Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fragility of the Amazon

"For his dissertation he and a partner had registered all of the higher plants found in a hectare of jungle. The number was enormous. But what was most interesting to me was that for many of the plants there was only one example in that hectare. That, to me, explained the frailty of the Amazon more than anything else could. If, for instance, we had to walk nearly an hour to reach a Banisteriopsis caapi - ayahuasca - vine, then it was probably the only example of that vine for a couple of miles in any direction. Imagine if instead of an ayahuasca vine, that was a particular type of fruit-bearing tree whose fruit was the food of a particular species of monkey. If someone cut that tree down, that monkey would have no reason to enter those several square miles any longer, and would change its feeding route. In turn, the insects that fed on the waste produced by that monkey would no longer be found there, nor would the animals that depended on those insects for food. And if that particular tree only occurred any three miles for some reason, and if each were cut down over a 20-mile area, there would probably be no seeds dropped by those monkeys to ever propagate that tree in that area again. So the ants that fed off its bark, the monkey that its fruit, the insects that ate the droppings, the animal that ate the insects, and so forth, would all be seriously affected." (Peter Gorman, Ayahuasca in My Blood, 160-161)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It’s Not Easy Being Green (or Becoming a Frog)

When I first heard about el sapo I thought, “What kind of crazy person would try that?” Now I know, me. Sapo is a medicine used by the Matses tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. It supposedly sharpens the senses and increase stamina making the Matses people who use it better hunters. Sapo is the sweat of the giant monkey tree frog, which the Matses people collect by catching a frog, tying its legs to four posts, making it nervous, and then scraping off its sweat before releasing the unharmed, but no doubt petrified, animal (unfortunately, I did not get to see this part as my guide had a pre-collected sample available on a stick).* I wanted to try sapo because I thought that it would help me “see” the animals in the jungle better.

The morning of my introduction to sapo, I was terrified. I had been forewarned by my guide that sapo was “Fuerte, muy fuerte. Pero pasa después de 30-40 minutos,” (“strong, very strong. But it passes after 30, 40 minutes”). What was I doing here? Here I was, a vegetarian from Virginia, being inducted into an age-old medicine used by Amazonian hunters for centuries. What was I expected to do, become the frog? I sat anxiously in the kitchen watching my guide eat breakfast (I wasn’t allowed to eat anything as sapo would mostly likely force me to throw it up) and whittle a stick with a machete. I grew more nervous watching his father walk around me with a smoldering log, while my guide “prepared” the sapo (he spat on the stick and then vigorously rubbed the resin and substance into a paste). He then stuck a small stick into the faggot, setting it on fire before burning me with it three times. After scraping away the skin, he applied the paste. My skin already stung from the burns, but the moment the “medicine” touched my body, my heart started to race. I felt it beating hard in my chest as a current raced through my body. All of a sudden, I found myself lying on the floor without knowing how I got there. I felt my hosts place a cold towel on my forehead and lemon halves on my temples. I sat up and proceeded to throw up, twice. My entire body convulsed and I repeated, “Oh god, oh god.” My guide poured a pitcher of water over my head and had me lie down. Twenty minutes later, I felt well enough to stand and eat.

Later in the day, during our jungle walk, we spotted hoatzin, horned screamers, monkeys, a three-toed sloth, and alligator, tapir, capybara, and jaguar tracks. My guide’s father told me that I saw many animals because sapo brings luck. I don’t know about that, but I know that I sweated loads more than my companions. I also felt more alert to the sights and sounds of the jungle than I did previously. I felt the presence of the monkeys way before my guide spotted them. I didn’t try hunting, but I successfully stabbed a fish with a spear. We cut the fish up into small pieces with a machete and then used it as bait to catch piranhas. How’s that for the power of the sapo? Excuse me, I have to go, I feel a croak coming on.

*In his book Ayahuasca in My Blood, Peter Gorman says, “In large doses, the intense sweating it causes could make a Matses hunter ‘invisible’ to poor-sighted but acute-smelling jungle animals by temporarily eliminating the human odor. In studies by the University of Rome, sapo would found to have bio-active proteins, meaning that the body believes it has produced them and reacts accordingly.

El sapo

Nervous but excited

I'm smiling because I thought the burning was going to be the worst part

My guide applying the paste

In pain

It got pretty intense

I Dream of India

As a lifelong traveler (I've been traveling since I was in the womb), I've come to associate different places with smells, noises, feelings. India is one of the places with the strongest associations for me. When my grandmother returns from India and opens her suitcases, I inhale deeply and think, "It smells like India." I can't describe the smell, some sort of sweet perfume particular to India. Other smells often remind me of India, including dust, urine, and jasmine.

I was thinking about this recently when in Taropoto and Yurimaguas, entrances to the Peruvian jungle. Everything reminded me of India. Every morning I awoke to motorcycle traffic, noise, and intense heat. It even smelled like India. And I was filled with a desire to visit India, despite the fact that I recently visited it in July. I crave India.

Do you associate smells or other sensations with countries?

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling Up the River

As I lay on a hammock on a boat floating up Río Mañon, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this normal?” On the one hand, this is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life. On the other, it’s a crazy premise: “Let’s go on a three-day boat ride in a shitty boat and try to have a good time.” You might think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. This was no luxury ship, folks. The lancha, or ship, had two decks, both of which were chock-full of hammocks. Swinging side-to-side in my hammock, I would bump into my neighbor. There were too few bathrooms for the approximately 200 passengers and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that they made my latrine in Paraguay look nice. I was particularly worried as my stomach hadn’t been doing so well (probably a combination of eating at markets and 5-sole-menu places where I drank the juices).

The upper deck was unenclosed but thankfully had a roof to protect us from the intense sun, allowing breeze from the river to fan us. Of course, there’s not much breeze when your boat only moves at 10 MPH. From our hammocks, we could watch the jungle banks passing by. A few times, we heard squawking and spotted a flock of parrots flying up from the tree tops.

The second day passed much as the first, full of reading and amacar-ing (“to hammock oneself,” yes, Spanish has a verb for that). The grand adventure of the day occurred when the boat stopped at the town of Santa Rita. The Argentine hippies, having devoted the whole day to weaving bracelets and smoking weed, decided to divert themselves by practicing juggling. Unfortunatley, one ball rolled off the upper deck of the boat and into the water. The Argentine luckily was sober enough to ignore his friend’s cries of “!Tirate!” (“Throw yourself in!”). Seeing this, one boy from Santa Rita ran down to the water and jumped into a boat. He didn’t even have an oar; he had to paddle with his feet. As the whole town looked on from the shore, a second boat, this one with a motor, joined the search-and-rescue mission. To the delight of the crowd of passengers on the boat and on-lookers onshore, the second boat returned triumphantly with the pink ball captured. The Argentine thanked the boat driver with a bracelet and then proceeded to drop the ball…Don’t worry, he caught it this time.

In the evening, the colors of the setting sun were intensified by the immense gray clouds. The wind picked up, threatening to throw our things overboard, and it started to pour. We ran for shelter, forgetting that we were on a boat. The only protection it could offer us was a plastic curtain and a leaky roof. I lay in my hammock journaling, as water dripped on me. The storm quickly picked up strength and speed and transformed from a welcome source of cooling air into a freezing, terrorizing rain. Large drops of water rolled down from the ceiling, soaking me. I hid inside my hammock, but it did little to protect me. A fellow Peruvian passenger had a br4illiant solution to stop the leaks: he placed life jackets over the holes in the roof to absorb the rain. I passed the night alternatively sweating from the heat and humidity and shivering from the waves of cold washing over me.

Around 4 Am the third day, we passed by Nauta, a town which marks the beginning of the Río Amazonas. Other than that, the third day was marked by a desperate urge to off the boat. I was not the only one who felt that way. As we neared shore, a bull broke through the wooden fence that contained it and swam toward freedom. I was tempted to do the same. It had been three days since I’d last showered and my supply of bottled water was nearly out. The brown sewage that surrounded the boat (aka the Amazon River) wasn’t an appealing option to bathe in. The phrase “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” came to my mind.

We finally arrived at Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by land. It is only accessible by boat and plane. When we arrived, I spotted “cruise” ships (the South American version in any case) anchored at the port with air conditioning and individual cabins. “Psshaah,”I thought to myself. “They missed a true Amazonian river adventure!”

A lancha similar to the one I rode on:

The bottom deck, a storage deck for beverages, bananas, and bulls:

Relaxing in my hammock:

The lower deck was much more crowded:

Vendors entered the boat at every port:

Boats on the river:

The pink ball rescued!

A crowd of onlookers watches:

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Oasis

I just did the sixth stupid thing on my list of adventures that can potentially kill me (driving a motorcycle, climbing a 6,000 meter mountain, biking down Death Road, rafting in level 4 rapids, and surfing). But before we get to that, let you me tell you about Huacachina. Huacachina is known as “the oasis” because although the town is in the middle of the desert, in its center is a gorgeous lagoon. Enormous sand dunes surround the town, lending an imposing presence to Huacachina and making one feel like she is in the Sahara Desert.

Nearby is the town of Paracas, famous for the Islas Ballestas. After waking up early at 6 AM, I was driven to Paracas and then placed on a motor boat. What is impressive about the small islands is how many thousands of birds they are home to. The stony islands are covered with all sorts of marine life, including pelicans, Humboldt penguins, and seals. Pelicans are truly extraordinary birds to observe. They are giant (2-3 feet tall) with huge beaks that can swallow fish whole. When they fly, they hover a foot above the water for minutes before soaring high into the air. It appears as if they are racing boats when they do that.

In the evening, I went sandboarding. To reach the peaks of the dunes, you have to take a dune buggy. The setting is surreal, as if Dali painted it. One believes that the sinuous curves carved by an imaginative god. Of course, it is also reminiscent of everyone’s favorite childhood Disney movie Aladdin.

Riding on a dune buggy is like being on a rollercoaster with no railings. The vehicle can move in every direction, up, down, sideways, over hills, and down into valleys of sand. We screamed with terror as our buggy whipped around jagged peaks or rolled down large dunes. Finally we reached a point where we could practice sandboarding. I ski, but sandboarding is completely different. Looking down at steep drop-offs while other novice sandboarders plummet into the sand, can be a little intimidating. As the guide grabbed my board to get me started I shrieked, “Not now!” “When?” he asked. “Más tarde” (“Later”), I responded. Actually, going down wasn’t that bad. The hard part was learning how to balance on the board. Unlike snow, sand is a) not as slippery and b) a lot heavier when it piles up on your board, making forward movement impossible.

When we reached the “black diamonds” of sandboarding, most of us went down on our stomachs. It was hilarious listening to the initial screams ensuing from both the males and females and the pause five seconds later as they realized that they were not in fact going to die. Our attempts to board down these dunes resulted in spills, wipe outs, and cries by our friends of “Ohhh!!! Did you see that? That must have hurt!”

The scariest part of the day was actually the return trip to Huacachina. By then, the sun had set and we couldn’t see anything. Our nocturnal adventure was intensified by all the bumps that the driver had managed to avoid during the day. We felt every one I don’t think our driver had heard the term “whiplash”). At the same time, the buggy tested its horsepower against the height of the dunes and unfortunately, it didn’t always win. Rolling backwards down hills you can’t see is a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least. While the others encouraged the buggy onward (“Go, go, go!”), I muttered my own form of encouragement (“Please go forward, please go forward”). We eventually made it out of the pitch black desert and back to Huacachina, in spite of our driver trying to scale the asphalt roads at the bottom as if they were sand dunes. What a day! It’s good to know that I don’t have to exercise to get my heart rate up!

Surf´s Up!

I just did another thing to add to my list of stupid things, I surfed. You would think that growing up on an island, I´d already have surfing down pat. The truth is that I never had the chance to try it.

This morning, I arrived in Trujillo, a town along the northern coastline of Peru that is famous for its waves. After donning our wetsuits, our guide had me and an Australian guy practice on the sand. We had two positions and then "Up!" at which point we had to jump up and assume surfing position. It was a bit like doing push ups, the up-down-up-down motion.

Surfing is hard work. First you have to paddle yourself and our board far from shore and out into the water, all the while swimming against the force of the incoming current. Jumping onto the board also takes a good deal of arm strength and leaves you sore (and me with a bruise) from where you repeatedly hit your chest with the board.

The first hour-and-a-half was rough. I got whacked by my board, swallowed nearly a gallon of salt water, and neardly had someone land on me with their board. To combat my exhaustion, my instructor cheerfully encouraged me, "¡Sí, se puede!" ("Yes, you can!"). It took several tries to get me off my knees and onto my feet, but even then I wouldn't let go of the board with my hands. When I finally stood up and started surfing, it was exhilerating. It felt like flying. I can't wait to give it another go tomorrow!


Nazca = super disappointing
UNESCO, please stop declaring every place a World Heritage Site. Pretty soon it´s going to be like receiving "two thumbs up" from Ebert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Story of Macchu Picchu

The ninth and most famous Incan king (Inca actually means “king”) was named Pachacuti (1438-71). Legend has it that he met a girl in the Urubamba Valley and spent one amorous sunset with her. The girl’s mother was a seer and predicted that Pachacuti would rule the Incans. Her daughter was worried that Pachacuti would never return as although kings could have many concubines, they could only have one wife and that wife would be queen. “Besides,” she told him, “your people and mine might be enemies one day.” Pachacuti assured her that would never happen and promised to build her a palace in the place where they spent the sunset.

Sure enough, Pachucuti became king as the seer has foretold. He sent his soldiers out in the four cardinal directions to conquer different regions and expand the Incan empire. As custom demanded, he married a girl from the upper class (Incans usually married a half-sibling to maintain the blood line). In the meantime, he returned to the Urubamba Valley and secretly married his lover.

At the time, fighting between the Incas and the Kollas in Bolivias was splitting the empire in two. Pachucuti had to return to Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire, leaving behind his lover. Unbeknownst to him, she was pregnant at the time. She had the child and named him Ollantay. His grandmother predicted that he would either take over the kingdom or die. His mother sent him to Pachucuti, asking that he serve as a soldier in the king’s army. She never told the king that the young man was his son.

Ollantay became good friends with one Tupac Yanqui, one of Pachucuti’s sons and his half-brother. At the time, there was a campaign of 100 battles. Because of his faithful service to the king, Pachucuti named him general. When a rebellion took place in the town of Tumpas, the king therefore sent Ollantay to quell it. He succeeded and the town was renamed Ollantaytambo (now one of the three famous towns to visit in the Sacred Valley).

Meanwhile, Ollantay had falled in love with K (don’t remember her name). K was Pachucuti’s favorite daughter and her father didn’t want her to marry anyone. When he found out that Ollantay was in love with her, he asked Tupac Yanqui to send the upstart on the Incan expedition to Micronesia and Polynesia. As Tupac was good friends with him, he didn’t but told his father that he had. Ollantay used the opportunity to seek out the daughter, secretly marry her, and have a child with her.

Pachucuti had by then started construction of Macchu Picchu, supposedly as a palace for his love. He promised a reward to anyone who could bring water to the site. No one could. Ollantay was incredibly intelligent. Looking to the surroundings he saw the grandiose glacier Apu Salkantay. He decided to construct a canal from the glacier to Macchu Picchu. As a reward, he asked for K’s hand in marriage. Pachucuti refused. Ollantay decided to attack the king and wrest power from him in order to marry his daughter. He did not have the chance to carry out his plan, as his grandmother told him of the prophecy made long ago. She said that he had two options, he could kill his father or he could immolate himself – sacrifice himself on Salkantay so that his spirit would embody the mountain forever. Ollantay decided to do the latter.

Meanwhile, someone went running to Pachucuti and informed him of his son’s plan. Pachucuti was very sad. Yet, he decided that he could not give up his kingdom. He allowed Ollantay to proceed with his plan of sacrificing himself. For the next several decades, he told his children and grandchildren to look towards Salkantay and worship it because the glacier contained the spirit of Ollantay and the water running toward Macchu Picchu was Ollantay’s blood. Pachucuti lived to be 120 years old and died alone.

Macchu Picchu, At Last!

Last week I set off on the five day Salkantay trek from Cusco to Macchu Picchu. Our group consisted of two Canadians, three South Africans, three Spanish, three French, one Argentine, and two Americans. Our guide was a crazy Peruvian named Eduardo. He rambled on about how he used to smoke marijuana but stopped three years ago. “Cactus juice is much stronger,” he said with a wink.

The nine hours we walked from Mollepata (2,900 meters, 9,500+ feet above sea level) took us past the Salkantay glacier, snow-capped mountains, and the Río Apurimac. The most beautiful view, however, was that of the Umantay glacier. That night we set up camp in the Soraypampa village (3,850 meters, 12,600+ feet).

The second day we walked another nine hours from Soraypampa to Challway. We hiked through a place called Pampas Salkantay and climbed up to 4,600 meters (15,100 feet)! That same day, we hiked down to 2,920 meters (9,600 feet). The walk up Umantay was strenuous, to say the least. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air became. I struggled to breathe. We finally reached the second-highest point in the Cusco region and were greeted by snow. I danced around excitedly like a five year-old child, eagerly trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue. I hadn’t seen snow in more than two years! After a while though, the snow wasn’t as fun. It turned to hail and soaked us to the bone. We ran down the slippery mountain slope, desperate to reach the bottom and escape the pouring rain. As I battled a combination of weak knees and mud, I slipped and hit my left-side against a rock. No harm done though, well, not too much. As I limped along, my guide helped me with my backpack and walked slowly beside me, recounting the story of Macchu Picchu. I finally made it to Challway where we camped for the night.

The third day consisted of a six-hour hike to Playa Sahuayaco, during which we passed by the town of Collpabamba. Collpabamba is in the middle of a cloud forest and is surrounded by waterfalls, thermal hot springs, and exotic flora and birds. While the jungle setting bored the others in the group, I enthusiastically ran around snapping pictures of flowers and plants. “Ooh, fern!” I guess all that time in Paraguay has turned me into a keen observer of nature and a lover of everything jungle. That night we made camp near the hot springs of Santa Teresa.

Speed-walking four hours from Santa Teresa to Llactapata to Hidroelectrica sucked. We paid little attention to the coffee plantations, beautiful landscapes, and diverse flora and fauna along the route, as the heat and dust from the road we walked on made us miserable. We completed 8.5 km in less than two hours before embarking on an additional 11 km along the railway tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. In my fatigued haze I wished we could just take the train instead of walking. Nonetheless, the flora and fauna were gorgeous, especially the recently planted plantains (we all know me and my obsession with bananas!).

The morning sky on the last day did not bode well. We left our hostel at 4 AM, dressed in ponchos to protect us from the rain, and walked to Macchu Picchu. We could feel the impact of every kilometer during the past four days as we dragged our sore bodies up the 2,700 steps to Macchu Picchu. The view was incredible! I cannot put into words the feeling of first gazing upon Macchu Picchu. It was worth every moment of the four days of pain and struggle. The sheer scale of it, the Incans’ technology, the surrounding mountain peaks, the cloudy mists that envelop it, all make it appear like an image from a dream.

After a tour of the ruins, we decided to climb up Huayna Picchu (when you look at a picture of Macchu Picchu, it is the taller of the two mountains). It was a steep walk with indentations where steps should be. While I cursed the Incans for construction all their cities on mountains and those “lazy bastards who took the train to Macchu Picchu,” the Spaniards led the group in a cheer of “¡Vamos a tomar un Pilsen! Grupo Pilsen!” (“We’re going to drink a Pilsen [beer]. Team Pilsen!”). Finding little motivating about a beer, I eagerly added, “¡Y una pizza!” (“And a pizza”). From the top of Huayna Picchu, you get a bird’s-eye view of the ruins.

Even though I could hardly move my feet, I continued to explore the ruins. Each wall, each building was more impressive than the last. I ended my tour at the guard’s house, the spot from where you get the postcard view of Macchu Picchu. I thought the ruins were incredible enough when I entered the place, but at that moment I thought I would never see anything more incredible in my life. The mountains and the ruins is enough to make you misty.

Our five day trek took us through excruciating altitudes, snow, hail, rain, scorching sun, snow-capped mountains, and jungle. We walked close to 80 km in four days. It was all worth it though, to finally see Macchu Picchu at the end.

For more pictures of the Salkantay Trek and Macchu Picchu, click the links

Monday, October 18, 2010

Climbing Huayna Potosi

I thought that biking the Death Road was the most dangerous and stupidest thing I’d ever done until I attempted to climb Huayna Potosi (HP). HP is one of the mountains in the Cordillera Real mountain-range that surrounds La Paz. Its height is 6,088 meters (for all you metrically challenged people that is 19974 feet!).

When I heard about the Cordillera Real I thought, “I like mountains. Maybe I should try climbing one.” HP is, after all, the most accessible 6,000 meter peak in the world. Then again, that’s not saying much. That’s the height of the Mt. Everest basecamp! One of the guys in my group exclaimed with disbelief, “You’ve never trekked before and you decided to climb a 6,000 meter mountain!” Yup!

I spent several days in La Paz acclimatizing to the altitude (3,700 meters). I figured that after those days added onto the four weeks I’ve spent traveling through various high-altitude cities in Bolivia (Salares – 5,000 meters, Potosi – 4,060 meters), I’d be fine. In Potosi, I struggled to reach the third floor of my hostel. I would arrive winded and panting. Whereas in La Paz, I’ve been able to run up and down staircases without a problem.

We set out on Monday and reached the basecamp around noon. After lunch, we hiked 40 minutes and then suited up. We had to put on snow boots, crampons, helmets, and harnesses, and carry an ice pick in one hand. We weren’t just mountain climbing, we were climbing a glacier! That day our guides taught us how to climb ice. The trick is to hammer your axe into the ice and trust that your crampons will hold your weight.

The next morning, we hiked 2.5 hours with the weight of our mountaineering equipment on our backs. Even though we were only ascending from 4,700 meters to 5,100 meters, we could feel the change in altitude. Only 20 minutes into our trek, I was having trouble breathing. I couldn’t catch my breath because of the lack of oxygen molecules in the air. We all took a long siesta once we reached the high camp.
Despite the fact that we woke up at 4 PM, we were back in bed by 7 to prepare ourselves for the next day’s climb before dawn. I didn’t sleep a wink I was so nervous. We woke up at midnight, suited up, and left at 1 AM. My four person group was broken into two pairs of two climbers each with a guide. We used our headlamps to navigate across rocks until we reached ice. Then we began our slow ascent.
Imagine climbing up an incredibly steep climb. Feel the pain as you place one foot above the other. Now imagine that you are walking on ice. Mountain climbing is like that, slow and painful. It’s similar to running a marathon. You know that those 4-5 hours of pain are only temporary, they’ll be over soon, but in that moment, the only thing you can think about is the pain.

The worst part, even more than the leg pain, was the altitude sickness. Altitude is a funny thing. It can give you headaches, nausea, and even kill you. I’m prone to headaches at high altitudes. Fortunately, the altitude sickness pill I took n the morning warded off head pains. Unfortunately, my stomach felt like it was going to explode. I had to pop a squat at 5,500 meters!

In spite of the pain, we walked onwards. We climbed from 1 AM to 4:30 AM, by which time we reached 5,700 meters. By then, the nausea, dizziness, and lack of energy overwhelmed me. We had to turn back. Out of our group of four, only one person summited.

No harm done. Sure, my body feels like a wreck and my stomach still wants to explode, but I made it to 5,700 meters! For a first timer, that’s great! I also managed to catch some amazing views of the sunrise on the way down the mountain. Besides, I have glory, and that lasts forever.

It wouldn't be Bolivia without the llamas!

Mountaineers who died trying to climb Huayna Potosi

Beautiful sunrise

In the clouds

Royal Rumble: Spiderman, Clowns, Women Wrestlers, & More!

I never thought I’d attend a wrestling match ever, let alone in Bolivia of all places. But that’s exactly how I passed a Sunday afternoon in La Paz. I attended “Cholitas Wrestling,” a wrestling event infamous for its cholita fighters. Cholitas are women dressed in traditional Bolivian clothing. We knew it would be ridiculous, but we didn’t realize just how ridiculous.

Like WWF wrestling, the fighting was a farce (well, other than that part when a man split a chair over a woman’s head). The fighters delivered well-timed blows and kicks and reacted with screams and groans of pain. Instead of arbitrating the fights, the referees often aided one player. There were men fighters dressed in typical wrestling costumes, but there were also women fighters. You can imagine the spectacle that posed, a man in a Mexican wrestling mask fight a woman in a long skirt and bowler hat. We, of course, cheered for the women, especially the plump one who repeatedly blew air kisses to our friend. One fighter, who was dressed like Spiderman, acted like a true comic-book hero. My favorite character was the clown who came running out singing and skipping with a group of little children before he beat up another fighter.

I don’t know if I learned anything from witnessing my first wrestling match. It was certainly very random. And at the end of the day I can say that I saw Bolivian señoras beating each other up.

Enjoying jello at the match

A cholita

Getting pinned

A cholita rousing the crowd

Even the baby got into it!

I Survived the Death Road

I just did one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. It was also one of the most amazingly stupid things I’ve ever done. I biked down the Camino del Muerte (Death Road). The Death Road begins in La Cumbre and ends in Coroico, Bolivia, about three hours from La Paz. It runs downhill for 63 kilometers. That is 63 km of unpaved, windy mountainous roads overlooking a sheer drop of 5,000 meters. The Death Road is also known as “The Most Dangerous Road in the World” because of the number of people killed driving down in. In addition to the odd car that goes over the edge every so often, there was the truck that toppled killing 100 people. The Death Road has become a popular location for bike tours offered to adrenaline junkie gringos. Since the bicycle tours began in 1998, 18 people have died from England, Ireland, Holland, etc. In fact, the agency I went with, though reliable, had a picture of an English boy taken 5 minutes before he went tumbling over a cliff. Maybe it was an effort to fit in with other gringos or it was because I like challenges or it was the fact that I’m an idiot, but when I heard about the Death Road bike tours I thought, “Sign me up!”

Now you’ve heard about my adventures biking in Paraguay and you know how my bike and I didn’t exactly get along. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like going at full speed because I’m afraid of losing control. In fact, I’d often hurtle down hills in my Paraguayan village screaming “Sai Ram” and hoping not to die. So why would I willingly subject myself to that feeling for 63 km?

In the end it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. We had several guides riding with us throughout the journey. Don’t get me wrong, I was scared shitless. I even flipped over my bike, although I survived with hardly a scratch thanks to my helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads (safety is cool kids!). I never had that type of safety gear in Paraguay.

So what now? “Pooja, you just survived the Death Road. What are you going to do next?” I’m going to run a triathlon!