Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bolivia

Anna's entry:

PERU-BOLIVIA TRANSIT
I had read such a bad feedback about Lima International Airport; for us, however, the stop-over there became one of the best.  While waiting for our connecting flight to Bolivia, and wandering around various stores and duty-free shops, we enjoyed (all for free) 12 different kinds of chocolates, 4 kinds of coffee, 3 kinds of tostadas, and several pisco brandy cocktails - store representatives, with a big smile, kept pouring more samples for us to try.  There was also a band at the airport playing a traditional Peruvian music to go along with all the free treats around us - so we boarded our plane with tummies full of chocolates, refreshed by coffee, and a little dizzy from all the sampled brandy.  And, we were ready for our next chapter - next morning we would touch down in La Paz, Bolivia.



LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
We met our first sunrise in Bolivia while still on the plane.  Under us was surreal landscape of salt flats and mountains - vast opened areas were stretching as far as eyes could see...  Prior to our arrival, while doing my research about La Paz, I had encountered horror stories about the city (kidnappings and extortions were the big ones); guide books had a warning not to talk to any locals (especially the nice ones), and that "there were no friends in Bolivia".  In addition, just before our arrival in La Paz, a National Emergency was declared because of the water shortage all over the area.  So, as you can imagine, even though we are quite experienced travelers, we were preparing ourselves for the rough city and rough crowds.   Our first impression upon arrival, however, was quite different - people seemed quite soft-spoken and mellow, public bus ride from the airport to the city went smooth - no road blocks, no extortion, no shenanigans.  The only challenge to get used to was a high elevation - at nearly 12,000 feet (La Paz is the highest capital in the world), moving around high mountains and steep hills was a challenge.  Breathing was harder, moving was slower, lightheadedness was a normal physical state.  It almost felt like we were in a slow motion where everything around us was happening at a very slooooooooooow pace...

We spread our time in La Paz among thee very different neighbourhoods - Sopocachi, Central Market Area, and around the Central Bus Station.  Each of these areas had a very different character, and I thought that would be an excellent way to learn about the city and its quirks.

 -- SOPOCACHI
The peaceful neighbourhood of Sopocachi is considered a wealthier part of La Paz.  It is somewhat removed from the city, and is located high up in the hills with absolutely stunning views of La Paz.  The place we stayed at was run by a lovely smiling crew, we had a super comfortable private room with a view over the mountains and cable cars soaring high in the air.  The view at night was similarly breath-taking - thousands of lights from the houses built all over mountain slopes would lit up, and we wouldn't even want to draw the window curtains closed so we could enjoy that night landscape right from our bed. 

La Paz has the largest cable car network in the world - and it is built and used as a mode of public transportation.  No road blocks, no traffic lights, the cable cars are soaring high up in the air over the majestic Andes Mountains, with numerous neighborhoods and settlements stretched all over the city hills.  Needless to say, we wanted to dedicate a special time to ride those cable cars in various directions above the vast city and dominating Andes Peaks.  The rides were fantastic!  We made several stops to connect various city points - at one of them we had (a local fast food) lunch with 180° Panoramic views of the city below us.  Local people were very mellow and humble, and indigenous people almost seemed afraid of their photos taken - in Peru and Ecuador they loved the attention, so we really would have to get used to new customs around here, and obviously be more discreet.  We stopped at one of the local supermarkets and picked up a $4 bottle of Bolivia wine (great!), $1.50 of fresh cheese for supper.  We are slowly getting used to this 12,000 feet altitude - I seemed to be adjusting a bit easier than Rob.  Our hotel has a basket on their breakfast table with coco leaves - supposedly they help with the altitude.  A hotel lady helped us to make a special tea with them - Rob decided to give it a try, but I wanted to experiment and do without them to see who gets to the altitude quicker. 

Our neighboiurhood also had a day dedicated to a special festival called Alasitas.  This was sort of a "wish day" festival with all kinds of odd things on display - toy money, cars, houses, dolls dressed in men's clothing and decorated with candies, rice, beer, pop-corn AND a cigarette (which was lit for real!!!) in a mouth.  Very odd and very fascinating.  Some stall sellers spent their time and explained to me what those things symbolized and how people used them.  From what I gathered, if you wish for something - say you want to graduate from a university, for example - then you'd buy a toy diploma that day, and hope for the best for your wish to come true.  Same applied if you wanted to find love, money, etc.  Just like that!  Later that day, to escape a heavy rain, we stumbled upon a restaurant that served a $3 per person buffet lunch - the BEST cooked trout I have ever had!  It was served with rice, sauce, all-you-can-eat soup and vegetable salad.  Surprisingly, I noticed a lot of similarities with a Russian style cooking - even a popular local cake here was called "Napoleon Torte" - the Russian bakery staple!  
On our last day (before the move to another part of town) we enjoyed the sunset from a hill-top park terrace with 360° views over the city and the Andes.  Beautiful snow peaks could be seen in the distance, and cable cars gracefully moving among the mountain peaks - what a mesmerizing city and landscapes!












-- CENTRAL MARKET (a.k.a WITCHES' DISTRICT)
This area located in the city center, is a REAL person's La Paz, that's for sure.  More traffic, people, noise, smell, commotion, and interesting from a cultural point of view street scenes.  We walked around the "witches and shamans" market - lots of unusual things on display as one would imagine - lama fetuses, potions, amulets and other shaman craft.  When we asked what local people do with the dead lamas' dried out bodies, local people explained to us those were offerings for "Pachamama" - the "Earth Mother", also known as "Goddess of Fertility"...  OOO'K, I must admit, I don't see why poor lamas need to be traumatized and sacrificed to appease the "Earth Mother", and how could "The Mother" find this enjoyable - but then again, none of any religious rituals make any logical sense.  From a cultural point of view, it was fascinating however, and local sellers were very kind and welcoming to show their sacrificial paraphernalia, and had no problem with us taking the photos.  By the way, the same "full of sh.t" guide books said "don't even think of bringing your camera to the market, they won't let you take any pictures!".  I remember also, how one local lady was standing behind me in a pouring rain patiently waiting for me to finish my photo-shoot (I was completely unaware of her presence and apologized to her profusely, but she smiled in return and reassured me it was totally fine).  YES, I must say - so far, all the warnings about the "unfriendly" and "dangerously friendly" locals, did not match our experiences whatsoever!

For supper, we headed out to the Central Market with plethora of basic food stalls to choose from.  We settled for their day's special at $1.80 per person - poyo con arroz y sopa (i.e. chicken with rice and soup).  And then, we came across something really tasty - on the ground floor of the market, a local family had a huge oven burning in the evening making super delicious "queso empanadas" - the freshest tastiest "piroshki-type" savory pastries with melting cheese inside, they were the best!  On the way back to our place, we also picked up a bag of HUGE sweet popcorn kernels from some local teens selling the treats on top of their wheel barrels.  I have never seen since South America the popcorn of that size, the kernels were about 1.5'' (3.5+ centimeters) in length, and this is NOT an exaggeration. 

On another occasion exploring the market, we witnessed a local brawl.  This was also our first unpleasant interaction.  We ordered a meal from a food stall, re-confirmed the price (twice), and went to pay, and all of a sudden the meal price went up 5 times more.  While we were trying to reason with a dishonest lady (stall owner), I saw some liquid flying around - apparently, another unhappy person (looked like another food stall competitor) threw something at our stall owner - the fist fight developed among several sellers (all were tough-looking and big women), and while that was going on, Rob and I vacated the premises.  It was somewhat entertaining actually...  Later on that day, our hotel owner tried to over-charge us too - I didn't let her though. So, that was the first day we faced a dishonest pricing - previous 62 days traveling in South America we did not have a single incident of that kind.

Walking around colonial streets with stately, but dilapidated buildings was interesting.  There was definitely a lot more indigenous presence in this part of the city.  Also, we encountered many street labourers wearing ski-masks (made them look like bank robbers from movies) - apparently, those were shoe-shiners, and they wear the masks to avoid the "stigma of their profession".  There were more beggars as well (and they seemed the real ones, not the business-beggars) - Rob gave an elderly indigenous lady some bread, which she seemed to genuinely appreciate.  Rob also shared his umbrella with a pedestrian during a heavy rain-storm, and the lady was seemingly touched by that as well.  So, as you can tell, we broke all the guide books' warnings of steering clear away from La Paz' local scene - not only we interact with locals, we actually initiate the contact. 

There was another scene in the central district that really stayed in my mind - the pigeons feeding as a past time activity.  In a beautiful colonial central square surrounded by stately cathedral, and government mansions, locals (both kids and adults) gather to feed the pigeons, and they take it seriously!  The birds are so used to it, that it is common to see people's heads, arms and hands covered with birds.  That was really fun to watch and photograph.  In Malaysia and Thailand feeding monkeys is a local tradition, in India and Sri Lanka feeding stray cows is an old-fashioned tradition, in Singapore and Hong Kong feeding koi is a popular tradition, and in Bolivia feeding pigeons is obviously a thrilling tradition - I've never seen so many smiling exhilarating faces! 














-- CENTRAL BUS STATION DISTRICT
This third neighbourhood was chosen for several reasons - to see and experience yet another part of the city, to give business to another local establishment (who were very honest and obliging compared to the second location), and lastly, strictly pragmatic reason - we had a 5 a.m. bus departure for our next destination.  In either case, though our room was simple, we had quiet polite neighbours - a local family (v.s. "Western travel trash" who we had to be around while staying at the 2nd location described above).  We also had a HUGE glass enclosed veranda with 180° Panoramic views of La Paz' hills that would come alive with thousands of lights at night - just gorgeous!  We ate at a local restaurant, walked along colonial streets, bought treats for my tea from indigenous "babushkas", who we even managed to laugh together with and get big smiles from (remember - Bolivian indigenous locals are quite reserved).  Rob fed some homeless ladies with food left-overs, which they loved and appreciated.

We finished up La Paz with several cable car rides over the city and Andes mountain slopes.  During one of those rides, an indigenous lady from Copacabana became our passenger companion, and she actually initiated a conversation with us (not a typical behaviour, as I mentioned above - our looks must have toughened up by now).  Then, we headed back to our favourite buffet lunch place and had another delicious Almuerzo Ejecutivo. And, in the late afternoon, after a nice long walk and stopping for a final good-buy at the Central Market and picking up our favourite super-fresh cheese empanadas straight from the oven, it was finally time to say good-buy to La Paz.

So, as it turned out, La Paz was a GREAT place to spend a good portion of time. Except for a couple of minor "unpleasantries", local people were soft-spoken, helpful, courteous, and treated us in a very respectful manner.  Not a single warning from guide books or travel websites became true - on the contrary, we made connections with local people and experienced their warm (if a little humble) hospitality.  Personally, I LOVED La Paz as the city - actually, I had not expected I would enjoy it as much as I did.  I loved the city's neighborhoods, diversity, street scenes, colonial architecture, unconventional urban landscapes, unique public transport, the breathtaking views and general feeling being there - all of those things combined created unforgettable images and associations.  I am so grateful to have been accepted by this magnificent giant.
 







COPACABANA - Part I
We took a so called "tourist" bus from La Paz to Copacabana due to numerous safety warnings - allegedly, kidnappings were a big concern on this route.  As expected, the bus consisted of 90% of Western tourists, which we hated. The rest 10% were occupied by wealthier Bolivians, which were barely tolerable.  Our seats were apparently double-sold (to the latter group), and the bus company asked us to move, which we categorically refused.  I had picked the seats specifically to enjoy the landscape and volcanoes, and we were not ready to give up our seats to a wealthier/spoiled group of Bolivians for no apparently important reason - they couldn't care less about the landscape, and just wanted to sleep for the entire portion of the route.  After a loooooooong squabble and our obvious defiance, the bus agents gave up, and figured things out.  The bus route started really strange - our driver took us on off-roads and weird alleys (this was when Rob asked me if, maybe, we really should be concerned about kidnappings), but eventually it made its way to the real country highway with gorgeous sweeping views of the mountains.  Another local (non-tourist) bus passed us, and the local passengers and us waived to each other - their ride and mood seemed to be so much more cheerful than on our bus.  Rob and I decided that on the way back to La Paz, we would definitely take a NORMAL/non-tourist bus, we enjoy the REAL PERSON experience so much better.  In order to get to Copacabana, we actually had to unload the bus, take a small ferry, while our bigger bus was transported on a barge across the channel.  This was the first time in Bolivia, I began noticing  the sky - the clouds, and the depth of colour were so striking!  

Eventually, after several hours of beautiful mountain rides among high elevation (and a lot colder temperatures), we made it to Copacabana (Copa).  We stayed at a quiet place ran by a former mayor of Copa.  Our room was cute, but so cold - after all, we were located at over 12,000 feet elevation!  Our common bathroom was located outside, and I was shivering going outside to use it.  I was wondering if my breath would freeze before I could make it back to bed.  Our main reason for coming to Copa was the connection to Isla del Sol.  We didn't want to rush things and before moving on, ventured to explore the town.  On our arrival, we had our first lunch at a local joint (but, unfortunately, frequented by Western tourists - almost always the sign, to avoid the place).  But, we were super hungry, and settled for a local lunch consisting of soup, rice, and fish.  It was barely worth it.  On our second attempt, we were determined to find a REAL local eatery, which we did - and went there every single time afterwards.  For under $1.50 we had a set lunch consisting of hearty soup, beautifully prepared fresh trucha (rainbow trout) along with rice, salad, hot salsa, and locally baked buns.  It was served by a local family, and even their young kids were involved in helping the guests.  The attitude was warm and welcoming, price was super cheap, the setting was picturesque - in open garden terrace with tables covered in locally woven tablecloth, AND, the food was so tasty!

While walking around town, we witnessed several "car blessing" ceremonies taking place in front of the grand cathedral.  The vehicles were decorated with flowers and ribbons, then sprayed with sparkling wine, then firecrackers would be set off, and then a priest would bless the vehicles with holly water.  I found priest looking very fashionable - he had his traditional robe on, but also was wearing a super cute straw hat.  Around that ceremonial place, there were several market stalls set up.  Normally, I wouldn't buy anything, but I knew we would end up in some cold areas at high elevation, and I bought myself a pair of gloves made out of lama wool (they for sure, as it turned out, came in handy all the way in Chile later on).  We were planning to return back to Copacabana after Isla del Sol.
















ISLA DEL SOL - NORTH
We were a little skeptical visiting Isla Del Sol - due to its fame, meaning it is on tourists' radar.  But, there was something about the island that kept getting my attention, so, reluctantly, I made it part of our journey - if anything, we would see more of Bolivia.  As it turned out, our experience on Isla Del Sol was most definitely one of the highlights of our journey in South America. 

Some historians conclude that Isla Del Sol (meaning Island of the Sun) was THE birth of Inca dynasty.  They also say, that Inca people themselves believed - that very island was the place where the Sun had been born.  It may sound pompous, but in either case, there were a lot of legends associated with the place.  Surrounded by mysterious lake of Titicaca, there are actually two parts to Isla Del Sol - North and South.  Most tourists rush (as always) their trip and take a boat to the North, spend their two hours, and then walk to the Southern part, and then take a boat back to Copacabana the same day.  It was entirely a stupid way to do it - luckily for us, though, that meant that we had island to ourselves.  We had no interest in rushing things, and spent two DAYs (not tow hours) in the North before making our way South (for another two DAYs). 

We chose to stay in the village called Challapampa.  Our place was owned by a soft-spoken indigenous family, our room had 180° views of Lake Titicaca, mountains and the village.  Donkeys, piglets, and local kids were running along the beach.  Upon our arrival we went to the lake's shore to pet an adorable fluffy baby donkey.  There were also piglets around, and one of them just loved Rob scratching its back.  Apparently, the piglet's owner was searching everywhere for him - the owner "unloaded" on the piglet and startled the poor animal during his "scratching procedure".  The shore was so peaceful, with wooden crumbling docks and boats, local indigenous ladies quietly gathering together,  the clouds ascending on Lake Titicaca...  There was so much peace and tranquility around us...  For food, the eateries were limited and over-priced - unfortunately; but we found several empanadas stands which were very reasonable and very tasty. 

I "dragged" Rob (his wording, not mine) for a 6-hour hike along the Inca Trail with absolutely stunning panoramic views over Lake Titicaca, Andes Mountains' peaks, harbours, peninsulas, ruins, etc.  The views were truly breathtaking!  The hike was very strenuous, I must admit - the island's elevation is over 12,000 feet!  At one point, I got Rob so exhausted, that he had to lay down while scooping water from a stream to purify it.  Even though the hike was challenging, the beauty of nature was so inspiring, that I just wanted to keep going.  Eventually, we reached the impressive Inca's ruins - the Palace of the Sun and an elaborate labyrinth made out of large rocks.  Just upon our exit at nearly a sunset, we stumbled upon a ritualistic ceremony performed by an indigenous shaman - first, on the Inca's ORIGINAL sacrificial rock, and then above the fire.  The shaman dressed in a traditional attire, was performing the ritualistic ceremony in the indigenous language, on the background of the Inca's temple ruins, with a gorgeous sunset over the Andes's peaks -  it was a fantastic experience and an excellent way to finish our exploration of the Northern part of Isla Del Sol. 


















ISLA DEL SOL - SOUTH
We took a boat from Challapampa to the village of Yumani, in the Southern part of Isla Del Sol.  Well, actually, to the dock of the village - it took us 222 steep stone steps to climb to reach the actual village.  Just one kilometer (about 3000 feet) had an elevation of 200 meters (about 650 feet), that's how steep it was - imagine climbing it loaded up with heavy backpacks on our backs at an over 12,000 feet elevation...  The were numerous trails spiraling out in all directions over the steep hill, and the hotel we were looking for was mistakenly marked on the GPS's map - which turned out to be a good thing!  Mislead by the GPS, Rob found us a great peaceful place with stunning sweeping views over Lake Titicaca and snow peaks of the Andes, for fraction of the cost - about $5 per night!  Bathroom was outside, and with a door opened you could continue enjoying the stunning views.  Our bungalow had a large window with a sweeping view right from our bed.  It was truly beautiful!  We also had a traditional reed boat inside our room (as a storage unit) - which was super cute, and added a sense of the tradition and history.  We cooked our own supper enjoying the views from our bungalow.  A few restaurants that were opened here were greedy for tourists' money and had a rip-off pricing (which we were not planning to encourage) - especially, after our fantastic local family's cooking in Challapampa, it just didn't feel right to over-pay.  To our surprise, we did not have tourists around us at all!  A genuine tranquility was present when we were there.  We spent two nights in Yumani loving the views, peace, and quiet.  We hiked around the mountain terraces and Inca trails, and even now - months later when I am typing this blog, the images of the sky and Lake Titicaca are still so striking - the intense colours just haven't faded away, just like the legends of Isla Del Sol have not ceased to exit with time...












COPACABANA - Part II
We returned back to Copacabana from Isla Del Sol; majority of tourists who had arrived on our boat rushed to their connecting buses back to La Paz, but not us.  I knew of a BIG 4-day festival coming up in Copa, so we settled back in our previously used hotel (owned by a former Copa's mayor), and spent a few days prior to the festival exploring other parts of town.  We climbed to the top of Cerro Calvario with 13,034 feet (3,973 meters) elevation with unbelievable views over the area. We also took a steep hike to Inca Rock Observatory (at nearly the same elevation, and also with breath-taking panoramic views).  That observatory is supposedly used up-till present day for harvest and rainfall predictions by local indigenous people.  While enjoying sweeping views from the top, a humming bird came by to join us.  We actually had seen another humming bird feeding on flowers' nectar at our local family restaurant that we enjoy so much, but as soon as loud Western tourists showed up, the humming bird left immediately - understandably so.  

We finished up our evenings at a local night market, where a jolly local lady was cooking up fresh dessert - puffy crispy dough wheels freshly cooked in hot oil and served with sweet syrup (which tasted a bit like burnt sugar, but surprisingly good with the pastries).  I did not take any photos of those pastries because my fingers were so sticky after enjoying several helpings with both hands. 

We also attended a special bull-fighting event.  Both Rob and I had dreaded the performance, but to our biggest surprise and relief, the event was very mellow, and NONE of the bulls got hurt.  I actually have to mention a few details about this event that are worthy of further description.  First of all, the event started 1.5 hours late.  Secondly, the seating was completely packed and unsafe - the self-built platforms made out of wooden trunks, boards, plastic chairs, and rickety platforms were filled way beyond their capacity with locals and their families.  We were wondering when they would fall down and how many injuries to anticipate (Rob and I chose to stand along the fence, and just were hoping that those people would not fly down on our heads).  Thirdly, and to our big relief - the bulls were treated quite kindly - no injuries, no blood, just matadors facing reluctant and resisting-to-fight bulls.  I was even thinking at one point that it would be nice to pet the bulls and give them a banana peal treat.  In addition, inside of the fighting arena, besides the matadors, there was a drunk man, a selling bread man, and a cotton-candy selling lady - so it tells you the "seriousness" of the bull fight. I also noticed that indigenous ladies loved more watching the young matadors than the angry-not-really bulls.  So, the bull-fighting was totally an authentic local cultural experience not to have been missed!

And, finally, the day has arrived for the BIG Fiesta!  The details of which follow below.     












FIESTA De La VIRGEN De CANDELARIA
One of the largest and most significant festivities both in Bolivia and Peru, celebrated for four straight days.  And, we were fortunate enough to attend all of the festivities, well, almost all - except for heavy drinking the last day (never mind it is supposed to be a "religious" festival).  Parades, dancing, multiple traditional costumes, indigenous groups from various parts of Bolivia and Peru - the atmosphere ignited the mood of the entire Copacabana, that's for sure.  I loved the enigmatic mix of colourful traditional attires, animalistic masks, paganistic costumes, etc.  Dancing rituals varied from a traditional skirt waiving and rotating in circles to jumping and running around to modern sexy hip moving (the latter mostly done by men).  The second day of celebration, besides parades, music, and dancing, there seemed to be a river of beer flowing all over town - both men and women seemed tipsy from all that circular dancing and alcohol to go with it.  We were offered to join a group on several occasions along with offered beer and chats.  Normally, it is challenging to photograph indigenous people in Bolivia, but during this festival it was a completely different story - lots of smiles, invites, and even posing for photos.  People really opened up and just had a good time!  I specifically remember chatting with one of the Bolivian men whose wife was a parade participant.  The guy was very easy going, so I decided to ask him a question that had crossed my mind on several occasions.  It just seemed that the lower body part of Bolivian women covered in their traditional dress seemed disproportionate to the rest of the body.  I really was curious if the anatomy of the Bolivian women was different, or it had something to do with the construction of their dress.  So, I went for it and asked that local guy.  He seemed more than obliged to address my curiosity.  Very swiftly, he introduced me to his wife, and asked her to LIFT HER DRESS for me so I could see what was going on under it!  And they say that Bolivians are UNAPPROACHABLE???  Now - maybe with the only exception in INDIA - where local ladies showed me what was happening with their sari, I could have NEVER imagined that in the reserved BOLIVIA I would be allowed a casual look under a traditional woman's skirt!  The man's wife slightly scolded her husband, smiled at me AND lifted her skirt!  And, there they were - 12 layers of other skirts under one big one - that explained the look that I had been so curious about.  Yes, we had a good fun at the fiesta.  Needless to say, that festival has become a very colourful memory for us about Bolivia and the gentle soul of its people.













BOLIVIA - CONCLUSION
Kidnappings, extortion, unfriendly locals, national emergency - luckily for us NONE of it came true.  Instead, we met warm kind polite individuals that made our journey so worthwhile.  The reserved nature of the Bolivians and, perhaps, more so reflected in the country's indigenous population by no means signifies indifference.  With the proper respect towards local traditions and customs comes gratitude.  I have to be honest, prior to our arrival to Bolivia, the image of the country and its people was somewhat disturbing - probably, due to a large number of warnings on various travel sites and in guide books.  I left the country, however, with a completely different impression - I loved the city of La Paz, I cherished Isla Del Sol's breath-taking landscapes and history, and even more touristy Copacabana with its incredible festival spirit found a very special place in my heart.  And, the genuine Bolivian soul is as gentle as it can be, you just have to find the places and people that preserve their soul instead of selling it for tourists' money.