Bolivian Country Bumpkins

January 15, 2007 - to our family and close friends

 Well, it's been over a week for us in Bolivia now, and the primitive essentials of "travel survival Spanish" are becoming easier.  We have spent almost a week in Santa Cruz on arriving in Bolivia, and from a traveller's perspective, it's just another city. Santa Cruz de la Sierra (full name), while not the capital of Bolivia is the largest city in Bolivia (population approx 1.5m people) and feels a bit like a big country town, but a bit dirty poluted and busy.

Now there is one story we have heard about Bolivia that can't go untold!  Apart from being a bit of a history/geography lesson, it is a funny, but i believe true story.  You are probably aware of these 2 facts - (1) that Bolivia is a landlocked country (has no coastal access), & (2) that Latin American countries (especially Bolivia) like their fiesta's (parties).  But from what we hear Bolivia has not always been landlocked. Bolivia used to extend to the coast between Peru and Chile, until Chile decided that they wanted that land, and so went to war with Bolivia to try to force it from them.  Apparently, just as the war was breaking out someone put on a big fiesta (party) somewhere in the eastern part of Boliva, and the Bolivian soldiers decided to stay home and go to the fiesta rather than going to the war.  And so the Bolivians lost their land.    

Well, apart from learning funny stories about Bolivia, we have spent our time doing our Spanish course, practicing it as we walked around looking at the city, trying to get our emails & website set up while we've still got reasonable internet access, and getting to know some of the volunteers at the Christian TV station.  As well as catching up on some much needed sleep, after the busy-ness of getting ready to leave, lack of sleep on long flights & jet lag!

Going back to the Spanish...can you just picture us sitting in the tourist info office trying to speak to the lady there who doesn't speak English...trying to ask some questions.  Well Michael and I had divided our questions up and while he was asking a question i sat there searching our phrasebook for about 5 mins, finally putting the right words together, to ask where to get a Yellow Fever vaccination. After asking the question i then had no idea about the directions she gave me, so asked her to show me on the map where it was.  Well it still didn't help...but fortunately  later that day we found that we can easily get them where we'll be living on the border with Brazil.  And it seems like we'll be border hopping at least on a monthly basis to get our Bolivian visa's renewed each month.

The organisation we will be working with here, have a  Christian satellite TV station in Santa Cruz and we are staying near to that, in a rented room of the house of a cousin of a lady in the tv station.  Hope you can follow that one!  While here we have the opportunity to learn a bit about videoing documentary presentations as there is a need for this to be done in Guyaramerin (where we are going to). 

We haven't spent much time there, but from what we've seen it's pretty amazing what is accomplished at this little TV station.  When you see their premises and the equipment they have to work with, it's really amazing what is accomplished.  Yet this TV station reaches much of the population in Bolivia with a positive Christian message via free-to-air broadcast, and covers most of the Spanish-speaking world via satellite.

Last Tuesday we decided to head out of town for a few days and see some of the real country! We went to visit the lovely town of Samaipata up in the early foothills of the Andes Mts, a couple of hours out of Santa Cruz.  It s just not good for country bumkins like us to be in the city for too long.  Oh what a feeling - like a weight off our shoulders - as the shared taxi drove into the countryside and we were soon surrounded with fresh air, natural beauty, and then the beautiful cool mountains! 

Samaipata is situated at about 1600m above sea level and enjoys a lovely, relatively cool climate (i.e. you only sweat 8hrs a day as opposed to 24 hours a day!).  It is a quaint, friendly town with cobbled rock-paved streets.  We had intended to get out to visit the nearby national park while we were there, but we ended up just having a relaxing few days instead. 

Wednesday we ended up doing some horse-riding around the mountains...something a bit different for us.  It was a really nice way of enjoying the mountain scenery (ie not having to climb the mts yourself...a nice change for a hiker), despite our lazy horses that clocked in on the GPS with an average 4-5km/hr! 

On Thursday morning we went for a walk up a small mountain on the edge of town.  It seems strange to be at 1900m elevation and not be feeling cold, but I guess the latitude may have something to do with it.  We could often see birds of prey soaring around the mts, and of course we imagined them to be condors (as we knew they were in the area), but were disappointed to be told that they were vultures!  Although, after visiting the zoo today, we are somewhat confused, as the birds in the "condor" cage were the vultures that we'd seen!  So I guess we can be glad that we didn't spend our $100 going on a day hike near Samaipata to see the 'condours' because maybe they weren't. We went for the free self guided 'vulture' walk instead...and were much relieved to find that the vultures don't feed on the remains of weary hikers!

In the afternoon we hired a couple of bicycles which was rather an experience.  The bikes looked like quite respectable mountain bikes at first appearance, but Dani's bike didn't have a quick-adjusting mechanism on the seat, and when Dani requested them to adjust the seat 15 minutes of mucking around with different sets of pliers resulted in no success to loosen the completely stripped-out nut that was holding the seat post in place.  (Mmm, now I understand why we use spanners and not pliers to adjust hex nuts!)  We decided to go anyway, and found that the fun had only just begun.  The front gear mechanism was inoperational on both bikes - Dani's was stuck in 2nd, and Michael's was stuck in 1st.  Furthermore the gear change lever on Dani's bike was loose, which meant that the bike was permanently set to top gear unless you kept firm pressure on the lever.  We persisted despite these problems and enjoyed an hour's ride along the road to Cochabamba - one hour was nice, any longer would have been frustrating - we're not too surprised that the word for "maintenance" doesn't appear in our phrase-book!  Welcome back to the joys of a developing country! But then again, i guess you can't expect too much for bike hire when it costs $1.70 per hour!

The food in Samaipata was good.  There was quite a range of options from cheap local eateries where a meal for two cost about AU$2 to a gourmet lunch in a gorgeous Dutch garden cafe where we spent a massive AU$8 and were still a bit hungry (they advertised "slow food" and picked the food fresh from the garden to cook for your lunch)!  Generally in Bolivia we've had rather a mixed experience with food while we're living as travellers.  We quickly learned the phrases "vegetariano" and "sin carne" (without meat), and have got by quite well.  There was one time I ended up with a hunk of meat in my soup, but that was my own fault for forgetting to ask if it was "sin carne" or not!

One thing that stood out to us in Samaipata (which may be a common feature in rural Bolivia for all we know) was the "cowboy-style" horizontally split doors on almost everything.  It seems like every door (even to our hostel room) has to be split in two halfway up the door, and it's quite funny for us to see people looking out from their houses through the top half of their doorway!

Well as I write this we're currently driving back to Santa Cruz in the back of a smelly 'shared' taxi.  We're not exactly sure what next week holds for us - we'd hoped to head out to the school, but the director Jeff & Fawna are in the US for another week or so, as the school is currently in their summer vacation. So we'll probably see if there's anything we can do to help in the tv station at Santa Cruz while we get stuck into more Spanish lessons and wait for them to arrive. 

I mentioned earlier that we went to a zoo today (Sunday)...It's the first zoo that either of us have been to outside of Australia.  It costs a bargain price of $1.70 per person (yes you are probably getting the picture that things are cheap here in Bolivia...even bananas...sorry but got to rub it in...a big hand of 12 bananas costs less than $1), and, getting back to the zoo the animals are all south american animals.  They are quite well looked after, and it was interesting to see some of the beautiful colourful birds (some which are close to extinction), wildcats, deer, monkeys, turtles, tapirs, wildpigs, birds of prey, snakes(!?) and so on.

Well, that's it for the moment.  Hope you are all well, and thanks for your emails, texts and prayers.  It's been great hearing of home.

Hasta luego,
Danielle & Michael