Friday, January 23, 2009

Bolivia trip pt. 2

As I left off beforehand, we were leaving Sucre to fly to La Paz. We flew in first thing in the morning in El Alto, the outskirts of La Paz. My first impression was that it reminded me a lot of Quito; all the graffiti, the architechture, the homeless. As we drove through El Alto, we stopped for a good aerial view of La Paz, since it's situated in a snug little valley in the mountains. It is a maaaaassive city (even though it has less inhabitants than scz) that spread out all over the place.

When we got to the hotel, our guide Shirley mentioned that we were going to a restaurant that was "100% natural". Looking across the street, we realized that this was a pretty vegetarian restaurant. Sarah and I couldn't believe our eyes, since we'd been struggling pretty hard to get some nutrition into ourselves over the trip. Not to mention that Rotary hadn't really made too much of an effort before this to accomodate the vegetarians. But lo and behold, we feasted on VEGGIE BURGERS, the first since Samaipata, my second in Bolivia... and boy what a treat :) Afterwards, we went to this building that was about 6 museums in 1 (everything from miniatures to war paintings) before we went to La Calle de las Brujas, the witches' street, where all the touristical shopping is done in La Paz. For dinner, we even convincd Shirley to take us to an Indian food restaurant, which was pushing my opinion of food in La Paz towards heavanly.

First thing in the morning, we packed our bags and took off for the drive to Lago Titicaca. It was a three hour drive to the lake, then a 30min ferry ride, and then another two hour bus ride to Copacabana. After the carsickness was over, we all realized where we were. The lake was absolutely beautiful! After a lunch of trout, we hopped on another boat to take us to La Isla del Sol, the sun island (which also has its counterpart, the moon island). It is here in Incan legend, on their respective islands, that the sun and moon gods were born. We took a tour of the few ruins on the island and then hiked to the village, where we would be spending the night.

Shirley had forwarned us that our hostel wasn't as... nice as we'd had before. More modest, with a nice view she said. As we approached our hotel, we realized she's bluffed a little. It was a gorgeous hostel with a view from every room. Definitely the nicest of the trip. Afterwards, we had freetime to explore the island. A few of us decided to hike up to the top of the mountain to catch some shots of the setting sun. I forgot to mention that it was Sarah's 19th birthday, the night we spent on lake Titicaca. We ran into some little girls, who with some convincing, let us borrow their llama for the evening, and we gave it to Sarah. Everyone absolutely loved it! Shirley then pulled me aside, and told me plans to surprise Sarah (my involvement of course involved the distraction of Sarah). I'm not too good at this, but with the help of Dalton, we wandered her around the island for a good hour and then surprised her with a nice dinner and cake!

The next day we started our long hike back to what we thought was the boat launch, but instead was to la fuente del Inca, the fountain, also known as the fountain of life (as I type this, I remember watching the movie the Fountain, and am SO stoked that I went there). We got to bathe in the clean yet freezing water and everyone took a sip for its healing powers. We then walked down to beach, and realized that this was our last chance to get to swim in lago Titicaca. Everyone stripped down to their underwear (Dalton got naked) in front of all the tourists, and then jumped off the pier. It was so cold that my chest started closing up, and I could barely get out of the water. But I had swam in the lake! My one goal I had set long before I had plans to come to lago Titicaca.

We then took our freezing asses back to the beach, scrounged for towels and then took the many hours of bussing back to La Paz. We had more freetime, for shopping and such.. but I had started to feel kind of sick, so I didn't go all out. For dinner we went out to a Thai/Japanese/Indian food restaurant, with further improved my opinion of the food and then back to the hotel for the night. I woke up in the morning sick as a dog. I felt naucious, and every muscle in my body ached. But we were heading to Cochabamba so it was off to the airport we go.

Arriving at the airport, we found out our flight was delayed for three hours, so we decided to just hang around. I realized that my sickness wasn't going away. In fact, it started to get worse, and I was getting a fever. After waiting three hours (me feeling like I was dying) we found out the flight was delayed even more. Shirley, the guide, got all up in the airlines faces and ended up getting them to pay for our dinner. After dinner, I decided that I was on the verge of dying (even my eyelids were burning up) so I took a nap on the floor. I woke up to find out that we had dropped the idea of going to Cochabamba (since we were only going to go for the day, and had spent that day in the airport) and were going to just take a flight to Tarija at 10pm. Then that flight was delayed. I ended up taking some Tylenol to bring my fever down, but still felt like crap. In the end, with a lot of fighting and drama, we got on a flight to Tarija at 3am. It had to have been the single most exhausting day of my life.

Arriving at 4am, we crashed into our beds with only four hours to sleep. Waking up nice and early, we went out for traditional food, which was definitely not breakfast food (but smelled pretty good, nice and spicey). Then we checked out a winery and did some wine tasting, where you could buy a bottle for 20 Bs... evening out to about $3.50 Then we checked out a huge water dam, which freaked me out since there weren't any guard rails, welcome to Bolivia! Tarija all in all wasn't too great, since we were only there for a few hours. But I could tell that it was a gorgeous city. The architechture reminded me slightly of Santa Cruz, in that it was newer than the other cities we'd visited.. but it was a lot cleaner, and prettier overall. It's definitely somewhere I want to go back to, to fully visit the city.

We hopped on a flight back to the horrible airport of La Paz, where we had another three hour layover, and then left for Santa Cruz at 930pm. As we got closer and closer to the city, I realized how excited I was to be back home. I even used that word when I was talking to my real parents. I now feel like scz is my home. As we landed, I realized (amongst the cheering) that there were quite a few other exchange students that felt the same way. It was also quite the change of spirits compared to the first time any of us had flown into Santa Cruz, as scared little exchangers on the first leg of our journey. I now realize how far I've grown the past five months... I'm starting to adjust, and feel comfortable, fully at home. Who knows what I will do with the rest of my four months!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bolivia trip pt. 1

I have now traveled around Bolivia with Rotary, and have quite the tales to tell. This is only the first half of the past ten days that I have been traveling. As I left off, I was in Sucre on the 10th with my family. They had to catch their flight back to Santa Cruz, so my new found uncle Freddy and I drove them to the airport. We saw them off (along with my duffle bag of chocolate presents), and then hung around the airport till all the exchange students arrived about 20 minutes later. We decided to meet up in the hostel, and I went to grab all my things from the hotel in preparation for my trip.

In Sucre, we didn't exactly do anything exciting since I had already seen every possible tourist attraction within 15kms of the city. We walked all the way up to the Recoleta lookout point at the top of the city, and then ventured into the museum/convent for a tour (I sat outside with Ethan, since we'd both seen it before). We also went to La Casa de la Libertad (explains Bolivia's path to liberty), which almost no one seemed interested in.. at least I had an excuse! We were allowed freetime in the evening, and even went out until 2am (even though no one goes to the ONE club until after 130am).

The next morning, we were off to Tarabuco, a pueblito outside of Sucre (about 1.5 hr drive). There isn't a lot there, but they are famous for their indigenous artwork (mostly their textiles). We wandered around, bought a bunch of touristy things, had lunch and drove back to Sucre. We also were joined by two new exchange students, Eva from Germany (living in Sucre) and Danielle from California (living in Oruro). Ethan, the other exchange student from Sucre couldn't come because his club was making him pay all $900 USD for the trip, which pretty much makes the decision for anyone. You could travel by yourself for a lot cheaper. There are also four exchange students in Cochabamba, but they had their own trip at a different time than ours.

We spent most of the evening on a bus to Potosí, which claims to be the highest city in the world, then waited HOURS before we got to eat. I was starving and ordered pasta, even against the warnings of how the altitude and a heavy meal would make me sick. I was actually fine, although I DID take my altitude sickness pills. In the morning we went into the silver mines (where at the moment, they are mining zinc). I've always known that I was claustrophobic (in spaces where I can't turn around), but I must've psyched myself out because the whole trip was spent trying to prevent myself from hyperventilating. We also got to test some dynamite when we got outside with our guides' supervision.

Afterwards, we went to a convent, Santa Theresa, a convent from the 1600s for rich families to send their daughters. Apparently it was law to send your second-born child either into the clergy or to become a nun. This specific convent was very high class, where the girls were sent at age 15 with a dowry of 2000 dollars of the time, to stay for the rest of their life. They were commited to a life of silence, and to never see the outside world. They had two maids that lived with them their whole life, cleaning for them and even burrying them when they died. The whole tour was amazingly interesting, and the convent was beautifully conserved. We then drove the whole night to Uyuni, arriving at our hostel in the middle of the night (about a 6-8 hr drive).

Waking up bright and early, we drove out to the salar de Uyuni, otherwise known as the salt flats. When you get out there it is absolutely unreal. I can't even explain what it was like. Only the pictures can give you a a small idea of what it was like to be out there. After quite a drive out there, we stopped at an island that appeared to float on the horizon, called la isla del pescado (island of fish). Covered in cacti, it was quite the sight after only seeing blindingly white salt. We had an amazingly huge lunch (which consisted of llama meat for the non-vegs). Then we drove back, getting to ride on the top of the car for a while... burning the faces off half of the exchangers. Afterwards, we drove to a train cemetary to check out the rusten engines and back to Uyuni to take the bus back to Potosí.

As like before, the bus was supposed to be a 6-8 hour ride. It ended up being a 12 hour bus ride. The windows didn't open, there were a good four or five cholitas sleeping in the aisles which made it impossible to navigate in the bus. We stopped multiple times, for hours at a time. First to fix the bus, and then to wait out the rain which makes the road almost impossible to drive on. We arrived around four in the morning, absolutely uncomfortable and grumpy that we had to wake up early the next morning.

Five hours later, we were up (without breakfast, since we decided to sleep in) and out in Potosí to see the first place where they started to make silver money, la Casa de la Moneda. It was an interesting tour, and they showed us everything from the first train bringing in the silver, to the machines that were turned by horsepower to flatten the silver to make coins. Afterwards we went out to see some of the little artisan shops around town... and then it started to rain. It started so suddenly, and heavily. Then it started to hail. Not softly either. It was so painful that we were running down the streets. Some of us got separated from the rest of the group, couldn't find our way back to the hotel and opted for a taxi to take us through the flooding streets.

We then drove all the way back to Sucre, to pack up our things and hop on a flight to La Paz, the second half of the journey!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Week 20

This past week, I've been on vacation with my family in Sucre! It is such a beautiful city, amazing architecture, clean... I swear I was destined for an exchange in this city. It's the city of four names, one of them being the White city because all the buildings downtown are painted white. We've done possibly every touristy thing in this town, but it's quite interesting! OMG I'm learning on my exchange ;)

It was hectic trying to get here, because of the weather. It took us over four delayed and cancelled flights, over two days to get here. Apparently, since there are a ton of mountains here, it's difficult to land in Sucre. To add onto that, there was pretty crappy weather in Sucre, which makes it pretty much impossible to land here. But by Sunday afternoon, we got here! I started to realize that I was getting to finally see Bolivia for real. A lot of farming, rural area with brick housing, and the amount of indiginous folk. Walking out of the airport, to 13° weather (brrrrrr) the first thing I noticed were the amount of beggars here. A bunch of kids came up asking ¿regaleme plata? which means, give me money.

This city, since it's one of the capitals of Bolivia, is hugly touristy. There are a lot of tourist agencies (one of which we took a tour around the city with). There are also a TON of gringos here. A lot of the signs in stores are written in English, Spanish, French and German. Very multilingual here. Also, since there are a lot of tourists, there are a ton of vegetarian options for me here.

Since it's such a tourist town, that's what my family has been doing over the past week. I swear that I have hit up every museum, monument and sightseeing thing that there is to see in Sucre. I've seen the dinosaur tracks (it's a giant mountain of what looks like shale, and dinosaur footprints walking up it), went to indigenous art museums, lookout points. I've been on the roofs of two buildings, one being a church and the other being el colegio Don Bosco (the same school as my brothers' in Santa Cruz). I never thought that I would be so intrigued by museum tours, but they've all been really interesting.. And in spanish as well!!

I went to a castle the other day as well, which was really interesting. It was the strangest style though, mixing english, french, oriental, arabic, byzentine plus other styles of architechture, so it ended up looking slightly like a big eclectic looking castle. Part of the castle used to be painted using animal blood, and is now a natural history museum filled with stuffed animals... how ironic?

I've also been to the first, and largest cemetary in Bolivia. It was crazy huge, full of mausoleums and crypts. Lots of presidents and famous liberators had been burried there over a hundred years ago. I had an interesting conversation with my family while we were at the cemetary. My host dad asked me what they usually do when someone dies, if they cremate them (he actually used the word incinerate) which I said that more people have been doing that lately than burrials. My brother then kind of piped in, asking what "incineration" was.. And my dad said when they burn people. He was so weirded out by the concept, and I was very surprised to hear that NO ONE does that here.. I mean, my brother had never even heard of the process before. Then my father asked what they do, ceremonially, when someone dies. I tried to explain a funeral (in my lack of spanish vocabulary).. which he then proceded to explain about how they hold a 24 hr wake etc, the normal catholic procedure. It was interesting, some culteral exchange!

The hard thing about being in Sucre is their accent. Being in Scz, you get used to their lazy way of speaking, dropping the S's at the end of most of their words. Arriving here, I had a bit of a difficulty understanding what the Sureños were saying. Ethan, an exchange student living in Sucre, said the exact same thing about my family and their camba accents.

Been going out a lot, to eat and drink and stuff. I am spending so much money! But Ethan says to justify it by saying I'm on vacation, which I guess I can do. The other night, we were in the cafe, up these really steep stairs.. And for the people that know how clumsy I am, I should've realized that this was a bad idea. I was climbing down them, saying "Dude, I am totally going to biff it down these stairs.." and I fell... flat on my ass, down half the flight of stairs. It didn't help that my sandals had no grip whatsoever on them... I was just sitting there at the bottom of the stairs and everyone in the cafe was staring at me. I looked up at Ethan, and he was crying he was laughing so hard. Now I have a HUGE bruise on my butt, and it hurts to sit down hahaha.

But most importantly, being here with my family has been the best experience of all. I'm not only forced to be speaking completely in spanish, but also learning a ton about my parents and two brothers that came on the trip (Christian couldn't come because he had to work). I've learned that my dad has a very strange sense of humor.. and a horrible sense of direction. My host mom also has a bad sense of direction (they've started calling me their guide, because I can find my way back to the hotel). She is the easiest to talk to, out of my whole family and I think it's because she understands my spanish the best. I've also learned that she loves flowers, and planty type things. I found out that I get along really well with Alan, and that he's a super sweet kid. Oliver has the strangest eating habits out of anyone I've met. He wants to be a big buff soccer player, yet refuses to eat ANY form of fruits or vegetables. He drinks some special power drink every morning, and thinks this is the road to success haha. One day he will learn.

Tomorrow I am meeting up with the rest of the exchange students, and starting on my trip around Bolivia (payed for by Rotary). It's a 10 day trip, around the main cities in Bolivia and I will let you know how it goes when I get back to Santa Cruz on the 19th!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Week 19

Feliz año nuevo a todos!! This is technically my holiday blog post (even though the holidays are over)! Don't be surprised if this is my only post for the month of January either... I've got quite the busy month planned ahead, traveling on two different trips (one to Sucre with my family, and the Rotary organized Bolivia trip). But I'll leave those details for my next blog post... this one is alllll about the Christmas season in Boliiivia!

After getting home from Brazil, I realized that we were really close to Christmas and I had not exactly prepared for it. I had no gifts for anyone, and I had just come down with an intense cold (for a while, I thought I had strep throat).. which doesn't exactly make shopping too enjoyable. I ended up hauling myself out of bed on the 23rd (everyone celebrates on the 24th here) and got all my shopping done in one quick trip to the supermarket! Now, don't think that I cheaped out on gifts, I had some other things that I had picked up in Brazil to throw in! I ended up buying coffee mugs, tea bags and a bunch of chocolates to make... gift baskets I guess you could say (filling the mugs with the goodies) for the crazy tea drinkers in my family. I also got together with Sarah and we made a bunch of Christmas cookies. We made shortbread, banana bread and tried to make gingerbread (but that failed miserably). I don't think I've ever gone a Christmas season without making the shortbread with my mom, so it was a slight comfort having them around.

I know that every Rotarian and/or rebound exchange student says that the holidays are one of the hardest times for an exchange student to get through, but I really didn't feel it at all! I think Brazil really took my mind off things, especially because I came home in a more than positive mood about my exchange. Christmas was over so fast that I didn't even have time to think about it! I also had things like Brodie's fast-approaching departure date and New Years Eve to put my mind on other things.

December 24th, Christmas Eve. The night where everything happens here. We didn't really do that much.. I sat around the house, slowly prettying myself up (which mostly just includes showering hahah). We ate dinner at midnight (you could hear firecrackers going off around the city) at home, with only direct family members (mom, dad, Oliver, Alan and Christian). The meal didn't have a lot that reminded me of a Christmas dinner, other than a turkey (although it might've been chicken for all I know). There wasn't too much for me to eat, being vegetarian, but I survived. After dinner, we went and sat around the tree (I thought at first that we didn't have one, but I found it, hiding around a corner) to open our gifts. I had a major headache from staying up so late and not eating much, so I opted to go straightaway to bed while the rest of the family went to my grandma's house to wish her a Merry Christmas. I stayed home on the 25th, expecting it to be a family day... but apparently that was it, no more Christmas and back to your everyday lives!

These were Brodie's last days here (if you don't know who Brodie is, she is 1/2 of my best friends in Bolivia. She was the one that helped me out on my first day of school since she'd been here since January) so we were trying to make the best out of the little time we saw her. We had a get together at the Cine Center, very last minute.. but a TON of people showed up; all the exchange students, most of our classmates, and a whole slew of kids from the trip in Brazil (there were even a few that we didn't know by name)! It was a great sendoff for Brodie, knowing that she was really loved and appreciated over her year here. That night a few of us went to Brodie's to just hang out and spend her last night together. I slept over, and then we were off to the airport in the morning. Her flight was at noon, so we got up around 8 to start getting ready (and be at the airport two hours early). She called the airport around nine to confirm her flight, and found out that there were no flights at noon, and that her flight actually left at 1030. So we screamed to the airport with her car packed full with family (Sarah and I are considered family haha) and just made it in time. It was a really sad event, and I will miss her so much over the rest of my exchange.

Right after Brodie left, we had a get together with all the kids from our bus to Brazil. It was so much fun getting to see everyone again, even though there was a big hole in the gringa threesome. Everyone spent the afternoon hanging out, swimming in the pool, quite a relaxing day. Sarah and I made plans with a few of the girls, classmates of mine, to go out together for New Years.

I was going to a party in Las Lomas de Arena which are the sand dunes about an hour out of town for New Years. It was an all white party, where everyone dresses in white. I have to add that New Years is quite a formal event here, where everyone dresses up in dresses etc. It's quite the change from the North American ideas of NYE. I stressed a bunch for two days trying to find a dress, but finally found one a mere few hours before it was time to go to the party (yeaaah I'm still really last minute). We took a bus to the event, which was a big nono.. We left sometime after nine, but we kept getting stuck in the sand on the way there... and didn't end up arriving to the party until 1145!! We almost missed midnight! But we made it there in time, had the time of our lives and then drove out to the dunes to watch the sun rise. I dragged myself home at 7am, covered in sand to pass out in my bed for the rest of the day.

I'm now planning my two trips (I leave tomorrow morning for Sucre) and trying to get more details about the Rotary trip. No one has told us anything yet, we haven't even been phoned to inform us oficially that we are going on the trip (and we leave in a WEEK). The Rotary here seems so unorganized! We get home just in time for the referendum, which is on the 25th. A lot of kids are getting moved right around this time... so I guess we'll see what happens. I'm actually starting to get worried, because I don't want to go home. I had a huge realization after Brodie went back home that I wasn't ready at all to go back, if I had to. I'm just praying that everything stays calm and life can stay as is here in Santa Cruz. I am so thankful that I have a level headed Rotary club back home that isn't making any rash decisions, and letting me have control over my situation here. I mean, how can a club back in North America know what the situation is here if they're so far? So many exchange students are being forced out against their will. They don't want to leave here! No one feels like anything will happen here anyways.. But I will keep you updated on my life and the political situation, when I get back from traveling in Bolivia!!