Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

The world is a beautiful place and I am no longer afraid to die (Part 1)

Blow Up

Nerves se in, calmed, and are now here again. They first arose not too far outside of Viña, where the reality set in that I was left everything on a journey unprepared and potentially unready for the implications that I could never return. Of course, this isn’t my forecast but the idea that I could never get to indulge in an act as simple as hug Moira again stings. Long journeys eventually start to sooth these tensions ––I enjoyed a wider variety of Chilean frontier than I had been accustomed too and the last section of the bus ride through the desert was particularly nice; we climbed rather high into the mountains to a point at which the peaks that had once dwarfed as monoliths on the horizon now sat below as mild scenery. A few small cities exist up there, that is kind of all they do: exist. Stay there with their permanent carnivals that I suppose, when one is surrounded exclusively by rock, make sense of the flashy lights and constant sounds as the only way to drown out the alienation of modernity imposed on a barren land. My thoughts travel often to us; things that have always been a reality but I just couldn’t see. Perhaps it is when I am loneliest that I look past the predilections that isolate me from other people ––though this didn’t close me, if anything I felt connected to another human who was potentially feeling the same hundreds of miles away.

Yet now, in Iquique, my physical seclusion reflects how emotionally stranded I am. I landed here, I need to get to the airport, I have time to kill and yet the nature of the city has already murdered it. It’s these moments that make solo travel such a trial; the inability to immediately turn and find security in another, the constantly fleeting feeling of solace. Perhaps if I keep writing I can remain close.

All the cabbies said they were doing me a favor, it was Sunday after all and the airport is 35 km outside of the city; this was the best price I could expect. Some eve quoted higher than the price all the others told me was standard; I wasn’t feeling to well and even though I needed to get to the airport spending that much didn’t sit right with me. I went for a walk, got harassed by more cabbies and then returned to the bus station. I asked the driver of a south-bound bus if he could drop me at the airport on the way as I really needed to catch a flight at 3:50. He agreed, but when I walked outside the cabbies told me he’d never do it because the police wait right at the airport looking to catch malicious bus drivers helping people get there (it is not a normal stop on any route). They reiterated how generous their offers were. That hour south on the bus was tense; I sat on the edge of my seat close to the door, always watching for the airport on the horizon, paying attention to the velocity of the vehicle ––if they didn’t stop it was another four hundred km to Antofagasta, where my journey would have probably ended.

 

A faster heart, a slower peace

Flying into La Paz  is a wonder of its own, at first one sees the Andes towering above all else on earth, almost looking divine in their juxtaposed grandeur. Then, beneath the blue-white monuments a city begins to form on a high plateau, it grows and grows from scattered houses into a jumble, it tears up the ground into streets, confuses rocky formations with unbuilt houses, and grows and spills over into the valley with a momentum that carries the tide of people down unto it’s depths with such a surge that the splash up the other sides of the bowl. It is as if someone founded a secluded valley in the most remote of places on earth and poured La Paz in until it stretched outward with the Andes.

I helped a dutch traveler find a hostel and figure out the exchanged rate; we now room together and found pizza after an exhaustive search for vegetarian options in nighttime La Paz ––there are plenty of women that grill up food on the street, many with a few benches and a fabric roof where people can sit once they order the food; a standard dish is salad, potatoes, grilled onions, an egg, and llama meat but apparently one cannot eat any of the parts without eating the whole. Thus we settled for pizza. To get to the actual restaurant we walked into one building, through the kitchen, out the back into an ally and then through the kitchen of the pizza place (which was also, more or less, the seating area). Like most foreigners I have met he doesn’t really speak Spanish —most get by on a combination of slow English and gestures— yet the effort to try to share a language with the Bolivians often warms their hearts, if nothing else perhaps purely by a function of contrast. It is here where I first begin to learn I apparently look like an ethnically ambiguous individual; that first night no Bolivians could guess where I was from; many said I speak with the accent of an Argentinian but slightly like a Chilean, yet my look is European (some even said middle eastern). The United States was never elected as an option, surprise always followed the reveal.

Nearly everyone I speak to for a short time praises my Spanish though I know it is not on the same level of the Bolivians I converse with and I assume it is a result of interacting with foreigners who only know slow, imperial English. Sargana street and the surrounding area are interesting: everyone is selling more or less the same alpaca products at more or less the same prices —it is crowded, noisy, and full of Bolivia. Part of this area is an actual witches market; this isn’t just the moniker given to it by foreign tourists but an actual market for the magical goods that remain grounded in indigenous traditions surviving the reach of globalization. The stalls sell everything from painted stone to llama fetuses —burned in the home to induce an abortion— and none of the women want their picture taken as they believe the camera robs part of the soul.

Altitude sickness has set in in the form of a minor headache though, all things considered, I am doing well in the face of a long day of walking and this being my first foray into high altitudes. If anything, this was my biggest concern before arriving to the country, the fact that altitude sickness and its more fatal forms can strike almost randomly as they are not predicated on level of fitness. Water intake remains high, food continues not to escape me, and I am walking as slowly as I can. Bolivians may have adopted a slower lifestyle as a result of the altitude’s coercion but the tendency to walk softly now pervades other facets of Bolivian-ness —most notable to foreigners (and much to their chagrin) restaurant service is characteristically slow, with the expectation that company will have plenty to discuss before and during the meal and thus shouldn’t mind waiting long periods of time for both alimentation and service.

At times I am tempted to contact “home” but I know there is really no point other than to reassure them and stave off some loneliness, yet if done once one finds the need to continually reach outside of their immediate life. This isn’t a tour through Bolivia that I passively enjoy for the sake of “memories” or the newly popularized “bucket list”, this is my actual life right now and I need to engage it. Death road tomorrow.

Put your finger in the socket

From la cumbre the asphalt road open up to a vista many are not ready for, a series of grand mountains continue infinitely into the distance leaving among them enough space for the most beautiful of perilous drops. We were not yet on the Yungas but the paved prelude, the new road that has since cut down the fatalities on the death road from 300 a year to roughly 20. Everything started off dangerous enough; beginning at the back of the pack I quickly overtook most of our group, yet as I was passing two more in a curve I felt my body moving in a different direction than my bike, My seat had come loose at 70km/h, the changes sending my bike into wobbling fits near the edge of the cliffs. Eventually we reached the old Yungas, a road still used by everyone from Taxi drivers and buses to commercial cars and dump trucks. Parts of the road are no more than 10 ft wide (remember, it is officially two lanes), parts go under waterfalls, and almost all of the camino features drops of nearly 400 m —the first time looking over the edge of such a fall on a small road is not even fear inducing, there is no space for fear, all one can do is marvel at the beautiful juxtaposition, be caught in the mix of beauty and death. Those going down the road stay to the left, this way the driver has a better view of how much space their vehicle has before certain death when passing those coming up the road. It is not just cars that do this either; buses, taxi, and freight trucks make the journey through the road that used to claim hundreds of lives a year (traffic used to be 300 cars a day, now it is about 30). Today, following the left edge, we did it on bikes.

The road is actually not a difficult one to cycle; experience will get most through it easily, though a relaxed person could do it without much prior mountain biking —as the guides will tell you, the only fatalities occur from faulty equipment and people doing to road less than 3 days after arriving in La Paz from sea level. You need to let go of your marriage to life and safety, the best way to survive the bumps and turns is to recognize that you could die but what is going to keep you alive is mindfulness on your biking as a form of existence and not as a spacial place which may put you near an edge. At one moment I cam upon a dump truck stopped on the left side, which I figured was waiting there for another large vehicle to pass (given the openness of the area it is easy to see vehicles miles in advance, save blind corners, usually drivers will wait where they know there is space rather than hoping they fit by). I figured I could get around the truck and the mystery vehicle no problem and thus pulled to the right as I came up on the truck. As soon as I did I saw that the oncoming vehicle, another large truck, was also passing. The commitment to pass had already been made, my bike was in line with the back tire of the first truck, I had to go forward. I squeezed through both with no more than a 2 inch margin of error and then had to immediately drift around the back of the passing truck to avoid going off the cliff that accompanied the turn. Passing vehicles can be exhilarating  many wait for them to go by before they start biking again, and, in some places, there is no choices but to pull aside. Sometimes the vehicles are bearing down on you.

One part of the ride I raced a bus down the dusty roads; I knew it couldn’t go too fast without risking going over the edge but it remained a close 10 ft behind me until a local checkpoint —certain parts of the Yungas region use a rope raised or lowered to signal whether or not vehicles can pass into the next area, even though a truck could easily plow through one it is an unspoken rule that people must follow the wishes of the villagers in charge of the checkpoint. Upon coming up to this one the people in charge were not paying much attention; I was almost forced to bail from my bike because the bus behind me had started to slow down (in anticipation of the rope lowering) and yet the rope remained up, right there like a trip wire.

The whole trip was a blast, an enjoyable ride through an exceedingly beautiful region of Bolivia (the waterfalls there are gigantic and gorgeously backgrounded by a swath of greens). Going fast with 400 m drops 2 ft away, drifting around corners, and almost losing control of the bike at several moments —this is where relaxation helps— make for a good day, The area is some of the most beautiful nature in the world, made marvelous by its impressive heights, angles, and drops.

That high feeling

El Alto can feel pointless, like station 2 from Heart of Darkness, it looks like a massive expanse of people working not toward anything but for the symbolic significance of work. Most of the buildings are not finished; some are foundations, others just the skeletons of the whole building, some lack a roof, others have select floors completed and one was entirely dilapidated save a really fancy house perched atop the third and final floor. All of them have bricks out front, some have workers talking by them, and a few have workers doing a few things without making much of any progress. Although El Alto starts concentrated on the cliffs of La Paz it quickly becomes a sparse expanse of small houses, the occasional church, and trash pits strewn about the country side of the Antiplano. It is in these remote locations where one usually sees workers working. Trucks stop to refuel or pick up stuff but there seems to be no story of how the cargo gets there no where it goes, nor even if it is taken. El Alto feels like it has something imposed on it.
100 Years of Solitude

Ideological transfigurations ensure that we are all ghosts to some extent, alienated and estranged from our own history, relying on the safety of mimicry. Traveling gets lonely fast. That’s not an axiom, of course, I am just speaking for myself. Tonight is particularly isolated, the lack of camaraderie palpable; a bunch of events transpired at once and, although insignificant on their own, culminate in how I feel now. I am in a cafe with bright walls trying to seem worldly; they feature photos of famous musicians that have never visited, various cultural knick knacks, and signs in French and Italian. Everyone seems to know everyone else,  but that’s not the issue; although I am potentially trying to drown my feelings in food no amount of fettuccine  will erase my departing from the dutch man I grew close with in La Paz, nor will it retroactively make the bus ride the normal 7 hours rather than the 9.5 it became, and by no feat will it change the feeling of arriving in the dangerous part of a foreign city at night and not being able to find a cab for the longest time. Travel exacerbates the most alienating parts of day to day life; the lack of security, the unavailability of immediate companionship, and just how fragile happiness is. I don’t know what to do, as of now my plans, tentative as the were, are in peril. The past few days  were fun, the interactions great and, even then, likely to draw attention to how I miss certain aspects of my “normal” life. Just people I’d like to travel with, I guess. Part of me wants to call a lot of this off, skip to Tupiza for the southwest circuit tour, spare myself the agony of the several other longer bus trips on the horizon, and be closer to the thing my life wants the most right now —an engagement with the natural world, a person close to me, and an environment in which I don’t feel like the onus is constantly on me to break some nebulous viel of un-interaction with the world. Time is longer while on the road and it is starting to concern part of me, but sometimes the worst voices are the loudest.

Cochabamba is odd. Although a lot of the city is lain out in a grid it feels chaotic. Although cars constantly fill the principle streets with noise a lot of the roads feel desolate, even dangerous at times, as if everything has gone silent in anticipation. The food in Cocha is wonderful; it is varied, tasty, and, like much of Bolivia, cheap. The clubs are good too, whereas nightlife in La Paz felt virtually nonexistent Cochabamba offers a variety of well-kept places with some of the most colorful variety of drinks. But that’s what Cochabamba is: an expectation. The anticipation of a foreign tourist that adorns the walls of cafes and lights the clubs. The assumption of Catholicism that litters the city with churches which make an otherwise uniform set of city blocks feel differentiated. Even the expectation that you won’t venture beyond the center; maybe you were told not to, maybe hostels and clubs were what you wanted, but what’s more likely is that once you see these areas you won’t continue. They don’t feel like tourist Cocha (they don’t want to), there are run down futbol courts, even less stable streets, streets with distinctions that are not easy to anticipate, and a bustle that is less predictable. This, the city at the fringes of the center, is where cocha is.

The Park of Forking Paths

Here it feels as though Bolivia tried to preserve something rather than work toward what the world was asking of it. The buildings are old and beautiful, the parks sedate but also grand; it is what we think of when us cosmopolitans summon the word culture. It’s why Europe is more rich, a more pristine notch on a traveler’s belt than the US, why the streets of Buenos Aires feel fun but maybe not the bends of La Paz. We aren;t even really seeking any of it, we’ve prefigured culture to the next colonial church or oil painting; we know what culture is, we’ve already experienced it, sometimes we just want proof. Sucre is just that, it hands you the cultural production you are asking for —not intentionally, of course, this is your fault— and asks you to forget the Bolivia you thought you knew. I won’t lie, it is a wonderful city, somehow the parks are the perfect size for secluded inclusion, the sky is always clear, the food better and cheaper and larger than much of Bolivia. I am a bit pacified, I don’t pay attention to my body shaking, my gait lapsing, nor my hands and feet losing feeling. Like the day of the week or time of day I am no longer cognizant of altitude, I might as well be at sea level before I try to sprint, but it feels like it is insidiously creeping up on me.

Sucre reveals itself at 4pm (more or less). Historic buildings open to tours, the tourists wake up, and the poorer Bolivians from the outer neighborhoods return to sell everything. There’s a market off the center of town which is a labyrinth of shops; street-side the storefronts vend DVDs, toys, personal beauty products and other effects…

The cafe I am sitting in has a window that looks onto the street and a table built into the window at about 1 ft off the ground so that the tabletop and sidewalk form a singular plane separate by a pane of glass. Whenever children walk by they are mesmerized: one smiles when I notice him, others jump about when I quickly throw them a funny glance, one even starts brushing the window with a long balloon he has. Am I a foreigner to them? 

As soon as one looks into the shops they realize a staircase or hallways leads back, there begins the twist and turn of vendors of similar wares, which eventually give way to an indoor market. Not everyone is occupying their triangular stalls but everything from freshly killed goat to homemade cheese can be purchased. From here begin other hallways to other storefronts but also a courtyard where old women sit among giant sacks of potatoes and wait for customers

When solitary people walk by the are fixated, we certainly don’t know one another but would they like to change that? Do they want to know why I am sitting in a cafe writing and staring out a window? Are they lonely, are they trying to reach out of their normal life, is the act all they need? Men look the least, they always posses a forward gaze, not so they can reach something but rather so they can make sure people watching believe what they feign —why isn’t my gaze sufficient? They also often reassert their connections to their female companions when they catch her being curious. A couple will be walking down the street for a long time without any contact and it is only in that momentary pause of possibility that an arm reaches firmly for a waist to signal that there is none.

The foreign tourists mostly keep to themselves, nearly all of them traveling with a member of the same sex, either on vacation or carrying over prepared backpacks (and front packs…). None of them venture into the market and even less make it far enough to see the fringes of it (it is in an area just on the fringes of the european-esque parts). Like in La Paz none of them really speak much to the locals and they only really interact with them when they need something to eat or drink.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves in center Sucre.
I love you Jesus Christ

Going to bed is the worst, never fall in love:

The street children call me Jesus Cristo, they start to look the same; battered cups, bags of trash, and runny noses. I’d love to give money to help all of them but what does that do when the world will just go on to create more. The man who stopped me was from Potosí, in the city seeking medical treatment —apparently writing in this journal draws people to me, first Enzo-Reyes and now Roberto— his family grew crops, an accident had deformed his hands, and the treatment was going to cost too much. His gaze begged for money before he even began to talk, but he never outright asked me for any, just elaborated continuously until I reached a point at which I would fold. We talked for a long while, eventually drawing a crowd of street children. I am no sure I look wealthy —certainly a quick glance around the plaza and one would readily spot more affluent looking individuals than I— but it was something in how I held a conversation that drew the,. I genuinely talked with Roberto despite his intent being clear, his lack of money, and battered hands. I spoke too with the children in the same manner. Passerby stared —Roberto said it was because everyone here is rich by Bolivia’s standards so none of them have to care about the country— it shouldn’t be a gift to talk to someone genuinely.

When a museum hosts a film /documentary festival or showing, often on some human rights related topic, it draws a certain crowd, and with them arrives a thick air of a specific attitude; it involves looking down on those who aren’t as worldly, aware, and horrified. The same presence is what you find when hanging out with foreigners from the global north abroad; they’re often in cafes, maybe at film screenings (always subbed in English) or at a bar. They talk about the local population but not with them, the wonder how people can be so ignorant about the world without ever acknowledging what is happening to people back home and how they might even play a part in it all. Ostensibly, the don some item associated with the local cultural garb and work it into an otherwise mass produced set of clothes, as if to say “don’t forget I am modern, but I am also a cosmopolitan”. It looks like a pretty euphoric circle-jerk.

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