Ranting Like a Canadian

Written at 5:30am on a 20-hour bus ride from Tarija, Bolivia to La Paz, Bolivia.

He had a dream. The dream was to be a mountainbike tour guide for The World’s Most Dangerous Road near La Paz.

When he was 14, he hurt his stomach in a tragic street burger accident and hasn’t been the same since. In the hospital he was approached by the Bolivian version of John Goodman in “Community” and told that an ancient book had prophesized that he would be a bus driver in Bolivia.

Reluctantly, he became a bus driver and happens to be the driver of my bus today.

5 years on, his willingness to be a mountain bike tour guide hasn’t waivered. He still loves to go off-roading, but this time on a massive semi-cama bus. Scraping trees on all sides, dipping into ravines and going on every impossible path makes his job fun – especially when he flies off of rocks and speed bumps. He didn’t mind, however, because he had a seat with actually padding not rods up the ass like the passengers and the ceiling was high enough above him so that he didn’t bash his head on the overhead compartments – like the passengers did.

Just like on the Death Road, he makes sure to go as fast as humanly possible through hairpin turns; just edging the sides of massive Andes cliffs.

A bumpy ride? That’s an understatement. That’s what the hydraulics are for. Wait, it’s a crappy bus; there are barely any hydraulics!

Just as if he were competing in the X-Games, he loves to blare music as loud as a dance club while his passengers are trying to sleep. He throws a dash of Spanish opera, a whole lot of over-repetitive choruses, and a dash of English classics that are quickly skipped midway to show off his DJ skills (Just like at a shitty house party!).

Bathroom breaks are for the weak. He will stop every twenty minutes to pick up new people and cram the bus, but no bathroom breaks. If you have to pee, just pee in a bottle, like this person.

Someone couldn’t hold it in and pee’d in a bottle. Don’t blame them.

For that one bathroom break, make sure you get it all out and don’t have to go again ‘cause it’s the only stop. While your there, you better have one boliviano because no one gives you change.

When you are in the public bathroom, enjoy the sights of un-flushed turds, the stench of death and if you feel like getting clean, just use the watered down soap (most of the time in pay public bathrooms you don’t get soap, this was a treat!).

———

Ok ok, I’ve ripped this poor bus driver enough. For only 90 bolivianos (about $12.86 USD) to travel across a country what should I expect right? Perhaps its too much to ask for safety, bathrooms on the bus, or a clean bus and rest stops? It’s definitely too much to ask for the annoying music to be turned down a smidgen and not for the driver to drive like an absolute maniac in a piece of shit bus!

I’m lucky I’m not sick or I’d be puking like I just chugged a massive cup of Fernet, Singani, and wine during all together in a huge coke bottle during King’s cup (way to go Niall!). And I would have been sick if I gave into the actual food at the rest stop – whole chickens dipped in a witch’s pot of fried grease (kind of reminds me of the pirate city in Pirates of the Carribean) orstreet burgers notorious for their 99% chance of inducing diarrhea.

I probably would have bought one of those meals actually if I could ever get change. You can only take out 100’s from the bank machines and no one ever has change. Pay credit card? Ha!

At restaurants receiving the bill is the worst. They never divide it and don’t always have change. In fact, the entire service industry in Bolivia urks me. Hairs are always in the food, cutlery and salt are rarely on the table, pepper never is, service is mind-bogglingly slow and you have to expect diarrhea at all times. Serving is a really easy job, but I guess some people just can’t do it.

I am being a little too harsh on the food here in this blog. I have had a few great meals for really cheap and I absolutely love waking up to saltenas in the morning (a spicy meat filled pastry). I just wish I could get them all day long and not just in the morning.

By the way, newsflash to the world! People pee, poo and make garbage! How is the #1 priority in a society not sanitation? Eliminating poverty? Not realistic. Eliminating nasty toilets and eliminating trash dumps on the sides of the road is perhaps more achievable. It doesn’t even need to be a government priority. If you are a company that uses the Death Road, why not spend a day picking up the copious amount of gringo trash? If you are a house with trash around it, why not pick up the trash around your house? Trust me, your health will thank you in the long run.

I’m generally a person that likes to keep clean. Not quite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator hypochondriac because shit happens, but I still like to be clean. With the amount of dirt everywhere in this country and rarely soap, I can’t believe that none of the travelers I meet have hand sanitizer. As a matter of fact, not to toot my own horn or my parents’ recommendations about being prepared to travel, but I am so glad that I was prepared. None I have travelled with has a money belt, toilet paper good shoes, proper raincoats, medicine or adequate sanitary items. They leave their stuff around and don’t take the necessary precautions to protect themselves from being robbed. Furthermore, many of them don’t have their proper shots, don’t take care of their passports and don’t have travel insurance (or know the company’s name if they do). I am the one lending everyone money and supplies and I really don’t mind, but be prepared people! No wonder a lot of the people I have met have lost their cards.

I’m not a bad guy, Bolivia, but I’m wide awake at 5:30am, freezing my ass off, resisting peeing my pants, hungry and have some bruises from being bounced around on the atrocious roads with the off-road driver. At least it doesn’t sound quite as bad as Legal Nomads’ “Bus Ride from Hell” which ran along a similar path.

Am I being self-righteous in this rant? Yes. Maybe it’s because I am Canadian.

Being Canadian as a traveller is pretty dope, haven’t ya heard?

Walking through Potosi I saw a guy with a huge backpack and a Canadian patch right in the middle of it. The nice Canadian that I am said “hey man, where are you from in Canada,” even though I was in a rush. He brushed me off and replied: “I’m not Canadian, I’m Belgian.”

With people like this and Stephen Harper we are bound to lose our nice reputation Canada! We haven’t lost it yet though.

The point of the patch is so that everyone knows you are nice and not an American.

There’s also a good chance that people you meet will know pretty much nothing about Canada, so if you are faking it they won’t have a clue. All they know are that we are nice, like the wilderness (like the New Zealanders of America), come with travel gear, put patches on our bags and sound like Americans. The Brits I have met know NOTHING about Canada. Obviously no one knows that Ottawa is the capital, but they don’t know that we still honour the Queen in our politics and on our currency? Why are we paying so much money for that again?

Ahh I digress. Still having a great time! If you have me on Facebook make sure to check out my 400 photos so far.

Off to the Amazon tomorrow. This time I take a military airplane with three seatbelts. Here we go!

End Rant.

Wow, in this post I talk a lot about drinking

Just as plans were moving forward on this month’s issue of the Bolivian Express magazine, I left La Paz, a decent Internet connection, and relative comfort with a few of the other interns to see some of Bolivia’s sites before they leave for Christmas.

Following “The World’s Most Dangerous Road,” we quickly organized a last minute 10-hour bus to Sucre, the country’s constitutional capital named after one of Bolivia’s founding fathers Antonio José de Sucre.

Most of the travel done in Bolivia from city to city appears to be overnight where if you are lucky, you can spend a little more for a cama bus and get fold out beds in the bus. It’s still not great, but it gets you from one place to another without losing a day.

Sucre

Sucré is a vibrant and old Spanish-inspired city. The white walls of the buildings gleam in the light and there is noticeably more green space. It reminds me of the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, but there is definitely nothing like that here.

Sucré is also noticeably more touristy. At this point, I had spent most of my time with the Bolivian Express interns and some Bolivians, but not many internationals. Here, however, upon arriving in the hostel (one of the first hostels I’ve stayed at in my life actually), there were tons of friendly backpackers from Australia, Spain, Denmark and more Englishmen.

The main topic of conversation among everyone was the national census happening on Wednesday. People were pillaging the markets for food and water to survive the next day. We figured we’d be able to get something (big mistake), so didn’t really buy much except a lot of booze. For a detailed account and explanation of my experience during the census and what it means for Bolivia see my post on Forget the Box.

That night as we drank in the courtyard with the other internationals and the extremely hospitable and charismatic hostel staff I felt really relaxed, relieved and drunk. We were offered that horrible Fernet drink along with out Singani – the two most vilest liquors I’ve ever tasted after tequila.

The plan was to spend the census day hungover, so we got to work.

Speaking Spanglish, we attempted to play Kings Cup or what the English call Ring of Fire and united through the particular and controversial card game. I was surprised that most of the rules were the same for the British and Danish as I played in Montreal, but with slight variances. When 4 (whores) came up and the local girls who worked at the hostel were told they had to drink they adamantly refused! Back home, girls wouldn’t object to being called a whore for the sake of the game, but these girls called us out on it. I got a good laugh outta that.

The next night we sneaked out to the main square only to find it populated by tourists, young locals and a group of “dog flutes” (hippies.) The Spanish guy from our hostel said that they call hippies dog flutes, because there were always dogs and flutes. It was 100% true in this case!

The next morning we caught another bus, but this time it was semi-cama, so smaller seats and a more limited recline. We reached Potosi in about three hours.

Potosi has been mined for nearly 500 years and at one point during the Spanish Empire it was one of the most populated cities on the planet.

This 20 year-old miner with a mouth-full of coca leaves has been working in the mine since he was 16

The city isn’t that great. Pretty small and dirty, but we had an amazing brunch at this café. It came with a cheese crepe, a soup (I got peanut), grilled llama, fries, yogurt and fruit all for 35 bs. ($5). Food here is really hit or miss, but this time it was really good.

After that we started our tour of the mines with a company called Big Deal Tours, which is the only company run completely by ex-miners. They were hospitable, organized and fun! For the journey we got to dress up in dirty jumpers/hardhats and boots and enter into the mines and surrounding area for 4 hours.

First up, we stopped at a small shop to buy the essentials: soft drinks, coca leaves and dynamite. Yup, dynamite! You are able to buy some and then set it off later, which was awesome!

After that we entered the extraction plant, but not for long because the chemicals used are extremely bad for you.

The mines were just as expected, dirty, small, uncomfortable and fascinating. Since our tour guide Pedro was a miner, he knew everyone inside and was able to shoot the shit with them and ask questions.

Our two tour guides mouth a stick of dynamite. Can’t get this on tours in the West.

Pedro was a miner for 5.5 years from the age of 10-15, and then again a few years later. He maintained that being a miner is not as bad as you think. He told stories of some miners who struck silver and came out with millions. Others simply make a modest amount and aren’t starving. Well, maybe that’s a figure of speech because during their 12+ hour shifts the miners don’t eat, just chew lots and lots of coca and drink 96 proof alcohol.

96% proof alcohol that the miners drink. I have so far had 3 swigs of this on the trip.

Those lonely days chipping away for minerals are soothed by the presence of El Tio – the imaginary miner represented in this statue.

The mighty El Tio – Protector of the Mine
El Tio covered in empty booze bottles, coca leaves and . Apparently modeled after Bolivians.

Pedro said that El Tio is not a god, but rather an amigo who is a Bolivian miner embodied after a typical Bolivian.

There is no administation for working in the mine. If you want to work, you can start that day if you want to. Different sectors are claimed by some people or small groups and generally that is respected according to Pedro. It’s also not as dangerous as people say according to him. It is not true that people die within 10-15 years due to the gasses or else people wouldn’t do it, he said. Also, more people die in car accidents and other day-to-day activities than in the mine. However, either he didn’t understand or couldn’t adequately answer my question about the likelihood of areas of the mine collapsing sometime soon.

After the mine, we headed off on another long semi-cama bus ride to Tarija, a southern town in Bolivia.

Went for a dip in a waterfall just outside of Tarija. Good cliff diving too 🙂

A guy from the Bolivian Express had a friend living in Tarija, so he met up with us and took us out.

The restaurant we went to was incredible. The family owned place and it’s owner/hostess/server/photographer matriarch hugged and kissed us on the cheek as soon as we arrived. Over the next couple hours we drank, drank, drank and ate a lot!

4 Drinkers:

3 Large Pizzas
6 Shooters
6 Double Fernet and Coke
2 Double Singanis
12 Litres of Beer
1 glass of wine
_______________________________
$58

Qué Noche!

Our friend then came around and strapped a wristband on our wrists so we could get into this next party.

Ok let me paint a picture for you. During my stay in Bolivia I have seen like one hot girl. Most people on the street are wrinkly, old and look like they are in their 70’s or are babies. Middle aged people just don’t seem to be around. Well, I found them.

As we stepped out of the taxi and past a very friendly bouncer I looked upon one of the most beautiful group of people I’d ever seen. In the backyard of this massive house over a hundred people bobbed and danced to the Latin music and Gangnam-style (which is played everywhere like every 30 minutes). The girls at this party were absolutely, insanely, ridiculously gorgeous. I can’t remember seeing so many hot girls in one place and to add to this the party was OPEN BAR! Obviously, that nasty Fernet crap, but I had to do what I had to do.

Unfortunately, my charm wasn’t as effective on the lovely ladies without speaking their language, but it was fun anyway. Later on in the night, when the bars in Ottawa are closed and people are eating shawarmas and poutine, people hopped in cars and taxis to head to the next party – a super club in the centre of Tarija.

While my mind is blown when I see a ridiculously different culture, it never ceases to explode when I go to a super-club. Hundreds of inebriated loud peacocks doing the mating dance. A dance that is more than questionable on a street corner in public. And then, of course, there are those creepy dudes that surround the club looking to scoop up the often-not-willing chiquitas. It’s pretty much the same wherever I have been. I’m not against it. I think to be against the club scene is to forfeit on one of the craziest experiences young people can feel. It is undeniable that clubs are where the most amount of young people go, and if you are looking for a random hookup the club is the way to go. Don’t expect to find a significant other though. Do I really enjoy them? No. But when I learn to I think I will be happy.

After a hangover day in our hostel we went to a wine tour in Tarija – the original reason we went to this southern town. This wine tour was unlike what you would expect. Well, maybe if you are 12 and just learned about alcohol then it would be what you expect. At the three wineries we attended we got absolutely tanked. And we had to drink fast to get off to the next one. The wines weren’t great. We met a couple from Canada who was staying at the nicest winery and they thought that one of the others made up their wine from grapes, water and alcohol without proper fermentation. Still gets you drunk though.

We got crabs! Veggies struggle in this country.

Warning for all vegetarians out there! The first winery we went to used cow blood in their wine. I’m not going to tell you which one, but just so you know you may have been sipping blood out of that chalice all your life without knowing.

I am about to depart for La Paz on a 20-hour bus. Better not be stuck by someone smelly or have a broken seat. Wish me luck!

The World’s Most Dangerous Road

I survived “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”

My hands and feet were absolutely freezing, but I didn’t care. Maybe that’s because I’m Canadian.

At 7 am on the top of Cumbre Mountain with eight other brave adventure-seeking comrades we were preparing to embark on an incredible journey down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.”

I had heard that it was amazing from a couple people, but I didn’t really know what to expect. As a matter of fact, I have tried to keep my expectations low for this whole journey. High expectations leave you open to disappointment. Surely that leaves you open to fear of the unknown, but that’s nothing a little courage can’t fix!

At the top I was the first one to head out after the lead guide on our fancy full-suspension $3000 mountain bikes. The Canadian lead definitely had a lot to do with easing any of our fears. Along with giving us the rules and a loose guide for what was going to happen (with a great deal left to the imagination), this skinny west coast Canadian had us in stitches even as we were almost too tired to speak. Sure, I’ve been on many tours before, but there was something about this tour (and tour guide) that sticks out in my mind as one of the best tours in my life.

Rylan was from a small town in British Columbia of about 300 people in the wintertime and about double in the summer. After finishing training to become a tour guide, Rylan was emailed and offered a job as a tour guide. I can only imagine what kind of curve ball that throws into someone’s comfortable life in Canada. Nevertheless, Rylan picked up his life and his mountain bike, and headed to Bolivia for training as a guide for “The World’s Most Dangerous Road.” Two and a half months in, Rylan gives tours five days a week and manages to race his bike on his off days. Doing what he loves for a living in a far off and interesting land. Amazing!

I also was relieved to hear Rylan’s Canadian west-coast ski-bum-style accent and slang. It was a refreshing change since I’ve been so submersed in the British English during my stay in the flat.

“We have to do a ritual at the top before we go,” said Rylan to the bundled up bikers in a semi-circle in the fog of about 5000m. “I’m not too keen on human sacrifices, so I have a little 96 degrees for yas.” He then presented a fierce little bottle of 96% proof alcohol for us to drop on our tires, then pour on the ground, then touch to our lips.

After that we started down the windy road that hugged the mountain-side – wizzing down as fast possible (at least I was), while making sure not to look too longingly off the mountain for fear of turning out like Frodo in the sea of the dead before Mordor.

When we finished the first bit, we had the option of taking a bus uphill for 8km or biking. For Rylan, only one other group in his two months as a guide had opted for the uphill and it was on a bright sunny day. The four girls in our trip did not want anything to do with it, but with a little peer pressure the five guys all raised their hands in favour and we were off on our next adventure!

As soon as we started uphill the rain intensified, essentially escalating from a drizzle to a torrential downpour. I was soaked. Fortunately, I had my super duper awesome Arc-Teryx Goretex rain jacket and my upper half was dry. Still, my legs and feet were swimming.

The bike uphill wouldn’t have been so hard if not for the ridiculous altitude. Even after nearly two weeks in Bolivia, I still pant and heave during any walk uphill in the street – this was much worse.

Despite the discomfort it was 100% worth it.

During my trip to Israel, the tourguide took us on a number of physical excursions like hiking and cave crawling. The idea, he said, was that if you sweat on the land you are bound to be more attached to it. If Birthright Israel believes that exercise will get you to love and support Israel more, it better be right!

The rest of the trip down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” was epic. Challenging turns, rough terrain and torrential rains made the journey incredible.

The lower we got, the hotter it got. By the end, we were in shorts and a t-shirt loving life. A couple of the girls took slight tumbles off their bikes, but fortunately into walls or the ground and not off the side of the cliff.

Following the trail, the tour group arranged for us to visit a non-profit animal sanctuary to get some grub, see some tropical animals and recharge.

A random boy at the animal sanctuary. Perfect advertisement/magazine shot.

Other than the Zoo this was the first time I’d been up close and personal to monkeys and parrots. It is interesting that it didn’t really alarm me. Perhaps its because movies and tv are so good these days that you can experience without physically being there. However, the calm ambience of the lush forest was far more incredible than any movie (although Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011) come close). Living in La Paz for the past week has really stripped me from nature. The hustling and bustling concrete jungle has no parks or even much grass. Little planters in front of our apartment filled with grass are mostly used for dogs to pee and poo on rather than just as a part of the landscape.

There is something about being among the trees that cures all problems. Religions have been started in the forest and far too many visions (even without the help of hallucinogens) have given people an attachment with the Earth that we live on. One day I will own a cottage. Maybe it’s the Duddy Kravitz in me. I also want to go to the forest a lot more during this trip. Besides heading to Rurrembarque in the Amazon next week, I want to go into the Amazon in Peru and Brazil.

As I reflected on “The World’s Most Dangerous Road,” on the way back the Bolivian tour guide who assisted Rylan was playing his iPod in the bus and pretty much everything was a qué buen tema! Every song reminded me of my childhood when I made mixtape cds of songs that I ripped off of Napster. The songs from the late nineties to the early two-thousands had everyone mouthing the words and saying ohhh remember this!? Some examples were “No, No, No” and “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley, “Time of Your Life” by Green Day, “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” by Offspring, Like a Stone by Audioslave and much more hip hop inspired and grunge songs. I was thinking at this time about the point in which we want to relate. I love relating to these people though this music, relating to the words of a song, relating to the people in my “flat” at the Bolivian Express, relating to people in a hostel. At the same time I want to be different, place myself in a setting that is different and rattle myself. I’m struggling a lot with this – whatever identity crisis it is. I need more time to formulate my thoughts and definitely a better Internet connection.

Living in La Paz

La Paz at night

Thank me lucky stars me ‘ead is not that bad. People ‘ave warned me that I would feel rotten from the elevation. At this point I think it’s all quite rubbish.

From day one in La Paz, Bolivia I ‘ave pushed the boundaries of what I am NOT supposed to do. I ‘it the gym in the morn’ that I arrived, played football that night, and ate street meat when it was available – it was bollocks! Still, I didn’t get diarrhea, stomachaches, and vomiting or major headaches. Knock on wood, it doesn’t happen.

Played “football” with a bunch of Bolivians on my first day in La Paz. The altitude meant that I could barely breath when I ran.

By now you have probably noticed I’ve been writing with a strong English accent. The strong drawl of my “flatmates” in La Paz is wearing off on me. As part of a journalism internship with the Bolivian Express magazine, I am living in an apartment with seven other young journalists.

The apartment is huge. Located on the seventh floor of an apartment in a region of La Paz called Sopocachi, my bed is on top of a bunk bed in the same room as three other people. We share a kitchen, 2.5 bathrooms, a massive living room and a chill little sunroom with a hammock, wherein I am presently writing.

The best meal I’ve had in La Paz so far. Family dinner with the “flatmates”

As expected the apartment is nasty. People rarely clean up, cigarette butts are everywhere and all the girls shed hair all over everything. What’s more, there is a cat who eats the rankest smelling cow lung you have ever smelled. Only one cat, because the second one jumped out the window a week before I arrived.

I have spent the last four days getting to know the people in the flat. Besides adjusting to their accents and giggling about their old school names like Martha and Harriet, I quickly realized that they are in pretty much the same headspace as I am. Young twenty-somethings trying to carve their niche in this world – looking to gain experience and learn. Some are heading to “uni” next year and others have already begun, but I am the only intern that has graduated.

Living in the flat is kind of like Jersey Shore – a lot of incest, shit talking and partying – minus the bros and broettes. Pretty much the closest thing to rez, I’ve ever experienced since I never attended one while at Concordia – see Vice article “Surviving University Dorms.”

I arrived just as the latest issue of the Bolivian Express was being published so not much journalism has been happening. Instead, we have been eating, chatting, planning adventures and relaxing. I am really really eager to get journalism done because I am so amazed with the city. I have five ideas for videos already and a couple article ideas, but it takes time. I expect that things will kick into high gear journalistically by the end of the month when our travelling is done.

Since this is the last month for many of the interns here who are returning home to their families for Christmas, they have saved a lot of their Bolivian travels for this month. So, the yes man that I am, have signed up for every excursion.

The first, a bike ride high up in the mountains along the side of a cliff dubbed the dangerous road in the world. Then on Wednesday, I will be heading to Potosi, one of the highest city in the world, to visit the infamous mines and interview some of the workers. After that we will visit the city of Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital fifth largest after Santa Cruz, El Alto, La Paz and Cochabamba. Finally, this weeklong excursion will end in a wine tour.

Later in the month, I am going to the Amazon for another tour.

Sure, these excursions are touristy, but I have mixed it with not so touristy things. Yesterday, I went to the massive printer factory where the Bolivian Express is made. I filmed a lot on my camera and plan to make a video for Bolivian Express about the experience.

I am getting much better with my camera, but it is still limiting and frustrating. I can’t shoot wide shots, close shots or landscapes accurately enough; my tripod is too short and can’t pan; I don’t have an external microphone so audio is pretty much impossible. By getting a camera I started a tumble down the rabbit whole, but once you’ve started you need more, more, more! Obviously it would be ideal to have a company pay for it. One day…

You can see houses on the mountain-side from everywhere in La Paz

La Paz is an absolutely fascinating city. Nearly a million people are crammed between mountains on all sides. Some living in the lower metropolitan area (still ridiculously high about sea level) while many others live on the mountain side. From all points in the city you can look up and see hundreds of homes crammed together sloppily on the mountain. On the narrow streets, Cholitas (indigenous women) are selling everything from fruit (I am not recommended to eat), to cow heart, to cell phone cases.

Cholitas protesting near my apartment. They probably walked for days to get to La Paz and demand that their mayor be ousted

Buzzing along the narrow streets are hundreds of small taxis, taxi-vans and taxi minibuses. Rarely 10 minutes go by in La Paz without hearing honking or car horns go off. Getting around with these taxis is not hard at all. They will take you pretty much anywhere and for basically nothing. I took a taxi-van across town the other day and it cost me 1.5 bolivianos – $0.20 cents and no tip required. The taxi drivers definitely make their money. Some of these taxi vans can cram up to 15 people – with some people forced to stand. Unsafe? Pshh, none of the taxis even have seat belts.

My flatmate “Martita” hailing down a taxi for us

I have been really disappointed in the food here. In general, it’s been shit. I had the grossest, driest fried chicken, stringiest burnt beef, and the worst hamburger of all time. Even the ketchup is gross.

The best food has been the non-traditional food. Near to our apartment is a Chinese food place where I got a HUGE plate of sweet and sour chicken balls and noodles with sauce for 25 bs (just over $3). Can’t beat that.

Pollo Cochabamba (not Copacabana or the many other fried chicken places) serves this absolutely heart clogging mixture of two beef patties and pork. One of the friend’s of the flatmates ate this, I WOULD NEVER!

Rough Start: Part II – Culture Shock

My jaw keeps dropping and I can’t stop it. I’m tempted to hold it shut, but my extremely pasty and dry mouth won’t let it close.

My stress about arriving to Juliaca, Peru was done for and in the past, but I completely forgot about how I would get to La Paz, Bolivia.

Fortunately I was able to get a few 10 minute interval naps on the flight from Juliaca, but it wasn’t enough. It was also exacerbated by the fact that the flight had a long stop in Arequipa, Peru before arriving in Juliaca 30 mins later.

Flight from Lima to Juliaca. First steps outdoors in South America.

As I stepped out from the plane I kind of felt like I was the Beatles stepping into America. It was one of those exits.

Around me all I could see were mountains and flat a flat valley.

Musicians greeted me at the baggage claim in Juliaca airport

At the tiny airport a woman came up to me offering me a taxi. I told her I wanted to go to La Paz, so she said I need to go to Puno first.

Jammed in with 10 other people – shoulder to shoulder – I took the taxi to Puno. As you might have seen from my post about packing, I brought two bags. I was warned not to put my bag in the back of a bus or taxi, but I had no choice, so I broke my first safety rule.

When I left the Juliaca airport, that is when my jaw dropped. The city of Juliaca was devastating. No roads were paved. The houses were half buily and looked like they were basted together by children. There are specific areas for hot showers and public bathrooms because people don’t necessarily have them at home. As a former student painter I couldn’t believe how little people give a shit about painting. Sure, an arbitrary thing, but in Canada we prioritize a well-painted buiding. In Juliaca, most things were painted, but extremely aged and peeling. Advertisements, mostly for Coca Cola, Tigo and Movistar (cell phones), were painted all over houses instead of on billboards. Graffiti was on nearly every house, mostly about politics and politicians. My first impression is: why do people care so much about politics when their lives seem so unaffected by the government? They have nothing. No social programs. It’s like absolutely nothing was influenced by the West – unlike my trip to the West Bank, Palestine, where I could see a lot of Western influences.

The women’s clothes were absolutely stunning. Traditional Bolivian dress is a top hat and heavy colourful clothes. (Sneak peak! I plan on doing a story about this). I was sweating balls and these people were wearing 30 pounds of clothes.  I guess for them it’s all relative. Summer is coming up, but we are not yet in the hot months for Peru.

Around the van taxi dozens of mini taxis buzzed around, but they looked more like toy cars than taxis. Smaller than a smart car and cheaply made. People were riding in the back of trucks in the open air. Donkeys, goats, sheep and cows were grazing everywhere with very few humans around.

I need to go back to Juliaca and film. I can’t adequately explain it and I have no photos because I was scared shitless to bring out camera when I was carrying all my technology and was the only gringo.

I had been practicing Spanish, but I hadn’t ever really spoken it. I had no choice now. No one spoke English nor got any word that I didn’t know how to say.

Still, I asked the lady next to me – “Yo voy en La Paz. Como?” (I’m going to La Paz. How?). She sort of explained, but I didn’t get it. However, the Heavens were looking down on me. A lovely young woman from Lima, Peru sitting in front of me was going to La Paz and said I could follow her. We hopped directly into a taxi in Puno on our way to Bolivia, which was supposed to be a four-hour ride. No, there would be no stops. I had to pee. I was hungry and thirsty and sweaty and scared.

But the trip was cut abruptly short…

At the Bolivian/Peruvian border our taxi was stopped by police. We couldn’t go any further even though we had paid the full price for the taxi. It was kind of frantic, but my angelic Noémi assured me it would be ok and we started to walk our stuff across the Bolivian border.

Hundreds of Bolivians hustled and bustled around me, doing their thing. Truly a centre for trade with sacks of everything and many little shops. Unlike at the airport with tight security, the Bolivian/Peruvian border was an absolute joke. First, I went to the Peruvian customs, a small desk with three attendants, and handed the officer the visa I received from Peru. He gave me the go ahead and off I went to the other side of the street to the Bolivian embassy, which gave me a new (cheaper quality paper) visa and stamped my passport.

I grabbed a bottle of water and moved on. Noémi and I hopped into another taxi, this one unmarked heading to La Paz. Everything is a taxi apparently.

Keep in mind that I hadn’t really slept since 8:00am the day before and now it was 11:00 am and I hadn’t eaten since a 4 am McDonalds yogurt parfait in the Lima airport.

Noémi and I got to talking as best we could with my broken Spanish and her extremely limited comprehension of English. I had the dictionary out and we talked about a lot! Noémi is another teache, for what she said was ears, throat and stomach. Definitely didn’t get that. She was heading to Cochabamba from Lima to visit friends and party.

As we approached La Paz, the taxi driver stopped in El Alto, La Paz’s higher and poorer neighbour. El Alto is at 4150m above sea level. Pretty drastic considering I’m coming from the Ottawa valley at 70m! They say that everyone who enters El Alto gets motion sickness, so I took a special altitude pill and felt fine (except for the hunger and fatigue). I’ve been told I’m not clear sailing yet from altitude sickness…

El Alto is chaos. Cars and shops and billboards and hoking and natives and rich and poor and COMOTION. Lanes are as many cars as they can fit and everyone rides extremely close to eachother. Again, I was afraid for my life, but it seemed like everyone was super calm about it all.

The taxi driver didn’t feel like driving us to La Paz so we got out. I tried to call the place I’m staying, but no answer.

Noémi didn’t mind waiting for me. She said she had to wait for her bus to Cochabamba anyway. I was so grateful to have her. I constantly tried to pay for things for us and compliment her as much as possible. Together we went to La Paz terminal bus station, which is more market than bus station and stored our bags before heading for lunch. Before lunch, we had to use the bathroom, which COSTS MONEY. 0.50 Bolivianos for each use and it wasn’t clean at all nor did it have soap. 1 U.S. dollar equals 7 bolivianos, but still it’s the principal that seemed bizarre. Good thing I brought my trusty hand sanitizer.

Lunch was crap and Noémi wasn’t hungry, which I couldn’t believe cause we’d been travelling so far. I was so hungry I didn’t feel like being too adventurous especially into a pork chorizo, so I just got a hamburger. They asked me how I wanted it cooked. I was like LONG TIME! I did not want food poisoning on my first day in Bolivia. Who gets their hamburger rare? Didn’t even know it was possible.

After lunch Noémi called me a cab and actually took it with me to our new flat.

Me and my angel Noémi in the La Paz bus station

I would have honestly been dead without her. She got us the right prices for taxis, helped me through customs and translated everything for me even if she had to explain using sign language. This taxi drive was nuts. The driving in La Paz is even more messed up. Imagine cars coming from 4 directions and they can turn any way they want. Straight or left or right it doesn’t matter. No lights or traffic signs and too many cars. Chaos.

We arrived alive and after she insisted on paying most of the taxi we hugged goodbye and I entered my new apartment – a good 35 hours from waking up in Toronto.

I had no clue how I would get here and in the end I used airplanes, buses, taxis, unmarked taxis, and even pushcarts to arrive. Along the way I used very very limited Spanish and people were kind enough to help me. I’m so relieved.

Looking back it kind of seems crazy that I was so panicked now that I am in such comfort in my new home and with such like-minded and chill people. But, I’ll leave the reality show that is the Bolivian Express for another day. Going to play soccer tonight and I hope I’m not gonna’ die from altitude sickness.

Chow for now mi amigos!

Ps. Btw, the name of the artist that arrived at the Lima airport was a South Korean group called Big Bang.

Rough Start: Part 1

Written mostly at 1:00 am in Lima, Peru Airport.

Lima’s airport is guarded by security overnight.

My heart is racing. I need to get to La Paz, Bolivia in less than 48 hours. I’m strung out on coffee and my eyes must be bloodshot. I already fucked up and been fucked with financially. A 23 -hour day of airplanes and airports will do that to you. It doesn’t help that I can’t sleep on planes. With the constant babies crying, seatbelt beeps and taps from flight attendants I never understood how anyone could.

I knew getting from Lima, Peru to La Paz would be a bitch. I’ve been dreading this day for weeks now if not months.

Skip a huge country (one of South America’s best) without any sleep over a two-day span. Why would I do this to myself? Well, when I booked my flight three months back I planned to start in Lima and make my way from the west side to the east side of the continent. Like Tupac, but in reverse. The plan then was to spend a month in Peru, a month in Bolivia, a month in Argentina and a month in Brazil. I was itching to book the ticket, so when the price was almost as low as I’d first seen it I went for it.

Two days later, I got accepted to an internship in La Paz, but I couldn’t do it in December as planned due to Christmas holidays. Instead, I had to start it two days after I arrived in Peru.

So, first I tried calling the airline to see if I could reroute to La Paz. After a half hour on the phone at a Bridgehead during my break as a server I was at $275 + cost of additional fare + tax. Also, I couldn’t be sure if Delta would let me do it. So no.

Then I tried finding a ticket from Lima to La Paz. Over $500. No.

Then I tried to find a ticket to the east of Peru and then bus over for $130. I tried about seven times on one of the airline’s websites to buy a ticket, but it constantly bounced back in the pay phase. I called Visa and they had no clue why and I did not feel like reasoning with Peru on the phone in Spanish. So, I tried to use a third-party website to buy the flight called atrapalo.pe. Seemed legit when I bought it, but then I got an email… In order to validate my flight I had to send them a copy of my passport, both sides of my credit card and a waiver. Ughh no! So, I cancelled that.

Enter right now. I’m sitting in the Lima airport in the food court at 1:00am with sleeping Peruvians and nervous tourists (like me), waiting for the airline to open to see if I can buy a ticket. While I am sitting here I’m feeling a little paranoid so I locked my bag to my seat. Good idea? Wrong! Even though I tried it 10 times at home, my combo didn’t work for my snowboard lock so I had to cut my bags to get it off. Right on the part I carry it with when it’s not on my back. Grrrrrrr! As the uber-white old tourist couple behind me said –“That’s the skids.”

Fuckin combo lock grrr!

Meanwhile, joining us in the airport at two o’clock in the morning are hundreds of Peruvian teens and creepy middle-aged men to see some pop star arrive at the airport (not sure if these guys were picking up other passengers or just creepy middle-aged fans…). Mats and sleeping bags lined the walls around the huge airport atrium, while the rest more leaned over the tape for a glimpse of their beloved – (yet to be determined) celebrity. You can imagine my shock when I walked out of the gate with my new Peruvian mother who had just been arrested and taken in for questioning by airport security to see a sea of Peruvians staring at me as if I was the second coming of Jesus…

Let me backtrack a little.

Goodbye Canada

It’s 9:45am and I arrive at Toronto’s Pearson airport. My 12:35pm flight from Toronto was delayed 45 minutes, so I waited for over 3 hours.

Random Toronto airport observation: EVERYONE has technology. People don’t have enough hands to carry their iPhone, laptop and ipads, yet there are very few plugs in airports and none on flights – #whatupwittdat?

I regret leaving my iPhone at home already #firstworldproblems.

In line for customs I met a really cute girl from Chicago. Turns out she was a missionary and we got into talking religion. Before she was set to depart she asked me for my blog info as she was interested in my trip. So, if you are reading this, thank you whoever you are for showing interest in a stranger’s life. She attributed us getting along to G-d’s plan – I just see it as part of the wonders of travel. Note: thus far, I’m not an evangelical Christian.

Onto Atlanta where I caught my flight to Lima, but not before grabbing a delicious fat American stuffed pizza slice. Why doesn’t Canada make pizza as thick? Guess we don’t got the dough… (badabam chh!).

The flight to Lima was a culture shock. At first I wondered why the boarding time was an hour before takeoff – then I found out.

I had never been on a flight so big and so high-tech. It took me 15 minutes just to walk from one end to the other and to my seat.

During the flight there were two meals – the first of which was a delicious grilled chicken taco salad. Ya, I said airplane food was delicious, so? Also, there were TVs with a selection of awesome movies like The Dark Knight and HBO shows like my most loved/hated show Game of Thrones. But, I didn’t get to too much watching.

Instead, I immediately sparked up a conversation with the older woman sitting next to me – Marietta. In the span of six hours I became Marietta’s adopted son.

We talked about everything. Her two kids living in Washington and Jacksonville, my love life, my travel plans, my dreams, her dreams. For all intensive purposes, I now must meet Marietta in Cusco for the New Year, hike the Inca Trail with her and then allow her to take me on a tour around Lima.

To her I’m a “nice,” “intelligent” and “mature” young man who would go great with many girls she is willing to matchmake me with. I showed her my family albums, explained my family history and in turn she gave me sagely motherly advice on everything from safety to what beers to drink in Peru. She did make a very strong case for Lima, so I will definitely have to consider it. At this point, it’s probably Peru or Argentina, one or the other, suggestions?

Back to my lovely Peruvian mother. A Peruvian who was born in Alabama, U.S.A., Marietta picked up her things and moved to Oregon to work as an English as a Second Language teacher. Now that Marietta’s kids are out and living on their own, she decided to return to Lima with a new set of business plans. One of which is to buy a bed and breakfast for tourists heading to Peru – a bed and breakfast that I will have to stay at. Another is to fulfill her fashionista destiny (according to her daughter-in-law) by selling designer bathing suits she bought from Kohl’s in Oregon where they pay no tax and then sell them to her friends in Lima.

Unfortunately, things did not go to plan. Throughout the flight Marietta constantly talked about how she was worried she wouldn’t get through bag check.

In Peru, when you are set to leave the terminal you must press a button to determine whether you have been chosen to have your bags checked. Green means good to go, red means a full scan check of your bags as well as a potential hand-search. Marietta had a bad feeling about going through it this time.

A little airport info: the customs officials find out that you are bringing over $500 of merchandize into Peru you must pay a fine. One passenger was fined $500, but she negotiated her way to $300. An early sign that anything in South America can be negotiated…

On the plane, Marietta knew she would not get away with carrying dozens of designer bathing suits if she got checked. To prevent this, she rubbed her hands on a cup of cold water – a trick that she heard could get you a green light. It probably doesn’t work for the coke dealers and it didn’t work this time either.

As Marietta and I were ready to take on the world with our new plans, she was suddenly taken away at customs for questioning. After about 15 minutes she was let out in order to help me find a way to La Paz. Without her bags, however, which were being tallied to make up the fine.

The plan was that she would speak to her airport car-driver friend who was familiar with flying through Peru. He would tell me the best way to get to La Paz. Didn’t happen.

As she ran around like the wanted criminal she technically was, I was told to go out another exit. As the door to the exit opened, the hundreds of fans of this crown-symbol celebrity character were staring at me, hoping I was their beloved artist. Terrifying.

There was nowhere to wait for Marietta in the sea of people and all I wanted to do was get the fuck out of the crowd before those many warnings of pick-pocketers came true and I was jacked in my first few steps on Latin American soil.

In this panic, I lost Marietta.

Frantically, I began writing this blog entry – which is more rant than I expected I would be doing. I figure that in the past couple weeks, people seemed genuinely interested in my trip, so why not report back a.s.a.p. You’re welcome Mom.

After settling down and suffering from my frustrating lock situation (see above), I decided to go with my plan to buy a ticket to the east of Peru (Juliaca) and find my way to La Paz from there. Sure enough, when I go to the airline to buy the ticket – the same flight is $162 (up from $130). Grr! Screwed by airport taxes.

Packing List – Guide for Future Travellers

The time has finally come. After nearly 6 months of living at home, working in a restaurant (NO MORE, “MORE WATER!”) and suffering the cockles of crappy Ottawa night-life I am heading to South America on Monday for at least 4 months. Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil are on deck and I have never done anything close to this before in terms of travel.

I have spent much of the past summer daydreaming and wishing I had left already… To make the time go faster I did a lot of research in preparation for my trip. Now that it has arrived this is the final packing list I have compiled. Refer to this for a trip of your own or send to a friend who is going.

Here it is:

Bags:

Day bag from Costco – The multi-pockets and comfortable feel made me decide to use this school bag instead of a travel-specific bag. Condoms for safety of course.
Big canvas black and pink traveller’s backpack – This bag was handed down from my brother who purchased it cause it was so ugly. Who would have nice things in a bag that looks this bad?

Documentation:

Passport – Make sure your passport is renewed and not going to expire before your trip. Renewing my Canadian passport cost me $85.

Blue cross insurance – I did my research and Blue Cross was the cheapest, most reliable and with the best coverage. It cost me $366.

Immunizations – Another major expense of my trip. Just the consulting fee for the travel doctor was $50, plus the cost of Yellow Fever, Measles and Hep. A shots made the cost of shots $300 alone.

Air tickets – I got a round-trip flight to avoid hastle from airport security. With the use of credit card points my flight from Toronto – Lima, then Sao Paulo to Toronto was $859.

Drivers license – legal identification is key and much more preferable to bring out than my passport.

Bank card

Credit card – Make sure to call and let your company know you are going abroad.

Printout copies – Copies of everything put into different places in my luggage.

Cash – I will start out with $200 American cash, displaced throughout my stuff then refill as I go. Unfortunately, it costs $5.50 every time I withdraw from an ATM so limiting my withdrawals will be key.

Technology:

Laptop – The $$. I brought my MacBook Pro, because I can’t live without it. In order to do multimedia journalism I absolutely need it. I predict that it will get stolen, but I’ll cross that bridge when it comes, plus I got it insured.

Mac case

Mac charger

iPod touch – I have an old iPod Touch from 2007 that I don’t really care about. It’s a major step down from my speedy iPhone 4, but I’m not worried about it and that alone gives me peace of mind.

headphones

iPod usb charger

iPod wall charger

1 TB External Hard drive – I bought a WD 1 terabyte hard drive to backup my stuff. Yet, I am still worried that things will be lost. If all of my stuff is stolen, clearly the hard drive would go to. That is why I plan on paying the $9.99 a month for DropBox

Canon Rebel T3i DSLR Camera – My big purchase of the summer. This baby is compact, light and I did not break the bank buying it. I did my research and this camera body was perfect for this trip. Of course I got it insured and under warranty. With lens, lens cover and warranty it set me back $1000. So far, it has been worth it.

16 GB SD Card – For camera (May pick up a smaller one on the way to be safe).

Camera cover – this fallic-looking faux-camera case cost me $5 on eBay and is perfect for putting in my day bag.

Camera charger

G-Shock waterproof watch – Without my iPhone and potentially without a cell I thought it would be good to have the time and keep an alarm. My friend actually gave me this snazzy watch for free. Thanks!

Olympus Recorder – For recording interviews and even using as a microphone instead of the weak on-board mic from my DSLR.

Tripod – Ok, I know its crappy, but it only cost me $19.99 and we’ll see where it takes me. If it breaks who cares.

Head Lamp – For dark walks to the bathroom.

Universal plug

Tops:

3 T-shirts – All plain. The goal here is to look as little as a gringo as possible. I also expect to pick up some stuff when I’m there.

1 Hoodie

1 Button up shirt – For dressy occasions.

1 Long sleeve

2 Jerseys

Bottoms:

1 Jeans + belt

1 Travel pants

1 Base layer – Basically like loose long johns for sleeping in when its cold. Apparently, due to the altitude of about 3800m in La Paz, Bolivia, it gets very cold at night.

2 Shorts – 1 athletic, 1 cargo

1 Bathing suit

7 Boxers

5 Socks

Shoes:

Flip Flops – For hostel showers.

Toms – For lounging in hostels/couch surfing homes etc.

NorthFace Goretex Waterproof Hikers – Not just water resistent, these shoes are GORETEX waterproof so they should hold up for those wet hikes in the Amazon and in rainy season. Only $77 on sale at Bushtakah cause they were “last year’s colour.”

 

Miscellaneous :

Waterproof bag cover – To cover my day pack in the rain.

Rain jacket – Another big investment. This Goretex Arc’Teryx shell cost me $280 (on clearance), but I’m sold to believe that it was worth it. This jacket is essentially guaranteed for life even if it rips. Last thing I want is to be soaked when waiting for a bus somewhere or walking to my hostel. It’s also not the flashiest jacket so I won’t look like as much of a silly gringo (foreigner), hopefully.

Caccoon – An extra layer to sleep inside of for nasty hostels. It packs up small and it was also a free gift from a friend. Thanks!

3 locks – 1 combination, 1 key, 1 snowboard with a chord to attach my bag to my bed when I sleep.

Notebook + pens

Hat Can’t find one I like at home, time to get one when I get there. Sombrero?

Pillow case

Ziplock bags – Waterproofing on the cheap.

Travel towel – Silky smooth and packs extremely small.

Sunglasses

Money belt

Spanish Dictionary

Canada patch – So I don’t look like an American.

Books

Aluminum Water bottle – For filtered water instead of allowing the weak plastic to degrade into my water.

Lighter – I don’t smoke, but I won’t wanna seem like a jerk when people ask me for a light. I heard that it is a good way to make new friends.

Cosmetics:

2 mini bottles of hand sanitizer

Toothpaste

Toothbrush

Floss

Shampoo

Razor

Shaving cream

Deodorant

Cologne

Nail clipper

Condoms – “Don’t get sick, wrap your stick.”

Tissue packets

Laundry bag

Moisturizer – Due to the high altitude, La Paz gets very dry.

All-purpose soap – As body wash, but also for cleaning my clothes int he sink.

Sunscreen

Tide to go

Toilet paper

Earplugs – For those obnoxious Americans in hostels.

First Aid kit

Ibuprofen

Malaria pills

Elevation pills

Diarrhea pills

Antibiotics

Matches

Oil of Oregano – Kills any throat cold.

Insect repellant

Vitamin C

Ok, so that’s it. I’m ready to fly out on Monday, November 12th and feel confident in what I am bringing. Now I can walk through South America with the same bounce in my step as this guy!: