Sunday, 6 July 2008

My Final Month and the Long Anticipated Return Home

After leaving the Estancia, I headed to San Martin de los Andes, a small ski resort town about 5 hours south of Zapala in the Argentine lake district. Unfortunately, the weather was lousy and I ended up leaving two days after arriving. Still, I had a really nice hike that ended at a high point with a great view of the town and some surrounding lakes and mountains. Because of the bad weather that wasn't supposed to end for at least a week, I decided to go to Pucon, Chile with Emma, an Australian girl I met at my hostel. We got a bus to Pucon and safely arrived at a nice hostel without problems. Sadly, the weather in Pucon was no better than in San Martin de los Andes. But I didn't let that stop me. My first full day in Pucon was very relaxing; myself and several others from my hostels hit up quite possibly the best hot springs I have ever been to which were about an hour away from Pucon. I'm talking 6 or 7 seven pools with different temperatures right next to a raging river between two mountains covered in lush green vegetation. Fantastic. They were so nice we ended up staying for 6 hours. The next day, in the rain, I started a 50 km bikeride that took me to many beautiful waterfalls and finished at a black beach on an awesome lake. Unfortunately, the ride took longer than expected so I wasn't able to see the second beach on the lake, a white one, or do the 25 km return trip. It was about 7 PM, pouring rain, dark, I had a ticket for a bus to Santiago leaving at 9 PM, and I was alone. I had no idea what to do. Thankfully, I found out there was a bus going back to Pucon and the driver let me get on with my bike and sopping wet clothes. I caught my bus to Santiago without problems.
The next morning, I arrived in Santiago with Emma and two other friends from the hostel in Pucon. Upon arriving at the hostel, I nearly had a heart attack when I realized that I didn't have my money belt containing my passport, credit card, debit card, flashdrive with photos, 60 USD, and about 150 USD worth in Chilean pesos. It was the worst feeling. I guessed that it had fallen out of my pocket while I was sleeping on the bus, so I quickly made my way back to the terminal. I found my bus company's office, and thank God the money belt was still there. The only thing missing was the Chilean pesos, funny that they took those but not the USD. At that time though, I really didn't care about the money. If I had lost my passport, I would have been stuck in Chile and wouldn't have been able to meet Will and Ryan (Will's roomate and frat brother from Wash U) several days later in Buenos Aires. Santiago was really nice. I spent my days there walking around, visiting museums and parks, and going for bikerides. I also took a trip to the nearby port city, Valparaiso. It was a beautiful city with great street art, and I ended up spending 6 or so hours in a rooftop restaurant hanging out with the group I came with from Santiago.
From Santiago, I got a direct bus to Buenos Aires where, on the morning of May. 26, I met up with Will and Ryan who had arrived several hours before me. It was so good to see family again after being alone for so long. We had an amazing couple of weeks. After hanging out in BA for a few days, we headed north to Iguazu Falls on a long nightbus that was stopped for several hours during the night because of a roadblock set up by protesting farmers. Iguazu Falls were awe inspiring. It was definitely one of the most beautiful places I saw on the trip. The amount of water passing down the falls at any instant is incomprehensible. We visited the Argentine side two days in a row. After Iguazu, we headed to Tucumon. Our first full day, we took a bus to a nearby town, Tafi del Valley where we climbed a big mountain. Unfortunately, Ryan had food poisoning and he had a pretty bad day. The view from the top of the mountain was amazing. We were able to see the town, the valley it is in, a nearby lake, mountains all around, and clouds slowly drifting into the valley way below us. It was a great day, at least for Will and I. The next day, Ryan rested up at the hostel and Will and I cruised around the city. We saw some cool building and plazas and visited some cool markets. That evening, we got yet another bus, this time heading south to Mendoza. We arrived in Mendoza the next morning and headed to some nearby hotsprings which, after the hotsprings I visited in Pucon, were pretty crumby. That evening, I headed to the airport and met my good friend from Weston Max who had planned to come meet me for my last two weeks in South America. It was so good to see a friend from home again. The next morning, I woke up feeling horrible, not feeling up for the winery tour we had planned. Soon after getting up, I threw up big time and realized it was my turn to fight some food poisoning. The others took off and I went back to bed and spent my day relaxing.
The next morning, we got a bus to Puerto Madryn, a city on the coast of Argentina in Patagonia. We got there the next morning and quickly made our way to a hostel in the center near the beach. We found out we were too late to do any whale watching tours, so we did an awesome bike ride to a sea lion colony instead. The next day we rented a car and drove to the Peninsula Valdes, a national park with tons of wild life and, most importantly, supposedly the best whale watching in the world. It was a great day. In the morning, we did a whale watching tour on a boat and saw tons of whales, many of them breaching (jumping about halfway or so out of the water). It was unreal. Then we drove to another point where we saw some sea lions, armadillos, and beautiful views. That night we ran into a problem. Will and Ryan were set on going to southern Patagonia, which would mean spending at least three more days on a bus. Personally, I didn't really want to be on a bus that much but I didn't want to split up. Max didn't want to spend that much time on a bus either, because that would mean in total he would be on a bus for 4 of his 14 days in Argentina. We ended up splitting up. It was terrible, but really the only option. I was really sad about parting with those guys, but it turned out allright. Will and Ryan took off that night and Max and I decided to stay another day and get a bus to Buenos Aires the next evening. The next day Max and I went on another great bikeride to a whale watching point before getting on our bus to BA.
We got to Buenos Aires the next evening and had an excellent night on the town. The next day, we got a bus to the nearby city, Rosario, birthplace of Che Guevera. We chilled in Rosario for two more days, walking and biking around the city, before heading back to Buenos Aires for the weekend. Both on the way to and from Rosario our bus was delayed because of more roadblocks. In Buenos Aires, we did a lot of partying and not all that much else. On Sunday night, Will and Ryan finally showed up, a day late. Their journey from southern Argentina to BA had taken about a full day longer than expected due to the roadblocks. Nonetheless, the two were still very happy that they had chosen to go south having seen some incredible places. It was great to be back as a group, and we had a great, huge steak dinner at a famous restaurant , Siga la Vaca (follow the cow). That Tuesday, I left Buenos Aires on a 4:30 PM flight on Air Canada that took me to Santiago, Toronto, and finally New York City. For the last week or so, I was experiencing a crazy mix of emotions. I was so sad that my travels and my big South America trip were over, but so happy and excited to return home to family and friends. It was really weird.
Walking past security and seeing my mom waiting for me was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was so great to finally be able to hug her again after so long. Five and a half long months of being alone were now over. On the way home, we stopped at my dad's office and he really laughed when he saw my hair and beard. When we were driving through Weston, about to reach our house, I strangely felt as if I'd been gone only a week or so, as opposed to nine months. Walking into the kitchen and seeing Gigi and my two sisters was amazing. Walking into my room was one of the weirdest moments of my life. I was suddenly overcome by emotion, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. My trip was over. After nine long months on the road in South America, I was finally home. I couldn't, and still can't, believe it.
Now I have been home for about two weeks. Allthough I am sad that my trip is over, I am so happy about it and so thankful that I was able to do all that I was. It was so amazing, I couldn't have asked for more. I did so many things that were totally different from one another, but all incredible in their own way. Even though the trip turned out totally different than expected and there were plenty of bad moments, I can honestly say that it unfolded perfectly. It was just so incredible, I can't even begin to explain. I feel so much more than just happiness when I think about it. It is an indescribable emotion that I have never previously experienced, and one that I am sure I will never lose.

Finally, I want to say thank you to Mom and Dad, because without them there is no way that this trip would have happened.

Monday, 2 June 2008

The Estancia

I arrived in Zapala, early on the morning of April. 17, and went to Hotel El Coliqueo, where I was supposed to be meeting the volunteer coordinator of Estancia Ranquilco. I quickly and easily found Ashley, a Californian man in his fifties that bought the 100,000 acre estancia 30 years ago with his first wife (supposedly, according to a somewhat sketchy source, at the time she was the richest women in the western hemisphere). With a warm smile and firm but kind handshake, I instantly got good vibes from Ashley. Soonafter I met Brett, a quiet but extremely kind and wise 33 year old that teaches an experiential education class 3 months out of the year in which kids from all over the US come to the estancia to take courses in geology, botany, and natural history. I quickly jumped into a net cafe where I emailed my family to let them know things were A OK and then waited at the car with Brett for Ashley to take care of a quick errand. He returned and thrusted a plastic bag into my hand containing a can of Quilmes, the popular Argentine beer, and a Milanesa sandwich (typical Argentine food, usually consists of breaded beef with ham, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. So dank). "Welcome to Patagonia," he said, and it dawned on me for the first time that I was finally in Patagonia, about to spend a month at an estancia in the middle of nowhere...

Let me step back for a moment. An ´estancia´ is the Argentine equivalent of a ranch. Vast amounts of land where cattle, goat, and horses are raised. Back to the story...

That night we drove to Estancia Colipilli, the winter estancia. I was sad to see that there was a road running through the land, but not to worried, knowing that we were leaving the next morning. Ashley, Brett and I had a nice asado (Argentina BBQ, in which absurd amounts of meat, we usually had goat which is SO GOOD, are heavily salted and cooked over an open fire) along complemented by some delicious red wine. The next day we took care of a few errands (picking up supplies, dropping of things for various people in El Huecu, the town that is closest to the estancia) before driving to Buda Majin (not sure about the real spelling). Buda Majin is the closest place to Estancia Ranquilco (the summer estancia) that can be reached by car. As we drove in, Brett and I talked about how the rock formations, mountains, and numerous volcanoes in the area came to be. From Buda, we loaded our stuff onto the pack horse and began the 3 hour ride to the estancia. It was amazing. We arrived at Estancia Ranquilco right at sunset, and that night I was invited to the `big house` (house where Ashley, his girlfriend (now x girlfriend returned to the US), and paying clients stay) for an awesome meal. After the meal, I retired to my humble quarters and hit the sack early.
Before I go into life at the estancia, I am going to take a moment to talk about the estancia and the people that were there at the same time as me. The actual estancia (where the houses are) is in a valley surrounded by mountains and dormant volcanoes. There is a beautiful, curvy river right next to the estancia that has huge rock faces along it`s sides. The estancia itself has poplar trees (which, during my stay, went from bearing bright yellow leaves to having no leaves at all) all around and is quite the spectacle. This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived. Now, lets turn to the people I was living with. I have already introduced Ashley and Brett. Next, there is Sky, Ashley`s 19 year old daughter that has grown up spending half her time at the estancia and half her time in Colorado. Sky is probably the oldest and definitely the most hardcore 19 year old girl I have met. Next, there is Juliana, Ashley`s 21 year old daughter from Colorado that grew up with her mother and was visiting Ashley on the estancia for her first time. She left to return to the US about 2 weeks after I arrived, and for those first two weeks she was the person I spent most of my time with. Next, there is Stefan, Ashley`s girlfriend (as previously stated, now X), a women from southern California with a huge dog Dude. Apparently, the two met, fell in love, and decided to grow old together on Ashley`s estancia. Stefan ended up leaving after less than 2 months of the estancia. Don`t ask me what happened though. Next, there is the Meyer`s family, who, for my first two weeks, were my only fellow volunteers. The family is from Colorado as well, and coincidentally Dave, the father, taught Juliana for a year at the boarding school where he teaches. There is also Shannon, the mother, and the two kids, Toby and Cassidy, who are 6 and 3, respectively. Dave, being a teacher of American history, and I had many interesting conversations about politics, history, and god knows what else over shovelling up dirt in the garden. Next, we have Peter, a 20 year old kid from MA, who arrived at the estancia 2 weeks after I did. Like me, Peter is taking a year off after high school but, unlike me, he is doing it through a program that is giving him college credit. Really cool kid, and we got along really well (he was my roommate and after his arrival we did almost everything together). Last but certainly not least, we have Manuel and Horacio, the two gauchos working at the estancia. Manuel is about 50 and has wife and 2 kids, but, like many gauchos, he lives apart from them at the estancia and sees them only for a couple days out of the month. He also is the only person that stays at the estancia year long, enduring the cold, hard winter by himself. A solitary but kind man, Manuel and I got along well. Horacio and I also got along very well.
Phew, that took a while. So, part of my experience was dealing with dissapointment and realizing that the experience would be totally like what I expected. I went into it with picture of myself, decked out like a cowboy, cruising around on a black stallion every day after work. In my month there, I only rode 3 times. When I found out I wouldn`t be riding much, I was very dissapointed and in my frustration even considered leaving. But it was wrong for me to assume that I would be able to ride as much as I wanted, and I`ve learned that things hardly turn out as expected.

So, as you might imagine, life at the estancia was, like many of the things I`ve experienced on this trip, unlike anything I`d previously experienced. It was simple. No electricity, no gas (however the big house had both of these luxuries). All of the cooking (yes, the majority of the time I had to cook for myself, and yes, I suffered at first) was done over a wood stove (very time consuming). Not only this, the available ingredients were slim, to say the least. Most of our meals consisted of meat, sometimes cheese, some base starch, maybe tomato sauce, and onions. In order to get meat, all I had to do was walk out to the meat locker (a room slightly undergroud and covered by a big mound of dirt) and cut myself a peice off of a whole leg or other animal part. But, I discovered these meals that I painstakingly cooked myself were so much tastier and satisfying than store bought meals, even though they were usually very simple. In order to take a shower you had to start and maintain a blazing fire for around 45 minutes. This lead to a huge decline in my cleanliness (because of all the day to day activities were so time consuming and making the fire for hot water was just another big thing on the list), and in the month I was volunteering there I believe I took 4 showers (best, most satisfying showers of my life). If I wanted hot water for a mate, I had to make a fire. If I wanted to make bread (one of the most time consuming tasks, and yes I can now make awesome bread), I had to make a huge fire to heat up the traditional wood oven. If I needed hot water to do dishes, I had to make a fire. If my room was freezing cold and I wanted to warm it up a bit, I couldn`t just turn a knob or push a button. I had to make a fire. And now, as expected, I am happy to say I am a professional firemaker. This simplicity was the most valuable part of the experience. Not only did I pick up many practical skills like cooking and firemaking, I`ve developed a higher level of appreciation for the luxuries we take for granted back home. I was almost always busy at the estancia because, as I said, the simple day to day activities just took up so much time.

So now, to the work that I did. The work aspect of the experience was not nearly as organized or structured as I thought it would be. I didn`t have anyone running around to make sure I was up in the morning and getting ready to work. If I wanted to work, the only person I`d have to answer to was myself. And at times there wasn`t much work to do and it was very difficult and frustrating but I made the best of it. I did a huge variety of jobs. I made a long trail through thick, thorny bushes, I helped collect firewood, I loaded and unloaded stuff (mostly fence posts) onto and off of the tractor, I moved fence posts from one spot to another, I helped slaughter a cow, I greased saddles and riding equiptment, I helped put down and bury an old horse, I chopped weeds, I dug holes and put in fence posts, and I moved huge adobe bricks among other things. Unfortunately, at Estancia Ranquilco I didn`t get to work much with the gauchos, but this was another dissapointment I had to come to terms with and make the best of the situation.

My last week, I stayed at Estancia Colipilli. Very different experience that Ranquilco. Allthough it wasn`t quite as beautiful as Estancia Ranquilco, it was still awesome. And Colipilli was much more hardcore. Upon arriving at Colipilli, Ashley showed Peter and I our rooming options. A tiny room full of tools that would hardly fit the two of us, or the barn. We were in the beginning of winter, and being adventurous fools, of course we chose to sleep in the barn. But after we got in bed (I had on a winter hat, long johns, pants, a thermal tee shirt, sweater, jacket, poncho, and I was in my sleeping bag), we decided to drag our beds out of the barn so we could enjoy the stars. It was incredible, dozing off under the sky in the freezing cold. After that night we ended up moving in with Sergio, one of the gauchos working at Colipilli. Colipilli was great because the time spent with the gauchos was much higher, and the immersion was much more. I slept in the same room with a gaucho, cooked with the gauchos, and worked with the gauchos. My spanish improved significantly more in this last week than it did the previous 3.

Now I am sure there are quite a few things that I missed. But, it would be very hard to get everything and I think I have more than sufficiently covered this month. All in all, it was an excellent final volunteer stay. I did so much, learned so much, made great friends, and had a good time. I`ve done quite a bit since then, so hopefully I`ll have the time for another update in the next week!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Uruguay and Buenos Aires

So, I arrived in Uruguay mid April. I was really sad to leave Brazil, but excited to see yet another new country. I was welcomed into the country by open arms. My first night I ended up camping with two fellow travellers I met, one of them Uruguayan, who gave me the name and address of a friend of theirs in the town I was headed to the next day, with whom I would be able to stay, no problem. I took the info, just in case, but didn't plan on showing up at a random women's house asking to stay there. The next day I headed to the fishing village, Punta del Diablo, and realized that my wallet was quite light and there were no banks in the town....great..... I decided my only option was to go to the friend, Alicia's, house or I would have to leave to go to another town to take out money. I finally found Alicia's house (but she wasn't home) with the help of many locals, and in the process I was invited into someone's house for a mate. 'Yerba Mate' is a natural plant that is put into a gourd and drank with hot water in southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and parts of Chile. I was invited to have a mate by Miguel and Irene, a couple of about 75 years of age, and neighbors of Alicia's. A very nice, interesting couple, Irene is Brazillian and Miguel is Uruguayan, and one of their daughters is married to an American man and living in Denver, CO! I am most definitely going to meet up with them next year to share a mate and have some conversation. Anyways, Miguel and Irene said that if Alicia was still not home later that day, it wouldn't be a problem for me to camp outside their house. Alicia didn't show up, so I brought my stuff to Miguel and Irene's and set up camp. They were so welcoming and generous to me, I can't believe it. That night they invited some friends over (one of which is the two-time Uruguay surf Champion!) and we had a nice big meal. What a great welcome into the country. It was also a great way to begin the process changing from Portuguesse back to Spanish because they both spoke Portuguesse, Spanish, and English. I stayed in Punta del Diablo for a few more days with Miguel and Irene before heading to Punta del Este. Punta del Este is a large beach resort city. I was there in the low season though, so tourists were far and in between. I did manage to find a good hostel and meet a few other travellers. From Punta del Este I went to a city called Rocha and then got a bus to Valizas, a town even smaller than Punta del Este. I went with Lauren, a 25 year old girl that had been working in Grenage, CT until she decided she was getting bored and is now taking time off to travel. We arrived at around 2 AM, and discovered that the hostel we had heard about was closed. There was no one around, no lights, and we didn't have a place to stay. I was delighted. It gave us an excuse to sleep out on the beach, no tent, in our sleeping bags under the sky, which was amazing. Before falling asleep, I must have seen at least 15 shooting stars. The next day we hiked to Cabo Polonio, an even smaller town, before heading for Montevideo, the country's capital. We arrived in Montevideo late that same night, thanks to a couple we met in Cabo Polonio who gave us a ride back to Valizas to get our stuff (they were going there anyway to check out the town) and then to Punta del Este where we got a bus to Montevideo. It was great. I spent two full days in Montevideo before moving on. It was a cool city with a really nice old part of town, but there wasn't all that much to do. From Montevideo I got a bus to Colonio del Sacramento, a small town that was founded in the 1800s by the Portuguesse, supposedly as a port from which gold could be smuggled into Buenos Aires. There is a big part of the town that is largely original construction! Very cool. From there, I entered Argentina by boat! As we sailed up to Buenos Aires, I couldn't believe I was already arriving there. I was, once again, amazed at how fast time has gone by. I found myself a cheap hostel in the center and ended up staying about a week. Buenos Aires is a really cool city with a huge European influence. I felt the European-ness straight away, from looking at the people, shops, buildings, and advertisements. It has many nice neighborhoods and parks, and I spent quite a bit of time just walking through the city. Haha, one thing that really surprised me was the city's zoo. It is, hands down, the best zoo I have been to in a while. Overall, I had a great time in BsAs and look forward to returning to meet Will and Ryan. From BsAs, I went to Zapala where I met Ashley Carrithers, the owner of 100000 acre Estancia Ranquilco where I volunteered for a month. More on that next time, expect another post in the next few days!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Amazing Beaches, Christ the Redeemer, Crazy Soccer Fans, and So Much More in Rio de Janeiro and Floripa

So, my overnight bus from Brasilia to Rio went smoothly. In the morning when I was still on the bus and the hour of arrival approached, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I couldn´t believe I was about to arrive in Rio de Janeiro. I remember the times before leaving Connecticut when my time in Rio seemed so far off, and just like I was about to arrive.

Once I arrived, I got a public bus to the neighborhood of Botafogo. Botafogo is located near Cobacabana and Ipanema, supposedly the two best areas to stay in, but offers cheaper accomodation. I found the hostel I found the day before on the internet and checked into my 24% bed dormitory. Upon going to the nearby mall, I found out how expensive the city really was when I paid more than I would at home for lunch. Then I headed for `Pao de Acucar,` (Sugar Loaf) a mountain in Rio that can be reached by a series of two cable cars. The view was incredible. I have never before seen a city that is anything like Rio. The beaches, mountains, islands, and Christ the Redeemer make Rio one of the most, if not the most, beautiful cities I have ever laid eyes on. I stayed up for over three hours, seeing the city by day, during sunset, and at night. Already, after only a few hours in the city, I was in love with it.

My next day I walked around the `Jardim Botanico` (Botannical Gardens) for a few hours and then headed to Ipanema beach to meet a friend I met that morning in my hostel. It was a great second day in the city. The next day I went again with the same friend to a few museums and checked out the cities center before heading to the beach in Copacabana.

I ended up staying in Rio almost two weeks, a lot longer than I planned. I visited all of the nice beaches, which were awesome. I went up Mount Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer, my second world wonder of the trip! It was incredible. Not only is the view absolutely spectacular, the Christ is huge and it is mind blowing to imagine how they could have possibly brought it up to the top of the mountain. I saw two soccer matches at Maracana stadium. Definitely the craziest fans I`ve ever seen. Tons of HUGE banners, drums, fireworks, and everyone was jumping around and screaming throughout the entirity of both matches.

My last four days in Rio, I got to move out of my huge dormitory and into the apartment of a friend I met while in San Jorge by Chapada dos Veideiros. The apartment was in Ipanema only several blocks from the beach. It was awesome. Not only did I get to stay in a great location, I saved a lot of money, got to stay in a home as opposed to a hostel, and got to spend lots of time with my friend.

All in all, I absolutely loved my time in Rio. Unfortunately, it rained a few days during my stay but this was the only problem. I have heard that Rio is a very dangerous city, and allthough I did meet a couple who was robbed at knifepoint, I felt totally safe my whole time there. So far, Rio has definitely been the best city I have visited on the trip. Upon leaving I was not only sad but determined to come back to live there sometime in the near or distant future.

After Rio, I went to Florianopolis, a city in the south of Brazil that is partly on the mainland and party on Isla Santa Catarina. I stayed with a friend I met while in Bonito who is from Germany and studying abroad in Floripa (the nickname) for a year. I had hoped to find volunteer work to do there, but my search was unsuccessful. I decided to stay in Floripa for a while and then I would move on without volunteering. As a result, I would have to do more volunteer work while in Argentina. The beaches in Rio were awesome, but the beaches in Florianopolis are definitely better. I spent my time in Floripa going on hikes, visiting beaches, sandboarding (did not turn out to be as similiar to snowboarding as I thought. After taking a few runs I decided I was ready for the slope with the ´danger´ sign and I wiped out hard), biking around the city, and trying to learn surfing. It was great, but I ended up staying a little too long.

After Florianopolis, I left Brazil and entered Uruguay. More on that in my next post. So far, Brazil has been, hands down, my favorite country in South America. I was quite sad to leave Brazil, but as I said earlier, I am determined to return to live in the future. And I am still positive I want to take Portuguesse as opposed to Spanish next year at CU Boulder!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Crystalline Rivers in Bonito, Futuristic Arquitecture in Brasília, and Massive Waterfalls in Sao Jorge

As I said, my arrival in Bolivia went smoothly and around 7 PM on my first day in Brazil, I was checked into my expensive but nice hostel in the small town, Bonito. It is located right next to the Pantanal, a region that supposedly has the most biodiversity on the continent. On my first morning in Bonito I went on a tour organized by the hostel to ´Rio do Prato´, a river with crastalline water that runs smoothly into another larger river. We took a short drive followed by a hike through jungle to get to the start of the stream. We were ´taught´ how to swim and snorkle smoothly so as not to disturb the sandy bottom of the river. As soon as I went in I was instantly greeted by many big groups of colorful fish swimming right by my face. Many 5 foot, golden colored ´dorados´ floated slowly by the river´s sides. The water was hands down the clearest I´ve ever seen. At one point we came upon a spring in the river. There was a large area about 7 ft in diameter where the sand was being pushed up a few feet because of the water. It was great. After we finished the snorkelling and had a huge buffet lunch, we stopped at a huge sinkhole with massive red rock faces. Not only that, there were scores of macaws in the trees around the sick hole. It was beautiful. I stayed in Bonito a few more days and visited a stunning blue lake in the bottom of a cave and another stream packed with fish.
From Bonito I took two buses (travel time was a total of more or less 35 hours) with two Aussie friends I met in Bonito to Brasília. The country´s capital is awesome. There may not be all that much to do, but the city definitely has the coolest arquitecture I´ve ever seen. The city was originally made to look like an airplane from a bird´s eye view, and I saw it by going up to a lookout on a TV tower. The city is packed with crazy looking buildings.
After a few days in Brasília, I took another two buses (this time the travel time was only about 8 hours) to arrive in Sao Jorge, a small town without any paved roads that is located right by the entrance to Parque Nacional Chapada Dos Veideros. I planned on staying in Sao Jorge for only 2 maybe 3 days, but ended up staying for a week because it was so great. The towns extremely laid back atmosphere, the natural beauty of the area around the town both in and out of the park, and the extremely low amount of money I was spending per day made me stay. I was camping in my ultralite jungle hammock in a campground run by a really nice guy named Caverna. I spent my time in Sao Jorge walking. Lots and lots of walking. On two days I did full day tours of the national park to see huge, powerful waterfalls, mountains, and cool canyons. On other days I walked to several different natural sites with waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, canyons, and great lookouts. Overall, it was a week well spent.
From Sao Jorge I went back to Brasília where I decided to stay for a day so I could take care of an important phone interview I had for a special program at CU Boulder next year. The next day I bombed my interview despite the preparation I did at 6:40 and got on a direct bus to Rio de Janeiro at 8:30. I got to Rio smoothly the next day at 1, took a public bus to Botafogo (a neighborhood) and checked into a hostel. I will talk about Rio in my next post.
All in all, Brazil has been amazing so far. I love everything about it. The people are so nice and friendly, there is a lot of natural beauty, great culture, great food, beautiful women, the list goes on. The only drawback is the cost of living. It was quite a shock to come from Bolivia to Brazil. Everything in Brazil is much more expensive, and I have thrown the budget I was previously using to the wind. I have enough money and I decided that I was going to forget about how much money I spend, otherwise it will bother me my whole time in Brazil. And because the past weeks in Brazil have been so good and I am liking the country so much, I am going to take Portuguesse classes next year in University. My portuguesse is enough to get by and even have some good conversation, but it is too often that I don´t understand what someone is trying to tell me. It has been quite frustrating, coming from Bolivia where my Spanish was starting to get very good. Hopefully I´ll write soon!

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Cerro Rico Silver Mine, Salar de Uyuni, and the Death Train

So, I left Sucre on the Monday after the first two days of Carnaval. I left at 8 AM and got a bus to Potosi, where I was hoping to get a bus from there to Uyuni where I planned on doing a three day tour of the salar (the world´s largest salt flat, basically a huge desert that has salt instead of sand). Once in Potosi, I found out I had missed the last bus to Uyuni and wouldn´t be able to get a bus until Wednesday. This was due to the fact that on Tuesday there was absolutely no public transportation in the entire country because, supposedly, everyone is drunk after Carnaval. I had planned to meet Ed, a good friend of mine that I met a few weeks before in Sucre that night in Uyuni, so I didn´t know what I would do. Luckily, I got an email from him saying that he was also coming to Potosi that day and didn´t think he would be able to get a bus to Uyuni until Wednesday. So I met Ed that night and we spent the next day in the main square engaging in a water fight that lasted the entire day. We were in the square, throwing water balloons and dumping buckets of water on people in the back of pickup trucks for five or six hours. It was so much fun.
I forgot to mention that before Carnaval I came to Potosi for a day (it isn´t far from Sucre) to do a tour of the Cerro Rico Silver mine in Potosi. It was an incredible experience. We spent about two hours in the mine, trudging through mud, climbing up and down ladders that would´ve sent my Mom into shock, talking the the miners, giving them gifts of soda and coca leaves, and learning about the mining process. I was not absolutely horrified by the working conditions, but they were bad. Many of the workers work up to 2 km into the mountain, so they do not get to leave the whole work day. We were there in the morning towards the beginning of the shift, and I saw several guys covered in head to toe with thick mud. Our guide also informed us that kids as young as 14 worked in the mines, full time. To make things worse, these guys make only 2000 bolivianos a month, about 265 USD. Allthought this isn´t a bad salary by Bolivian standards, it is by no means adequate for the job they are working. At one point, we all tried the alcohol that the workers drink throughout the day. This stuff makes vodka taste like grape juice. 96% sugar cane alcohol that left my throat burning for a good ten minutes, even though I had a sip that probably wasn´t more than a sixth of a shot. The miners drink this horrible substance straight, based on the superstition that drinking pure alcohol with bring them finds of pure silver. In my opinion, it just brings them a drunkenness that happens to be involved in and a huge cause of the leading cause of death in the mines (miners falling down open shafts). All in all, I consider this tour of the mine a very valuable experience. I saw, once again in Bolivia, how hard the lives of so many people are, especially in comparison to mine.
So, on Wednesday Ed and I caught a bus to Uyuni and arrived there around 7 PM. We didn´t do much that night besides checking out a few tourist agencies to get info on tours of the salar. The next morning, we booked a three day tour for 65 USD, all inclusive. An incredible price, if you ask me. Even better if you look at all the places we visited. We left at 11 in the morning, and I was in utter amazement for the next three days. Never before in my life have I seen so many incredible places that are all so different in such a short period of time. We were taken to places that were so cool I wanted to stay for the whole day, but nope, we would be hurried off to yet another place that blew my mind. Our first stop was the salar itself. As I mentioned earlier, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, but because there was tons of rain in the past few weeks, it was flooded. At first I was very dissapointed to hear this because we wouldn´t be able to visit one or two sites, but once we got out onto the salar my dissapointment dissolved. It was unreal. The surface of the water reflected everything. Clouds, the blue sky, cars, the mountains, people, etc. It was great. Then we were off the the train graveyard, where we were able to walk around and on several ´dead´ trains that were in use in the 1880s. The next day, our first stop was a valley near a volcano filled with volcanic rock! It was awesome! All sorts of rocks with crazy shapes and the lava tracks were clearly visible. We visited several lagoons, the most incredible of which was called Laguna Colorada. It was mainly a deep red with some blue and white along the sides. Not only was the color very bizarre, the lake was full of flamingos.
The third and final day began nice and early at 4 30 AM. We got to an area with tons of geysers right at sunset. It was, once again, a spot that instantly found its place among the coolest landscapes I´ve ever seen. After the geysers, we drove to some hot springs that are, hands down, the best hot springs I´ve every seen. Not only was the water perfect, especially after bearing the freezing temperature at the geysers, they were right next to a beautiful lagoon and we were there right after sunrise. After a good chunk of time in the springs, we had a great breakfast before moving on. Our next and final spot was Laguna Verde. When we first arrived, it was quite impressive, with a massive volcano on one side, but not that green. Our guides had explained that the colors of all these lagoons are really brought out when there is lots of wind, because the chemicals causing the crazy colors get mixed up. After half an hour and a lot of wind, Laguna Verde was very green indeed. All in all, I absolutely loved this tour and was very glad it worked out for Ed and I to do it together.
After Uyuni, I went back to Sucre and ended up staying for another week. It was great. All in all, I was in Sucre for four weeks and really enjoyed myself. After my extra week, I took an overnight bus to Santa Cruz, a big city that is quite weathly, very hot, and very big. Straight away, I didn´t like it and resolved to leave the next day. I bought my ticket on the infamous ´Death Train´ that would take me to Quijarro, a small town on the border with Brazil, for the next day. I strolled around the city, visiting the central plaza and a small park with an excuse for a lagoon. The next day I visited the city´s zoo, which was actually really cool. It had a large variety of animals from Central and South America that included pumas, jaguars, all sorts of birds, capibores, monkies, and a MASSIVE tapir. Later that day I boarded the Death Train at 4:30. The ride was mostly uneventful, except for one point when I was awoken from my sleep by a loud slamming noise. I looked out the window and saw that we were stopped on the tracks that were running through a swamp. The next five minutes we sat there without moving and I was very nervous. I arrived in Quijarro the next morning, Feb. 21st, and crossed into Brazil without any problems. Back in Brazil! Muito bom!

Sunday, 10 February 2008


So, unfortunately my flight out of Quito wasn`t until the evening of the day after my family returned to the states. I spent a lot of time on the internet taking care of this and that, and I took my first salsa lesson! It was enjoyable, but no easy task. My flight back to Cusco, Peru was horrible. I had arrived in Lima at 11 PM and my flight to Cusco wasn`t until 8 AM the next morning. I brought my sleeping bag along and tried to ignore light and noise without much success.

Once in Cusco, I got a bus to Puno, the city I visited before Christmas to see Lake Titicaca. The next day, I got a bus from Puno to Copacabana, Bolivia. The trip was quite uneventful, luckily, and I got my Bolivian visa at the border without any problems. Upon checking my email later that night, I found out that John was also in Copacabana and the two of us met up that night. It was great to see each other and to talk about what each of us had done since we last split up. Copacabana is a small city right on Lake Titicaca with mountains surrounding it`s other sides. Beautiful. John and I stayed in Copacabana for several days, checking out the sites, biking, kayaking, and relaxing. We even treated ourselves to the honeymoon sweet of a nice hotel and got ourselves our own awesome dome-shaped building with two floors, huge, comfty beds, chill hammocks, and huge windows overlooking the city and the lake. Brilliant.

From Copacabana, we got a three hour bus to La Paz. Both John and I were astounded with the city`s beautiful location in a valley surrounded by mountains, the city`s modernity, and the AMAZING juices and fruit salads found in the `mercado´ (market). John and I booked a tour on mountainbike of ´The World`s Most Dangerous Road.` It was so good, we did it a second time two days later. The road starts at 4800 meters, way up in the mountains, and ends at 1200 meters, down in the jungle. The first 2 hours or so was on a steep, curvy concrete road with awesome views and huge trucks that sometimes had to be passed at high speeds while going around sharp turns (just kidding mom!). The second leg of the ride was on a rocky dirt road that at times was no more than 6 feet across with hundred foot cliffs on the sides (not a joke). The views were spectacular and the path was often covered by huge waterfalls that had to be ridden through. The first day we did it, the weather was real bad. We got out of the van at the top and stepped into pouring rain which didn`t let up for the entire ride. The second day, we got lucky and by the end I was biking down in shorts without a shirt on. Oh man it was so much fun.

The day in between our two biking adventures, John and I did a private city tour. It was great. We visited a few awesome spots with views of the entire city, and a strange place called ´La Valle de la Luna´ (the valley of the moon). I am not even going to try to describe this place. Check out pictures on the internet. John and I also did a tough 5 hour hike to Lago Condorirri, a stunning lake located about an hour from La Paz. It was awesome, with crazy colored lakes and insane looking mountains. Unfortunately, at the lake I decided to walk across a path of rocks going across a small part of the lake. The rocks crumbled under my weight and before I knew it I was totally soaked, with camera in pocket. The camera stopped working, but luckily a week or so later I was able to get it fixed for a decent price.

I left La Paz to go to Sucre feeling like I had really gotten a feel for the city and had packed many activities into the week I was there. The busride to Sucre was about twelve hours long, and horrible. Not only was the road very bumpy, a few hours before I left John and I had a tasty but evidently toxic dinner of street burgers that left my stomach painfully churning for days.

In Sucre, I figured out my housing and the volunteer work I would be doing for the next three weeks. I stayed at a nice hostel 2 blocks from the main plaza with a great balcony, nice beds, a kitchen, and lots of space outside. I volunteered at Tata San Juan de Dios, an government funded, Christian ran orphanage. It was great. The orphanage houses 50 kids between the ages of two months and five years. All of the kids were either abandoned or abused by their parents before coming to the orphanage. I worked with the 23 big kids, who are between 2 and 5 years. They are nuts! My first whole day, I was left alone with them for a significant period of time and I soon realized I had basically no control over these kids. They swarmed me, hitting, kicking, and yelling when I asked for silence. One of the rascals even spit on my pants!

My days began at 7 AM. I would wake up, get some breakfast (fruit salad at the mercado central was a big hit), and get the bus to the orphanage. Once at the orphanage, I would help the kids eat breakfast, after which play time started. During playtime, I did many things. I played with the kids, broke up fights, punished children that hit others or stole toys from others, and comforted crying children (sometimes there were at least 5 kids crying at once). After the kids at lunch, I would take off around 12 and get lunch. I took spanish lessons for my first week there in the afternoons, but decided they weren`t worth my money so decided to stop.

I spent Carnaval (Feb. 2 and 3) in Sucre, and it was great. The only problem was that the friends I had made had all left, so I was alone. Since my arrival in Sucre, there were always people on the streets throwing waterballoon. The main targets were girls and gringos! As a result, I was often targetted. During Carnaval, the water fights were taken to a whole new level. I went to a few parades, and there was a constant flow of balloons flying through the air. It was great! Only problem was, as a gringo, a couple times at least 20 all started throwing balloons at me! The Carnaval took place on a weekend, and on the Sunday I went to the orphanage to help take the kids to the parade. When I walked in, I was totally surprised to find all of the kids dressed up in fancy costumes! They were going to dance in the parade. Someone asked me if I wanted to dress up with them, and of course I say yes! When myself, one other volunteer, and all the children were dressed up we took off. At first we marched/danced down a street with very few people. After a while, I noticed up ahead the sidewalks were completely packed! There must have been well over 500 people there. Right before we finished the march, all of the spectators decided to nail the big gringo! I got hit with 15 or 20 balloons, shot by countless water guns, and covered in foam!

All in all, my time in Sucre was great. The kids were great, and I felt like I really made a difference in their lives while working with them. I am still a little behind, and I will do my best to write another post in the next few days!