Aguachica – Sept. 1-2, 2011

Aguachica, Colombia

Anna and I arrived in Aguachica on the night of Sept. 1, 2011.  We immediately got in touch with my friends there and they asked us to take a taxi to the Mela’s, the grandmother’s, house where everyone usually meets up at night.
After a long journey, it was good to finally feel safe and comfortable again.  I explained to my friends that Anna was a vegetarian and they immediately went about procuring some eggs for dinner.  Marina, my friend Anuar’s wife, hopped on her scooter and went home to pick up some rice that we could eat our eggs with.  What great hosts!

Anna, Anuar and I

We spent the night at Anuar’s house.  The next day, Julio, one of the brothers-in-law, wanted to take us to the school where he teaches English to introduce real English speakers to his classes.  Anna and I got to be celebrities for the morning.  The kids asked us about our travels, our favorite music, sports, etc.  I made sure to let the kids know how important it is to stay in school and study hard so they could find good jobs and travel as we do.

One of the classes that Anna and I visited

Posing with the students

Later in the day, Julio took us to Gamarra, a small town on the Rio Magdalena.  Personally, I didn’t like it.  It was really hot and I had already been there last year.  I just went to avoid the oppressive afternoon heat of Aguachica by riding in an air-conditioned car.  After walking along the river for a little bit, Julio asked if we wanted to see more of the town.  I was like, “Uh… that’s ok.  I’m good.  Let’s go.”  What I really meant by that was “Let’s go back into the air-conditioned car and out of this heat!”  The ride between Aguachica and Gamarra was only 15 minutes, but still a welcome respite from the heat.

Gamarra, Colombia

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with the family before hopping on a bus to Medellin later that night at 11.  Our bus never came due to a landslide so we took another bus at 3 am to Bucaramanga, arriving at 6 am.  From there we took another 10 or 12-hour bus to Medellin.  It was a long journey made all the more endurable by my Kindle and the Rubix cube that I’d picked up from a street vendor in Bogota.

Chicamocha Canyon – Aug. 31, 2011

Chicamocha Canyon

I had promised my Lolita, my Colombian friend, months ago that I’d celebrate her birthday with her on Sept. 3rd.  Unfortunately, I had to renege because I totally forgot the date and Anna suddenly became my travel partner on a short notice.  Traveling with Anna was a great because she helped motivate me to see more of Colombia and, later, Ecuador while I was content with just hanging out after being on the move for 4 months straight.  There are tons of benefits to traveling with friends.  The only tradeoff was that we had to travel under time constraints.  We had to move fast so I couldn’t stick around in San Gil to celebrate Lolita’s birthday.
In lieu of celebrating Lolita’s birthday, I invited her to join Anna and I on our day-trip to Chicamocha Canyon.  Chicamocha Canyon boasts one of the longest cable cars systems in the world.  The system runs nearly 4 miles from one end of the canyon to the other.  We spent the entire day walking around the park and taking pictures of the beautiful scenery.

Lolita! The birthday girl!

The Rio Chicamocha

Me, Lolita and Anna in the cable car

Lolita and I even did the chair swing that swings high over the edge of the canyon.  We watched the sunset and headed back to San Gil.  Anna and I stayed another night in San Gil and then made our way by bus to Aguachica first thing in the morning.

The chair swing at Chicamocha Canyon

San Gil, Colombia – Aug. 29-30, 2011

The Parque Gallineral in San Gil

Anna and I missed the last direct bus from Villa de Leiva to San Gil on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2011.  We told ourselves that “we go where we want when we want” and promptly began looking for alternatives ways to get to San Gil.
We hopped on a bus to Chiquinquira which took us to San Gil.  We arrived very late in the evening and stayed at Sam’s VIP Hostel, right on the plaza.  The next morning we signed up for riverboarding on the Rio Fonce.  Riverboarding was a new experience for both of us.  It entails laying prone on a very thick bodyboard with handles.
During the first 2 or 3 minutes, Anna banged her knee against a rock and was nervous about hitting more rocks during the rest of trip downriver.  All I kept thinking about was to stay behind the guide so that I don’t end up going over the wrong rapids.  I tried my best to do barrel rolls and surf on standing waves as the guide showed us.
One of the better parts of the trip was seeing a large lizard run along the bank.  Suddenly our adventure sport activity became an ecotour.  Unfortunately we don’t have photos of the actual riverboarding, but we did get one of the scrape on Anna’s knee.

The scrape on Anna's knee

After riverboarding, Anna and I visited the botanical garden at the Parque Gallineral, where I hoped to meet some of the friends I made there last year.  The only one that was there was Gina, one of the tour guides.  She let Anna and I explore the park on our own.  A stray dog decided to accompany us.  I thought it was cool because the dog chose us over all the other tourists.  Anna thought the dog may have been rabid or aggressive, but it was perfectly harmless.

The effort that we put into timing these jumping photos just right guarantee them being published in the blog. This was the 8th try!

One of the many spanish moss-covered trees in the Parque Gallineral

The effort that we put into timing these jumping photos just right guarantee them a spot in the blog. This was the 8th try!

After the Parque Gallineral, Anna and I went for hour-long massages.  While waiting, I bought her hormigas culonas, or ants.  These are a culinary tradition in Santander, the part of Colombia where we were.  I love them.  Anna refused them so I saved some for her to eat later.

"Guacala!" For Anna, the idea of eating ants reinforced learning the Spanish word for disgust.

Delicious hormigas culonas. Don't go to San Gil, or anywhere in the department of Santander, without satisfying your hormiga culona fix!

I only wish hormiga culonas were cheaper so I could buy them in bulk. They're salty, like popcorn, but probably much more healthful.

After indulging in our massages, Anna and I met up with my friend Lolita, and we ate at the new sandwich restaurant in town called Gringo Mike’s.  We met the owner and grilled him with questions on how he started his business.
Later we met up with Lolita’s older sister, Zuly, and we went out for ice cream and drinks.  Last year when I met Zuly, I couldn’t have a conversation with her because I didn’t know Spanish.  Still, we always managed to get along well.  This time around, I could actually understand her.

The fabulous Bueno sisters, Zuly and Lolita, and me

At one point during the evening, she asked me how many languages I could speak.  I said I knew some Bemba, which I’d learned in Zambia, and then I hesitated to say that I could speak Spanish.  She assured me confidently, “Si, tu hablas Espanol.” Yes, you speak Spanish.
That was the very first time that I realized that I really could speak Spanish.  Yes, I speak Spanish!!!!

The small, provincial town of Villa de Leiva, Colombia – Aug. 28-29, 2011

Villa de Leiva. (The first of many jumping photos to come. This was the 8th try!)

Last year when I visited Villa de Leiva, I came away with the impression that it was just a sleepy little town with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  The best part for me were the besitos de novia, the delicious, merengue-covered cookies that are endemic to Villa de Leiva.

A cross-section of a besito de novia

On the morning of Aug. 28, 2011, Anna and I made our way from Bogota to Tunja by bus, and then onward to the sleepy little town of Villa de Leiva.  When we arrived, the plaza was full of people flying kites.  It wasn’t as sleepy and “provincial” as I had previously thought!

The plaza at Villa de Leiva

I wanted to take Anna on a hike up to an overlook of the entire town.  On our way, we saw that there were dark, ominous clouds in the sky threatening to pour rain down on us.  We decided to not continue with the hike, based on local advice that it probably was going to rain.  So we walked back to the center of town.
The cool thing about canceling the hike was that we had the opportunity to listen to a concert performed by a Venezuelan orchestra.  They played marvelously!  The rain never came, even though we could see the rain falling very close to where we were sitting.  That made for a very enjoyable evening.

The Venezuelan orchestra

The following day we went on our hike.  The trail was technically closed for conservation reasons, but we didn’t know that until after we had already hiked.  The trail hadn’t been used all year long and was covered in brush.  Our refusal to quit pushed us to wade through the brush and explore areas that weren’t even part of the trail.  In essence, we even lost the trail until we decided to backtrack.  Only then did we find the proper trail and made our way to the scenic overlook.  There, I tried to fly the kite that I had bought for my friend’s 5-year old son in Aguachica, but there wasn’t much wind.  It was still fun regardless.
Anna striking a pose next to a waterfall on the trail to the scenic outlook

Anna striking a pose next to a waterfall on the trail to the scenic outlook

Overlooking Villa de Leiva

After our hike, Anna and I met up with Yolima, a friend of mine from last year.  We had lunch and then bought 80 pieces of besitos de novia from her mother’s bakery as gifts for my friends in Aguachica.

Yolima and a whole lot of besitos de novia!

Mmmm... delicious besitos de novia!

After visiting with Yolima, Anna and I took a few more pictures and then hopped on a bus to take us to San Gil.  (It was actually a really long, wayward journey through the night, but we made it.)

The church at Villa de Leiva

Touring Bogota – Aug. 27, 2011

Every time that I’d been to Bogota, I was in transit to another part of the country.  I’d never actually done any tourist activities there.  On Aug. 25th, I made my way back to Bogota on another 10+ hour bus ride from Aguachica to pick up Anna , who had been a friend of mine since Peace Corps Zambia.  Having her around was a great reason to finally see the tourist sites in Bogota.  Truth be told, by this time I really wasn’t interested to do anymore touring because I was perfectly content visiting with my Colombian friends with Aguachica.  I could’ve remained there indefinitely.
My friends in Bogota, Nancy and Ernesto, graciously let us stay at their place.  Nancy was worried that maybe we wouldn’t be comfortable sleeping on the floor at her place, but we were perfectly fine with it.  I was really excited that we were able to stay with them because I wanted Anna to experience the warmth hospitality that Colombia is so famous for.  Plus, Ernesto makes the best coffee (the secret ingredient is panela, or sugarcane) ever and Nancy makes really good hot chocolate!
After picking up Anna from the airport on the 26th, Nancy made huevos con maizorca and some freshly squeezed lulu juice for breakfast, as well as the hot chocolate that I love.  Afterwards, Anna and I made our way via bus to La Candelaria, the historic part of Bogota.  Our goals were to take the cable car up to Montserrat, a park on top of the ridge that overlooks Bogota, and then to walk around the main plaza.

From left to right: Nancy, Ernesto and Anna

Anna and I overlooking Bogota from the lofty heights of Montserrat.

Anna and I at La Catedral Primada in La Candelaria, Bogota.

The statue at the center of Plaza de Bolivar

After a long day of walking around the La Candelaria, Anna and I made our way back to Suba, the neighborhood where Nancy and Ernesto live.  Since I couldn’t bring Nancy and Ernesto the U.S., I thought I’d take them out to a dinner at a prominent American restaurant chain, T.G.I.Friday’s for a proper steak and, my favorite, buffalo wings.  I also invited my friend Daniela, a Colombian-American who I’d met last year, too.
The next day Anna and I were off to Villa de Leiva.  Anna was impressed with the spacious leg-room and comfort of the bus were on.  I had the same positive impression during my first time last year on the same bus to Villa de Leiva.

Buses in Colombia are more comfortable than planes. You also see more of the country, listen to local music and have the opportunity to meet locals.


Colombia – The only risk is wanting to stay!

Exactly one year ago I was traveling in Colombia for my first time.  I was trying to bum a ride from San Gil, Colombia to the Cartagena on the Carribean coast.  Some friends of mine put me in touch with a driver from the EcoPetrol company who was able to take me as far as his hometown in Aguachica.  From there, my plan was to hop on a bus for the rest of the journey.
The driver’s name was Anuar Rodriguez and I was grateful that he could take me as far as he did.  I got to ride shotgun in his company’s pick-up truck, which was great because I could wear a seatbelt, recline comfortably and sleep and we could stop whenever we wanted to take pictures as we drove through the scenic Chicamocha Canyon.  I felt at the top of my traveling game, doing and seeing things that normal tourists don’t do, as long I didn’t get kidnapped, robbed or murdered.

Me and Anuar

Along the way, Anuar stopped and bought hormigas culonas (roasted ants) to share with me.  He also bought me dinner.  When we arrived in Aguachica, he brought me to his mother-in-law’s house which sat at the corner of an intersection where people on scooters buzzed by and Colombian vallenato music played on loudspeakers at the groceries store across the intersection.
I was surrounded by his family and several friends.  There were a handful of waist-high 5 and 6-year old kids, a couple of 13-year old girls, and several adults.  With so many people gawking at me in a language I didn’t understand, I could have easily felt uncomfortable but I wasn’t.  It was really cool to see how this Colombian family interacted with each other and to try to pick up Spanish from them.  They bought me beers and one of the friends, a pediatrician named Saul, took me for a ride in his air-conditioned car to tour Aguachica.

From left to right, Anuar, Me, Dr. Saul, Dionover, and one of the guys from the auto shop next door

More of the family. What this picture doesn't capture is the rest of the large circle of people that surrounded me.

Anuar put me up in a hotel for the night.  The next day, I met so many people as Anuar’s wife, Marina, drove me to all her brothers and sisters’ homes to visit them and their families.  I met everyone at the shoe store where she works in the town center.  Everyone I met was so warm and friendly.  I was the first American that they had ever personally seen and met.  They treated me like royalty- even better- these strangers treated me like family.

Me and Anuar's family (left to right): Einny, Anuar, Marina, Miguel Angel

So I left for Cartagena the next day.  It was hot as hell and I hated it.  I took pictures of the city and actually cut my trip short to revisit Anuar and his family in Aguachica.  I felt that I’d make more progress on my goals of learning Spanish and getting some cultural interaction by hanging out with them instead of sitting on a beach by myself.  I went back to Aguachica and got exactly that.  The added bonus was that I got to celebrate one of the girl’s 15th birthday, or quinceanera, which is a pretty big deal in Latin culture.

Me and the birthday girl, Yessica

I spent an extra day or two in Aguachica before making my way back to Bogota and my flight back to the USA, but my stay there left an overwhelmingly positive impression upon me.  I had promised myself and my friends that I would one day return to Colombia.  And ever since I had left Colombia in August 2010,  I had been dwelling obsessively on how I might one day return.
Fast forward to two weeks ago.  I had flown to Bogota from Lima, spent the night with my dear friends, Nancy and Earnesto, and then hopped on a bus for 15-hours back to Aguachica.  Of course, I was greeted with the same warmth and hospitality as I experienced last year by Anuar and his entire family.  A year had passed since we last met and we hadn’t lost step with one another.
Some of the highlights of my 3rd trip to Aguachica include:

  • discovering the local pool, which is great for keeping cool during the sweltering heat of the afternoon
  • celebrating Katty and Dionover’s birthdays two days in a row
  • eating delicious food and drinking fresh lemonade.  I hadn’t had a real home-cooked meal in nearly four months!
  • spending time with the family and all their friends, about 40 people total.  Thankfully, I’m great with remembering names.
  • a day trip to Ocana, a city in the mountains with a much cooler climate
  • being constantly immersed in Spanish

Delicious lemonade made with panela (sugarcane)!

I ended up spending about a week and a half with Anuar and his family.  I had planned to leave sooner to visit friends in San Gil, but I ended up staying a little longer just because I like these people so much.  What finally made me leave Aguachica was the fact that I had to pick up my friend, Anna S., at the airport in Bogota so we could travel the rest of Colombia and Ecuador together.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate hot weather.  It’s also very expensive to travel.  It’s usually prudent to not visit the same country more than once.  Having said that, I’m willing to suffer the heat and spend a small fortune to visit my friends in Colombia because it’s worth it.  If I could choose between seeing the 7 wonders of the world and making meaningful relationships with people, I’d choose the latter.
At this point, there’s not much more that I’m excited to see in the world.  I’ll still travel out of principle and to keep gaining life experience.  But I’ve decided that I will continue to regularly visit Colombia for the next few years until my life becomes so complicated that I can no longer do so.
I feel at home here.

Hanging out in Aguachica

Going out for lunch in Ocana

Alex and his beautiful 7-month old daughter Isabella

Passing through Peru

Peru was a quick trip.  I was there from  Aug. 3 to Aug. 12.  I only had 3 objectives:

  1. Visit Christina, who was going through Peace Corps training
  2. Visit Christian, my old Virginia Military Institute classmate
  3. Go surfing at Puerto Chicama, the world’s longest left-hand wave

On the way to Lima, my bus broke down just after sunset.  Although it was cold and dark, we were lucky enough to stop next to a vendor on the side of the street selling bread, snacks, drinks and oranges.  Although it seemed like we were miles from nowhere, I felt pretty safe there knowing that at least we wouldn’t starve.  Also, given our rather dire situation, I made sure to buy a little bit of food and drink to avoid being a victim of price-gouging on the part of the food vendor should we end up having to spend the night on the road.
The bus had a little bar area near the front near 2nd floor.  I sat at the table with other passengers and talked to pass the time.  I showed off my Kindle and its amazing worldwide internet capabilities, which is always a big hit among the strangers that I meet in South America.  Eventually, our bus started going again and we arrived in Lima at 1 am.
I had no idea where I was going to stay when I arrived so I struck up a conversation with a French couple and asked if they knew of any good places to stay.  We ended up sharing a taxi to Kokopeli Hostel in the Miraflores district, which is the wealthy part of Lima. Since I was still a bit hungry, I ventured out into the neighborhood.  It was full of bars, nightclubs and pizzerias.  The area was a lot tamer than I thought it was going to be.  I guess whenever I arrive in a capitol city, I usually expect the worse: pickpockets, armed thieves and kidnappers.
In S. America, pizza is highly over-rated and, therefore, over-priced so I was left with the only other option at about 2 in the morning: McDonald’s.  After downing my quarter-pounder with cheese and french fries, I went straight to my hostel and promptly to bed.
I switched hostels to the Ekotambo hostel, thanks to the recommendation of two Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Peru and because I had been displaced by another traveler who had made a reservation.  I was all right with that because the Ekotambo hostel was a lot nicer and more laid-back than Kokopeli hostel.  If you ever want solid travel information about an overseas locale, ask a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I’ve met Peace Corps Volunteers in Peru and Paraguay and they’re all really cool people, idealistic and very easy to get along with.
I used to regale Christina with stories from my own stint in Peace Corps Zambia when we were housemates in Arlington, VA, and I like to think that I played a role in inspiring her to join Peace Corps.  It truly is a unique organization.  I cannot overstate the significance of the impact that my experience in Peace Corps Zambia had on my life, and I was very excited that Christina was just getting started with her experience Peace Corps.
On August 6th, I made my way out to a town called Chaclayo, just outside of Lima near where she was going through her Peace Corps training.  I met Christina and her friend, Josh, at one of the local parks.  We caught up after not having seen each other for about 3 years.  After all that time, we hadn’t lost step and I felt that we had even grown even more similar.

Me and Christina, Peace Corps Peru trainee extraordinaire

Meanwhile, I’d been trying to get in touch with my classmate, Christian, who hadn’t returned my phone calls the entire weekend.  I was beginning to get dismayed thinking that I’d come all the way to his hometown and that I might not see him.
So on Sunday, I had plenty of time to kill and wait for him to get in touch with me.  I met up with Georgiana, a Romanian girl from Bolivia who was on the same Lima-bound bus that I was on and we spent the entire day touring the center of Lima, taking pictures and we watched the movie “Super 8” in Spanish, which was pretty lame because I didn’t understand one bit of it.  Somehow I thought that my Spanish had gotten good enough to at least get the gist of the movie.  Where I got that idea?  I have no idea.

Lima's main plaza


More from Lima, Peru

The next day, I had lunch with a Julia, a Peace Corps Volunteer that was staying at the same hostel as I, and her Peruvian counterpart, Yvette.  Christian finally called me back and we met up later that night.
Christian and I talked about our days as VMI cadets so many years ago and brought each other up to speed as to what we had both been up to since graduation.  He had spent a few years working in the US, made his way back to his hometown where he worked his way up pretty fast in Peru’s finance industry.  Christian bears the proud distinction of being the unofficial chapter of the VMI alumni association in Peru as he is VMI’s first and only graduate from Peru.

Me visiting with Christian Blanch in his hometown, Lima, Peru. Rah Virginia Mil!

Having visited Christina and Christian in Lima, I hopped on bus heading north the following evening and woke up the next morning in Trujillo eight hours later.  Two hours later, I was in Puerto Chicama where the longest left-hand break in the world was.
It was truly spectacular, but the huge, 9-16 foot waves there were way beyond my skill level and physical condition.  I hadn’t done any cardiovascular activity in months and I hadn’t swum in more than a year so I figured that I’d probably drown if I risked paddling out in Puerto Chicama.  All I did was hang out and eat lots of ceviche and every other seafood dish I encountered in the restaurants.  It was pretty lame to go all that way and not surf, but I can always come back.

Puerto Chicama, Peru

It would’ve been logical to continue on to Ecuador overland, but my friend Anna sent me a message saying that she could meet me in S. America in two weeks to travel with me.  I thought I’d have more fun if I could explore the Galapagos Islands with Anna so I bought a plane ticket to Colombia to wait for her to arrive.  I flew back from Trujillo to Lima and then Bogota in about 4 hours.  I had to reach deep into my pockets to pay for the $600 dollar ticket, but I really hadn’t much interest in doing anything else.
At that point, I was done traveling.  All the buses, time spent alone and money spent to sleep and eat had begun to wear on me.  Colombia is my second home outside the United States so that’s where I decided to go.
View South America May 2011 to ??? in a larger map

The best of Bolivia!

It was hard to blog regularly in Bolivia because the places I stayed at in Santa Cruz, Oruro and Uyuni didn’t have wi-fi internet.  So I’ll just lump everything into one large blog post on Bolivia.
Being in Bolivia felt just like being in Zambia, comfortable!  When I first crossed the border from Paraguay to Bolivia, the countryside, its dirt roads, rolling hills, farmland, mud-brick buildings and corrugated-metal roofs were reminiscent of Zambia.  I was instantly in love with the place.
I started in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, partying with Jakob from Germany, Mads and Peter from Denmark, Giulia from Italy, and Zoe from the UK.  It was great fun!

Our party crew. From left to right: Giulia, me, Peter, Mads, Jakob and Zoe

Afterwards, it took me 2 full days of bus transportation to get to Uyuni.  There was a day-long stop in Oruro where I was lucky enough to be there at the same time as a wedding celebration that carried on in the streets .  I later had a rough bout with altitude sickness since Oruro is 4800 meters above sea level.  Combined with the 8-hour, rickety bus ride in the cold darkness down the bone-jarring dirt road to Uyuni will forever seared into my memory as the “Transport from Hell.”
Uyuni was cold; I’d been warned by other travelers.  The salar de Uyuni, the famous salt flats, were a photographer’s paradise.  You could take lots of fun pictures fooling with depth perception.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Fun with depth perception!

After Uyuni, I went to La Paz.  My plan was to be in La Paz for a few days only; I ended up being there for more than two weeks!  I met up with Maribel, a friend of a friend, Sidney, from back home.  Maribel introduced me to her friends, Mikaela and Eric, and her brother, Justo, who were all so hospitable and friendly.  Eric let me stay at his house in Coroica, putting me in touch with his friend, Jose Luis, after mountain biking down the famous Death Road.

They don't call it Death Road for nothing!

That's me on the far left trying to hold one wheel precariously over the edge.


From left to right: Me, Eric, Justo and Maribel

Other highlights of La Paz include:

  • dancing at the Gitana nightclub in Zona Sur
  • eating delicious Bolivian chicharron at Maribel’s restaurant, the famous Chicharroneria Irpavi
  • eating fried chicken at Pollos Copacabana five times in a week
  • hiking precariously along the steep ridges of Valle de la Luna with Mika
  • visiting the ruins of Tiwanaku with Mika
  • eating delicious food during the barbecue at Mika’s family’s house
  • eating American-style buffalo wings and baby back ribs with Mika
  • getting to know Mika’s family
  • eating cheese cooked in a Swiss raclette and eating French tortiflette with my French friends, Phil, Corinne and Romain, and, of course, Mika
  • eating the “Maremoto,” a seafood dish, with Mika, her brother Pablo and his girlfriend, Paula
  • partying with Mika and her cousins
  • all the times Mika tried to get me to dance traditional Bolivian dances, such as the caporales, morenada and tinku

Mika and I at Gitana nightclub

Established more than 40 years ago by Maribel's family, the Chicharroneria Irpavi is very popular on the weekends. Long lines and full tables are the norm, and for a good reason, too. The chicharron here is to die for! It's like bacon, but better.

My half-eaten plate of chicharron. I tore into it, savoring every delicious morsel.

Food in Bolivia was so cheap.  I could eat a meal for 3-4 USDs at a fancy restaurant.  In hole-in-the wall restaurants, I could get a more hearty meal for 1 USD, which included soup, a main entree and a drink.  The relatively low cost of food in Bolivia only encouraged more eating.  The same could be said for the cost of beer and drinking.
Not only was food cheap, but it was also very delicious.  Mika was very enthusiastic about me trying as many Bolivian foods as possible.  Who was I to argue with the lady?  I ate everything and I had seconds… and I had thirds.  It was very easy to indulge in Bolivian food.  I ate so much food that Mika had a conversation about the 7 deadly sins and gluttony.  She called me a glutton.  Guilty as charged.
Another interesting cultural observation was the Bolivian’s different concept on the idea of sharing.  When sharing a meal, they take a little bit of food as needed and they are comfortable with the likelihood that the food might not be shared as evenly.  I, on the other hand, tend to want everything alloted evenly.  If that isn’t possible, I become competitive.  I’ll get my food early, eat fast, and then go for seconds.  Only in retrospect did I realize the error of my ways.   On two separate occasions, she had to restrain me from getting too much food too soon, or what I perceived as the fair portion alloted to each individual. (Example: 12 buffalo wings / 3 people = 4 buffalo wings per person)  In Bolivia, you get a little bit at a time and you don’t keep count.

At the Valle de la Luna

Cheese! That's what Swiss raclette is all about. You melt cheese in a grill and then eat it with meat, veggies, and potatoes. From left to right: me, Mika, and our dear French friends, Romain, Corinne, and Phil.

Every year, the local universities in La Paz put on a big parade to show off traditional Bolivian dances like tinku, caporales, and morenada. Coincidentally, there was a parade at almost every single town that I visited when I was in Bolivia.

I ended my visit to Bolivia at a town called Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  At 3,811 meters, or 12,500 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest commercially navigable lake.
I had seen a totora reed boat that is unique to the lake before at the Native American museum in Washington, D.C., and it was nice to see one in real life on Lake Titicaca.

A totora reed boat on the shore of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. This was taken at the dock on the Isla del Sol.

Copacabana also has a great deal of religious significance in Bolivia.  People come here to get married, pray to God, have their cars blessed, and so forth.

They line up in droves in Copacabana to have their new cars blessed. Here you can see how they decorate the cars for this special occasion.

Lighting prayer candles at the church in Copacabana, Bolivia

Senorita Mika Gavilano

Copacabana was my last stop in Bolivia.  Mika and I said our tearful goodbyes and then I was off on my own again.  I took a four-hour bus ride to Puno, Peru, waited two hours, and then took a 30-hour bus ride to Lima.  We passed through the desert and drove next to the ocean.  The bus broke down on the way a few hours outside of Lima, but it was cool.  Nothing surprises me anymore when I travel.

The long, coastal desert road to Lima, Peru


The Great Bolivian Scavenger Hunt!

My list of requirements to fulfill the Great Bolivian Scavenger Hunt (for U.S. citizens only). My limited Spanish required me to learn very quickly!

I spent July 7th to August 3rd, 2011 in Bolivia.  The ridiculously complicated visa application process, which I call the “Great Bolivian Scavenger Hunt,” was well worth the delay in Paraguay.  This is what the Bolivian government wanted from me:

  1. Visa application form.
  2. Passport photocopy.
  3. Paraguayan visa stamp photocopy.
  4. Hotel reservation (and I never book hotels in advance).
  5. Transportation reservations exiting the country (which is impossible if you don’t know how long you’re going to stay and tickets are generally bought on the date of departure).
  6. Photocopy of credit card.
  7. A hand-written note stating my intent to travel to Bolivia to see the salt flats, to mountain bike down the “Death Road,” and to see Lake Titicaca.
  8. A passport-sized photo with a RED background. (I travel with passport-sized photos because I know that many countries require that for the visa.  But only Bolivia requires a photo with a RED background.  Thus, I had to get more photos taken of me, which required more time, money and effort than was reasonable for such a trivial requirement.)
  9. A notarized document from the police department saying that I hadn’t murdered anyone, committed any larcenies, raped people or committed other heinous acts in Paraguay.  (Yea, believe it.  This took two trips:  One to the police department and one to the notary office.  More money, time and effort required on my part because mine is, of course, limitless- along with my patience.)
  10. Yellow fever vaccine. (This required a little bit of finagling in order to get a physician to write a note saying that I had my yellow fever vaccination eight years ago when I was in Peace Corps Zambia.  I almost didn’t go to Bolivia because of this last requirement, but I came up with this solution and it worked- thank goodness!)

Furthermore, an act of God was required at the border crossing to come up with the money to pay for the visa because the border control wouldn’t accept a wrinkled 100 USD bill!  I almost had my baggage thrown off the bus and I was almost abandoned at the Paraguay-Bolivian border had it not been for the kindness of a stranger who lent me the last 120 Bolivianos (17.42 USD) that I needed to pay for the visa.
Because the border control guards wouldn’t accept my $100 dollar bill, I had to exchange it for Bolivianos at a rate that will almost certainly guarantee the cholita woman a one-way ticket to hell.  (I traded it for 600 Bolivianos when I should’ve gotten 700 Bolivianos, a $10-dollar profit on her part and $10 loss on mine.)  I begged everyone on the bus to lend me the difference, and at the moment when they were about to throw my baggage off the bus and proceed without me, a stranger lent me the money.  That guy will probably end up in heaven.

It's not the destination, but the journey.

Nobody comes to Paraguay.  The country has relatively little to offer in comparison to its neighbors, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.  No beaches, no wine, no mountains.  Most people come to Paraguay as they pass through, and that was my plan, too, as I make my way west across the continent from the beaches of Brazil to the Bolivian salt flats, the Andes mountains, and the Peruvian coast.
View South America May 2011 to ??? in a larger map
However, I’ve been in Asuncion, Paraguay now for seven days, which is a lot longer than I had planned.  I got stuck in the application process for my Bolivian visa and I couldn’t get anything done over the weekend because the Bolivian embassy was closed.  (It’s also only open for about 4.5 hours during the day!)
Nonetheless, I had a GREAT time in Asuncion!  This city has one of the lowest costs of living in the world, which makes for cheap food, cheap accommodations and cheap beer!  In addition to that, I finally got to meet Natalia who I was excited to see ever since our mutual friend, Geneza, put me in contact with her a few months ago.  I met with Natalia almost as soon as I got here and she helped me get acquainted with the city.

Natalia and I.

I’d been going out every night with people I’d met since I got here.  I hung out mainly with two Argentinian travelers, and I also had a really fun day with some Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) working here in Paraguay.  It’s the interactions that I’ve enjoyed the most here.  The more people I meet, the more Spanish I learn.  The PCVs here, especially, gave me valuable insight on the Paraguayan culture.

Some Uruguayan girls, an Argentinian guy, and I. From left to right, Yasmine, Joey, Matias, Vane, Carmen

I really like Asuncion.  It’s easy to get around on foot or by bus, and it’s perfectly safe walking (er, stumbling) home at 3 am in the middle of the night.  There’s a lot to learn and I’ve only scratched the surface.
There’s the plight of the indigenous people who were kicked off their lands and who are seeking recompense from the government.  Some of them sleep in Plaza Uruguay, their tents made of large, black plastic bags.  Just a few decades ago it wasn’t against the law to kill an indigenous person.  My jaw dropped when someone told me that.

Several indigenous families are camped out in Plaza Uruguaya.

Political rally for the plight of the indigenous people

The food here is really good.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember or correctly pronounce what I’ve eaten, but I’ve enjoyed all of it.  I’ve had food here in Paraguay that I may never eat again for the rest of my life (unless I return to Paraguay or make some Paraguayan friends back home).  And, as I mentioned earlier, food is cheap.  In fact, I had two entrees for lunch today – the gluttonous norteamericano that I am!

Sopa Paraguaya - Soup it is not. I found that out after the fact.

Beef and cornmeal dumpling soup, cassava, and a lemon that looks like an orange. I found it out was a lemon only after I had bit into it like an orange. Haha!

I honestly wish I could stay longer.  I’m comfortable here and I like the pace of life and cost of living.  Unfortunately, I’m supposed to be in Colombia at the beginning of August and I’ve still got to make my way through Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.  I might have to prioritize and skip some things in the next few weeks.  I’ll be ok with that as long as I’m meeting interesting people and learning along the way.  After all, it’s not the destination but the journey.

Palacio del Gobierno

Asuncion is adorned with red, white, and blue banners for its bicentennial celebration (1811-2011). Viva Paraguay!