Friday, August 26, 2005

Climbing Tunari

So back to Bolivia again for a second.

Right before we left, we decided to climb Cerro Tunari. Now, the mountains that surround Cochabamba are for the most part wholly unspectacular. Certainly, they are not what you would expect of a city set at 8,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. For the most part, the hills look just like the East Bay hills that surround San Jose and Fremont, California. Imagine Mt. Hamilton. There is one exception, which is Cerro Tunari, rising up over 16,600 feet to its scraggly peak.

We arranged our trip through the excellent folks at Volunteer Bolivia. To get up and down in a day, you need to get an early start. So, we were to meet downtown at the VB offices at 6AM. We arranged with Lourdes to watch the kids all day, but when 6AM rolled around Lu was nowhere to be seen.

Megan and I decided to go find her, so we left a friend with the sleeping kids, and we walked up the hill to Lu's house. It was pretty cold outside, even though it was summer. Now, Lu, like most working class Bolivians, lives in a "compound" with various extended family members. The house is a series of rooms that surround a main courtyard where the cooking is done in an outdoor kitchen.

After banging on the door a few times, Toby, her enormous but harmless German Sheppard mix was howling up a storm. Finally this gruff 80-year-old guy -- Lu's husband Vlady's grandfather -- comes to the door. We can hear him clearing the night's phlem out of his throat as he approaches.

"Who is it?" he yells.

"Is Lourdes here?" asks Megan.

"Yeah, but she's sleeping. Come back around 9."

"Well, here's the thing," says Megan. "She is supposed to watch our two little kids this morning."

"She doesn't have two kids," says the grandfather. "She only has one and he isn't little."

"No, we have the two kids. And Lourdes was supposed to come to our house around 6. She must have overslept."

"Yeah, she is sleeping. Come back around 9."

This went on for a bit, until Megan could finally convince him to go wake Lu up. Grandpa goes around back and knocks on Lu's door.

"Lu, there are two gringos outside and they want you," he tells her.

"Oh crap," thinks Lu, realizing she has overslept. She throws some clothes on and runs out the door, flying past us as she heads for our house.

So, this was how the day of our climb started.

When we got to the VB office, there were a few assorted volunteer-types waiting for us. Luckily, they weren't too pissed that we kept everyone waiting. We all hopped in a chartered van and sped for the base of Tunari.

Well, you don't really climb from the base because it would take you three days and be really boring. You take a van up as far as the road goes and walk from there.

On the way up, we passed a lot of beautiful old adobe villages. Tons and TONS of llamas, often crowding the road. The road itself was a narrow little tract that climbed a steep canyon, with an enormous drop off and no guard rail. We spent a lot of time trying not to look out the window.

The Lonley Planet guidebook will tell you the climb is a peace of cake. Let me tell you, nothing is a piece of cake at 16,000 feet. It was murder. Well, for everyone but Megan, who is a freak of nature and scampered up the climb like a billy goat, leaving us all gasping for air. To rub it in, Megan talked the whole time.

"How can she talk so much," said one of our group. "I can't even f$%king breathe."

After an hour of lounging around on the summit, which is as close to the top of the world as I will ever get, we dragged our now wobbly legs back to the van. Lacking the energy on this one-coffee Friday to tell you all the details, here are a few shots from the trip.

Above: Our group gathers its strength as the van drops us off. It's going to be a long-ass way up that mountain.

Above: Here we are resting on our way up. I'm pretty sure there are 6 people on the verge of puking or dying, and Megan chatting away.

Above: Here is me, Meg and a friend resting on the summit, which is like 16,610 feet. That is freakin' high up there, let me tell you. We all agreed that it was one of the most beautiful, peaceful hours of our lives up there, though.

Above: On the way down we passed a little llama-herder's camp. It was pretty neat to see. Though, to be honest, I was pretty blown by this point and could barely stand up.