Monday, October 24, 2005

Cochabamba, Bolivia

I've read that Bolivia is the Nepal of the Western Hemisphere. Never having been to Nepal, I cannot compare the two places, but, if Nepal is exotic, rustic, beautiful, remote, mountainous, fascinating, welcoming, stark, lush, and soul-touching, then the comparison is apt.

As previously posted, my journey to Bolivia came as the result of a wine-tasting at which Robin won a trip for herself. She opted to bring me along, despite my assurances that I would be fine living alone for a couple weeks, watching ESPN and drinking beer . . .

Cochabamba is the breadbasket of Bolivia, and is dominated by a humongous statue of Jesus on a mountain overlooking the city. It boasts the largest outdoor market in the Western hemisphere, where one may buy everything from gorgeous cakes to confetti.

While we were there, we worked on building a schoolroom in the nearby village of Viloma. Robin did tile work for two weeks, learning the skill from a local craftsman without having the benefit of being able to communicate through speech. I did brickwork and tiling, and faced the same linguistic challenges. The work was exceedingly hard on our desk-job, middle-aged bodies, but we were surrounded by the most beautiful children in the world, and we were inspired by the fact that they would someday learn in the vastly improved buildings we were making for them.

"We" were Carl Howard, Leonardo (our guide), Robin, me
and Marvin and Marti Wachs,
, authors of World Wide Wachs and the most devoted volunteers I've ever met.

It was not all work and no play, though. We had time for a trip to the rain forest, which could have served as the setting for Jurassic Park.
The next picture is a nice one, but it doesn't capture a tenth of the unspeakable beauty of the greens, blues and whites of mountain valleys as far as you could see wrapped in mist and clouds. It was the most amazing scenery I have ever seen.

We also found time to learn a drinking/dice game called Alalay, similar to Yahtzee but different in that one plays it in dingy bars while loud music blasts and you drink Gurapo, a peculiar fermented grape juice that fails somehow to rise to the level of wine. In this picture, I have managed to achieve Alalay stardom by rolling 5 fours in one roll, provoking much mirth and an empty pitcher.

The other noteworthy beverage was chicha. Chicha is a fermented maize beer dating back to the Incans. Being somewhat of a beer anthropologist, I was determined to find and taste chicha before returning home. Finding it turned out to be no problem, as countless huts and homes proudly displayed the traditional sign signifying that the chicha is ready to drink - a white flag on a long pole. Unfortunately, Leonardo, our guide, was hesitant to allow me to enter the allegedly unsafe places that served the stuff. On our final Thursday afternoon in Bolivia, though, I pointed out that I am bigger than 95% of the people in Bolivia, and I was not afraid of being unable to fight my way out of any bar in the small village where we were staying. His worries were for naught - we were the only people in the bar. A wizened old lady dipped us a pitcher of the tart beverage (reminiscent of a Belgian lambic, if you're a beer geek) from a barrel, and, honest to God, a chicken ran around on the floor of the bar. We poured a small measure onto the floor - the traditional sacrifice to the Incan gods - and lived to tell the tale.

I was horribly unprepared for the trip, physically, spiritually, linguistically and culturally. Despite my illpreparedness, though, the trip was one of the highlights of my life. I was touched by the beautiful children and wowed by the beautiful country. I knew I would see horrible poverty, and I did, but my expectation was that it would bring a certain moroseness and "edge" to a culture I instead found to be warm and joyful. I fully expect to return.


Blogger Brian Stayton said...

It's about time....
Great pictures. Looks incredible.

10/24/2005 8:11 PM  
Blogger reverse_vampyr said...

Sounds like a wonderful time. Thanks for sharing it.

10/28/2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger Waveflux said...

I understand what you say about feeling ill-prepared for such a trip, but it could be that the lack of preparation actually left you more open to experience than you might otherwise have been. The trip sounded great, and it looked awesome. And all this from a wine-tasting. :-D

10/28/2005 11:43 PM  
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