Checking in from Oruro, Bolivia, where Cap and I have just experienced one of the wildest carnivals one might attempt to imagine. Carnival Diablada involves an endless procession of exquisitely costumed dancers and bandmembers, parading around town for no less than 24 hours. Things were already in full swing when we crawled out of bed Saturday morning and found our grandstand seats at about 1030. This morning, we could still hear the singing of horns and fireworks at noon. Absolutely wild. Cappo took a picture with a girl passed out on the street when he went out to get lunch. I was still in bed nursing my violently upset stomach. Gotta watch out for the carne de la calle. That is all the detail I will provide about this aspect of my day.
One interesting side-note to add here: our friend Miguel, a Mexican from Texas, got arrested today for exposing himself to a police officer. He, along with the rest of us, raged it last night, but what separated him was his intent to slam 6 cervezas first thing this morning, and was thus stumbling about, attempting to make international phone calls and, having already dropped his trousers in front of our little tour group, seems to have done the same for the viewing pleasure of the Bolivian policia. They, apparently, were not so pleased as he might have hoped, and he is now in jail for the next 24 hours. This problem is compounded by the fact that his passport is back in La Paz. I truly sympathize, but am rather thrilled that it is not I who will be waking up from a drunken stupor in Bolivian prison.
This group that we came down here with is a collection of mostly Aussies and Scots. They are rowdy to say the least. I am attempting not to be too judgmental with them, suffice it to say that there is a serious lack of travel savviness in the group (they were shocked that they were expected to have their passports with them), as well as a serious lack of respect for the house where we stayed, and a complete lack of conscientiousness about the impressions they left on the locals.
Cappo and I have been discussing this phenomenon a lot, how the ugly-American stereotype most often applies to those gringos not actually from the US. There were many events where if it had been an American saying or doing the things that these people were, there would have been an uproar, but then, for example, last night, Cappo and I were shocked at the outrageous cover charge to this dance party we attended, and were attempting to negotiate a discount. We met with resistance, and the Aussie dude who was with us immediately undermined the whole process by calling us out for being cheap, and Americans with a sense of entitlement. I was wearing my Canadian flag t-shirt.
As if we didn't stick out enough, we had neon green t-shirts.
But still, party!
Note the poncho. There really were water balloons flying everywhere. Children and old ladies were not necessarily targeted, but they were certainly not spared.
Okay, but before Oruro we were in the jungle. We flew from the airport in La Paz (the highest in the world) to Rurrenabaque, a little town tucked amidst jungle-covered mountains that might have easily been featured in Jurassic Park. Our plane was just a little guy, with one seat on either side and no separation between the passengers and the cockpit. We chose the 45-minute sketchy-plane ride over the 20 hour sketchy-bus ride. So we take off, and I glance out the window to find a huge, snow-capped Andean mountain staring me in the face until we rose into dense clouds. Comforting. We landed on a strip of dirt in a clearing in the middle of the jungle. We truly enjoyed this.
Because our flight had been delayed, we missed the Sunday-start tour we'd signed up for. This turned out to be a blessing because we were then able to spend the afternoon hiking through the Amazon with a guy named Nelson and his two-toothed friend. After a trip up the river (scenes reminiscent of Apocalypse Now; I'll have to compare notes with my brother, recently returned from Vietnam), we trekked up into the mountains for maybe two hours, seeing ayahuasca vines, strangler figs, and chocolate fruit. Our two-toothed amigo somehow found a baby tarantula hiding in the depths of a cone-shaped leaf and provoked it to lunge out and attack a twig.
Eventually, we reached our destination, strapped on our harnesses, had a brief safety briefing, then clamped on to the wire and went zipping across the top of the canopy. This was brilliant, some of the best fun available as far as I can tell. The guides even gave us their super-fast sliders when they realized that the new ones we were using were crap.
Then we watched the Super Bowl in the Moskkito Bar. We had an average pizza and fruity drinks and played frustrating games of pool while we watched Peyton make but one crucial error. Towards the end of the game, a German missionary came and sat with us and asked us questions about how American football works. For various reasons, we chose not to trust her.
Next day we found our tour, and set off on a three-hour ride down a bumpy dirt road in the back of a Landcruiser outfitted with bench seats. Our group consisted of one Portuguese guy (who found it acceptable to ride up front while one of the 'guides' rode in back), two Israeli's (a guy and a girl, not dating), and three Chileños (two girls and a guy).
I will now attempt to summarize this three-day, two-night tour as succinctly as possible, in order to remind myself of stories I can delve into greater detail with later. Lunch involved a monkey, two little dogs and a cat, a huge stork-looking bird (not actually a stork), and melted popsicles to drink. We got out of the car to transfer to the boat, and we were introduced to our guide by a different guide, saying ¨This is your guide. He doesn't speak English. Help him load the boat.¨ No English is not a problem, as Cappo and I enjoy practicing our Spanish, but our guide apparently knew only two words in any language: Vamos? and, Tortuga! We spent most of the three days cruising around in our long, skinny boat, outfitted with folding chairs that flip down from the side. It was actually very comfortable so long as you had enough sunblock. So, we were in the pampas, which is basically a monstrous swamp, full of monkeys, toucans, turtles, alligators and river dolphins. The trees have taken root 5 ft under water. We swam with the dolphins (fun, anti-climactic, and dirty - there is a lot of motor oil floating in that stagnant water), hunted down an anaconda (asleep in the roots of a tree), and went looking for alligators at night.
These activities we did, but with perhaps half the success of the other groups, due to the profound incompetence of our guide. Whereas the other group got to pick up the anaconda, we went traipsing off on a wild goose chase, tromping through tall grass on a mission which, it was clear to us all, had no chance of success. Whereas the other group found many alligators, and even scooped a baby out of the water to hold and photograph, we failed to even see a single pair of red eyes glowing in the dark. We only got to see a sloth on the last day because we followed the other group. Sloths are awesome.
Anyway, no big deal, we still had fun, had some cervezas at night watching the sun set over the pampas. Again, I have pictures, but have yet to find an internet cafe able to deal with the upload. We met a Korean-Australian-Christian girl (part of the other group) who tagged along with us back to the Wild Rover in La Paz. Over the course of several meals, we had some rather intense discussions surrounding religion and eco-politics. Turns out what she was espousing was not quite Christianity, but do not under any circumstances tell her that.
The most exciting thing that happened back in La Paz was vindaloo. There's a little restaurant called Star of India, and they boast ¨the most dangerous vindaloo in the world¨, made with special Bolivian peppers from the foothills in the north. There is a t-shirt available only to those who finish the famous vindaloo, ie not for sale. Given this implicit challenge, Cappo and I had little choice but to accept. We took very different approaches, but ended up in the same place. Cap got the chicken, and scarfed 3/4 of it down without letting it touch his tongue (or chewing, far as I can tell). After that it was a matter of will-power to finish the little bit that was left. His biggest challenge was the amount of food, for it really is a sizable bowl of curry. I had the vegetarian style, and took the tortoise approach, complementing my vindaloo with naan and white rice, and really trying to enjoy the full flavor. My biggest challenge was the heat. I don't know if the meat soaks up more spice than the vegetables do, or what the issue was, but my lord, there was plenty of flavor for us. Two smoothies made of milk, honey and peach aided me greatly, as did a bit of agua con gas right at the end. Long story short, Cappo and I have new t-shirts. I will spare you the details of Revenge of the Vindaloo.
So now we're in Oruro waiting for our bus to Potosi. Potosi is an old mining town, where all the miners are self-employed, keeping whatever they find. Apparently the tours of the mines are not to be missed, and we can blow up our very own sticks of dynamite. We plan to be there just one day, before making our way further south and west to Uyuni, where we find the salt flats and many multi-colored lakes. This is supposed to be spectacular. After that, we have one week to make it to Buenos Aires. Looks like we'll go through Cordoba, and skip Mendoza this time around, planning to spend some quality time there on our way back north from Ushuaia.
I wish I had less stuff.