I got kicked out of cub scouts when I was 10, but…

The wide variety of weather on the trip, as well as my various states of health, have validated my gear selection. I don´t think there´s anything I packed that I haven´t used at least once. From the 2-jacket, sweater, long john´s, boots, bolivian hat combo in the altiplano to the shorts, t-shirt, sandal maneuver in sunny locales like Arequipa and Viscuña, versatility has been the name of the game.

Even the first aid kit has been utilized fully. Usually, its a just-in-case preparation (as in, just in case I need to carry 5 extra pounds). This trip, I think I´ve dipped into every last ziplock bag–malaria and altitude pills, antibiotics and immodium, moleskin and ibuprofen, even the little film cannister of safety pins my mother insisted that I carry.  Heck, even the sleeping bag, which I despaired over bringing, has saved my life on a couple of cold, sick nights.

The only thing that hasn´t served me well was my IPod, which rebelled against the idea of travel and has refused to function since the plane ride.

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Rule with an Iron Passifier

There is a local teamster´s chapter for babies and their mothers in each south american town.  They gather before sunrise each morning amidst cigarette smoke and nescafe to negotiate.  The veterans get the choicest routes while the rookies are left to earn their reputation on the cold altiplano routes.  Their mission is simple, to make sure there is a crying baby on each and every bus on the continent.  It is imperative, of course, that every bus route is covered.  Otherwise, there might be one person, somewhere, sometime, that accomplishes a modicum of sleep on a night bus.

They´re everywhere.  Even on the nicest buses, with first class leather seats and fully reclining ¨cama¨ seating.  They come in all shapes and sizes, all bundled up for warmth and full screaming power.  They look innocent enough–adorable bronze faces with dark pools for eyes and noses that sniffle just enough to be cute.  But when the lights go out–watch your ears, you´ll think a siren is going off in the row behind you.  Believe me–common ear plugs and I-pods are no match.

The mother´s role is to clear the scream passage, set the baby up for the best acoustics, and let ´er rip.  The key is to give no effort whatsoever to actually stopping the baby´s crying.   A requisite ¨shush¨ just for show is the extent.  The most common strategy is to prop the baby up on the mother´s lap.  That way, the appearance of pacifying is given, while the noise is lifted to cover the entire bus.  It´s really quite well done.

Military strategists need to learn their organizational strategy, for it appears flawless and without gaps.  Big buses, small buses.  City buses, rural buses.  Camionetas and Colectivos and Combes.  Corporate or privately-operated. 

In an era of increased political power for leftist latin american leaders, it is clear from the ground who has the true political power here.  The Blessed Union of Babies and Mothers.  Community organizers, mount up.

Caveat

I rented a bike today and rode 4 kilometres into the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, apparently. Perching atop a sand mountain (this was more than a dune) to admire the view, I looked down upon the badlands of the Cordillera de la Sal and the town of San Pedro beyond it. The Andes mountains framed the vast desert which in turn enveloped the pueblo. My perspective about the town began to change.

I began to contemplate (as spectacular vistas are wont to make you do) the last week in Bolivia, and indeed, my entire journey thus far. As I did this, it became clear that what I posted yesterday, if not inaccurate, was possibly a bit simplistic and maybe even trite.

Perseverance is nice, but what perseverance requires is a cosmic perspective.

In business terms, when the Dow Jones hits 8,000, you don`t sell everything and move to the woods to wait for the end (you didn`t did you?). The market has proven historically to rebound and build over time.

The recurring them of the Hebrew scriptures is collective amnesia: a merciful God having pity on his people, his people excitedly accepting the gift, and by the next time trouble comes along, forgetting that it ever happened. As I anxiously pleaded with God in delirium, God may have been replying to me, Have you forgotten already? Now, that may not quench a fever, but it leads to the right frame of mind. More importantly, it places History:past, present and future, into compassionate hands, as opposed to bacteria or volatile market conditions.

An additional realization is the importance of community. How much more miserable an experience to be isolated not only from civilization, but from people who were able and willing to help.

The Ralph Nadir

In 2004, Ralph Nader, a Princeton alumnus, returned to the home of his university days to bolster his run at the presidency.  I heard of his after-party plans at the local micro-brewery/pub and took the brisk walk up Nassau St. to crash the shindig.  Nader is a bit socially awkward, but he was doing his best and graciously signed my blue bumper sticker.

About the only way that story relates to this entry (besides the cute play on words in the title), is that some democrats would have you believe that Nader brought about a new low point for American politics.

Every trip has one.  Some come earlier, some come later, but there`s always a make or break point where you ask the question: is it worth it to go on?

My life about to get flipped upside down: Doing `the freeze`on a mound of salt
My life about to get flipped upside down: Doing `the freeze`on a mound of salt

I recently reached the nadir.

It had been three days since I spent the night in a bed.  We had just begun one of the most anticipated treks of the sojourn into the Salar de Uyuni, famous for its surreal, magical landscapes.  At the first photo opportunity, I found dead batteries in both of my cameras.  In the middle of the desert.

I cursed the sky and thought to myself, what could be worse?

At the suggestion of one of my fellow trekkers, I used my memory card in a friend`s camera in an effort to capture at least a few of the essentials.  When I went back to review, to my horror, I discovered that the entire card had been deleted.  The impostor camera had copied the 2 photos I had taken with it on top of the 200 photos I had taken prior.

I stewed.  Why God?  Is there anything more you could take?  From a traveler: his memories?  From a photographer: his pictures?  In silent rage, I began to seriously contemplate the question.  What could be worse?

The day turned into night, the jeep into a hostal, and as if in response to my queries, that night was one of the most miserable of my life.  I was too hot and too cold.  My body compulsively shivered while my head throbbed with dizzying heat.  My stomach muscles became fatigued from contraction.  The hostal was wilderness style: cement walls and floors, no heat to tame the sub-freezing temperatures, no seat on the frequently-visited toilet down the hall, and a door without a handle that jammed just when you needed it to open quickly. The only luxury was a garbage can I placed next to the bed to vomit in.  I`ll spare the gory details; suffice to say there was no sleep that night.

Weighing heavily on my mind were eight more hours in a jeep over pinball roads with aching insides and the realization that I was light years from real medical care outside of special tea (the Andean solution for everything) if I had contracted anything serious.  Fear, really, was my chamber maid.

I was actually very lucky that two of my travel mates were medical students.  They dispensed advice and drugs with foreign names of whose effects I had no clue.  Eventually, I tapped into my emergency stash of antibiotics, which thus far has proven very effective.

Writing three days later, it is difficult to portray how low that low was.  I was finished, ready to pack my bags, change my plane ticket and fly home tomorrow, to never leave home again. 

The important character trait is, simply, perseverance.  Things will always look up.  After three days staggering about in the arctic cold and wind of the salt flats, we descended today into the shorts and sandals warmth of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  My nostrils don`t ache from cold, dry, oxygen-depleted air.  Tuukka helped me to realize that my pictures weren`t really deleted just creatively hidden by my Lima-bought point-and-shoot camera.  Delicious baked salmon made the first meal I`ve been able to digest in days.  Soon, I`ll have a shower and clean laundry. 

Things are looking up…

The Gringo Trail

If the description from the Footprint Guide of `party hostel` didn`t clue us in, the cover charge wristbands they gave us upon registering for a room should have given it away. 

My first night in La Paz was overwhelmed by the bar above my sleeping quarters.  We hung out for awhile and played bar trivia (a very traditional Bolivian game).  I ordered my drink in Spanish and the bartender looked at me quizzically.  Nobody at the hostel even spoke Spanish.  Somewhere between limbo and the stripper, I lost track of what country I was in.  Frazier, a Canadian, summed it up nicely:  `I haven`t really seen La Paz during the day.  I just stay in the hostal and go clubbing at night with everybody else.`

Ah, the much-maligned and much-followed Gringo Trail.  I have never encountered it quite as strongly as I have here.  There are some positive aspects.  For example, it has provided me with travel partners, smoothed the way for a more `comfortable` journey.  Yet, it irks me so.

The typical party gringo doesn`t appreciate the `Art of Travel:`

`Journeys are the midwives of thought.  Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships or trains.  There is an almost quaint correlation between  what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places…….it is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves.  The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.`

The party gringo isn`t traveling to `encounter their true selves` or to have ìntrospective reflections` or to be changed by an encounter with something  wholly other or an experience with something bigger, greater than themselves.

The bar scene at Wild Rovers hostal drove me mad because these were (all Europeans?  All westerners, at least ) English-speakers hanging out with one another.  Why leave home to go to clubs and hang with people so similar to yourself?  Only getting out to cross items of the `I did this` list.

This list is not bad of itself, of course.  But travel is not a visit to an amusement park.

The Death Road

DSCI0104Until it was closed to traffic several years ago, the ¨Death Road,¨ as it became known, was considered the most dangerous road in the world.  This has, ironically, made it a major destination for mountain bikers.  Beginning at 4850 meters, the road descends almost 4000 meters before rising to enter the town of Coroica.  The first part is paved and open to automobile traffic.  The last section is gravel and traces the cliff´s edge, forming the death road proper.  A twitch at the wrong moment and you´re hurtling off the edge.  Indeed, three days before, an Irish guy was killed going around a switchback.

It was my first experience on a full suspension bike.  Radical–like a bicycle mixed with a trampoline.