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!

Crocodiles, Caimans, and Capybaras (The Pampas Are Burning)

Ho hum, another crocodile. Is there anything else interesting to see? That’s what the Pampas experience in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia is like. As you float down the river in a canoe, you are surrounded by alligators, capybaras, cranes, herons, a wide variety of birds, and the occasional caiman crocodile. If you’re lucky, you might also spot monkeys, piranhas, buceo dolphins, and even an anaconda. At first the experience of spotting a like alligator less than ten feet away from you is terrifying. They look like wooden statues with glass eyes that stare into your soul. After a while though, you get used to it. The Pampas is truly a phenomenal place.

The problem is the environmental and ethical destruction being wrought on the Pampas. Most tour agencies allow you to fish for piranhas, swim with the dolphins, hold monkeys, and catch anacondas. Let’s just say that these practices are not the best for the animals. I chose one of the few companies that do not condone these practices. The problem is that few tourists would do the same either because of the thrill of playing with/hunting animals or the added costs of an ecologically-sound tour package.

The other problem does not derive from the tourists’ presence, but rather the farmers’. Unlike Parque Nacional Madidi, the jungle, most of the Pampas is unprotected, privately-owned land. In the jungle, farmers rely on organic methods, such as the recycling of crop wastes as compost and animal feed, instead of chemicals pesticides to cultivate their crops. Their plantains, corn, sugarcane, etc. grow well because of the climate and fertile soil. In spite of these same natural advantages, the majority of farmers in the Pampas practice scorch-and-burn agriculture. That means that the Pampas is burning. Every year farmers set fire to the grass they use to aliment their cows, in hopes that they can destroy weeds and encourage better plant growth, despite the fact that burning grass destroys soil fertility over time. This year, the fires have gone out of control. Not only grass, but animals are burning.

It’s hard for the government to exert control since the Pampas are privately-owned. The private ownership of the Pampas derives from the colonial era. Most of the owners have latifundios, defined by Wikipedia as ‘an agrarian exploitation of large dimensions, characterized by an inefficient use of available resources.’ Even though the law only allows for maximum ownership by an individual of 20,000 hectares, some of these farmers own up to 30,000 hectares; this in an area where the majority of farmers only own up to 5 or 6 hectares.

I think it’s time for the government to step in. The ecological balance of the Pampas is at risk. It would be a shame for the government to let political concerns lead to the destruction of such a wonderful and unique environmental gem like they have in the Paraguayan Bosque Atlántico de Alto Parana and the Brazilian Amazon.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Solution to Underage Drinking?

It was a Saturday night in Bolivia and some local friends took me dancing. We were wandering around the streets looking for a place to go when I witnessed a truck full of army soldiers roll up to the club, out of which poured more than a dozen soldiers. Several marched directly into the club, while the rest blockaded the entrance. 20 minutes later, soldiers left the establishment escorting a number of teenage males. “What’s going on?” I asked my friends. They replied that those teenagers were minors and the army was taking them to jail for the night. That seemed ironic given that the soldiers themselves only looked to be around 18-19-years old. “The army? Isn’t that a bit extreme?” They explained that military service in Bolivia is obligatory from the age of 18 onwards. 16- and 17-year olds are mandated to join the pre-military, but many don’t because of the high cost of enlisting. “What will happen to them?” “They’ll stay in prison for the night and in the morning their parents will be notified.” Wow. If I was a 16-year old boy and a dozen soldiers yanked me out of a club, I’d be scared shitless. I’d never drink again until I was of age. Extreme or appropriate solution?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Amazonian Dream

The night I slept in the jungle I had an interesting dream. Not so much a dream, it was more of a nightmare for me. My travel buddy and I were driving around Paraguay. Well, in my dream we were in Paraguay, but it looked like my neighborhood in the U.S. I was angry with him because he scratched the front of my Toyota Avalon. “Look, my insurance is going to go up and my parents are going to be mad at me,” I told him. He told me not to worry, as he knew what he was doing. That part of the dream must have been related to our motorcycle incident.
We entered my house and I had to put in the alarm code. I was getting ready to move and I was going to leave all the stuff in my house behind. Looking around my friend said, “It’s a beautiful house. Why would you leave all this behind?” “I’m not coming back to Paraguay. I’m leaving,” I repeated frantically.
Finally, I remember having applied to five graduate schools and being rejected by three. I was worried that if I wasn’t accepted, I would have no future. Only I would have a nightmare about graduate schools while I was in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, surrounded by wild animals.

Welcome to the Jungle (My Amazonian Adventure)

I spent my birthday this year in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. After days of harrowing bus rides (Normal People Fly), my friend and I finally arrived in Rurrenabaque. The next day we set out on a jungle tour with Mashaquipe, an eco-friendly, community-based tour agency. Its staff and guides are from the jungle itself.

Our first stop was a farm which cultivated caña dulce (sugarcane). I’ve seen plenty of sugarcane grown in Paraguay, but I’ve never seen it processed before. This family processed the plant from scratch, using trapiches (horse-drawn yokes connected to presses) to extract the juice from the sugarcane and giant iron pots set over a wood fire to turn the juice into honey and sugar. The families in Rurrenabaque that don’t work with tourists live off of agricultural activities, especially the growing of sugarcane, plantains, and corn. They are fortunate to have a weekly farmers’ market in Rurre where they can sell their products. Even in the middle of the jungle, there is agriculture!

We continued our journey in a motorized canoe to Mashaquipe’s lodge in the middle of the jungle. Although the accommodations were basic, I was thrilled by the running water and electricity. Our guide took us on a walk through the jungle. Along the way he explained the names and purposes of different trees and plants. We had to follow him closely as the path was blocked by underbrush, which he had to clear with a machete. Besides, we wanted to be as quiet as possible to avoid scaring the animals. Even though the dense vegetation made it difficult to see, we were lucky to spot a cluster of squirrel monkeys swinging and jumping from trees.

The next day, we set off on an 8 kilometer trek through the jungle. This area was much less dense than the one from the previous day and the trees were shorter, as they weren’t competing for sunlight. In the middle of our walk, the sky opened up and it started to pour. Everyone had told us that we were in the middle of the drought. I guess they don’t call it the rainforest for nothing! Our guide sprinted through the forest and we tried our best to follow, trying not to trip while scrambling over tree branches and up hills. The sound of the pouring rain drowned the noise of our approach, allowing us to spot a capuchin monkey. We finally reached our campsite, absolutely drenched (well I didn’t get too wet thanks to the pack cover and pancho my parents bought me), and lay out our stuff to dry.

After drying ourselves, we re-wet ourselves in the Río Tuichi where we went for a long swim. Afterward, our guide asked us if we could help him collect firewood. By this point I was feeling so confident that I took his machete and sprinted through the jungle. I was able to use the machete skills I acquired in Paraguay to chop down trees for our cooking fire. When we returned to our campsite, our guide immediately signaled us to be quiet. We crept to the kitchen and silently sat down, while wild pigs went rummaging through the forest around us. After 20 minutes or so, either their curiosity or their courage got the better of them and they began to approach us. We saw, all in all, about 60 wild pigs!

In the night, our guide took us for a walk to see if we could glimpse any nocturnal animals. Mostly we just saw night spiders. We threw bugs into their webs and watched them entangle their prey in thread. It was fascinating to watch them weave their webs. I felt like a third grade squashing bugs and cutting worms in half just to see what would happen. We were incredibly fortunate to catch sight of a tapir. A tapir looks like a giant rat. It’s huge and can weight up to 250 kilos! Ours was with its baby, also a sizable animal. It’s incredibly rare to see a tapir. Last year, only 20 tourists spotted a tapir with the Mashaquipe guides.
The next morning, we set off bright and early, 6 AM, to the viewpoint of the guacamayos (parrots/macaws). The entire area was surrounded by thick clouds. We waited for hours for the mist to clear. When it finally did, we saw hundreds of red, blue, and green macaws flying back and forth. Where we went is the only place in the jungle where they congregate because there they lay their eggs in the wall.

We returned to our campsite via boats, specifically rafts. The Tacana people, the indigenous group that Mashaquipe is part of, traditionally traveled up and down the river and transported all their goods by way of wooden rafts. We did the same, but luckily we didn’t have to worry about wetting our stuff as all we took with us were our swimsuits. Our guide let me take the helm and steer our raft down the river. It became a bit of a free-for-all when my friend tried shaking the boat and then pushed our guide into the water. I hit him with the oar, only to lose my balance and fall in myself!

I only spent three days in the jungle, but they were absolutely amazing.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Normal People Fly

I recently experienced the ride from hell. My friend and I arrived at the bus terminal in Trinidad at 7:15 AM for our 8 AM bus. The bus staff told us that our bus would leave early. Instead, it didn’t start moving until 10 AM. The ride was hot and dirty from all the dirt flying in through the windows. The woman next to us had a parrot and the girl in front of us had two chickens. With all the birds on board, the floor was littered with rice grains.
Around 4:30 in the afternoon, we had to change buses. We waited an hour before we were packed into a minibus with 12 other people! There was hardly any room to stretch and it was hot as hell. Every 15 minutes the bus driver stopped the van and all 14 of us had to get out. Then we had to pile back in again. We were supposed to be in the van for only 3 hours, but we were stuck in it for 5, during which we got three flat tires. Three! By the time we arrived in Rurrenabaque, it was 12 PM. We had left home at 7 AM. Our trip took us 17 hours! We went to the fanciest hostel we could find with hot showers and nice beds. What an adventure! Normal people take planes…

The Bolivian Motorcycle Diaries, Part 2: Pooja to the Rescue

We arrived in Trinidad, Bolivia en route to Rurrenabaque from Santa Cruz. A word to the wise, never go to Trinidad! It’s a, pardon my French, shit hole. Despite this fact, we made the most of our day here, we rented motos.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Pooja, after what happened last time should you really be driving a motorbike?” Well, you know what they say, “Practice makes perfect.”

Jesse and I drove to the ugliest swimming hole I’ve ever seen and then, not having anything better to do, we drove to another village. We had to drive 16 km over gravel and sand roads to reach Sochojere. We expected a tourist town or some sort of attraction to justify the place’s appearance on Trinidad’s attractions map. Instead, it was pure campo. My friend looked around blankly and complained, “I’m bored.” “Awww, it’s just like Paraguay,” I sighed fondly. My friend sat down grumpily under the shade of a tree, while I struck up a conversation with a señora named Francisca. Ten minutes later Jesse was still grumpy, but I had a bag of fresh tamarind, which the señora had told me to eat and then plant in Paraguay.

We set off on our long haul back to town. We finally had reached asphalt when Jesse’s back tire was punctured. “Go get help,” he told me. “You’re sure you don’t want to come?” I asked, nervous about voyaging solo. “You’ll be faster by yourself.”
Off I went, confident because I had a mission: I had to go get help. The adrenaline that coursed through me led me to a great discovery, the throttle. I zoomed down the highway thinking all the while, “Must get help! Must save Jesse!”

I made it to the plaza in one piece and explained the situation to the man in charge of the rentals. By the time I returned to the scene of the accident, his brother was halfway done fixing my friend’s bike. I bet Jesse sure is glad that he taught me how to drive a geared bike!

Me on the rescue scooter!

A hand-washing station, just like the one I had in Paraguay!



Bored in Trinidad