“That’s Chicago for ya,” my uncle said, as I hugged him in the mattress department of Macys in downtown Chicago. I had just told him I got offered a job at the Illinois Housing Department Authority in the communications department. They called me about twenty minutes after I left the interview.
It’s an awesome job, and the building is located right on Michigan Avenue, between the river and the Trib.
“That’s like working at the Rockefeller Centre,” Quin told me.
Fast-paced and sharp I had to be all weekend, amid a sea of changes in every aspect of my life.
“It’s okay to cry on the train, I do it all the time,” my friend Nina said to me. I stayed with Nina on Saturday night. We met two years ago in Krakow when she couchsurfed with me. “Now we get to be real friends!” she said. Ah, traveling friends. The undying bond.
I couldn’t eat much all weekend, from booze Saturday to anxiety constantly and nerves and excitement and maybe a new apartment. As fast-pace as my new job came about, I’ve had to try to figure out my apartment situation just as quickly. I found one that I love and applied for it, but was turned down for having not bad credit, but no credit. And they won’t take an out-of-state co-signer. I frantically beseech John and Sophie W. to help me.
“We’re going to have to come up with new names for you two since you’ll be around for the next two years!” John said. We all get a kick out of two Sophies being in the same room together.
So I wait, frantically, at my desk, hoping that my questionable future landlord will take them as co-signers, and reporting my news to the folks who helped me get this job.
I still can’t believe it. It’s all happening.
(Alternative titles: ”It’s March in Nebraska” and “Signs I’m growing up”)
Exciting/notable things that have happened lately:
- We have a Jesuit Pope (!!!) The first email I sent was to Artur, my Jesuit friend in Poland saying: “I thought you characters were too wild to be elected Pope?”
- It’s lent, and just like the good cafeteria Catholics that we are, myself and many of my friends devoutly practice. That’s no joke. Lent is practically secular at this point. As it should be. I get so much done this time of year.
- I spent St. Patrick’s day with Molly for the first time since Senior year, when we, like this year, went to the Brazen Head and had Irish car-bombs with her mother (and this year Rose joined!)
- My goddaughter turned 5 and still calls me her Fairy Godmother.
- I made home-made pierogi! And they turned out way better than I thought they would. Round two comes this weekend when my very cute boyfriend visits.
- I have been reading a lot and it just so happens the last three books have been about places on three different continents I have visited: 1) “They Come Back Singing,” which is about a Jesuit who used to work for Jesuit Refugee Services (my old organization) in Uganda. He writes about my old house-mate and boss Frido, who used to run around in his towel. He was not the only Jesuit in Africa I saw run around in his towel. The book discusses other things too, of which I’ve written pages and pages on. Lets cross our fingers I get that blog out soon. 2) “Night” by Elie Wiesel, which is of course about the holocaust (yep I visited Auschwitz, and as pointed out last weekend have a weird obsession with holocaust film Night and Fog) and 3) Che’s “Motorcycle Diary.” He actually kind of follows my Peru/Chile route the opposite direction. I guess it is a sign that I lived in Bolivia that when he mentions hitchhiking with the “Indians” I thought… “who?” Oh right, Aymarans. I’ll credit Evo for me not immediately realizing what he meant.
- I have been talking a lot about my three continents lately in cover letter/resume nonsense directed to people who are being strongly solicited to pay me to work for them in Chicago. I’m that annoying “prospective employee” cold-emailing certain departments at Loyola that I feel I’m just perfect for. . .
- Seeing as I can stand writing a resume, applying for a credit card and going to Graduate School now, I seem to have come a ways from where I was two years ago. Hippy phases are fun phases and I wouldn’t say I’m entirely out of it, but I just realllllly want to have a slightly more stable, independent life.
- Although, I still did ask every Polish contact I had if there was anything happening this summer in Krakow-land. When the Spring winds come I long for Piekary. I can’t imagine a more perfect place on the planet. If I think too much about spring bicycle rides along the Vistula, about the perpetual low-light, about the charming, lovely people. . . oh, I long from my bones.
- This year though. . . I have plans associated with the Polish neighborhood in Chicago and Michigan Lake. And with visitors who I met from abroad, and my own apartment, and many things for which I’ve hoped for many years. I’m very lucky to be able to pursue it.
- I’m planning to visit Chicago in a few weeks to apartment hunt. I’m taking two night buses in and out, and sleeping on my friend Nina’s couch. I met her when she Couchsurfed with me in Krakow, a few years ago.
- And my strange, wonderful, circular-international life continues. Like a slinky on a bus through the altiplano.
Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras morning I awoke at 6am to Professor Longhairs’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans which Molly began blasting to get us out of bed while she put on skeleton make-up. I hadn’t seen her since the summer, when she’d gone to India and I set off for Bolivia. There are few people who get what it’s like to be abroad like her, and it felt right, that after a rough January of silent reverse culture shock, she and I could meet in one of the coolest US cities for its biggest festival.
Quin and I decked ourselves out in beads and feathers and sequins, and the three of us hit the New Orleans streets to try to find the illusive Mardi Gras Indians and early parades. Strolling down Canal Street we pondered street food and road beers as we waited for Quin’s friend Jacob, who rolled up in his beat to hell Buick, and drove us to the Bywater district of New Orleans. Costumed locals lined the streets early, gathering for drinks and greeting us with “Happy Mardi Gras!” as we first stopped at Jacob’s favorite karaoke bar for some breakfast bloody marys and cider.
Before we saw any parades and I finished my first morning drink Quin ran into the bar, announcing that the Indians were outside. We saw four Indians, and chased after them over the grassy boulevard of Elysian Fields so I could snap a few photos of the strutting men in feathers. Mardi Gras Indians are one of the most beloved traditions of Mardi Gras. They are not a part of an official city parade, but are illusive traditional bands of men from the black neighborhoods of New Orleans. Every year they sew new costumes, hit the streets early and blast music while parading down streets in their neighborhood krewes. It is surreal to me, coming from the Midwest, that there are things this cool happening in the States.
Mardi Gras was a blur of parades and booze and costumes and beads and friendly locals and tourists. We never made it to Bourbon Street, which is gross enough during normal time, so I didn’t experience the stereotypical breast-flashing, puking on the streets Mardi Gras made famous by overgrown frat-boy tourists. The traditional Mardi Gras of New Orleans was a huge wild party, but it was mostly costumes and beads and a community of fun-lovin’ locals.
The whole experience was a blast, especially seeing the massive Zulu parade and locals in the Marigne at St. Anne’s parade. There are some fuzzy hours after Quin and I split off from Molly, Abby and the rest of the New Orlean’s crew and somehow a small bottle of whiskey appeared in my bag. But my camera serves as a helper memory and there’s no doubt it was a ball. I was wearing a suffocating amount of beads by 5:00 or so, by the time we found the whole crew at the river, and I announced it was high time we went back for naps. Seeing as we’d been drinking since 9am.
The day after Mardi Gras we went to Ash Wednesday mass at the St Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square. It is a beautiful church, of which I have a hand-drawing from Quin. The sermon was beautiful, and given by the Archbishop of New Orleans. Finally, it was good to go to a mass in the States and hear such kind, realistic, supportive thoughts. The Church will always be a big part of my life, in one way or another, whether is because my drinking buddies abroad are Priests or because I am working for an organization supported by the Curia. But I don’t “religiously” go to mass. I’ll spare you my reasons for not going in Lincoln, though.
Ash Wednesday mass reminded me again of how much strength can come from experiencing the world through the Church’s beautiful teachings. I found a good sense of ironical goodness, that after spending the day before running around the streets full of costumed locals—several of which were in bishop gear (and even an ex-Bendict!) I could be listening to one on a pedestal who wasn’t full of regal conservatism, and who gave me and all of my friends a sense of peace, optimism and hope. Lent is always a good time to stop and think a little about life.
Sea of Love
After a night of dancing on Frenchman Street, listening to brass bands, and having another, lesser night of partying on Ash Wednesday night, Quin and I were walking back to the hotel, on the nearly-deserted streets. We passed slient, gated Jackson Square, with St. Louis Cathedral towering over us, and a street musician started talking to us. He was kind of charming, in a Before Sunrise poet-on-the-river sort of way.
“I saw you guys walking and I just thought you would want to hear this,” he said as he started strumming Sea of Love, a favorite of both of ours. It was gorgeous on an atmospheric moon-lit night that I will remember in a sort of romantic foreign glory.
I was in the South—mostly in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for the past two weeks and have thought a lot about how it is possible to make yourself comfortable in whatever place and situation you find yourself in. I thought about it nearly constantly my first year out of college, when I was running around the world in and out of jobs and classes and summer camps and flats and hostels and everything else. Some places and days I did better than others—at finding a place and a way to be content amid constant changes. I hope that in a year or two I will think of Bolivia only in the sense that I saw some amazing nature, I met wonderful people and I explored another world, within the linguistic barriers, finally, for the first time. I am tired of carrying on a sort of reverse culture shock, a transitional cloudy feeling that I am not-quite-right. I’m not alone in this, as my comrade from India published what in weeks of writing I couldn’t never manage to put on the internet (Molly’s Blog.)
Every year has been so different since I graduated. Two years ago I was just beginning my life in Poland after leaving Africa. Last year I was in Lincoln, saving money and writing. This year I am coming off a trip to South America that was filled with amazing experiences–Machu Picchu, the Salt Flats, the Bolivian Jungle, Chilean beaches, and so many other places. It was four months of Spanish practice and many days and nights that wore on me physically and mentally. I actually lost 20 lbs in those four months (I’m not complaining…) from the altitude, but also from the food and the constant stomache bugs and the lumpy beds and trying to hold on to some semblance of reality.
The trip down south, to Tuscaloosa and to New Orleans, was something I really needed to do. I feel more centered now, and I feel ready for the next thing. It took awhile to feel like this after leaving Bolivia, but finally, finally I think I’m back to my transitional normal. I signed up for my first class in the Graduate school at Loyola yesterday. I’m really, really excited to be moving to Chicago, another sort of enclave of foreign within the US.
The good life is beginning again. I feel less like I’m about to get on Bolivian bus through the altiplano, and more like I’ll be happy in the midwest for awhile, even if I’m still not entirely present.
After about 3 weeks traveling around Bolivia, Peru and Chile on buses, I’d like to say a bit about the experiences so far. I have taken 8 buses so far (just in these 3ish weeks.) All have been 6 hours or more (emphasize more.) In total I’ve spent about 2 1/2 days on buses. I still have two to go in Bolivia this week, one tomorrow to Cochabamba and one Friday to Santa Cruz. And when I get home in two weeks, there’s the Megabus from Chicago to Omaha. But God help me, I think Megabus has wifi.
So, lets start with the basics of buses, sometimes called “flotas” in this part of South American I am only beginning to understand. Buses are the most common mode of transport here. Going into a bus station is like going into a bartering market. All of the bus company representatives yell names of cities and when the buses will leave, and you can buy a ticket for a bus at that hour on the spot. It is cheapest to buy tickets on the spot but obviously not always practical. I did both, and the cheapest I got was in Peru, from Puno to Cusco at 15 soles, which is about $5. It was an 8-hour trip on what an Aussie described to me as a “chicken bus.”
(Before I go on, I should note that there are a LOT of nice, inexpensive buses around here. I took a few of them. If you plan well you can basically always do this. S.A. buses can be fantastic. But where’s the fun in writing about those?…)
I do think that the “chicken bus” reference is condescending, but it was definitely a cheap local bus, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t smelly, dirty and slow with music blasting and random hawkers climbing aboard to try to sell their informacional videos and silver chains (and people bought them!!) At every stop there are people climbing on to sell full meals of meat and potatoes, plastic cups of jello, ice cream, nuts, bread, and anything else you can possibly think of.
Taking the dirt-cheap local bus is a real experience, and you really have to have your wits about you to get through it without hating yourself for what you just did. I bought my ticket for that bus at about 8:15, and it was scheduled to leave at 8 so I had no time to buy food for the trip. The bus gradually got totally packed with local Peruvians and I ended up squashed up next to a window by an Aymaran woman and her grandbaby. But it was early in on the trip and I was in good spirits and she and I ended up talking quite a bit about the landscape on the way to Cusco. It was an incredibly beautiful route through villages and mountains and lush valleys, and she also probably saved the bus from leaving me at a bus station along the way.
I hopped out to use the bathroom after about 5 hours of not stopping and to quickly buy something to eat. I figured the bus would stop a few minutes to unload people and get more on board.
“Voy a volver” I said to her, as I squeezed my way out of the seat covered in her textiled blankets and grandbaby. I hurried as quickly as I could but when I ran back out of the bus station the bus was slowly headed out the gate. I ran up to it and jumped on board. The conductor laughed at me and as soon as my head popped up the stairs onto the seat level my Aymaran woman saw me and yelled “Ven Gringa, ven!” and several others yelled similar things, in tones of both concern and amusement.
My other really cheap, “I was the only gringa” local bus was from Arica, Chile to La Paz, Bolivia. Oh the dreaded border crossing of my slightly ambigious status…. As it turned out, my tourist visa worked upon another entry into Bolivia, thank heavens, but they did give me an H1N1 shot on the way through. I thought they were giving out Yellow Fever originally, and I had a copy of that vaccination in Italian. After proudly telling the nurses this they informed me it wasn’t for Yellow Fever… and after asking several people if it was absolutely necessary, I rolled up my sleeve.
But that bus wasn’t too terrible. It was 9 hours or so and was totally local too. My seat partner and his family talked to me intermeditently throughout the trip, and again I felt that they were kind of looking after me. Like when the lady came on to sell ice cream they made sure I had a chance to buy some. Even though the local buses can totally suck and honestly I plan to buy a good seat for the next ones I take, I think it’s a good thing to do every now and then. I really got a sense of community on those buses, being the only gringa. People were incredibly kind to me, interested in me, and I got a real sense of the culture.
I will be glad when the buses are over though. I think the ones that really did me in were the two coming and going from Machu Picchu. Six hours each on switch-back one-way gravel roads through the (majestic!!) mountains. Oh heavens, my stomache and head felt…. not quite right after that. On the way back to Cusco the driver’s young son who was sitting on a bucket next to the seats by the door fell asleep on my shoulder. I had offered him part of my coat because the bus was freezing and even when I asked the driver to close the window he only did partly. Ohhh cold buses. Oh hot buses. Oh smelly buses. Oh buses that play American movies incredibly loudly dubbed in Spanish for all to enjoy while playing music at the same time (bus from Arequipa to the border of Chile.)
Oh getting sold a good seat for the night bus on your birthday to discover they scammed you and you got a regular seat for those 10 hours….
Well anyway… buses in South America. It’s a whole thing.
I’ll leave you with this song that was sent to me last night. It reminds me of good old days in Prague dancing to Balkan music and Iggy Pop into the wee hours. Not that that’s relative, but I thought the title was fitting, anyway.
Well, S.A., sayonara (in one week.) It’s been real.
“The Passenger“ (Iggy Pop)
EDIT (2 days after original publication): Clearly I cursed myself or something for writing this blog before I took the bus from La Paz to Cochabamba (approx 8 hours.)
It started out alright. I bought a $7 ticket about five minutes before the bus left, the seats were huge and reclined and there was no annoying music or movies playing. It was heavenly, frankly surreal. I just curled up in a ball and listened to Leonard Cohen. We even stopped for lunch.
And then, with about than 3 hours to left, the nightmare bus situation occurred. That one that you always think about when you think about long buses potentially without bathrooms. Yes, I started to get that OH-SO familiar feeling in my intestines and after ten minutes or so went to beg the driver to give me the key to the bathroom. Bastards said the bathroom wasn’t functioning. And we were only an hour or two from the lunch break. DEAR GOD I was going to have to wait, my insides cramping, my hands gripping the handrails, for hours.
It was as hellish as you can imagine it would be. When the bus finally stopped in Quillacollo, a suburb of Cochabamba, I hopped off (before the normal main terminal stop,) elbowed my way to the front of the line where luggage was being dispersed and RAN to the Hipermaxi down the street.
But… I survived. And I took a photo. And I have another bus story now…
I almost didn’t go to Machu Picchu. By the time I got to Cusco, off an 8-hour $5 local bus from Puno, I’d had it with cold and tourism and hostels. I accidentally ended up at a party hostel the first night in Cusco. I hate those but they usually have soft beds and warm water, so I took it and hid in a corner and went to bed at 9:00 the first night.
The next day was Thanksgiving. I walked around Cusco, too frustrated to enjoy the beautiful scenery, in search of a cafe with internet. I saw the first Starbucks I’ve seen since leaving the US and knowing it would be reliable for internet went for it. I opened the door and was so overwhelmed by familiarity and Christmas decorations I immediately lost it, and had to go cry in the street for about 15 minutes before going inside.
When I did make it inside with a coffee in hand, I signed onto Couchsurfing imediately, it had to be my lifeline. I found some other Americans who had posted in the Cusco group that they wanted to meet up for Thanksgiving. So I sent a nice-looking couple from New York, Laura and Eric, a frantic message, and by the grace of God they wrote back immediately and said they were staying at a nicer hostel, and that they would meet up with me. I didn’t care if it seemed desperate or creepy, I checked out of my terrible party hostel and into theirs, and upon check-in met them and breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to have Thanksgiving alone!
We went out that night for Peruvian chicken and red wine and had a grand old time. We even found apple pie at a bakery just closing for the night. But the following day I awoke to the same feeling I’d had the day before, a stress of knowing why I was there but not knowning at all what to do about it.
I haven’t planned ahead too much since leaving Cochabamba. Frankly its easier to travel loosely here. If you don’t book a hostel ahead of time and have a few in mind with addressess when you arrive, you can check them out and see what looks right for you. If you don’t book a bus ticket ahead of time and just go when you need to and get a seat for much cheaper, as I learned on the Puno-Cusco bus when I bought my ticket at 8:16 for the 8:00 bus. But with Cusco, I was only there to visit Machu Picchu. And I was visiting Machu Picchu because weeks before when I was trying to figure out what I was doing after the program, I thought I’d go to Lima to visit friends. And so I may as well head to Cuso first. But as it turns out, Lima is super far away, as are Santiago and Vaparaiso, and I’m not really in the right state to take any buses in the next couple of days, particularly ones that are 24-hours long.
But, there I was in Cusco. Pretty city. Super old. Inca stuff. Spanish stuff. Lots of tour guides. Lots of people selling you stuff. Decent weather. Cheap clothes can be found when needed to cover anxiety-induced excema on forearms. I hated it there so much.
But I made myself find a tour because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. Machu Picchu isn’t easy to get to, alone or with a tour, and it is so famous and hyped up that I didn’t even know where to start. So I went to the main tourist office, and then to others. Cusco is about 7 hours by road (and tracks) to Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley is in the middle. There are tons of different ways to get there, everybody has their own advice, and I really didn’t know what to do. The problem is that it’s expensive to take the train ($100 for a couple of hours on train, which is totally crazy) but the train doesn’t even connect straight to Cusco. You have to take a bus to another town first, then take the train, to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the bottom of the mountain from Cusco.
Eventually I found a tour that sounded alright, so I bought it, then fretted about it all afternoon. I went to the grocery store to find some food to take along and found Kraft Mac and Cheese. As much distain I have these days for packaged food there is nothing more comforting abroad than Mac and Cheese. I bought it and cooked it for myself and a British girl I was sharing my room at the hostel with.
The next morning the tour left at 8 or so, and took about 8 hours (with lunch and breaks) to get to the hidroelectric plant where the train to Aguas Calientes begins. Oh, and the drive was through mountains nearly the entire time, winding back and forth on one-way dirt roads over huge precipices… typical situation in Bolivia of course, but I was shocked they couldn’t manage to build a decent road to one of the most famous sites in the world.
When the road (literally) ended at the hidroelectric plant the group hopped off the bus and proceeded to walk along the railroad tracks for the next 3 hours to get to Aguas Calientes. It was a fun time, and as it got to be dusk we came upon a scene of mountains above us that had the familiar shape of the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. Indeed, we were near.
It was dark some time before we reached Aguas Calientes, and after a quick dinner a few Argentine girls, a Chilean guy and Aussie and I shared a room, went to sleep, and awoke at 4 the next morning to ready for our early entrance at Machu Picchu.
The morning was misty and cool when we borded the bus up to the site. You could walk up the mountain, but frankly I have no idea why you would as it’s incredibly steep and horrible (I walked down it.) There really weren’t many people at the top of the mountain when we arrived. So when the Argentine girls and I walked in through the mist, it really did seem like we were the only ones in the ruins. I lost them after a few minutes and wandered around the incredible ruins alone for about an hour. It was stunning then, but as the morning procreeded and the fog lifted little by little, I became happier and happier that I’d come.
Machu Picchu is magnificent. Everything about the place, from the way it was built to the tragedy of it being abandoned, to the misty jungly mountains surrounding… it really took my breath away. I found my tour group eventually and got to hear some incredible history of the building of the place–which was 70-year precarious Inka experience.
I continued on throughout the morning hiking around the abandoned city in the mountains. As the fog faded more and more of it could be seen, and every direction I looked I found another absolutely stunning scene. When the time came that I had to climb down again I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stop staring that the city and the mountains and the fog. Machu Picchu is a magical place. It is magical despite the tourists, despite the crooks in Cusco, despite it all. I really think its the most incredible place I’ve been able to visit.
Other places I’ve been since leaving Cbba:
La Paz: Biggest city in Bolivia, where Evo lives. Totally great. Wish so much I’d studied there instead of Coch. It’s a real city, it’s got such a great atmosphere. Hilly cobblestone, a witch market, altitude that gets you drunk REAL quick (uh, yikes…) and man, the drive down into the city is just stunning. Had a great time there. Oh and the Alpaca stuff there is the best by far I’ve seen anywhere. I have to stop shopping.
Desaguadero: Passed through this border town. Totally bizarre border crossing experience. The bus from La Paz stopped and everyone got out, then went to the Bolivian side for an exit stamp. We then walked across a bridge to Peru, where nobody stopped to check our passports or anything, we just had to wander into another government building (and by wander I mean stand in line for 30 min) to get the Peru stamp. I mean, there were police around but it would be REALLY easy to run back and forth between Bolivia and Peru if you wanted to. No control at all. Funny time.
Puno: on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Weird little touristy town filled with 3-wheeled taxis that look like they belong in India, and bicycle taxis (which I took a lot.) Lake Titicaca was beautiful. It was COLD there though, but I found a single room for $7 a night, and decided I’d wait until lower altitude to shower (I went 4 days without…). I went on a tour to the islands of Lake Titicaca my main day in Puno. We stopped at two main islands, one of which was incredibly cool and bizarre and quite possibly extremely exploitive (must start doing more research before going places…). The floating Isles of the Uros were the first stop. These are islands made out of reeds. I mean, man-made islands. Totally bizarre and beautiful. The tour was hoaky but we did get to talk to the people and ride in a reed boat. It was super cool and totally weird to walk on the squishy reed ground on the island. The next stop was at an island without any roads or electricty. The people there wear super interesting clothing, the men knit, and it was pretty cool. Again lots of tourists, but not so many that it was out of control. I am just always so stunned by the different ways people live. It was neat to see.
And after Puno was that killer 8-hour local bus to Cusco. I fled Cusco on the 26th, and passed the first hours of my 25th birthday on a night bus headed to Arequipa. I tried not to think about it then, and waited until the next day after finding gem of a B&B with INTERNET IN THE ROOMS to feel like it was my birthday.
I had a good 25th birthday. Arequipa is super cool, has a total Euro feel and I am content. I have been totally maxing out on being in a nice room with internet, having a nice hot shower… ahhhh its the little things, that I don’t let drive me crazy when I’m without but when I have them… heavens. It’s so good. And I found falafel here! Ate it two days in a row and plan to go back again today.
Headed to the Northern Coast of Chile this weekend and after will circle back around probably to La Paz before heading back to Cochabamba and then Santa Cruz before a wonderful week in Chicago, and then NAVIDAD in Nebraska. Peter, you have no idea how much I am going to squeeze your cute little baby cheeks.
With a 15-year Lonley Planet South America from the library and lots of alpaca wear, I head North!
The days of Spanish classes and long walks to the centre, of snuggling with the family’s puppy Nana and an exhausting cloud of culture shock, are about to come to an end. I’ll travel to Peru and Chile starting Saturday, and return to Bolivia for my flight to the US, in about a month.
A new super cheapily made backpack now sits in my corner, loaded with Alpaca scarves, awaiting the trains and buses and Machu Picchu and Santiago and the coast. I don’t have an exact agenda, but for the first time traveling alone in a foreign country, I know the language. And that is COOL. And I am confident, that even if these months in Cochabamba were in a cloud, only broken by wild trips to exotic locations, that I will enjoy this trip.
And happily, I think I am coming back down to the tierra.
As I searched for new music tonight I found this song by Johanna Newsom, who is my soundtrack to Summer 2012, called What We Have Known. I was thinking about the title and how I talked with Molly a month or so ago after I wrote a scathing blog and then deleted it about Cochabamba and how awful I felt here. She made the astute point that there’s no one perfect way to travel. You have to just adjust to the unknown, and sometimes its not pretty. I had a really romantic view of what “South America” would be, which was definitely part of my problem.
This trip has been entirely different. There’s no one way to travel, to do things right or wrong, and I think I wasted too much time feeling uncomfortable because it was so different, so difficult. Perhaps it is good to be humbled like this. Hopefully at least admitting how incredibly difficult it remains sometimes to travel, somebody else will feel a little less crazy about it. South Sudan and Ukraine and all that didn’t make me invincible.
But the last few weeks I’ve been able to get the bad vibes pretty much out of my system. Positive thoughts, prayers while walking, and the arrival of some new, super cool friends have helped clear my head the last few weeks.
A few nights ago I went out with my Norwegian friend Maria and a American couple, Mike and Jill, who are riding their motorcycle through Latin America. We were eating at a Greek cafe when a British guy came in and sat by himself. Since Maria and I met each other in Cafe Paris in a similar manner, we invited him to come sit with us. We extranjeros have to look after each other. It was a fantastic rainy night in Cochabamba, with Huari beer and conversations about travel and work and life.
I found myself finally letting go of a part of me that wants to stay separate from Cochabamba. A part of me that was easily separate. But these extranjeros will be here awhile, and I remember how that feels. How it felt to meet the Krakow Post guys or Marcin in Poland. They were my people, and they were more important than they could ever know. When I go to Cocafe I remember a glimpse of how it felt then, when the owners Guido and Emma kiss my cheeks and ask if I’d like Singani again and who my new friends are. I love that aspect of being abroad, the local people and other travelers who make you feel like you were meant to be in that place, in that moment. That something is right with the world because you can speak together.
As I wrap this up so I can finish writing my final despedida at the institute, there’s one other thing I need to mention:
I met Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Aka the Black Pope or as we like to call him in Cochabamba, “Papa Negro.”
I went with a few others from the Institute to mass last week in the Jesuit Cathedral in Plaza Principal (which is by far the coolest block of Coch.) It was a rather small assembly, and we sat near the front. After mass I scooted over to where he was processing and amist a crowd of Bolivians, was given a blessing directly from Adolfo.
I lived by him, you know, when I was in Rome two years ago. That drama-filled month of sickness and stitches and deaths and anxiety. I wanted to meet him then, to say I was happy to serve the order. And I wanted to tell him last week, in Spanish, the same. But there was no time. It was what I needed though, to remember there’s a whole other spiritual world out there. Because as I’ve quoted before, when you’re away from home, it’s all you know:
“Traveling is brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things-air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky–all things tending towards the eternal, or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavse
I took a trip to the Salar de Uyuni this weekend–the largest salt flat in the world. It is a 4,000+ sq. mile expanse of white. It looks like a thin layer of snow… made out of salt. Kind of like you’re standing on the moon. A big, flat, white, optical-illusion-y moon.
We made it to the Salar from Cochabamba by 4-hr bus to Oruro, then a 7-hour, totally bitchin’ train to Uyuni. We traveled along the altiplano of Bolivia, which is a dry wild west of a place that randomly includes a huge lagoon full of pink flamingos. The train was fantastic. My Polish travel companion mentioned that it was nicer than in Poland and I had to agree. The tickets were cheap and it ran so smoothly. And you knew when it was coming and it was on time and you had a seat and… man, it felt great to be riding one again.
I’d heard a great deal about how the altitude of La Paz will get ya, but I wasn’t really expecting it in Uyuni. Turns out, the pueblo and the flats are at an elevation of 16,500 ft. That’s face-tingling, short-breath, headache elevation. And as it happens, I am one of those people who don’t take to it very well. So despite buying a huge bag of coca immediately in Oruro and consuming a good deal of it on the train, taking altitude medicine and a lot of water, I still felt pretty weird most of the trip. Alas, it was worth it. Because I got to see things like this:
Notes on returning to Cbba after the Salar:
-Haven’t written about daily life here as most days I spend a lot of time treading water. I listen to a lot of folk music, am awaiting word on grad school, and am still trying to learn Spanish.
-Spanish is going really well. I feel confident doing whatever I need to do in town, and have fluid conversations all day long with locals. Today, for the first time in a big group class I spoke up. The subject was Dia de los Muertos, and similar traditions in our countries. I ended up weirdly arguing with a Polish priest about how halloween wasn’t evil. Afterword, a professor said I’d done well, which was a much-needed confidence builder. I was confused at what he was talking about until I got home a read this crazy shit: Halloween is Evil, says Church in Poland
-I came to the conclusion that perhaps my pent-up anger living here regarding machisimo culture, rabid dogs on every corner, and a general uneasiness has perhaps manifested itself in giving me a spunkier personality. Debating in Spanish is FUN.
-Anyway, I have 3 weeks or so left here and then I’m going to Peru and Chile. Where I plan to visit Triz, cafe-sit, train-ride, beach-lay, explore and listen to music like this. I am determined to find romantic South America.
Will the uncomfortable over-take the good of being abroad?
I am beginning to think I got spoiled on Eastern Europe. Man, I hate admitting it, I hate writing it, but I’ve been thinking it since I got here. I am not sure if Cochabamba has quite lived up to my romantic notion of South America. I have been living the fast life here lately but this week has been the departure of several friends and the onset of an unidentifiable Bolivian bug. Therefore, I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself, and would like to address a few issues that I don’t think are uncommon. I’m not sure if there is a pretty, simple solution to any of these wicked feelings either. It’s like how there was never an answer to dealing with traumatizing aspects of East Africa, there’s not really an answer to feeling awkward–other than time.
Time, unfortunately I don’t have a lot of here. And perhaps that is the key to all of this. If you want to get to know a place and stop bitching about not being able to flush the toilet paper, you should probably stay more than a few months.
#1 Lack of Control
Always an issue when abroad, especially when living with locals. I remember having this problem in Poland. But Poland was sooooo romantic. So it didn’t matter that much. But I came up with the mantra “always wear good shoes and bring water” because you neeeever know how long it will take when you go somewhere, or what sort of conditions you’ll be in. I mean this in terms of both grocery-store outtings and hikes in the woods. One should treat both outtings in the same manner when going with locals. Seriously. This has started making me crazy, mainly just in my daily life. My people here are so damn nice though I just can’t complain, I don’t want to offend anyone or make anyone else feel uncomfortable. So I will just sulk here, complaining to my mother via Skype.
Lord have mercy, those assholes who cat-call me on a daily basis while I walk to Spanish class… ugh, it’s such a small thing, but it’s such an annoying, power-struggle, fucked-up thing. Really, are you that lame that you have to make a foreigner feel more uncomfortable so that you can feel more manly EVERY FUCKING DAY? Way worse than in Nairobi, when usually it was just “Muzungo, what’s up.” (“Whitey” also annoyed me a lot.) No, it’s not a compliment. Don’t talk to me on the street, asshole. Except Dona Zupierta, the lady who sells me candy in front of the pharmacy. She’s cool.
#3 I can’t think like normal here
It takes so much of an effort to feel normal here. All of my energy goes into keeping my brain on some sort of equilibrium, between learning a new language, living with a host family, and trying to plan for the future. I don’t have much left for creativity. Instead I opt to hang out with local characters and friends from the institute because I can’t really stand staying home. Ah, this is always the problem with living abroad. The balance between work and fun, between a comfortable home life and having enough friends to not go crazy. Although frankly, this is a problem in life in general. Here though it’s amplified, like everything. The good result of this though is that…
#4 The Siestas are pretty bitchin’
Geeze, lazy South America, por favor! The siestas are sooo good. I love laying around here listening to Johanna Newsome and Nina Simone, not thinking about anything. They are necessary because…
#5 I am here to learn Spanish
And, let’s turn this blog in another direction. Spanish-learning is going really well. I absolutely hated it for the first 4 1/2 weeks or so, but then suddenly I could speak. And it’s easier to remember things. I need to study more, of course, and will once my headache goes away and I stop having the runs every few hours. But seriously, it’s the coolest thing ever. I am not afraid to go to the lab by myself to get my blood and other things tested, I’m not afraid to take a cab anywhere, I’m not afraid to travel in Peru and Chile in a month.
Because I realized I can leave within my 90-day visa. So, I’m backpacking in Peru and Chile in a month–and I am going to find what I am looking for on this continent. If it’s colonial-style architecture and my friend Triz and trains and little costal towns then so be it. I do and will continue to make the best of Cochabamba–the little plazas, the discotecas, and my Bolivian friends–but I need to see more of S.A. I’m not going to let the first scene of Bolivia in Butch Cassidy be my lasting impression.
I really really want to like it here. When I don’t, I kind of feel like I’ve failed. There’s a reason I came here. It was Spanish, but it was also to understand the people, the mentality, the whole… Bolivian thing. And, to have a good time. I think it could be possible if I lived here a longer time. But perhaps not. Maybe it’s because it all is too foreign.
I mean, I’m allowed to be shaken up, that’s okay. It’s probably better. Maybe if you don’t see the poverty, the daily struggles, it’s not worth going abroad. You’re supposed to live as close to a local as you can, when you live with a family. It is weird, and it will always be weird. I need to accept the weird as normal and stop trying to feel “normal.” Half the reason I go abroad is to be challenged like this. I always chide the importance of travel on feeling insane, because then you can do some pretty important things if only it’s possible to let yourself. There can’t be any real personal gain abroad without some rough times.
But why does it still always feel kind of fucked up and terrible in the moment?
I suppose it goes back to the romantic notion of travel. That you’re supposed to go abroad and find yourself or meet locals who change your world or whatever. Maybe it’s because I always knew this was a 4-month thing. Most of my other travels haven’t had an end-date. Maybe it’s because this time I’ve got a few more reasons to go back to the US, involving a chico, sobrino and grad school.
Maybe it’s because Bolivia is really really different than the US, than Nairobi, than Poland. And I thought it would be more similar. I thought I’d seen the craziest of the crazy in the bush of South Sudan, along those mafia-riddled borders of Ukraine, in Nairobi. But there are a lot of ways to live. And not all of them will make you feel super comfortable.
But I guess that is okay. I never really felt comfortable in Nairobi either. But I sure as hell gained a lot from that experience. It wasn’t a failure, and this isn’t either. It’s just being abroad. And that in itself is good, for something. For people, for patience, for forcing yourself to suck it up. For laying in bed in the hot Bolivian sun after class, and thinking about what’s next.
Perhaps fried bananas for dinner.
I paused for a moment among the lush green jungle plants and listened to the lomos chirp in the trees around us. Putting my hand on a vine entangled next to a tree I closed my eyes in exhaustion. My entire body was dripping with sweat and water from the waterfall I’d jumped through earlier in the hike through the monkey park. When I re-opened my eyes my vision was blurry and I felt the all-encompassing pressure of dehydration in the jungle of Bolivia.
It was the monkey who stole our water bottle. He then proceeded to take off the cap and drink the water. They were not timid monkeys in the park, we learned when one climbed up my professor’s back and sat on her shoulders for several minutes–and then stole her phone.
A priest, a decon and my professor accompanied me to Villa Tunari, a tourist pueblo in Chapari, part of the Bolivian jungle just a few hours outside of Cochabamba. The sun was rising and our blood alcohol was still high when we left Cochabamba last Saturday morning and drove through misty mountains in the coca-growing region of Bolivia.
Chapari is stunningly different than Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Toro Toro, the other places I’ve visited in Bolivia. It is how I pictured Bolivia: lush green misty mountains, little outdoor restaurants serving fried yuka, and big open trucks full of campesinos rolling down the highway, passing you as you hold on for dear life to the driver of a moto-taxi, sans helmet.
Ah, it was beautiful. And the humidity was as good for my skin as the mosquito bites were bad for it. As usual, Bolivia offered raw adventure at a possible high mortality rate. But the Singani kept us rolling, the yuka kept us fed and the Armadillo my professor ordered at lunch the first day kept us on our feet.
And best of all, I found my first white veranda.