The last two weeks absolutely flew by, each day blending into the next as we studied, ate, did homework, ate again, and slept. We had completely underestimated how exhausting 4 hours of private Spanish lessons would make us, and we often had to force ourselves to wake up from afternoon naps in order to make time to explore the town of Sucre.We did manage to fit in most of the ¨must-see¨ highlights, including a number of meals in local restuarants, many forays into the Central Market, a visit to the town´s ¨Mirador¨ and the incredibly unique cemetary, and even a trip to the outlying village of Tarabuco for their traditional Sunday market. Sucre has definitely grown on us, and we are already talking about the possibility of returning someday if we are ever ¨in the area¨ (ie. bike touring through Patagonia or traveling around Brasil). Unfortunately, the weather here has not been ideal (January is the height of Bolivia´s rainy season), and will probably continue to influence some of our travel plans for the next couple months. At least we have solid rain gear and a couple years of training while living in Portland!
We finished our last day of school yesterday and we couldn´t be happier with the experience we had. We took our classes through Sucre Spanish School, and originally both signed up for private lessons. However, when we arrived on our first day it turned out that the secretary had found another girl who wanted to study beginning Spanish that week, and per our request the day before, put her in a ¨group¨class with Don. With 2 students in the class, the price for Don´s first week was less than two-thirds what it would have been, so we were happy to make the sacrifice. Don´s classmate turned out to be a very nice girl from Canada named Franny, and we´re glad to report that we got a new friend out of the deal! Don and Franny had a great teacher named Guisell who took them through a semester´s worth of Spanish in a week´s time. Don continued taking private lessons with Guisell after Franny left, and learned even more words, conjugations, and rules. He is still timid when speaking Spanish, but his arsenal of words has doubled in two weeks, and he is quite confident in the present tense. My teacher was Delia, a highly experienced, insanely patient, and super knowledgeable woman who impressed me every day with her teaching skills. We made it through lot of new grammar, and also chatted for hours in Spanish about Bolivia´s government, culture, lifestyle, food, and history. We also learned about one another´s lives and families, and took a few different ¨field trips¨ out of the classroom and into the real world, where she helped me find, hail, and pay for buses, as well as navigate the local markets. We certainly got our money´s worth out of our schooling experience…which is why it can feel frustrating that we are still far from fluent in Spanish. I know that learning a language is a process, but there are times when we just feel desperate to communicate clearly with others, and it can be discouraging when the words won´t come. We keep reminding ourselves that we still have almost 8 months left in South America, and that we can only improve, but we also have some strategies in place for speeding up the process. Don and I were able to procure a copy of an entire text for learning and practicing Spanish, so we plan on taking our learning into our own hands from here on out, spending a bit of every day completing exercises, memorizing new words, chatting with one another in Spanish, and for me, reading through the first Harry Potter in Spanish. If that doesn´t do the trick, then I don´t know what will!
Even though Spanish (thinking it, practicing it, learning it, and dreaming about it) dominated these last two weeks, we did force ourselves to take much-needed breaks in the afternoons and on our one day off for some sightseeing. Last Sunday we woke up early, met up with Don´s classmate Franny in the town plaza, and caught a bus to the town of Tarabuco. Tarabuco is about 2 hours from Sucre, high up in the mountains. It is a town which has held onto most of it´s indigenous customs, language (Quechua), dress, and religion, and it has recently become a big draw for tourists who want to get out of the city and see a more traditional marketplace. The drive and the town were both quite beautiful and charming, but unfortunately it rained hard the entire time we were there, so most of the market was closed up and we spent a bunch of time huddled in one shop, and then eating lunch at the only restaurant available for tourists. We did catch a bit of traditional dancing…but other than that, we could just be grateful that we were out of the big city for the day. When I got back to school my teacher filled me in on more of the town´s interesting history, including a story about their encounter with the Spanish. Tarabuco was one town that the Spanish, during their quick and ruthless take-over of Quechua land, could not defeat. The local people would hide in the mountains and kill the Spaniards with bow and arrows whenever they tried to invade. Eventually the Spanish gave up, and the local people were able to continue on with their lives mostly un-conquered, un-converted, and un-colonized. An inspiring slice of history amidst a country that has been mostly riddled with disheartening abuse at the hands of colonists and governments.
During the week, we made time for short jaunts to spots in town. Less than 10 blocks from our Spanish school, Sucre´s Mirador on Recoleta Hill offers fabulous views of the entire city, and more importantly for Don and I, the beautiful surrounding mountains. The mirador consists of a church and a little cafe, but we just went for the views and to take a couple pictures. On another afternoon Don and I made our way to the city´s cemetery, a place that we had been told we must visit, but that we honestly had considered passing up. It is a good thing we didn´t, because the place was breathtaking. Unlike any cemetery we have ever seen, Sucre´s Cementerio General is filled with buildings and walls that are covered in ¨tombstones¨. The dead are sealed within the building, with their tombstone on the outside, and in some places, they are stacked 20 bodies high. The beautiful part is that the tombstones almost all have a glass covering with a small protected space inside, so it looks like thousands of small shrines, or memory boxes, for loved ones. We wandered around for a bit taking it all in and coming up with many questions. Again, I was able to probe my teacher for answers, where I learned that the cemetery is filling up incredibly fast, and that each year they raise the cost on a body´s ¨grave¨, so many families choose to stop paying and take the family member´s corpse out of the cemetery and back to their home. I also learned that a death is an incredibly expensive ordeal in the indigenous culture, including multiple gatherings and parties, and an inordinate amount of food. Often, a person´s funeral will drive a family into poverty or debt. So helpful having such a knowledgeable teacher!
Yesterday we celebrated our last day of school with even more sightseeing. First we took the public bus out to a famous castle nearby, and then we walked to the town´s grassy park, where we were shocked to find a huge dinosaur-themed playground. It is hard to go far in Sucre without catching a glimpse of a model dinosaur. Some people call this place ¨dinosaur city¨, which is fiitting considering the vast numbers (in the thousands) of dinosaur tracks that they´ve uncovered in the area. In fact, one of the world´s largest palentology sites is right outside the city, where they´ve built up a theme park and constructed tons of life-size model dinosaurs. Don and I didn´t go in the park because it was way overpriced, but we were able to gaze upon a huge cliff that is covered in tracks that date back millions of years. Don is a bit more into this kind of thing than I am, but we both found the tracks quite interesting.
Another Sucre experience that filled our last two weeks was the Market Central that lies just one block from our hostel. The central market is a staple in every South American town, and it is generally filled with everything from food stalls (different sections for breakfast, lunch, dinner, fruit juices, etc.) to fruit and vegetable stands, to meat markets, to paper stores and drugstores. There is an entire section of the market just dedicated to jello! My favorite area is the flower stalls, where the scents of roses, lilies, and gardenia overtake the powerful stench of raw meat, deep-fried grease, and wet dog. The market can be an overwhelming place, but after two weeks of living next door, we basically got the gist of where things were, and where we wanted to be. Don often stopped in for a morning coffee and I would order a fresh glass of juice, we sometimes enjoyed a ¨set lunch¨ of chicken or beef, rice, and potatoes made by a sweet lady named Lucy, and sometimes Don would go back in the evenings for a 5 Boliviano (75¢) burger. We went to the market for everything from oreos to shampoo to greeting cards…so it is fair to say we went there a lot. However, as much as I enjoy the market, especially it´s convenience and easy jolt of culture shock, I do have to blame it for my consistent stomach ache and illness. Unfortunately, I haven´t felt well for the majority of my time in Sucre, and as careful or picky as I am (ie. only peeled fruits and cooked foods), I just don´t seem to have the iron stomach that Don possesses. Anyway, it´s a condition I can live with, and I won´t even consider giving up the market altogether…so much cheap food for so little money!
Speaking of money, I will speak more of money soon. I was hesitant to write much about our budget, (I suppose just because I´ve always thought of money as a somewhat private subject), but the more blogs I read (and the longer I travel), the more I realize how imortant an aspect of international travel it actually is. For now, suffice it to say that most of our fellow travelers are shocked to hear our budget, and of course, this fact heavily influences the type of travel we do. But that´s for another blog, another time. Tomorrow we will leave Sucre, hopefully quickly finding ourselves surrounding by mountains, our tent, and some wild sunsets. We are greatly looking forward to our next long-term stop in Bolivia, but can´t get our hopes up completely until everything is solidified. More on that soon. Here´s hoping for less rain and more sun!