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!