Time for a Holiday

July 23, 2007

Dear family and friends,

Well, it must be time to write a few words down once again.  Sorry its been a while since writing, and I guess this email is bound to be proportionately long according to the length of time since writing.  (In case you don't wish to read it all, the first half is written about our time spent on holidays in Bolivia for 2 weeks, and the second part is about life at the school.)

We have heard that winter in Australia has been colder than usual, and that there has been good rainfall, so its good to hear the drought seems to be over. Likewise the winter here has been cooler than usual, not so much for us in Guayara, although we've had more "surs" (cold south fronts) than usual.  So far i think the count is at 6 or 7 since May, while the usual is less than this number over an entire winter.  At one stage we were only getting 2 or 3 days in between the cold fronts.  Now admittedly, we are not getting frosts, or even overnight temperatures below 10 degrees celsius like you Victorians, (I think one of the colder days was around 13 degrees celsius) BUT we have cold showers, cold creeks to wash clothes in and no heaters!  The wind blows straight in from the south, which means it blows straight through the window next to our bed.  Unfortunately, we can't close the window either (apart from mosquito netting, there is nothing to close). 

Sadly though, Argentina and Chile are having a very cold winter, and street people in Buenos Aires are dieing of the cold.


We obviously hadn't had enough cold weather though, as we decided to go to the coldest parts of Bolivia for our holidays!  The school has had a vacation for the past 2 weeks, and we thought it was a good opportunity to take a break and see a little more of Bolivia.  We initially flew to Cochabamba (at around 2500 meters), which is in the altiplano region of Bolivia.  Flying into Cochabamba was pretty fun, and the first impression was a good one.  After not seeing mountains for 5 months, they were certainly a beautiful sight!  Cochabamba is significantly cooler than the tropical lowlands where we live, and the climate is meant to be that of "eternal spring". 

Our first day in Cochabamba was Saturday (Sabbath) and as there is an Adventist university in Cochabamba, we decided to go to church at the university church.  We were blessed to meet some very friendly people there, some Brazilian families, and a Peruvian-Bolivian couple, who all spoke a little English.  We spent the afternoon with them, and enjoyed some Brazilian cooking.  We really enjoy Brazilian food!  We've also found Brazilians to be very friendly and hospitable people, and enjoyed the afternoon with our new friends.

The next day, we went walking up in the mountains (in a national park) near Cochabamba.  We walked up to about 3500 metres. It was really nice as they had Gum trees there, and it was a dry alpine environment, and it felt just like we were walking in the mountains at home! (Although the air was just a bit thinner).  It was good spending those couple of days in Cochabamba as it allowed us to adjust to the altitude before going higher.

We travelled by bus to Oruro the next day, and in the travels, went to 4500 meters and then descended to Oruro at 3700 meters, and then on to Uyuni (also 3700m).  We didn't have too much problems with altitude sickness, apart from shortness of breath on exersion or after eating.  It was a strange sensation, however, and it makes our little Aussie Mt Kosiosko seem pretty small at 2300 meters.

It was considerably colder though, and our overnight bus to Uyuni was FREEZING!  I couldn't sleep for the cold, and had to try and keep my feet from turning into iceblocks.  We arrived in Uyuni at 4am and, upon disembarking the bus, realised that the bus was actually warm!  The outside temperature was enough to turn anyone into an iceblock in minutes.  It was so cold we could hardly even think - despite our multiple layers of clothing!  We weren't sure what we were going to until daylight, and were hoping we wouldn't have to wait out on the street for 2 hours.  I think we both would have died of cold if we'd had to stay out on the streets waiting.  Fortunately, there was a kind taxi driver who for $1AUD, was waiting around in the dark and cold for some business.  He took us to a hostal that he knew of, and waited with us till they opened the door and gave us a place to stay.  Well the bed had about 8 blankets on it, and it was a good start, but for poor Michael...his long legs caused his feet to stick out the end of the bed, so no amount of blankets was going to help that!  Eventually, we got warm, and the good thing about those high places is that the days at least are sunny, and a little warmer than the nights.  The next night we found a place with a heater, a left the heater on full time, giving us at least a warm room to come back to.

If you haven't heard of Uyuni, its in the South West of Bolivia, and is famous for its salt lake - the biggest in the world.  Well it  seems that everyone who goes to Uyuni does the tour of the Salar de Uyuni (salt lake) and south west corner of Bolivia, and so we joined the Gringo trail of 4wds!  There is an innumerable number of tour operators there, all offering the same tours with the same everything.  However, to be different, we took the double sleeping-bag option!  When I say double sleeping bags, I don't mean that Michael and I took 2 sleeping bags...I mean we took 2 each (ie 4 sleeping bags).  Everyone thought we were mad, and at every point we had to insist that we WERE taking 4 sleeping bags, BUT there is nothing worse than being cold and not being able to sleep!  By our second night at somewhere around -20 degrees celsius, we weren't sorry we'd paid to hire an extra 2 sleeping bags, and neither were we about to share them with anyone!  We slept with something like this...2 socks (thick long ones), 2 pairs of long pants, 2 t-shirts, a thermal, a skivvy, a windstopper jacket, a gortex jacket, a beanie and some gloves...PLUS 2 sleeping bags each, and 2 Blankets on top!  We could hardly move But still it took 2 hours to warm up our feet and get to sleep!  The next morning we had to wake at 6am for the sunrise thing over the mountains, and it was still...you guessed it...COLD!  So cold, I ended up with a little frost bite on my toe from that morning (although its healing up fine) and I've decided freezing to death isn't the way to go.  So much for tour groups promises of heating in the 4wd...it certainly didn't work in the one we went in! 

Well, moving on from the cold, the tour was VERY VERY BEAUTIFUL.  As its the dry season at present, the salar was also dry.  Often it has a thin layer of water over the salt, and makes it reflective - it looks so beautiful like this as the salt fields are about 130km x 80km and you can hardly see the horizon with all the reflections of the sky.  Without the layer of water, its still beautiful. Its just white everywhere.  Its kind of the reverse of being in snow covered mountains, because the white is covering the plains, and the mountains have no covering. 

The other 2 days of the trip we went through mountainous desert like country...we went up to a height of 5000 meters.  The scenery changed surpisingly often, and we saw beautiful lakes, flamingos, an animal that looks like a deer (the vicuna), alpacas or llamas (still sure how to tell the difference between the two), an area with thermal activity (hot springs, fumeroles, bubbling mud), and many beautiful snow capped mountains.  It was particularly amazing to see lakes with frozen edges, next to thermal pools (at 30-40 degrees) and snow next to bubbling mud puddles and fumeroles!  Quite a contrast.  One or 2 of the lakes never freeze however, due to their mineral content.  There was one such lake, a green lake, that had arsenic, lead and other nice ingredients, that never froze due to the minerals.  It was also interesting seeing the flamingoes standing in half frozen lakes, with their heads under the water...I guess there brains were frozen, so they couldn't tell how cold it really was!

The most exciting and terrible part of our trip came near the end...on our last day.  Much of the day was spent driving back to Uyuni, as we covered a lot of distance, and were right down on the Argentinian and Chilean borders.  Late in the afternoon we were winding around a mountain and came aross a 4wd lying on its side on the road against an embankment.  One side of the road was a steep drop off into a gully, and the other side a steep embankment.  A few 4wds had stopped to help, and our driver also stopped.  After a few more people had gathered, all the men, and a few ladies, joined forces to light the overturned 4wd onto its wheels once more.  The car was quickly upright again, but nobody had anticipated the fate of the vehicle.  Somehow, in the whole process of its being overturned, the 4wd had been put into neutral, and of course, the hand break wasn't on.  Immediately as it was righted onto its wheels, it began rolling backwards down the hill for several meters, before making a sharp 90 degree turn, and rolling towards the edge of the road and running, with increasing speed, it disappeared over the edge into the gully!  It just happened within seconds, and everyone was just frozen, although the poor owner of the vehicle made a last minute run to grab the vehicle, but it was too late!  Everyone was just left there in stunned silence.  It just made you feel sick.    Fortunately, no one was in the vehicle and no one was hurt.  There was an army base nearby to where the incident occured, so hopefully they were able to salvage the vehicle, although it had considerable damage to the back of the vehicle on which it landed.  This whole incident just reminded us how easy it is for accidents to happen, and how grateful we were for safe travel in this rought four wheel driving terrain.  We don't have any photos to add to this description but the pictures are etched in our minds forever. 

Safely back in Uyuni, the warm room, hot shower and clean clothes were a welcome break after three days of rough-and-bumpy 4wd tracks.  How nice it was to peel off all those layers and be comfortable again!

The second week of our holidays, we spent visiting Potosi (the worlds highest city at 4090 meters) and also a city famous for its huge silver mines.  The Spanish mined these for 200 years, and some say that with all the silver that was taken out of these mines, the Spaniards could've built a bridge out of Silver from South America to Spain, and still had silver to take back to Spain across the silver bridge.  Not sure how believable this is, but there was a lot of silver anyway.  The sad part, is the cruelty of the Spaniards and the number of people who lost their lives (most of them Indian and African slaves) in these mines over the 200 years is around 6 million people.  We did a tour of the mines, and at the start of the tour, they take you to the miners markets where you buy gifts for the miners...a choice of coca leaves, alcohol or dynamite!  We took the dynamite option and for a sum of $1.50 brought a stick of dynamite, a fuse and a bag of ammonium nitrite...off a 10 year old boy, in an open market, without a permit...mind you!  Obviously they don't have terrorism problems in Potosi!  The best part of the tour was at the end...where the boys set off some dynamite outside of the mines. Michael was happy to be a volunteer to help with that one!  But he says...it was a pretty strange feeling leaning over a stick of dynamite, fumbling with a lighter that didn't want to work, and hoping against hope that they would know when the fuse was alight so as to be able to run away from the BIG BANG!  Boys'n'their toys...

From here we went to Sucre, the nations capital, and then on to Santa Cruz to visit some friends, and get the much needed Peanut butter supplies to take back for the other volunteers at the school. Last night we catch our bus to Trinidad and today fly to Guayara.  And of course, we are looking forward to getting back to our little grass hut!


Talking about the dynamite reminds me of the fireworks we had for the 4th of July.  At present, we have only one lone American volunteer at the school, and poor Tara needed some help to celebrate her countries independence.  About 6 weeks earlier, Michael and I had been across the border in Brazil, and had found some fireworks...Skyrockets actually, a packet of 12 for 6 reals (or about $4 Australian).  So we'd brought them back with us, thinking that they'd be fun to let off sometime.  So 4th July seemed a perfect opportunity to use them.  So all the staff and students went out, well away from the GRASS huts and buildings, to let them off.  Michael and Ruan (Tara's husband, a South African) had the honors of setting them off, and had gone onto the other side of a little dam to set them off.  Their task proved to be a riskier one than initially anticipated, as we came to learn WHY the fireworks cost only 30 cents each!  The first few went up ok, but the further into the packet the less predictable the fireworks were.  Some of them shot off sideways, even as low as head height, some went up and then down and then exploded, and some didn't even go up...they just exploded!  Michael and Ruan had to duck for cover a few times, and it was funny watching the students.  Initially they were all standing right on the edge of the dam, trying to get as close as possible, but by the end no one wanted to be anywhere near the edge of the dam, they were all trying to find cover behind someone else!  Fortunately no injuries, but we're not so keen to buy another packet either.  A very memorable 4th of July!

A few other memorable things have happened too!  We haven't had anymore night time visits from wildlife, but I have been visited during my laundry time by a rather unwanted furry fella...a terrifying experience to say the least!  About a month ago now, I was washing my clothes with a friend here, Mindy, a volunteer from Canada.  I was about half way through my "wash cycle" when I pulled a piece of clothing out of my wash basin, and attached to the far end of it was a great big black furry spider!  It wasn't a tarantula but was bigger than a hundsman with a black fat body (almost the size of a 10 cent piece) and big black legs!  It was kind of frozen on my clothing, in a kind of angry position.  Michael was no where to be found, and Mindy was downstream from me.  So I suggested to her that she might want to get out of the water, and then proceeded to daggle the clothing off a wooden paddle into the creek, drowning the spider.  For some fortunate reason (perhaps it had been injured with all the water, soap, and me stomping on the clothes), it didn't run out of the water up the clothing.  I have nightmares imagining what might have happened if it had done that!  Once it was dead, Mindy helped me to pry the dead spider of my clothing, and it floated down the river.  I even feel terrified writing about it!  Just the thought of what could've happened!  And that I had carried the washing basket with a spider in it, and then, because my washing cycle consists of pouring water into my wash basin with soap, and then i stand in my wash basin and stomp around on the clothes for a while.  Just imagine if the spider had run up my leg or if I had touched it!  How terrible that would have been!

Well, the first time after this incident when I washed clothes I insisted that Michael check ALL the washing in the basket before I took it to the creek.  Then the 2nd time,  I asked him to do the same, and he kind of teased me about it, so I checked it myself, with him nearby to rescue me.  He told me that "we've found the spider now so we won't have anymore troubles with it".  Not to mention the other 100 spiders out there! Nor that this is my 2nd bad experience with spiders here...the other spider did crawl up my leg! So I am very wary of the whole spider possibility!

A couple of weeks before the school vacation, Michael and I had a unique but unusual answer to prayer.  We were driving home after being in town, on our little motorbike, and about 10 kms out of town, realised that we hadn't stopped to pray for a safe journey home.  We pulled over on the side of the road, and I said a short prayer, and then we both said "amen", opened our eyes, and the front tyre on the motorbike immediately went "sssssssschhhhhh" and went completely flat!  Not exactly the "safe trip home" I was praying for.  It was almost 6pm and the sun was starting to set.  And here we are on a dirt road, in the middle of now where, no one else to be seen.  What could we do?  Well, within 5 minutes we saw a logging truck travelling in the direction of town (the opposite way we were wanting to go to get back to the school).  We tried to wave it down, and it stopped about 20 metres before us, and a guy jumped out to get water out of the big ditch beside the road to refill the radiator.  The guys were able to give us a lift into town, and somehow we had to get the motorbike up on top of all the logs on the back!  Well, we had to wait till the radiator was filled anyway.  But while we were waiting, another, much safer looking truck, with no load on the back, came in the opposite direction (travelling towards the school).  So we waved them down, and they gave us a lift with the motorbike in the back, and within 30 minutes we were home.  Well it's not your usual answer to prayer, but you'd have to agree it's certainly a pretty quick reply!  One day we're looking forward to find out why things happened as they did, but in the mean time we trust that nothing happens without a purpose when our lives are committed to God.

I should mention some of what has been happening at the school also...the water tower is now standing.  It was erected with the assistance of the backhoe at the school.  I think the big boys enjoyed this project.  The tower is 6 meters tall...and when we left the school, the tank was not yet sitting on top of the tower.  We have a few ideas on how to get this up to the top, so we'll see what happens there.  Then the project will continue on...to involve installation of water lines etc, and connections to the water pump and so on.

If you have seen the video that we made of the school, you may have noticed in some of the footage, some brick making happening.  Well, in the last month or two, a small scale brick industry is getting off its feet at the school.  Two batches of bricks have already been fired in the brick oven, and sold in town at a good price.  This is an industry that Jeff, the director here, has been wanting to get off the ground for some time, and hopefully it will be a way of providing a income, in addition to donations, to assist in the operating and developmental costs of the school.  Its been interesting watching the bricks being made.  The process is quite labour intensive.  Some men were contracted to help with the work.  The clay must first be mixed thoroughly with water, cutting it with a hoe.  Then the clay is pressed into moulds by hand, and it lays out in the sun to dry for several days to a week.  The dogs and cats (and some little human foot prints) made a mess of some of the bricks.  Quite a few of the initial bricks were found imprented with foot prints of varying descriptions.  But they seem to be learning this is not the place to walk, so that has to be a good thing.

Well, apart from this, school continues on.  I'm still helping out with English teaching and little bits of nursing (like putting bandaids on peoples fingers, and handing out tablets for headaches, extracting specks from peoples eyes etc).  Michaels been keeping busy with the water tower project and teaching electronics etc.

Its hard to believe we are already over half way through the year.  We've just booked the dates for our return flights in December, which was something we had to do while in Santa Cruz.  We are coming home a little earlier than we initially planned (on Dec 4) to make it home for a close friend's wedding.  Lucky we had a few days in Santa Cruz, as the lady booked 2 tickets in my name, and nothing for Michael!  So at least we were able to sort that out, and I won't have to fly home twice!