2004 Journey: Central and South America
Social Unrest in Bolivia
Social unrest disrupts the northern part of Bolivia, making road travel a greater challenge then just dodging potholes, and usually makes it more time consuming. Apparently, the local people are unhappy with the government selling natural gas to Chile and want the current President removed on charges of corruption. They take this seriously around here; in one small town, they dragged out the town mayor and cut his throat for similar reasons. A lack of language skills left me wondering what the deeper issues really were. Tensions between Spanish and the indigenous people go way back. Most of the people of this area are descendants from Inca and various local tribes rather than of Spanish Conquistador invaders.
To show their displeasure, people create roadblocks to stop the flow of traffic. This is an effective tactic because there are few roads to take as alternative routes. We ran into problems trying to get to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. A roadblock closed a section of the road, so we jumped into a slow boat for a five-hour ride to another small town to catch a four-hour bus ride to La Paz. A normal full-length trip takes 3 1/2 hours.
The roadblocks were not what I had imagined. Instead, I discovered the Bolivian type of protest. For long sections along the highway, anywhere from a block long up to a mile in length, they filled the roadway with large rocks and small boulders. Often these were placed in places making it impossible to drive around. I kept mulling over the amount of human power it must have taken to place all of them by hand.
We finally pulled into La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, sitting at 12,845 feet. The city sits at the bottom of a large steep canyon and is surrounded by snow-peaked mountains. Thankfully, by the time I arrived in La Paz my body was already well adjusted to the altitude, so I had few problems, except a shortness of breath when I climbed stairs.
My time in La Paz was brief. One of the more interesting places I strolled through was an area called the witchcraft market. Here they sold fascinating charms, herbs and more gruesome items like dried llama fetuses and various animal skins. Apparently most of the items were designed to be an offering to Pacha Mama, or the pagan mother earth goddess.
La Paz is a huge city with 1.2 million people. And like most large cities, after a couple of days, I was ready to leave. My traveling companion over the last 5 months stayed in Bolivia, leaving me to travel solo once again. Traveling solo makes you more approachable to the local people, but it also leaves you in an empty room at the end of the day; the first I enjoy, and the latter gets lonely. Saying goodbye was sad, but will only serve to make the next meeting sweeter.
Outside my bus window, typical scenes of Bolivia floated by like dream images from the distant past; a woman in a long dress wearing the typical small black derby hat throwing rocks at pigs attempting to chase them home for the night, a body sitting still in a large pasture in the middle of nowhere silently watching over a herd of llamas, old bodies on the cold ground separating grain from sheath by hand. I imagine these images have changed little for decades, maybe even hundreds of years. Living in a world that appears to be changing at an ever-faster rate, these sights offer a moment of nostalgic comfort.
After eighteen hours on a bus I rolled out into Nasca Peru. Nasca is the home to the mysterious Nasca Lines. Cut into the stony desert on a large flat area along the Pan American highway, lines, geometric figures and designs of various animals are etched on the desert floor. The designs are anywhere from 2,600 to 1,600 years old. And since it hasn't rained at this place since the ice age, erosion is a minimal problem. For centuries the lines went unnoticed until the development of flight in the 1920's. First thought to be landing strips or messages for aliens, more plausible explanations have concluded they are more likely procession lines.
I took a 30-minute flight into the heavens to go see for myself. They really can only be seen from the air given the huge size, sometimes several football fields long or longer. In a small prop plane, we soared over the desert; banking into sharp turns every-time we approached a design that left my stomach half way up my throat. Down below were the lines, designs and lore of a people long forgotten; a monkey, a condor, a dog, a hummingbird, and more. It was a great thrill for me. Years ago, I saw a special on the lines, now a World Heritage Site, and here they, right below me.
In Lima, I met a couple from Australia out on a long holiday. Greg, 52, a security worker and his wife Carolyn, 45, a hospital administrator, were typical Australians: good natured and fun. We traded travel stories, a favorite pastime of travelers, and swapped information about where to go and what was seen. They shared about the Americans they had met along the way, and how helpful and kind they were. They felt it was important that we stick together, that in doing so the world can be safer by helping each other along the way. Greg's message to share; "President Bush is doing a good job, because when 9-11 happened someone had to run with it, otherwise the world would have been held at ransom. If he didn't act when he did, we would have been in a lot more trouble."