Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I needed an extension of my visa to stay in Bolivia so I went to immigration. A guy from Holland was standing in front of me in the line. The immigration officer asked him, "¿Cuántos años tienes? [How old are you?]

The Dutchman replied, "Tengo 27 anos." 'Años' in Spanish is years but 'ano' is anus. He had said, "I have 27 anuses."

The immigration officer smiled and replied dryly, "Ah ¿sí? ¿Tantos tienes!? ¿Y en dónde los guardas? Sabes qué, no se lo voy a contar a nadie. No te preocupes." [Really? so many! And where do you keep them? You know what, I am not going to tell anyone. Don't worry!]

The Dutchman looked on in confusion.

Oh the beauty of learning a language!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Uyuni: No baby llamas

I spent the last four days in Uyuni. It is impossible to visit Bolivia without seeing its most famous attraction: El Salar de Uyuni--one of the 25 wonders of the world. Since the trip is only done in groups of six over a span of three to four days, I decided to gather a bunch of my school-mates to go. Before leaving Cochabamba, I received ample warning from the my Bolivian friends, teachers, administrators and my host family that Uyuni is deathly cold, that we were going there in the dead of winter and in the midst of a rare cold-front in South America.
I therefore took precautions and packed my heaviest winter clothes. Rebecca, Kenedy, Alexandra and I took the bus to Oruro. In Oruro we were able to snatch the last four available seats on the train to Uyuni. It took us a day to get there. We had to meet Manuel and Patrizia there so we were staying an extra night in the town of Uyuni.

When we arrived there, I was wearing a spaghetti-strap top, two long-sleeve undershirts, a turtle-neck sweater, my jacket, scarf, gloves, my hat, long-johns, fleece socks and sneakers. Our travel agent David was waiting for us at the train station. He asked how I was feeling, whether it was too cold or not and explained that he had booked a hotel with internal heat (a luxury in Uyuni) for our first night. He spoke Quechua so I was able to practice with him. I told him that I was fine because although I was from the Caribbean, I had gone to college in upstate New York and was amply prepared for the winter. But before I could even finish my sentence, I felt something inside my jacket.

Something that was penetrating my various layers of clothing and entering my lungs.

It was a gush that happened so quickly. In only about 2 seconds, it was in and out of my body.

I finally figured out that it was a strange, silent, piercing wind entering my body. And my mouth was moving but no sound was coming from my being.

Because when that wind touched me, I immediately lost something






that I am


trying desperately to claw back!!

David took one look at my face and he quickly took me to the hotel.

Our first night in the hotel was an absolute disaster because the heat just wasn't working. We slept in most of our clothes and since the hotel was still under construction and our room had just been painted, we were inhaling a strong stench of paint throughout the night. I was feeling sick to my stomach and I threw up in the morning. We decided immediately to check into another hotel. We checked into a place that provides heating by lighting up a small container of gas in your room. The problem is that this gas is unsafe because it emits carbon monoxide as it heats your room. Consequently, they only use it to warm your room for about half-an-hour at night and then take it out. Tourists who have left it on in their rooms throughout the night have been found dead in the morning so we had to be careful. I was sure to take a very long shower in steaming hot water in preparation for our trip to the Salar the next morning since I knew it would be even colder. We woke up early and left Uyuni for the salar in a land-cruiser. There were 6 of us packed in the back with the chofer-guía (chauffeur-guide) Saúl, and the cook, Zulma sitting in the front.

Day 1
We arrived at the salar through Colchani. The salar was absolutely incredible. It is just miles of endless nothing. It is you, the blue sky and miles of white salt. We went to the island Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the salt planes that is home to humongous cactus and hiked to the very top to take pictures. It was incredible even though there was a strong wind blowing. Then we visited caves, watched the sun set before heading to our little hotel in a tiny village near the salar. The rooms were built of salt. The walls were made of salt and we were walking on piles of salt on the floor. Its amenities were very basic: a bed with 4 blankets on top and a small table. There was also a communal bathroom with a shower with hot water. It was just too cold to bathe. Electricity came on for around 2 hours so we could charge our cameras but spent the rest of the night in total darkness. As the sun went down, a deathly cold started to seep in. I went to sleep in three shirts, my fleece, long-johns, fleece pants and three pairs of fleece socks. I slept inside my sleeping bag under the four blankets on the bed but my face was freezing. I placed the jeans I would wear the next day under the four blankets so it would be warm when I had to put it on in the morning. I eventually managed to stop shivering as my body warmed but I couldn't sleep. Then we all got up at 4 am to leave for the desert and the coloured lagoons.

Day 2
As we headed towards the Atacama desert, our car started shutting on and off. We had to stop in a village so that Saúl could fix it. He fixed it in about two hours. Then as we drove along towards the border of Chile and Bolivia, the wind from the desert started picking up. It got stronger and stronger and stronger. It was hard to stand outside because it was so windy. Our guide told us that we couldn't go to the Laguna Verde (The green lake) because the little rocks from the wind would hit the windshield and break it. The weather was just too bad. The further we went into the desert was the higher above ground we went. So it was windier and colder. Before we knew it we were at 4,800 mts above sea-level entering the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. By now the wind had transformed into a sandstorm. The back windows of the land-cruiser couldn't close properly and so we were doused with sand and gushes of wind as we drove along. We finally arrived at a small hostel in the middle of nowhere. The hostels' windows were not strong enough either and so the sand would enter the hostel with every gush of wind. It was difficult to breathe at times. Our guide said he doubted we would be able to go to see the Laguna Colorada but we insisted on trying since it was only fifteen minutes away. When we arrived the lake was frozen.
As I watched the icy wind hovering over the lake from inside the jeep, I turned to Rebecca, handed her my camera and said: "Leave me behind. Go forth without me!" Because it was at that moment, that I accepted my limitations as a Caribbean national.

We went back to the hostel. It was getting dark and before we knew it, it was 15 degrees centigrade below 0. I slept in every single item of clothing I had in my bag: 4 undershirts, a turtleneck sweater, gloves, my hat, my fleece, four pairs of socks, long-johns, fleece pants, a sleeping bag, four blankets. Saúl offered us hot water bags to put at our feet in our sleeping bag so our feet wouldn't freeze. I grabbed mine.

Manuel asked the guide if he by any chance had a small llama that he could also have to put inside the sleeping bag. He was dead serious. When Saúl handed him the hotwater bag, he literally was like, "Uhm...I'll have a llama with that. Yeah I'ld like to supersize my hotwater bag. A baby llama to go please?....No baby llamas?........Ok. Alexandra, do you by any chance have an application on your Iphone that produces furry baby llamas you can put in your sleeping bag? No? Ok"

Other tourists groups put their beds together so they could huddle together for the night. I almost joined them. It was so cold, I was willing to sleep with a stranger just for warmth!!

Anyway I went to bed. I was shivering.

And then the unthinkable happened.

It was around 3am. The sandstorm was at its most powerful. Gushes of sand were entering the hostel.

And I had to pee.

It was in that moment that I knew I had a life-changing decision ahead of me.

I am 25 years old but I asked myself, would it really be that bad if I wet myself at this age? What about the danger of exposing my private part under these circumstances? I mean I would be required to remove several items of clothing to pee. And with all that wind entering??? At 25 degrees centigrade below 0??? Why risk it? Was it really worth risking my most vulnerable, prized possession?

But then I thought, all of my clothes would smell. The sleeping bag would smell. We would all be crammed in the car together for the next few days. I wouldn't have a change of clothes because I was already wearing everything. But it would only be one day and I may never see some of these people again? I mean what happens in Bolivia stays in Bolivia right? Wait but I go to school with a few of them. Everytime they would see me we would have an unspoken awkwardness. But no one would have to know. Oh wait, Rebecca goes to NYU with me and we may have class together in the fall. Damn it!

It was the decisive moment of my silent internal debate. So I mustered all the courage of my 108- pound body and went to the bathroom.

And you know what?

Some things are just better left unsaid...




Day 3

Some of the tourists returned to Uyuni. They decided it just wasn't worth it and they couldn't see some of the sights due to the wind anyway. We went on to the Aguas Termales, we stopped in a few pueblos, passed through another salar and finally arrived back in Uyuni.

We were exhausted. I was the only one who had showered twice in our four day trip. Everyone else hadn't showered for four days straight. Not that they needed to. Its too cold to sweat anyway.
The biggest problem with Uyuni is not just that its cold. It is that at no point in your time there do you experience warmth. In the First and most of the Second world: America, Europe etc, there is heating in buildings so you only experience the cold when you go outside. You also sleep in a warm bed at night. However, in Uyuni, the cold is a penetrating one that goes through everything you're wearing. Saúl and Zulma explained that it was the first time they had experienced a wind like that. We were really in the midst of a bizarre cold front passing through South America. I say that to explain that its not usually as cold as it was when I was there and that we were in an extremely rare moment. But, I still would NOT recommend going to Uyuni in the winter. Its not worth the risk.
Saúl told me that he was so sorry, that this was just an extremely unlucky moment for us to have come to Uyuni. I told him we had as much of a good time as we could. He said that I should come back in about 2 years at the end of winter to see the things I missed.

Now in Quechua there is a form "puni" that allows you to say something emphatically. So if someone asks how you are doing and you want to say, "I am definitely definitely, always, doing extremely incredibly, amazingly well!" you add "puni" and say "walejpuni" So I used that form and replied:

"Sumaq karqa Uyuni chaywanpis MANAPUNI kutisaqchu! "Uyuni was nice and everything, but I will definitely definitely never, ever, forever and ever, for as long as I live (!!!!!!)) return!"

Friday, July 09, 2010

Quote of the week: The Virginity Question

Everyone at my school speaks English. My friend Alexandra from Liechtenstein is always practicing her English with me. We have class at school everyday but we all take a break at the same time and hang out on the patio of the school. In out most recent conversation, I asked her what her sign was. She didn't understand at first. Then I asked her when her birthday was and she told me it was in late August.

So I said, "Oh thats great, then you're a virgo. I'm a virgo too".

She replied, "WHAT? What's a virgo?"

I said, "You know Virgo the virgin!"

Then she said, emphatically, really loudly with all the professors and the administrator standing nearby: "NO I AM NOT VIRGIN! I AM NOTTTT VIRGIN!"

There was dead silence on the patio as everyone looked on in confusion. I said to the Administrator: "Ahh, virgo. She means virgo! Alexandra, at no point was I calling your virginity into question."

To which Alexandra replied: "Oh! But you know, sometimes I wish I was."

Quote of the week: "NO I AM NOT VIRGIN! I AM NOT VIRGIN!"

Alexandra has decided to put that on t-shirts for sale when the program is over.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

New Quechua phrases

So I have learnt a few Quechua words/phrases that are crucial for navigating life in the Andes. I suggest using them yourself in any country. (Please remember that whenever a word includes an apostrophe in its spelling you are required to pronounce the letter before it with a popping/explosive sound.)

1. Q'ara chupa: This is the word used for white person in Quechua. It means a tail without hair. They use it to describe someone who has come with nothing but leaves with everything. Now that I know that word, I have heard several Quechua speakers using it while offering to sell products to white people in the local market. Of course, the tourists are oblivious to this and smile back at them the entire time.

2. Supaypa(q) wachasqa kanki-- It means "you are the child of the devil".When used, it sounds almost like "You Daughter/Son-of-a-b*tch!" I know you find this confusing. I don't mean that it literally sounds like they're speaking English. I'm referring to its equivalent meaning in English. Clarity first!

3. Supay apasqan: "Go to hell!" (I swear no one has said this to me)

4. Ch'oto mat'i siki--"You're a tight ass" or "You have something stuck up your ass!" I have found this phrase to be useful when vendors refuse to give me a discount on products I wish to buy.

5. waqachiy--I've only included this word because I like its translation. They use this word in Quechua as the verb for "to play an instrument". Its literal translation is "to make [others] cry."

Tunari: Conquering Altitude sickness

In my earlier posts, I have outlined my spectacular bouts of altitude sickness. I had never experienced it before going to Bolivia so I thought I would try to find a way to get my body accustomed to altitude. I decided to go with fellow students from my school to hike up the Tunari, the highest point in Cochabamba.

My travel partners were Patrizia and Manuel from Switzerland, Rebecca and Kenedy from the U.S and Alexandra from Liechtenstein. Yes Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein is a country of about 30-40,000 inhabitants beside Switzerland. It is a constitutional monarchy and the country is ruled by a Prince. I had never heard of this country before meeting Alexandra so when I met her, I was sure to ask for her autograph because I am certain I probably will never meet someone else from her country. In fact, I may post a picture of me and her on this blog just so we never forget her country exists.

I made sure to have a big dinner the night before the hike and went to bed extremely early to ensure my body was fully rested. The day of the hike we were advised to have a decent breakfast but to eat foods at regular intervals along the way. These foods had to be either fruits like bananas or sweets for your body to use as energy boosts. We drove out of Cochabamba to the starting point of the hike to Tunari. The starting point was about 3,800 mtrs above sea-level. It was the equivalent of beginning just below the altitude of El Alto airport where I landed in La Paz. I was prepared for it so as soon as we got to that altitude I started sucking on cocoa-leaves so my body wouldn't feel the effect of the change in altitude.

First we walked on a flat plain and crossed a lake. Then we slowly started walking up the mountain surrounding the lake. The mountain on the far left of the picture is the first of about 4 that we climbed. Now this is where the challenge begun: The more you climb, the thinner the air becomes. So while the hike itself may not be that long or far, the problem is the more you hike, the less oxygen your body has access to. Consequently your heart starts pumping harder and faster because it is searching for oxygen.

In case you are wondering why I know this, I walked for about 5 minutes uphill and then told our guide Cesar, that we had to turn back immediately because I was sure I was having a heart-attack. My heart was beating so fast I could actually hear it and feel it throbbing through my arms and shoulders. He told me to stop, drink mate de cocoa and to breathe through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth. He explained what was happening to my heart and told me that my body would get more oxygen if I took slow deep breaths through my nose and not my mouth as I walked. So we stopped. I caught my breath. Manuel offered to carry my bag and Alexandra made me take off my coat and carried it for the remainder of the hike. Since it was so hot, I decided to also remove my jeans and hike in my long johns that turned out to be a little too big for me. So when I took off my jeans, there was an audible gasp emitted from my fellow travelers. Then silence. Manuel broke the silence and said, "ahh sexy long johns". I told him I was thinking the exact same thing when I decided to put them on back-ways that morning.

As the hike continued, Rebecca had to stop because she felt dizzy and her head was spinning and her heart was pounding. Soon every single person had to stop to breathe at regular intervals. By regularly, I mean every ten metres. Cesar explained that this was completely normal. The trick to climbing the Tunari is to go as slowly as possible and to stop as often as possible. Many experienced hikers have come to the Tunari and have tried to go quickly. None of them make it to the top. Your body just cannot handle it. He also told us to condition ourselves to thinking we were actually trying to breathe underwater. The higher up you get, the more you must stop to come up for air. The terrain gets steeper and steeper to the point where I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get over a couple of the hills...in my sexy long johns! I ensured that I was the last one up the hill so my fellow travellers would not have any distractions that could potentially obstruct their view of what was in front of them. Its also really slippery with loose rocks so when you skid, you may slide all the way back down the mountain you just climbed up. Anyway I got over a couple hills and looked back at the lake. I was shocked at how far away it was!

Then we came upon another lake and stopped to have lunch by it. This lake was incredibly beautiful! As we had lunch beside the lake I learnt two very important things:
1) Bananas are really powerful energy-giving fruits. They have a high concentration of sugar that your body absorbs very very quickly. They are best had with mate-de-cocoa as against bottled water because together they simultaneously help your body fight altitude sickness and raise your sugar level.

2) Switzerland is the most dangerous country on earth. Did you know that Switzerland is neutral about EVERYTHING? They didn't take a stance on any of the world wars, nor have they taken stances on any contemporary dictatorship. Historically, they have always taken the following position: "Do what you have to do. We'll keep your money." Switzerland has officially replaced the word "neutral" in my vocabulary.

Anyway so the great thing about continuing our hike was that we could now actually see the peak. Seeing your destination really helps but the problem was we had now reached an altitude of 4,800 metres above sea-level. Alexandra is epileptic and so she stopped and said that she didn't think she would make it. Kenedy said her lungs were hurting her. Rebecca's head was spinning. My heart was pounding. We didn't know whether we would all actually continue. We evaluated how we were feeling and whether we could do it or not. We surveyed the group to see whether or not we would continue to the top. And the two Swiss people on our trip...

were neutral.

They did however, offer to take our cameras for us and take pictures from the peak if we decided to stay.

But we kept going and one by one we made it to the peak. The closer we got to the peak, the fewer steps we could take without stopping to breathe. Then finally we got there. The lakes were so far away now. It had taken us five hours to get to the top. We were at 5035 metres above sea-level and had a breath-taking view of Cochabamba all the way to the Illimani mountain in La Paz where I landed in Bolivia. It was crazy! It was beautiful! By the time I got there my mouth was stained from drinking mate de cocoa and chewing cocoa leaves. But I was thrilled that I made it. Would I do it again? Absolutely not!

Friday, July 02, 2010

Andean Solidarity: My favourite quotes of the week

My Quechua teacher Hilda has the special gift of speaking matter-of-factly and authoritatively about everything. Here are a few comments she made to my friend Anna from Whales:

1. Hilda's response to Ana when her camera was stolen:
You know, the person that stole your camera was definitely from Peru because... [insert nodding head and matter-of-fact facial expression here] there are no thieves in Bolivia.
All the thieves here are from Peru.

2. Hilda on a student who lived with her to learn Quechua:
He was gay but he was a lovely guy. Actually, he was from Peru. You know... There are no gay people in Bolivia.
All the gay people are Peruvian.

3. (Last but certainly not least) Anna to Hilda: What's the word for "midget" [or little person] in Spanish?
Hilda: "Enano". But you know... There are no midgets in Bolivia.
Midgets are from Peru