Stray Dogs Of Sucre

Stray dogs of Sucre
Stray dogs of SucreIt’s not a long way between Potosi and Sucre – a few hours’ drive and a drop of 1000m from the barren hills around one of the world’s highest cities down through the valleys to the eternal-spring climate and greener region of Sucre, Bolivia’s traditional capital and beautiful, most perfect city.

The ancient connection between these two towns is a strong one: Poor Potosi, site of a silver mine where millions died and where, even today, thousands continue to work in terrible conditions and Super Sucre, the place built on Potosi’s money by the mine-owners and still now the posher side of Bolivia, a city both well-funded and steeped in pre and post-colonial history. So far on our travels through Bolivia, Sucre stands out as a beautifully preserved Andalusian downtown surrounded and supported by industrious working class neighborhoods. The buses run cleaner than in La Paz and there seem to be far less children dancing for money in the street – we arrived on a Sunday evening, drove through clean and orderly suburbs and stopped by the main square, parking up with lots of lovingly restored antique cars, their owners enjoying their stroll among the palm trees and fountains. But over the next couple of weeks, as we toiled with the Bolivian internet and did some work online, one incredible thing marked this city out as truly unique – not just for Bolivia, or for South America, but pretty much for the whole world. And I’m still racking my brains trying to understand what it means for the city, the history and the people: From the first day to our last, we enjoyed the company of a few of the dozens of friendly stray dogs of Sucre as we joined them on the streets.

Dogs the world-over

In the West, dogs tend to be attached to their owners or locked away behind fences and gates. In the South, there are, of course, the same kind of pet dogs but there are also loads of them wandering the streets or loose in and around the area where they live. Often they have owners but the relationship of responsibility is subtlety different than is it is for your standard pet – these dogs aren’t really strays, of course. They are not lost – they are free-roamers.

And they are never particularly friendly. I mean, they might tolerate a pat on the head or appreciate a little attention but they generally don’t seek any of that from a stranger especially – you see them sniffing about pretty oblivious to your calls or heading down the road straight past you, purposefully on a habitual route. In places, like at the beach or at some tourist spot, there might be a pack of them used to the kindness of visitors, well-versed in the art of blagging food – and the dogs we met in Sucre come close to this category. Close but entirely different; they weren’t begging for food, they just seemed to hang around the parks, squares and green areas and, well, they just seemed to want to hang out with the people there.

Where you can find friendly dogs in Sucre

A few blocks down from the main square, the Plaza 25 de Mayo, is the Parque Bolivar – a broad and long, well-treed park with fountains that were lit up at night at the bottom and food stalls at the top. There’s an enormous children’s playground, a public swimming pool and tennis courts down one side and, in the middle, a kind of miniature Eiffel Tower thing that you can climb up. Around the perimeter, joggers join forces with kids on hired mini-quad bikes and, basically, on any day of the week until 11pm or so the place is a good example of an urban recreational area complete with the odd picnic and plenty of romantic teenagers. And loads of dogs who wander around being friendly. They might occasionally join in on the jogging for a few laps. They might interact with their leashed brethren. Mostly they go from park bench to park bench just sitting and chilling with whoever’s there. They never went near the Eiffel Tower thing. If it’s a hot day, they stretch out under a bush – in the evenings, to be honest, they just look like they’re having a right laugh. And after midnight, there’ll be a pack of them all trying to get some sleep in a quiet corner somewhere.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine. These aren’t your typical mangy mutts – the long-haired, smaller breeds looked a bit of a dreadlocked mess but, mostly, they were big, good-looking, healthy dogs. With smiles on their faces, ready to look you in the eye and interact.

There’s one parallel that might illuminate and that’s the infamous Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima, Peru where you’ll find dozens of cats hanging out and dozens of visitors come to watch them. The situation is similar, especially when you see them curled up on the flowerbed as if they were part of the horticultural design. Except that these are, of course, dogs and not cats and, for that reason, just that bit more cuddlier.

Sucre and Sucre’s Mate

Sucre and Sucre's Mate

Our second day in Sucre, we were still getting our bearings and looking around for a good place to park up and live. This process, in a city, generally leads us towards the green spaces. We stopped by one, not far from the central market, and got out to check the area on foot. A beautiful husky-type thing started to follow us, responding to our greetings and letting himself be stroked. He walked with us up the road and then ran back down once he’d realized we had turned around. And when we got back to the truck and opened the door, he jumped straight in and wouldn’t leave until we physically pushed him out.

By the time we had got into a routine of mostly parking by the big Parque Bolivar or up by the main square to get a better internet connection, we had won ourselves a couple of regular canine friends – who we unimaginatively christened Sucre and Sucre’s Mate. I first met them up at the square on a couple of consecutive evenings – an hour or so playing with them and then they’d be off chasing motorbikes. Then once when we drove back down to the park, they ran after us, opting to sleep the night curled up together just outside our door. After that, they were often around, following us about, waiting outside cafes and stores for us and winning a few nights sleep-over actually inside our truck  – Sucre especially liked the bit of carpet at the front.

What does this say about Sucre the city?

I don’t know if anyone reading this finds it all so strange; but I do. You might find this kind of canine behavior at the beach but in a city? I never have before. For sure, some people we spoke to said that the dogs had owners but that they were just left to roam free – and none of them looked underfed or seemed fearful or aggressive as many street dogs do. Judging by Sucre and Sucre’s Mate, who never begged us for food or seemed particularly interested in trash, we think they must have had a regular place where they could go get fed – a place which you might call their home but a place where they only ever spent a few hours a day. Of course, we were always asking ourselves whether they endured any suffering, suspecting a dark side to this story – but you only have to look at them; they looked happy and dogs don’t fake that.

And I’m still wondering why in Sucre, the “nicest” city in Bolivia, this situation has come to be… A perfect balance of factors, probably: A constant, comfortable climate; a people chilled out enough to tolerate and even appreciate them; a municipal authority not quite resourceful enough or minded to get rid of them; maybe a tradition stemming from some long-forgotten event or practice. Whatever: For two dog-lovers living on the road they certainly made Sucre a special city.

Vegetarian Restaurants In La Paz, Bolivia

Vegetarian Restaurants in La Paz Bolivia

Being a vegetarian in South American countries can be a testing experience and, in general, Bolivia is no exception to that rule. In their capital city, Nuestra Señora de la Paz, however, you will find plenty of healthy, good food that has been cooked deliberately without meat or fish – pretty much an oasis of vegetarian food that will appeal to anyone who could do with a rest from the meat-eating norms. And, while proper vegetarian food is often over-priced tourist fodder, here you will find places where the locals eat. Here is our list of vegetarian restaurants in La Paz.

The Best – Natur Center

Best vegetarian restaurant in La Paz, BoliviaOur favourite place was on Calle Murillo just down from Mariano Graneros, that narrow market street, lined with blue wooden stalls, that climbs steeply up the hill. Here there are set meals with two options for the main dish. The menu changes every day and costs 16 Bs ($2.20) but was always delicious. This place sells a few traditional health products too, soya and bread and has yogurt based drinks and desserts for around 5 Bs. Get there in good time (12pm – 1.30pm) or you might miss out – it’s very popular with the locals and you share tables.

 

Centro Vegetariano Reneuvo

Centro Vegetariano Renuevo MapOn the other side of the same road, further up the street, is a vegetarian store inside a small arcade of stalls. Climb the stairs and there’s another restaurant with the same kind of deal although the food was a little more challenging the few times we went there. Again, get there in good time because it’s very popular – we saw the same crowd here on a Saturday when the restaurant above was closed. The set meals were 15 Bs.

 

Tomatecafe Cafeteria Vegetariana

Tomate  Cafe Cafeteria VegetarianaOn Calle Ayacucho going up on the left below Calle Potosi, this place is a foreign-owned, slightly posher cafetería catering for tourists and business folk. Again, get here early because the salad bar was running close to empty whenever we arrived. For 20 Bs, the set menu is always inventive and delicious but the portions are a bit small considering lunch is the main meal of the day in Bolivia. They also do veggieburgers, coffee, cakes and serve a few spirits. They have Wi-Fi but it’s typically slow. Watch your bags round here – the business area has rich pickings for thieves…

 

Tierra Sana

Tierra Sana Vegetarian RestaurantFriendly staff and free Wi-Fi; delicious food that is obviously lovingly prepared and presented. There’s a good menu here but it’s yet another step up in price – 30 Bs for the set course with portions on the smaller-size. This place is on the pedestrianized Calle Tarija round the corner from Oliver’s Pub and down the hill from the Museo de Coca.

 

 

Some health food stores, snacks and other places we found:

On Zoilo Flores close to Amirante Grau and a couple of blocks from Plaza de San Pedro, there are a couple of health food stores for your TVP and soya chunks and stuff. There is a also a fairtrade store at Avenida Costanera 36.

Here you might also find a street stall selling papas rellenas – mashed potato around meat, cheese or egg and deep fried. This is a delicious snack found all over Bolivia, served with a tangy sauce and usually costing 3-5 Bs. There’s a busy stall selling these on Calle Oruro just up from the main drag.  Other snacks to watch out for are humintas (corn and cheese steamed in leaves) and sonso (barbequed yucca and cheese).

If you’re in the south of town, on Avenida 20 de Octobre between Calles Guachalla and Aspiazu, there is an interesting cafe and community space focused on the feminist struggle and gender politics. I can’t remember the name but it has an unmissable mural painted big on the outside wall. There’s Wi-Fi here and occasional vegetarian grub served up cheap.

One other thing, if you find yourself in a smallish place that’s not too busy, is to just ask the cook to swap the meat for cheese, an egg or extra vegetables. Often they’ll be making it from scratch anyway – just don’t expect too much of a discount in price…

Some other vegetarian restaurants in La Paz that we didn’t go to:

  • Armonia at Avenida Ecuador 2286 – by all accounts, vegan and organic with set meals around 30 Bs.
  • Namas Te at Zoila Flores 1334 – well-established, maybe a little posh – or, at least, a treat.
  • La Mia Pizza at Calle Illampu 809 – ask for the meat-free and vegan options.
  • Hare Krishna Temple – we could never find this place but there is one around…

A Short Ayahuasca Detour On A Long Journey

Ayahuasca is a brew of various plants traditionally found in the Amazon region where it is used by people there for ritual, cleansing and spiritual practice. Generally one of the ingredients is a plant that contains DMT, a hallucinogenic drug that is illegal all over the world although in Peru the preparation and consumption of ayahuasca is permitted. Consequently a great many foreigners come here to take part in a ceremony and have the trip of their lives. And if this earthcircuit is anything like an act of global exploration, we thought we’d better take this psychic detour too.

The Pros and Cons

In our time looking after the Bed & Breakfast in Lima, we had quite a few guests who were on their way to or from some kind of shamanic retreat in the jungle. None of them seemed particularly “woo-woo” kind of people on the way there and, equally, they seemed quite sane and unfrazzled on the way back. We tried to understand as much as we could, thinking that maybe it was dangerous or took about two weeks to recover or something that could seriously jeopardise our plan to exit Peru for Bolivia in good time. I was worried about my tinnitus and whether an unpicking of my neural pathways would somehow make it worse. And then, of course, there were reports of dodgy shamans mixing more powerful substances into the brew or taking advantage of the intoxicated, psychic travellers.

To be honest the biggest worry was having to sit down with a group of extremist hippies and listen to spiritual this and spiritual that until my chakras exploded or something. Or equally being fleeced for $100 by a shaman, who a year previously was working in a call-centre in small town England, in the company of a dozen gap year kids. We wanted some kind of authenticity while, to be sure, we were here as visitors, as tourists, as people passing through. But, on the other hand, the earthcircuit crew are no strangers to stupificants or euphoriants, hallucinatory or otherwise – we just had never tried ayahuasca before, and wanted to experience this most powerful of plant medicine in the company of someone who knew what they were doing.

To be sure, there was another little issue. We had quit smoking (again!) a few weeks previously and, feeling as grouchy and disjointed, we were especially interested by both personal reports and medical research of the power of ayahuasca to help with drug addiction.

The Path to the Detour…

So having travelled overland from Lima to Cuzco, a journey from the modern world to the ancient capital of an ancient people, we ventured further into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, beyond Urubamba, the flat land of spiders, turning off the road towards the snow-capped Ch’iqun, parking up and walking a kilometre or so down a track  past stone and adobe houses, between high walls and along trickling streams, until we arrived at the home of a good friend who has spent a good while living in this mystical land.

Our friend had invited a shaman from Iquitos to come and perform a ceremony in which five of us would undergo the ayahuasca ceremony. Iquitos, a town so deep in the jungle that it is unconnected by road, is the home for ayahuasca tourism and this shaman was a very experienced practitioner who took his job very seriously, growing up with the traditional beliefs of the Amazonas.

The ayahuasca ritual is commonly believed to be a cleansing ritual, in that the medicine helps to “detox” the mind by enabling powerful visions and experiences. In spiritual terms, the consumer often reports having revelations regarding their own purpose in life or the true nature of the universe, encouraging them to undergo a rebirth after which they try to be a better person. In keeping with this powerful feeling, people often vomit or have diarrhea – a physical detox. With this principle in mind, we were advised to abstain from protein-rich and heavy foods, caffeine and alcohol for three days to clean the body –  and fast completely for twelve hours before the beginning of the ceremony.

The special diet was not  difficult  but the fasting was surprisingly tough and I found myself feeling sick and vomiting hours before the ceremony – it seemed that a couple of weeks of hard traveling, climbing from sea level to the Sacred Valley’s high altitude and the sudden lack of food had combined to weaken my immune system and I had succumbed to the usual, various local pathogens.

The shaman came over to me, to ascertain whether I was strong enough for all this. I thought I was. I was lying outside on grass in the cool air listening to birds. I felt weak but relaxed. He asked whether I had taken anything like a hallucinogenic before. I replied I had – sure, I was venturing into the unknown but I wasn’t nervous or worried. I had people around me who I trusted in a place that was safe.

The Ceremony

We all moved into the main room of the house that had been cleared of furniture and laid out with mattresses and cushions. We sat cross-legged and in silence as the shaman spoke a few words about what would happen. He began an intonation and the smell of smoldering herbs and roots permeated the air. In front of him there was a plastic bottle of black liquid and I couldn’t take my eyes from it. This was the stuff, the ayahuasca, the spiritual brew itself – made from exotic plants that knew no home except in the Amazon jungle, a world away from my homeland and the natural substances available there.

The lights were turned off and a solitary candle lit – one by one, we were offered an egg-cup of the liquid and we took it down in one gulp. It tasted as foul as we’d been told it would but, to my mind, not much more than most natural concoctions. Possibly like very thick, bitter Valerian tea. Once we had all sipped the stuff, the candle was extinguished, the room now pitch black and, for me without my hearing aids in, there was an external silence masked by my internal tinnitus. Earthcircuit’s psychic detour had begun…

Drive From Lima To Cuzco

Two Hours by Plane, A Day by Bus – Nearly a Week with our L.O.C.

After so many months in Lima, we were really looking forward to the drive to Cuzco. Time to let the cobwebs blow free and get some movement on again. For this run we had a couple of Londoners on board – a pleasure and a privilege for LOC Jigsaw to have a full crew and an opportunity to share a great travelling experience where every stop on the five-day journey will be something unique. The best thing about Peru is that it hardly matters which road you take – there are always going to be amazing things to see along the way and the drive from Lima to Cuzco via Nazca is no exception.

[cycloneslider id=”from-lima-to-cuzco”]

Day One: Lima to Paracas

The long desert road down the coast is an easy drive and eased us all into the trip. Turning off the Pan-American Highway at Pisco which is one of the traditional centers of the Peruvian distilled grape juice called Pisco – surprisingly enough. Most of this town was destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 2007, the cathedral is still a ruin and, as we drive through to the coast and then south past foul-smelling fish meal factories  to the Paracas Nature Reserve, many of the buildings are still crumbling with gaps and piles of rubble between them.

We get to the Nature Reserve a little before sunset – enough time to pay the S/.5 per person entrance and drive over to the tiny port of Lagunillas where we camp up under an emerging starry sky.

Day Two: Paracas to Huacachina

Woke up to strong sunshine, beautiful blue sea and an endless sandy landscape stretching behind us – this barren landscape is a unique desert and the reserve is home to many kinds of birds, lizards and sea lions, foxes and dolphins. We went in search of the Mirador de los Lobos which is a cliff-top overlooking an island where thousands of sea lions hang out with the chance of seeing whales further off-shore. The track we took skirted a salty estuary and became a wash-board road and then climbed up on to the cliffs. We abandoned the truck where our heavy two-wheel drive could do no more and continued on foot for a couple of hours across this incredible scenery.

From Paracas it was a short drive to Ica, to pick up some supplies and then Huacachina, a unique oasis set among enormous sand dunes. After playing it safe in Paracas, of course, we had to get stuck here, trying to park up at the bottom of an enormous pile of sand as darkness quickly fell. Sure, we thought it was a car park – but probably a car park reserved for the dune buggies that took tourists out on excursions around.

Day Three: Huacachina to Nazca

Again, today was a short drive up onto the plateau that is famous for the mysterious Nazca Lines. First stop is at the viewing platform by the side of the highway. It’s only a couple of Sols to climb a twenty-metre high steel construction, ignore any vertigo inducement and enjoy this small section of the enormous earthworks. From here you can see three of the figures fairly clearly: a Tree, Hand and Parrot. Just a little further down the road you can climb up small hillocks and from here, although you don’t get to see any more of the figures, you do see close up some of the perfectly straight lines racing off into the distance and you do get a feel for the enormity of the whole thing.

On to Nazca itself, we stopped at some ruins on the outskirts of the town on that road that would take us up to the Altiplano. Not for the first time on the Peruvian leg of our earthcircuit, we could park up in the remains of some ancient citadel called Los Paredones. While the rest of the crew explored the adobe structure and the rocky hillside it was built against, the pilot had to make some running repairs on our ship (the handbrake mechanism had been wobbled loose driving over the corrugated tracks of Paracas). Climbing into the mountains the next day demanded a working hand brake and it was better to do it here, more or less at sea level, while there was the oxygen available to remove and replace all the back wheels and drums…

Day Four: Nazca to the Edge of Space

Maybe we’re just getting used to driving in mountains, but it didn’t’t seem like a long climb up. But it was. About four thousand five hundred meters. 4.5km. Doesn’t sound much but our ship is a Low Orbiting Craft and this, a tiny village in the Cotaruse District where we finally came to a stop at 4600m above sea level was like the edge of space. Beautiful drive up; the gray desert giving way to sparse green vegetation and herds of vicunas as we crossed the Pampas Galeras Natural Reserve; the sinuous climbing highway leveling out as we crossed into the highlands. We had a late lunch with coca tea to alleviate the developing altitude sickness but, even at our sedate pace, we were traveling too quickly for any comfortable acclimatization. By the end of the day it was very much a near-death type of painful: Thumping headaches for the pilot, nausea and vomiting for some of the passengers. I tried to say hello to the locals but all I could hear was blood pounding through my head. I tried to appreciate the incredible night sky, brilliant stars closer to us than ever before but my banging head was hung low with hood up hat I might die in peace…

Day Five: Cotaruse to Cconocc

A fitful night’s sleep followed by another exhausting drive through sparsely inhabited lands was the plan for our fifth day from Lima towards the fabled Inca city of Cuzco. After remaining above 4000m for quite a few hours we dropped into the valleys that led to Abancay and the gateway into the Cuzco Province. We were pretty much starving by the time we stopped at a restaurant on the edge of town wandering if we had the energy or daylight to cover the final couple of hundred klicks to our destination. The pilot said no – the map revealed hours of twisting climb ahead – and the restaurant owner advised us to overnight at the Cconocc hot springs just a few kilometers on.

We had been thinking about finding a river to stop at; a chance to wash ourselves, the truck and our clothes so that we might arrive in Cuzco fresher than we were – and that wishful thinking appeared to have got us some hot springs! With raised spirits we turned off the road and dropped a few hundred meters into a hidden valley with a surging river and lukewarm water gushing out to fill several deep pools.

Day Six: Cconocc to Cuzco

After a few long days on the road, thermal springs represent just about the best place to park up and soak away the pain. And we did just that: loitering until the sun had climbed high above us and we felt ready for the final push. Cconocc proved to be the perfect step before the big city, marred only by the itchy bites from some kind of tiny fly.

First there was a long climb up to attain the altitude that Cuzco sits at; a megalithic guardian watching over the Inca’s Sacred Valley. That section of road was in a bad state and slowed us right down for fear that the hand brake would come loose again. We picked up some hitch-hikers, local teachers happy not to have to squeeze on board their usual transit, and we picked up speed leveling out on the better highway heading in. Our low-orbiting craft purring happily with a full load and the destination in sight as if it could recall its previous life as a bus on the other side of the planet.

Smiles all round, then, as we curled around the hillsides, the city laid out below us. The end of an epic journey: not so much because of the distance – a mere six hundred miles – but because of the differences in the environments between the capital by the coast and this ancient place high up in the hills. The drive from Lima to Cuzco is the kind of journey Peru should be famous for.

If All Else Fails

[morpheus 1 /]

WOOOT

And lastly, this one. Checkmate.

Donec ullamcorper nulla non metus auctor fringilla. Vestibulum id ligula porta felis euismod semper. Praesent commodo cursus magna, vel scelerisque nisl consectetur. Fusce dapibus, tellus ac cursus commodo.

Generic placeholder image

[edsanimate animation=”rotateInDownLeft” duration=”20″ infinite_animation=”no” animate_on=”hover” ]iaef-asteroid
[/edsanimate]


Welcome Back

Welcome Back

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry.

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry.


First Impressions Of Brazil

Parrot in Bonito, Brazil

Swimming in Pantanal, Bonito, Brazil

If my secret destination on this round-the-world trip was to get to California then, for the Portuguese half of our team, their ambition was to reach Brazil. Three weeks ago, we finally crossed the border from Bolivia at the town of Corumba in Matto Grosso de Sul state and we have now we have reached the edge of Sao Paulo state, 800 km away from the coast. This area is best known as the Pantanal, a vast tropical wetland area – and here is are our impressions so far of Brazil.

The Border

I don’t think I have ever seen such a relaxed border crossing in my life. The guards were plain-clothed beyond their sunglasses, a pistol and a police t-shirt. They were waving the mostly Brazilian vehicles through – joking and calling out greetings to their occupants. They told us to park round the corner and hurry to the passport control which closed a few seconds before we arrived. It was only 5pm or so but we were heading east and hadn’t bothered to update our time-zones. Maybe it was seven. No problem, sure, we could spend the night at the parking lot. But, no, one border guard said – “Go into town, it’s five-minutes up the road; eat some food, drink a few beers, come back tomorrow.” The smiling was infectious and the banter between us all spread: Oh, we don’t want to waste diesel, we can just hang out here and they replied, “You come all the way from Europe and you’re worried about a few kilometres more? Welcome to Paradise!”

Bonito

This town is one of the hubs for tourism in this region – tours out to the rivers made crystal clear by some natural chemical reaction, for water fun and nature watching. Access to these is limited and you have to book yourself in – and, for that reason, it’s high-end tourism which the classy but boring-looking restaurants and hotels reflect. Just out of town there is the municipal river access which charges an unbelievable 25 Rs per person to get in for a day. We got there on a Sunday and we sat outside watching a stream of cars go in, thinking we didn’t really want to pay that just for a few crowded hours even though we were desperate for a swim. Next door, however, is the Rio Formosa Camping and we checked it out, guessing maybe they had river access too. Turns out they did – for the same price, you can stay overnight and until 6pm the next day; you get Wi-Fi, hot water, electricity and a nice little gazebo thing with a barbeque and kitchen – and you can swim at a few beautiful places that are under-populated enough to attract monkeys and parrots. We stayed there nearly a week.

Heading East Through A Friendly Country

Heading east, past Campo Grande, the landscape becomes less lush and more farm-like – enormous fields with a few scattered, lonely trees sheltering the cows from the afternoon sun. The place is scorching hot, hotter than normal, we were told and parking up for a break becomes an exercise in finding shade for the vehicle. In the towns and out on the highway, the story is the same: There are so few trees that when one sheltered parking space opens up, another vehicle will stop there in a few seconds time. And even fewer trees that were high enough to let our 3m of bus under. Why don’t they have more trees in Brazil? I could only wonder how the Amazon looked. We arrived at Battaguasso one late afternoon and headed down the bright, wide streets to the enormous town square, the size of four football pitches. With, like, one tree on it that offered any kind of shade that was crammed full of vehicles like the poor cows out on the fields.

But what they lack in trees, they make up for in ants. I have still to de-bunk that myth that the total weight of ants in the world is more than the total weight of humans. And I don’t think I’ll be doing that in Brazil.

Back on the highway, there’s a 24-hour truck stop here where you can get free Wi-Fi, refrigerated drinking water and showers for free. The manager even showed us where we could plug in and even showed our truck to his little girl who’d apparently been asking about right-hand drive vehicles only a few days previously. In three weeks, already, it has been an increasing trend: Brazilians are damn friendly; they’ll come up to satisfy their curiosity about who we are, what we’re doing and why the steering-wheel’s on the wrong side. But it doesn’t stop at question-and-answer sessions: Restaurant owners will give us pizza at the end of a day; the kids on the river-front will share their beer and weed; cyber cafes will let us plug in the truck and switch on the Wi-Fi; camping weekenders will trade a place at their barbeque for the use of a sharp knife – even truck drivers will offer their own limited, cooking facilities not realizing we got, like, a full kitchen in the back of the bus.

Firsst impressions of Brazil: friendly people!

Until we find ourselves parked up in the wrong kind of flavela, of course, the thing that most worries us about Brazil are the prices. We’ve had years of listening to travelers telling us that it is an expensive country to visit. Just a little worried, mind, knowing that half our money goes on diesel anyway and the kilo of rice costs pretty much the same everywhere in the world. Our self-catering, self-accommodating, overlanding life style protects us from the hikes in price most tourists suffer and we’re not too much bothered about visiting all those must-see attractions that none of the locals have ever been to. But also, we know, that most richer countries can actually be cheaper to overland through than the poorer ones. It’s difficult to compare, of course but restaurants may be way more expensive but the food in the stores is cheaper. And things that you should be paying for come free-of-charge, like town-square Wi-Fi zones and drinking water. As I write this, we’ve been at the beach for a few days just outside the town of Presidente Epitácio on a wide river that marks the state border. It’s the local, municipal recreational area and, during the week, we get the place to ourselves – shade, toilets, showers, electricity, friendly guards and their friendly cat, a couple of bars on the pretty, little beach… and it’s all paid for, presumably, by the local government. Even if you could find somewhere like that in a country like Bolivia, you’d be paying mucho dinero for it.

For us, our first impressions of Brazil are easing us a little into the thought of having to go back to Europe soon. After the Andean countries and the alien altiplano, this country is so much more Western. Now, we’re on the main road to the coast, the highway traffic is busy and fast and they employ the Western model of side-indicator usage – you know, when the truck in front signals that it’s safe to over-take, they’ll flash their right indicator and not the left like they do in Southern Asia and the Andes. There are supermarkets everywhere but it’s damn hard to find good quality vegetables. The towns are pretty American, laid out on a side-walked grid too big to actually negotiate on foot, and that just speaks of the incoming modernity and development to us Europeans on their way home…

Drive Through Bolivia

Drive Bolivia
[RFG_gallery id=’2′]

Bolivia was like a little step back in time. We didn’t intend to stay too long but we ended up hanging around and working on a few projects over Christmas and the New Year. Coming from Peru, you get to La Paz straight away and the glorious chaos of that city is refreshing and infectious. Then you get sucked into the rest of the country, each new town as vibrant and energetic as the last, until you’re finally back down from the Altiplano, the Andes giving way to the flatlands that stretch towards Brazil. Here is our drive Bolivia report:

The Poverty

The poverty compared with all the countries we have visited in the last four years seems much worse – it’s in your face with kids forced to dance in the streets, legions of old people employed to beg for money, drugged-out shoe-shiners sleeping in doorways.

Government money must be in very short supply – all over the country. The border we came in at had a power cut but no back-up generators. The passports were checked by candle-light, the face-recognition cameras sat idle in the dark. The border that we exited was just a small room sweltering in the jungle heat with no air-con – I think they were modernizing: the office next door was slowly being demolished by a kid in flip-flops with a big hammer. Lack of paved roads; ancient buses spewing out choking fumes down medieval-sized streets; people pissing everywhere; hundreds of kids on rural roads begging, some of whom threw stones at passing vehicles who declined to stop and cough up money; animal butchery performed next to gutters and drains. Visually, things reminded me of somewhere like small-town India and I still fail to understand why when Bolivia is endowed with so many natural resources, a small population and a “socialist” president.

The Park Ups

La Paz – We parked up right in the center of town a couple of blocks up from Plaza de San Pedro and a block from the main drag. It was an unusual road in that it didn’t have any stores or buildings on it so was used, by day, by commuters and taxis. Occasionally, a cop would come round with a wheel clamp but would only put it on a car which he knew would want to leave soon because then he’d collect the 50Bs fine. We were there for 3 weeks over Christmas and never had any bother from anyone – the only problem is that it’s a public urinal for thousands of desperate people and they tend to make a bee-line for the privacy that a big, parked truck offers. After Burning Man and the nudist Wreck Beach in Vancouver, we’d never seen so much cock in our lives. Officially the Hotel Oberland, south of the city in Mallasa, is the overlander’s choice for parking up. It’s a nice enough establishment, the only problems being that it’s a fairly miserable parking lot that you’re living in and you’re a couple of buses or taxis away from the city action. And they charge 50Bs per person.

Ojo del Inca is a geothermally heated pond a few miles north of Potosi which lets people pitch a tent or park up. Nice place to park for a few days but watch the batte-axe of a woman who runs the place. At first she charged us 85Bs but dropped to 25Bs when she saw we were quite happy to park just beyond the property. To visit for the day, you have to pay 10Bs each.

We spent a couple of weeks on the streets in Sucre. We tried out one place in the center that used to let people camp in their garden but he’d closed up, saying it was too much bother. Not much bother at all, however, is just parking up on the streets. A really nice spot is by the Parque Bolivar – at the bottom is an ex-gas station where you can shelter from the weather – although the best things about Sucre are the climate, which is perfect for living in a truck, and the friendly stray dogs that inhabit the center of town.

Samaipata is a small town 100 klicks up the hill from Santa Cruz. Just out of town is a three thousand year-old site, the center  to many nice treks and stuff. It is also heavily expatted with lots of comfortable hostels, bars and restaurants. We stayed at the Jaguar Hostel for 15Bs each per night – a small place run by friends and popular with Argentinian campers. This town is a pleasant place to rest and take a deep breath before heading down into the heat of the lowlands.

Agua Calientes is half a day’s drive from the Brazilian border. For 10Bs each, you can camp under trees by a geothermal lake which is very popular Bolivians and the local Mennonite communities.

The Internet

Internet in general in Bolivia is pretty bad. But using 3G on the ol’ smartphone was surprisingly good. Sure, most times, I had to work at night to get some reasonable speed but quite often I had to use my phone when we sitting in a café or restaurant because it was still faster than the Wi-Fi on offer. The phone package was kind of a good deal – $1.5 buys 500mb that lasts for a day but rolls over when you next charge up the credit. Problem was, usually, trying to get through 500mb was wishful thinking.

The Food

There are markets everywhere in Bolivia – they are obsessed. Even on Christmas Day, some of the stalls were set up and selling. The range of vegetables is limited but they are tasty and cheap. If they aren’t exactly organic, they are grown from good seeds and you can bet it was human labor that spread the chemicals and harvested the produce, brought to market in the back of a small truck. In the bigger cities there are a few supermarkets but everything was a few Bolivianos more than the markets. The purpose-built markets in every town are a good place to get a cheap meal – the central market in Sucre was pretty busy with big communal tables – and there’s an evening version too. La Paz was excellent for vegetarian food.

The Roads

We gave up on going to see the salt flats. We knew it was the wrong moment – the rainy season had been underway for a while and the incoming Dakar rally was going to mess everything up – but it was the 100km of corrugated dirt track to get there, affording an average speed of 15mph, that ultimately put us off. There is a skeletal network of goodish roads running from La Paz to Santa Cruz and, then, a new, smooth one across the flatlands to the borders. Coming out of Sucre, for example, there were two choices: (a) go on a 200km detour to get onto the nation’s main highway or, (b) use the unpaved, direct road between the nation’s traditional capital and their biggest city. We chose the direct way and ruined a tire on the sharp rocks – never getting above 20mph for two days. Yes, the roads are pretty bad in Bolivia. Even when they are paved, they’re full off potholes, ruts and crazy undulations – and when it rains, the unpaved ones turn into rivers of mud.

The Fuel

Buying fuel in Bolivia was a novel experience. The rule is that, if you turn up at the gas station with a foreign-registered vehicle, the fuel is (currently) 9Bs as opposed to the normal price of 3.7Bs.  I believe that another rule is that you are limited to one container if you turn up with fuel cans. Coming in from Peru, we could only find one gas station in La Paz which let us fill our truck up for 5Bs; driving further inland, most gas stations began to sell us diesel at that price and then on the highways between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba gas stations would charge us the normal price. Past Santa Cruz, though, heading towards the Brazilian border at Corumba, we found it very difficult and resorted to buying 200 liters of diesel from someone’s backyard in San Juan de Chiquitos. From there it’s 200km to Brazil and we passed no gas stations at all until we hit the border town itself.

When looking for a lower price, there are a few tricks: You should ask for a price “sin factura” and tell them not to worry about the cameras – they don’t work. You can try later in the evening when the manager might not be around. You might even be able to convince them that your vehicle is Bolivian, you just haven’t changed the plates over – or you can even Photoshop a couple of Bolivian plates and stick them in the window. Don’t let them charge too much – we felt 5Bs was a fair price and on a 50-litre-amount, the attendant is making nearly $10; a nice bonus for him or her. But don’t moan at them – some of the attendants are pretty paranoid about the whole thing and it’s your responsibility to be able to just say “OK, thanks but no thanks”, and still be able to drive on to the next gas station.

You might think that it’s immoral to steal tax from Bolivia by buying their subsidized fuel – and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. If you can afford it, the diesel price of 9Bs per liter is hardly super expensive and still cheaper than most of Europe, say. But there must be many immoral facets to Bolivia’s economic situation and, I believe, the fuel is subsidized in order to please the more wealthy folk who can afford to run their own cars or own transit companies and the poorer folk who don’t trust the government to deliver the benefits that higher fuel taxation would bring…

Drugs

You will probably get offered cocaine before getting offered marijuana – a depressing fact that will probably make you want a spliff even more. The drug of choice, of course is chewing coca leaves, popular with people of all classes but especially any worker with a tough, physical job. We hardly ever saw a builder or mechanic without a bulging cheek and a small green plastic bag close at hand. The desired effects of chewing this stuff come after a few hours persistence – try rubbing in a bit of soda to speed up the process. Our main substance abuse was focused on e-liquid which is available from some people in La Paz who don’t have a shop yet; find ‘em on Facebook and arrange to meet up!

Crime

We didn’t change our pattern of behavior much at all – but we managed to get robbed three times in one month. Not from the truck – petty stuff like pick-pocketing, bag-snatching and a couple of kids ran off with our e-cig after we’d been partying together all night… While this post should be about our experience, I’d like to mention one episode some friends had with the cops at the same time we were there: One night a “cop” came banging on their door, wouldn’t show his badge and kept a torch shining in my friend’s face. In the morning, he saw that the GPS had vanished and, as they were driving out of town, decided to report the incident to the police station. Inside, he recognized the guy from the night before who actually was indeed a police officer and, after a bit of shouting, my friend got his GPS back. I mention this story because, again, this family’s driven all over the world and only ever had a problem like this in Bolivia.

Health

Since arriving in Bolivia our stools were always soft – every day for two months. Since getting back down from the Altiplano and entering Brazil, they’ve been back to normal.  There, you really needed to know that, didn’t you? It could have been something to do with the altitude. It could have been something to do with the poor hygiene skills at the markets and eateries. I have a suspicion that it is that much harder to kill everything when the water boils at a lower temperature than sea level or maybe our hand-pump filter couldn’t cope with the bacteria-loaded, untreated water. Our coffee was probably infecting us with a low dose of germs every morning.

The Landscape

What can we say that a thousand photos cannot describe better? Stunning.

 

Meeting the Mennonites of Bolivia

Mennonite children

Back down from the Altiplano and well past Santa Cruz, we turned our orbital craft onto the road that heads hundreds of kilometers east across the empty lands towards the Brazilian border. It was proper tropical now, and through the heat and humidity, sure that our usual scant research had implied that there was not much happening round here, we settled back for the long cruise out of Bolivia. But then we came across something unexpected, something that really made me wonder about the earth, the people on it and how they choose to organize themselves. Unexpected too, that I had to dig out some German phrases. Low German phrases.

There’s a cartoon I’ve had in my head for many years – I would post a link to it but I can’t find one, it being a pre-internet sort of cartoon. I’ll try and describe it: The first panel has this guy driving a lonely road through the American Mid-West. There’s a hitch-hiker, dressed in a suit with a briefcase but he pays him little heed and drives on. On the second panel, he’s still driving and sees another hitch-hiker who looks exactly the same with the same briefcase – he passes him but does a double-take. The third panel, again, has him driving the same road and there are three hitch-hikers; two together and one further up – all looking identical with the driver now completely google-eyed. On the fourth and last panel, there, by the side of the road is a big factory with a sign “Clones Inc.” and dozens of the hitch-hikers spread along the side of the road.

It was kinda like that, these guys dressed up exactly the same with black dungarees, blue shirts and beige cowboy hats.  One after the other, sometimes in pairs, standing where a dirt track met the main road. By the time we got to our fourth panel, there was a whole bunch of them mingling around a couple of shacks at a junction; a few of them even had tractors pulling wagons full of their women all dressed in identical plain dresses and sun hats but most of them were hitch-hiking or, at least, waiting for the bus. These were the Mennonites and we stopped to give one of them a ride.

mennonites-women-in-cart

The Mennonites are a large global community of 1.7 million people in over 80 countries. They have in common their religion which began hundreds of years ago in Europe, following the teachings of Menno Simons: adult baptism, a belief in the simple life and pacifism. This move away from Catholicism was a part of the Protestant Reformation – a supposed move towards a more rational view of the relationship between humans and their God – but it was also a move away from mainstream society. Suffering various forms of persecution, a great many Mennonites were allowed to settle, first in Russia, and then, when the authorities turned against them there during the last decades of the nineteenth century, in Canada where they were valued as self-reliant pioneers.

Our hitch-hiker, Cornelius Neulander, told us about his own grandfather who had lived in Canada but left for a new life in Mexico where his father was born. His father had emigrated, with hundreds of other Mennonites, to Belize to farm the land and raise families. From there, Cornelius had brought his own family to Bolivia to start afresh some ten years before. We asked him how many of them were here and he replied in Spanish, “My colony, Colonia Belize has three thousand” and, in fact there are 60,000 Bolivian Mennonites in dozens and dozens of settlements and we were intrigued by their story, a movement across the planet that meant each generation had a different passport but suspecting that the specific nationality meant very little to them.

You have probably heard of the Amish who are an off-shoot of the Mennonites, originally from Swiss German regions of Europe. But, unlike their North American relatives, the Bolivian group, although they are described as “Old Colonialists” who have preserved their original beliefs in the face of the world’s modernization, are unexpectedly comfortable with some aspects of modern life. Their homes have generators and solar panels; they use tractors, machinery, and artificial fertilizers and pesticides on their farms. Cornelius even had a mobile phone and a camera and he was going the same way we were – to Aguas Calientes, a thermal spring that heated a whole lake and was a popular recreational area for the locals, native Bolivians and Mennonites alike.

Agua Calientes

A couple of hundred kilometers down the road, then, we found a spot under some trees to park up in the attractive camping area at one end of the small lake. The waters bubble up from the ground and, although it covers a large area, are never deep. The temperature is around 30°C, kept warm, I imagine, as much by the tropical sun as by geothermal activity. In the shallows there were many families relaxing and the Mennonites were easy to spot; the women sitting together in groups with their full-length wet dresses clinging, scarfs around their heads, and the boys displaying their white skin and blond hair. Further up, there must have been 25 tents huddled together in the shade which was the Mennonite camp, communal cooking gear at one end with hammocks and washing lines stretched out between the trees. Here the older guys still wore their immaculately pressed black dungarees, blue shirts and beige hats to be copied exactly by the kids once they’d got out of the water. It was kind of surreal to see all this, here in the middle of the Bolivian lowlands, a tribe of clone-like European immigrants calling out to each other in Low German, laughing, playing, chilling out, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, seemingly not so far from the local norms and the people who they talked with too and made their acquaintances.  But in reality so, so different.

We sat down with two brothers and a cousin from Colonia Berlin, brought some beers out and asked them to tell us more about their lives.  They were shy at first and we talked in Spanish which the older two could understand but the youngest, who was fifteen, had problems following. Apparently they are not taught any Spanish and the men only pick it up in order to conduct business with the local people. The women can only speak their particular dialect of Low German – the reason offered plainly was that they’d be less likely to leave the community if they didn’t understand the language of the country in which they were born.

It was an interesting conversation and we learned that they didn’t have television, had never used the internet and didn’t play any music beyond singing in the church. They all worked every day on the farms and pretty much never went further than the nearest small town to get diesel or supplies. The oldest, of 25 years, had only ever been once to a city – Cochabamba. None of them could say much about the history of their people – the older two had moved here from Belize when they were very young and couldn’t remember anything about it. We prompted them from what we had learned from Cornelius; their history back to Mexico, Canada and Russia but their faces were as blank as when we’d told them about our own origins in Portugal and England.

Meeting the Mennonites

Reaching internet land again, a few days later, I googled up what I could about the Bolivian Mennonites and it seems that, although their independent communities may be an attractive way of life, there is a cost to this social cohesion that has kept them all together for so long. I read about the Ghost Rapes where a number of Mennonite men anesthetized whole families by night and sexually abused them. It is a disturbing story which seems most incredible because the lack of communication, education and information within their society contributed to these events happening over several years to a still unknown amount of victims before ten perpetrators were caught and sent to prison.  And there is even some suspicion that it’s all still going on. In Bolivia, in some small communities, the authorities only have jurisdiction over the worse of actions like murder – a system that is designed to protect the integrity of traditional, indigenous cultures. That’s why the Old Colonialists are here. They left Canada because they were being forced to send their children to normal schools and they moved on from Belize because their growing community was too big to be kept separated from mainstream society.

But before I had read about all that, back at Agua Calientes, the next day, the Earthcircuit Crew drank their coffees and tatted down for the final last drive to the border. It was still bothering me that here were these people, living off-grid, thousands of miles from their origins, moving across the world, it seemed, as slowly as it took time to raise a family and forget about the generations before that had started this exodus. We sought out the oldest looking guy and explained that we wanted to know something more of why there were here. His name was Peter and even here couldn’t (or didn’t want to) tell us much about life back in Canada where he was born or the their history before. He told us “Here, in Bolivia,” he said, “we can be what we want to be”.

The Mennonites we met were all very polite and friendly. They did seem kind of wary of us but they did invite us to their settlements and it’s a shame that we didn’t take up their offer. Because knowing what I now know, I’m not sure it would have been the best of ideas…