside the pack, or you want to pick up the pack to move it twelve inches to the right, or even if out of frustration you simply want to leave the pack leaning against a wall as you walk away to regain your composure—its awkward clumsiness will leave you wanting to pull your hair out and abandon all of your belongings in the middle of the street.

Enter mini-bus.

While the mini-bus system is fairly unpleasant on a normal day, I found out today that it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) downright deplorable when dragging along fifty pounds of stuff in cumbersome and unwieldy packaging. I struggled to lift the obstinate bag into the vehicle, hoisting it with a grunt on top of the first seat inside the door. I then made the mistake of releasing my grip on the backpack for all of three seconds to get myself in and, true to form, my weighty bundle of joy took the opportunity to topple over and ooze its way back onto the ground outside. Perfect. The driver shouted words of impatience at me while I struggled a second time to get into the overly cramped cabin. I finally sat down with my belongings balanced awkwardly between my knees and he zoomed away before I could even shut the door. Twenty minutes into the ride one of the girls to my left asked to be let off, which required both me and my pack to get out first. Excellent. Again I struggled to get back in and to make it easier on myself I decided to maintain my seat by the door rather than following the unspoken societal rule of sliding in to occupy the now vacant seat to my left. This was not appreciated by my ornery driver who angrily pointed out the empty seat as he glared at me in the rear view mirror. I was in no mood; I ignored him and hoped that the extra seat wouldn't be needed in the remaining thirty minutes of my ride. We repeated the routine—angry glares and all—when the other girl to my left got out ten minutes later; my nerves were running thin. As we approached the bottom of the large hill that separated me from my destination, we pulled over to pick up a handful of passengers. The seething driver once again reminded me that I needed to move in, and my heart sunk when I looked behind me and realized that the seats to my left truly were the only empty ones in the vehicle. Already frustrated by his unnecessary level of distress and aggravated by the strain of my load, I took one glance at his flaring nostrils and decided I'd had about enough; time to walk. I threw my pack to the sidewalk and tossed my three Bolivianos in his outstretched hand before relinquishing my seat to the bubbling crowd outside.

I felt eyes settle on me in profuse abundance as the swarms of morning commuters momentarily paused from their conversations, looked up from their napkin-wrapped empanadas, and slowed their strides to shamelessly take a gander at the giant gringa and her giant gringa backpack. I pretended not to notice and kept my head to the sidewalk in front of me as I powered up the hill with every ounce of speed I could muster. I am by now mostly adjusted to the altitude; I am not, however, adjusted to the plumes of black, noxious exhaust that stagnate at ground level as the mostly 1980s- and early '90s-era traffic zips by. A large bus passed, leaving an opaque, inky black trail billowing in its wake. Under the extra weight of my bags, my throat tightened, my head spun, and my lungs screamed for a breath of fresh air that did not come. A desperate thumping coursed through my body and wooshed through my ears as my heart tried in vain to rush oxygen to my working extremities. I shut my eyes against the dizziness and lifted my sleeve to my face to take a couple pseudo-filtered breaths before high-tailing it to the next street over where traffic was not quite as thick. The air cleared from a choking purply-black to an irritating dirty grey and my grateful lungs sucked in deep. I now understand why I've seen so many pictures of pedestrians wearing surgical masks as they navigate the streets of Beijing.

I dropped my bags off at the office and headed back down the hill to buy groceries for the next two weeks—a tasty mix that more or less consisted of crackers, peanut butter, walnuts, granola, and more tuna than anyone should ever eat.

Bolivia continues to teach me to live in the moment and never allow my expectations to grow beyond the slightest glimmer of a hope that things will truly be as I have been told. Our mid-day departure in the Sportage turned into a 3 pm departure on a rickety green bus with lovely unicorn stenciling on the side. Rapid consolidation was in order: I tucked cans of tuna and containers of peanut butter into every crevice I could find inside my pack and smooshed everything else into the scant remaining space at the top. Everything pertinent to my survival for the next two weeks was now stuffed haphazardly into the bulging seams of my pack; a realization that arrived with rather poignant urgency as I watched my bag being roughly dragged up the side of the bus and thrown carelessly onto the growing heap of belongings on the roof. The lower storage compartment was already full. Is that okay? Jaime had asked as we handed my bag over. As if I had a choice...

The bus was packed. In the eight feet of space between the stairs and the windshield alone there were twelve people, seven of which were the driver's wife and kids, who were sitting on the bench in the front with him (including one child who sat on his left, wedged between him and the door); see blurry picture, right. Jaime and I had once again paid extra for the front seats and this time it proved worth it if only for the free access I had to lean out the window and digitally document our progress. I sat with my face glued to the glass as we made our way through a familiar mountainous transition that began in the red clay ridges of La Paz, continued through the rolling honey-glow of the highlands, and pushed towards the rugged, oppressive peaks beyond the cumbre. The bitter chill that La Paz has experienced over the last two weeks had left its mark on the charcoal behemoths that loomed on the horizon: pockets of glistening white softened the inhospitable surface, highlighting some of the jagged lines that adorned the rocky mountain face and blurring others into obscurity. We pressed on and winter left the air as the mountains morphed one final time into the majestic, soft green waves of the jungle sierras. 

Tiny raindrops began to accumulate on the windshield and an eerie, thick fog rolled out of the valley and spilled into the road. Gone were the beautiful vistas of my first trip to Caranavi: the impossibly blue sky and the never-ending layers of smokey mountains that disappeared into the horizon; gone were the tenacious clouds of dust that challenged life, blanketing eyes dry, settling on every surface, and seeping into every pore; gone too, was the precipice, its fathomless depths now filled to the brim with a tangibly thick cottony glow. The fog gave new charm to the Highway of Death: for the rest of our trip, cars and horns, birds and butterflies, blind turns and narrow passes were all inked out by romantic billows rising from below. Occasionally the fog would lift just enough for my eyes to trace nascent mountain ridges from the road and down into the ravine, where their crests were only visible by the dark silhouettes of jungle canopy that gradually disappeared into the hovering wall of white. Though wholly different from my first trip to Caranavi, that which remained visible of the road and its nearby surroundings was still stunningly beautiful—perhaps even more so through the mysterious intrigue of the fog.

Something familiar drew my attention back to the inside of the bus; I paused to that...? As if in answer the driver's oldest son stood up on the front bench, leaned over his father, and turned up the volume on the radio that sat above the door. You're darn right it is, I imagined him saying, Ace of Base's “All that She Wants”...finally arrived to Bolivia sixteen years later in extended Re-mix version. The base and drum lines provided a unifying background for snippets from an amazing array of absolutely terrible 90s American pop songs. Every three minutes or so the overlay songs would fade away and the base beats would be joined by the familiar Swedish voice and nonsensical lyrics that I so reluctantly remember from my childhood. This strange trip down memory lane lasted an interminable and frankly astonishing ninety minutes before the remix finally shifted to the incomprehensibly abominable beats of Peruvian pop for the next two hours. I'm still not certain which was worse.

The chilly, humid night closed in around us and we finally pulled into Caranavi at 8:30. My bag—though soaking wet—was thankfully present and in one piece; Jaime and I jumped into a cab and headed into town where I was to meet Lucio, my go-to guy in San Ignacio for the next two weeks. Jaime exchanged greetings with Lucio and two other individuals (Angel the driver and Mario, a quiet guy in the front seat with a sleeping child on his lap), said then his goodbyes, and with a hug and a wave the last facet of familiarity my life would know for the next fourteen days disappeared into the night. For some unknown reason Lucio had been told that I would arrive around 2 or 3 pm; they'd been waiting for six hours. As we plunged into the jungle my exhausted brain struggled to find the words to apologize adequately in Spanish for such a gross misestimation. Fail. There had been rain in Caranvai—three solid days and nights, they told me—and the swampy, torn up dirt road proved it (incidentally, I'm not actually sure how long it rained for, because the estimate extended as the week went on; with each passing day, each farmer's recollection of the unending downpours that had ruined their coffee grew longer and longer. By the end of my two weeks there the fabled storm's duration had stretched through eight days and nights...). We slowly slipped and slid over the muddy trenches and through veritable lakes that saturated the road and I considered the relative absurdity of my situation. If you had asked me two months ago whether I would board a vehicle with three strange men and drive three hours up an almost impassible dirt road into the jungle, my answer would have been quick and curt: absolutely not. Yet here I was...

I had no idea what would be waiting for me as we pulled into the dark village at 11:30, our horn blasting rudely into the silence to wake everyone up. We stopped in front of a large brick building and continued honking the horn as we waited for someone to bring the keys. They apologized for the wait and explained that my visit had been a surprise. Somehow, despite the fact that I was told two weeks ago where I would be going, the residents of the town had only been made aware of my arrival yesterday afternoon. Great. Two strikes against me right off the bat.

Slowly the town awoke and brought provisions to fill my new home, a small room in their cooperative's storage warehouse. Everyone shared something: a chair, a blanket, a long extension cord with a lightbulb that they ran through my window from the next house over. They brought a gymnastics mat from the school for me to sleep on. Lucio showed me the way to the bathroom, told me he would swing by at 7:00 the following morning, and everyone said goodnight. I grabbed my headlamp and plodded over the slippery, soggy trail to the bathroom; Jorge had not been lying when he told me my accommodations would probably not be as nice as Chijchipani. There was a small sink with running water, a shower, and a ceramic hole in the floor filled to the brim with putrid water. Certainly not nice, I thought, but adequate. I headed back towards the Centro de Acopio (warehouse), where I noticed that the wooden front door only opened about eight inches before the bottom of it scraped against the concrete floor, sending a booming, hollow fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech echoing through the empty brick building and out into the village. I flattened myself through sideways. Exhausted, I did a once-over of the mattress and the surrounding concrete for bugs with my headlamp and, seeing nothing that was close enough to be of consequence, I slipped into my sleeping bag. It was then that I suddenly noticed the prolific cascade of squeaks, bangs, and stench falling into my room from somewhere above. I grabbed my headlamp and traced its beam over the ceiling until it rested upon a massive, gaping hole to the building's crawl space, where a large colony of bats had taken up residence. I was far too tired to care; I paused for a moment to make sure the bats were not using the hole as an exit, pulled my sleeping bag over my face against the stench, and fell fast asleep.                 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Follow the Signs...

It's always entertaining to see how other cultures pictorially communicate important public information. Here are some of my favorites from La Paz...

Always marked, never heeded... 

His ankle never saw that knee-high sidewalk coming.

Mother/daughter bobble head crossing. 
(Also in this collection but not shown here are: Running mother/daughter bobble head,
Obese mother/daughter bobble head, and Obese mother/daughter small head bobble head)

"Danger in General" 
This was placed on the threshold to one of the new bridges
that crosses over what is easily a 300 foot precipice. The bridge is not finished and is 
an open construction zone; however hoards of pedestrians make their way across it
at all hours of the day. "Yeaaah...this one's gonna be hard to narrow down ... "

You know he's a university student because he's tucked his preppy 
frat sweater into his Hammer pants. 

...And because he's crossing the street in his socks.

El Prado

 Sunday, July 18, 2010

I returned to El Prado the following Sunday to find it filled with activity. Each Sunday morning there is a street fair in the area, where local groups perform dancing and music, local artists and artisans sell their wares, and homemade food and kids games abound. From here I walked for most of the day up and down the streets of downtown, finally ending up in Obrajes where I work.

Pork anyone?

I'm pretty much obsessed with these chimney toppers...


Beautiful mural...notice the shards of glass lining the top of the wall.

The door obsession continues...

I had to take this one quickly before the woman who owned it turned
around. It's a strict no-no to take photos of pretty much anything here,
which is why most of my photos are of people's backs. I've been chased
away countless times by wagging index fingers and long strings of
incomprehensible Spanish. 


I received quite a few disapproving looks as I knelt down on the sidewalk
and reached my arms through the fence to take this one...

Street art!


Blue reflection caused by...

This building.

Ilimani looms in the distance.

Gas station architecture

Reflections in glass and lace.

A view of one of the new bridges (they are about to complete a series of three)
through a hole in the stone wall.

Remnants of campaign flyers are everywhere... is this sticker.

Doors galore...

Flower gazebo!

Depiction of the three bridges being constructed; I love the creepy face
at the top of each pillar.