By Gregg Treinish
June 4, 2007
We woke today around our usual time, the sun rising only slightly before us. We had pushed a bit later last night to make Tomave today, and currently find ourselves camped on top of a very cold very exposed 14000 ft pass, not in town. I cannot complain as the experience today exemplifies why I am out here. We began the morning walking slightly downhill through the Puna, locked in conversation, and somehow allowing hours to pass by. There was a woman in the distance overseeing her alpaca and sheep while they grazed. Still without maps and unsure of where exactly we would need to go, we headed towards the woman to ask directions. As we neared, she crouched down behind a bush, clearly confused and more than a bit fearful about what two gringos could possibly be doing this far from the Salar de Uyuni. The extremely old woman whose nubs for teeth were stained green with coca spoke only in Quechua, neither party understood a word that the other said. We repeated "Tomave" enough times so that she too was repeating it, her long bony finger pointing us towards the north was enough direction for us and we carried on towards the next line of mountains off in the distance. I think it was sometime around 11am that we arrived at a small hut made of the usual mud bricks and grass roof. Aside the house, were two circles made of stone about 10 feet across and 4 feet high. Inside sat two women and several small children. There was a fire in the center and hand-made pots containing what was surely rice and soup cooking. Almost immediately after being sighted we were ordered to sit. I tried to explain that we needed to continue hiking and only needed directions. "Sit!" This was not a woman to argue with. As I looked around the circle at the many pairs of eyes focused on me, I remember feeling a comforting connection, it was clear that they were excited to have company. We exchanged smiles and said hello as the kids giggled at our funny accents. It was the 12 year-old boy who would begin with the usual questions. Around the circle we would go, us learning how to say the most basic of words in the original tongue of the Incans, them learning about our adventure and what life is really like in the United States. At some point during the exchange we were both handed bowls of soup. We had just eaten and kindly refused. "Eat!" This was not a woman to argue with. We ate, she refilled our bowls, we ate, she served us rice and meat. "Really," I said, "we just at breakfast." "Eat!" this was not a woman to argue with. The woman asked where our kids were, and had some difficulty understanding why we don´t have any. She told her daughter to go and get the rest of her siblings. Now seven pairs of young eyes looked up at us; their mother told them to say hi to their Aunt Gringa and Uncle Gringo. It was declared that we were positively crazy for wanting to walk as far as we do and after two of perhaps the most enlightening hours of my life, we were pointed towards Tomave with promises to someday return. Perhaps we will get to town tomorrow.
Coming into Bolivia, there was no doubt that we were going to be in for a change. We had long heard that the poorest country in South America was going to present new challenges, difficult navigation without maps, and perhaps the least safe atmosphere of the countries that we have travelled to. At the same time, we were extremely anxious to cross a border, to begin a new country, to feel like we are actually moving along in this adventure. It has been a long time since we have felt that way. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers often experience something called the Virginia Blues. It is simply having hiked for so long already, beginning to feel as if you are not getting anywhere, and that you may never. The Argentinean blues were much the same. We loved Argentina, the people, the food, everything about it had exceeded our expectations. After three and a half months of walking north, we simply needed something to celebrate. Until those very last moments before I saw La Quiaca, the border town, it was still just another far off goal. Climbing over that last hill and finally seeing Bolivia, it was perhaps the first time that we have let ourselves feel proud of what we have accomplished thus far. There were several woo-hoos to be followed by much ridiculous dancing (thanks again to Paul for the show). Suddenly, everything seemed possible. That concrete proof that we have indeed walked far. Man did I need that!
Bolivia has been a dream. Almost immediately after crossing the border sure signs that we had made our way back to the North were all around. One of the greatest changes was the switch to Bolivianos which are 8-1 US dollars. Livin' large baby! Hotels now cost .50 cents, dinner a buck at most. With our drastically dwindling funds, this made and continues to make us extremely happy. For many months now we have missed and been eagerly anticipating a return to the cultural aspect of the Andes that we had previously left behind in Peru and Ecuador. It feels like in the more culturally rich countries of the North there is more of a focus on the important things in life. People use their days to accomplish what they need to and move on. Hours each day are spent with focusing on family, friends, and leisure. There is an incredible symbiotic relationship that the people share with the land. Entire communities are built out of mud, some of the huts even have solar panels. These people have everything they need, they have just used many different and often more innovative ways to acquire them. We need to learn a lot from them. Continuously it amazes me that people who purportedly have the least, can't help but give the most, our company is more important to them than having their usual portions. Always a cool feeling to be welcomed in to a stranger's home and treated like a relative. The land in Bolivia has been every bit as inspiring as in the most scenic portions of the trip. Within ten miles of crossing the border we were jaw dropped over the formations around us. Canyons thousands of feet high, red rock walls, caves to explore, everywhere we looked there was something new, something that made us stop and look. Condors that used to gather in groups of two or three now were hanging out in packs of fifteen, twenty even. Flamingos cross our paths at sunset as we begin preparing dinner. It should only be about a week and a half before we get to the Cordillera Real, one of the most famous in The Andes. We will again be walking alongside 20,000 footers instead of the puny 17,000 and 18,000 ft. peaks that have been our home over the last few months. Throughout this incredible journey we have been surrounded by beauty, we have been welcomed with incredible hospitality, and we have slowly but surely fallen in love with South America. Bolivia seems to have the best of it all.
Despite the incredibly positive aspects of Bolivia, there is an
incredibly deep fear imbedded in the people , most likely from the
political instability of the past. Before you read this journal entry I
want to remind you that throughout the trip we have heard things like
this, that there is no reason to actually worry. A culture of fear is
all that creates these encounters. People are naturally afraid of the
unknown, the likelyhood of someone sitting in the middle of nowhere
waiting for the first two gringos in history to walk by is pretty small.
Journal Entry May 26 th¸ 2007
Twice now since leaving Rio Mulatos we have had conversations with local men convinced that we are not going to make it. Today's encounter was the more interesting of the two; it went something like this:
"Can you please tell me where Villañque is?"
"Villañque? Nope doesn´t exist, you want to go to Challapata."
"I don´t want to go to Challapata, I want to go to either Aguas Calientas or Villañque."
"Yeah Aguas Calientas."
"Okay, follow that path there."
"That road goes to Challapata doesn´t it?"
"Yeah that is where Aguas Calientas are."
"How do I get to the town of Aguas Calientas?"
"You don´t want to go there."
"Yes I do."
"Go that way, but you are going to die."
"Why am I going to die?"
"It´s all lake over there."
"I am well prepared, I have everything I need."
"I have a tent and a sleeping bag."
"Okay have a good trip."
"Oh yeah, be careful of all the thieves, they will shoot you pop-pop"
"Okay, I´ll be careful."
"You´re going to die."
"Bye." As crazy as it sounds, it didn´t even seem that strange to me. There is so much fear amongst the locals of terrible events that they have only heard about. The cold, those thieves, spontaneous combustion. Surely something terrible is bound to happen. I wonder where all this fear comes from. It doesn´t exist nearly as much in the two southern countries. Perhaps with a better economy comes a bit more security. Strange though the things that they come up with. How confining that must be to never explore even their own backyard because someone 100 years ago starved to death. There probably isn´t much to do in a lot of these places but sit and exaggerate stories, seems almost like it is part of the custom.
Constantly we are warned that it is too cold, too far, too high, too dry, too wet, too dangerous. People have allowed these fears to grow, based loosely on nothing. They are shocked when we tell them that their neighbours have welcomed us into their homes as they have. Funny trying to convince someone that there really are good people where they live. Part of me has begun to wonder if it is somehow part of human nature to be fearful. The terms "Nation of Fear" and "Culture of Fear" have often been applied to the U.S. Our world had been portrayed as a bad and scary place. I wonder how many people would explore more, would take chances if this wasn't so ingrained into society. I am thankful that I haven't let this fear swallow me, for everything we have learned down here has come from a need to explore, and yes we are still extremely careful with every decision that we make.
We have walked least 3750 miles thus far, covering more than 27 degrees of the globe. We will be reaching our half way mark near La Paz in about ten days, and I gotta say that it is unfathomable that we have not yet reached our half way mark. We have experienced so incredibly much, and are almost a year into this. I don´t think that I have yet felt as good about this as I now do. Two weeks after the half way mark we should reach Machu Pichu, two months after that we will arrive where we left off in the Peru, we are planning a short visit with our families before returning to walk into Patagonia. I will be sad to move on from Bolivia, it has been very good to us, however the months ahead are as promising as they have ever been. I am as confident and excited as I have been. Please write, we constantly miss so many of you, have a good month.