Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tubing Spring Break Style

I thought about skipping Vang Vieng altogether, but so many people told me how much fun it was and I didn't want to miss out. It's sole tourist attraction, at least that I saw, is tubing down a river, albiet with very beautiful scenery. But it isn't like any tubing I've done before. I imagined a scene much like it was in my college town, everyone floats down the river with a six pack of beer, actually quite relaxing. Definitely not the same!

There wasn't really much tubing. More just attempting to get from one side of the very strong river to the other quickly to get to the next bar. In order to do this you had to be pulled into the next bar by a rope that had a plastic bottle attached to the end they threw to you. This seemed like a great idea until they hit you in the head with that full plastic bottle.  Once in the bar they hand you a free shot of whiskey, one especially dangerous bar had a bottle of whiskey sitting on a table in the middle of a bar of which you could take as many shot of as you wished. It was like spring break multiplied. Don't get me wrong, tons of fun, but getting into a raging river on a tube after a few too many drinks doesn't sound like the safest option.

I hooked up with a group of girls and we all agreed to watch out for each other on the way down the river. All went according to plan until it got dark. We all agreed to get out of the river and get a tuk tuk back rather than risking it. It was dark and crowded, three of us found each other, but we couldn't find the last girl. After much searching with no luck we decided the girl must have gotten out further down and we would find her back in town. It took a couple hours but thankfully she did make it back. She was pretty scratched up from fighting her way up the bank of the river, but she had found another person and they were able to pull themselves in together.

I'd heard statistics from people about deaths on the river, but I didn't know what to believe. Three days after I left Vang Vieng I met a tour guide who received his statics directly from the embassies. Turned out there had been six deaths in the four days prior to me tubing down the river. In the end it turns out I'm either too old or I think too much to really enjoy the tubing in Vang Vieng. I am happy I did it so that I don't regret having not done it, but I would never do it again.

The Mini Bus From Hell

The trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is well known for its crazy bus ride and my experience was no different. The mini bus capacity is said to be 12, but this is definitely pushing it. Because of this I thought I was lucky to be sitting in the front seat, yes, between the driver and another passenger, but still the front seat. I changed my mind quickly five miles down the road when I realized I was sitting on top of a very hot engine, in a bus with no air conditioning in 100 degree heat. Not my best decision.

I received a reprieve from the oven an hour later when traffic came to a stand still. Turns out those landslides everyone had been talking about were real and even bigger than they described. They had a couple machines working, but it took a few hours before we were able to pass. And when I say pass I mean still drive over a massive pile and watch it start to slide again. The driver had to hit the gas to avoid us being covered by it.

Next I realized yet another reason I never should have sat up front. The driver decided that he needed to make up for lost time so he drove like he was playing a race car video game barely missing innumerable vehicles, animals and children along the way. At least the rest of the passengers got quite a kick out of my gasps and sighs.At one point I leaned over to check his speed as we drove through a town at what I thought was was three times reasonable. It said we were going ten kilometers per hour as it said for entire 12 hour trip.

I have no idea how, but we arrived in Vang Vieng alive.

Luang Prabang

My next two days were spent on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. It was definitely a long time on a boat, but I got plenty of reading done, met some very interesting people, and it was fantastically beautiful. My favorite part was a three hour conversation I had with an older Italian gentleman who had been a journalist. He'd written about social and political issues all over the world and had some quite amazing stories as you can imagine. He'd somehow managed to visit Laos in the early eighties before it was reopened to tourists and journalists and talked about how he hadn't seen another foreigner on his entire trip.

Once in Luang Prabang I found a cute little guesthouse on a side street that was owned by a Belgian man and his Laotian wife. One of my favorite parts of this portion of the trip was speaking to both of them about what it was like to live in Laos. The woman actually had an American father whom she never met  Her mother was pregnant with her in 1975 when all of the foreigners had to leave the country. She has spent countless hours trying to find him, but with little more than a common name she hadn't had much luck.

After walking around the city I fell in love and stayed four nights, but definitely could have stayed longer. It is a quiet town with a river on each side of the city, so there are endless riverside cafes. The night market is fantastic with great street food.

I spent my first night with a group of Germans from the guesthouse. We went out to dinner then to a bar for drinks where I ran into a pair of Dutch girls who had been on the Gibbons Experience with me. The following day I met up with the Dutch girls for some sightseeing. There was a festival with boat racing on the river, so we joined the crowd for a bit then visited one of the two waterfalls  It was a bumpy journey in the back of a truck but it was worth it because it was very different from any waterfall I'd seen before. It had trees all through the middle of it that had then been surrounded by limestone as the sediments settled. When we got back into town we hiked to the top of Phusi Hill for sunset where we met a group of Dutch guys that we spent the rest of the evening with. In Luang Prabang there is a curfew of 11:30 and everything closes, but there is one place to go out of town, so at 11:00 when everything is closing down there are truck drivers outside of the restaurants prepared to take you to “Bowling,” which they describe as a club. It is not a club, but an actual bowling alley in the middle of nowhere.

The next day I walked all around the city and met a sweet Australian couple at the guesthouse. I had dinner with them and enjoyed stories from the woman who was born in France, was an au piar in the US, traveled through the middle east, and took a boat to Australia that was free if she worked there for two years. They may have been some of the best people I met on my entire trip.

My last day was spent across the Mekong in a smaller village. I saw only one foreigner on my short journey, which made it feel infinitely more authentic, well if you took away the satellites dishes which were attached to every single house. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage sight so everything on the main side of the river is extremely well preserved, but when you cross over it is completely different. Many of the temples were falling apart and it seems you are stepping back many income levels.

Luang Prabang is definitely a place I would like to find myself again, and I think I will!

Gibbons, Tree houses, and Hiking in the Mud

(From my 2011 trip to Laos - just catching up!)

The Gibbons Experience was one of the must dos of my trip and the thing that excited me most about Laos. The program uses the money it generates to protect the surrounding jungle and the animals in it. When I say protect I actually mean bribe the government not to log the area. Participants hike into the jungle where tree houses and a network of zip-lines have been built.

When I checked in they gave me a list of things I needed to bring so I found a guesthouse and went shopping. First on the list were shoes. I knew there was going to be mud and I didn't want to ruin my running shoes, so I went in search of the plastic cleats that they recommended. I found the largest size in town, which was still too small, but it did the job. I also got some gloves for zip-lining and a heavy duty poncho.

The trip began the next morning with an hour ride in two pickup trucks. Two Dutch girls and I secured a spot inside one of the trucks, which was really nice once it started to rain. They dropped us off on the side of the highway and pointed for us to go. The first minor incident occurred when we left the highway and crossed the river on a footbridge that seemed to be older than all of us combined. We were told to cross four at a time and slowly. I think there were more boards missing then there were still on the bridge, and yes, someone did manage to put his foot though one of the boards, but he came out fine so we continued on.

As we went on it got muddier and muddier and I became happier and happier with my three dollar rubber cleat purchase. Within the first 15 minutes I was in mud up to my knees. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. They said that this road was too bad for a car, which it was, but that there would be one to pick us up a little bit further and take us part of the way. After a couple of hours we reached the car, one car!  There were 12 of us and five guides. I have no idea how we fit, but we did.

The car didn't last long. I've never seen so much mud. We got stuck, got out of the car, pushed, got back in the car, and got stuck again four or five times before something on the car broke and we had to walk again. We walked for another couple hours and came to a small village. I was the third one to walk into the village and the first girl, which must have felt safer to the kids because they all ran out when I walked through.

All of our water was gone from the five hours of hiking we had done so far and there was no water to be purchased. After much hemming and hawing we decided that we had no choice but to drink the water from the town spigot, and the guides assured us that it was safe. This village is where the real hiking began, but it was by far the most beautiful. We arrived at the first kitchen an hour later where we were fit for our harnesses. It took about an hour of hiking and five zip-lines for us to get to our tree house. The zip-lining was
different than what I have done in the past, in that you are all on your own. You attached it yourself and there isn't a guide there to double check that you did it correctly. We all checked each other's till we felt comfortable.

We zipped directly into our tree house which was some ridiculous height off the ground. The view was spectacular, nothing but jungle! The tree house had two levels, the first was where you zipped in and had the bathroom, the second housed the kitchen and living area. I make it general practice to read very little about the conditions of the places I go so that I have low expectations and I'm normally pleasantly surprised.  I had no idea there was even going to be a bathroom, I figured we were going showerless for the next couple days. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Once we settled in we started talking about showers. I was the first one to go. While we were cleaning the mud off ourselves so we could walk up to the second floor we used the hose next to the squaty toilet. I remember saying to someone that it was more of a shower than I expected, but that it was going to be a difficult shower, they didn't say anything. Now that I look back this was absolutely ridiculous, I'd been traveling for two weeks and I'd seen them in well over half of the places I'd stayed.  Somehow in my excitement that I got any type of shower it never hit me that this was not the shower, but the Southeast Asian answer to toilet paper. After I “showered” I walked upstairs and everyone asked how it was.  I said it was fine, but it was kind of a pain in the ass to have to bend over to wash your hair since the hose wasn't long enough. No one thought anything of it till the second shower taker emerged, “Amsbry, you didn't have
to bend over to wash your hair.  The shower was around the corner, you took a shower with the toilet hose.”  Everyone laughed hysterically. I was slightly grossed out, but it was the same water and I was happy to see everyone laughing.

They brought us dinner, which was really good considering we were in the middle of the jungle and they had to hike it all in. It got dark just before seven, we all played cards for a bit, set up up the mosquito nets and floor mattresses and went to bed early.

Many, including myself, woke up with wet beds. It rained half the night and all the way to lunch, which was no match for the thatch roof. We may have been unlucky with the rain, but we were super lucky with the Gibbons. Even though it is called the Gibbons Experience very few people get to see them, but we got to see them swinging from the trees for hours.

A couple of the group members spent the afternoon hiking and zipping to other tree houses, but most of us stuck around and zipped a couple of times from our tree house. When I came back from my short excursion I was taking my shoes off I discovered a leech on my ankle. I had only ventured a couple hundred feet from the tree house and hadn't walked through any water, but I managed to get a leech. I freaked out a bit because I couldn't seem to get a good enough grip to get it off, but eventually did.

We headed back early the next day knowing that the car was still broken down so we had seven hours ahead of us. About half way we heard a car. It was driving the new people. It took them in and ended up getting us for the last 15 minutes which saved us an hour, but I kind of wished I could have finished it myself after I had put in that much time.

It was an extreme three days. Seven hours in, zipping, sleeping in tree houses, gibbons, leeches, and six hours out. I would highly recommend it, but preferably in the dry season!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Mystery of Maria

Maria is a young girl who helps the family, not quite a maid, but something close. Today was her fourteenth birthday. When I arrived I had no idea who she was. They didn't introduce her as part of the family, but she was always there, actually I don't think I have ever been awake at the house when Maria wasn't there. She arrives before I wake up and leaves after I go to sleep seven days a week. When I asked the twelve year old daughter in the family to help me with a family tree so I could get to know a little bit about each person she described Maria as the house girl. Part of me has always thought she must have some relation to the family because they treat her as part of the family a lot of the time. When we all took a picture on Carnaval they made sure she was front and center, but she eats all of her meals in the kitchen. After a while I thought maybe she had worked for them for so long that she had become a part of the family, but I met a previous student who lived with my family a couple months ago and she said Maria wasn't a part of the household at that point.

When I have spoken to other Bolivians about the situation they think it is a little odd, but say that Maria is probably from a very poor family and the family needs the small salary she most likely brings in. I was frustrated she wasn't in school, but I understood and took that as the reason. Then one day there was another young girl over at the house talking to Maria. She was introduced as Maria's older sister. Maria is always in traditional dress with her hair in the traditional braids. I've never seen her in anything other than a skirt. Her sister had her hair down, big flashy earrings, and tight jeans and a t-shirt, clothing that would fit in perfectly in the US and was taking pictures with her cell phone. I was confused all over again. How are these two girls from the same family? Sure, one could be traditional and the other not, but they are only a year apart. Why is one working for a family all day?

More was explained to me today. I always thought it was odd what a big deal the son-in-law's parents made about Maria when they came to visit. Then today they brought her a cake and two of her sisters to celebrate. After I asked a few questions I figured out that Maria's older sister works for their family, but under very different circumstances. I would love to know more about Maria, but all of my questions are met with one word answers. I guess I thought there was a bigger secret behind Maria and maybe there is. But I do know today was the happiest I have ever seen Maria and it made me happy.

Update -

A couple of days ago when my Bolivian Grandparents were out of the house Maria sat down next to me and started talking. She spilled everything or at least it felt like it to me. It turns out that she is from a small town five hours away, where her parents, whom she hasn't seen since September, still live. When she finished eight years of school the family decided it was best that she move into the city for a better life. She lives with her two older sisters, her brother, and her brother's wife and baby. She said she loves the family she works for, but shares my dislike for the son-in-law, which makes her not want to stay after a year is up.

She asked me a million questions about what the US is like and how much money things cost. She asked me how much I pay the family. I didn't want to answer because I knew she was going to compare it to how much she is paid, and she did. She makes 400 Bolivianos a month. I pay 490 each week to the family, which is a completely fair price from my point of view, but she was shocked. She talked and talked and said how happy she was to get to talk to me one on one and that from now on she wanted to come to my room at the end of the night to learn English and for me to practice my Spanish. She almost started to cry when I said I was leaving in three days. I noticed that she had her ears pierced three times, but had tiny pieces of wood in the top two holes of each ear. When I asked why she said she was going to get earrings soon, but had to wait a few more months.

I can't just give Maria money, and giving her things isn't going to help either. It isn't my place to feel bad for her, or to judge my Bolivian family or hers. I don't know what I'm supposed to do other than realize it is just a different life than I know. I'm not sure if the gift was more for my benefit or her's, but I bought her two pairs of silver earrings as a late birthday present.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dammit! Not again! (and pics of the food that put me there...not really!)

Turns out I don't have an iron stomach. Yep, the hospital, it happened all over again. I'd been a little sick on and off since I arrived in Bolivia, but nothing out of the ordinary considering how different the food was. Then I got really sick. The school insisted I go to the hospital to get checked out. They said I had amoebas, the same thing I had in Cambodia, and sent me home with some medication. I felt lucky, as I wasn't nearly as sick as in Cambodia. I felt better the next morning, that is until I felt worse, and when I say worse I mean the kind of sick that makes you wish you would stop living. After two days of not being able to keep a cracker or even a sip of water in my stomach the family insisted I go to the emergency room.

I had to check into the hospital so I could have IV fluids. The owner of the school made sure I was settled into my room before leaving and said they were just going to observe me and get me re-hydrated till the next day. The room was much the same as one in the US except I was sharing with a very old Bolivian woman. And the hospital was much the same also, well except that one one spoke English. Yes, I had learned quite a bit of Spanish since I'd been in Bolivia, but definitely nothing medical and I only met one person in the entire hospital who spoke English. This became a problem when they came into my room and wheeled me through the hospital into a basement where I saw a half a dozen other people passed out on beds. I couldn't understand what was going on and started to get quite upset. Finally, I met that one doctor who spoke
English. He informed me I was going to have an endoscopy, at which point I got even more upset. They had me sign some paperwork, but of course I had no idea what I was signing. Then they came at me with a couple syringes they said would put me to sleep. I have only been put under once before and it was not a pleasant experience, so I said a quick I love you to my family in my head and fell asleep. I woke up a couple hours later and after another day in the hospital everything turned out fine. I still have no idea what was wrong with me because the doctor changed his diagnosis every time he saw me, but I'm feeling much better.

For the week following the hospital I wasn't allowed to eat anything but chicken soup and crackers - I won't be eating either one of those for a very long time. I have since joked with my Bolivian family that something good had to have come from the lack of food, that I had to have lost five pounds. They all looked at me very matter of factly and informed me I did not. I am choosing to think I did.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Carnaval in Cochabamba

My Cochabamban Carnaval experience was kicked off on a Tuesday, which is when the National holiday is celebrated. The school held a fiesta for us and allowed us to take part in the Pachamama ceremony. This has been a tradition in Bolivia for a very long time and it is interesting to see how it has been mixed with Christian beliefs, as Pachamama is loosely translated to mother earth. When the school's party was over I joined my family's festivities. All of the uncles and their families were in attendance. After we ate I could see that everyone was gearing up for something, at least they were kind enough to let me change into some other clothes before they threw a giant bucket of water on me. The water fight was never ending, but probably the most fun I've had with my family thus far.

After I changed I told my family I was supposed to meet some friends. They warned me not to leave, that it wouldn't be pretty, and it wasn't. I thought for sure the people on the street would leave me alone, but no. In four blocks I had well over ten buckets of water thrown on me. I was not happy at the time, especially when a man said he wouldn't throw any on me only to have his 80 year old mother come up behind be and completely drench me.

Cochabamba's parade took place that weekend. I was expecting something quite similar to Oruro, but thankfully it was completely different. Everything seemed to be a bit of a joke. In the beginning each group was dressed up as a different superhero. Because of the altitude in Oruro I wasn't able to drink any beer the weekend before and I was looking forward to enjoying a couple, but it turns out the Cochabamba's Carnaval is alcohol free. This was more than a little shocking in Bolivia and to the dancers from Oruro who still carried their beers in the parade We left our seats in the early afternoon, and of course, promptly were covered with espuma and water!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Carnaval in Oruro

I'd been told that Carnaval is a really big deal in Bolivia and everyone said that Oruro was the place to go. The town is situated at just over 12,000 feet about half way between Cochabamba and La Paz. It doesn't have a whole lot going for it other than it is the most popular place to go for Carnaval, so once a year it swells to ten times it normal population for the weekend. The school organized for nine of us to stay with a family. They put mattresses in the living room and all of us stayed in the same room. We actually wouldn't have minded having more people in the room as we would have welcomed the body heat in the freezing nights.

The first night we bought our seats for the next day's parade. Me being me I had to have something weird happen. While we were waiting to get our tickets, a very intoxicated man came over to me and started to try to pee on me. It wasn't that I just happened to be where he wanted to pee, he was actually aiming for me and still tried to as I walked away. Everyone else got quite a kick out of it while I was just happy I'd been able to avoid the urine.

We spent the evening walking around and guessing what the next day's festivities would include. My family had explained what Espuma was and I had decided I was going to have nothing to do with it, that was until I needed revenge. Before Espuma existed everyone had thrown water balloons at each other, but because of a water shortage it was no longer allowed, this is where the masterminds behind Espuma entered. Espuma seems to be much like shaving cream, unfortunately I can tell you that it tastes like soap, but it is flammable, which seems more than a little dangerous seeing as we were all soaked in it by the end of the evening and the entire next day. It seems that everyone is fair game in the Espuma war even if they are not holding any themselves.

The Carnaval parade was in full swing when we got there at nine and was still going strong when I left about ten. The majority of it was dancing groups with intricate and beautiful costumes. There are also marching bands intermixed every so often. In the morning we found our way to our seats which were half way up a set of bleacherish things, but there are no isles in these bleachers and your feet go where someone else's backside goes. This would be uncomfortable for Bolivian sized people, but for us long legged Westerners it was a constantly moving jigsaw puzzle for how we would fit and how often we had to move to avoid having our legs asleep the entire time. The real fun came when we had to visit the toilet. Yes, the toilets were bad, but I am talking about getting out of our seats. Because there were no isles to walk down and it was absolutely packed you had to somehow squeeze yourself under the seats and swing yourself down the ground. Getting back up was even more of a treat, but definitely all part of the carnaval experience.

As if a man trying to pee on my was enough weirdness for the weekend I of course had to have something else happen. Michelle, one of the girls from the school, was seated behind me and looked down to her feet and my back to see a man's head. He quickly smiled up and her and then licked the small of my back that was exposed and ran away. Yep, I attract the weird ones!

Carnaval in Oruro was everything I expected it to be. Now I can't wait to experience the Cochabamban equivalent next week.

Incallajta – AKA the weirdest trip ever!

We decided on a two day trip to Incallajta so we would be able to see some of the surrounding villages as well. Incallajta was built around 1460 and was considered to be one of the largest cities in South America at the time. The guide at the ruins explained that it was built after the Inca left Maccu Picchu.

For transportation we hired a driver/general guide whom the school recommended. We were a bit surprised when we saw that he was bringing his wife along, but didn't really think too much of it. We should have. I in no way regret having taken the trip, but it was oddest trip any of us had ever been on. As you will see from the top ten list there were some very strange things that happened. It would take pages and pages for me to explain them all so I will just have to tell you the whole story the next time I see you.

Below is the Top 10 list Rebecca, Miranda, and I wrote about our rather strange trip to Incallajta.

  1. Miscommunication about her panties

  2. Being locked in the car

  3. Sleeping in the car

  4. The change stealer

  5. The shitty kid and others

  6. The scary shovel men

  7. Dangerous cheese feeding

  8. The half animal carcass

  9. The never ending stories of the boob cutter and baby cooker

  10. Inescapable freezing rain in the car

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Waterfalls, Caves, and Dinosaur Footprints!

The language school helped us organize a trip to Torotoro, a national park pretty close by, for my first weekend in Cochabamba. Our group was made up of four girls from the school and one much older Spanish man who must have felt very much out of place. Our guide, Rico, was a young man, whom we had no idea spoke English until he busted out in a perfect Californian accent revealing he´d grown up in the states, but not until we had properly embarrassed ourselves.

The 100 mile distance from Cochabamba to Torotoro took four hours which gives you some idea of how bad the roads were. But we were greeted by a much nicer hotel then I was imagining. It was more of a big house to ourselves with a personal chef.

After a good night's sleep we hiked through the canyon to a beautiful waterfall where we were able to go swimming. We were gawked at by all the Bolivians and more than one photo was requested. In the afternoon we visited the caves. It was slightly terrifying for a person with a small case of claustrophobia, as we had to wiggle our way through more than a couple of tight places. But I'm glad I did it! On the way back to the hotel the car broke down while crossing a river, but luckily very close to home and it was magically working the next day.

Sunday we did a hike where we got to see tons of fossils, but by far the coolest thing was seeing dinosaur footprints in the afternoon. One of the girls questioned the authenticity of the prints saying she thought it was a tourist trap, but I'm saying they are really real. Some of the prints could have been something else, but many were very obvious and would have been extremely difficult to fake and rather pointless for the smallest national park in Bolivia that gets relatively few visitors.

All in all it was fantastic first weekend trip from Cochabamba and I hope for many more like it!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Banking Woes and Cochabamba Pics

I´m fairly certain international banking is just one of those things I need to stay away from. I had a slight issue with it in Thailand as well, but nothing like Bolivia, plus Thailand was completely my fault. I brought four cards, two debit and two credit, with me to Bolivia, partly because of the issue I had before and partly because I tend to over prepare. Well, it wasn´t over preparing this time.

The school explained to me that the most common way of paying them is to take a cash advance out on a credit card. This way you aren´t charged a fee for every $200 you take out of the atm because that is the most you can take out at one time. The owners of the school took me to the bank to do this. The first bank said my card had a chip their machine couldn´t read. The second bank told me that no bank would be able to read an American Express card. Bummer, but it was only card one and I had three more. So I headed to the atm with my debit card. That´s when it
was taken by the atm. I started to get a little worried but there were no charges put on it when I checked online and I had two more backup plans.

The next day I went with two other students
from my school, to the bank with the atm. The bank was not what you would call open. It looked like something you see in the movies depicting the rushes on the banks when the stock market crashed. There were bars on the doors with guards standing just inside of them and tons of people pushing against them. I have no idea why I didn´t think to take a picture. We went through all the reasons why the bank would be closed, but came up with nothing. Finally we were able to speak with a bank employee through the bars. She told us to go to office a few blocks away where they collect the foreign cards. It took quite a while to find the place, but mostly because we couldn´t believe my card would actually be sent there. It was a one room office on the third floor of an almost abandoned building. The man at the desk opened a drawer and pulled out a five inch stack of cards. I thought certainly my card had to be somewhere in there. It wasn´t. I have no idea what happened to it, I cancelled it.

So on to the next debit card. Nope, it didn´t work, I was starting to freak out. I immediately emailed that bank. They said it was activated and there shouldn´t be a problem. Oh, great! So, on to the last resort - my dad´s credit card that I carry for emergencies. Long story short, it didn´t work either, not the first time or the second time after my Dad called them.

The good news... I was able to find one atm where my second debit card will work, but the ten others I´ve tried still tell me my card isn´t valid. I guess I have to hope there is a Bisa Bank everywhere I go.

What´s the lesson here? I guess to just roll with the punches!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mi Familia

Obviously the best way to learn a language is to live with it all around you. For this reason I've chosen to live with a Spanish speaking family while I'm taking classes. The school set it up and I had no knowledge of the family before showing up, but I think I've found myself in a pretty good situation. I can come and go as I please as I have a key to the front gate and my room. I have my own bathroom with hot water except for when I really want it. Plus, I couldn't ask for a better deal, $70 a week for full room and board, heck yeah!

It's been a week and I'm just barely getting to know everyone. Meals will continue to be slightly awkward until I'm able to learn a bit more of the language. It doesn't really bug me to not understand what is going on, as I never did in Korea, but I think it makes the family pretty uncomfortable. Love it- hate it- the TV seems to always be on, actually I've never seen it off, so that takes some of the pressure off for conversation. Plus laughter is an international language and the constant telenovels provide plenty of laughter even if I have no idea what is going on.

The family includes three generations and three dogs. The grandparents take care of me, but their son, daughter, her husband and two children also live in the house. Although it really isn't one house. The parents and children live in one little house and the rest of the rooms all open into a courtyard. There is also a girl, Maria, who is always at the house, but after a few days I figured out she must work for them. She's only 14. When I asked one of the teachers at the school about it she said that Maria probably comes from a very poor family and she may earn as little at 500 Bolivianos, about $70, a month for being here seven days a week and I don't know how many hours a day. She is here when I wake up and when I go to bed. Thankfully, in a lot of ways, they treat her as part of family.

The grandparents are very kind and understanding of the language barrier as is the uncle. He is always trying to ask me questions even if I can't understand. I'm pretty sure the son-in-law hates me, or at least the idea of a stranger in the house, but the rest of them seem to like me and the dogs love me. The kids can't quite figure out what to think. The girl is 12 and I'm pretty sure she wants to get to know me because I catch her staring at me all the time. The six year old boy is hysterical, but unfortunately, I can only catch about five percent of what he says because he speaks faster than anyone I've ever met.

I think I will be very happy to call this family's home my home for the next month!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

At 12,000 feet and high on some workable Spanish!

Today is my last in La Paz and has been the best day thus far on my trip. As most of my best travel days, I've spent it walking around the city. The weather was perfect, at least for La Paz, which at almost 12,000 feet you're lucky to take your jacket off. The best part was a stop at a cafe when I ordered, asked for the check, and paid using only Spanish and without any pointing at the menu. I felt especially accomplished when I heard the waitress speaking English to a couple a few minutes later, meaning I was understandable enough that she didn't switch to English! Yes, this was a rather small accomplishment, but after my limited Spanish failed me in my attempt to get a working phone the day before I needed the small boost of confidence.

Later I walked into a shop and it felt oddly familiar, like I had actually been there and I had. It was the same shop I purchased a rug in when I was in La Paz five and a half years ago. The familiarity made me feel comfortable in this foreign place and that was just what I needed.

The day is coming to an end and I'm writing this from the roof of my hostel, which should be it's biggest selling point, yet oddly enough I was unaware of it until today. I walked from one end of the central city to the other and I'm seeing a whole new world from up here. It is easy to see all ends of the spectrum from up here and it makes it that much easier to start falling in love with Bolivia.

Tomorrow will throw me something new as I travel to Cochabamba, the city I hope to be spending my next month exploring.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

$200 yellow fever shot and on to South America

After I got back from SE Asia I had a plan in mind. I wanted to spend a few months at home, take off to South America to learn Spanish, and be accepted into Teach For America so I would have a job waiting for me when I got back. I must say that timing and luck was on my side. The plans have changed slightly, but it looks like I will get to stay in South America for the next three and a half months, and I did get into Teach For America, so I don't have to worry about the fact that I am spending all of my money on traveling because I have a job waiting for me.

I originally wanted to do an intensive language program in Argentina. But after thinking about it logically, ei thinking about the fact that they have weirdest accent ever and that it would be twice the cost, I decided on Bolivia. To be more specific, Cochabamba, a city in which my uncle and cousin have spent considerable time, my cousin's husband is from, and where they met during high school.

Well, I've made it to Bolivia, but not without a couple of issues along the way. I did research about what I would need to get a visa and what requirements there were for entering and exiting the country. The rules seemed to have changed significantly from when I entered the country in 2006. Of course, they never even looked at half the stuff I had prepared for the trip, including a rather painful $200 yellow fever shot, but they did want extra things that were not stated in any of the government websites I read. I'd read in a couple blogs that some disreputable airlines would force you to buy an exit ticket before they would let you get on the plane to enter the country. So, for that reason and many others I obviously booked on what I thought was a reputable airline. That's when I ended up having to purchase a ticket to Paraguay in two months. I fought with them for almost two hours in Miami and they insisted it was required. I bought the cheapest ticket they had with the promise that it was fully exchangeable. Not really sure what I should have done instead as they wouldn't print out my boarding pass so I could go through security until I purchased it and I didn't want to miss the flight. They said I would definitely need evidence of an exit ticket when I got my visa. Surprise, surprise, I was never asked for any evidence of an exit ticket when applying for a visa. Who knows what the rules really are? And I'm here now anyway.

On top of the minor entrance issues I may be in a bit over my head . I have some Spanish background, but Bolivia is by no means touristy. On my flight into the country I saw one other person I would deem a non-South American. To get the full experience of an intensive language program I have signed up for 20 hours of one-on-one lessons a week. I will also be staying with a non-English speaking family. Did I mention I don't speak Spanish? I guess this really didn't hit me till I was speaking to a woman on the plane. She was asking me a bunch of questions about the school, family, my plans afterward, and how I was getting from La Paz to Cochabamba. She thought I was crazy and gave me her phone number for when the shit hits the fan.

Yes, I'm walking into a school I know relatively little about, but I read a couple reviews and it was the school I could find the most information about on the internet. No, I don't know anything about the family I will be staying with other than the fact that I've been told there will be hot water (which I'm sure there won't be) and they live a five minute walk from the school. But I feel confident that it will go well, and if nothing else it will be an adventure with many stories to tell.