Eco-farms, mines, markets and poverty
01.05.2010 - 30.05.2010 30 °C
And Hola Bolivia!
Coma Estas? Bien? Bien! Bueno! Moy Bueno!
Te gusta Australianos? Si si!
As you can tell by now I'm practically fluent in Spanish, though I try hard not to flaunt it like I did above.
This blog is about Bolivia though, so without further ado it is focus Ben, focus.
As you readers may know, one Miss Michelle England hijacked our blog to bring you Peru, reportedly due to my ostinato procrastination. If procrastination is the codeword for perfection these days then so be it! But before I start this blog on Bolivia context might be in order: before the land of Peru we were in Bolivia, and before Bolivia came the Pantanal in Brazil.
From the Pantanal we caught an increasingly familiar 6am bus along 6 hours of bumpy dirt road to the Bolivia/Brazil border. Getting across the Brazil part was fine, but on the Bolivian side we had the immigration officer ask Michelle and I to produce a certain amount of cash (which we didn’t have) or a credit card; somewhat bizzare having Bolivia, the 3rd poorest country in Latin America questioning us about our financial viability to visit it! Michelle had her CC on her but mine had been in my wallet - that got stolen in Mendoza. We tried to explain this but we could tell it wasn't going anywhere (and someone in front was in the same predicament and failed to convince Mr Serious), so it was time for plan B: the "we are married" card.
I had a ring I'd bought in Argentina, and casually slipped it on the left finger - stealth-like. Chelle explained we were married and shared the same card. A few suspicious looks later - whoolah, we were in! I think that makes it our first official married moment?
Once you cross the border, to get to Bolivia's first major town, Santa Cruz, you need to catch a train affectionately known as the "death train". We'd done our research on exactly why such a friendly label applied and from what we discerned it was mostly to do with the self-inflicted pain people wish upon themselves after putting up with a rickety train that stops every 5-10 minutes and is as uncomfortable as hell. That's the cheapest and nastiest train though which costs about $3-5 for 12 hours. Fortunately us super-rich-credit-card-owning tourists had another option - the ferrobus - for about $40 with seats more like an airplane cabin with air conditioning. Death train it is not, unless it is death by eating the snacks they serve at the station before you get on.
Santa Cruz had a bad rap from some travellers we had met but we quite enjoyed the city. Firstly – it has Yogun Fruz, quite possibly the best frozen yoghurt the world has yet invented. It also has a beautiful plaza that forms the heart of the central district, and is a plethora of shops, markets and food stalls surrounding it - definitely good for a day of meandering, eating and artwork and shopping. It is beginning to get a pollution problem and has too much traffic already, and will be dealing with some serious environmental and health issues in the near future. But that was nothing compared to the Bolivian capital La Paz - more on that later.
Santa Cruz time was spent mostly chillin and getting up to date on blogs, etc (those were the days), but we were to return to it a week later and visit a village just out of town called Porongo that maintained a more traditional Santa Cruz lifestyle in architecture, transport, food and general day-to-day life. To get there you had to get in a truck/collectivo at one of the markets, wait till the truck filled up with people and then off you go! Half the trip off-road through dirt, mud and overflowing rivers - a very authentic outback Bolivian experience. In the town itself there's plenty of local delicacies to feast on, none of which are remotely healthy, but why let health get in the way of good taste right? Right!
At our hostel we had read about a place called Gingers Paradise that was a eco/organic farm where you could go and work to pay off some of your board - well, you saved about $1/day so it was basically volunteering.
It sounded interesting and we felt like doing something different than following lonely planet trails, so - off we went!
Getting to gingers was an adventure in itself, again it required catching a collectivo where we squashed in with about 8 people and backpacks into a Toyota Hiace, telling them to drop us off at "KM 72" and hoping they knew what that meant – or more like that they could understand our Spanglish. That's the quintessential travel though right, vague directions of how to get from A to B with you to have the fun of filling in the dots.
Once we arrived at Gingers we were greeted by two Israeli guys in their underwear (an interesting welcoming party!) and as they proceeded to change in front of us they told us to drop our bags at the cabin, get some farm friendly gear on, and head off to the field to start doing some work. Alrighty then - straight into it then I guess!
There we met the owners of Gingers, Chris and Sol, and their cute kids Ginger and Dzi (pronounced "Dizzy"), along with 5 other people who were staying there. An eclectic bunch we were - there was an American girl who'd been staying there in a tent for 3 weeks now, a Dutch guy having some time-out from travelling with his partner, the two Israeli guys and "crazy George" a retired ex-Vietnam green beret. Oh yea – and some nutbag Australians thrown in too.
After a brief hello it was time to get the hoes out and start digging weeds. Nothing like getting those hands dirty after months of avoiding work!
At Gingers all meals are made from organic produce on the farm, and everyone eats together. It's part of the beauty of the place, everyone gets to know each other and within a day you all feel like family. It also helps that the food is so delicious, you truly realise how crap the stuff you usually get from supermarkets is. A typical days’ meal might be fresh baked bread with pesto, home-made jam, avocado and garlic for breakfast. A huge lunch with fried Tapioca and salt, beans and rice, a giant vegetable patty, salad and desert of fresh fruit and dinner is the lightest meal of the day often just fruit and a small sandwhich. Damn it’s making me hungry talking about it! No matter how much you work at gingers, you are ALWAYS full! Oh yea – a little organic chocolate and red wine at dinner doesn’t go astray either.
Staying at a place like this is really important as it connects you closely again with your own sustenance. When you shop at a city supermarket you don't think about where the tomato you eat is grown and how it's grown and what it takes to grow it. When you take a dump in the toilet you don't think about the impact that might make, sans those that enter the toilet after you. Gingers had nothing but a can and some sawdust for a dunny, albeit with some of the best nature views one might want while doing their business (that white bread clogging never felt so enjoyable). The toilet was as clean and non-smelling as any you'd want and all waste got recycled and put back into the earth. All electricity for the farm comes from a combination of solar power and a hydro-electric generator driven from a tiny waterfall about 1km from the main house. That’s the type of place Gingers is.
Chris the owner of Gingers Paradise is a talented musician and many nights on Gingers involve dinner followed by your own personal concert on the guitar. And if your girlfriend dobs you in as playing guitar as well (not to mention names!) you'll be handed the guitar and in front of everyone there asked to play your own originals or make some up! And then Chris might ask you to record them for his "infamous hits" tape that he is compiling from people that have stayed at Gingers. I did this on the last night and the songs I recorded will stay with Chelle I'm afraid, but if you come and visit us in the future then after a few beers I may be persuaded to bring them out again :-))
Chris is looking to raise money for a musical performance he wants to take around Bolivia to educate people about the environment – badly needed I must say. I helped him while I was there with applying for some funding, doing budgets etc, but if anyone knows an organisation he should consider applying for let us know and I'll tell him.
Chelle and I both left Gingers Paradise changed from the experience, determined to have a backyard as soon as possible when we get home, start growing some herbs and vegies, and generally learning to be more conscious of our day-to-day impacts. Yes - we are turning into tree-hugging hippies. Make sure you all hold us to it OK!
Some misc photos of Gingers including some walks to nearby waterfalls.
At Gingers Paradise I had my first experience playing a Charango, a 10 stringed guitar with 5 pairs of strings tuned to the same note (like a 12 string guitar, just 2 less string). The tuning is totally different than guitar though and gives an open chord tuning which sounds beautiful just strumming it. After playing with it I HAD to get one and Christopher recommended a friend of his, Fernando, who was a great Charango player in Cochabamba, about 6 hours rickety bus away - so off to Cochbamba we went!
Cochabamba is one big-ass market town, with literally every street lined with vendors spruiking their stuff, a lot of it really quite kitsch or trinket and often very random. It's a little in your face and a little polluted and chaotic but still made for some fascinating street roaming, and, mostly importantly, was the place I will remember as where I got my first Charango (cue tears). It is named Coche (many marketing team meetings later), and having a local there to know what to get made all the difference - and saved me some good $'s. Fresh in my hands Fernando, Chelle and I went to the top of a hill for my first - and so far only - Charango lesson. These guitar-battled fingers of mine struggled to learn new skills - you play it more ukelele style than guitar - but fun was had by all, at least the locals nearby didn't go running for the hills when I played!!
Cocha also contained the lesser known of the "Christos" of South America, and given Rio's one was closed we decided to pay a visit - still a spectacular sight and view.
From Cochabamba we headed it was off to one of the most beautiful towns in Bolivia - the colonial town of Sucre. Sucre is one of those places that many a person intends to spend only a day or two in but ends up staying for weeks. It's a perfect place to learn Spanish too – for anyone hitting Bolivia in the near future.
The town itself has been immaculately maintained, with its’ streets, churches and buildings in prime condition and the Sucre central area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a fantastic energy about the place, with great food at great prices to be found everywhere, fresh markets if you want to cook on your own, and plenty of beautiful architecture to take in, especially at night. Sucre was also the town where the Bolivian Declaration of Independence was signed so it has important historical significance to the Bolivians.
We were lucky to be in Sucre just in time for one of their yearly festivals, where people hit the streets in numbers dressed up and ready to dance and sing. It's colourful and vibrant and reminded us of the festival in Valdivia all those months ago (time is flying fast here!!). Chelle and I also tried a bit of dancing, helping to integrate Sydney and Sucre dance techniques into a new avante garde fusion of human movement. OK – I made that up.
Nearby Sucre, about an hour away is the Tarabuco markets, the biggest in the area. They are held on Sunday and are dominated by the local textile artists who spend up to a month creating beautiful clothes and artwork. As colourful as it was we must say it was a bit of a depressive place, with few smiles on the faces of the locals and no music going on around us. It doesn’t make for really enjoyable shopping, and in a strange way you feel like you are being used for your gringo dollar.
One bright spot in the market was a girl - excitable and contagiously friendly - we met who had just started an organic cafe and arts shop, way out the back of town. We decided to visit and boy did it turn out to be interesting! The food was great and the small gallery there interesting (it had only about 10 or so paintings as it was in start-up mode), but somehow we found ourselves an hour later still inside being held slightly hostage by our overly enthusiastic host!
We had a bus that was leaving at either 4 or 4:30pm (I was sure it was the later; Chelle the former), and it was approaching 4 so we tried to wrap things. We had shown interest in one of the paintings but probably not enough to buy one, but then the idea was suggested last minute that we might want to GET OUR OWN PORTRAIT! Our host was keen for a sale, and her brother was one of the gallery artists and – we were told - he could do it for us within 24 hours! We thought why not? This was actually the first portrait he had ever done and there were none other in the gallery – this was one of those random travel things you have to say yes to!
I had decided I wanted a portrait with a Charango in it (people who know me know that I go through times of brief obsession with new things) and that sparked a series of phone calls and frenzied conversations around town whereby we discovered an uncle SOMEWHERE had a Charango! It was like a challenge in the Great Race to get it to us in time. We waited, waited and waited, and a few minutes before 4pm up turned the Charango – not just a Charango either but a full local costume for Chelle and I, complete with the Spanish style helmet! Chelle was certain by now that the bus was at 4pm and we were going to miss it but I was equally as certain that it was 4:30pm and all was good. Ben’s never wrong, right?
The helmut made us look a little touristy tragic/daggy as you can see the portrait photo below, and the end result you'll have to come and see in our house sometime. It’s pretty damn funny! They did a good job of me, but it does make Michelle look a little bit like she has a black eye! By the time all our costume changes and photo taking were done we raced back to the bus just in time to find out that, shock horror the bus WAS actually 4pm. The pain for me was double-fold: 1) We missed the bus; 2) I had to admit to Michelle she was right. The first pain turned out to be no drama as there were local buses available. The second pain I am still feeling to this day!
And with that I shall leave part one of Bolivia. Next to come are the Potosi Mines, Uyuni Salt Flats, Death Road and the Amazon**. Geeez you realise you get around a bit when you do this round-the-world thing. Stay tuned!!!
Ben and Chelle
- *At this rate current ETA is 2015