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I forgot!

I forgot to recount one last funny story of Santa Cruz before I leave. So as I said in my last post, I went to this place called Samaipata in the mountains for the weekend. In the morning, everyone except me had a hangover from the previous night of drinking (and shooting bottles with slingshots and cooked corn as ammo) and eating (a lot). So Aldo and I decided to do a little hiking. He told me it was about 30 minutes to get to a point from which you could see the entire city so we set off. I get to the top in about 10 minutes, and in about 20, he shows up (he’s a little out of shape, so it seems) and we sit there for a while and he decides to turn back and I continue hiking. I climb up this trail up the side of this mountain/hill which looks more like a drainage path that anything, but I finally get to the top after about 30-40 minutes and take some awesome pictures. Then I’m hiking around on the top and decide to go back down the mountain a different way – right down the side of it, with canyons on either side (protected by barbed wire). There is no trail, so I am taking my time going down, jumping from rock to rock, knee deep in brush, and I finally get to the bottom where I think I can cross the little valley, but it’s too deep and I don’t think I can get out if I get in, so I go a little further, thinking that it will be easier, but then the barbed wire starts and that made it less appealing, so I go to the other side (the two canyons on either side kind of converge) and I can’t find a place so I start traversing back up and finally find a place where I can jump between two rocks over to the other side. Then I had to wiggle under some barbed wire to get to a trail and I’m walking in a forest of eucalyptus trees. I knew the house was a little higher, so I started hiking up this hill in this little forest of trees and I get to a dirt road, but I don’t know where the cabin is. So I wiggle under some more barbed wire to cut through this yard and when I get half-way through, three dogs start running after me barking and I turn around and run as fast as I can back to the gate and slide under the barbed wire – but my pants get caught on the wire and so I am frantically trying to get them undone. Luckily for me though, the dogs backed off (lazy Bolivian dogs…) and didn’t follow me all the way and so I’m standing there drenched in sweat still lost. So I hike higher hoping to see the house from a higher point and then finally find the trail back to the house and make it just in time for lunch (and a shower).

It was OUTTA control.

Goodbye, Santa Cruz

Well, it’s time to say goodbye to Santa Cruz. I leave for Peru tomorrow and will be returning to Bolivia soon on my way down to Argentina, but not to this region.

We just got back from a weekend trip to Samaipata, a small town in the mountains – away from the humidity and pollution. My buddy Aldo has a house up there and it was a weekend of relaxation, eating and drinking (as if there were anything else to do in Bolivia). The ride up was very interesting: a snake of a road with bits and pieces missing and a few signs before hand warning you to merely be careful (no joke, a sign says “be careful of the road” and about 100 feet later, there is a whole lane missing for about 10 feet, leaving a massive hole into the canyon below). Sometimes roads just disappear in Bolivia.

So what are my impressions on Santa Cruz? Well, there really isn’t that much to this town, although it is one of the biggest in Bolivia. Driving down the streets, you see the same things (stores, statues, markets, poor people) over and over again. Bolivia faces a big problem with being land locked (not having a coast with which they can easily import and export goods) and having a major portion of its population extremely poor and uneducated.

With ignorant and unhappy masses, civil unrest is always looming and this does not look good for foreign investors. The police are very corrupt here (you can buy yourself out of anything for anywhere from $6-$12 US and most of them don’t even have guns, for fear that they will sell them). People are very scared of crime here and there seems to be nothing here to protect them or prevent it. No one pays taxes here except big corporations, and that leads to anger and tax evasion, and leaves very little money for Santa Cruz (after the politicians have taken their cut). Santa Cruz is also very lacking in the customer service area – the products sell themselves (for whatever price you look like you will pay) and everything closes from 11-2 during lunch, even though that is when most people can go out to buy stuff. And after lunch, on the way back to work, you can always be sure you’ll see a guy relieving himself on the wall in front of a crowded intersection. It’s also very hot and humid here every day without rain about once or twice a week.

On the good side though, you can drink the water out of the tap (hey, that’s quite an accomplishment). I am very glad I got the opportunity to live here with a family and that I also got to work here.

When you are rich, the not so great things about this country aren’t really as prominent and when you are a traveler, you merely take note – they are more interesting than anything. This really is a different world. It is not until you get to really experience life in someone else’s shoes that you can even begin to understand their perspective. I won’t get this opportunity for the rest of my stay in South America, as I will only be spending a maximum of about 1-3 weeks in each of the countries I visit next, with leaves very little time in each city. And I will never forget the hospitality of the family that took me in and my buddy Nick. This has truly been an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Feeling guiltily good

When I first got to Santa Cruz, Nick, Hugo, some rich government guy, and I were all sitting outside the house talking and I was asked why I am traveling the world, I replied that I think it is a good experience to see many things before one settles into doing that which he or she will do for his or her life (or something to that effect), and they replied “all I hear is American guilt – can’t you just enjoy a vacation?”. The thing is though, I really don’t view this as a vacation. Sure, some parts of it are going to be a lot of fun – but it’s also going to be hard to “throw yourself out of your comfort zone” (quoted from a friend), every moment of every day. You may like pizza, but what if you had to eat it for every meal of every day for many, many, many months. My case in point is that yeah, I am having fun, but in all honesty, that is not my intention so much as wanting to experience as much as I can experience (be it good or bad).

With that being said, the past couple weeks have been a wonderful vacation of doing absolutely nothing – and I have loved every minute of it. Traveling takes its toll on you and you never really get bored, but sometimes, getting bored is the best therapy you can get. I used to be like this – able to take things really slowly. I liked moving slow and having time to think and take everything in. But then I had to move really fast for a year and a half. Between work (I think I had about 5 part-time jobs to save up for this thing) and my last few quarters at school, if I wasn’t working, I was studying, programming or sleeping, with not much of a social life beyond school. I pushed myself to the point of breaking and just now, after two months of traveling, I have finally slowed down again.

I go to my Chinese tutoring for an hour a day and the rest of the day I either read, study Chinese or Spanish, watch TV, or go outside and think. There is a huge mango tree out back and the mangoes have become ripe (and man do I love mangoes) so I eat quite a few of those a day as well (the maid made a comment today, haha). I also have a pretty comprehensive library at my disposal in the study room here at the house and have been trying to read as much as I can before I set off to the vast book wasteland that is much of South America.

I don’t know. Maybe if I wasn’t leaving in a few days, the prospect of doing this for an undefined period of time would cause me to get bored, but thankfully, that’s not the case and I am loving this. I treated the Spechars out to dinner the other night at a fancy dining establishment and we gorged ourselves. Appetizers (snails and squid), our main course, dessert, and two bottles of wine for six people came to a whopping $115 bucks. Ah yes, the things we can do with a strong dollar.

In other news, Thanksgiving is coming up! No, they don’t celebrate it here (uhhh, where was it the pilgrims landed?), but that doesn’t preclude us whiteboys from doing it. Of course, I think were just going to have some badly cooked turkey and beer – nothing more; But that will have to do.

And I leave for Peru in 6 days!

Lazy days…

The days have grown lazier since I quit my job. Basically, I was bored at work and was done with the project I was working on – and since I am going to be leaving pretty soon, I didn’t really want to start any other projects at the risk of leaving them half finished. So I finally got paid – which is a miracle, as I was sure I wouldn’t since the company for which I worked is having some financial problems at the moment.

Most of the guys working there are going on 2-3 months without being paid, and are still working there. Why, you ask? Where else are they going to get a job? At least this place MAY pay them someday, as opposed to not getting paid at all. It was really fun working there and I enjoyed the experience. The team was always in good spirits and always friendly and helpful, and I think it will be a nice addition to my resume as well. But I have moved on. I don’t know if I mentioned it yet, but I have a private Chinese tutor now and although it’s frustrating, I think I am making the most of it. Also, there are benefits to studying Chinese here. For one, I will be getting a good foundation for studying while I am traveling so that when I get to China, I’ll be ahead. I already know about 50 words (written characters and spoken words) and am getting the hang of the pronunciation, which is a bitch and a half (yeah, that’s right: A bitch, then another half of a bitch. Don’t ask me what happened to the other half, though). Also, it’s considerably less expensive to study here in Bolivia. How about $3.50 an hour as opposed to the $20 it would likely cost in the US (yeah, how about that). On the economy note, I just got my haircut, as well. It left me hurting too, as it was exceedingly difficult to part with the 10 bolivianos (about $1.20 US dollars). They don’t worry about trivial stuff like cleaning equipment and the like, which allows them to keep down costs (What’s a little ring worm between strangers, am I right?).

Now that I am out of work, I am taking the opportunity to study and read as much as I can. I read fairly slowly so it’s rather frustrating. I have found that a massage a week is very conducive to relieving the stress of such a fast paced lifestyle. Also, I found a nice stash of opera, classical, and jazz cd’s in the library here at the house, so I’m converting them all to MP3 so I can take the music with me when I leave. I’m also eating a lot: Three square meals a day – and then some. And let’s just say, the Bolivian diet is not quite “light”. At last measurement, I have put on about 7-8 pounds. My plan is to keep this up, since I don’t know how well I’ll be eating while I’m traveling. I anticipate dropping quite a few pounds in the upcoming months as I travel through countries which contain bacteria to which I am not yet accustomed. A single battle with one of those hellacious strains can shave off a good 5-6 pounds in a matter of days.

I am, however, really looking forward to getting on the road again. I feel like I came all this way and am living the same life I was living at home – a normal one. But I can almost feel the excitement coming, and it’s not too far away.

In a class of 8 year olds

I finally started Chinese class. I really don’t think Chinese is going to be that hard to learn (grammatically). The real challenge is speaking, as it is a tonal language. So basically, if you said “ee” with a rising, falling, rising-falling, or high tone, it is four different words. It’s difficult to make that transition from English where we don’t have such madness built into the language. My classes are at a Chinese church and I was a little hesitant to go to Sunday’s class as I figured it might be some sort of ploy to get me into church – but it wasn’t, thankfully. I was looked at strangely by the other students when I told them I wasn’t religious in response to their questions (and I left out the fact that my dog Mojo and myself are legal reverends in the state of Texas).

But the staff doesn’t seem to preoccupied with religion (think I should hand out Nietzsche books so they can get his take on God?) and on Sundays, instead of us four being in our own room, we go into the class with all the 8-year-olds also learning Chinese. They are pretty spartan facilities, but then again, what can you expect for $15 bucks a month? In a bunch of desks in a really hot room and a fan rotating to your direction every 7 seconds, do I seem out of place? Yes, indeed. We all got to see, “I am ____ years old” in Chinese and after about 10 kids saying “I am 8 years old”, my “I am 22 years old” was a bit of a surprise to many, it seemed. Ever see that movie where Adam Sandler goes back to school and is in kindergarten? That’s me (oh yeah, and I’m white).

One kid, however, couldn’t help but point out, “wow, you’re young!” to which I responded, “and you’re younger”. It really is a surreal experience to hear so many languages going on at once by these little kids. You’ll see these Chinese kids running around speaking perfect Spanish (many who don’t know Chinese), or asking you questions in Chinese, or you’ll be sitting there reading and a kid will come up to you and make conversation in perfect English. I mean, English really is rare down here. In the US, lots of people know a little bit of Spanish “Yo poco hablar espanol”, but here, if you’re not rich (and sometimes, even if you are), you don’t know a single word in English. You never hear it on the street. If your talking to a taxi driver and you don’t know a word in Spanish – you’re gonna have to think of a different way to say what you want to say.

Friday night we went out to a really high class Bolivian restaurant and go beer, wine, a really good dinner (llama for me), and dessert. I spent a whole 10 bucks. This was in celebration of the Becky’s birthday (Nick’s cousin who is in the Peace Corps). We also went to a bar and then they went dancing – at which point I took a cab home.

You always have to pick your exit wisely in Bolivia while out on the town. The longer you stay out, the drunker everyone gets and the more they want to drive you home when they are done partying. Also, if you don’t get out quick, you end up staying out till like 5am. And I like to sleep.

Sunday was a family get-together at the Spechar house and we spent all day in and out of the pool, eating and drinking, playing with the dogs, talking, and throwing around the football. It was a lot of fun and I also finished an incredible book called, “Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the science of getting people to buy stuff.

Parrots LOVE pringles!

I can remember first arriving to Bolivia and taking a shower at Nick’s apartment. I wanted to adjust the shower head (which seems like a simple enough desire), but there were two things, unbeknownst to me, that were going to prevent me from doing so. The shower head was metal AND had an electric heater embedded within it. Alone, either one is harmless, but you put the two together – and the fact that you and everything in the shower is covered with water – and if you weren’t already awake, you very soon will be. And I was.

So now let’s fast forward a month and I return back from my visit to the US with an electric shock pen. Muuuhahahahha. I arrive at work and am talking to Nick at his desk. I remove his only pen and put mine in place. Two minutes later, as he is talking to me, he picks it up to write something down and ZAP! The pen gets thrown to the floor. And thus, we devise a method whereby which we may shock the rest of the office. It is Friday, Salteña day, (a salteña is like a fried roll with a bunch of goodies inside) and we pass around a paper and collect money so that the secretary can go pick them up for everyone.

“Julio Cesar, quieres un Salteña? Si? Ordena lo que quieras.”

Of course, the Bolivians aren’t known for their subtlety (have you ever heard of a Bolivian spy?), so with each subsequent person we got, we had to play off the fact that we had one more giggling Bolivian watching anxiously as the next victim wrote down his order. We also had to contend with the fact that each subsequent victim had also heard many screams of profanity and uproarious laughter, and as I’m sure you can imagine, they already knew something was up.

All in good fun, eh?

That night, we went to a Halloween party where you get to kiss a bunch of people on the cheek and get heckled until you drink your entire glass (which means a glass of beer for each person you meet, that is, if you’re not as they would say, un maricón – Spanish for gay). The night was cool though, and towards the end, I had about four single Bolivian girls surrounding me, telling me I had to dance. After repeated emphasis that I really don’t like dancing (or in my case, moving awkwardly while everyone at the party looks at the big white guy), they settled for practicing their English and hitting on me. Now, I emphasize SINGLE Bolivian girls for a reason.

The attractive girls at parties are always with someone that could very easily kick my ass – or could afford to pay someone to do it, at the very least. The motto here seems to be, get ’em while they’re young before they are taken. But my conscience just doesn’t seem to let me take advantage of 15 year old girls (or maybe I’m just an uptight American).

So we also went to Concepción this weekend. We woke up at 6:30 and headed off. You can see the pictures as proof – this scenery on the car ride over there was nothing short of beautiful. In addition to absolutely perfect weather (reminiscent of California – which is unheard of in Santa Cruz), you are treated to miles and miles of rolling hills filled with a brilliant, lush green trees and shrubbery while making your way over the weathered dirt roads. The trek had a meditative quality and you derive a unique sense isolation and solidarity while observing a land that one could honestly say time forgot (except for the fact that you would be lying, seeing as everyone knows how good a memory time has). Every 20 miles or so you would see a bamboo shack with a straw roof and a nearby barn, with little kids playing soccer out front and perhaps a few cows or stray dogs wandering around looking for food. Everything looked almost prehistoric – and with every new hill, I half expected to see a giant brontosaurus in the distance, munching lazily on a tree, or maybe a pterodactyl circling overhead searching for whatever the hell it was pterodactyls ate.

But no pterodactyls of which to speak, and we arrived to the little town of Concepción right on time only to find that they didn’t make our reservation and we would instead have to be in one big room together with 6 beds. No worries. We went and visited a family friend there, who owns a hotel, and had some pretty killer orange juice as we talked.

He also has quite a collection of plants in the backyard of the hotel, including an orchid farm consisting of several thousand orchids. I decided to figure out what exactly I could do with my camera and took some really nice photos (at least, in my opinion). After that, we got dinner at the hotel and had some of the most incredible roasted duck I have ever tasted. If your ever in Bolivia and stop by Concepción, it is definitely worth it. The entire meal was incredible and three bottles of wine later, we headed back to our own hotel to hit the hay.

The next day, we headed back home and I slept most of the way so I missed a lot of the scenery. We did stop at an Italian place on the way though – and a phenomenal lunch (imagine steak, with cheese, pizza sauce, ham and tomatoes – kinda like a steak pizza) and some incredible pineapple juice ensured that I slept well the rest of the way to the Santa Cruz.

As for today, I just got back from the massage parlor – and am now “working” hard at Energy To Market. Also, I got a video of the most annoying bug in the world. Although you can’t really see the bug itself on the branch, you can most definitely hear it. Then imagine listening to that all day times about 10 (they have finally started to subside in Santa Cruz though – thank god).

Also, I have revised my plan for when I go to Peru. From everything I have gathered, Chile isn’t all that exciting from the top to about Santiago, so what I will do instead is the following. I will take a plane to Lima, Peru – then take a bus to Cuzco, Peru. I will see the Incan ruins there, then head back to La Paz in Bolivia. From there, I will head down to Oruro where I will take a train to the Uyuni Salt Flats, which is a huge expanse of salt and crazy colored lakes. There’s actually a hotel made entirely of salt (even your bed!) so I’ll probably stay there. From there, I will take a train to the Bolivian/Argentine border and then head down through the Andes to Cordoba, then Mendoza, then cross over the Chile to Santiago. From there I will head down the arctic portion of Chile, where I will cross over to Argentina again and head up to Buenos Aires. After a trip to the Iguazu Falls (which supposedly put Niagara falls to shame), I will head to New Zealand. I think this plan will enable me to see a lot of Argentina and all of the cool parts of Chile as well.

Drunken bull riding and then conception

So here’s the plan. When we were at Oktoberfest, we rode this mechanical bull and it had a number on it to rent it. So took down the number and are going to rent it for a party this weekend. It’s going to be pretty fun – especially when you throw a bunch of drunken Bolivians into the mix.

The family with which I’m living and I are also going to Concepción this weekend. It’s supposed to be pretty nice and I think I’ll get some pretty cool pictures there. It is a city of antiquity and Missions, kind like back home in California – but with less strict rules (like you can take pictures inside).

The big problem, however, is that we just can’t figure out how many bottles of wine to take. Ahhhh, the preoccupations of the upper class.

Also, we got some very good news yesterday. My buddy Nick (with whom I work) and his wife are now expecting! Now, by saying that they both are expecting, I don’t mean that they are both pregnant – only one is. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which (I know, it was a surprise to me, too).

In my massage the other day, I was informed that one of my shoulder blades is higher than the other after asking me if my back hurt at all. This is actually exactly where I have back pain and it’s always pretty constant. I’m sure a chiropractor could pop that thing right back into place – but sadly, I don’t think they have yet been invented in Bolivia. Just my luck.

Ever tried playing pool in Bolivia? It’s pretty hard. We went to a pool hall the other day and I found out that the pockets are about half as big as they are in the US. Pretty crazy – and nearly impossible to get a ball in. Supposedly, it’s to make you play longer and drink more. Pure genius.

Oh, and it’s Halloween today! Yes, they have Halloween here in Bolivia too, but it’s not like in the US. Older people (like my age…heh, older people) just have little get-togethers. Little kids don’t go trick-or-treating or have parties in school or anything. You see, the concept of “free stuff” just doesn’t really work here – as you would probably just get hand fulls of dirt – as that’s the only thing many people have. And you know – I can go get that myself.