Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Peru - The end of our epic journey

After a little over a year now I have decided to come back to this blog or as I have labeled it, “A labor of love” and finish it once and for all. I came very close to finishing it a year ago. The only part of this unbelievable journey that I have yet to chronicle is Peru. It is possible that I may have saved the best for last in many ways. Peru is a magical place on many levels, as you will soon see. Why it has taken me this long to finish it I have no idea other than I just had it my mind that I would close it out at a time that made sense to me. Now is that time. Part of the reason for that is because I have very recently returned to a beloved part of this trip, Indonesia, and it has brought back so many memories that I now feel that I am equipped to finish the job. Truth is, I have traveled to a couple of other far away obscure places since this trip as well like Costa Rica and Nicaragua but neither of these trips have triggered the heart felt memories of the wonderful experiences I had on this voyage around the world that I took. I had to return to Indonesia for that to happen. It is interesting to witness the many ways the mind works sometimes. A distinct sight, smell, or even sound can trigger a treasure trove of memories all tucked away in the back of the mind somewhere at a moments notice just waiting to be released.

With that I am going to finally finish memorializing my journeys around the world I took for what seems like a millennium ago even though it has not been that long since I came back from this whirlwind adventure.

On to Peru: So after securing a new passport in La Paz and being rudely asked to leave Bolivia or better said, kicked out of the country we hopped on a bus and headed to the other side of Lake Titicaca where we were welcome to continue our journeys. After looking on the map we realized that there was just as much to be seen on the Peruvian side of the lake if not more. Our first destination after yet another grueling 9 to 10 hour bus ride was Puno. It is a small town on the northwestern side of the lake. After settling in and finding a suitable hostel we set out to explore the town and get a feel for it. It was a very poor run down village town that reminded me in many ways of some of the less attractive towns along the US and Mexico border. No worries, it really served only one purpose for us. We would use it as a launching pad to get a chance to take a boat ride on the fabled Holy Lake of Titicaca. After all, it is the very lake that the Inca Gods were said to have formed and come to be in existence. There was no way we were going to miss a chance at cruising around in a boat over Holy Water. As it turned out there was another reason to come to Puno. I can’t remember if we knew this ahead of time or if we found out at the hostel we stayed at but as luck would have it the famous Floating Islands, a place called Uros, just happened to be right off the shores of Puno. This just so happened to be a highly traveled tourist destination that was a must see. Booyah! Pass Go and collect $200. Who needs Bolivia to explore Lake Titicaca when you have Peru to come to the rescue. So we booked a boat trip the next day to go exploring the Lake and the Floating Islands. The boat was your typical lake tour boat complete with guide on the microphone shouting out historical landmarks along the way to the floating islands. It was very fascinating to hear the history of the Inca people as you were perusing the different coves and bays of the lake. It is a very large lake, the largest one in all of South America by volume. The deepest part of the lake is over 900 feet down. Five major rivers feed into Lake Titicaca. I would say that puts it in the behemoth category. Often called the highest navigable lake in the world because it sits over 12, 500 feet high. We were after all still in the Andes.

Uros is a contiguous set of 44 man-made floating islands made out of reeds that grow near the shores of the lake. Yes, if you can believe it these massive floating surfaces were created by many painstaking hours of man-made labor. Their original purpose was as a defense tactic that could be moved should a threat be eminent to their wellbeing. A few of the islands have watchtowers that can be seen as you approach them from the boat. So after disembarking we hopped around from island to island to get a first hand account of what it is like to walk on on. There are actual tribes people that still live on these islands today. Of course the one key difference that you can see right away that did not exist in the old days is electricity (via battery generators) and some other modern day amenities. Of course once you land you are bombarded by a slew of local women wanting to sell you a scarf they knit or perhaps a nice beanie or some rainbow colored Peruvian style thermal socks. It is a way of life for them and a major source of income. I think I bought a beanie in the end to help their cause. The floating islands were truly a wonderful sight to see and to walk amongst the local people and get a taste of what life is like on a floating island.

After getting our fill we headed back to Puno en route to our next destination, Arequipa. Arequipa was not an original destination of ours. We were mainly just killing time because we had planned to climb the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu about 3 months before our arrival and we weren’t scheduled to do that until a couple of weeks down the road which meant we had lots of time to kill. The base of the Inca Trail starts on the outskirts of Cusco that was a good days ride from us. So our choices were to go the long way and see some sites in Arequipa or maybe take a small plane ride to see the famous Nasca lines. Turned out that to see the Nasca lines would take way too much dinero and we were both pretty much running on empty at this stage in our epic journey. So off we went to Arequipa. This turned out to be a smart decision with lots off payoffs in the end. Arequipa like Lima is a modernized town. There are many restaurants, coffee shops and stores that line the streets and it even has a main square with lots and lots of action going on. It is known to the locals as the “White City” and is the second largest city in Peru behind Lima. It also happens to be a protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site due to its vast historical importance on the region.

The city was founded in 1541 under the name “Villa Hermosa de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion” in the name of Don Francisco Pizarro. You see the Spanish Armada came under direct authority of their Queen and in the name of Christianity basically killed and almost completely wiped out all the Inca’s and established a town in the name of Christ. How convenient to kill and annihilate civilizations in the name of your God for completely selfish interests. I’m sure Christ would have done it the exact same way if were leading the charge himself. Genius! Sound familiar? I guess some things will never change. I can only hope so. The Spanish basically tore down most of the magnificent structures that the Inca’s erected and replaced them with Spanish churches and forts. It was so obvious while walking around the city streets which buildings were Spanish. You could see the foundations as clearly being Inca and of a much better quality than the structures that were on top of them. The Inca’s were known for their extreme building prowess. They were way ahead of their time. Their building methods were so precise that the margin of error between the bricks or stones was almost zero. They were likened to have the same abilities as the pyramid builders themselves only on a much smaller scale. We visited a few churches and made the rounds to see a couple of the very few Inca structures that were left in tact. It was educational and very interesting to say the least to see the vast differences in building techniques between the two cultures.

Another notable in Arequipa was the food. We found out very quickly that the food in the south is much different than the food of the north. Because the Inca presence was far greater in the south the food they ate was more prevalent. They were potato eaters mainly because they figured out ways to store them for long periods of time. So I guess you could say that they mastered the art of eating potatoes and it was obvious once you say the menus in the restaurants. It was mostly a potato with this and a potato with that. I must say that I thoroughly indulged myself on the little things. They were prepared with other foods that are indigenous to Peru quite nicely.

We also went to a couple of museums in the main square area because we wanted to learn about the Inca Empire as much as possible because of it’s great historical importance to our world today and because we were scheduled to go on a four day trek along the Holy Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in a couple weeks time. We wanted that trek to be as memorable as possible since it is such a special place that is timeless. The museums did a very good job of preparing us for our upcoming trek. We also got a very interesting look into the Inca mind as well. One unforgettable item was a display of a mummy of a tiny little girl who’s name was Juanita. This ended up being a very special treat for me to see so special that I will now tell you the story of “Juanita” as I came to know it.

The Incas were known to be a people to offer human sacrifices to their gods in return for favor from the Gods and protection from any and all evil. Well as you now already know a lot of good this did as they were wiped out in the end. Go figure. Anyway Juanita is known today as the “Inca Ice Maiden” because she was found at the top of a live volcano fully preserved completely by accident. As the story goes, she was offered to the gods somewhere between 1450 and 1480. She was approximately 11 to 15 years old at the time of her offering. She was discovered by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his climbing partner Miguel Zarate during one of their exploratory expeditions. The discovery of the body caused a stir in the scientific community due to its overwhelmingly mint condition after all those years of being mummified. So much so that Time magazine chose it as one of the top ten discoveries of all time. During an ascent up the volcano in September of 1995 Reinhard and Zarate found a bundle in the crater that had fallen from the burial site above. To their astonishment when they opened it up they found the mummy of a young girl still perfectly preserved. The reason the mummy was so well preserved was that it was perfectly nestled in an icy grave all that time. Volcanic ash from multiple eruptions eventually unearthed the grave and exposed the mummy to the elements. The reason she is so special to the scientific community is because she was naturally mummified unlike the artificial methods that the Egyptians used. Her skin, organs, tissues, hair and even blood were all well preserved. And believe you me when I tell you that was so obvious when looking at her through the glass cube that surrounded her in the museum. I can tell you from personal experience what a site it was to behold since I have had the good fortune of staring Ramses himself right in the eye, well what used to be his eye, inside a glass container as well when I was in Egypt. His mummy was nowhere even close to what I saw when I stared at Juanita. It was as if she was buried just a few months ago. That is how perfectly preserved her body was. I know it is hard to believe but it is true. Such an interesting site to behold. Her position even told how she spent her last moments. She was sitting down with her arms around her legs crouching over as if saying a last prayer before her last breath of air. As the tour guide informed us she did not suffer much. They made sure she died a quick and fairly painless death. A quick blow to the back of the head to stop the brain from functioning and it was over. It has been determined that she was selected from a very noble family. It was considered an honor to die by sacrificial offering to the gods. A life that was unfathomable would await those that were chosen and eventually offered to the gods. Good for her. What a treat it was for me to get a firsthand glimpse into the Inca way of life. I will never forget what that experience felt like.

So after making a few more rounds around town to soak it all in we bought a bus ticket to Cusco and prepared ourselves mentally for the Inca Trail Trek. And oh what a trek it would be. The Inca Trail actually consists of three overlapping trails: Mollepata, Classic and One Day trails. Mollepata is the longest highest and hardest of them all. Only a few people are allowed to use this trail every year due to Peruvian concern of over erosion. Since the Inca Trail is nestled high up in the Andes altitude sickness can occur and sometimes does for inexperienced climbers. The highest point for the Mollepata trail is around 13,800 ft above sea level. No small feat by any means. We chose to do the Classic route which takes about 4 days to finish. Also not a small feat by any means either. There were some areas of this trail that were extremely hard to traverse but luckily for us there were only a few of these areas and the main parts of the trail were of long and of a smaller grade that was more negotiable. The trail starts right on the outskirts of Cusco at the famous Mile 82 marker on the Urubama River. There are several tiny villages and old ceremonial Inca sites along the trail. Some are still in use today and some that have been preserved because of their holy significance to ancient Incan lore. After 7 or 8 hours of trekking each day we would set up camp and sleep in tents along the way. Everyone has the option to carry your own tent and supplies or pay for a porter to carry the items for you. I will give you one guess what everyone opted for. You got it, help me carry my stuff please! It did not come cheap but it was well worth the money. These porters were virtual athletes. Seriously. It was hard enough carrying yourself especially through the hard parts. These guys were the real deal. The most embarrassing part was at the start of each day they would break down camp, pack everything up and in two to three hours time that would catch up to us with a 70 or 80 pound bag on their back and go right passed us as if we were just standing still. So embarrassing. The worse part is we would arrive at the next camp site and they would already have our tents set up and a warm fire waiting for us and all the while asking us what took us so long to get there. Geez! Whatever! After day two I got used to them zipping by me and just started to enjoy the sites at my own pace. One of the games we played early on that quickly died out was lets see how far we can get before the porters pass us. Uh, what a dumb game that was. We had a great time making new friends and taking in the whole trek for what it really was: Another chance to get close to one of the greatest civilizations that have ever walked the face of this earth. It was a moment for me that transcended time. Hard to describe in words what it really felt like being on that trail. Words wouldn’t do it much justice. As if the trail itself wasn’t enough to satisfy the mind, body and soul for such a feat the crowned jewel was an astonishing Machu Picchu at the end of this most famous of treks. I will never forget what it was like to see Machu Picchu at first glimpse. They would get us up just before sunrise so that we could see Machu Picchu just as the sun kissed up against in the early morning dew. If you were fast enough you could do the last leg quickly and get there in time to watch it slowly come into view. I of course would not be this fast. Truth is, I really didn’t want to. I noticed that the people that were hoping to do this were literally running through the last 3 or four miles to get there. To me this was just a waste of precious time. There was so much beauty still to be seen within those last three or so miles. So we took our time at getting there and were all the better for it. One of the most memorable moments was the moment upon arriving at the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is a stone formation that is the final gateway to Machu Picchu. It is an unmistakable site. Upon arrival you are fully aware that something very special is about to come into view. Once you get through the gate your reward for 4 days of hardcore trekking sits in plain view. Immediately you are overcome with a feeling of euphoria. It is such a beautiful place to behold. I felt at that moment a kinship with the Inca people that can only be experienced by performing such a feat. After all these little guys used to travel these trails on a weekly basis just to get to Machu Picchu to worship their gods. The interesting part is that the reason that built this magical place so high up is because they believed that their gods actually lived in these mountains. It was without a doubt a surreal experience. Interestingly enough this would be one of the top experiences if not the top experience of the entire journey I took around the world. I knew it would be special that is why I saved it for the last part of the journey: so that I could go home with something very special to hang on to for a while.

Upon reaching Machu Picchu we took a bunch of pictures to make sure we commemorated the journey. Afterwards we all took a small bus to the nearest village and had some long over due beers and cheers and shared some laughs and good stories with eachother. The streets were lined with markets with locals selling all sorts of trinkets and textiles. I ended up buying a couple stone carvings to take home with me as a reminder of where I was and how lucky I was to have been able to take this magnificent trek in the heart of the Andes mountains.

After getting back to Cusco we stayed a couple of nights just so we could get acquainted with one of the busiest cities in Peru. Cusco is an uber cool kind of place. So many cool ass coffee shops and restaurants line the streets on every corner. We ate all kinds of Peruvian delights during the two days we spent galavanting around the town and just hanging out with the new friends we made while hiking the Inca Trail.

It soon became obvious to both of us that this was soon to be the end of our epic journey. It sort of hits you like a ton of bricks. Oh no, we have to go back home soon. It is a awful feeling that I have never felt before. I think the best way to describe it is that it is like you were in jail before you actually started your journeys and then someone came by and told you that in a few weeks you would have to go back to jail. NO! I won’t go! I am not finished seeing this beautiful world yet. More, more, more!!!! So after a couple of days of being in denial it finally sinks in that you will soon be going back to what we call a normal life these days. The irony of it is that after traveling for almost 12 months straight and being your own boss and being able to do whatever your heart desires every single day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed every night you become accustomed to it and it becomes the new normal for you. Crazy, I know but that’s how it feels when you travel for that amount of time. The rules change for you and then the gods tell you that the rules are going to change back to what they were before you started your journey. Now go and deal with it. But before we would have to get back to reality we would have one more opportunity to live life by our own rules. We still had a couple of weeks to kill before our final flight was to part for Los Angeles from Lima. So I decided to do some digging around for things to do in and around Lima. As luck would have it, I found yet another surf camp that was nestled just an hours drive south of the capital city. My heart starts to go pitter-patter in hopes that this is a good place to go and that they had room for us. Turns out it was a solid win on both counts. Yippee! I get to do some more surf training. So after going over it a few times in our head and weighing the options which weren’t really much at all since it really just consisted of walking aimlessly around Lima for a couple of weeks. Nah, no thanks, I’d rather surf. So off we went to the surf camp for some more fun learning how to catch breaks. It was November so the water was a little chilly which meant we had to wear wet suits but you get used to it after a while and sorta kinda forget you are even wearing one. We spent the next two weeks going out and getting some much needed training. The camp was rather empty. There was only one or two other people there at the camp with us. My guess was that it was because it was slightly too cold for most people’s preference. It could have also been that we were on a very sketchy side of town. The beachside village centered looked semi-abandoned and literally had no coffee shops or restaurants to speak of. No matter to me, that’s not what I was there for. Antonio was our surf guide. He was a retired restaurant owner/ surfer who traded in his restaurant for a sweet surf shack right near the water. Perfect! One of the highlights was his wife was a retired 5 star chef. They were extremely hospitable and she would make us the most amazing food at the beginning and end of each day. As I mentioned earlier, the food in the northern parts of Peru is very different from the food in the south. In the north there is more of a raw fish type of culture and in the south there is more of a spicy cooked fish type of culture with potatoes as the main side dish in the south. Not so much in the north. In the north the most prevalent food dish is “Ceviche”. Ceviche is basically the Peruvian version of sushi. It is chopped up raw fish with with corn kernels, onions and shredded carrots and other stuff all drowned in lemon juice. Soooooo good!!!!! OMG!!!! It only works if you have fresh fish that was killed that day. It cannot be duplicated with anything else. Lucky for us we had access to all the fresh fish we could ever want being right at the water’s edge and right next to a fisherman’s wharf. Antonio’s wife would just wait for the fishing boats to come in every day and walk down to the pier which was only a couple of blocks down the path and just buy the catch of the day right straight from the Pacific only hours old still swimming around in boat. So cool! It was as if the Inca Gods were following us and guiding us through their great land telling us to eat and be merry. I guess that prayer at the Sun Temple along the Inca Trail paid off after all. Needless to say, we practiced surfing until we could go no more and feasted on Ceviche till our stomachs popped.

As if that were not enough Antonio decided to give us a day off because we were advancing so well through his lessons and take us to a Pro Surf tournament that just happened to be going on in the area as it was high season for surfing in Peru. So he piled us all in his truck and took us to a full on Bilabong surf competition just an hour or so up the road. Once again I got to see a pro surfing competition. One in Jefferies Bay, South Africa and now here in Lima, Peru without any plan to see any of them whatsoever. What are the odds? Hmm?

After a day’s worth of watching guys show us how it is really done we headed back to the surf camp. We only had a couple more days left to surf before the dreaded flight back home so we made sure to make the most of it. Antonio being fully informed of our epic journey was kind enough to take us to some beach breaks that he normally reserves for the premium surf packages because he is just that nice of a guy. Thanks Antonio. He took us to some remote beaches where only the locals really go to and we had a blast learning how to surf.

Alas, the moment we were fearing and dreading all along was suddenly upon us. On the last day Antonio’s wife made us a special breakfast to send us on our way home. She truly was a gift to us the whole time we spent there. She made sure we knew what it was like to be Peruvian and live their lifestyle. Priceless moments.

After said our goodbyes and headed for the last plane ride of the trip. It was a very sad and extremely emotional moment as you might imagine. Tears were streaming down my eyes all the way to LAX. No words needed to be said to each other. Rather just a few hours to take it all in and try and comprehend what we had just accomplished and been through. I realized after getting home that it would take much longer than a plane ride to fully comprehend what I just experienced. In fact, I am still learning even today just what that journey did for me. I am quite certain now that I will never stop learning from it. Every day, month, year that passes since I went on this epic journey gives me a perspective on life that I could never have achieved without such a special once in a lifetime chance to do something like this. I know just how very fortunate I am to have been able to take such a trip around the world and not a day goes by that I don’t think about something that I experienced on that magical trip that changed me as a person that I will ever take for granted.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bolivia - uh, not so fun stuff

Chili was a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, Bolivia would prove to be the exact opposite. We had debated whether we should go to Bolivia at all for days and in the end I convinced Katie that it would be a good idea to see it. Turns out I was sort of wrong as I had a slight stroke of bad luck. As they say, if you travel as long as we had to this point you are bound to run in to some sort of bad luck sooner or later. It's not a matter of if but a matter of when. True statement. Actually, all things being considered we were quite lucky to have nothing at all happen to us up to this point. I mean, we had been traveling already for over 8 months with not one stroke of bad luck other than a very manageable mild health issue in Indonesia and a minor issue in Africa where they tried to extort us for money. Aside from these two small events, it had been pretty much smooth sailing up to this point. I remember sitting in some of the internet cafe's in Africa listening to person after person skype with their friends and family back home telling them horrifying stories of how they got robbed or taken advantage of in some shape or form while crying their eyes out right there in front of everyone. There were multiple of these episodes that I saw all the way through Africa. Funny thing is I was not concerned at all about our wellbeing or safety while we were in Africa. Even in Nairobi which is a very violent and scary place to be wandering around day or night. I had the best time there and was totally relaxed the whole time.

Bolivia was the only place on the entire trip that I felt concerned about our safety. Turns out my spider sense was spot on. I did some preliminary reading on what to expect while in Bolivia, the do's and don't list, and there were many cases where it became clear that this was a place that you should put your safety radar on and keep it on at all times. The reason it is such a risky place to visit is because it is such a poor country which means there are twice as many bad people lurking around street corners waiting for you to make a mistake because they have nothing to lose and everything you own to gain. Add to this the lack of any proper police force and you have a country where there is hardly any risk to being caught or punished for pillaging tourists. Makes for a perfect place for high ridden crime to occur. All that being said, we ran into multiple fellow backpackers who said that Bolivia was the most beautiful and wonderful place they visited on their entire journeys. Of course it was, it has some of the most lush forests, rivers, lakes and valleys on the planet. But the question remained, do you want to risk seeing this place where the odds of you being singled out as a target are higher than most other places on this earth? Hmmm? So after summing it all up we decided to roll the dice and go see this majestic place and hope for the best.

Since we were very near the Bolivian salt flats on the Chilean side in San Pedro de Atacama, this turned out to be our best method of entry into this curious place. So we boarded a jeep that took us on a three day ride through the salt flats. These are not just any salt flats mind you. Two things that distinguish them from any other flats in the world are 1) They are the largest than any other and 2) They are the highest ones in the world as well. The second point would prove to get the best of me. We had already been in some very high places on our journey but for whatever reason these salt flats would punish me for daring to cross them. I developed altitude sickness early on. The rules of altitude sickness are that you should descend to a lower elevation if you do get sick, acclimate a bit, and then ascend again at a slower pace. Problem was there was no place to descend to! We were on a plateau of salt 15,000 feet above sea level. Where the hell am I going to descend to? Should I dig a 5,000 foot hole in the salt? How long would that take? WTF!!! The only counter measures known in this part of the world for altitude sickness were coca leaves that were supposedly good at preventing further deterioration in symptoms. There is no scientific proof to this only local mythology. Lucky for me, cocaine is a major export for this country so coca leaves were easily accessible. In fact, our driver was chewing on them the whole way across the flats as we drove over them. I guess the phrase "when in doubt do as the locals do" should have been followed to a tee here but as fate would have it, I decided not to. For those who have experienced altitude sickness it is one of the worse things ever to go through if you are exposed to it for a long period of time. There are varying levels of it. First, you get dizzy and lightheaded, then you feel a bit dehydrated. At the next level you start to experience shortness of breath and later you feel like you are going to suffocate. At the highest level, you have all these symptoms and to make things worse you start to throw up and dry heath. This is where it gets really dangerous and some people have died because they choke themselves to death. I got to level B. Because we were stuck at this altitude for so long I started to develop shortness of breath. The worse time for me when all these symptoms were in full swing was bed time. Your body slows down and the feeling of altitude sickness is far more pronounced that when you are bouncing around doing stuff all day. I did not sleep more than 2 hours each night we were on the salt flats and it showed. I looked like and felt like a zombie! I thought I was going to suffocate every night. Such a weird and uncomfortable feeling. Needless to say I was so happy when we finally made it across those damn flats and started to descend back to civilization.

All was not lost while on the salt flats. I did get to see some of the most amazing salt flats the world has to offer. It kind of feels like you are on a distant cold planet with no signs of life on the planet. We took a lot of pictures and made some new friends along the way as well.

We finally arrived in a town called Oruro around midday after our long escapades on the salt. As if getting altitude sickness was not enough for me things took a turn for the worse. This little town had nothing to offer. It was basically a crossing point for backpackers going further into Bolivia. So we had to decide where to go from here as well as how to get there. We decided that we would go to La Paz which is the capital city of the country and the only way to get there from where we were was on a bus from hell. So we headed to the bus stand with a couple of our new friends that came across the salt flats with us and booked a couple of seats on the next available bus which was scheduled to leave at around 11:00pm. If memory serves me right it was around a 10 or 11 hr bus ride to La Paz from Oruro. We had a half day to burn so we went into town and had some food and a couple of beers to kill some time. After what seemed an eternity it was finally time to board. This is where things take a turn for the worse. As we boarded I made the grave mistake of assuming that my belongings were safe because I was on the bus and out of harms way or so I thought. Word to the wise when traveling in Bolivia: Never, ever take your eyes off your belongings or remove your belongings from your person no matter how safe you think you are. I decided to put my bag down for a few minutes so I could situate myself in my seat for the long ride. After all, everyone else around you is doing the same thing only with their bags attached to them. I placed my bag above my seat in one of those overhanging baggage storage areas so I could situate myself. It was no more than 3 minutes max, I looked up to get my bag and place it under my seat and to my amazement it was gone! Just like that! Turns out a local scumbag somehow got on the bus without a ticket and sat right behind me looking for someone to make a mistake. I was the first person to do so. He managed to take my backpack as well as another woman's bag. The woman started to scream and yell in Spanish that her bag was stolen. The husband decided to run after the guy as he darted around the corner. In all of my magnificent wisdom I decided to pursue as well. Imagine this, streets that have no lights at all, pitch dark and in a town that has no police force whatsoever. These are things you don't think of when your blood is on fire and all these irrational thoughts are going through your mind. My passport and camera and camcorder were all in my backpack! All I could think of is how I was going to pound this guy to death if I got so lucky as to catch him and get belongings back. After running around some dark, scary streets for around 20 minutes or so looking in any kind of area that might look like a hiding place I finally relented and headed back to the bus terminal. The woman's husband was talking to a security guard of some sort trying to explain what had happened in Spanish. I heard him say that he actually caught up to the thief and cornered him somewhere. The wife them asked him, well why didn't you take my purse away from him? And the man said something that made me so happy that I did not catch him. He said: Because he pulled a knife on me and said that he would kill me if I tried to take it away from him. I realized at that moment that nothing in my backpack was worth getting killed over even though this bottom dweller put me in a very bad situation. So after I recomposed myself as best I could I filled out a stolen item report with the bus company and got back on the bus and tried my best not to fall apart over what had just happened. The bus company said that they would put a reward out for the bag and that sometimes the bags get returned for the cash. I took her phone number and told her I would call her the next day to see if I might get lucky. We boarded the bus and headed to La Paz where I could only hope to get my situation rectified. As you might expect my mood the whole ride down was quite subdued but I managed to put the whole thing behind me and compose myself at least for a little while.

As I said earlier, Bolivia is a very poor country. That means there are only a few paved roads that actually go through the country. The bus ride could very well be described as 4 wheeling through the backwoods on on oversized dune buggy. Mad Max comes to mind. Seriously! Bolivia has some of the most dangerous main roads in the world. You have to remember that we are high in the Andes mountains with hardly any infrastructure in this country. In fact, there is a very famous trail called Dead Man's Road or something like that high in the mountains right outside of La Paz that some people come here just to experience on a mountain bike. Death defying sharp and narrow turns that have a 200 to 300 foot drop if you miss them? Uh, no thanks I'll pass. Must sound like a rush to some people but try doing a road like this on an 11 hour bus ride that is oversized and overloaded! That is exactly what we did in the wee hours of the morning. Crazy stuff!

La Paz was a very interesting city. It is nestled high in the Andes mountain range. The interesting thing is that it is situated in a huge crevasse between two mountain peaks and parts of the town actually ascend up the sides of the mountains to the top. One of the only places in the world where if you live on the hillside you have to descend a few thousand feet if you want to pick up a loaf of bread downtown or just meet a few friends in the city for a cup of Jo. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. It's lowest elevation is just over 10,000 feet above sea level. The highest elevation is just over 13, 300 feet above sea level. The geography of La Paz in particular the altitude is not only unique but also reflects their society as well. The lower areas of the city are the most affluent parts of the city. Most middle-class residents live in the middle elevations near the city center. Lastly, the very lower class people all live in the projects type of communities that are spread out all along the very high elevations. Very interesting place to see in real life for sure. The people are even more interesting. You see a bunch of chubby little women walking around with little round hats and rainbow-like dresses buying veggies along the street markets or running errands. The main area in the city is called "El Prado" . This place is lined with all kinds of restaurants, clubs, stores, street markets, etc. all pretty much centralized for efficiency purposes. We hung out in this area during most of our stay. We visited one museum just out of sheer curiosity. Give you one guess which one it was. That's correct, we went to the Coca museum to learn the history of the coca industry and how it got to where it is today. It was $2 very well spent and I got some free coca leaves to chew on my way out. The rest of the time was spent roaming the various market streets and eating some food Bolivian-style. We were fortunate to be there during a national parade day. I forgot what it was. Maybe Katie will remember when she writes her account out. We got a good glimpse of Bolivian culture and style on parade day.

As luck would have it there is a U.S. Embassy right smack in the middle of La Paz. This was a very fortunate break for me since I was in need of a new passport now and would not be able to exit the country without one. So I made an appointment as quickly as possibly. I will just spare you all the details which are very interesting by the way and tell you that after a fair amount of red tape I was able to get a temporary replacement for my stolen passport. I can't emphasize to you enough just how lucky I was to have been headed to La Paz after getting my backpack lifted on that bus. I heard stories from other people traveling with us who said they knew people that had gotten their passports stolen and had to travel for days just to get to a town where there was an embassy for them and how some of them were trapped for months because it took that long to get a new one. All things being considered, I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for something as unfortunate as my passport being stolen in a very unstable and quite frankly scary country. I am very grateful to the gods that they were watching over me during this whole ordeal. The only downer to getting my passport renewed was that the Bolivian government decided that the only way I would get it back was to leave the country immediately when by international law I really had 30 days to stay if I so chose to. This as I soon learned(as I was given a 30 minute lecture from the US representative at the embassy who herself was of Bolivian decent) was due to some bad blood between the U.S. Embassy and Bolivian government that had been brewing for some time.

No worries, the positives out of all of this was that I could continue my journeys relatively uninterrupted as opposed to the alternative worse case scenario of being stuck in a scary place for an uncertain amount of time or worse being forced to go home and that I learned "firsthand" about how an undeveloped country like Bolivia with no real legal system to speak of and a complete lack of property rights operates in comparison to the developed world. Very interesting stuff, indeed.

The only other thing we wanted to do while in Bolivia was to visit the very fabled and historic Lake Titikaka which is the birthplace of the Inca Gods and one of the most sacred places on earth. But we never got this opportunity because they kicked us out of the country. Not to worry. Again because luck was on our side in all this unfortunate experience we were still able to see Lake Titikaka because it happens to be a part of the dividing line between Bolivia and Peru. In fact, the line cuts the lake right smack in the middle. So instead of seeing the Bolivian side of the sacred lake we would just visit the Peruvian side instead. So in the end it all worked out. Truth be told we could have taken a boat from Peru to the other side of the lake and seen it all and gone unnoticed. But we decided to take the safe side and not take any unnecessary risks. Just being able to take a boat ride on the holy lake and be a part of the lake passages that the ancient Inca's made was all I needed.


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