Tuesday Liam and I took advantage of our 12 hour layover in Miami to go to the beach.  I think it helped put the Bolivia experience into perspective.  Everything in Miami was so sad, sterile and clean.  Hours went by without either of us seeing a single animal or finding a decent spot to get a rum drink.  Without either loafers or a rolex everyone seemed reluctant to even give us directions.  I said I wanted to stab someone. Liam approved and said something about death metal originating in Miami; it made a lot of sense at the time.  After a couple of hours we took the bus back to the airport hoping to forget the experience and imagine we were back in Bolivia.  Oh, and I have to say the beaches in Michigan are infinitely nicer anyway.  Sorry to begin the report with such a downer, but my recent trip to Bolivia could not have contrasted greater with my brief experience in Miami.

Immediately After landing in Cochabamba and clearing customs I had a camera thrust into my face.  “Welcome to Bolivia, where are you from?”  “Where’s Alaska?”  The second question caused me to take a brief pause (It was a 36 hour, 8,000 mile trip after all), and when I managed to answer something about the north, Canada and the Pacific Ocean the camera man (who I was soon to learn was Alejandro and was wearing and early 90s purple windbreaker) responded with a friendly “fuck you”, then a laugh before handing me a glass of coca tea.  After some brief formalities at our hotel I spent the rest of that first frantic day rambling around Cochabamba with Alejandro and his partner J_____. One moment we were taking shots in the street and asking the cops if we could stand on their car, the next we were avoiding a two hour line by a brushing aside a few soldiers (who all looked under 17) and claiming Alejandro’s massive camera and my microphone were all press credentials we needed.  In between a couple more drinks, some delicious food (grilled hearts!) and an interview with an 85 year old Bolivian school teacher we actually made into the accreditation center where Alejandro bullied some local youths into giving me the international press credentials I so didn’t deserve.  The rest of the day continued at pace, crisscrossing town in J______s’ car, shooting some video, drinking beer, eating beef and yuca, drinking coca rum, changing money, interviewing a couple of elderly Quechua women, (but sadly forgetting the three or four Quechua words they struggled to teach us)  and getting a small taste of Cochabamba. Then, after spending my first 16 hours in South America being in constant motion, Alejandro dropped me off at my hotel and I drank whiskey on the balcony with Brad until two or 3 in the morning.  Four hours later we woke up, slammed a couple glasses of coca tea, and got on the bus to catch the opening of the convention.  The sun was shinning, I was hung over, and the bus passed a burro carrying 5 mattresses.  I was in love with Bolivia.

via KK+ at Flickr

It was at that opening ceremony that I first put Alejandro’s teachings to work.  Jess and I cut the line that morning by brushing some soldiers aside, waving my press pass like a spastic and having Jess follow me holding the microphone.  (I’ve since learned that the latin american press behaves like  such animals that if your not foaming at the lips with rage you won’t be taken seriously)  It was also at the opening ceremony that I met Azucena, who acted like a personal translator and tour guide for the rest of the trip.  It’s due to her that I understood at the time Evo’s crazy chicken comments that became a national joke in Bolivia.  Afterwards, fighting through the crowd trying to follow Azucena, the rhythm of the convention became clear.  A blissful rampage broken by strange speeches and the occasional state dinner.

Before I go on I need to say a few words on the fantastic Cochabamba.  My first impression of the town was that the mountains and sprawl gave the it the look of an extremely green version of Salt Lake City.  But once inside I realized that Cochabamba possessed a diverse liveliness that the desert sun and Mormon church have long since cauterized in Utah.  Driving in town was completely organic, with lane lines, traffic lights and roundabouts all treated as merely advisory.   To get to J____’s house you were forced to drive against traffic on the shoulder of a major highway for 200 yards, it was frightening.  Cab drivers would burn through red lights without hesitation.  Dodging pedestrians at speed was common on the main roads, and passing cows and burros was normal on the side streets, which rotated between dirt, cobbles and pavement at random intervals.  I’ve never seen anywhere near the number of half finished buildings, at times it seemed like most of the homes had rebar stretching skyward waiting for an additional story.  The conference and our hotel were slightly outside of town (in Tiquipaya and Colcapirhua respectively) and existed in a wonderful state of urban ruralism, with cows and cornfields existing alongside apartments, large brick buildings and small factories.  Central Cochabamba was hypnotically diverse as well.  A two minute walk could go from european feeling squares and tree lined boulevards too chaotic narrow markets or allies filled with crazy bars and savage partying.  Everyone was extremely friendly, and with Alejandro’s and Azucena’s habit of starting conversations with strangers, I felt like we met more people in a few days then I would in a month at home.  It was an enchanting city that I’d love to visit again.

Throughout the conference my main duties were to shoot some video, facilitate interviews or interactions with the press, and to attend as many of the discussions as I could.  The press stuff was incredibly easy.  With Carlos translating, Brad repeating speeches and the press eager to hear from a bunch of strange Alaskans all we had to do to get airtime was convince our delegation to show up.  In one average afternoon Brad spent over an hour  on Radio Fidel, Jess was interviewed on live Bolivian TV, and I got to provide the translation for Fred on french radio station.  Most of the video I shot while following around Alejandro, as he was so determined to get good footage all I had to do was follow in his wake.  At one point while chasing an interview with Naomi Klein I watched as he bull charged over 3 people with a camera on his shoulder.  The panel discussions were interesting, and usually sparked a lively conversation between Azucena and myself.  As part of the Alaskan delegation I had to attend both a dinner and brunch with Evo Morales, Leonard Boff, and Hugo Chavez.  Normally attending dinners with various foreign heads of state would be enough to make me miserable, as I ceremonies of that sort bore me to tears.  But both events proved to be pretty entertaining, the food was pretty good, Evo danced with a member of our group (the extra sharp will spot both Brad and I in this video).

As soon as the conference was over I took off for La Paz with Azucena.  Our friends from the embassy strongly suggested flying (20 minutes), but with a local guide the seven hour bus ride offered better scenery and a chance to experience normal Bolivian life.  Throughout our trip the local Bolivian papers were filled with stories of public transportation deaths, and after riding the bus it’s easier to understand why.  The roads in Bolivia are the craziest I’ve ever experienced.  Narrow, perched on top of massive cliffs, and occasionally washed out by small streams or cluttered by rock slides; veering over the edge of a massive cliff never seemed too remote a possibility, especially when passing oncoming traffic.  Azucena even insisted on sitting on the right hand side of the bus to avoid any direct impacts with oncoming traffic.

While in La Paz Azucena showed me a bit of the town, we ate some fantastic food and went to a hysterical party with a few of her friends; but our main activity was to go for a fantastic hike up Mururata.  After riding in a van heading south of La Paz for 3 hours on the craziest roads I’ve ever experienced, we spent 7 hours hiking past numerous lakes and llamas while taking in the stunning views of Mt Illimani (top picture).  We made it up to over 5000 meters. It would have been nice to make the summit, but the altitude was crushing me (despite chewing coca leaves I struggled to pace with Azucena all day) so after eating some delicious eggplant sandwiches next to a waterfall we turned back.  I was tired but feeling proud of putting in a good days work getting as high as we did before I began seeing the potato harvests near the base.  The number of potatoes (see above) that the local indigenous farmers pick axed out of the mountain side while we were hiking was astounding, and acted as further proof of the delusional nature of my idea of hard work.

So now that I’ve gone on longer then any of my posts for at least a year I think it’s time to start winding this story down.  If given the time I could go on talking about Bolivia for weeks, but I think that will only serve to depress me as I try to return to my real life.  First off I have to thank the Bolivian Embassy for making the entire trip possible.  Second thanks to Alejandro, Carlos and Azucena for taking me out of the tourist realm and giving me a glimpse of how people go about real life in Bolivia.  It’s been an unforgettable trip,  and I made so many friends I feel like I have no other choice but to return.  Also, I can’t get the thought of skiing this line on Huyani Potosi out of my mind.  Thank you Boliva!  I can’t wait to return.

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