A transmission tragedy – abridged

14 Apr

Broken van

by Paula

You might have wondered how a broken van could possibly take 11 months to repair. We’ve frequently pondered that too. Now that we’re happily on our way again, lazing on a sun-kissed Peruvian beach, let’s have a little flashback. If you are not remotely interested, step away now because it’s not going to be pretty.

There’s a US theatre company that specialises in boiling down long, serious and convoluted stories into a few minutes of entertainment. Some of their more famous performances have been the complete works of Shakespeare or the Bible, covered in one session.

They are called the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I thought I’d steal their style and turn our 11-month Ecuadorian van repair saga into a 3,000-word projectile word vomit. And, believe me, this is the summary – it doesn’t even cover the simultaneous (related) nightmare we had with immigration and customs, which is mostly covered in our Ecuador posts from last year.

It was either this or the complete works and, frankly, no one wants to read that.

——

Mid-April 2013 we pulled into a mechanic specialising in German cars, said please fix our fuel injector, they said okay. Days later they said actually it’s buggered, you need a new one, we said okay we’ll order one from the US. It arrived, they said oh sorry it’s a five-day holiday here now, see you next week, we said damn. [Irony alert: we were really frustrated about this extra five-day delay].

They faffed around then said come back to the workshop. When we returned they were pushing the van into a corner, we said that’s not good. They said while we were out testing the fuel injector the transmission broke and we had to tow it back. We said, what, our one-year-old transmission broke?! They said yeah, it’s buggered. We said, oh we better have a lie down. They said all these parts inside are broken, you need to order replacements from the US and we’ll rebuild it, we said okay. It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to California, then Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs.

Bugger.

Bugger.

Several weeks later – in May - they arrived, we said phew, the mechanic said well not really because they have arrived incomplete. We said shit. It took ages to sort out the new order, to send the parts to California, then to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. Is this sounding familiar?

We said now is it ready?.. because it’s already June. They said testing went well, come in tomorrow. We arrived at the workshop, the transmission was in pieces on the floor in a puddle of oil. We said that’s not good, is it? They said all was well but after more test-driving the transmission oil starting leaking, a rubber seal is damaged, we said oh. They found a replacement. We said now is it ready? They said no, when we tested it again the transmission oil was burning up, maybe the converter is broken, we said wtf, how much will that cost? They said loads. They ordered a new one, meanwhile they tried out a used one they had. They said when we test-drove that one the transmission oil was burning up again, we said this is getting boring.

They said maybe we need some more advice, we said that might be good because it’s now, like, July. They said some expert in the US says you might need a valve body unit and you should have been sold a new cooler when you bought the transmission last year, we said it was nice of VW to tell us that when they sold us the transmission. They said bastards, we said yeah. They said we better order those then, we said okay maybe we should just buy a house here, it looks like we might never leave, they said ha ha good one!

It took ages to sort out the order, send the parts to Miami, then wait for the flight to Ecuador, then be processed by customs. We said are the parts here yet? They said, er, kind of but they are stuck in customs, we said there’s a surprise. We said are they here yet? They said yes, finally. We said okay can we go now? They said, well…. we put the new parts in but during the test we starting losing pressure, it might be a problem with an ‘O-ring’. We said perhaps that should be renamed the ‘O-for-fuck-sake-ring’, they said eh? They said we’ll have to look into it, we said is someone actually trying to hold us hostage here? They said it’s starting to look that way.

We said what’s happening, they said actually we think we might have had a eureka moment, we said please share. They said we are tearing our hair out here, we repair automatic gearboxes in German vehicles all the time but we’ve never seen one as bad as this, so we went back to the drawing board, we said what did you find? They said we think there was a factory fault with the transmission you had in your van, VW managed to omit a very important screw and washer that holds important things together, which means everything’s been moving inside and completely fucked it up, we said that’s disappointing, they said yeah it is. We said wouldn’t it be funny if four months of investigation and loads of money spent ends in the mystery coming down to a screw and a washer, they said yeah, hilarious.

Quito

We got to know, and love, Quito during our various stays

We said is it ready yet? They said we’ve put it together again and now we have to drive test it. We said how did it go, they said really well, we said great, they said we’ll just drive it for a couple more hours, you can pick it up tomorrow, we said phew because our visas run out again in two days, at the end of August, and now we only have a couple of weeks to get to Chile to meet Paula’s parents.

We said we’re all packed, excited and are on our way!! They said oh. We said what? They said after 100km of testing the transmission seized up, we nearly had an accident, it’s completely fucked again, it might be an electrical fault and nothing to do with the actual gearbox. We said we want to cry, we don’t think we can do this anymore, they said neither can we, we never want to see this hideously awful transmission again. We said how about you just drop the van off the hydraulic lift, total it and then we’ll claim it on the insurance, they said really? They said actually it wouldn’t do enough damage, we said that’s a shame.

We said how about we try converting it to a manual gearbox, they said good idea let’s investigate.

We said good luck with that, it’s now early September and we’re off to Chile on the bus because we have to meet my family and we’ll never get there in the van, they said have fun. We said you really have to be finished when we get back in about 6 weeks because we really have to be in Bolivia by 1 November to start a volunteer work-exchange thingy, they said yeah okay.

They said we’ve found a matching manual gearbox in Ecuador, shall we buy it?, we said yes. We said how’s it going, they said we got the gearbox but we didn’t like the look of it so we sent it back and will look for another one. We said did you find one, they said yeah but it really didn’t fit properly, but now we’ve found a third one and we like it, we said that’s good to hear.

Several weeks later – yes it is now October – we said how’s it going, they said we’re getting there. We said how’s it going now? They said we’re 85% there, the gearbox is working, except the computer doesn’t like it and goes into ‘limp’ mode so we need to trick it but we’re not sure how. We said let’s try to find out, they said yeah.

We said we need to set off to return to Ecuador from Chile now, but we don’t want to bother if it’s not fixed yet, they said er….. we said what? They said good news is we think we have a solution to the computer problem, but we need a part from Germany to make it work, should be ready about 6 November, we said Oh For Fuck’s Sake! We said we’re going to Bolivia now then, cos we can’t be arsed to hang around in Ecuador and then be really late starting our job, they said okay.

Friends came and went...

Friends came and went…

We said is the part there yet? They said no. We said is it there yet, cos we’d quite like to pick up the van around Christmas. They said we got the part and put it in. We test drove it and the computer problem was solved, we said brilliant!! They said we drove it and drove it, up hill and down dale, and it was going like a dream, we said brilliant. They said we declared it ready, we said seriously? They said but then the boss insisted we take it for an even more extreme mountain drive, he said there’s no point in giving it to them if it can’t cross the Andes, we said that sounds sensible. They said we took it up there and some of the pinions broke during the test, it seems the engine is just a fraction too powerful for the gearbox we’ve got, we said sigh….. They said arghhhh! We said ditto.

We said maybe we need to give up now, they said maybe. We all slept on it. Jeremy said I’ve looked into it again and maybe we need to find a solution in Europe, there’s this guy in Germany who I think can help, they said send us the details. We said we’re not going to be able to come and collect it at Christmas as planned, are we? They said no.

They said the guy in Germany can provide all the exact parts to put this together, we said super! They said the problem is all the parts are used, and it’s illegal to import used parts into Ecuador, we said we know, we’ve been here before, they said it wouldn’t be easy to clean up this whole kit and make it look like new, we said what now? They said we don’t usually do this but we’ll contact ‘a bloke’ in Colombia and see if we can send them there, then we’ll (illegally) drive them over the Colombia-Ecuador border, we said that sounds like just the kind of excitement we need.

We said what the frock is happening, please will you reply to our messages. They said the problem is the guy in Colombia wants far too much money to receive this package, so we’re still looking into how we can do this, we said we’ll contact some people in Colombia too then, they said thanks. We said we’re now in danger of missing our final, last-chance, Ecuador visa expiry date at the end of February 2014, which is not something we really could have envisaged last April, they said neither did we…. They said the latest gearbox should be despatched from Germany to Colombia on 8 January, we said better late than never.

Two weeks and hundreds of emails and phone-calls later they said thing is we got this guy to send it to Colombia, we paid him and got the tracking number. Then we went to Colombia to collect it and it wasn’t there. They said we called him and said WTF?  He said we had “taken too long to decide if we wanted it”. He is a (INSERT SEVERAL SWEAR WORDS) asshole. They said we have (INSERT SWEAR WORD) had it with this van, it is impossible, we cannot (INSERT SWEAR WORD) well do this any more, it is costing us a fortune in time and money and it’s costing you loads as well. They said we’ve tried everything to get VW to help us find the right parts but they say what we’re doing is impossible, that’s it, no more, sorry.

We said maybe this really is over now. Maybe it’s time to come up with a whole new plan, abandon the van – which we cannot legally sell in, nor remove from, Ecuador – and buy a different car. We said the logistics of all of that are a total nightmare but let’s make a list of options and look for other vehicles.

A few days later… we said are you really telling us you are giving up, even though we all still believe there should be a solution out there? They said, well….maybe we spoke in anger. We said we’ll look for a better contact in Europe, they said thanks. We said Jeremy has been back to all his geeky contacts online, and beyond, in fact he has been living on the internet for days, and we think a guy in Canada that Jeremy has found, has found in a guy in Holland who can come up with the goods, they said really? We said we hope so.

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

We had some freelance work to do to help offset our van expenses

Holland Guy said I’ve looked into it and there’s only one manual gearbox in existence that you could use for your conversion, and I can get hold of it plus the other bits you’d need, we said you’d be the first person to have actually been able to name the parts we need – including VW, who have washed their hands of this from the start and are complete, utter bastards – and it sounds too good to be true but we’ll go with it. A squillion emails and several weeks later we said that’s all the parts ordered then, it’s February now so we better get back to Ecuador and sort this out.

We got back to Quito and said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said that sounds familiar. A week later, nearly mid-March, we said where are the parts, they said still stuck in customs, we said the longer this goes on the more likely we are to snap and stab someone [we didn't really say that second bit out loud].

We said where are the parts, they said they all have to have a physical inspection by customs and if they find the two (illegal) used parts that you’ve hidden in there, the whole shipment will be confiscated, we said we know and it’s kind of keeping us awake at night, they said let’s hope they don’t spot it, we said yes let’s hope that.

They said all the parts have finally been cleared by customs, we said YAY!!!, that was close, they said you were lucky. We said all we have to work out now is whether these parts really do fit our van, as claimed, they said let’s hope so, we said yes let’s.

They said we’ve received all the parts and they look good, for the first time it looks like the parts are correct, the Holland Guy really seems to know what he’s doing, we said phew. They said Holland Guy thinks this is the first time in the world this conversion has been done on your specific engine, we said that’s both strangely comforting and very scary, they said yeah.

Gearbox diagrams

Worse than your worst Ikea flatpack nightmare – the mechanic gets to work on assembling the new manual gearbox.

They said we’ve put the gearbox in and it fits – just, with a millimetre to spare – we said gulp, YAY!! They said we’ve had to make some adaptations but things are going well, now we just have to work out how to trick the computer, we said yeah we thought that might still be a problem. They said we’ve done it all and we’ve over-ridden the computer so we think it’s going to work, we said let’s hope so, they said yes let’s. They said the clutch cylinder that came from Holland is not working properly, but we’ve done a temporary fix, you can drive but should order a replacement asap, we said sigh.

They said we’ve taken it for a first test drive and everything was perfect, we said we refuse to believe it until we are actually driving that van away from the workshop, they said fair enough. They said come down and take a drive with us, we said that would be nice. We drive to the mountains and everything felt lovely, we said YAY! They said we just need to do some final checks and clean everything up and then you can come and collect it, we said we still can’t really believe it, they said believe it, you are so out of here, we said I bet you’re looking forward to that.

They said come and get it, it’s nearly ready, we said YAY! They said only problem is you can’t drive it til 7.30pm because number plates ending in ’7′ can’t drive in the city on Thursdays, we said another three hours won’t kill us but it will still feel like the longest three hours of our lives, they said come back to ours for pizza then, we said okay. We said that was a hell of a year wasn’t it, they said yes it was really stressful, we said yeah. They said remember the day you asked us to destroy the van by dropping it off the lift, we said yeah, they said that was a really bad day, we said yeah it was. They said Jeremy was a genius for finding Holland Guy, and Holland Guy was a genius for finally getting to the bottom of it, we said yeah. They said did we mention that the automatic was the shittiest transmission we’ve ever seen and that VW refused to help us with part numbers for this job, saying that what we were doing was impossible, even though they actually manufacture the gearbox we eventually used? We said, yeah we are all agreed that they are evil, uncaring, cynical corporate whores, they said spot on.

We said thanks for the pizza, and everything, we’re off to get the van now, they said bye then, we said ciao.

—–

A FOOTNOTE TO EKEKO:

There’s another little strand to this story. Now, we’re not religious people, we’re not even that vague half-way house that some people describe themselves as – ‘spiritual’. But people change, and we’re now firm believers in the Andean god of abundance, Ekeko. We’re not trying to convert you. We’ll simply give you the facts.

Thanks mate.

Thanks mate.

If you’ve read the above transmission tragedy, you’ll know that we spent many months trying to track down a manual gearbox that would actually fit our van. No one seemed able to help, not even the people who made the van. Enthusiasts in the US tried to help – they were also looking for the same solution but couldn’t find the parts either. Towards the end of January things were looking very bleak indeed. The mechanic had given up and we were simultaneously looking for alternative vehicles and making a last-ditch attempt to ask our contacts for help with our van.

Meanwhile we were busy with volunteering in Bolivia and doing freelance journalism work. I’d been commissioned to write articles on the Alasitas festival in La Paz. The festival centres around the god Ekeko – people buy miniature versions of all the things they desire for the coming year, and ask Ekeko to make them come true. We were desperate enough to try anything. We bought a miniature VW and little driving licence, a mini passport and suitcase (representing travel) and had them blessed by a shaman.

The following morning I was in a cafe writing my Alasitas article, when Jeremy emailed me to say: “Trying not to get overexcited but…. just had an email from a parts supplier in Holland who says he can find us our gearbox.”

That Ekeko guy works fast, we said! Make of it what you will, but with that we were back in the game.

There’s no place like home

8 Apr
We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

We did it! Making it to Peru was a massive relief

The beach, Peru
[by Paula]

When we blogged last week, to say that our van was back in the game after 11 months off the road, we mentioned that we had another enormous challenge to face before we could really get back into the road trip part of this journey.

We’re over the moon to say that that hurdle has been cleared – we are safely in Peru and ensconced on a peaceful beach, living the van life again and re-acquainting ourselves will everything that is so liberating about having a house on wheels. After so long living in apartments, we thought it might take a while to adjust again to the limited space, but we’ve only banged our heads about 67 times each in the last week, so that’s going really well so far.

Unfortunately we can’t yet publish the full story about what we went through to get into Peru – that’s something we’ll have to save for another day and another country.

That aside, I’d love to tell you that the rest of our journey here from Quito was straightforward and incident-free. But would you really believe that?

Drinking champagne

A little champers moment after picking up the van

After picking up the van we spent a fun few days playing house with it and getting everything ready before our departure from the city. We set off at the crack of dawn, headed for the city of Riobamba, about 5 hours south of Quito.

About 4 hours and 45 minutes of that journey were joyous – driving through the Ecuadorian Andes with our new manual gearbox was like night and day compared with the hideous automatic transmission that had, at best, dragged the van kicking and screaming through Colombia’s highlands.

A few blocks from the campsite in Riobamba, we started to notice an ominous burning smell coming from the front of the van. Not good. As we pulled into the campsite and tried to park, Jeremy said: “Paula, I can’t get into any gear.” These are not words I ever want to hear again.

My brain quietly chanted ‘thisisnothappeningthisisnothappeningnothisisnothappening..’.

We popped the bonnet, releasing smoke and an acrid smell coming straight from the gearbox. Happily, after a short cooling period we managed to get into gear again and parked up.

The lovely campsite owner was offering advice about rubbing discs, just needing to regulate them, don’t worry ‘be patient’ you can find a mechanic tomorrow etc, but for the first few minutes it was all just white noise. We were in panic mode.

Non-starter

We were already aware that our clutch cylinder was a bit ropey – the one that arrived with the gearbox conversion kit was defective, and the Quito mechanics had done a fix on it. A new one had been ordered to be sent to us in Peru. We phoned our mechanic in Quito, Lothar, who urged us not to panic, it was probably something to do the cylinder but someone should be able to tweak it for us.

We found a mechanic on Monday morning who, at first, seemed gloomy about being able to access the right area to regulate the discs. “I might have to get another guy in to help me take the gearbox out,” he said. At that point I went for a long walk!

But after a phone conversation with Lothar, he found the way in and tweaked things to stop the discs rubbing.

“I really think this is going to be okay now,” he said. “Take it for a drive for a few hours, to places around the city, and if you smell burning again, come back tomorrow and we’ll look again.”

Van stopped at church

Nice church, not so nice that the van won’t start…

Hesitantly, we set off and drove to a little village about 30km away. No problems. We pulled in at a little church and had a look around. “Things feels good, let’s head on further,” said Jeremy.

We went back to the van. I turned the key. Click click, nothing. It was completely dead. This is NOT happening, I said. Probably the battery, we said. We called over a local family visiting the church and asked them to jump start us. Sure, they said. Click click, nothing.

“It’s not the battery, must be something else,” they said. They offered to come back with a mechanic in a hour.

It felt like a long hour in the hot sun. Really, were we ever going to get out of Ecuador?!

The mechanic arrived. “Oh” he said, “this car is gasoline, but I’m a diesel mechanic, sorry.” I made a growling sound. He started to have a fiddle around anyway, and declared it was “something electrical”.

“Let’s try push-starting it,” he said. Exciting, we thought – we couldn’t have done that with an automatic!

We pushed, and it sprang to life. Hurrah! They drove us to a car electrician in the city. “He’s the best,” they said, “if he can’t sort you out, no one can”. I thought ‘please don’t say that…’

Ten minutes and $5 later, a loose cable was re-connected and we were off!

So far so routine, but our still-raw paranoia about breaking down meant that every set-back felt like a disaster in the moment.

We flopped into our chairs back at the campsite – what a day.

Next morning we decided to head off with confidence, and drive south for a few hours to see how we felt. It was a beautiful, and calm, drive to the gorgeous railway town of Alausí. We were still like a couple of meerkats, popping our heads up at every perceived noise or smell, but all was well.

We explored the little town, which is sliced in half by Ecuador’s famous highland railway line. Brightly painted houses and a pristine square make it seem almost like a life-sized version of a model railway village. We ate chicken soup in the market, then decided to push on. Alausí’s steep streets were the perfect test for the gearbox, which coped admirably.

That afternoon we had one of those lucky finds – with no plan of where we might sleep, we happened across a slightly unpromising-looking sign for a ‘pueblo turistico’. We drove down a steep track, which ended at a new restaurant and little trail leading to an incredible mirador overlooking the famous engineering feat that is the ‘Devil’s Nose’ – a series of steep railway switchbacks cutting across the mountain before descending to a little station in the middle of nowhere.

Devil's Nose (Nariz del Diablo)

We camped above the mirador overlooking the famous Devil’s Nose (Nariz del Diablo).

They had the perfect sheltered car park for us to camp in, and to top things off a train appeared just as we were climbing down the trail to look at the railway. We got some incredible views before the clouds started swirling through the valley and settled eerily for the night.

With no charge for the camping we decided to support this fabulous community project by buying a meal in the restaurant, which had a chef who’d worked in London for 10 years – it was $3 for a three-course dinner!

We drank our morning tea at the mirador the next morning, and really felt like we were on the road again. As we left the pueblo, we picked up a series of locals who were hitching between villages on our route – it’s an accepted way to get around and we never want to seem like grumpy gringos who just travel in a bubble of our own.

We started to hear a worrying clunking noise – it sounded like an innocuous banging of metal, but I refer you to my earlier comments about paranoia. We pulled in to get it checked out – just a broken screw on the metal guard under the van, which has been in and out like a jack-in-the-box over the last year. Keep calm and carry on!

Things continued to go smoothly. It felt like a major milestone to get to the southern city of Cuenca – our last major stop before the border, a place where we’d already spent a lot of time, and where we’d meet our friend Jess again before (hopefully) leaving Ecuador for good.

We camped in a great city farm and had a good night out in town and then brunch at the van with Jess the next day. She seems to have suffered every stage of the van saga along with us, so it was really special to be able to have her round for a cuppa, to see for herself that the van was back and really did exist.

We did some final planning and set off for the border at first light on Friday. It was by far the most nerve-wracking day of our trip so far, for reasons we’ll write about later.

That evening we pulled into a sublime beach campsite in northern Peru, as a red-hot sun was dropping from the sky in the way that is so synonymous with the Pacific coast – we were happy, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled and ready for a drink.

For the next few weeks we’ll hang out in hammocks, sort out the remaining loose ends with the van, go off wandering and sit out the chaos that is Semana Santa (Easter) in Latin America.

But mostly we’ll just enjoy being back home.

Days: 918
Miles: 18,121
Things we now know to be true: Panicking is unhelpful.

—–

A FEW MORE PICS FROM OUR EVENTFUL WEEK:-

 

The post you thought we’d never write

28 Mar
Van ready to go

Safe to say that mechanic Juan Carlos and owners Lothar and Lothar Ranft don’t ever want to see us again, nor us them.

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

We’re back on the road again. No, we can’t believe it either! After 11 months off the road, the van is finally purring away happily and getting ready to turn south again.

Having our home back is an incredible feeling. We’ve had some great digs while waiting, but we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t missed it.

Some aspects of the last year have been supremely stressful – the worst thing was not knowing how or when the saga would end. But our stoppage also led to some changes of plan that we find it impossible to regret, not least our unforgettable time in Bolivia.

You might wonder how the feck it could take 11 months to repair a van. That’s something we’ll be writing more about very soon. Suffice to say that – as far as we have been told – this is the first time in the world an automatic-manual gearbox conversion has been done on our specific model, year and engine-type. If anyone knows otherwise, we’d be happy to hear it.

It was bloody difficult for all concerned, but we’ve done it. Our mechanic’s wife waved us off last night with particular gusto.

For now we have another enormous challenge to face before we can truly relax and enjoy the ride, and we sincerely hope that very soon we can report good news on that front too.

Thanks to family, friends and fellow travellers for your concern and encouragement, now let’s hit that road!

Strictly come dancing

24 Feb

Dressed up for Fiesta of Mallasa

Cuenca, Ecuador
[by Paula]

A great many things have happened on this trip that could not have been predicted. In fact, the majority of happenings were not foreseen, but some are more surprising than others.

So when I was standing watching Jeremy change from his jeans and t-shirt into an 11-piece Bolivian dancing outfit, including big flappy woolly Andean trousers, poncho, a belt adorned with bells, wooden platform shoes with spurs and an outrageously camp hat, I thought: “Yeah, this is definitely right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

I wasn’t doing too badly myself, with my wool dress and pinny, headband and wide-brimmed sombrero flowing with multi-coloured ribbons.

In the way that only they can – quietly unassuming, yet without options for refusal – our Bolivia hosts Emma and Rolando had persuaded us to take part in the traditional Pujllay dance at the local town festival in Mallasa. Of course we wouldn’t have refused. It was a privilege and a one-off chance to experience a culture from within a small community, with friends who could show us the ropes. Obviously it was also a chance for some public humiliation, and who would pass that up?

It was a serious business – rehearsals began about two weeks before, and took place in the street. Different dance groups vied for space in Mallasa’s Calle 5, while the music belted out of a PA system dragged out onto the street corner. Along with the other gringo volunteers working for Emma and Rolando’s projects, we shuffled around trying to look like we knew what we were doing.

Not only was the festival a large parade for the spectator’s enjoyment, it was a dancing competition and source of community pride. At the very least we had to aspire to avoid totally embarrassing Emma and Rolando in front of their friends and neighbours.

Pujillay men's dance

The men had to leap around for hours wearing wooden blocks on their feet.

On the night before the festival we all gathered to view our costumes and learn how to put them on – they were highly valuable and, as is tradition, the organisers (chosen each year from the community) had virtually bankrupted themselves to pay for the event and after-parties.

In the Pujllay, the men have to wear rather intimidating wooden blocks on their feet and jump around warrior-like, their heavy spurs jangling. They strapped them on and had a first ‘shoe rehearsal’. The overwhelming consensus was that someone would break an ankle before the day was out.

Despite some nasty weather in the fortnight running up to the event, we all gathered on Sunday afternoon in unbroken sunshine. Bolivians have an uncanny knack for predicting the weather, and we had been assured “it never rains on fiesta day”. They were right, again.

The streets were lined with spectators, food vendors and crates of beer for sale. We had a swift cold one to garner ourselves, lined up in our groups as the band got going behind us, and set off down the main street.

Mallasa is not a large town – in bigger fiestas in La Paz, dancers will parade for miles – but we were pretty hot and exhausted by the time we reached the judges’ platform, yet we were only half way. We smiled like mad and tried to look proficient. It was amusing to watch people’s faces as we swooshed past – there go the gringos!

Every now and again I craned my neck to see the men’s group dancing behind us – occasionally seeing Jeremy’s hat bobbing around at several inches higher than everyone elses.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

Jeremy enjoys a relaxing beer after the dancing ends.

The atmosphere was fantastic. People handed drinks to the dancers, and when we reached the end a crate was bought and guzzled in the street. We had our first opportunity then to watch some of the other groups coming past, doing different dances in a whole array of outlandish costumes.

Then we were off again! One of the best moments was dancing back through the town to make our entrance at the after-party. I temporarily joined the men’s group, stomping through the now darkened streets with increasing velocity, no doubt spurred on by the promise of more alcohol at the party. We made a loud and energetic entrance, congratulated ourselves and settled in for the free bar.

In the preceding weeks I had been doing some research for a BBC article about Bolivia’s ‘cholitas’ (en español)  - indigenous/mestizo women who dress in fascinating and distinctive outfits of bowler hats, layered skirts and shawls. One of their noticeable characteristics is that, although formidable in some ways, they are quite reserved people, not given to easily trusting strangers or behaving brashly in public. However, Emma had assured me that a Bolivian party would certainly involve a host of drunken cholita revellers letting their hair down. I found this very hard to imagine.

But within a couple of hours, a whole gaggle of cholitas – resplendent in their identical pink fiesta outfits – had dragged Jeremy and I onto the dancefloor. As we did a kind of conga around their crates of beer, swigging from plastic cups as we went, I thought: “Yeah, this is right up there with all the other ‘things-we-didn’t-see-coming’.”

Don't be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers later.

Don’t be fooled. These elegant cholitas got stuck into the beers at the party later.

The festival was particularly special for us because we would be leaving the village in two weeks. We’d made the decision to return to Ecuador for reasons of an expiring visa and to, erm, Sort Out Our Van. For anyone who has – understandably – lost track of our mysterious campervan, it’s still in Quito and has been for many many months.

There will be more on that later, but we had to get back there and either see through a final attempt to fix it, or make alternative arrangements.

Suddenly it felt like we had a lot to do before we left. We had an unusually large volume of freelance journalism work to do, and there were a lot of jobs to complete on Emma and Rolando’s soon-to-be-opened campsite, including marketing and publicity materials. Jeremy designed leaflets and a logo, and we twiddled and tweaked the website. Signs were designed and made, and we started putting the word out to other websites and blogs.

We met our very capable replacements on the project, Don and Rochelle, and managed to find time for some important training, such as How To Drink A Lot of Wine.

On our last evening, Rochelle – who claims to normally be a light drinker – declared that she had “never left our house sober”.

Our work in Jupapina was done. It was time to move on.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

The Mendoza-Donlans gave us a fondue farewell.

A series of farewells only served to underline how many lovely friends we’d made – to mention but a few; the entertaining and ever-helpful Anita, Anahi and Raquel from Up Close Bolivia, our housemate Naomi – who broke her cooking embargo to make us a delicious Spanish meal before we left – and Verity, who arrived in January and soon sniffed out our shared love of food, wine and chat. Sadly, by this time Alison and Doug had return to the frozen north (Canada) and could only weep at the thought of our Singani cocktails on the terrace.

Clara and Geovanna, who worked in Emma and Rolando’s house, cooked hearty and delicious lunches for us every day and listened patiently to our bad Spanish.

And of course Emma, Rolando, David and Bell, who took us out for a sublime palpatation-inducing fondue lunch before we left. They also hosted a big gathering of all the volunteers, plus Clara and Geovanna and their families – with chori-pan (barbequed sausages on bread rolls) and choclo (sweetcorn) and lots of lovely speeches!

Facing a 30-hour bus journey to Lima, Peru, at 8am on Sunday, we made the sensible decision to have a night out with Emma and Rolando the evening before we left. “It won’t be a late one,” said Emma.

As we crawled into bed just before 2am, I thought: “I definitely saw that coming.”

Days: 875
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 9,909
Things we now know to be true: If a cholita tells you to dance, you dance.

BUMPER CROP OF PHOTOS IN TWO GALLERIES BELOW – CHOLITAS, PLUS THE FESTIVAL AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA. Many thanks to Rochelle and Verity for taking lots of photos for us on fiesta day.

——-

CHOLITAS

——-

FESTIVAL OF MALLASA AND GOODBYE JUPAPINA

The little things in life

30 Jan
Mini crate of beer

Anyone fancy a wee cerveza? (With thanks to Ana ‘Anita’ Cossio for the use of her fingers)

Jupapina, La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

I was a bit of a geek for miniatures when I was younger. While others had cool bedrooms crammed with music posters, Pacman games (yes, it was the 80s) and normal teenage paraphernalia, my shelves were lined with tiny little versions of just about anything I could get my hands on. I’d like to say I’d grown up since then…

… but when we heard there was a festival of miniatures in La Paz, I could hardly contain myself. We were there like a shot. We oohed and awwed at all the little things, took a zillion photos and watched aghast as half of La Paz almost stampeded a bunch of Catholic priests in the cathedral.

Not only was I in heaven but I was getting paid for it, as the BBC and MSN Travel had commissioned me to write articles on the festival. Double bonus.

So I’ve been busy writing quite a lot about Alasitas in the last few days. Rather than create another account of the fabulous first day of the festival, I’ve lazily inserted my BBC article into this post. There are also a few more photos below, some of which were included in the MSN Travel slideshow.

The point of Alasitas is that you buy mini versions of all the things you want to come true in the coming year. You may or may not be wondering if we bought anything. It probably goes without saying what was at the top of our shopping list….

Van hopes

A representation of our van is blessed by a shaman. Worth a shot, no?

—–

BBC News Magazine, 30 January 2014

‘Alasitas: Bolivia’s festival of miniatures’

Bolivia’s Alasitas festival is a bizarre buying frenzy that mixes ancient traditions and beliefs with modern-day religion and consumerism. Thousands turn out to buy everything they want in the coming year, in miniature form, in the hope that the gods will convert their dreams into life-sized reality.

Imagine you could go to the market, buy everything you wanted in the year ahead for just a few dollars and carry it all home in one plastic bag. It might be a new house, a car, a husband or wife, or even a divorce. Or perhaps a suitcase stuffed with cash, a degree from a top university, a new job, a shiny laptop or all the food you can eat?

This is exactly what happens at the Alasitas festival, which runs for a month in La Paz, Bolivia. Everyone is buying small, and dreaming big.

On day one artisans and street vendors fill the plazas and line the pavements throughout the city, loudly hawking tiny wares ranging from finely-crafted miniatures to plastic toy versions of the real thing.

Smoking Ekeko

Ekeko is partial to a cigarette.

Everything bought is blessed by priests before being offered to a chubby cigarette-puffing Andean god, Ekeko.

Ekeko – the god of abundance – is the key to whether these desires will become reality, many believe. True followers will keep a statue in their home, offering him their miniatures along with a lit cigarette and a few prayers

“When you really believe in it, it becomes real,” says Ana Cossio, 24, an NGO worker from La Paz. “My mum bought me a little marriage certificate at Alasitas. A month later I found out I was pregnant and was married later that year.”

In the city’s Plaza Murillo, teeny suitcases stuffed with piles of mini dollars, bolivianos and euros are stacked on tables. Some even come complete with a full travel package – little cardboard credit cards, passport, airline tickets and visas.

Vendors shout over each other to be heard: “Dollars and euros here! Money, money!”

Shoppers swap real cash for piles of fake money, which is later exchanged with friends, family or strangers in the street, in an act of reciprocity that is ingrained in Andean culture.

They also part with small amounts of cash for mobile phones, computers, flat-screen TVs, DIY tools and every brand of car, truck and minibus imaginable – all in diminutive form. Baby vegetables, tiny sacks of flour and rice, crates of beer and stacks of matchbox-sized supermarket brands are being bought up by the thousands as the festival gets under way.

Miniature houses, office buildings and shops are carefully examined as people browse for their perfect design. Those planning to build their own can buy a mini plot of land, complete with all the building materials they need – tiny bricks, bags of cement, wheelbarrows and spades.

Little wedding dresses

Elvira Quisbert, 85, sells little wedding gowns to hopeful brides.

Even all the daily newspapers are printed at a quarter of their normal size, carrying spoof stories about the government and the news of the day.

While money and material goods are hugely popular, Alasitas is also about searching for luck in life – be that in love, work or simply an abundance of food for the family. Ceramic cockerels and hens are bought and exchanged to help friends and loved ones find a partner.

And thousands of little fake certificates are printed and sold – including marriage and divorce documents, degrees, driving licences and professional qualifications.

Brother and sister Rita and Jorge Llanque Torrez are having their purchases blessed by an Andean priest on the steps of La Paz’s main cathedral. Jorge wants a new job in education planning, so has bought himself a ‘certificate of work’, while his sister has high hopes for her teenage daughter.

“I live in Barcelona but my daughter is here in Bolivia. I have bought a visa and passport for her so she can get her papers and come to Spain too. It’s the second year I have bought them for her…” says Rita.

Celebrated in La Paz every January, Alasitas has its origins in an indigenous Aymara harvest festival in which farmers prayed for bountiful crops. Opinions vary as to how and when Ekeko emerged in his modern-day form, but historians say that the concept of exchange and the offering of miniatures to a god of abundance date back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture of Bolivia.

Over the centuries, economic, religious and cultural influences have seen Alasitas transform almost beyond recognition.

A vivid illustration of the blending of traditional indigenous beliefs and Spanish Catholicism happens at midday on day one – the hour when people rush to have their purchases blessed.

“There is an almighty crush. A few broken little houses lie trampled underfoot.”

 On the steps of the city’s main cathedral, Andean priests – called amautas or yatiris – chant incantations amid a cloud of incense emanating from little coal burners at their feet.

They offer 96%-proof alcohol to pachamama – mother earth – by sprinkling it on the ground, and wave bags of shopping and handfuls of fake money over the smoke.

But for many people this is not quite enough. They might have faith in the power of Ekeko, but they believe strongly in their Christian god too.

At 11:55am there is a sudden surge towards the entrance of the cathedral. People are carried with the crowd towards the altar, and a gentle hum of voices rises to a roar as the clock approaches noon. There are so many people in the church that the Catholic priests have to bring in extra help. Several of them stand on plinths as the throng pushes towards them, holding their purchases aloft.

“Padre! Padre! Over here!” they shout, frantically waving fistfuls of miniatures and cash. In an attempt to rapidly bless as many things as possible the priests dip bunches of flowers in holy water flinging it over the crowd in great arcs.

Cathedral frenzy

Priests blessed people’s Alasitas purchases by lobbing holy water over everything within reach.

“It’s not very Catholic,” says Ana Cossio. “I think the priests allow it because they can’t control it.”

As the first wave tries to exit the cathedral there is an almighty crush. A few broken little houses lie trampled underfoot.

The crowd is somehow expelled from the church into the packed plaza, where hundreds of people are shopping and eating. While opening day is the most chaotic and frenzied of the festival, this cycle of spending, exchanging and hoping goes on for a month.

Alasitas is at once a frivolous, serious and, at times, contradictory fixture of the Bolivian calendar. Modern day scenes of flashing wads of cash at a priest may barely resemble a traditional harvest festival, but it could be seen as a window on the shifting desires of a nation that is rapidly changing and developing, while proudly holding on to its traditional culture.

ALASITAS: A BRIEF HISTORY

  • Indigenous Aymara event originally called Chhalasita before Spanish colonial times – involved simple exchange of basic goods. The Spanish changed the name from its original meaning of ‘exchange me’ to ‘buy me’.
  • Evolved to adopt elements of Catholicism and Western desire to accumulate material wealth.
  • In 1781 the date was changed to 24 January, to commemorate an indigenous uprising and to give thanks to Catholic saint Nuestra Senora de La Paz for protecting the city – some say this is when modern-day Ekeko made his appearance, with many believing he helped save the city from hunger during the siege
  • Alasitas purchases can also be seen as statements of intent or goal-setting for the year ahead.

—–

Days: 850
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 8,569
Things we now know to be true: Small is beautiful.

—–

MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW..

Potosí: The saddest place in South America?

5 Jan
Miner, Cerro Rico, Potosi.

Candelaria mine, Cerro Rico, Potosí, Bolivia. The mines – which have claimed millions of lives – are still being worked today.

Jupapina, near La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

We’ve just spent our third Christmas and new year away from home. As we’re living in a proper house and have been temporarily adopted by Emma, Rolando and family, it was more like a ‘normal’ Christmas than the others. There was the build-up, with drinks parties, visits from Santa (one of which looked suspiciously like JD…) , and even some shopping for presents. There was turkey and bread sauce, there were roast potatoes, and there were Boxing Day leftovers. New year’s eve involved way too many cocktails. So no change there then.

Haven't we met?..

Haven’t we met?..

But that’s enough of the happy smiley Santa stories – it’s the 5th of January and we’ve all had enough of that, so we’ll move straight on to the gritty stuff.

Between Christmas and New Year we arranged some time off and made a plan to visit the cities of Potosí (the highest in the world) and the official capital of Bolivia, Sucre. When we told Emma of our plans she said: “Oh, Potosí. You should go, but I really think it’s the saddest place in South America.”

A story of colonial brutality, staggering injustice, oppression, terrible working conditions and death on an unimaginable scale? All the more reason to go and find out what it’s all about, we said.

There’s a conical mountain that dominates Potosí, looming over it from almost every angle. For nearly 500 years Cerro Rico – or Rich Mountain – has been mined for silver, since the Spanish decided they’d like a piece of it in 1545.

Back then, and for hundreds of years hence, the mountain yielded unfathomable riches. At its height Potosí was bigger and more important than London or Paris. Did Bolivia benefit? If you’ve ever read a word of colonial history, you’ll know the answer is a big fat, shiny, no.

Not only that, but some 8 million miners lost their lives in the 300 years that the Spanish enslaved indigenous Bolivians and imported Africans to toil underground.

Cerro Rico, Potosi

Cerro Rico has been mined for nearly 500 years.

It is known as the ‘mountain that eats men’. During colonial times people were, hardly surprisingly, petrified to go down there. They knew that only three in 10 of them would survive – if they didn’t perish in an accident, they would be poisoned by mercury, or die from dust-clogged lungs.

On the other hand, Potosí’s mineral wealth help fund Europe’s industrial revolution so, you know, every cloud…

Bolivians say that enough silver was extracted from Cerro Rico to build a bridge of silver between South America and Spain. The problem is, the flow of money across that ‘bridge’ was pretty much one way.

In that respect Potosí is a microcosm of everything that was shameful about the colonial period itself, and how it paved the way for continuing exploitation. In this case it was the Spanish, but the same pattern applies in other continents thanks to the British, French, Dutch, Belgians, Italians, Portuguese and others.

The Spanish came with their language, their religion, their diseases and their ideas of superiority. They saw glittery stuff and they wanted it. They brought misery and death to indigenous people on a staggering scale. They crushed ancient civilisations, siphoned off all the family silver and built their futures off the back of it, while ensuring that development in the colonies was stifled and dependency secured.

“If it were not a futile exercise, Bolivia — now one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries — could boast of having nourished the wealth of the wealthiest.

“In our time Potosí is a poor city in a poor Bolivia: ‘The city which has given most to the world and has the least,’ as an old Potosían lady told me. Condemned to nostalgia, tortured by poverty and cold, Potosí remains an open wound of the colonial system in America: a still audible ‘J’accuse’.”
Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America

And their mission to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism was helped along by the building of numerous lavish churches in the city, using the proceeds of slave labour in the mines. It’s said that although God ruled in Potosi’s 34 churches, the Devil laughed in his 6,000 mines.

The ripples of those deliberate colonial-period policies are still very much felt throughout the world. Today, the department of Potosí is one of the most poverty-stricken in Bolivia, and Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America.

The Bolivian coins that were once made in Potosí are now manufactured in Chile, Canada and Spain.

The previous day, at the spectacular Casa Real de la Moneda (the ‘royal mint’ house) museum, we had heard of a sunken Spanish galleon, which went down in 1622 full of Potosí silver coins. It was searched for and recovered off the coast of Florida by a US citizen, in 1985, containing an estimated $3billion worth of silver. Now, fair play to him for his efforts and all that. But when Potosí launched a claim to have their heritage returned to them, they received a donation of one coin. Yes, one. You can go and look at it in the museum or, if you like, buy one of the coins on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

As for Cerro Rico, miners are still grafting in the mountain, which is now slowly collapsing after nearly half a millennium of extraction. For thousands of men from this region, and beyond, there is nothing else to do but mine.

These days they are scratching a living from smaller and smaller veins of silver – plus lower value metals like tin and lead –  in alarmingly primitive conditions.

Silver palm

The quality and value of the silver is lower now than in colonial times

Modern equipment, safety gear and regulations appear to be luxuries no one can afford. Although progressive in many other ways, the Bolivian government has taken a hands-off approach to Cerro Rico’s mines, which they officially own but lease to a network of powerful co-operatives that apparently resist too much intervention.

Most Cerro Rico miners will fall victim to the fatal lung disease silicosis after an average of 15 years of work, while collapses and other accidents also claim many lives.

About 800-1,000 mine workers are children, whose families need the money. Miners of all ages often work horrendously long shifts, their cheeks distended with the coca leaves they chew to stave off hunger and exhaustion.

It is possible to do a tour of the working mines and, after a bit of consideration, I decided to go down there. Jeremy declined, because he didn’t think he’d be able to tolerate the claustrophobic and cramped conditions. Signing the waiver before the tour was a stark reminder that the mines are genuinely dangerous and that there’s not much that can be done for you if there’s a collapse.

It’s not an enjoyable experience, but that’s not the reason for going. I am not claustrophobic as such, but let’s say I’d put going caving very near to the bottom of my ‘to do’ list. I’d far rather jump out of a plane than squeeze into a dusty hole underground.

It was Sunday 29 December, so there were not many miners working on the day we visited. This was, in some ways, a pity but in other ways it was far safer. Fewer explosions, and no rock-laden trolleys hurtling into our path.

We headed into the darkness, splashing through cold muddy water and crouching to avoid jagged rocks, and low-slung pipes carrying compressed air. I smacked my head countless times. The level of the ‘roof’ changed constantly and the atmosphere, helmet, headlamps and darkness were phenomenally disorientating.

After about 15 minutes, four people out of our group of seven had turned back. This is apparently quite common. The further in you go, the hotter and dustier it becomes. I started coughing as soon as we hit the dust, and yet most miners don’t wear masks.

Before long we came across a lone miner, Basilio, who had been working in the mine for 28 years. I was astonished that he was allowed to work alone. Our guide Daniel said no one even keeps a list of who is working on any given day. Basilio was working only for himself – he needed the money so had come in while most people were taking a new year break. Most tourists bring ‘gifts’ of dynamite, coca leaves, cigarettes or drinks for the miners – we gave everything we’d bought to him.

Candelaria mine

A lot of crouching is required..

He had let off some dynamite below and was waiting for the dust to clear. ‘Do you want to see where he is working?’, said Daniel. We did. It would require squeezing through a hole into the dusty abyss on the level below. We slipped and skidded, grabbed onto rocks that crumbled in our hands, and finally made it to the cave below.

This was not your standard tour – it was horribly unsafe and because we had to go one-by-one we couldn’t help each other to get down.

When we got to Basilio’s ‘space’ it was pretty horrifying – dark and cramped, with air so thick you could have sliced it. He was manually chiselling rocks to make holes for further dynamite explosions. He had apparently spent weeks carrying rocks to the level above, to make space to work. With every action he grunted and breathed in more dust, the sweat lashing off his brow.

I was particularly fascinated by how the miners go to the toilet when they are down there for up to 24 hours. Apparently they just “pee anywhere” (“no2s outside”) but, astonishingly, there is no smell. Anyone who’s travelled in Latin America will remember the ubiquitous smell of urine, drying on sun-baked street corners. So how is it possible that millions of men have been peeing in an enclosed space for 500 years, without any discernable odour? Answers on a postcard please.

Before heading out we crawled through a tiny tunnel to pay an obligatory visit to ‘Tio’. Every mine on Cerro Rico has its own Tio – an ugly cigarette-smoking statue with horns, an unmissable erection and very bad teeth, who represents the devil. Miners say they believe in God in the outside world, but when they enter the mountain they are in Satan’s territory. Tio is lavished with gifts like coca leaves and alcohol, so he’ll protect the miners and prevent accidents.

'Tio', Candelaria mine

‘Tio’ is never short of cigarettes and coca leaves.

There’s a well-known docu-film called the Devil’s Miner, which features two young brothers who worked in the mines. Among the most poignant scenes are those of the older brother (also called Basilio) trying to help the younger, Bernardino, become accustomed to this terrifying Tio statue, which they often visit alone in the darkness.

Some people rightly ask why child labour is tolerated in the mines. It’s a complicated question but the Devil’s Miner provides a decent insight into how that can happen. Basilio and Bernardino were working on Cerro Rico to support their fatherless family. Their mother earned US$25 a month. Clothing her three children for school – with mandatory uniforms – cost nearly two months’ wages, so they needed more coming in if the kids were to get their education, and eat.

So the boys crammed in their school lessons and a job in the mine into each day.

“Going to school is like a vacation, even for half a day,” said Basilio, who was 14 when the film was made in 2005. This is despite the sad fact that other kids gave them abuse if they found out they were working in the mountain – calling them names like ‘rock thief’ and ‘dust sucker’.

He hoped the job was only temporary. The reality is that the majority of child miners never leave Cerro Rico.

“But I don’t want to die in the mines, I want to live until I am big,” says Basilio.

Luckily for them, a German NGO helped the family leave Cerro Rico and set up a small shop, selling kitchen utensils, in the town. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Walking around Potosí, it is hard to imagine that death on a bigger scale than the Holocaust has visited these streets, and continues to stalk so many of the workers in the city. From a distance, Cerro Rico could be any one of the thousands of stunning mountains that dot the skylines of the Americas.

But on closer examination, sadness seeps from its every pore.

—–

For an excellent analysis of the colonisation of the Americas and the exploitation that continued post-independence, we highly recommend The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, by Eduardo Galeano.

Days: 825
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 8,469
Things we now know to be true: We will never know how it feels to work so you can live, while knowing it will kill you.

—–

MORE PHOTOS IN THE SLIDESHOW BELOW:-

Wrestling with nature

5 Dec

Shop in La Paz, Bolivia

Shop in La Paz, Bolivia

Jupapina, near La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

I’m not going to get all earth mothery on you, but our recent voluntary work in Bolivia is teaching us a hell of a lot about what it takes to manage a piece of land in a place where the weather can be brutal and the terrain unpredictable.

Every day, it seems, we are more or less engaged in a friendly tussle with nature. This is life for so many people in the world, but our post-stamp-sized garden in London wasn’t much of a training ground.

If we’re not trying to repair the ravages of the rains, we’re struggling to rehydrate the sun-parched earth, sweeping up wind-blown debris, helping to knit the slopes together with new trees or trying to keep termites at bay.

And what a place to do it. We’re perched above a dramatic, jagged-rocked, valley south of La Paz. Every day we are both living and working with the most incredible views into the Valley of Flowers, and down the Valley of the Moon towards the city, which twinkles in the distance at night.

Jeremy digging

At last! Jeremy is put in charge of a spade.

What are we doing here, and why? Let’s recap – a few months ago we decided to hold off the southward journey until 2014, and to find a place to stop and do a work-exchange project, whereby we’d get some free accommodation in return for some hard graft. We specifically wanted hard graft – after a few sedentary months, Jeremy was particularly keen that his job description included ‘digging’. Deep down, he’s a simple fellow with simple needs.

He got what he wanted. We’ve been here a month, the blisters are hardening, the biceps are starting to form nicely, and we’re loving it.

Through the Workaway website, we found this fabulous place in a semi-rural Aymara village called Jupapina, where we’re now living for a few months. It’s the base for a range of community projects, collectively called Up Close Bolivia, which was established by British-Bolivian couple Emma and Rolando Mendoza. Up Close employs locals to run and staff the projects – for example a large children’s daycare centre – and provides international volunteers to help out.

On the land is the Mendoza family home, three volunteers’ houses, and – coming soon! – Emma and Rolando’s first commercial venture, a brilliant campsite that will open next year. This is where we come in.

Campsite hammocks with view

Hammocks with a view on the campsite

Although we live among the Up Close ‘family’, we were recruited separately by Emma and Rolando to help with loads of odd jobs around the gardens, campsite and buildings. And there’s plenty of it.

This terraced land is porous and precipitous. After rains we are filling in water-created holes, which have reached up to 10ft deep, to make sure everything stays stable. When we are not filling in holes with piles of dirt, we are digging holes to plant trees, to help everything stay stable. We have painted acres of wood with anti-termite chemicals. We have cleared, tidied and swept. Rainy season should be upon us, but so far we have had weeks of glorious weather. The lack of rain means spending hours watering hundreds of trees. When it does rain we have to re-dig channels around them, to stop the water from pouring straight down into the valley and taking the earth with it.

We’re also here to help finish and market the campsite, and have so far set up an initial blogsite to start promoting it to interested parties.

Working on such steep land, at this altitude, is doing wonders for our fitness levels, and is also utterly exhausting.

After our morning’s work, we have lunch with Rolando and their housekeeper, and then spend the afternoons on chores or attempting to organise some freelance work. Sometimes we just fall asleep though…

We’re living in a converted pigsty, along with volunteer co-ordinator Naomi, but I suspect we have a way better deal than the porky residents had.

Our home, the 'Pigsty'

No pigsty: Our cosy home.

It’s been lovely to have a nice home, a routine, and some semblance of a social life again. We made great friends with Alison and Doug, a Canadian couple who came to volunteer with Up Close and were here for our first month, but have sadly now left. It was lovely to share some beers and laughs, and to get some baking tips from Alison, who’s a professional chef. I am no longer afraid to bake bread or scones!

Emma and Rolando, and their kids David and Bell, have been insanely welcoming, inviting us to their BBQs and other events, introducing us to their friends and colleagues, helping us with contacts and just generally being extremely tolerant of piles of volunteers wandering about the place and traipsing into their house to use the washing machine.

It’s a way of life for them and I’m not sure they remember it being any other way.

They’re both fascinating people, with backgrounds in development and public service. We spend most of our days with Rolando – former mayor of the local town and director of social services for La Paz city – and chatting to him about all sorts of political and social issues is great practice for our Spanish!

Talking of Spanish, within a few days of our arrival Rolando suggested we’d make good interviewees on one of the big La Paz radio stations, Radio Compañera. We laughed it off, saying our Spanish would not hold up to a live radio interview. A week later Emma came to us one evening saying: ‘You’ve been invited onto Gringo González’s show tomorrow morning.’ As is quite common, he’s nicknamed ‘gringo’ because his hair is slightly lighter than black. It was be a half hour interview about us, media issues in the UK and Latin America and whatever else cropped up. We gulped, hyper-ventilated, tried to avoid saying yes… then said yes. Shit!

La Paz from Pedregal

View of La Paz from Pedregal, on our hike to the Devil’s Molar.

Next morning, we couldn’t believe we were sitting there. The clock counted down til 11am and we were on air. Unbelievably, we survived it without any hideous dead air, hilarious misunderstandings or (we think) major bloopers. Our mistakes were diplomatically ignored! We lost several pounds in sweat. The subject matter bounced all over the place from threats to journalists in Colombia, to our own travels, to BBC funding, to what we thought of Margaret Thatcher. Luckily we knew the word for “witch” in Spanish. Phew.

Our weekends are our own and we’ve been getting out and about – with some city jaunts, to Bolivia’s main archaeological site of Tiwanaku, hiking to the ‘Devil’s Molar’ (a craggy rock formation that we can see, across the valley, from our window), to a big La Paz football derby – el clásico between Bolívar (yay!) and The Strongest (boo!) – and a weekend in a lush valley at Coroico.

Some 2,000m lower than La Paz, it was like another world, with its tropical flowers, dense forests, amazing birdlife and clouds of mosquitoes. Ah, mosquitoes, how we haven’t missed you.

We are preparing for a trip to Lake Titicaca this weekend, which will – not entirely accidentally – coincide with Jeremy’s birthday.

I’ve promised he can have a whole weekend of decadence – hotel room, lovely food, a few cold beers, and not a spade in sight.

Days: 792
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,449
Things we now know to be true: Slagging off Margaret Thatcher in Spanish feels just as good.

PICS PICS PICS! Photo gallery below from the last few weeks.
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