Sunday, December 26, 2004

Making the Best of the Train Situation

Last Saturday we were enjoying bowl after bowl of Osama´s amazing fish curry when his wife Christina announced they were driving to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia´s legendary (and very remote) salt flats the next day. ¨You guys should come!¨ she suggested. You don´t have to invite us twice, so we quickly signed on.

So Sunday around noon, Meg, me, Janey, Lil´Papi, Osama, Christina and their kids Rahim (in town from Portland), Karim and Jasmin piled into their Izuzu Trooper and headed for Oruro, in the altiplano, where we would stay a night before taking a train another 8 hours to Uyuni.

We arrived in Oruro around dusk. The altiplano is just that -- ¨alti¨ (or altitude) ¨plano¨ (or plane). The base elevation of the high altitude plane is 12,500 feet, with big mountains rising up out of it. Oruro itself is a mining town of about 200,000 set along the base and lower sides of a strip of mountains. The city is one of the most ¨alive¨ places I have been to in Bolivia, with people crowding its narrow streets at all hours. Like most of Bolivia, it puts Cochabamba to shame. They´ve been mining these hills for 450 years (mostly tin, but gold too). Anyway, when we got there it was freaking freezing cold.

Well, the short story is that they changed the train schedule and we were unable to get out to Uyuni. But we had an amazing 4 days. We´re getting ready to head to La Paz and Lake Titicaca tomorrow, so I don´t have time to blog the whole thing but here are some highlights:

* The drive from Cocha to Oruro crosses a 15,000 foot mountain pass and passes many beautiful adobe villages. It was like going back in time. You could also see many beautiful churches from the road, as well as tons of llamas grazing on the hillsides. The drive alone was worth it.

* We visited many of these old churches, including some in the remote countryside. I love old Spanish-style churches, and these were the oldest and most beautiful we have seen.

* Oruro has a mining museum that is housed in an old mine shaft that runs beneath the main church. It was pretty damn cool.

* Seeing Meg develop a good coca chewing habit. To deal with the altitude of the altiplano, you really do need to chew coca. It helped us all out quite a bit. In fact, after Jane puked for the 5th time on our way to Oruro due to altitude sickness, she asked ¨Daddy, can I have a coca leaf?¨ We gave her one, but she didn´t like it and spit it out.

* Visiting the Japo Village textile museum and store and watching Osama and Rahim instead buy the clothing literally off the backs of the artisans. They got a nice hat and coca bag from one guy for a song.

* Driving out to the remote village of Cala Cala to see the cave paintings they have there. On the way back, we came across 3 shepherds and their herd of llamas. Osama bought a beautiful llama wool slingshot from one of them. The countryside was unbelievably amazing.

* Jane´s excitement at watching Shrek, dubbed in Portugese, from a Brazillian tv station on our hotel´s cable tv.

* The colored tin roofs of the adobe and brick houses that climb the red-brown hills above Oruro.

* Chewing coca in the city´s main plaza one morning while Jane, Mac, Jasim and Karim played and fed the pigeons.

* Merciless group taunting of Rahim, who seemingly did nothing but call, or talk about, or buy things for his girlfriend Kate, a med student in Florida. Ok, he wasn´t that bad, but he did still get taunted mercilessly, especially by his dad.

* Again at the Japo museum, watching two young indian girls in full native dress, huddle 2 feet from us as we ate lunch, mesmerized by Christina´s nose ring.

* Dancers and musicians roaming the streets the first night we were there, practicing for Oruro´s famous Carnival celebration.

* Choking down typically horrid Bolivian food every night, while we all laughed about it and dreamed of Sole Mio (the best restaurant in Bolivia, and well, also the only decent restaurant in Cochabamba). The day we came home we all met up again at Sole Mio for dinner.

I have a ton of great pictures from the trip. I will upload them as soon as I can and post the link.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Rug Hunter

¨We stop here. This is where we buy the bullets,¨ says Osama (not his real name), our leader. We are in the market town of Punata, some 50km southeast of Cochabamba. It is dusty and already too hot at 9:30 in the morning.

We get out of Osama´s faded red Toyota crew cab pickup. The oil leak already appearing in the dirt. Cristobal, a Boliviano and our defacto hunting guide, eyes the assembled villagers arriving at the market suspiciously. ¨Someone might steal our spare tire,¨ he announces, eyeing the bald rubber remnant that sits in the truck bed.

¨Stay with the car, Jim,¨ says Osama. ¨Don´t worry,¨ he adds with a laugh in his clipped Pakistani accent, ¨We can get a very good price for you at the market.¨ Cristobal just smiles. They both disappear into the mass of humanity that is marching towards the center of the town.

Photo: The dusty market of Punata.

The market branches out in every direction, like a spider´s thin, crooked legs. A motley fleet of pick ups and big ancient trucks surround us. As each arrives, it unloads an unbelievably packed cargo of villagers and their wares. Some bring melons stuffed in their aguayos (large colorful blankets used as backpacks). Other groups have corn. Still others, shoes and other domestic products. After the people get off the trucks, livestock follows. Cows or pigs. Many are bringing sheep to market -- their legs tied together, they are tossed out of the trucks like bags of wool.

I am the only gringo. A lot of tough dudes eye me curiously as they pass, but most pay me no mind. Still, if someone challenges me for our decrepit spare tire, I am somewhat comforted by the two shotguns sitting in the back seat (even if Osama and Cristobal aren´t back with the bullets yet).

Ostensibly our plan today is to hunt partridge on land owned by Cristobal´s family. I am no hunter and, in fact, have never held a gun in my hands. Still, I would fell a unicorn if it would get me out of the damn house for a day. I´m game.

Before too long, Osama and Cristobal return with some boxes of shotgun shells and bags of food -- bread, cheese, tomatoes. Osama starts the truck and we rumble through town, kicking up a cloud of dust in our wake.

Osama, 50, is a former Silicon Valley semiconductor engineer. He is now a dealer of Persian rugs and antiques, with stores in Guatamala, Paraguay and Ecuador. He cannot visit his stores right now, nor can he go see his family in the U.S. because, due to the similarity of his surname to that of a well-known terrorist, and no doubt, because of the color of his skin, he is on the ¨no fly¨ list. Crazy.

We make a quick stop at a smaller market for a warm cup of api, a syrupy kind of chicha made with sweet purple corn, lemon, cinnamon and sugar. Cristobal also picks up a big bag of coca leaves. You do not want to be handling firearms without chewing coca leaves, trust me.

Back in the car, Cristobal is the only one who knows where he is going. He directs Osama with a flurry of ¨left, right, straight, left, etc.¨ and we wind our way out of the village, past row upon row of ancient adobe houses, in-filled with a smattering of ugly new brick construction.

Soon enough we are in the campo, or countryside. Osama pulls the truck into the shade of a grove of trees bordering an irrigtion ditch. To our left sharply rises a hillside covered wih cactus and low scrub. On the other side, farmland stretches across the valley to distant hills. This is Cristobal´s land.

We gear up and Osama and Cristobal take the rifles. I am deemed worthy of the more important job -- I get the coca bag. Before we leave, Cristobal puts the spare tire in the backseat of the truck. Guess it is not safe anywhere. I fill my mouth with the sweet leaves and take a bite of legia (the activator). I pass the bag and the hunt has begun.

Photo: Osama and Cristobal gear up.

A quick word on coca -- it is a great substance. What you do is take a leaf, put it in your mouth and bite the stem off. Keep doing this until you build up a nice wad in your cheek, like chewing tobacco. Except you swallow instead of spitting. The effect is a mild soothing of the nerves. It also eases digestion and takes away your appetite. Cristobal explains that the workers in these fields will chew coca all day so they can work without breaks and earn more money. Coca also lessens the effects of altitude -- essential in a country where a lot of the terrain, including major cities, is above 12,000 feet. Despite the fact that coca is such a vital part of the culture here, the U.S. has decided that the way it wants to approach eliminating the crack problem in the states is to take away Bolivia's coca. Bastards.

We work our way up the hillside, through a painfull thick underbrush that quickly turns my bare legs into hamburger. Thankfully the coca takes the edge off. As we go, Cristobal throws rocks into the brush to try and scare the birds out. At one point I look back and Osama and his rifle are following me. I take a photo of him and his gun, telling him that if it turns out he IS a terrorist, I can sell the pic to CNN for a lot of money. This gets a good laugh out of him.

¨KABOOM!!!!¨ In an instant my intestines are in my throat. Cristobal broke the seal and shot at a bird. I had no idea a gun was so freaking loud. It sounded like a cannon, not a little pop like you hear on TV.

Cristobal missed, so we keep walking. My nerves settle a bit. Only now Osama hands me his gun, because it is getting in the way of his coca chewing. I´m honestly not all that into holding or shooting a gun -- especially after hearing how loud they are. But I´m out in the campo with guns and coca, and don´t want the other guys to make fun of me. ¨We´re going to make a man out of you,¨ Osama teases, as he bites off another clump of coca leaves.

Photo: Jim and firearms.

I am surprised at how heavy the gun is. Osama gives me like a 3 second primer on how to shoot. ¨Keep the gun pointed up so you don´t accidentally shoot me¨, he warns. ¨And take the safety off before you shoot.¨ It isn´t much, but seems like a lot to remember.

Cristobal contines his marching and rock throwing. Osama begins to taunt him a little. ¨No hay Cristobal,¨ he yells to him (¨there aren´t any,¨ he is saying). It cracks me up, because Cristobal is so earnest about this hunting. But I don´t join in, making it a practice not to taunt people with guns. I secretly pray I don´t have to shoot this thing. I´m a big girl.

We finally descend the hill, coming out in a corn field. Now, it didn´t take me 5 minutes to realize that I´d rather be holding the coca bag. so I convince Osama to switch back. I needed more coca, anyway.

We stalk through the cornfields like they are rice paddies and we are back in ´Nam, spread 3 across, guns drawn. Cristobal scares up one more bird and again misses. They fly so fast I couldn´t imagine shooting one.

There really aren{t many birds around, so after a quick lunch, Osama announces ¨Let´s go look for some rugs!¨ Punata and its neighboring villages are known for producing some very nice, handmade wool rugs, usually with bold zoomorphic patters and bright colors. There aren´t any stores as such -- you need to know someone who makes the rugs and go to their house.

Now, while Cristobal would have been content to hunt all day, Osama and I are gung ho for carpets. How gay is that? We ditch the fire arms, coca and campo to head for town and look for throw rugs. We couldn´t be any gayer if we were wearing tights and singing show tunes. No matter . . . .

On the way back to town, Cristobal shouts for us to stop. He´s spotted an old woman tending to a half dozen cows next to the remains of an old adobe house. With her are her husband and grandson. ¨She makes good carpets,¨ says Cristobal. He jumps out of the truck and runs up to talk to her. A few minutes later Cristobal, the woman and the boy return. ¨She has some for sale,¨ says Cristobal.

The old lady directs us back to town and down a few narrow alleys to her workshop. The building is a century old, with thick adobe walls. Behind the old, ornate door it is cool despite the heat. The high ceiling is lined with old exposed beams. To our right are two big looms with half finished work on them. Our host is quickly joined by two other old women, all wearing traditional cholita clothes.

Photo: A rug in process.

Osama and I unravel the first rug and it is beautiful, about 6.5 by 5 feet, featuring a pattern of some birds and a cholita woman with an alpaca. It is all handmade with natural, hand-died wool. I want it.

¨How much,¨ I ask Osama. He turns to the woman. ¨200¨ he translates. ¨Dollars?¨ I ask. ¨No, bolivianos,¨ he says. This beautiful piece of work is only $25. But recall that Osama is a rug dealer by trade. This is his element. ¨Let´s see if we can get her down to 150,¨ he says.

Osama tells the woman 150 and she comes right down to 180. 200 would be a bargain. He points to me. ¨My friend here has 150. No more.¨ She sticks to 180. ¨Let´s leave,¨ says Osama. I panic. I want the rug. ¨We will sit in the car and threaten to leave,¨ he instructs. Cristobal, the local, stays behind. After a moment, Cristobal comes out to the truck with the rug tucked under his arm.

Photo: Our rug!!

¨We got it for 160,¨ says Cristobal. He hands it to me. ¨Let´s get out of here before she changes her mind,¨ says Osama. With a waive we are on the road again. I just bought what Osama values as a $500 rug for $20. ¨She was mad. She told me that next time I show up I
better have 10 more B´s for her,¨ laughs Cristobal.

Back in the village I decide we need a bag of ice cold beer for the ride home. Cristobal and Osama, native and fluent Spanish speakers respectively, figure it will be more fun for me and my caveman Spanish to find the beer. I hit a series of restaurants that only have beer in returnable bottles, which they won´t let me take with me, before I find a tienda and get some cans. Soon I am back in the car and we are toasting a good day with some icy Pacena.

I ride all the way back to Cocha with a beer in one hand and my rug in the other.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Hola Gringo! Chica!

We´re packed almost shoulder to shoulder on one of the narrow, dusty, cobbled streets that surround the main cemetary in Cocha. Today is Todos Santos Day. It is hot and dry. The sun is roasting us. And I am on my third gourd of chica in about as many minutes. I struggle to drink it, balancing in my hands an ornate basket made of spun sugar and a plate of small breads, both gifts from the mourning families of the recently deceased.

The chicha is a gift too. It would be impolite to decline. So I first spill a little chicha, as is custom, offering the first sip to the gods. Then I down the rest of the foul corn liquor in one quick sip.

Photo: Megan balances Jane, a cup of wine, and a gourd of chicha outside the cemetary.

All Saints Day is something else in Cocha. 700 police are out in force -- sensible when you have 100,000 people drinking all day in the hot sun (note: despite these numbers, police report no significant problems all day). Ringing every inch of both sides of the roads circling the cemetary are little shrines to the recently deceased. A family will stake out a 10 by 10 plot or so, then decorate it with photos of the dead, and various forms of bread and fruit. Some have simple breads, such as rolls. Others have more elaborate breads, made in the shapes of ladders and even little people. Some have baskets of spun sugar. The most elaborate of all have cooked pigs heads and cooked chickens that are propped up to look alive. Or as alive as a cooked chicked propped up on sticks can possible look.

Photo: A woman dressed in her black mourning clothes holds vigil over the shine to her recently deceased husband.

The way it works is this. Many people, particularly poor peasants, go from shrine to shrine, offering to pray for the deceased . . . for a price. Usually it will be for a handfull of bread. Others will barter for the cooked chickens. When the prayers are completed, the family of the deceased will give a handful of bread to the prayer-giver, who will stuff the bread in a large sack he carries. This bread will feed his family for weeks.

If this sounds a lot like Halloween, that is because the western commercialized version of trick or treating traces its roots to this practice.

Almost every shrine is also stocked with chicha, Cochabamba´s ubiquitous corn liquor. Passers by are invited to drink a gourd in the deceased´s honor. There are 100,000 people here, but as far as I can see we are the only gringos. We kind of stand out. So, we are more often than most hailed in for a gourd of chicha. ¨Hey gringo!¨ we hear. ¨Chicha!,¨ as they raise a gourd for us to take. It is a constant chorus of ¨Hey Gringo! Chicha!¨ as we tour the shrines. And it is said in a good natured way, with a big smile. The people here today are incredibly warm and friendly. Or maybe they are just plastered. Probably a little of both.

Our first stop was not actually the stalls outside, but the inner tombs of the cemetary. We are here with our friends Alma, from Puerto Rico, and Giovanni, a Boliviano. Alcohol is forbidden within the cemetary walls, so things are much calmer inside, if no less festive.

Giovanni first leads us to his mother´s tomb, set high on a wall near the main gate. We pause for a moment. The tombs are set 5 high, and some 30 across. Row after row. Each tomb is fronted by a small glass box, containing essentially the headstone and usually some flowers and a photo. For today, the glass cases have been filled with some of the deceased´s favorite things, too. I notice one with a cup of chicha, a glass of wine, bread and a cigarette. I tell Megan that I want some fish n chips and a pint of Bear Republic´s Racer 5 in mine.

Photo: A row of tombs in the cemetary.

Giovanni also points out a tomb that is covered with little bugs. I ask why, and he points out the date: The body has been entombed for just two days.

Back outside the gates, I am certain that if I don´t start politely declining the chicha with a ¨no mas, gracias,¨ they will have to carry me out of here.

In fact, in colonial times, that is just what they did. On Todos Santos, the bodies were dis-interned, dressed in fine clothes, and paraded around, before being re-burried. Giovanni explained that it didn´t matter what condition the body was in, either. I normally do not like it when a culture loses old customs, but perhaps that is one best left in the past.

NOTES: Coming in the next couple of weeks are blogs on our trip to Sucre, and a recap of my gun toting, coca chewing day in the country with my favorite suspected terrorist.

Also, send your prayers out to my little sister, who is battling breast cancer (but they got it early and she is tough so she will be fine) and to the family of Diamond Darrell Abbott, a good guy senslessly murdered.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Meet Little Papi

Mackey Boy. Macintosh. Monkey Boy. Little Papi (an homage to my hero David ¨Big Papi¨Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox). The kid has a lot of knick-names, as does any cool kid. His given names come from my grandfathers (Mac and Rosaire) and from Megan´s great-grandfather (also Mac). Mac is short for nothing. Just Mac.

Photo: Little Papi always with a smile on his face.

Moving to Bolivia is of no consequence to Mac. He has no idea where he is, anyway. He just rolls with it. He knows that where ever your family is, that is home.

Mac´s best friends here are Jehyson and Hattie. Jehyson is the 7-year-old son of our personal assistant, Lourdes. Jehyson comes to work with his mom most days and plays with Mac. Jehyson is an only child and says he always wanted a little brother; now Mac is his little bro´. Jehyson proudly tells everyone in our neighborhood that the little gringo kid is his friend. Mac´s other good friend, Hattie, is just 9 days younger than he is. Hattie´s parents are missionaries here with New Tribes. Her dad flies small planes into the jungle, delivering supplies to the missionaries. Mac and Hattie get together almost every week to play.

Mac isn´t Little Papi for nothing. The dude is TINY. He is a year and a half old, but is in like the zero percentile on the growth chart. He weighs about 20-21lbs, AND he is short. He still fits in some 6-month clothes. 12-month clothes hang off of him and you need to roll up the pants legs.

But Papi EATS! Lourdes is amazed by what he puts away. He once ate an entire pineapple, by himself, in one sitting. His other favorite foods are strawberries, papaya, kiwi, bananas and apples. Basically, he loves all fruit. He starts moaning and grunting when he sees it. Mac got his Dad´s and Grandpa Bob´s metabolism and build, the lucky devil.

When Mac waves goodbye he says ¨Ciao.¨ That is how people say goodbye here -- not ¨hasta luego¨ or ¨bye bye.¨ He also says ¨Shrek,¨ ¨truck,¨ ¨car¨ and ¨fish.¨ Other than that, he doesn´t say much. He does, however, understand a whole lot of Spanish because Lourdes and Jehyson teach him a lot. So, he can´t talk in two languages.

Photo: Sorry Mac, but this pic cracks me up. That´s Jane´s hat that I made him wear for the picture. He didn´t like it and ripped it off a second later.

Mac calls Megan ¨daddy.¨ He is a bit confused on that one.

Papi is also everybit into books as Jane was and is (having no television facilitates that). He will go and grab a book out of the stack and hand it to you, then seat himself in your lap. He will do this for hours.

Mac likes to ¨roar¨ like a lion. In fact, when he gets really mad or frustrated, he will let out a roar instead of crying. Though he is very sensitive, he is also, as Lourdes says, ¨muy tranquilo.¨ He is a good kid.

Lourdes loves Mac to death. Sometimes I think the only reason she puts up with me, the dumb gringo with the caveman Spanish, is because of Mac. She recently took Mac and Jane to her neices birthday party so she could show off her gringo kids. The best thing I can say about Lourdes is that she treats Mac as if he was her own kid.

I spend my whole day with Mac and I´m very lucky in that regard. He is a very cool little dude.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Sucre Pictures

While you all wait for the next exciting installment of this brilliant blog, check out the photos from our trip to Sucre. I have them set up as a Shutterfly slideshow here:

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bad, Bad Gringo (the sequel)

No sooner had I posted the blog about my run in with one of Cocha´s 7 million vicious, evil, mangy dogs than our buddy Dan is out for a run. He comes upon a guy walking his german shepard -- on a leash, no less (must have been imported). The dog takes a look at Dan, aparently decides he likes white meat, and attacks him. He broke the leash away from the owner, and took a chunk out of Dan´s thigh. Bloodied, but unbowed, Dan managed to finish his run. So, I wasn´t joking.

In fact, as I was telling this story to my Spanish teacher Toni, she told me how the other day her students could not get to her house because a neighbor was letting his vicious dog patrol the neighborhood. The dog would not let anyone pass. ¨But he needs his room to roam,¨ the owner told her. ¨But he is vicious and dangerous and is threatening people,¨ Toni told him. Crazy.

But back to Dan. This incident raises a few questions. First, what the hell is this owner doing walking what he must know to be a vicious dog. He should either leave the dog home or have it put down. Second, if the guy knows his dog is vicious, as he must, why did he not take extra precautions when Dan approached. Why not yell out a warning? Take an extra wrap of the leash? The answers are just that your typical dog owner here does not give a crap about his dog or about anyone else, for that matter. Sad.

Meg and I are going to get our rabies shots this week as a precaution. We also both run with a big hunk of wood that resembles a police baton now.

Upcoming: If I can work that photo voodoo, I have the Mac story and a recap of our Sucre trip to post this week. Sucre was amazing.