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!