Here I continue snippets of my wanderings through Bolivia from last year, as I moved from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to La Paz and looked towards finally arriving at my destination of volunteering: Rurrenabaque.
I’ve danced to Jason Mraz I’m Yours in the shower, smiled so much my face hurts, and eaten more magnificent vegan buffets than I could possibly count.
I’ve been addressed as usted – the formal ‘you’ – by mothers and grandpas.
I’ve done a presentation in my hiking boots to the UN Youth Congress, worn tramping clothes to their formal debating day.
I’ve eaten fried banana, sesame and chia bars from roadside stalls, vegan empanadas.
I’ve presented certificates to over 600 youth.
I’ve watched a room of 400 explode into an impromptu flash mob, nearly fought/danced in a capoeira performance, and judged twenty performances to save the world.
I’ve been treated like a celebrity, had a VIP room to myself, and been asked for over a hundred photographs in the space of half an hour.
I’ve gotten lost at night in Santa Cruz, the country’s largest city, seen a giant lake in the city centre, and nearly walked into a traffic light.
I’ve had the UN Youth Envoy for Latin American and the Caribbean randomly stop talking to the delegation from Trinidad about the next youth conference from the head of a long table, look in my direction and say I love you with a smile so huge you could’ve seen it from the moon.
I’ve fallen in love with a young Columbian cyclist-lover-vegetarian-activist- World-Wildlife-Fund-volunteer-photographer who completely at random started talking to me in an art gallery while I cried over photos of inundations in Beni.
I’ve tried to bust into a piano in the middle of a conversation with Argentinians from OAJNU (Argentinian Youth Organisation of United Nations) for the youth movement for the post-2015 Agenda from Latin America we are about to build.
I’ve held a tiny green parrot in an aviary.
I’ve sung through an enclosure with a hundred butterflies, talked to lorikeets, watched turtles stoop through a swamp forest, crashed a kayak in a beautiful lagoon, drunk coconut water, seen a glow-in-the-dark 3D model of DNA made completely out of telephone directories, eaten quinoa burgers, done acro-yoga with a social media guru, sunbathed in a nature resort, and climbed a spiral staircase through a sky forest.
I’ve climbed a cathedral tower with a geophysicist-engineer-petroleum- industry-explorer-Venzuelan-cyclist with dreams to motorcycle the length of South America one day, broccoli woes and absurd fascination for orthomolecular medicine, recipes and arepas.
I’ve been interviewed by Miss Bolivia.
I’ve nearly had diarrhea.
I’ve lived with vegetarians in a house with servants.
I’m about to live in a fairytale permaculture paradise with Hobbit-town huts, organic vegetables and mountains to boot.
I washed my hair for first time in 2.5 years. With shampoo. I ́ve been crammed in a 5-person car with 8 people.
I nearly hacked my hand off with a scythe.
I climbed a 4 storey fairy tale treehouse in permaculture village in the dark, listening to romantic music and shimmering lights far away like a city of stars from the rooftop…wishing I could share it with someone.
I’ve been a rubbish collector for a day and carted 25 kg back to recycling dump.
I’ve lain in a hammock, fallen asleep in a kids playground entirely made of wood and lived in a resort with a swimming pool, gym, sauna, all veg weekend feast, loudspeakers and BBQ.
I’ve drowned a garden watering at sunset.
I’ve realised Bolivians may be quiet, shy but they are deeply afraid of silence.
I’ve had tea with flowers direct from Egypt in a mansion with a spiral staircase, balustrade, chandeliers, mahogany furniture and three beautiful bathrooms.
I’ve gotten lost at sunset in one of Bolivia’s largest cities and been recognised by two girls from the Congress who literally walked in to me and rescued me.
I’ve waited over 1.5 hours in a park at night with all my gear.
I’ve felt my whole spirit and body slow right down in a village arranged in constellations, circles and triangles, masculine and feminine, lived in a thatched roof hut called Water My Blood, facing Fire My Spirit, Earth my Body and Air my Breath nestled in by the mountains.
I’ve gotten into my short shorts and $2 work shirt to eradicate weeds like a maniac for a day and half.
I’ve taken a taxi through illegal indigenous settlements.
I’ve had a lawyer-woman ́s-rights-activist-Global-Shaper-World-Economic- Forum-Ambassador-Global-Academy-Founder-vegetarian-travel-lover with a beautiful sister, a bir brother who loves rugby and lived in NZ for a year, and a father the head of an international enterprise give up her bed for me in order to go and sleep on the floor bed of her sister ́s room (despite my epic protestations).
I’ve been given a ride in the flash car of the Director General of an eco- commune constructed by the mad, artistic, universal visions of his Cuban Uncle and 1000 volunteers, with the second highest ́spiritual energy ́ in the world – a man who has a long ponytail, is also a nationally renown actor, artist, musician invited by the winner of five Grammies to USA with a passion for permaculture, social justice and youth at risk and trafficked orphans…just before he was about to pitch the next big idea to a major airline.
I’ve joked and giggled with four indigenous young woman while preparing a meal for 150 visitors one weekend.
I’ve bought a colon cleansing formula with cactus noni and tamarind off a
woman shouting her wares in the bus.
I’ve walked into my favourite policeman-bodyguard in a gorgeous university campus, this time fully uniformed instead of in suit and tie undercover.
I ́ve lost a 1000 photos of Bolivia ́s most stunning landscapes that I took.
I ́ve cooked an Indian feast for a Public Relations Officer and her veg mum and been told it was in the top 10 meals of her life.
I feel blessed, loved, valued, amazed, stupefied at the level of care, kindness and generosity I ́ve experienced here, stunned at how many deep friendships have arisen within days and moments. It feels like I ́m not really ́travelling ́ but rather visiting long lost friends – ́Lovers don ́t finally meet somewhere…they are in each other all along’ – who love me to bits for absolutely no reason and keep in touch with me almost everyday to check in.
It’s hard, it’s really hard not to take it for granted when it comes so often, and also to feel like I am really contributing to their wellbeing, making a dent in their universe.
I have turned up to the UN headquarters in Bolivia with a giant backpack, clothes covered in dog fur and holes in my pants.
I have walked around the second biggest (illegal, black) open air market in the world at over 4000m above a beautiful city brandishing a giant kitchen knife.
I’ve crossed a highway in the winter heat on a dusty road.
I’ve been stared at hungrily walking up the most beautiful and artistic street in La Paz.
I made friends with an indigenous old granny knitting a jersey for her grand child in Brazil in front of the main plaza and church, with a smartphone.
I have felt like finding a gun in the forest for the first time in months.
I met two hooligans from UK documenting climate change throughout Bolivia and walking 100km in 3 days.
I’ve eaten a four course all veg meal for $3.50.
I’ve made friends with 2 old grannies while sitting all alone, one of whom felt so much for me that she asked for my phone details to keep in touch, call in and check up on me to make sure I was surviving her city – one of the highest altitude cities in the world.
I’ve been to a witch market, seen llama fetuses and maca powder fortified with ́frog extract ́ and more horrors in one afternoon than ever in my whole life.
I’ve drunk coconut water from a roadside stall.
I’ve eaten so much good food in one day that I have nearly thrown up.
I’ve talked till 1am in the morning to a Croatian-airline-customer-service- representative-girl-turned-vegan under candlelight of one of the town ́s most artistic café ́s Magick, under a painting of Ganesh and lotuses…and taken a taxi back at 1:30am in the morning.
I ́ve knocked heads with a beautiful young woman fighting on drugs, crime and corruption in Bolivia, wanting so much to travel the world but hesitant, afraid of walking out of her glorious city bubble and taking a leap.
I did it.
I cycled the Death Road.
The World’s Most Dangerous Road.
Imagine…over 500m dropoffs, from a drop dead mirror lake at the summit of a mountain at 4700m above sea, hurtling 120km down cloud forest, valleys with hairpin turns, tropical jungle, through sharp rock, gravel, mud, rock, dust and streams galore, and absurdly amazing views of distant lush green, arriving at a river at the bottom.
Finally one with the bike…and I only crashed once.
And managed not to catapult over the edge of the cliff…or break anything.
I have been fed gorgeous quinoa and peanut soup by the woman who the government had a contract to assassinate, and whose Eco cabins in the forest were burned, all investigations and documentaries stolen from her house.
I have drunk homemade smoothie with banana, cactus noni, algarrobo, kiwicha, maca, pollen, coconut, cinnamon, giant almonds, quinoa flour…out of wine glasses.
I’ve stayed with an indigenous family, and an activist-working-on-over-two- dozen-issues-turned-toilet-paper-seller outside dingy public toilets of his parents “business” with dreams to travel the world and save his community from a highway linking mining regions that threatens to blow up a mountain in two with dynamite.
I’ve made friends with a stray black fluffy dog, sitting all alone on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world – or, according to the Andeans, the birthplace of the sun.
I walked through an endless tirade of marches, colours, costumes, sounds in Achacachi, a small town on Independence Day.
I’ve been told I speak Spanish like a Malaysian.
I have eaten tucumanas stuffed with veges and egg and spat the egg out – full meal for 60 cents.
I’ve felt unbalanced, and un-centred in Bolivia’s most beautiful city, La Paz, built with brick and red and red and red with not a hint of green…and felt stillness return watching reeds and abandoned boats and distant Peru with the lake like a thousand glittering suns, a party of constellations with nothing but the sound of the wind and water beating through my heart, near Santa Huayana fishing town.
Ive bumbled through giant caves with “dead” lagoons, and slipped and smashed my back and arms clean against the slippery rocks.
I’ve walked 16km up a highway to save $4, crossed a river, been covered in dust by passing cars, seen the most stunning mountain village, made friends with a llama, 2 hippies, an indigenous woman who sold me a huge plate of rice for $1.20 and a Swiss duo doing humanitarian work for women’s rights violations.
I’ve been kept awake by the sound of howling dogs more times than I can recall.
I’ve been escorted by a young teachers student with a hilarious beanie and obsession for spirulina, Ingzhi tea right from one 2-hour minibus to the station of the other and it’s final stop 45 minutes away…because he felt sorry for me lugging two giant backpacks around.
I’ve driven past a forest fire.
I’ve had a road blocked by processions of women dancing in pink, blue, silver dresses and men with masks and angel wings.
I’ve made friends with an old grandma at the bus stop who was so loving she escorted me to my next bus after the horrendously long one I caught with her!
I’ve fallen down a flight of stairs, dropped both bottles, a $200 water purifier with a glass UV purifier, all my vitamins and minerals, smashed my butt, shoulder blade and wrist clean against the side of the steps.
It hurts so much I cannot sleep on my back anymore.
I’ve stayed with the director of CINU – Centre for Communications and Information in United Nations – who went to dine with an ex president of Bolivia and famous Spanish author, whose own work was best seller in world, and who had a meeting with the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations the fifth night I was there…and for whose family I cooked a full three course meal one sunny Sunday.
I’ve been totally stressed out, catching two speeding minibuses to a bustling airport, sprinting through hail and sideways snowstorm to salvage bottles of water from a passengers from a forest town to get them to the labs in time for scientific samples.
I’ve bought more oregano and cinnamon than I’ve ever seen in my life from a roadside herb seller, befriended a papaya-juice maker on the street, haunted Re-Encuentro Con La Naturaleza all vegan organic restaurant every day obsessively for five days, bought a kilo of quinoa, maca, chia, 12-seed mix, stood in line for freshly baked bread for 12 cents each at Centro Natur, and bargained the hell out of the Witches Market.
I’ve been tossed from person to person in the dingy Post Office, to be finally told that my computer charger – which should have arrived from Chile 1 week ago – will take 1 month or more, even though it is obviously sitting right there in the office.
I’ve given up with immigration here. I’ll pay the fucking fine for overstaying.
I’ve distracted a sales-promotion lady at an eco-tourism office for two hours talking about her work in women ́s rights, family, what makes you come alive and made a friend for life.
I’ve met a military army student in a cable car swooping past a sea of glittering city lights past sunset and looming cordilleras who, within ten minutes, had asked for my number, even though I was obviously never going to see him in my life again.
I’ve also run into a super hippie Bolivian dude working in the most gorgeous arty indigenous craft store with prices beyond the roof, with an uncle working day in and day out in the jungle who, also knew he would never see me again, and asked for my number.
Both were called Jonathan. I gave it to them anyway.
I’ve realised a lot of things.
I’ve realised Bolivia has some of flashiest buses and dirtiest toilets I’ve ever seen in my life. That Bolivians are shy…except when they are pissed as hell and the indigenous women are so, so foul when they drink. Bolivians love music and life but talk quietly. They have an indigenous president who is destroying indigenous ecosystems. It’s a country full of paradoxes. I’ve stayed in more 5 star houses than I’ve seen in NZ but over half the population lives in extreme poverty. Winter here doesn’t really exist- “winter” simply means ice cold mornings when you need to wear 7 layers and come afternoon, it’s an oven of 25 degrees. Bolivia is all about Catholicism and truth and family, but almost everyone lies to your face. A meeting at 6pm here means turning up anywhere between 6:45pm and 8pm is fine, it probably won’t start till 7pm anyway. Bolivians are warm, generous, welcoming…and macho, cunning and rip you off whenever they
can. They fly the multicultural indigenous flag here, the one with a bazillion colours, but everyone wants to be white, blonde and American.
The place is full of so much richness, from swamps, deserts, salt flats to mountains, lakes, cordilleras, pampas, Yungas, jungle, cloud fires and more…yet so poor at once. There’s heaven at the doorstep but everyone wants to leave for Miami. If you’re brown, no one looks at you twice until you open your mouth, and even then, nobody really cares. I could be anyone here. There are beautiful parks and plazas…that you cannot enter, or if you can, then there are ́jails ́ around every bush and shrub. The traffic is a nightmare and a death-sentence, but there are uber-happy women dressed up in zebra onesies at every central traffic light, cheerfully telling you to get going on your merry way. They have the world’s best superfoods here but over half the indigenous mamas are so giant that their bums in them giant flowery skirts take up two seats on the minibus, almost. They offer wine and dead llama fetuses to “Pachamama” Mother Earth…and also toss their trash straight out the window be it centre city or remote highway…and nobody really does conservation here because they give a fuck; it’s because it’s good business. And for all the love of “Pachamama” and banners galore against violence against women, men either give you all their attention (and then some) or barely look you in the face, talk to the air beside your left ear and answer in short, flippant remarks. So many women are beaten up here everyday, it breaks my heart. But so many mana wahine here too, fighting for their fellow wahine.
I’ve realised what really fills me about coming to a new place are two things: conversations / relationships with the people and encounters with “deep nature”; something personal, intimate, private, something where I have to walk or work for, or where I can simply lie down and be present. New foods delight me, beautiful streets enchant me, quirky markets make me stop and stare, statues and buildings are kind of interesting, museums occasionally so – but the WOW things for me have definitely been hitch hiking, mountain climbing, biking, snoozing at Lake Titi, and my lasting friendships and overwhelming gratitude for the kindness of strangers.
And. I ́ve also realised something else —
I haven’t had a hug, a real, hip-to-hip, stomach-to-stomach, back crushing, hug for 40 days and my body can feel it.
I can’t concentrate on anything except death-defying adrenaline rush inducing activities like biking the Death Road – and I need more and more of this just to feel ALIVE, like I’m a human being.
I feel sad and angry and wound up and exhausted and stuffed full and empty and cynical and distant all at once. I can’t sleep.
Maybe part of this is also because I haven’t had intimate human touch.
Wild flamencos and high mountain lakes and Jurassic tropical forests are great but by themselves…I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do this. I’m going into the jungle in a few days. I just need a real hug.
It’s been amazing, but I don’t feel amazing. Not right now, anyway.