When I realize that I have spent 4 months in Bolivia, I have two simultaneous trains of thought: How has it only been 4 months it seems like years ago when I was taking a plane out of Seattle and landing in Santa Cruz for the first time, and there is absolutely no way it has only been 4 months, it’s already gone by so fast. It seems strange that two contradictory thoughts can exist at the same time, but it’s truly how I feel. In this past month I have really had many opportunities of a lifetime. I got to travel across the whole country of Bolivia with the other Rotary exchange students, I got to go to a Bolivian prom, I’ve gotten to know people so well they feel like my family, and so many other small assorted experiences that make my life here so exciting. Now it is time to share all that I have done with my friends and family back in the States. I apologize in advance, because I know that this post is going to be lengthy, but there’s just so much to say!
Where to even start? How about on November 30th, the day that me and 30 other exchange students departed from Viru Viru Airport in Santa Cruz to our first stop of Tarija, Bolivia on a journey of a lifetime. At the crack of dawn our plane took off, just to come down again about 40 minutes later. The wonderful thing about Bolivia is that all the major cities are less than an hour in plane from each other, so we didn’t have very long commutes. Anyways, Tarija is a relatively small city at the bottom of Bolivia. It is known for having some of the highest vineyards in the whole world, which I had the opportunity to tour. The vineyards were absolutely beautiful, and the area where wine was produced was intriguing. It was mostly massive metal containers where the wine was created and purified, then packaged to be aged. Although getting to see all of this was amazing, I must admit the most enjoyable part of Tarija, and most of the other cities we went to, was the climate. I come from the Pacific Northwest with a mild rainy climate to the literal tropics where it is 90 degrees everyday. This 10 day trip was a refreshing break from constantly wiping away my forehead sweat and worrying if people could see my pit stains. Heck a couple days I even got to wear a sweatshirt!
Our next stop was in Cochabamba, another beautiful city, which is where my host mom’s side of the family comes from. What Cochabamba is most well known for is El Christo. Much like the better known Christo in Rio de Janeiro, there is a huge Christ statue on a mountain overlooking the city. Of course, because we are exchange students, we has to take a million pictures in various places with our flags. For just a couple Bolivian coins we also were able to climb inside of the statue to the level of it’s arms. This offered an unmatchable view of the whole city, even if climbing the somewhat perilous stairs was a little bit terrifying. I wish we would have spent a little more time in Cochabamba as it was a wonderful city, but at the end of just one day we were already headed onto our next stop, La Paz.
When I first learned I was going to Bolivia, La Paz was the first city that I really researched. It is one of the largest and most well known cities in all of Bolivia, and was in fact my favorite place on the whole trip. When we first exited the plane a strange feeling hit me. I was almost a little light headed, and now pulling my suitcase wasn’t quite as easy as it had been in the other cities. La Paz is known as the highest capital city in the whole world, and its average elevation is around 12,000 feet, therefore the air we were breathing was a little bit thinner. It only took me about an hour to really adjust, and from there I didn’t have any trouble with nausea or headaches. I won’t deny that walking up a hill or a flight of stairs got me winded every time though. In La Paz we toured some museums and churches that were really beautiful. the Plaza Principal was one of my favorites that I have seen, and I ate the best salteñas there since I’ve gotten here. One thing La Paz is known for is the Teleferico, which is a monorail that goes all the way through the city. To most of the people living there it is simply a means of transportation, but to us it was an adventure. The monorail took us for a little over an hour through the city, and all the way up the mountain side to the neighboring city El Alto. For the most part it was a purely enjoyable experience, but when there was a big gust of wind I was not so happy to swing back and forth suspended on a cable 50 feet in the air.
Smack dab in the middle of our 3 day stay in La Paz we took a short bus ride to Lake Titicaca. I can remember all the way back in 9th grade having to memorize its location for World Geography and giggling at its name, never once thinking I would see it myself. Lake Titicaca is an enormous lake, so big that it is partly in Bolivia, and partly in Peru. It is also remarkable because it is at such a high elevation, yet totally navigable by boat. We first arrived in a little tourist town called Copacabana. It was just a short stop there until we were off for a one hour boat ride into the middle of the lake, where we would spend the night on the island Isla del Sol. On this island there are absolutely no cars, so walking is the only mode of transportation. In fact, to get to our hotel we had to walk for an hour up the steep side of a hill. On our walk we saw a lot of llamas, sheep, and donkeys. Our hotel was really nice, and I got to stay in a little hut with my roommate who I had the whole trip, Albert who is from Denmark. On our bed there must have been 10 blankets, showing how chilly the weather was. The first night there was a thunder and lightning storm, and let me tell you there is nothing more picturesque than watching the flashing bolts of lightning illuminate the mountains of Peru not so far across the lake. The next day we woke up early and headed to another island to see the Incan ruins. The ruins were surprisingly in tact for being hundreds of years old. We visited one place where virgins were taken to be trained to be wives later in life. The men who guarded these ruins in the past were castrated as to avoid risk of temptation. Once the virgins were of age, a select few were taken by the Incan royals, and the rest were sacrificed to the gods. Fortunately that is an antiquated tradition, and now the ruins are simply a tourist attraction. That day we returned to La Paz, and a few days later we moved on to Uyuni.
The city of Uyuni in and of itself wasn’t too exciting. It was a little bit cold and dusty. It was remarkable small, but it had its own charm to it. What was really incredible was Salar de Uyuni which is about 30 minutes away in car from the city. We arrived to Uyuni in train at about 2 in the morning, and 5 hours later we were all in the hotel lobby running on only a little sleep lathering our whole bodies in sunscreen. With a combination of the high elevation, and the blinding white reflection from all the salt in Salar de Uyuni sunscreen was an absolute necessity. The first place we stopped was the train cemetery. Essentially all the old trains that were no longer in use were placed here, creating a graveyard like location. We were given about a half an hour to climb around and explore before we headed out again. From there we finally arrived at the Salar. Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat on this planet, and is actually visible from space. When in space Neil Armstrong actually saw it while circling our planet from high above, and felt so moved by it that he came to Bolivia to see it in person after he landed. The salt flat was very uniform in appearance. It’s basically miles upon miles of white with raised cracks in roughly hexagonal shapes. The neverending landscape is in some ways humbling. You feel so small in the midst of something so large. In the salt flat we got to have a picnic, and watch the sunset go down. I also say a real life wild flamingo, unfortunately only from a distance flying away, but it was still incredible. After the sunset we went back to our hotel, which was partially made of salt. Even our bed frame was made of the stuff, which of course I had to give the lick taste to make sure I wasn’t being lied to.
Our last stop after Salar de Uyuni was Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia. Sucre was a pristine city of white buildings, and was a great way to end the trip. I ate some of the best chocolate produced in Bolivia, and had some free time to look around the city. The last night of the trip we were all sad that it was over, so we stayed up late talking and laughing together. The next day we had a short city tour then went to the airport. We were all pretty tired and excited to sleep in our own beds, and shower in our showers. We got to the airport a little late, but it was alright because our plane was delayed for 15 minutes. Then 15 minutes passed and they still weren’t even boarding yet. Finally the news came that the plane had broken down in another city, and that we would be spending one more night in Sucre! Some people were a little aggravated, but I was ecstatic. In all honesty we were all tired from the past night so no one did much, but I really enjoyed having one last night with my new family all together. We left the hotel at 4:40 to catch our plane, and arrived in Santa Cruz a few hours later. As I am now adjusting to the Bolivian lifestyle I took a nice long siesta, then took it easy for the rest of the day.
Wow as if that wasn’t enough for one blog post, I want to talk about one more thing. I already wrote a brief post about going to a Graduacion in Bolivia, but I ended up going to another. One of my good friends Jose Maria invited me to go to my school’s party with him and his friends. I got all dressed up, borrowing a suit from a friend, which didn’t really fit me or match my pants, but who cares right? Like all things in Bolivia there was great food lots of dancing and excitement. It really made me realize how much more fun I have down here. I’ve learned that life isn’t all about being serious. You have to live, and that’s exactly what I am doing!