Monday, July 27, 2009

Dinosaur tracks, caverns, and canyons, oh my!

This weekend, I took a 6 hour bus ride to a tiny pueblo in Potosí, Bolivia called Torotoro. Torotoro is only accessibly by excruciatingly long and bumpy ground transportation. Getting there requires a ride on an unpaved road that goes right through riverbeds. The ride is truly beautiful as vehicles pass through the mountains of Potosí. On my way to Torotoro, I saw lorakeets flying through the open valleys, mountain sheep climbing steep rock faces, and wild horses bathing in the riverbeds.

This weekend was the Feast of Santiago in Torotoro, the largest fiesta of the year in all of the Potosí district of Bolivia. I can´t say I went to Torotoro to see the fiesta (in fact, I tried to avoid it, and would have if my schedule permitted), but I did enjoy watching and participating in the traditional dancing, listening to the music, and viewing the parades of colorfully dressed women dancing through the streets. The fiesta was interesting, but not something I would go to again if I had the choice. It consisted of 3 days straight of people drinking extraordinary amounts of chicha to the point of passing out drunk in the streets. The worst part of the fiesta to witness occurred on the final day, when hundreds of men fought in the unpaved streets of the pueblo. Their faces covered in blood as they hit each other with brass knuckles and slashed the bare chests of their neighbors and family members. It´s said that the year ahead will be plentiful if someone dies during the fighting; I didn´t want to stay around long enough to know whether or not we will have a good year.

The true sights to see in Torotoro are the natural wonders located in the Torotoro National Park. My first day there, I traveled with a guide to the major sites where dinosaur footprints are located. Torotoro hosts the largest number of dinosaur footprints in the world, with 2500 already exposed and many more surely existing in the vast un-excavated terrain.

Torotoro is also home to a profound canyon called Waca Senq'a. On my second day, I hiked down into the canyon and bathed in the waterfalls that appear to have their origins in the heavens. I also hiked to a place in the park where rocks are covered in primitive cave paintings done in animal blood. Unlike the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, the paintings in Torotoro are extremely simple, consisting of little more than shapes and lines depicting the mountains and rivers of Torotoro.

On my final day, I descended meters into the earth through the caverns of Humajalanta, the largest cavern in Bolivia. I absolutely loved this part of my journey. To make it to the lowest part of the cavern, where a lagoon exists filled with prehistoric-era blind fish, travelers must repel, climb, crawl, and wiggle through narrow passages that lead deeper and deeper below the ground. Along the way, I saw majestic stalactite and stalagmite formations that grow just 1cm every 100 years. After spending about 3 hours deep underground, I ascended wanting to go right back in!!

So went my journey into a park documenting millions of years into the past. Pictures to come soon, stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

La Paz, Day 4: Tiwanaku

The next morning, Kelly´s mom took me to Tiwanaku to see the ancient ruins of the Tiwanaku people. Tiwanaku dates back to about 1500 BCE and was the capital city of the Tiwanaku Empire, considered one of the most important pre-Incan Empires. Not much is known of the people because they had no written language, but their pottery, sculptures, and architecture still being excavated today tell some of their story.

I found the complexity of the structures truly astounding. Every rock was perfectly cut to fit together without any mortar or cement. The city also has an elaborate drainage and water system. Also incredible was the fact that the majority of the monolithic stones, some weighing more than 132 tons, were transported over 40km to the site! Legend has it that when the Spanish first arrived and asked how the town was built, the Aymarans attributed the construction to one of their God´s. Any visitor can easily see why the people would believe only a god could build such structures.

Tiwanaku is still used by modern Aymaran people for religious rituals. It is the main site for the Aymaran New Year (see post below) to celebrate the winter solstice. The ¨Gateway of the Sun¨is located in Tiwanaku and forms a arch that the sun only passes through once a year, at the precise moment when the sun first rises on the day of the winter solstice.

La Paz, Day 3: Isla del Sol and a night out on the town

After an early wake-up call in Copacabana, my friends and I boarded a ferry to la Isla del Sol, about two hours away from Copacabana by very slow-going ferry. I ended up spending most of the ride making friends with fellow travelers from Brazil, Spain, and Argentina. It was great fun to all try to communicate with our varying degrees of mastery of Spanish.

Isla del Sol is an island in the southern part of Lake Titicaca where the son is believed to have been born. There are over 180 ruins on the island, mostly from the Incan period (about 15th C), but some dating back to 2200 BCE.

The ferry dropped us off on the southern part of the island where most of the ruins are located. My friends re-boarded the ferry to take them to the northern part of the island, while I hiked across. The hike was really spectacular. I joined up with a group of Med students from Dartmouth and we enjoyed the beautiful views from the peaks of the island.

After meeting back up with my friends on the northern part of the island, we decided to separate for the rest of the trip. Two stayed on the island for the night, while Mike and I decided to head back to La Paz to stay the night at his friend´s house. Kelly decided to show us what a typical night out on the town is like for young people in La Paz. She invited friends over for dinner, and then we all went out to a party in the city and to a club. I´m not accustomed to ¨night life¨, so when I realized we were still dancing at 4am, I had to call it quits and leave the rest to the Bolivians!

New friends from around the world!

La Paz, Day 2: Lake Titicaca and Copacabana

The next day, we took a 4 hour bus ride from La Paz to Copacabana, a small town situated on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and at 12,500 ft above sea level, has one of the highest altitudes of any body of water in the world. The hills and mountains surrounding the lake are riddled with evidence of bygone eras of great empires. Terraces from the Incan and Tiwanku cultures are still used today by the Aymarans for agricultural purposes.

We arrived in Copacabana in the afternoon, just in time for one of the town´s famous trout lunches. From what my friends told me, the fish was delicious!

Copacabana is a small rown with about 6000 inhabitants. It is a tourist stop for travelers wanting to see Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, so it has a number of nice hotels and restuarants. It is also the home of a beautiful bascilica called Our Lady of Copacabana.

There isn´t too much to do in Copacabana, so my friends and I did just about the most touristy activity ever: we took a swan paddle boat out onto Lake Titicaca. Later in the evening, I climbed up Mount Calvario to see the sun set over Lake Titicaca. The mountain isn´t very high, but the trek is steep and with the high altitude of Copacabana, I was unusually out of breath by the top. But what a site to see! I had the great fortune of arriving at the summit just in time to see a group of indigenous Aymarans performing a qóa ritual sacrifice to Pachamama. The sunset was spectacular, and by the time I hiked back down, it was time for a delicious dinner in town.

La Paz, Day 1: Bicentennial Celebration

July 16 was the 200th anniversary of La Paz´s independence. To celebrate, the entire city partied for two days straight. There were fireworks, free performances by Bolivia´s most popular bands, parades, dancing, appearances by Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, and lots and lots of bebidas.

I arrived in the city at about 7am on July 16 along with two friends of mine from the Maryknoll Institute. The three of us were surprised to see the streets still sprinkled with fighting couples and drunken men at 7am. We went to a cafe for breakfast, and saw five men still drinking beer while their wives slept on the table. Bolivians party hard.

We spent most of our morning touring around the deserted streets of the city, visiting the San Francisco Cathedral and shopping in some of the artesania shops. Mike´s friend who lives in La Paz met up with us to show us around the city later in the day. She took us to Moon Valley, showed us around one of the wealthiest parts of Bolivia (where she happens to live), and took us to a mountain top where we watched the sun set over the city. It was really a fun day and thanks to Kelly, we were able to see quite a bit of La Paz.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mission accomplished: Santa Cruz

Last weekend, the Jesuits and I ventured on a pilgrimage to Santa Cruz to see the Jesuit Missions built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The post-Enlightenment missions were designed based upon Thomas Moore´s Utopia with the purpose of creating a utopic communal living space to teach the local Chiquitanias about God. Rather than forcing the people to change their customs and convert to Catholicism as the Franciscans had done, the Jesuits first opened schools where they taught baroque music and handicrafts. While the people learned to play music and compose, the Jesuits began instructing about God.

Unlike those living in the Altiplano, the Chiquitania people had no prior sense of a god. They believed every object had a spirit; they would ask the jaguar permission before going hunting, and trees permission before chopping them down. Four enemy tribes inhabited the region each speaking different tongues and celebrating different cultural traditions. Combating a long history of inter-tribal wars, the Jesuits sought to create peace between the tribes by having each tribe share long houses with members of other tribes. As evidence of their respect for the existing culture of the people, the Jesuits gave the tribal leaders places of honor in the long houses, and the only seats in the church.

The Jesuits based their teaching upon the principles of the Bible they thought would best be understood by the Chiquitanias. They allowed the people to keep their own traditions and provided housing and food for all who chose to live in the mission. The music and art taught was meant to show the people an aspect of God. The idea was that when truly beautiful music and art is created, God is present. To further illustrate the glory of God as good, the Jesuits created the main sanctuary as a place of only positive biblical art. The 12 stations of the cross, for example, were replaced by 12 happy and plump cherubs. The Chiquitanias had a sense of good and bad, evil and glorious, so the main sanctuary only represented the glorious, and the funerary chapel housed the more sacrificial representations of Jesus.

The Jesuits were a victim of their own success. After nearly 200 years of running the missions, the woodcrafts, bread, and music produced in the missions had become so famous and profitable that the Spanish Crown decided to expel the Jesuits from the missions and send Franciscans in their place. The Chiquitanias were ¨freed¨in the process, sent back into the wild with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Some missions have changed significantly since the expulsion of the Jesuits. We visited San Javier first, the most historically accurate, and then Concepcion, which was completely altered in the 1970s under the Franciscans. I actually liked the way Concepcion was redone because the stations of the cross and all of the biblical carvings represent the bible in terms of Bolivian history. To show the suffering of Jesus in the stations of the cross, a Bolivian Dictator plays the role of Pontius Pilot condemning Jesus and indigenously dressed women crying signify the women who weapt for Jesus.

Santa Cruz has a semi-tropical climate. One of my favorite parts of my stay was a hike I took with some of the Jesuits up to a place called ¨the Rock,¨a large granite rock-face in the middle of the forest. On our way to the Rock, we saw a rattle snake, bats, many colorful butterflies, and huge and brilliantly colored poisonous spiders. It was an aracnophobiacs nightmare!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Touring the Pueblos

This weekend, I joined other students for a day-long tour of four surrounding pueblos of Cochabamba: Tarata, Cliza, Punata, and Arani. Pueblos are essentially small towns with a large church in the center and small shops that cover all of the basic needs of the inhabitants of the surrounding area. Each pueblo is about an hour from Cochabamba city, and easily accessible by car, or in our case, barely accessible by bus. The campesinos--the typically indigenous farmers, ranchers, and handicrafters--live on the land surrounding a central pueblo. More than 90% of the inhabitants of Pueblos around Cochabamaba are indigenous.

I was immediately struck by the beauty, and at times simplicity, of the pueblos. Each has simple but aesthetically pleasing Spanish-style concrete and brick architecture. At the center of each pueblo is a plaza principal, a main plaza usually with a fountain or a statue, flowers, and benches. At one edge of the plaza´s square rests a massive church, usually mission-style. The contrast between the simple businesses and homes in the pueblo and the imposing and elaborate church is striking.

Each of the four pueblos we visted are renowned for different things: Arani for its bread, Cliza for its Sunday market, Tarata for its church housing the head of an ex-president, and Punata for its elaborate Franciscan mission. Below are a few photos from the trip:

Friday, June 26, 2009

All Around Cochabamba

Last weekend, I joined students from the Institute for a tour of Cochabamba. We visited all of the major plazas, cathedrals, the Cristo de la Concordia (the largest Christ statue in the world), and ended the tour with a lovely lunch at a resort-like place 20 minutes out of the city. Pictures from the trip, including one from inside the arms of the Christ statue, follow:

Update on San Juan

Tuesday was the much anticipated feast of San Juan and despite a fever, I rested up enough to enjoy the festivities with Father John from the Institute, and Rolando and Ely. Rolando is the brother of my host mother, and is also the host of Father John. Ely is his wife.

The two had a marvelous party with about 12 of their friends. There was traditional Bolivian dancing, an open fire for cooking sausages, lots of food, drink, and good company. They served a traditional Bolivian celebration drink called te con te, ¨tea with tea¨, the second tea really being some kind of flavorful alcohol, possibly a spiced rum, though I´m no expert in these matters. The sausages and hotdogs were interestingly prepared. They were cooked over the open-flame grill, and then people covered them in salsa, shredded potato chips, and the traditional toppings of ketchup, mayo, and mustard. One of Rolando´s friends played Spanish Guitar beautifully, and sang many Spanish love songs as the night drew on. It was really a great time, and totally worth laboring through my fever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Feast of San Juan

Cochabambinos love to party, and according to locals, they have a knack for finding just about any excuse for a fiesta. Saint´s Days are no exception.

Today is the feast of San Juan, and to mark the occasion, Cochabambinos will have large parties with dancing, and bonfires, and hot drinks. Bonfires were recently outlawed in the city. With each family having their own fire in front of their house--and some igniting tires--the air quality became so poor that people couldn´t breath for days. Now, people shoot off fireworks instead.

I will be going to the house of the brother of my host mother to celebrate. He´s the only Catholic in the family, and he and his wife take me to church with them on Sundays. A priest from the Institute lives there as well, and they are all very nice people. I´ll update this post with details when I have them!

Nuevo Año Aymara--welcome to 5517

The Andean New Year, or Nuevo Año Aymara, took place on Sunday, June 21. I didn´t actually make it out to see the festivities (participants have to hike up a mountain in Cochabamba at 5am, and no one wanted to accompany me at that time), but I did attend a lecture on it.

The Aymarans & Quechuans mark the new year on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The main location for celebration--the indigenous version of our Times Square--is Tiwanaku, Bolivia, the site of the oldest known ruins in Bolivia (1,500 B.C., before the Incan Empire).

According to legend, the sun´s rays only pass through the Gateway of the Sun one time a year, during sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice. People travel for miles to the site of the ruins in the middle of the night, and wait anxiously with arms raised to the heavens for the coming of the first rays. Dancing, incense burning, and large fires mark the occasion. Llamas are sacrificed for Pachamama, the mother of the earth, and the Aymarans and Quechuans cover their animals in blood or pink pigment in hopes of fertility.

People wait with their arms raised to the heavens as the time draws near to daybreak. The coming of a new year marks the union of the heavens with the earth and all of its inhabitants. For participants, raised arms symbolize openness to the things to come in the new year, and hope for good harvest. The sun´s rays bring hope to Aymarans on what is said to be the coldest day of the year.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pensimientos primeros: gratitud

The title of this blog is ¨First Thoughts: Gratitude.¨

It´s no wonder why in every packet given to students by Maryknoll and in every conversation I had with people who had visited before, the words överwhelming¨ and ¨culture shock¨ came up. These feelings are not necessarily negative, in fact, I have already found great value in the lessons I´ve learned since being here.

It´s amazing what life is like without some of the simple givens we frequently take for granted, first and foremost, safety. When safety is always in jeopardy, one lives very differently. So far, that has been my greatest lesson. I never knew what it was like to always need to be on guard and completely aware of my surroundings, because in the US, some degree of safety is guranteed and if one should encounter a problem, the police are just a phonecall away. Here, even the Bolivianos take great precautions by not leaving their homes at certain times, not wearing much jewelry, and not carrying purses. It certainly requires much consideration and adaptation. Every step of the day is pre-planned: how much money you need to carry, what clothing is appropriate, and what streets are safest for the journey. It´s not a bad thing at all but it was certainly a shock to me when I realized that even the slightest misstep could mean very serious consequences.

It´s also true what people say about how much more grateful you are after staying for a while in a ¨Developing Country.¨I´m not sure if it´s the influence of the Bolivianos that´s making me want to say a prayer of thanks all the time, but I have definitely been thanking God much more since I´ve been here: thanking Him for each meal I am blessed to have, each taxi ride that delivers me safely home, each morning when I wake up in a bed and not on the streets, and each trip to school that occurs safely. I also thank Him for my loved ones back home whom I love even more when I´m so far away.

Well, that is all for now. On the list of things to do this weekend are the following: learn how to clean my clothes with a bucket and washboard, take a tour of Cochabamba on Saturday, participate in the Andean New Year (solstice) festival on Sunday, go to church, and to school. I will start my volunteer work next week. !Hasta luego!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

La primera visito a la Cancha

This morning, after my bitter cold shower and delicious breakfast of papaya, bananas and pineapple, Daniela--Ana Maria LaFuente´s oldest daughter--and I went to La Cancha. La Cancha is supposedly the largest outdoor market in South America. It´s open air with a few buildings, but mostly consists of mini-shops covered by overhangs. Indigeños sell just about everything in La Cancha: clothes, groceries, toys, meals, beauty supplies, shoes, blankets, appliances, everything. They carry huge loads in colorful mantels tied upon their backs, and shout out the prices of their merchandise to passerbys. La Cancha is vibrant, loud, and crowded: the perfect place for ¨loosing¨things from your pocket.

I needed to buy a few items to keep me warm since I didn´t pack appropriately for the brisk evenings and mornings in Cochabamba. I wanted sweatpants and a sweatshirt to sleep in, socks, and sweaters. La Cancha has no shortage of all four items, but nothing comes in a size larger than mediano (medium) and the mediums are from the Juniors section at best. Most of the sweatpants had playboy emblems so it took over an hour to find something semi-suitable for my taste. I bought a nice sweater for less than $10, sweatpants (which will likely be waaaaay too tight for my taste) for less than $10, and three pairs of socks for about $1. All of this would not have been possible without Daniela who navigated through the narrow paths and negotiated for me. As soon as people saw she was with a gringo, the price went up, so I tried to blend in. At 6ft tall and with skin as white as snow, that was no easy feat among the indigeños.

Despite the overwhelminess of La Cancha, I would consider my shopping day very successful: I left with the items I wanted, and even those I came in with--the true test!