Sunday, April 26, 2009

Farewell, Cocha

I love farewell pieces. They give the perfect opportunity to reflect on exactly what it is about a place that moves you, and somehow makes it easier for you to communicate this to others. A recent favorite that comes to mind is Julie Schwietert Collazo's tribute to her Mexico City apartment.

I won't attempt to write so eloquently, but in the spirit of goodbyes (I depart tomorrow), here are a few things I'll miss about Cochabamba:

1. Street calls

Mexico City has its iconic traveling tamale vendors, but the Cbba. isn't lacking in musical street sounds by any means. There's the lady who walks by on Sunday mornings (I just heard her) selling the local paper, Los Tiempos. "Tiempooooooooooos! Los Tiempoooooooos!" she cries.

And the guy with the fruit cart: "Mandarina, papaya, plátano, mandariiiiiina!" He never fails to incite a response from the pack of dogs living on our block. They howl after each nasal, megaphoned call. Sometimes, he'll mock them, howling back into the microphone. It's hilarious.

2. Whistle of the guards

Another frequent noise is the multi-pitched whistle of the street guard. His post is a little blue, outhouse-type shed at the end of the block. We're still not sure whether he uses the whistle to scare off would-be criminals, or simply to prove to the neighborhood (and himself) that he's not sleeping on the job.

3. The mountains

Every time I step out the door, every time, it hits me. The green mountains that rise bulkily to the north of the city are so soft, almost like a big mound of moss; the texture is so tactile. When clouds roll in and coat the hills in fog, I have to pop outside and look.

4. Las Islas

North of the river, where the houses get a little nicer and the clubs/bars/restaurants a little swankier, there's a half block of street food heaven known as Las Islas. I developed a routine over countless visits: taco, salchipapas (hot dog and french fries), anticuchos (skewers of grilled cow heart), and then maybe, if I'm feeling uppity, one more taco. Oh, I can smell the grill smoke now.

5. The taxi guys

Just down the block is a taxi stand. I'm not sure why or how it exists, because as far as I know it's the only one in the city, but that's where I catch a cab to work each morning. Two or three drivers have picked up on my schedule, and there's always at least one waiting for me.

The first is more talkative. He likes to tell me about the snow that falls on the mountains sometimes during the winter, random things about the city. The second only recently confided that he'd once crossed illegally into the U.S. Two weeks walking nine hours a day (or night) through the Sonoran Desert, only to get nabbed in Phoenix, jailed for four months, and deported. I told him Cochabamba was better, and meant it.

6. Rain on the roof

It rained frequently when I first arrived. At work, my desk is in a converted back alley, covered with a hard corrugated plastic roof. There's another over part of the kitchen in our house. These roofs amplify the fall of the smallest drop of rain...I don't know why I like the sound so much, but I do.

7. Coca wads

The legend of the coca leaf is powerful. An Incan leader, facing the imminent Spanish invasion, beseeched the sun deity for assistance. "Ask anything," the god told him. So the leader asked the god to send the Spanish away and save his people. "I lack the power to do what you ask," the god replied. "But I can give you this, the coca plant. By chewing its leaves, your people will find the strength to face the hardships to come."

Most people here chew coca. The characteristic cheek wad and strong, planty odor are commonly seen and smelled. Also common are discarded wads, mashes of moist green flung onto roads and sidewalks. Coca's link to the past, and its role in current international and social affairs, is fascinating.

8. The best chorizo sandwich in the world

Uh-huh, the best. And it's the best because I discovered it, at the little no-name restaurant on 16 de Julio, just north of Heroinas. Everything she makes there--empanadas, chola sandwiches--is delicious, but the chorizo...I'll dream about it for years to come.

The little brown sausages, stewing in oil juice in a big pot on the grill on the sidewalk, scooped into a bread roll, topped with a seasoned salad, and finished off with a picante

9. Cristo de la Concordia

To be honest, I don't usually notice the world's largest Christ statue standing watch atop the hill just east of the house. It's become a predictable element of the city background. But every once in a while I will. Maybe he's shining bright white in the mid-afternoon sun, or perhaps lit with what we like to call disco lights (they change color) at night.

In some subconscious, intangible fashion, he's the soul of Cochabamba.

I still don't feel as if I'm leaving--maybe because I haven't even started to pack. But tomorrow night I'll be gone, and realistically, it's doubtful I'll ever see this city again, my home for 98 days.


Saturday, April 11, 2009


The wind surges off the waves that pound Chile's north coast, whipping inland, rushing unchecked up the quick elevation gain of the western Andes, chilling as it rises, until, after 150 miles, it reaches the Bolivian border. This is where it found us, pounded us with the force of the sea and the cold of the mountain desert.

It was just before 5 in the morning, the stars still brilliant. Eleven of us, bent over from the cold, stood looking up at the wide, black silhouette in front of us, the shape of a mountain we couldn't really see. It was time to go. A few flashlights short, we climbed, slowly.

We were still creeping along the base when the first hints of a lightening crept up the sky over our shoulders. Quickly, the land spread out below us took shape. The shallow bowl with the two lagunas, the flat desert expanse stretching away, and the humps of dormant volcanoes ringing the horizon.

We were ready for the sun. It finally struck the false peak above us, pulling an orangey-golden filter down the whole of Licancabur.

Our guide (this would be his 400-and-something-th summitting trip) was knowingly taking it slow. Even though we were only a little above 5,000 meters, our bodies were resisting. Some were lagging, gasping and aching. At the big pink rock, we split into two. The rear guide took control of the second group, and though they continued at a slower pace, they wouldn't get much farther.

One deliberate step at a time, one deep, unsatisfying breath at a time, for the next three hours. Talking was out of the question. The fleeting head throbs started around 5,500 meters, the waves of dizziness shortly after. At each rest break, Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca grew that much smaller, the spine of peaks in the distance fuller. We were now above the height of an adjacent mountain, nearly able to peer into its wide, crusty volcanic cone. The snow patches beneath our feet grew larger; icicles hung from the boulders we clambered over. Our heads seemed stuffed with cotton.

Finally, the peak. The false peak. But from its vantage point we could see our target: around the bend, up a snowfield, a pile of rocks. The summit.

We had to move fast now. Get up and get down. Otherwise, the altitude would sap our strength, leaving us helpless for the descent.

We were close, very close. "I quit. I'm done," someone said. We ignored him, stepping on. A trail of snow led up. Just a little more. "30 more seconds," I said. And then we were there.

True to his word, the guide didn't give us much chance to bask. And we didn't want it. We saw the skinny, deep depression with the frozen pond at the bottom--Licancabur's ancient fire spout. We looked west over Chile's Atacama Desert, gazing at the smoke belched from a distant active peak. We group photo-ed the hell out of the rock pile with the wood sticking out of it. We tried to express in simple sentences the oddity of standing on top of a Bolivian volcano, in the middle of a colored desert, at 19,400 feet. And then we left.

The descent was by a steeper route, slipping first down a wide snowfield and then slope after slope of volcanic sand.

Each meter drop energized us more than the coca leaves we'd been chewing all day. The oxygen was like food, or a blood infusion, pumping up our muscles and clearing our heads. We surfed down the sand and jogged the rest.

Volcán Licancabur, highest I've ever been, possibly will ever be (5,920m, 19,423ft).

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Colors of the Desert

I recently returned from a 5-day tour of what's known as Bolivia's "Southwest Circuit," a popular route that covers some of the most spectacular desert scenery I've ever seen. Our group opted to begin at a lesser-known starting point, taking us through a less-touristed region during the first half of the tour and really allowing us to experience the isolation of the land, as well as giving us a chance to summit the 19,400-foot Volcán Licancabur. You can look for details of that trip in the coming weeks over at Matador Trips, but for now, the best way I can think of to describe this journey is to let the images themselves do the talking. Enjoy.

For more photos of this incomprehensible landscape, check out Aya Padrón's recent post, "Campo Grande."