After a few weeks of adventursome backpacking and exploration in Bolivia, it was finally time to settle in for a 5 week work exchange at an eco-campground 30 minutes outside of La Paz. We had already met Emma and her amazing family, so we knew that only good things awaited our arrival when we packed up our bags in La Paz and took public transportation out of town (feeling like pros compared to our first attempt a couple weeks before). We knew we were heading toward hard work, family, and friends…what we didn´t know is that we were also heading toward unforgettable carnival memories, my first solo trip to the Santa Cruz area of Boilivia, multiple mountain biking adventures, amazing animals that would come to feel like our own pets, and an eventual goodbye that would leave us forever grateful if not a little heartbroken. To be honest, one of the foremost thoughts on our mind was the comfort of the little home that we´d be living in for over a month. We had already made a list of over 20 meals that we wanted to cook, we had purchased cheap, rip-off DVD´s and microwave popcorn, and the idea of ¨moving in¨to a place and not living out of our backpacks every day was starting to make us outwardly giddy.
Our first two weeks in the Mendoza home were a whirlwind of work, relaxation, cooking, and general settling-in. It took less than 3 days for us to extend our original month commitment by an extra week, as time seemed to be sneaking by at an unbelievably quick pace. On the weekdays we would wake up at 7, make breakfast (large piles of pancakes quickly becoming a favorite standby), watch the BBC World News, and then, bathed in sunscreen and dressed in our finest work clothes, we´d head outside for four hours of hard manual labor. In our time at Colibri Camping, we did everything from landscaping to construction to woodworking, cleaning, upholstering, and painting. Some days Rolando would join us early on, prepared with armfuls of materials for some long-awaited project, but most days we would strike out on our own, slowly but surely working our way through a long to-do list that Rolando had supplied us with at the beginning of our stay. By noon we would find ourselves hot, tired, and hungry, and more than just a little excited to eat lunch with Rolando and either Clara or Odelia (two ladies who´d help out around the house and whose delicious food we devoured on a daily basis) in Rolando and Emma´s beautiful home. As challenging as we sometimes found the work to be (imagine weilding a lawnmower or power drill under the hot sun on the side of a mountain at over 9,000 feet in elevation), it was equally as rewarding. We could see the progress, however small, that we were making, and it felt good to finish projects and check items off the list, each accomplishment bringing the beautiful campground that much closer to fulfilling it´s eventual purpose. In the afternoons we would shower and then either relax in our cute little home or head into town to study at a coffee shop, read, write, buy more groceries, or just explore La Paz and its surroundings. In those first two weeks we did treat ourself to one delicious sushi dinner in central La Paz, but in general we found ourselves staying in, luxuriating in the novelty of a refrigerator and stove. The days flew by, and before we knew it, carnival weekend was upon us.
Memory is a funny thing. In the days following our carnival experience in Oruro, Bolivia, it was hard to turn off our brains, or really focus on much at all. For the most part, carnival had been a wonderful, sunny, fun-filled experience, but one serious scare at the end of the day haunted many of us throughout the following weeks. Don and I decided about a week before carnival that, despite the high price, we couldn´t afford to miss attending carnival in South America, especially with the eccentric, fun-loving Mendoza family. We asked to be included in the package tour, which meant we would get up incredibly early (before 3am) on Saturday morning to catch a bus that would take us from La Paz to the big parade in Oruro, approximately 4 hours away. We had a great group (including Emma, Rolando, and their kids) and most of us slept soundly on the bus to Oruro. When we arrived we were fed a simple breakfast and then shown to our bleacher seats right in the middle of the long parade route. The morning started out a bit slow, but toward early afternoon, crowds filled the bleachers, hundreds of highly decorated dancers continuously paraded by us, and the spirit of carnival grew strong. Hawkers were selling espuma (or cans of spray foam) every few meters, and once the foam fights began, they never really ceased. Within minutes we were all covered in foam that quickly dissolved but left a sticky slime covering our hair, skin, and clothes. There was no use fighting it, so our only option was to join in the fun. Don, me, and our fiend Verity all bought a couple cans and, taking a break from the parade (where the sun was beating down on us from perfect blue skies), we began roaming the streets looking for trouble. We agreed we´d only spray if someone else started it, which still meant we were spraying kids and adults alike every few hundred feet. It was like a huge community foam fight, and we were having an absolute blast. When we finally returned to our seats, we found the parade going strong, the number of different dancers seemingly endless.
In the early evening we took another break from the parade, this time planning on finding dinner as well. We joined up with Emma and her family and set off toward a restaurant of Emma´s friend in town. We weaved through crowds of people, over a footbridge across the parade, and past a million vendors and food stands. After a short walk we realized we couldn´t find the restaurant, and rather than keep searching, we all decided to turn back and just grab some street food that we had passed early on. We headed back toward the footbridge, which at this point was at full capacity, and along with everyone else, shuffled our way over the parade route, packed inside the small bridge like sardines. I was in especially good spirits. I smiled at the people going the other direction, stopped to take a couple pictures from the top of the bridge (where there was a great view of the dancers and bands heading toward us), and even contemplated the coziness of people from all over the world all packed in close like good friends. I was unaware of my group´s general concern, and everyone´s anxiety about the stability of the bridge. After I stepped off the bridge and backed away a few feet, waiting for Don and the others to catch up, nothing could have surprised me more than the loud sound of metal breaking, the collective gasp of a nearby crowd, and then the sudden collapse of the very footbridge we had just stepped off. To our immense relief, we quickly gathered that our whole group was off the bridge (Don and Rolando were in the back and had been on the last step when it began to fall) and with the general welfare of the kids in the forefront of our minds, we quickly left the scene and practically ran toward our seats a few blocks away. There had been hundreds of people on the bridge when it collapsed, but equally traumatic was the fact that a band was marching underneath the bridge when it fell. Everyone was understandably shook up by the event, and we spent the following hours recuperating and processing the whole event. Word spread slowly through the thousands of spectators that there was an emergency on the parade route, and slowly but surely the dancers got backed up, and then eventually stopped dancing all-together. Like I said, memory is a funny thing. As the hours wore on, as we loaded onto our bus and headed back to La Paz a few hours early, and even in the days that followed, it was impossible not to replay all of the events leading up to that tragedy a hundred times over. On our first crossing of the bridge, I had mentioned to Don in an off-hand comment that this was just the sort of bridge to create ¨one of those headlines¨. I had ¨read aloud¨ for Don in my repoter voice: ¨Overcrowded bridge collapses in Bolivia, killing spectators¨ and asked him if he remembered a headline from years ago involving a patio at a nightclub collapsing somewhere in South America. And yet, I felt no real danger. When we headed back to the bridge I had stopped to look at some cheap wigs being sold a few hundred meters from the bridge´s entrance. I contemplated holding up our group so I could try one on (if I was going to buy a wig this was the place to do it), but after seeing that everyone was quite hungry, I changed my mind and we walked on. If I had stopped to try it on, would we have been in the middle of the bridge? Or would we have never gotten on it before it collapsed? Each of us has our own memories and versions of the evening, and all of us agree that if nothing else, the incident was a serious reminder of the value of life. Upon further reflection, it was clear to everyone that the bridge had been poorly built (it was only a temporary bridge made for the parade…it didn´t even have support beams!) and that someone should have been enforcing a maximum capacity. We couldn’t have been more grateful and relieved that none of us were hurt, but as the news came in, we mourned the loss of 5 people, and the injuries of another 60. The next day, in order to end carnival on a brighter note, and to celebrate our safety and the gift of our lives, we had an epic water balloon fight at the Mendoza home, followed with a delicious lasagna dinner, and a chocolate cake to top it all off.
Throughout those first couple weeks of work, one fact had become clear to both Don and I. As much as we love eachother, spending every moment together, especially while traveling, was beginning to take its toll on our relationship. We both felt a real need for space, and yet, when we looked ahead at our plans, there seemed to be no reprieve in sight. We have many of the same interests, and in general, our lifestyle basically necesitates that we do things together. After a lot of brainstorming, we both agreed that this time at the Mendoza home would be the best possible opportunity for us to take space. I found the work especially challenging (partially because of terrible allergies) and was keen to try traveling solo for a bit. We spoke with Emma and Rolando and all agreed that I would take the week off and travel to the small town of Samaipata, outside of Santa Cruz in the eastern part of Bolivia, while Don stayed on and worked. My week of travel turned out to be challenging, memorable, and relaxing. The lone bus rides wore a bit on my already high-strung nerves, as Bolivia is well-known for its potholed, narrow, winding roads, and somewhat crazy drivers, but I made it to Santa Cruz, and eventually Samaipata another 3 hours on, in one piece. It was still carnival weekend throughout South America, so I was surprised every few minutes by water balloons, water guns, and even more espuma for two more full days. In Samaipata I took a tour of some pre-Inca ruins, explored waterfalls, went horseback riding, and read A LOT. It was weird to talk so much less and spend so much time inside my head, and I was quite grateful when I made a couple friends on my last night and we all went out to dinner together. Santa Cruz was much more tropical than La Paz and on my way back I got to experience a torrential downpour, followed by an incredibly humid heatwave, and another adventurous bus ride. One typical South American bus experience includes salesmen (or occasionally preachers) who stand on the moving bus and try to sell their product through a 30 minute presentation. My ride back to La Paz included 4 such sales pitches and I felt fully convinced that it was the longest 20-something hours of my life. Traveling alone wasn’t my favorite experience, but it was exactly what Don and I needed, and it successfully afforded us both the first solid week apart in over two years. It also reminded us of one simple fact: we like being together more than being apart. An important reminder when you’re two years into a relationship.
When I got back into town, we had two weeks left at Emma and Rolando’s. With time as a fierce motivator, we spent more afternoons exploring our surroundings, and a little less time in front of the T.V.. The day after I got “home” we finally hiked “La Muela del Diablo”, or the Devil’s Molar, which is a hike that can be seen almost completely from the windows of our little house. It was a beautiful all-day hike, and it ended in some devilishly tasty italian gelato. I got to enjoy happy hour with our roommate Naomi and some of her friends, and even ended the night eating legitimate Cinnabuns (someone had brought them all the way from the airport in Santa Cruz) and visiting a secret speakeasy bar in the neighborhood of Sopacachi in La Paz. Don and I visited the local zoo (we were given a tour by our friends who were volunteering there) and a nearby tourist attraction called “Valle de la Luna” or Valley of the Moon which is a hiking path surrounded by weird sand formations that look like they belong on the surface of the moon. But the most enjoyable and rewarding experience, apart from time with our friends at Colibri Camping, was the Saturday we spent downhill mountain biking. Emma had helped connect Don with a man named Alistair who owns one of the mountain biking companies that guides people down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” and they had made a deal that Don could work on bikes for him in exchange for some free rentals for a day. When it came time to ride, we met up with a group of downhill bikers, and spent all day being shuttled up to the top of the “muela” (the same one we had hiked the week before) and then flying down some serious singletrack. We got to ride down 3 times before we felt too shaky to continue, and the joy that it brought us is indescribable. It felt so great to be back on bikes and it completely refueled our passion for mountain biking and our plans for incorporating more of it into our future. Of course, downhill isn’t our strongpoint (we prefer cross-country) but we held our own and loved every minute of it.
Unfortunately, our time at the Mendoza’s eventually had to come to an end. We still had 3 more countries to explore (we had scratched out Venezuela due to political tensions and a slight change in plans) and less than 5 months before we left South America all together. As our time came to close, we dreaded all the goodbyes and made sure to take advantage of any opportunity to celebrate with our new friends. One large “despedida” or farewell party was planned for many different occasions and we spent a laughter-filled evening eating tasty food, watching people dance, singing along to some guitar playing, and of course sharing in over an hour of toasts, tributes, and goodbyes. As if that wasn’t enough, on our last night at Colibri Camping, we planned a bonfire and shared the delight of s’mores with everyone present (surprisingly, much of the world does not even know about this tasty treat). Before leaving Bolivia and heading into Peru, we had one more adventure in store. We had signed up for the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” mountain bike ride and headed out with a group for a fun-filled day of riding into the rainforest town of Coroico. The ride was beautiful and was worth every penny. It wasn’t so “dangerous”, but it was fun, and we had a great group and tour guide which is just a nice bonus. We stayed down in Coroico for two nights after our ride, spending one night at an animal refuge and another in a hostel in town. At the animal refuge monkeys climbed all over us and one especially mischievious monkey named Pepe tried to steal anything that we had in our hands or pockets. It was a neat experience, but we left the refuge covered in hundreds of itchy bug bites and even a little monkey pee. The volunteers who work there are special people with a high tolerance for wild animals and exotic bugs. Our second night was at a nice hostel with freshly picked and roasted coffee available and a collection of friendly travelers who quickly became friends. A roadblock threatened to keep us in Coroico, but it opened back up just in time for us to return for a final night with the Mendoza’s and then an early bus ride the following morning from La Paz to Copacabana to Puno in peru and finally onto our first stop in Peru, the clean, proud city of Arequipa.