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Back in Copacabana (Finally)

This week was gangbusters. Work was crazy, but I got through it quite successfully. Not perfectly, but overall it was pretty fantastic. And look what I have for you!

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Lake of the Gray Puma

Pictures from Bolivia! Yay! (Much cheering ensues.)

These were taken on day six of our travels, day four in Bolivia, day three of our first trek, right after lunch on the floating island. The next few hours of hiking were easy. It was around eleven when we left the floating island and we were trying to get back to Copacabana to catch a one-thirty bus back to La Paz, so we walked fast. On a dirt road in the sun with thirty-five/forty-five/fifty-five pound packs on our backs. There aren’t a whole lot of pictures because, while not completely miserable, it wasn’t the nicest part of our hike. But here are some highlights:

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Awwwww! Aren’t we the cutest? We totally are. Dave took this photo of us. When I look at it I remember how lovely it was to walk hand-in-hand like this. Even on a dusty road carrying heavy backpacks in the hot sun after a breakfast of fried fish Mike made me feel all romantic inside.

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una vaca

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dos ovejas

tres llamas

tres llamas

(Actually, two of them are ovejas, not llamas, but whatevs.)

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This is me after I collapsed in a heap on the outskirts of Copacabana. I could have slept right there. Have you ever been so drunk that you thought it was perfectly acceptable to sleep in a telephone booth? I was that drunk. Only I hadn’t had a drop of anything in weeks. I was drunk with exhaustion. It would not have been safe for me to operate a large piece of machinery. My feet were tired. My knees were tired. My shoulders were tired. My butt was tired. My hair was tired. Even my teeth were tired. Also, see how crispy my left arm is? It was lobster red. That happend during our trek around Isla del Sol the day before. Just the one arm. The sun was beating from one direction, clearly.

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While I took this photo for Dave’s wife, I chanted: “Touch it touch it touch it touch it! Peer pressure! Do it! Do it!” But he did not. Which was probably wise.

Walking into Copacabana through the outskirts, where village blends into city, I was a little bit nervous. It was intense. The houses were made of mudbrick, just like the farm houses, only these houses didn’t have any windows. Or any doors. Some of them didn’t have roofs. Trash overflowed from the three-foot deep gutters into the street. There were people living in tents. There was livestock, but it grazed in muddy fields strewn with broken bottles and dirty diapers. We were trying to find our way to the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, but when we stopped to ask for directions in broken Spanish, the people just stared at us and shook their heads like they had no idea what we were talking about. We could hear a sermon loud and clear in the alpine air so we knew it was close by. I had to pee worse than anything so we found a baño público and dropped our packs. Mike stood guard while Dave ran ahead to find the basilica and I ran to pee.

This bathroom was… it was not an American bathroom. It had a real flushing toilet which was awesome, I am not complaining. Lots of places don’t even have that. None of the toilets had seats, but not a big deal. One can simply hover, that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the method by which the toilets were flushed. While many of the baños público we visited had toilets that the user could flush by pushing a small handle on the basin, these toilets could only be flushed by pouring a bucket of water into the toilet bowl. The buckets, old two-gallon bleach bottles with their tops cut off, were stacked, dozens of them, next to a cluster of filthy garbage cans, each brimming with thick, murky water. But, dear readers, I did not have to soil my pretty American hands touching the grimy buckets and scooping the germy water. The little girl to whom I’d paid un boliviano did it for me.

It was awful. I tried to do it for myself, but the girl shook her head, said something in Spanish and shooed me out of the way. She couldn’t have been more than six. I watched while she draped herself over the edge of the garbage bin, hanging by one arm to the lip of the can while she scooped water with her other arm, her little feet in old leather shoes dangling inches above the floor. I wondered if she’d ever fallen in. Or tipped over, sloshing muck and brown water all over her dress. I thought about what I did when I was six. How I spent warm October afternoons singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go while I swung on black rubber swings under old shady trees. I wanted to pick her up and carry her out. She’d just barely fit in my pack if I dumped all my gear on the street and I would have gladly dumped every piece of gear, every cracker, every bottle of water to take her home, give her a life of swings and shade trees. Except obviously I was not going to do that. I’d be arrested and hauled off to a Bolivian prison where I wouldn’t be surprised if they frequently put kidnappers to death. I wouldn’t blame them if they did. So I walked away.

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Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana

Guess what happened next? FOOD. Glorious, beautiful, wonderful food. And lots of it.

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We’d crossed from the questionable side of town to the tourist side of town where everything was bright colored, beautiful, and for sale. Everywhere we looked the streets were lined with food. Nuts, dried fruits, broasted chicken, salteñas. OH MY GOODNESS THE SALTENAS. Salteñas are basically Bolivian empanadas. They are baked in a wonderful crunchy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside cornmeal shell and stuffed with chopped meat, potatoes, apples, a hardboiled egg, and one olive. The kind with a pit. And everything is soaking in an incredible, rich broth that is both salty and a little bit sweet. It is manna from heaven, I kid you not. We bought three salteñas, several bags of roasted nuts, chickpeas, beans, and dried bananas. Not the dried bananas like you buy at the market but real, dried-in-the-sun bananas. You have never tasted such treasures as these.

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Mi amor with a salteña and a Coka Quina. If I could buy Coka Quina in the states, I might drink it exclusively. It’s Bolivian cola, but it has ginger in it, so it has a wonderful gingery-kick to it. I wish I had a Coka Quina right now.

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It’s killing me that I can’t remember what these tiny fried fish are called. Ipsy or Isspi or Ippsi, I have no idea. We ate them several times but these first ones were the best.

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Please pardon the gargantuan blister-like pimple on my cheek. That is I-haven’t-showered-or-washed-my-face-in-three-days-but-I’ve-been-applying-sunscreen-every-two-hours acne. I had asked Mike to be on Pimple Patrol. “Please,” I begged him,”If I grow something horrible on my face, tell me and help me take care of it.”

“Of course, dear. Anything you say, dear.” He replied.

I had no idea that thing was living on my face until the end of the day when we finally checked into our hotelroom in La Paz. I almost died when I saw it.

We have a really lovely life, Mike and I. There are little children in the world who spend days they should be in school flushing public toilets with dirty water, but we go on vacation and worry about pimples and complain about the public bathrooms. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer all of a sudden, it’s just very strange. And it’s inspiration to be a bit better of a person in the day-to-day and to pay forward some of the gifts in my life.

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

Evening in Yampupata

The Village Awakens

Trucha Frita

The Village Awakens

It was day six of our travels, day four in Bolivia, day three of our first trek. We woke early and packed up our roadside camp in the light of the full moon. I was eternally grateful that we had not been bothered by anyone in the night, but I was still on edge. I do not like wandering around in populated areas at such ungodly hours. One never knows who or what one may run into.

Also? I was really freaking hungry.

We hiked down the steep slope of the hill we’d slept on and back toward the road. Something in the sky flashed.

“What was that?” I asked.

Neither Mike nor Dave had seen it. Something flashed again.

“Seriously? You didn’t see that?” They had to have seen it.

“I saw it that time.” Mike answered. “It could have been lightening.”

“It wasn’t lightening. There’s no storm anywhere. It was probably just blah blah blah…” Dave gave a very scientific-y answer to what he thought the flashing light was, but he lost me after “it was probably just…”. I decided it must either be aliens or a serial killer trying to scare us with some sort of flashy light thing as a precursor to torturing us and murdering us.

The light flashed again. I started praying, furiously, for safety. We hiked along the road, in the pitch black, in complete silence, for another thirty minutes or so before the sun began to rise. We never saw the flashy light again, and we never figured out what caused it, but even Mike agrees with me that it was incredibly weird. (I still think it was most likely aliens.) As soon as the sun started coming up I began to relax. The village we hiked through transformed from dark and foreboding to quaint and lovely. Lights were coming on in windows and we could smell cook fires. We hiked with rocks in our pockets because each time we passed a house a dog would charge at us, snarling. None were tied up, but none ever left the safety of their unfenced yard. They didn’t want to fight, they just wanted to make sure we didn’t get too close. We abandoned our rocks.

The village was beautiful. Nestled in a valley, hugging the lake, it was idyllic. We began to see people, a few at a time, working in their fields or tending their livestock in the pink early hours of the morning. I imagined their homes inside, warm and spare, a hot breakfast of quinoa in fresh milk with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. Maybe a steaming cup of coffee. I was very hungry.

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I love this house. Do you see the way the balcony is set up? It’s hard to tell in this photo, but this house is actually two stories and you’re looking at the second floor. That is their balcony, with no sides, not even narrow side railings. It just sort of hangs off the side of the house so you better not let your kids out there unattended. And yet? It is so perfectly picturesque.

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“Welcome to Titicachi and visit the floating island cultural center of Isk’a Huata.”

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This is brilliant. This house (and we saw several others set up the same way) was built below the road, so again, you are seeing the second floor of the house from this view. Only this family included a doorway at road-level, then propped a long plank of wood to serve as a pathway to the road. This way, one does not need to push one’s cart of goods up and down a steep and rocky slope to get to the road. One can use this clever pathway. We saw one house whose plank was warped and looking very old and fragile. I imagined that whenever the family used it, the wife would say to her husband, “When are you going to put down a new plank? I’ve told you over and over, we need a new plank! One of these days it’s going to snap in half! How many times do I need to tell you?” To which he’d roll his eyes and say, “Ay, Mami! I’ll do it, I’ll do it. Cut me some slack, will you? I’ve been working all day!”

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The people we passed on this cold early morning seemed a little suspicious of us, but we smiled and said “Buenos dias!” and they smiled and greeted us back. Mostly. Though it had been, at this point, eighteen hours since our last meal (not counting the cold, nearly raw 1/2 cup of quinoa we shared at camp the night before), this hike through the villages of Lake of the Gray Puma became one of my favorite events of the entire trip. Watching the village wake up in the early hours of the morning was enchanting. It was story-book beautiful. Irrational fears of murder and mayhem aside, I would absolutely recommend the hike from Yampupata to Copacabana, as long as you do it in the very early morning on a full stomach.

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

Evening in Yampupata

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

This post is a continuation of this post.

On the hike back we began to pass other trekkers, as well as women and children herding sheep. When we came upon the house where the man had told us we were early for tourists, we realized it was not just a house, but also a shop selling soda and water. The man was nowhere to be found but there was a little boy behind the counter who sold us four liters of water and let us feed crackers to the round little puppy who scrambled after us.

rolly polly puppy

We were warned not to touch the animals because they could be rabid. This one definitely looked dangerous.

Further up the trail we stopped to eat the raw peanuts, mandarinas, and the rest of the crackers we had scavenged from the bottoms of our packs. We spread our gear out to dry in the sun because when the morning frost melted, it left our sleeping bags and bivy sacks soaking wet. We took off our shoes and let our feet breathe. We shared news and recommendations with the morning’s ferry-load of trekkers who began to stream past, mostly students and grad school graduates, young people from all over the world.

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I took this picture to remind myself of this moment: I was exhausted, hot, sweaty, and hungry. Mike and Dave were flying up that hill and it made me mad. My muscles burned. I felt like I couldn’t possibly go on, I would never make it up that hill, not with this heavy pack on my back and the sun in my eyes. And then I remembered something Marie told me about her three-week backpacking trip. She said that when it got hard and she thought she couldn’t go on, she would tell herself, “I can take one more step.” And then she’d take another step. So that’s what I did. I can take one more step. I can take one more step. It became a rhythm I could move to. One more step. One more step. One more step. My mind would drift with the rhythm, one more step, and I wasn’t thinking about the sun (one more step) or the pack (one more step) or how steep the hill was. One more step. One more step. One more step.

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Look at the hillside to the right of the photo. See how it’s cut into so many lines? Those are terraces for farming. The Incas did that – terraced all the mountainsides – and the people who live there now keep working the terraces, farming the land, pulling the rocks out, leveling, fertilizing, growing, feeding their babies generation after generation.

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These women hike these hills day in and day out, babes on their backs, full skirts, patent-leather flats.

One more step. One more step. One more step.

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If you look at the left side of the house, you can see where they did not stucco over the mud brick. Nearly all of the houses we saw while we hiked around Lake of the Gray Puma were made of mud brick. When your house begins to wear down from years of rain? You build a new one, right next door.

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I said “nearly all” the houses were made of mud brick.

By the time we arrived in Yumani we were ravenous. Our last real meal had been almost twenty-four hours earlier. You burn about 5,000 calories in a day of hiking and we’d probably only eaten about 500 calories. Even our hair was hungry. (At least mine was.)

Yumani was a ghost town, not a soul anywhere. The restaurants and hostels were abandoned, except for one pizza place with a television blaring in the corner. Dave and Mike were not interested in pizza and I was too hungry to argue. (Interestingly, pizza is HUGELY popular in Yumani. Almost every restaurant boasts pizza and Italian food.) We found a tienda and bought a bag of quinoa we thought we could fix for dinner that night. A little closer to shore there was an open place with four tables that offered sopa, sandwiches, trucha, pollo y papas, and coca mate. They even had a clean bathroom, though we had to use our own toilet paper and hand soap.  It felt like an oasis. I ordered a cheese sandwich, expecting something wonderful and melty. What I got was dry bread with wet farmer’s cheese and sliced tomatoes. My mouth watered at the sight of those perfect, red fruits, but they were off limits. Raw vegetables and fruits = diarrhea that sprays out your bum and won’t stop. So I picked the tomatoes off and prayed I wouldn’t get sick from the little bit of juice that soaked into the bread. (I didn’t.)

It never ceased to amaze me, not nine days on the trail, how happy and refreshed I would feel after a short rest and a simple meal. I could be absolutely falling-over exhausted, but thirty minutes off my feet, some bread and some cheese, and I’d be ready to go again. After lunch we hiked for another thirty minutes or so, all down hill, through the town, toward the shore. It was only two-thirty, so I stretched out on the grass by the dock and napped in the sun while Michael and Dave chatted with other travelers. We caught our boat at three sharp and I slept all the way to Yampupata.

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*photo courtesy of Dave

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol

Under the Surface

under the surface

I don’t know what it is about this photo, but it soothes me. I snapped it walking on the – I don’t know what you call it. A ramp thingy? A walkway? It was a bunch of boards nailed together, hovering inches above the surface of Lake of the Gray Puma, that we had to walk across to get to the ferry that would take us from Copacabana to Isla del Sol. I was in awe of how clear and lovely the water was, so I took this silly little picture. I just made it the wallpaper on my desktop because when I look at it, all the anxiety and stress I feel at work all day long softens at the edges, just enough that I feel I can take a deep breath and keep going.

Isla del Sol en las fotografías

What I can’t believe is that a) we’ve already been home from The Big Bolivian Adventure for over three weeks and 2) I’ve written five posts about the trip and I’m still only telling you about the second day. Alright, the fourth day if you count our first two travel days, BUT STILL. At this rate, I’ll be writing about Bolivia for the next year. If I can even remember everything for that long.

Hold on. Bolivia. Is that near Mexico? I can’t remember anymore.

If you’re counting from the day we left Los Angeles, day one was all air travel, day two was air travel, day three we puttered in La Paz, and day four we traveled from La Paz to Copacabana to Isla del Sol, where we commenced our first afternoon of trekking. It was a wonderful day and I wrote about it here. Now how about some pictures?

Wait, one more thing. I hate to say it but I have to: I’m incredibly disappointed by my photos of Isla del Sol. It was, without a doubt, one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited. However, my photos portray a rather bleak and dusty little town. None of the charm exists in my digital renderings. There’s none of the bustle and beauty, the breeze and the sun and the sound of bleating sheep are glaringly absent. They’re just photos of stuff that barely hint at what was real. Like in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, when the enchanted rose wilts and begins to die, all the magic wearing out. My photos are a wilted version of what I saw in real life.

For example, I took the photo below of a family washing their laundry because, in person, it was exquisitely picturesque. Mama washing the family’s clothes on the shore of Lago Titicaca, Papa laying out the clean clothes to dry in the sun, the little children clambering up and down the rocky slopes, their shrieks and squeals of glee echoing off the island’s surface. It was lovely. And it does not translate. (Also, can we ignore the fact that I’m totally romanticizing a very mundane chore, made arduous by the fact that these people don’t have a laundry facility? What is wrong with me?)

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In the next photo, you’ll see Mike sharing the road with a pack of mules. Or, mulas, as they are called en español. This was exciting because, mulas! On the trail! Right next to us! I like totally grew up in suburbia and like have totally like never seen like a mule up close before! Like omigawd!

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***

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Here we are, Mike and I, grinning and happy, Lago Titicaca behind us, two boxes of crackers in front of us. Dear readers, should you ever choose to spend extended periods of time hiking in the Andes, or even hiking on an island in the middle of a lake near the Andes, do not assume that you will be able to eat locally just because your copy of ‘Lonely Planet’ says you can. When the guidebook says there are stores that sell basic provisions, what they mean is there are stores that sell toilet paper, eggs, liters of soda, and llama wool sweaters. Please do not mistake “basic provisions” for “food you can safely carry in your backpack and eat on the trail.” If you do, you will go hungry.

Those crackers? That was all Mike, Dave, and I had to eat for dinner that night and breakfast and lunch the next day. Two boxes of crackers do not three meals for three people make. Why didn’t we buy more than two boxes of crackers? Because we’re americanos tontos. That’s why.

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And what is that? In the photo above? IT IS A RESTAURANT. In fact, it was one of a string of wonderful little mama-and-papa* restaurants that we stumbled upon as we climbed up the steep and curving road out of Yumani, towards our campsite (three-plus hours away) for the night. And did we stop for lunch? HELLS YEAH WE DID. We’re not that tantos. Not only did we eat lunch, we ate a two-course lunch of incredible, rich sopa and fried trucha and it was heaven. It was also the reason why we got away with eating only three crackers each for dinner that night.

*Mama took our orders, cooked our meals, and breastfed her baby while she waited for us to finish. Papa was in the garden, tending the animals. While we ate, donkeys wandered past the window. One even stared at us. I think it wanted my sopa.

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The people are not at all interested in having their picture taken, so I snuck this one of a family out for a late afternoon stroll with their pig. It’s a little bit hazy because I was zooming in from a bajillion feet away. (I am sneaky. Or disrespectful. You choose.)

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Un gatito! *photo courtesy of Dave

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Una niña! *photo courtesy of Dave

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Don’t you just want to fall over dead when you see those mountains? I later climbed them, yes I did. You may bow to me. I won’t mind.

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Tricia found a dead thing! *photo courtesy of Dave

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The dead thing that Tricia found. Hint: It’s a guinea pig. No, I do not know what happened to its other half.

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These sheep made me cry. Alright, it wasn’t entirely the sheep’s fault.

You see, we had been hiking along for several hours and we had eaten a very large lunch because we didn’t know when we would eat our next meal, when suddenly, I needed to go to the bathroom. (If you know what I mean.) Only we were hours away from the nearest bathroom, which meant that now, for the first time ever in my life, I was going to have to poop somewhere that wasn’t a bathroom. Which would have been fine had we been hiking in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere, but we were hiking on a road, passing trekkers, tourists, townspeople, and sheep herders every minute or two. This was a very populated road. There were no trees, no big rocks, no privacy anywhere. The longer I hiked the more uncomfortable I got and before I knew it I was hiking with tears streaming down my face. Not tears of discomfort, but tears of “oh my goodness I think I’m going to have to poop in front of a sheepherder.” Mike and Dave both tried to convince me to climb off the path, they swore if walked far enough away from the path I’d have enough privacy to do what I needed to do, but when I tried, THE SHEEP. THEY FOLLOWED ME. And I just couldn’t do it. After an hour or so we finally came upon a small patch of trees and Mike walked me off the road into a secluded cluster and once the deed was done I decided that in fact? Pooping in the woods is kind of awesome. Carrying poopy toilet paper in a ziplock in my backpack? Not awesome. But doing your business outdoors in the breeze is sort of fantastic. Not that I’m going to start doing it on a regular basis or anything, but really? It wasn’t worth the tears.

PS. On our last day of hiking in the Andes I got really sick and actually dropped trou behind a rock next to a farmhouse. Because it was that or shit my pants. And then guess what? I only had gas! The worst gas in the history of the universe, but it was only gas. I dropped my pants next to someone’s house for a fart. So. freaking. embarrassing.

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We made camp that night about ten minutes away from where I had my first outdoor pooping experience. You can’t tell at all, but this was a beautiful campsite. We were high up on the ridge of the island, surrounded on both sides by the lake. We made camp, gawked at the scenery, ate three crackers each, and were in our sleeping bags and asleep before dark. Warm, cozy, and only a little bit hungry.

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Quinoa Comes From Bolivia

Quinoa comes from Bolivia.

Wikipedia says:

The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred, referred to quinoa as chisaya mama or ‘mother of all grains’, and it was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using ‘golden implements’. During the European conquest of South America, the Spanish colonists scorned quinoa as ‘food for Indians’, and even actively suppressed its cultivation, due to its status within indigenous non-Christian ceremonies. In fact, the conquistadors forbade quinoa cultivation for a time and the Incas were forced to grow wheat instead.

While Quinoa is a particularly wonderful thing to eat, I don’t just want to eat it, I want to know it. I want to know more about it. Where does it come from? I’ve done lots of Internet searches trying to find out more about this wonderful little seed and the land from which it comes, but other than a few articles, I haven’t found much. Sure I’ve found information, facts, crime stats, but I want to know more.  I want to know what the stars look like from that part of the world.  I want to smell the streets of La Paz. I want to use the public restrooms, buy food from the vendors, cozy up to the locals. (But probably not really because apparently they really like to steal your wallet and they aren’t shy about it either.) I want to spend a day (or 5) trekking the Apolobamba, pooping in holes I’ve dug myself, and using llama dung to fuel the fire that cooks my evening meal. I want to know where quinoa comes from.

This July, Michael, his brother, and I will make the journey from Los Angeles, through Mexico City, past Lima, Peru, to La Paz, Bolivia, where we will learn all about where quinoa really comes from.  We will spend a few days tooling around town before we take a lovely (two day) stroll from Isla del Sol to Lake Titicaca.  (No, I won’t ever be able to say that out loud without chuckling. Titicaca. Titicaca!) After that we’ll take a bus from La Paz to Charazani where we hope to stay in a hotel, take showers, and possibly shave my legs if Mike will let me bring a razor. (I’m only allowed two pairs of panties so I’m guessing a razor is out of the question.) (What? We’re backpacking. Would you want to carry all my extra pairs of panties?) Our goal is to hit Charazani’s winter fiesta (it’s winter there! In July!), but I guess maybe their town has limited Internet because there’s no website or anything, so we don’t know what the exact dates of the festival are. We’ll spend a day or two in Charazani either way, and when we feel nicely acclimated to the 9,600 foot altitude, we’ll hike from Charazani to Pelechuco, which should take four to five days. And it will probably kick our asses.  Apparently, there’s going to be a lot of walking up and down hills. While carrying forty-some-odd-pound backpacks with all of our food, water, and other supplies. And also ziplock bags full of our poopy toilet paper. Because we don’t want to litter.

It’s going to be a Very Big Adventure.

mummybag

Omg, do I really have to sleep in this?