Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Czech Mates

Salta, ARGENTINA: 16-19 Feb. 2010

My journey from Potosi in Bolivia to Salta in Argentina highlighted some of the many differences between the two countries. The ten-hour trip in Bolivia (which cost €7) was along a bumpy dirt road in a typical (by that I mean bad) Bolivian bus. I then walked across the bridge at the border and boarded a top quality Argentinian bus (which cost €14) for a smooth seven-hour trip that brought me to Salta. However, although the roads and buses are better in Argentina, the same cannot be said of the hairstyles where the mullet and terrible versions thereof are very much prevalent.
I spent three days in the nice city of Salta, a highlight of which for me was the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology which detailed the discovery and preservation of the bodies of three children who were sacrificed by the Incas on a 6000m mountain.

In Salta I met up with two friends of mine from the Czech Republic, Rudi and Jana, who are doing a five month round-the-world trip in between moving back home after five years in Dublin. The two days we hung out together were nice and relaxing, and they included a trip on a cable car, viewing some nice churches, sitting in plazas, and playing cards over some cheap wine; it was nice to see familiar faces.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Oruro, BOLIVIA: 12 - 14 Feb. 2010

I had never heard of Oruro or its Carnaval before arriving in Bolivia. But I heard so much about it in the month building up to it, including the fact that Lonely Planet ranks the carnaval in Oruro to be up there with the one in Rio as a South America highlight, that I decided to spend my last couple of days in Bolivia experiencing it for myself. And what an experience!
The city, which was dead when we spent New Years here, was totally transformed into one huge party. On the Firday night we danced into the early hours in the central plaza which was the scene of a battle of the bands. Multiple bands were set up on nearby stages, and they played loads of Bolivian and South American anthems which the crowd were loving. The Americans I was with were shocked by the lack of health and safety when a huge fireworks display was set off from right in the middle of the crowd.

When we returned to the house where we were staying I found some space on the floor and fell fast asleep. Given that during Carnaval tens of thousands of people descend on this usually sleepy town, accommodation is in very short supply. So I slept on the floor of a room with eight other people in a house that held about 100 people that weekend.

Up at 8am on Saturday to watch the parade, which had already started a few hours earlier. This parade would put the best St. Patrick´s Day parade to shame. It consisted of thousands of fabulously-costumed dancers and it went on continously (literally non-stop) for the entire time I was in Oruro, i.e. all day Saturday and Sunday.

When gaps developed between dancing groups, the spectators on the two sides of the street attacked each other with water balloons and spray cans of foam. This fun battle lasted all day, so at all times there was the potential threat of being soaked or covered in foam or both.

What a way to finish off my two months in Bolivia. Next stop: Argentina.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rainy season? Well there has certainly been a lot of water!

Sucre, BOLVIA: 25 Jan. - 11 Feb. 2010

My month studying Spanish in Sucre went well. The classes were good, although I have a lot still to learn (there are four past tenses in Spanish!). And through the school I did lots of random things, like salsa clases and the very popular sport in Bolivia of ¨wally¨, i.e. indoor volleyball.

Sucre, which about the size of Cork, is a city with some nice plazas, parks and lots of impressive white classical buildings. But side by side with such buildings are things like big plastic dinosaur public telephones (because of the dinosaur footprints that are preserved outside the city) - a bizarre juxtaposition if ever I saw one!
My time in Sucre coincided with two things related to water. The first was that it was rainy season. But this was nothing like as dramatic as it was in Macchu Pichu. Here it generally meant really nice sunny days, then an hour of thunder, lightening and lashing rain in the evening. The second was that the city centre was constantly the scene of a huge waterfight. In the month leading up to Carnaval (i.e. the month that I was in Sucre), all the kids, and many adults too, engaged in a ¨boys v. girls¨battle. People threw water from balconies, kids with supersoakers were driven around the city for the perfect drive-by shooting, and people carried and threw water balloons everywhere. Even the shoe-shine boys, of which there are dozens, diversified into selling bags of water balloons. The other feature of the build-up to Carnaval was that there were constantly bands of musicians partying in the streets - the fact that they were an easy target for water balloons seemed to be all part of the fun.

For the first two weeks in Sucre I stayed with a Bolivian family, which meant I ended up in the middle of some random situations. For instance, I celebrated the news that my brother Terry´s wife Martina had given birth to my new nephew Christopher by attending a birthday party for a 13 year old girl! For the party of the youngest daughter of the family I stayed with I was seated right in the midle of the huge extended family that attended the birthday lunch. An interesting experience!

A highlight of my time in Sucre was going paragliding for the first time. Though it was a bizarre sensation running off the edge of a mountain, the fact that it was a tamdem flight eased any worries I had. It was great fun and something I´d like to do again.
By the time I leave for Argentina next week (after attending the famous Carnaval in Oruro) I will have spent two months in Bolivia. There are loads of things, mainly good though some bad, that I will remember about Bolivia. These include:
  • people chewing coca leaves and the mantra ¨coca is not cocaine¨,
  • the Bolivian navy training on the shores of Lake Titicaca - Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile over 100 years ago but still thinks it will regain it somehow,
  • lovely, hearty soups, including ones that come with chips floating in them (unfortunately I cannot claim credit for the classic line ¨Waiter, is that a fry in my soup!¨),
  • llamas,
  • women wearing amazing indigenous clothing and hats while carrying huge bundles and/or babies on their backs,
  • the panic when the ATM gave only 200 Boliviano (20 Euro) notes - no one in Bolivia ever has change for notes, and that often includes 20 Boliviano (2 Euro) notes!,
  • showering while pretty much standing on the toilet in a country where shower curtains are a luxury and the idea of a wet room is far removed from the ones you see on Cribs, and
  • the widespread availability of big, cheap, fresh fruit and vegatable juices.

But one image certainly dominates all others - that of Evo Morales. Bolivia´s first indigenous president was re-elected for another five years just before I arrived and his image is everywhere. In Bolivia, its certainly All About Evo!