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On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

The Jesuit mission churches – like this one in Concepcion – have been beautifully restored.

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

Given how unbelievably sweaty, dusty and thirsty we were, it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the 17th-century Jesuit priests who had to trek here from Paraguay. I mean, I don’t think they even had ice cream shops then.

The majority of our associations with Bolivia are of the fresh air and mountain backdrops of the altiplano, so travelling through these baking hot tropical plains felt like we’d been transported to another country. Each time we had to search for a shady spot, or drive round a zillion little shops looking for ice, we said: “This just doesn’t feel like Bolivia.”

The eastern lowlands of the country may be less known by tourists, but they cover a vast area, accounting for about two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass. We had headed south-west from Cochabamba with a plan to visit a series of former Jesuit missions, established in the late 1600s and early 1700s as settlements that were – of course – each centred around an elaborate church. The towns – in which numerous groups of indigenous people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits before they were expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 – are still living, working communities. The central squares and churches have been lovingly restored and are a sight to behold that way exceeded our expectations.

The thing about the ‘missions circuit’ though, is that it’s not just all about wandering around looking at lovely churches and plazas. There’s a bit of an awkward 1,000km journey through the countryside to get round the major ones, and clearly that was something we couldn’t resist.

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

We picked a clockwise route that bypassed the city of Santa Cruz and first headed north towards the oldest of the mission towns, San Xavier. We’d got hold of a pretty detailed guide to the different missions and how to get there. On day two of driving we were finally getting close! We just had to cross a little river and we’d be a few kilometres from our first destination. There was just one thing missing from the maps and info – the lack of a bridge over the river.

After a confusing search through a dusty town for the ‘road’ to San Xavier, we were very baffled to find a rickety wooden platform jutting out and then ending suddenly on a muddy riverbed. Where’s the bridge? we pondered, squinting into the sun in search of hope.

Nope, definitely no bridge. We were expected to descend from the platform and then drive about 300m over the damp clay-ish mud and through a few streams to get to the road on the other side. Our instincts screamed ‘this will end badly!’.
A bunch of slightly drunk guys were, hilariously, charging drivers 100 Bolivianos ($14) to make the crossing. As we pondered and watched other drivers successfully making it over, they kept saying “you’ll be fine, you’ll do it!”. The thing is they, were probably right, there was a reasonably high chance we would have made it without getting trapped in the gluey mud, or without sinking into one of the streams. I just wasn’t in the mood to take the chance with our heavy van, on which we’d just spent a lot of time and money doing maintenance work, knowing how much we would kick ourselves if it went wrong.

In these situations, when lots of people are yelling in our ears with ‘helpful advice’, we have learned to stop and think carefully and ask ourselves questions such as these: Do they know what they are talking about? What will they gain/lose if we decide to go or not go? Do they give a shit about what happens to our car? If one car a day needs to get pulled out of this riverbed, how likely is it that it will be us?!

It was agony, but in the end we went with our instincts. There was a long way round to get to a different section of the route, with a bridge, that would involve several hours of extra driving. With heavy hearts we turned around, hooted and waved to the drunks and, with that, ended their afternoon of entertainment.

Over the next few hours of rutted roads that never seemed to end, we grumbled but deep down knew we’d done the right thing. Interestingly, the detour took is through three villages named Okinawa I, II and III – a corner of Bolivia that’s home to people who arrived from Okinawa as sponsored migrants in the 1950s. Tiny elderly women of Japanese descent scurried around the streets. One was so small she walked under our wing mirror without ducking. “This really doesn’t feel like Bolivia!” we repeated.

The change of route meant the day ended with us pulling into a gas station in the dark, to spend the night. The fact that they sold ice-cold beer lightened the mood considerably.

In the morning we started again with renewed vigour. We arrived in San Xavier by lunchtime, and thought ‘well, if this is what we’re getting, we can live with a little discomfort’.

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

Founded in 1691, it was the first of the mission settlements in the Chiquitania region. It set the scene for a series of gorgeous, pristine, plazas and church complexes we were to visit on our circuit.

But damn it was hot. It seemed like a long time since we had experienced the 50-metre-dash-to-the-shade-via-the-first-ice-cream-we-can-find race. We escaped to a hotel garden to camp for the night. A weird and, as it turned out, virtually abandoned, place – where the caretaker lied about it being open to justify charging us an exorbitant camping rate – but a haven nonetheless.

Next was Concepción, one of the best restored and conventionally beautiful of the mission towns. In a recurring theme of the week, we arrived just as everything was closing for a massive siesta. While waiting for the church and museum to reopen we killed the time by enjoying our first taste of the region’s food – a succulent roast beef, with a bizarre but strangely comforting cheesy ‘rice pudding’, yucca and plantains. More carbs anyone?

Roast beef and cheesy rice

Cowboy food: Roast beef, cheesy rice, yucca and plantains.

The next section to San Ignacio was quite long, but we’d read the road had recently been paved so set off to see how far we could get. That thing we read about the road being paved? That was a work of fiction. Not far out of Concepción we hit the start of a 400km stretch of hard-packed mud and gravel roads that would last all the way to our 6th and final destination. We’d expected plenty of it, but just not this much.

It slowed things down a bit, and we and the van turned a nice orange dust colour in the process, but all was well and the route was very pretty. With no prospect of arriving at any town before dark, we pulled into a tiny village and asked if we could park up for the night – of course, they said, pointing us towards the church. Two young boys were sent over later to deliver about 25 bananas to us. ‘We grow them here,’ they said, before sitting down for a chat and a glass of lemonade.

It was certainly one of the quietest and darkest nights we’d ever had. Our van shone like a beacon as none of the four houses in the village, nor the church or school, had electricity.

On the way to San Ignacio the following day we encountered a rare section of road that was being worked on. A bus coming towards us slipped and slid through the churned up mud and came to a halt at a jaunty angle. As all the passengers got off to walk through the rest of the roadworks, we thought ‘hmm, don’t really fancy driving through that’. Luckily the workmen had the same thought and sent a tractor ahead of us to pave our way.

We were glad to arrive in San Ignacio, a bigger town where we planned to base ourselves for a couple of nights. With the heat and dust we were, by this time, pretty stinky and hot and were keen on finding a shower. We had a very sweaty, fruitless search for somewhere to camp before eventually being directed to some ‘cabanas’ on the edge of town. We bumped along a farm track before arriving at a sumptuous hacienda with its own private lake, and thought ‘jackpot!’. Problem was, it was now the private home of a rich guy who seemed a little surprised at our asking to camp. Jeremy made his best disappointed face and he agreed that we could park up in the garden but could offer zero facilities. Another night of being smelly and hot then, but a partial jackpot as the location was amazing.

Next day we got a cheap hotel room to hang out and rest for a bit – we wanted to stay around for the evening because the rodeo was in town! Brilliant. It was part of a big agricultural expo event, so we ambled along and spent the evening wandering the stalls, drinking beers and cocktails, eating chunks of barbequed meat and generally wishing we were cowboys. But cowboys don’t drink cocktails, we hear you cry. Well they did at this event, which was crammed with Brazilians from over the nearby border. Every other stall was selling the Brazilian signature cocktail ‘caipirinhas’ and people seemed to be talking a hybrid S-Portuguese. “This doesn’t feel like Bolivia,” we said.

Just before the rodeo got going – three hours later than billed, you’ve got to love Latin America-time – the contestants lined up to pray and cross themselves. It was a great few hours of entertainment and people-watching, though what motivates people to get themselves violently tossed around then thrown off a bull or horse and slammed into the dust is beyond me. There must be a lot of work for osteopaths in these places.

We moved on to the two smaller missions of San Miguel and San Rafael. These places are becoming more popular with visitors but they are not exactly crawling with groups of tourists. At the first we had to search the town for the guy who had the key to the church. Several people told us ‘Carmelo’s the guy you need, he’s a few blocks that way..’ We wandered in the afternoon heat, asking for Carmelo. ‘That door up there,’ ‘No, the next house…’.

Eventually Carmelo appeared at his window, stretching, having just awoken from his siesta. He pulled on a shirt and walked back to the plaza with us, chatting away enthusiastically about how he’s been showing people round the place since he was a child, and is now in his 70s. After a fascinating little tour, we headed off to the next place on our circuit.

Again, in San Rafael there was nowhere obvious to camp. We asked at the tiny police station on the plaza where they thought might be best to park up. ‘Right here, outside the station!’ they insisted.

We wandered off to watch the Sunday night mass in the Jesuit church, and sat in the busy square cooling off before heading to bed. It’s a quaint little village, but we had one of the noisiest night’s sleep ever, with cars passing, donkeys braying, cockerels going at it, horse clopping by and a huge crowd of people flooding out of a late night meeting.

It’s not an easy trip to do by public transport. As we left early next morning we picked up two Swiss tourists who’d been left high and dry due to a fictional bus timetable. We all bumped along on the final four hours of dirt road, to the spectacular town of San Jose de Chiquitos, with its atypical baroque-style church.

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

San Jose de Chiquitos has a stunning, and unique for the area, Baroque-style church.

Joy of joys, the town had a luxurious camping place, in the garden of a posh hotel. Just the prize we had hoped for after getting to the end of the circuit. We got things cleaned up a bit and recharged a little before the next stage of the journey.

Question was, what was the next stage going to be? There were other things we wanted to see in Bolivia, but we only had two days left on our vehicle permit before we’d either have to apply for an extension or get out of the country. It was a painful dilemma, but having had 6 wonderful months in Bolivia we decided to end it on a high and not go through the hassle of battling with the customs people in Santa Cruz.

Besides, we had an incredible itch to turn south and cross the border into Argentina. This trip is full of little and big milestones, but after all the drama we’ve had with the van, actually making it to Argentina is up there with the biggies.

We’d still have a long way to go but crossing that line would feel, to a small extent, like mission accomplished.

Days: 1,050
Miles: 22,906
Things we now know to be true: If you don’t have the ability to see into the future, go with your gut.

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Home from home

12 Aug
La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz´s highland setting provides one of the most dramatic entrances to a city in the world.

By Jeremy

Put a few travellers in a room, add a beer, rum or vino to the equation and talk always turn to it.

Could you live here?

Everyone has had the feeling at some time or another, be it whilst whiling away the days in a hammock on a golden sandy beach, atop a summit in the snow-capped mountains, sitting in a cosy bar in front of a roaring fire or enjoying a perfectly cooked steak in a vine-shaded plaza with a glass of fine – but cheap – red wine.

It’s what makes people buy timeshares or run off with the waiter from the Greek taverna they have known for just a week. Colombia even has a bittersweet slogan for its tourist industry – “the only danger is not leaving” – and they are not talking about the alarmingly high incidence of kidnap or political prisoners.

We’re not immune to the fantasising – sometimes seriously, other times just for fun. We, like our fellow travellers, are always asking the question – could we really live here?

In the 1000-plus days we’ve been on the road there have been contenders – but there’s always a nagging something which makes you think again – the sudden onset of the rainy season, the bureaucracy or simply the local penchant for vallenato or cumbia music at full volume morning, noon and night, all the way through to morning again.

But amongst all the contenders the one that caught us most by surprise is La Paz in Bolivia. On and off, last year and this, we’ve spent almost 6 months living in and around the city. We’ve loved so much of what it has to offer.

And that’s the other thing about travellers – put three of them in a room and you’ll have four different opinions. One person’s paradise is another’s nightmare. So I know there will be plenty of those people who skipped La Paz entirely or briefly passed through it saying…but, what about the cold, the altitude, the occasional smell of urine on a street corner, the traffic, the slow, slow, slow internet, the, the, the….

We recognise all those things but we see so much more in La Paz. That’s why we went back – again.

Anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz

Buying yet more anticuchos (cow heart skewers), La Paz. Served with potato and spicy peanut sauce, yum!

It is a city fiercely proud of its indigenous roots, outwardly brash but ultimately friendly, a city on the rise, that’s set in an unrivaled location. A city whose citizens are alert, active, civic-minded, never letting a politician, corporation or fraudster away with anything – a blockade is a frequent occurrence somewhere around the city. It is a city that likes to eat, dance and celebrate – there is a colourful fiesta for everything. It is a city which gets under your skin and a city in which we made some wonderful, lifelong friends – and that’s rare for those always on the move.

In our six months there we tried to sample a bit of (almost) everything on offer – from the chaos of the El Alto market – set in the militant, self-organised, sprawling section of the city perched high on the altiplano overlooking central La Paz – where we picked up boots and a shirt for next to nothing – to Paula’s death-defying mountain-bike jaunt down the world’s most dangerous road, from a night at a local peña (folk music drinking dens) with fellow comrades Tristan and Bianca, to enjoying the crazy day-long dancing spectacle which is Gran Poder – the year’s biggest celebration of Paceña culture and a growing symbol of the inexorable rise of the Aymara influence in the city.

But it was the day-to-day vibe of the city that also grabbed us – socialising, going to football, hiking, shopping, filling up on tasty street food and just chatting to friends. We even rose to the challenge of getting new glasses, medical check ups and doing some paying journalism work. All very normal in a city which is anything but ordinary.

But for us, La Paz will always be associated with our time in Jupapina with Emma, Rolando and their kids David and Bell and the animals. They have been so hospitable, such good friends who offered us advice, did us endless favours and make a mean Chuflay – a Bolivian gin and tonic!

No sooner had we arrived back in La Paz than Rolando said he had a job for us. He was thinking of selling an artesanal local beer in their campsite shop and he wanted us to visit the brewery with him to taste it. Five hours later we crawled home.

To help repay them a little we house-sat for them when they had a rare few days away, worked on the campsite reception and even took their three dogs for a walk. Emma’s parting words when they set off were not to try and walk the three of them at once – take it in turns. Bah! How hard could it be? After a titanic struggle with three of us trying to get the lead on two of the dogs while the third one head-butted the door, angry at being left out, we caved. All three it is then. We were dragged at high speed to the river in the valley below, then hauled through the water while they frolicked in the mud. Ooops. Lesson learned.

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

Tilly Bud got a little muddy during our walk.

But it wasn’t just the two of us that had a variety of experiences in La Paz – the van, inevitably, did too. At 4100m above sea level, as we approached the longed-for comfort of Emma and Rolando’s beautiful place in the valley of the flowers – and the amazing campsite we had worked on during our last visit to La Paz – we had our first puncture in 3 years. Also during our stay the van’s electrics went haywire and the battery died.

It had always been the plan to get the van checked out thoroughly at Volksmotor, a now famous VW workshop which has become a must-visit for all overlanders. Swiss-trained mechanic Ernesto Hug went over things with a fine toothcomb, presenting us with a (thankfully) minor list of routine things that needed replacing. With me heading back to the UK for a flying visit to see my parents it was the perfect opportunity to get those hard-to-find spares. I was stopped at customs twice on my return to ask what a tie rod end was for, or why I had brake caliper seal kits in my hand luggage – oh, and did I really need that much sandwich pickle, thai curry paste and tea bags? The answer, of course, was yes.

The friendships we made in La Paz have travelled with us. During some of the many, many barbeques we had at Emma and Rolando’s, we met the parents of another friend of ours, Anahi. Luis and Ellie live in Cochabamba – smack bang in the heart of the country’s richest agricultural region – and kindly extended an invitation to show us the gastronomic delights of the city, whose inhabitants claim they ‘don’t eat to live but live to eat’. They aren’t wrong. No sooner had we, with some difficulty, parked our 17ft van in their 17ft-long garage than we were sat in a shady courtyard enjoying plates of boiled and fried guinea pig, dried strips of beef charque, stuffed locoto peppers, mote with cheese, roasted duckling and a couple of local beers.

Next day, after a couple of mid-morning snacks at the local market, we tried what we were told was the best chicharron – fried pork – in the world. It’s a lofty claim but having tasted the most succulent pork ever, we really cannot argue. A walk up to Cochabamba’s ‘Christ the Redeemer statue’ – well, actually, we drove almost all of the way – hardly made a dent in the weight we put on in just a long weekend with such generous hosts.

When we left La Paz last year we left some bags of clothes and other things behind, knowing it gave us the ideal excuse for coming back. This time we just (accidentally) left our beloved lime squeezer – I’m not sure that alone would be enough to bring us back, but everything else La Paz has to offer may well do the job one day.

Days: 1,044
Miles: 22,724
Things we now know to be true: Nowhere´s perfect.

The MendozaDonlans and Dears, La Paz

Bye bye to Emma, Rolando, David and Bell. Sniff!

Colibri Camping, La Paz

Colibri Camping, Jupapina, south of La Paz. Our workplace and home for nearly six months.

Ramble in the jungle

23 Jul
Flying Macaws, Bolivian jungle

We got an incredible view of flying macaws, from a cliff-top above their nesting site.

La Paz, Bolivia
[by Paula]

There are so very many bitey stingy things in the jungle, but it was the ants that really messed with my head. You just can’t see those bastards coming.

And of course there’s nothing a jungle guide likes more than to tell stories of agonising pain, poisoning and death to his or her freaked-out tourists. When Jeremy casually leaned on a ‘devil tree’ and was stung – rather painfully – by some fire ants, our guide Eber said: “Ah, the devil tree, don’t touch that again! The fire ants colonise the trees and will sting whatever gets in their way to protect it. They used to tie criminals to those trees as punishment. If you get enough stings, they can kill you, but they’re not allowed to do that any more…”

Right, well that’s good then.

“Not as bad as the bullet ants, though,” he pointed out a short while later, gesturing towards an enormous ant on a tree trunk. “They give THE most painful bite. The pain travels to the nearest set of glands and constantly hurts like hell for 24 hours. Remember that woman we had who got bitten and was screaming her head off?” he said to fellow guide/cook David.

Leafcutter ants, Bolivian jungle

Leafcutter ants, we like you, you’re nice.

Why is it called a bullet ant? I’ve since Googled it, and the pain – said to be officially the most ouchy insect bite in the world – is often compared to that of being shot.

Great. So how are we all enjoying our trip to the Bolivian jungle?

Shortly after arriving back in La Paz we decided to do a little detour up to the country’s Amazon region and take a trip into Madidi National Park for a bit of wildlife-spotting and jungle hiking. We didn’t have time to take the van on what is a phenomenally bad, and often closed, road because Jeremy had to be back in a week to fly to England. So we did something that in his past life he would not have considered, at least not without taking a bucketload of tranquilizers first – we took a 16-seater plane that flew so low it barely skirted over the Andes, and then descended into the jungle at Rurrenabaque.

Even I was feeling uncomfortable about our proximity to the pilot, especially when he and his co-pilot started digging around for what looked like a ‘user’s guide to aeroplane engines’ and began studying it intensely during take-off.

It was mighty strange to leave the heights of La Paz and 30 minutes later be looking down on the meandering brown rivers and forest of the Amazon basin.

We set off the next morning on a three-night trip that involved going upriver for a few hours then spending one night in a community lodge, and two nights hiking and camping on the ground under a mosquito net.

The great thing about proper jungle is that you really have to work for your rewards. As much as we have loved places like Costa Rica – where habituated animals practically do a dance for you on the trails – it doesn’t compare with running and leaping through virtually unspoiled forest to try to catch up with a herd of peccaries that our guide can smell in the distance, or spending forever looking up into the canopy tops and finally, just before one’s neck can stand no more, catching sight of a toucan or the face of a spider monkey.

Some species stayed elusive, like the shy tapir. We studied their footprints, as well as those of jaguars, but never met them on the trail. Over this trip we have been very lucky to see hundreds of monkeys, of many different types, but in Bolivia we were excited that as well as spider, squirrel, howler and capuchin monkeys, we saw two species that we’d never even heard of. A whole troupe of tiny Lion monkeys careered across our path at one stage, giving us a very privileged close-up. And one night, in a tree right above our camp, we saw a nocturnal monkey who, unperturbed by the flashlight, stared right at us for several minutes.

When I say ‘we’ saw this or ‘we’ saw that, it’s worth mentioning that without our amazing guides we would have seen big fat zilch. These guys literally live the jungle and have the most incredible sense of hearing, sight, smell and direction. We hear a distant chirp that sounds like ‘a bird’ and they identify it as a particular type of monkey. They can mimic the calls of most birds and mammals, and often elicited responses during our walks.

On the night we saw the nocturnal monkey, we were sitting back at camp after a night hike. Two tree frogs very nearby were making such a commotion it sounded like two men were trying to fell the tree with a two-handled saw. We remarked that if that continued all night there was no way we’d be able to sleep.

Suddenly our guide stands up, ear cocked, and says he has heard the chirrup of a nocturnal monkey. He takes the flashlight and immediately shines it upwards into exactly the right spot in the canopy. Two little eyes flashed back at us from about 30ft above. How the hell….?!

Each evening involved a hike in the pitch black. The first night – when we were based at a lodge – we were looking forward to our first foray into the night forest. “We’re looking for snakes and spiders”, said Eber, who started rooting around very close to our wooden cabin.

“Hang on, surely we have to go really deep into the forest, away from where we’re sleeping, to find those things….” we said. “Nope” said Eber. And so it was that we not only found a huge furry tarantula hanging out on a tree a few feet from our cabin, but when we retired to bed, another one was literally hanging out on the thatch outside our bedroom. “I’ll never sleep now,” said Jeremy, a couple of nanoseconds before falling into a deep eight-hour slumber.

Tarantula, Bolivia jungle.

Tarantula seen during a night walk, Madidi National Park, Bolivian jungle.

Our other two nights of sleep were slightly less luxurious. Basically a plastic sheet on the ground with a net hung over it. Not very ant/spider/jaguar-proof….

We spent a lot of time looking at, and looking for, birds – seeing toucans, mot-mots, eagles, parrots, trogons, woodpeckers, and countless other things that we can’t remember the names of. One very special moment was coming across the most beautiful owl as we returned from a night hike. It was right in our path, and watched us for several minutes as if it couldn’t quite work out what the hell we were doing there.

We were intensely concentrating on a bird above us one day when I felt something tickle my hand. I looked down. Bullet ant. Heading for the gap under my sleeve. No-o-o-o-o. The velocity with which I flicked my hand was such that I was surprised to find it hadn’t dislocated and flown off into the trees. I spent the next hour shivering at the thought and brushing imaginary ants off my skin.

But the incredible things we saw massively compensated for the relative discomfort and creepy crawly fears. One of the biggest highlights was climbing to a rather steep and scary cliff-top to get a birds-eye (see what I did there?) view of scores of red and green macaws swooping around the trees next to their rocky nesting sites. You could watch these parrots all day, it’s like they’ve been created for some ridiculously over-the-top movie about a lost paradise world. The next morning we walked to the bottom of the cliff to watch them at their nests from below. Very special.

Macaws moving in unison

Macaws moving in unison, Madidi National Park, Bolivian jungle.

The jungle is no paradise for your average amateur photographer though. Zooming up into the sun-backed canopy, shooting into dark corners, and trying to capture fast-moving birds and monkeys – it’s good fun trying but basically a nightmare!

We tried our best to capture some of those moments, but really you have to see it to believe it.

Days: 1,024
Miles: 20,851
Things we now know to be true: It’s a jungle out there.

 

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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