Monday, May 16, 2011

Michael: The best and worst of Bolivia

We’re two weeks home now and I’m posting my final entry. I thought it would be fun to do Michael’s “Best and Worst of Bolivia.” (Of course, your experience may vary. Consult your owner’s manual.)
We were hosted in six cities: Santa Cruz, Sucre, Potosi, Cochabamba, La Paz, and Oruro. My favorite city was Sucre. It was small enough to get around on foot and it was interesting and pretty architecturally.
Oruro was a surprising 2nd place. Most folks we met prior to our arrival spoke unfavorably about it, as it was on the high plain, cold at night, and not particularly pretty. But it was compact enough to make foot travel easy and the culture, with its world-famous carnival, made it easy for me to like. There was incredible sculpture on the main road into town. My Spanish skills had improved to the point where I was able to ask for directions and negotiate purchases at the markets.
Potosi was overwhelmed with history. It was founded by the Spanish in 1546 as a mining town, for the incredible deposits of silver under the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) which is the looming backdrop of the city. It was once one of the largest cities in the world, with a population over 200,000. I imagine every visitor is touched by the triumph and tragedy of Potosi’s past.
Cochabamba had the most attractive and pleasant natural setting, with the sweeping arch of mountains around it. My host had a grand, opulent home, and departing was difficult.
La Paz had one of the most interesting settings of any city I’ve ever visited in the world, on a canyon below the Altiplano. It was too big a city for my taste (as was Santa Cruz), but it was a gorgeous sight coming into the city from the canyon rim at night.
Santa Cruz was hot, flat, and crowded, but the people there were great.
The best food was the fresh produce, particularly the fruit juices. We drank more juices that I had never drunk before than I can count or remember. They were all wonderful. The beef was tasty but in many cases too tough to swallow. We were served dozens of varieties of potatoes and all were good. The picante sauce was tongue-scalding!
The nicest gift I was given was a black sombrero at Sucre’s hat factory.
The best fun I had was bicycling down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road,” chronicled elsewhere on this site. It was amazing!
The most surprising thing was the herds of stray dogs that roamed every city.
The most beautiful sight was of one of the volcanic mountains near La Paz, lit by a setting sun on an otherwise overcast evening.
The most frustrating thing was my ongoing struggle to better understand Spanish. By the end of the trip, I could communicate my needs and understand simple requests and instructions. But I was never able to understand Spanish conversations.
The best service opportunity I had was with the team from Rotary Club De Los Charcas, Sucre, as they gave free medical services to the people of the pueblo of Chaco.
The most nerve-wracking experience was walking through the blockade in Sucre. In hindsight, it was not truly threatening. But it was scary nonetheless.
The worst thing I experienced in Bolivia was the public rest rooms. All of them. They were absolutely filthy, disgusting. No toilet seats, no toilet paper… And there were piles of trash seemingly everywhere.
The very best part of the trip was the people. They were warm, cordial, resilient, welcoming, helpful, uninhibited, and fun. There were people I could barely communicate with who, for the warmth and generosity they exuded, I came to adore.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Michael: heading home today

Today we pack our things (again!), turn our psychic compasses northward, and begin moving home. We depart Oruro at 4pm for La Paz where in the morning we catch the first of 4 airplanes for home.
I´ve been asked several times in recent days, ¨Do you like Bolivia.¨ This is not a question that lends itself to a simple answer. I´ll ramble for a moment, then get back to it.
Two nights ago, I walked back to my guest home from a reception about 8 blocks away, here near the center of the city. I quickly learned that at the midnight hour, the city belongs to the dogs. Dozens of them roam the streets and sidewalks, rooting through garbage for scraps of food, playing with each other, fighting for territory, and initiating reproduction. They are generally placid, almost oblivious to humans, and they instinctively scurry away from oncoming cars. Some appear healthy and look like they would be great pets while others are completely unkempt.
Yesterday, I roamed several of the city´s outdoor markets in search of souveniers and a replacement pair of Tiva sandals. The search for sandals was unsuccessful, but otherwise the journey was great fun. My Spanish skills are still entirely lacking, but I found that with patience on the part of the vendor I could negotiate purchases and find things I was looking for. Everything was extraordinarily inexpensive, like cloth wallets for $1.80 and fiber-pile jackets for $8.00 American. The markets are a bee-hive of activity, with incredible amounts of inventory packed into tight spaces. Shoppers bounce shoulders with one another and jockey for room to walk. In the rare areas where the walking space is 10-feet wide or more, often a car will crawl along at walking space, vying for access with the pedestrians. At one point, the bright, low sun pounded my eyes, casting a surreal glow over the stacks of merchandise and overhead canopies.
Last night, the Rotary Convention hosted what was essentially a talent competition. Each club throughout the district offered a performance of song or dance, either on stage or on a dance floor surrounded by draped tables and chairs. Ostensibly to begin around 8:30, nothing happened until past 10:00 when the room jumped to life. An announcer with a radio-quality voice brought team after team to the floor where they danced, pounded drums, and waved flags, while wearing elaborate costumes of their cultural areas. It was obvious that team members practiced many hours in preparation for the competition. We were served a snack of fried chicken and French fries in a basket, but the meal was secondary to the entertainment. This revelry continued until past midnight when I slipped away into the cold night, headed for my host home.
So do I like Bolivia? There is a peculiar mix of sangfroid and exuberance that is appealing, frustrating, and curious. These folks are absolutely generous and friendly, and they have treated us with enormous kindness. Even with those I cannot communicate, the fondness and sincerity is overflowing. The food has been plentiful and fresh, with exotic fruit juices and vegetables. The scenery is varied and beautiful. But the poverty is pervasive and the needs of the people are enormous: in education, health, sanitation, and opportunity.
I stare out the window from my host´s desk upon 2-story buildings of crumbling stucco, mazes of electrical wires, and clay and tin roof tiles, wondering if I´ll ever return here. The world is full of fascinating places and there are more to explore. But none are more fascinating than Bolivia.
Many of the Rotarians I´ve met have asked that I go to the clubs in America and ask for assistance with their vital work in helping their countrymen live safer, healthier, and more successful lives. As part of our obligation to Rotary, my team members and I will be visiting with clubs and presenting stories of our travels. I hope we will find lots of open wallets to help repay the wonderful people of Bolivia for the kindnesses they have shown us.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Judah- Las últimas dos semanas

So the past two weeks have been full of activities as you can see in the previous posts. Overall, we`ve generally gotten a bit more comfortable with the pace of life here. Cochabamba, La Paz, and Oruro have all been warm and welcoming with great weather, delicious food, and even better hospitality. Here are a few of the highlights for me-
Cochabamba- I was welcomed into the house of the most gracious Montellano family with a cup of tea to revive my tired body after a long day of travel. As soon as I caught my second wind, I was shuttled outside to the fiesta of their son Carlitos` Rotaract club. We enjoyed music, dance, a few drinks, and it was refreshing to enjoy an evening with a younger crowd. The rest of the week, my host father, Fernando and Carlitos took me to their coveted country club, where I got to work out at altitude, getting ready for the Road and River Relay, sponsored by Lexington Sunrise Rotary and cycling season with team traveler. We also got to check out a number of academic institutions, including Univalle, one of the top Universities in South America, and we got a culinary tour of Cochabamba, a city known for its delicacies and as a result they eat 4 or even 5 meals a day. My favorites were pique a lo macho and sopa de manì.
La Paz- After a scenic bus ride along the altiplano, I was welcomed by Renzo Loza, a member of the Bolivian GSE team that visited our district just before our trip. Renzo went above and beyond as host, taking us all over, and showing us a bit of the night life as well. My first full day was the most memorable as I met up with a few of the Rotaract members to volunteer with a program, Un Techo para mi País, to build houses for those affected by the landslides in February. We split up into teams and began the construction of 5 pre-fabricated wooden houses about 10 by 15ft, very similar to the shed I built for my motorcycle a few years back, a fact that made me feel quite guilty realize that my motorcycle enjoys better living quarters than many people in this country and the world. We worked tirelessly starting at 8AM finishing the foundation, then piecing together the floor, walls, roof and then the simple door and two small windows which required a bit more attention. Our team finished by 3pm, at which point we ceremoniously handed over the key to the most appreciative family of four. The father brought me to tears with a speech of how thankful he and his family were and how their kids would have a much brighter future due to this very humble structure. He insisted to take a picture with me and asked me to be padrino(godfather) of his youngest son, Kevincito. I`m not entirely sure what that entails, but I accepted. Then we went to help the other teams finish their houses until well after dark, at which point Renzo took the younger team members and a few friends I made earlier in the day to the top of a mountain with a beautiful view of the entire city where we enjoyed music, dance, and drinks until 2 in the morning.
Oruro- The trip is quickly coming to an end, and we are now enjoying Oruro, a city known for its Carnaval celebrations. So far, I have enjoyed a Rotary meeting which ended just before daylight after some intense music and dance. My host family also made sure that I tried the dish that the city is famous for- Cordero (lamb), which was quite delicious. I also took advantage of my last opportunity for altitude training by running to the top of the mountain just outside the city, El Socavón. The next few days we will be reunited with friends we have met from all across the country for the district conference, and I expect the festivities to be plentiful.

Anne: Coming to a close

Today has been mostly free. A few of us went to a German school this morning which was very interesting. It seems as though the private schools or colegios are more like our public schools. They are very nice and the children are learning top-notch education techniques in modern facilities. There is a price for this. Parents have to pay tuition for the same quality education that students get at home. Life is interesting here. We also found out that teachers make about $150 per month and close to $500 if they are administrators. Can you imagine living on $150? I´m not talking about Bolivianos; I´m talking about U.S. dollars! WoW! Of course the cost of living is lower here, but this is very minimal pay for educators.

As our long 5 weeks of Bolivia is coming to a close, I´m feeling like a party-storm is brewing. The official kick-off for Bolivia´s Rotary Convention starts tonight. My host mom said that I should get a nap because I will be up very late-no one has told me to take a nap to prepare for the forthcoming night. I thought that was telling. I say bring it on! I want to experience how much fun these wonderful people have every year.

I´m looking forward to seeing all of you soon. I have a lot to talk about and will probably need a few days to process all these new experiences.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Michael: There was gold in them thar hills

Today we visited a gold mine. According to our guide, the mine was in operation for 25 years but is closed now and in the reclamation phase. It is a strip-mine where literally a mountain was moved and another created from the tailings to produce precious few ounces of gold. There´s a lake where the mountain used to be.
If our guide is to be beleived, this is one of the most environmentally appropriate mines anywhere in the world. They release no contaminated water into the ground or the river and they bury their contaminated solid wastes so they won´t ever leach into the surrounding soil.

We have another Rotary meeting tonight, and then the District Conference starts Friday. All of us are looking forward to seeing again many of the friends we´ve met in the past month, but we
suddenly seem to be counting the days until we board our airplane home.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Michael: Bombing downhill

I have a confession to make. Yesterday, I played hookie.
Months ago, shortly after I had been picked to lead our team to Bolivia, I learned about the infamous “Death Road,” reputedly the most dangerous road in the world. The Yungas Road once claimed more deaths per year than any other in the world, due to its steep cliffs, narrowness, absence of guard rails, and heavy traffic. A new, parallel road was completed in 2006, removing most of the traffic. (Incidentally, the parallel road is in fact longer, and curvier, but it has consistent, paved lanes and guard-rails.) But the precariousness of the old road remains. Read all about it here:
My understanding is that this experience was originally on our agenda, but was removed a week or so ago, either because the district governor thought it to be too dangerous or because we had one fewer day on our schedule because of the delay in Sucre. I was disappointed, but resigned. But on Monday, I sat next to a man at a lunch Rotary meeting who told me the trip was not to be missed. The schedule appeared to have more school visits (of which we’d already done many) yesterday, so I asked the team if they wanted to go. After some initial enthusiasm, everyone backed out. So I went myself.
I signed on with the oldest touring company here, “Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking,” at a cost of $106. They began offering this trip in 1999, years before the new road. So in those days riders had to fight with traffic all the way. And it’s a busy road, as it is the only route from the Yungas to La Paz. They picked up two groups of around 15 people each at a downtown La Paz restaurant and took us by bus to an elevation of 15,400, beside an alpine lake, where the road to Corioco reaches its highest elevation. They outfitted us with matching red vests, a helmet, gloves, and an optional jacket and pants. It was cold but the views were spectacular, with white puffy clouds framing the high, rocky peaks. The first half of the trip was on pavement, which passed rapidly under our wheels. I stopped several times to take photos, but was still able to catch up with the others. The bikes were deliberately under-geared, to keep crazy people like me from going too fast.
The clouds thickened and soon the rains came, heavily at times. The area had more plants, larger and denser. We quickly became wet, with water soaking through our jackets.
We were given the option of riding an 8-kilometer section of mixed uphill and downhill, but our guide discouraged it given the inclemency. So our guides re-loaded the bikes and we rode to the “official” entrance of the Death Road.
As I mentioned, a new road was completed in 2006, so almost the entirety of the traffic is siphoned off the Death Road. Although it is still a public road, it is now almost devoid of motor vehicles. It has become the world’s most exciting bicycle route.
Good thing, too, because it is extremely narrow in places. I am accustomed to riding roads like this, because for decades I’ve been riding similar mountain roads in our Appalachians, both on bicycles and on motorcycles. The difference is that on the roads with which I’m familiar, if you go off the side you can fall 20 feet and get injured. If you fall off this road, you can fall 1000 feet and you will surely die. Our guide says even many bicyclist have done so, typically from simply standing or parking too close to the edge.
The upper portion of the road was wrapped in a dense fog, so I could sense little of the precariousness. It was perhaps a good thing, as I began to bomb along the road with a blissful exuberance. I was determined not to let the weather dampen my enthusiasm. As I told my guide at one of the many stops, I’ve been cold and I’ve been wet and I’ve been wet and cold. I can handle cold and I can handle wet. Cold and wet is miserable. At this point, we were wet but with the steadily decreasing altitude, the temperature was warming.
What was evident in the mist was the increasing foliage and jungle-like environment. At some places, there were impressive waterfalls spilling down from above. In others, there were streams of water spilling onto the road from overhangs. It was magnificent!
Further down the road, the rain stopped and the skies began to break, revealing imposing mountains, rounded by dense foliage. I began to peal layers of clothing, leaving the loaned pants and jacket in the bus. My bicycle was clearly intended to do this type of extreme down-hilling, with ample suspension front and rear. I could really fly on it!
Towards the bottom, we rode through two streams, re-soaking our feet. Finally we began to reach habitations. One village looked almost like a ghost town, where once travelers stocked up on Coca-Cola before braving the road, but now all the traffic was gone. We encountered only a smattering of vehicles the whole way, mostly motorcycles.
Our trip ended at an elevation of 5000 feet (10,500 lower than where we began) with lunch, showers, and a tour at a wildlife rehabilitation center, where parrots, monkeys, and other animals flocked around the grounds. That’s a story in itself, but I’ve got to get ready for our day, including a presentation to all seven La Paz Rotary clubs at lunchtime, then a bus transfer to our final city, Oruru, later this afternoon. Yesterday was my best day of the trip!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Doug: Cooking With Renzo

No this isn't the next show coming to Food Network but, it should be.  Last night the team chipped in and we went to a local market to pick up all the ingredients needed for a cookout.  We bought piles of meat, chorizo sausage, potatoes, corn, and a variety of other vegetables.  The markets aren't the "super" variety we are used to back home.  They are more rustic but, the ingredients are all fresh (I think).

We enjoyed a leisurely cookout at Renzo's place.  We ate in spurts, as the meat was prepared, and sampled the local wines and beers.  We started around 8 and finished around midnight.  Plenty of time to learn some new cooking skills, chat, and check out the grill.  The grills here are pretty cool. Charcoal is the preferred BBQ source here.  All the grills I have seen have a crank with bicycle chains that lower or raise the grilling rack to control the heat.  I want to build one when I get home so I can use some of the cooking tips Renzo taught us.

Feel free to contact me for some great recipes and cooking ideas when this trip is done.