Ups, Downs and Crap: Travelling Struggles and Resolutions in Bolivia

La Paz  from above with a long exposure. Kinda like fire and brimstone.
La Paz from above taken with a long exposure. Sometimes I feel like this city is Hell.

Caution: this post may stress you out and give you an ulcer, but it sorta works out in the end so read on.

“Life has it’s ups and downs,” right? “Take everything with a grain of salt,” they say. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The list of coping mantras goes on. When you are travelling, expect to repeat these proverbs more than ever – over and over again.

Was it really just two weeks ago that I was having the time of my life in the Amazon basin with the coolest, most badass indigenous tour guide known to man (See my article on Forget the Box)?

Me and Puma Alligator

I didn’t even mind the scorching tropical wet-heat in Rurrenabaque (the city of entry to the Amazon from Bolivia). To get a refresher, all you need to do is pluck a mango or star fruit off a tree, head to the cheap market for a cup of fresh orange juice or take a dip in the pool (20bs/$3 a day).

American Rurrenabaque resident used a huge stick to hit a mango tree and gets dozens of fruit - The life for me.
American Rurrenabaque resident used a huge stick to hit a mango tree and gets dozens of fruit – The life for me.

What is glaringly obvious as soon as you enter Rurrenabaque is the presence of motorbikes instead of cars. Right out of the airport, a few of my Bolivian Express colleagues and I hopped right on the back of a motorcycle into town. I decided then and there that motorcycles are the coolest way to get around.

Bike Rurre

The exhilaration of the bike taxi wasn’t enough. We wanted to drive the bikes ourselves. With the help of some friendly citizens including an awesome Parisien Baker, we found a few taxi drivers willing to let us drive their bikes for a small sum of (20bs.).

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Probably the best Omelette I’ve ever had. Warm bread, cheese and wine? Maybe France is the place for me.

Out on the open road with the Amazon forest as my backdrop, I rode my bike off into the direction of…anywhere! Shift. Up a gear. Shift. Up another. Wind blowing in my hair I was purely enjoying the moment…STOP. Where are my friends!?

I looked forward and saw only open road. I looked back and saw my Bolivian host grinning. I looked down and saw my expensive Canon DSLR at my waist – ready and exposed for the taking. Crap!

The driver and I drove back to the start and saw no one around, so we drove back to where we started in downtown Rurrenabaque. Within 20 minutes my friends arrived and that crisis was averted.

The next day, we took our Pampas tour and it was more incredible than I could have ever imagined.

On the bumpy three-hour ride to the Beni river, our rough trufi van only stopped four times. Once, so our guide Puma, a native from the Rurrenabaque region, could chase after a baby anaconda that slithered across the road. The second, to look at a koala up close – one that Puma spotted from about a kilometer away. The third and fourth were food and chill breaks.

Koala
Sloth

At the river point I saw a group of gringos – more tourists than I’d seen the entire trip. One girl looked familiar. Wow, I thought, white people do all look the same. Except, the girl stared at me back, so I thought I’d go for an approach.

Turns out, not only do I know this girl from Montreal, but she helped to inspire my trip to South America. We had met in March at a Political Science Student’s Association Wine and Cheese and got to talking about the future. She said that in the summer she planned to go cherry picking out West and then head for a long trip to South America. Sounded perfect to me! I did the research and got a job cherry picking, but decided to be a waiter at home instead and make more money. And here she was staring at me in the face. Small world!

I could go on forever with what happened on the Pampas tour, but essentially I swam with dolphins, fished for piranhas and touched alligators, monkeys, deadly caimans and poisonous snakes. Our guide was a jungle animal, the food was good and I bonded with some different people in hammocks listening to Jack Johnson and Brett Dennen. What more can a guy ask for? Once again, check my article on Forget the Box about it. Oh, I also fell in love, but that’s what I do.

Puma Cobra

Exhilarated and hung over from our last night partying in Rurrenabaque, I guess my debit card slipped out of my money pouch when I was taking out my passport a million times and I lost it. With the good comes the bad. Crap!

In case you don’t know, Bolivia has no postal service and it sucks. As was evident with its dysfunctional national census (see: my post on Forget the Box). So, getting a card would be nearly impossible. Fortunately, I have a credit card, which works essentially the same at the Interac, so I cancelled my debit card and moved on with life in La Paz.

Oh La Paz. Remember how I didn’t care about the altitude? Now I do. I haven’t been terribly sick like many others have, but the fatigue, sun burns (El Alto is really close to the sun), cold nights, rain, diarrhea, and daily hikes up the mountain to my hostel are starting to frustrate me. In addition, now that I am living in a hostel and no longer in an apartment I can’t cook for myself, which means I have to eat often-crappy Bolivian food. I have been able to avoid the suspect street burgers, but I eat a lot of saltenas and empanadas (fried bread with either cheese or meat inside them), which aren’t exactly healthy or nutritious. My contentment with the hostel also tends to waver when I am locked out in the pouring rain at 1:30 am for 20 minutes. Good thing my friend from Canada visiting La Paz heard the repetitive doorbell and decided to let us in. Thanks Charles!

mmm Bolivian street food. NOT!
Mmm Bolivian street food. NOT!

But, life back in La Paz means that I need to fulfill my duties for my internship with the Bolivian Express and get cracking on my articles. On the Thursday following Rurrenabaque we went to Feria de El Alto – one of South America’s largest markets at 25km2 and by far the craziest market I’ve ever been to.

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There, they sell everything! From snakes to donkey milk to 80’s retro American Football jackets to Royal Bank of Canada hats (really random) to Cholita skirts. Essentially, it’s hipster heaven and it’s not even in the West. I bought a lot of cool stuff for next to nothing, including a grandpa sweater, a tooth necklace, socks, a water bottle, a bright Michael Jackson beach towel and a couple shirts.

At the Feria I tried some donkey milk fresh from the donkey's teet. It was warm and rather mild. Apparently it's good for pneumonia!
At the Feria I tried some donkey milk fresh from the donkey’s teet. It was warm and rather mild. Apparently it’s good for pneumonia!

On my second visit to the market, it was way more packed. As I hustled to catch up with my friends I held on tight to my camera around my neck, leaving my iPod touch open to pick pocketers and I was jacked. My donation to El Alto. Crap!

Again, I followed all the coping motivations as listed above and I decided that the iPod was old and it would be ok to get a new one.

Pendulum shifts again.

On Tuesday night in the push for the first draft of our articles to be completed, another intern hooked up an interview with a Bolivian street racing team. They agreed to let us interview and photograph them high above the Bolivian streets. Supped up car after car rolled up to meet us, reving their engines and ushering girls into the back seat.

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After a long wait, the eight drivers invited us to hop in their cars and see what they were made of. Now, this was definitely like something out of Fast and the Furious. The pistons shot, the engine roared and the music blared out the ridiculous back subwoofer. Totally ridiculous, yet totally awesome.

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On the bridge the designer and lead photographer of the magazine told the drivers to line the cars up side by side in front of the La Paz city backdrop and he would photograph it. What he didn’t foresee was that the street was narrow and nearly impossible to get all the cars in one even with his wide-angle lens.

On the other side of the street was a wall that incased a construction yard. Too bad we can’t get over… Screw that! I put my hands over the door and pulled myself up to the yard and opened the door for the photographer.

As the photo shoot was going well and I was feeling great about my Spiderman skills a neighbour came up to us and told us to get out. Not because we were trespassing, but because there

was a deadly dog that guarded the yard. Crap!

I guess the dog was sleeping, so we weren’t bothered in our two-hour long shoot.

I absolutely loved it! The power that the photographer has over his subjects is amazing. I could tell that the shots weren’t as good as they could be, but he didn’t show it. Mucho respecto Gato!

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For one of my own stories for the magazine, I went to go meet an architect at the MegaCentre for an interview and thought I’d get an iPod at the same time. Turns out that the mall is huge, but completely crappy and useless and didn’t have any iPods.

I trust Apple, I really do. I’ve have two MacBooks, an iPod Touch, an iPhone and bought iPods as gifts. And every product has had problems. The first Mac peeled, the iPhone came cracked, and my Earbuds only worked in one ear. Every single time I have brought the product into an Apple Store they graciously handed me a new one. Even though their products can come broken, especially for me, I trust them because of their no-questions asked customer service.

I was 110% sure that I would buy a real Apple product to replace my 2007 iPod Touch. So, I went to the one street in town known for selling real electronics – Eloy Salmon.

Eloy Salmon is a few city blocks jam-packed with cell phones, kitchen appliances, sound and photo equipment. It is on all sides surrounded by traditional Cholita markets, which sell fruits, vegetables, meat and fresh fish sitting out headless and bleeding on the vendors’ table. Eloy Salmon is absolutely fascinating.

Even though most places on Eloy Salmon sold iPods, their prices varied drastically and you could haggle unlike in the West. I decided to grab the cheapest iPod I could find and that was an iPod Shuffle for $70 USD. Not cheap, but worth it incase I get caught on another 20 hour bus ride.

As I was paying for the Shuffle, I asked the vendor for a receipt incase it didn’t work. Nope, no receipt, but she did give me a business card, whatever that does…

Giddy after feeding my technology fix, I headed back to my hostel where I went on the Internet.

I surfed for about an hour trying to ignore the fact that iTunes wouldn’t start when I plugged in the Shuffle… Finally I couldn’t wait to have it charged, so I tried it in another computer in the hostel, and another. Nope, didn’t work at all. Crap!

I started to panic. 500 bolivianos down the drain when I felt that I took every precaution I could to get a quality product. I think I have the worst luck with Apple of anyone in the world.

Upset and determined, I packed my computer and found a taxi back to Eloy Salmon. “You don’t mind if I stop for a few minutes and get some gas?” asked the taxi driver as he pulled into a gas station. Perfect timing sir.

Anyways, 15 bs. ($2) later I walked up to the vendor unsure if I should force some tears or to come in yelling.

I did a combination of both.

“Please!” I plead with the vendor in Spanish. “It doesn’t work, can you please change it?” “No,” she said. “Here’s a number for Apple, you send it back.” But, there’s no postal service in Bolivia! I protested louder than I ever have in my entire life, but nothing. Crap!

I then pulled out my computer and showed her that it wasn’t working. She didn’t get it, it’s not like she was a tech-savvy Apple “Genius.” Fortunately, another vendor was in the shop and offered to try it on one of his computers.

So, I waited.

10 minutes passed and I sat hunched and upset. I really couldn’t afford to just throw away that kind of money…

Finally the other vendor came back and admitted the iPod was broken. Seconds later the vendor gave up and pulled out a new iPod! We tried it in my computer and success! Before he could eject it I stuffed the box and put it’s contents into my pocket and ran outta’ there. Crisis averted!

“I hate the way/ I think that I’m okay/ when I’m really angry at everything” – The Sun Parade.

This verse has been my anthem so far in Bolivia. Generally, I keep a positive attitude and take things one day at a time, but when crisis hits, I feel that my passive bliss is a guise for an undercurrent of frustration. While this blog makes it seem like I am having a bad time I really am not, I just enjoy writing my complaints out.

I do, though, think that in general La Paz is not for me. I have had great times, but many more frustrating times. I can’t wait to get out.

I’m spending my last week in La Paz then on Wednesday I’ll be off to Lake Titicaca and Cusco, Peru for Christmas, to hike Machu Picchu and New Years. Instead of leaning on the Bolivian Express, I’ll be all alone. Can’t wait!

I do not doubt that there will be more “crap” situations, but I really hope with all my soul that they will be limited and less frequent. My heart can’t take this shit anymore!

Make sure to check out www.bolivianexpress.org in a week to read the latest issue in production at this very moment. I’ll be a big part of it’s production.

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