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¨I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superhuman abundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.¨ -Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

In February 2004 I flew to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and travelled overland by bus, foot and boat to Cartagena, Columbia. The trip lasted 8 months.

These are the newsletters I wrote along the way.

Starting from The End of the World...
I overdosed on orcas...
...travelled up the Rio Paraguay
only to land in a hammock with a cowboy in Brasil...
then tripped out on Bolivia...
and marvelled at market savvy Peru...
until I got to gorgeous Columbia, and left too soon.


Glenn and I travelled together into Bolivia and spent  several days in a little village looking at some dead  deserted ruins of a Jesuit mission, farting around,  watching military parades and playing with our new  Bolivian slingshots.     

Then we went to Santa Cruz, where I got robbed by a  fake cop, a fake Argentinian and a fake taxi driver.  They were really good at their job and I was a stupid  gringo. They got into my bank account and took 500  dollars before I could cancel all of my accounts, so  now I am waiting for new bank numbers, cards and so  on. Fortunately, it is almost impossible to spend  money in Bolivia because it is so inexpensive. I am  really thankful that I didn't get hurt and am happy to  be here in Sucre, Bolivia studying Spanish.    

I keep saying that Bolivia is the weirdest country I  have ever been to. It is hard to explain why. These  are routine conversations in Bolivia:   

1. "Do you have any meatballs?"  
"May I see them?"  
They show me rabbit.
"So, do you have any meatballs?"  
"I have rabbit."  
"So you don't have any meatballs?"   
They shrug.     

Other weird things: 

-Taxi drivers who get lost and ask you to tell them  where things are 
-Milk comes in plastic bags 
-Tourist centers don't have maps of the city or  information for tourists 
-Mennonites (slack jawed, overall wearing pink Germans  who stand on street corners holding a bag of homemade  cheese for sale with a vacant stare in their  eyes) whole colonies of them! 
-Salespeople could not care less whether they make a  sale
 -A national holiday where everyone beats the crap out  of each other. Women included. Sometimes they fight to  the death just throwing punches. 
–Door knockers are 9 feet in the air. People are 5  feet in the air. 
-Quechua ladies with long black braids in bowler hats
-The most common mongrel is a pekingese mutt with pink  eye.  

I don't know how else to explain why Bolivia is weird.  I just know that many times a day, something will  happen, I will wonder why, and then I will think,  "Because this is Bolivia." and so there is an extra  long space allowed for randomness in everyday  occurences. It is growing on me.    

I will be here until I get my bank cards, and probably  stay for my birthday on the 24th. My street urchin  spanish is turning into real spanish with these  lessons, Glenn cooks for me in exchange for yoga  lessons, it is sunny and gorgeous. The whole town is a  world heritage site of whitewashed buildings with  ochre tiled roofs and church arches. 


I escaped from Bolivia this morning and am now in friendly, pretty, flirty, smart, expensive, full of gringos Cusco typing up this email while the computer simultaneously pumps my digital pictures up onto the web. Amazing stuff, that DSL. 

Mostly, however, I have been just hating robots and all things machine related from America. I didn't mean to spend two months in Bolivia but after I got robbed, my credit cards were incredibly slow in getting to me so I spent approximately an hour a day talking to robots and listening to machines in a public payphone store tell me to enter in my 16 digit card numbers that were cancelled and so on. Nothing turns me into a screaming crying bitch faster than this kind of nonsensical rigamarole. And every time I heard the robots say, 'we appreciate your business. We care about your call. Please hold for the next available agent,' my resolve to extend my trip and stay away from the whole system strengthened. Finally, the agents became available and the cards came and I left.   

But in between then, I had some adventures.  

I settled into the city of Sucre and the company of a ruckussy Bolivian host family along with two other Brits, Glenn and Peter, and watched the tide of travellers ebb and flow through the house. I studied the subjunctive form of Spanish, cooked and yogaed up a storm, and danced and drank the nights away.  

It took a month to learn the family's names because the compound housed the mother and father of the family, four of their children, their children's spouses, and their children's children. The matriarch is known as Mama Vicky and she is one of those kissing and loving everyone up mamas who makes you want to be a good kid just to keep the crinkles in her eyes all crinkly. The Papa of the family is called Papa Lucho. He is a super smart curious man who spends most of his time in the countryside in a little village where he is kind of the local leader and expert on this and that. He has a great big file cabinet of a mind which scans all new house visitors for useful information then files and cross categorizes each new bit in its proper place for future reference. Vicente is a wild eyed computer guy who looks just like Michael Keaton and talks a mile a minute and makes your head spin. Miguel is an accredited doctor who hasn't done his three years of medical service for the community so can't practice medicine yet and dissects jokes and figures of speech since he can't dissect anything else right now. Vicky Junior must go to one of the many amplificacion shops around Sucre every morning because you can hear her coming a mile a way, she doesn't talk, she screams. Peter said she got in a terrible car accident when she was young and has an amazing scar to show on the top of her head and is a little unscrewed from it but I never got to see the scar. Fabiola cooks and cooks and cooks for her four children, for the neighborhood, for functions, for the family, because she is unemployed and cooking is what she does. Then there are the spouses and the children filling up more space still. Since we didn't know everyone's names, everyone was called vicky. there was papa vicky, mama vicky, vicky jr, dr vicky, computer vicky, gringo vicky, avena vicky and so on.  

Spanish lessons usually involved writing essays and talking about stuff. My teacher's name was Zulma. She had unusually furry earlobes. We talked about sex, my pet frogs, birthdays, politics, and a broad range of other subjects. They usually ask you to write about your trip and what you have seen and done but that gets so boring to go over again and again, I ended up just making stuff up. I asked Peter what he did, since he has had more Spanish lessons experience. He is worse than me. He will think of a nice sounding title for an essay, such as, 'Monjes, Monjas, y Monos' (Monks, Nuns and Monkeys) then have to fabricate a whole story on the subject.  

Zulma story #1: Zulma told me that when she was in school and they had a day for sex education, the school nurse took all of the girls into a room and told them that they had a button in the back of their spines and if a boy touched it they would get pregnant. The girls spent most of high school making sure their spines were well protected as a result. 

Zulma story #2: Zulma was a little girl when she saw her first gringo. She was terrified. They were so pale and different. She was with her mother and her mother told her that if she didn't eat her dinner, she would grow up to look like a gringo.  

I didn't really think about Glenn *that way* until he told me he stood in as a transvestite prostitute on British comedy television when they needed someone spur of the moment. So he abandoned his sound board, put on a dress and lipstick and pulled it off. Well, you can lick my bones and call me a drumstick if that didn't make me want to drag him into bed with me right then and there. But in my heart of hearts I knew that I wasn't for him and he wasn't for me. Then he got a cute little Bolivian girlfriend and I got jealous and lonely and left Sucre to clear my head and got over it. 

I went to Villa Tunari, where they rehabilitate monkeys, birds and big cats that have been in captivity and prepare them to live in the wild again. Within 20 minutes of being there, I had five monkeys on my lap and wrapped around my neck. They peed all over me but I didn't mind because I was so flattered that they chose me to sit on. Then a big black spider monkey lumbered over and climbed onto me and wrapped its tail around my neck and contemplated me. I thought I would faint from happiness.  

I wanted to get back to Sucre for my birthday so I didn't stay on the reservation as a volunteer as I had planned. Instead, I took a whirlwind tour of western Bolivia. One minute in the lush jungle, the next in the altiplano, parrots to llamas in 10 hours! Quechua ladies would board the buses with their seagull cries of Pan! Pan! Pan! offering up bread, fried meat, fish, chicken, rice, potatoes for a Boliviano or two. I would sink into my book or my thoughts, then look up and the landscape had shifted again, becoming brown and sparsely vegetated with llamas dotting the mountains. Dirt and rock houses and ruins of houses scattered here and there. Everything seemed so abandoned. Then when I actually saw people out there, it startled me even more to think about their daily scratch the dirt existences.  

Thinking in motion is a detached reverie that I can not seem to achieve while stationary. The worst thoughts and possibilities imaginable float blithely through my mind. What if I never have great love in my life? What if a nuclear bomb drops on the US and everyone I love dies? What if I have a degenerative nerve disorder and am genetically destined to be a blathering idiot by 40? These normally insomnia provoking, anxiety inducing thoughts just wander on through my mind and with the Bolivian altiplano soaring by at 100 km/hr I might as well be thinking about what to cook for dinner that night or what color I want my next kitchen to be. Strange thing, peripatetic rumination. 

Lake Titicaca was pretty. I was ready for people by the time I got on the boat to the Isla del Sol so turned to the nicest looking single person on the boat and said hello. She turned out to be from Ireland and on her way to meet some other Irish friends on the island. It is so high up there that a few steps can leave you breathless and that island is one giant staircase. Cute little brown kids with llamas in tow watched us big ugly white gringos wheeze their way up and down the steps for a few days. We chanced upon a great parade where the men wore these big wedding cake like costumes with separating moving parts and the quechua ladies swirled and danced and spun their fish and bus shaped whirly noisemakers to the marching band music. The steps got easier with a mouth full of coca leaves so chew chew chew up and down and around the island we went. The Irish girls had been in Peru for the past few months and were a walking apothecary of drugs. They produced the biggest bag of cocaine I have ever seen, San Pedro, pot and a lot of things I don't know the names of. They were in their early 20s and still immortal and since my skin doesn't snap back like it used to when you pinch it and and Bolivian jail sounds like a drag I decided not to bus it to La Paz with them and their bag full of party favors. Last I heard, they're still out in the open. 

I bombed back to Sucre for my birthday and the Bolivian family made me a birthday lunch, the boys brought me a cake, and I was plied with wine, given gifts and loved up in general until I woke up the next day and it wasn't my birthday anymore. My credit cards STILL hadn't arrived so I talked to the robots for a few days, made lists, paced around and left for Potosi with Glenn the next weekend. He was heading back to England via Argentina and Brazil so we took a little roadtrip as a last hurrah. 

Potosi is the highest city in the world with a giant mountain that used to be full of silver. Enough silver to pave a road from Bolivia to Spain. Enough silver to kill 100 million slaves over. Enough silver to shod the horses in silver instead of iron, to die of silicosis within five years of working for, to spend your life with a cheek full of coca pick pick picking away at the rock in the dark wet cold mountain tunnels for. We dipped into the mountain to see it for ourselves and it was as sad as I thought it would be and we were as thankful as could be expected not to be born the son or daughter of a miner in Bolivia. There's not much silver anymore and the mines are coops now with 300 different coops wormholing their ways through the mountain with broken old pick axes and dynamite picking out what they can, barely eaking out an existence on crumbs of zinc, copper sulfate, and other semi precious minerals. We visited the miner's patron, Tio the Devil at his altar in his miner's boots and mustache and Pachamama, the earth mama to whom the miners offered liquor, coca leafs and prayed that they wouldn't kill them of asphyxiation, silicosis, that the mountain wouldn't fall on them and that they might be able to make a living in the mountain. I don't think their wishes are being heard very well. We gave out bags of coca and tobacco to the men in the holes and emerged back into the sunlight.  

We carried on to Tupiza which looked an awful lot like Arizona and where the ghosts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid drive a tourist economy for gringos who want to get on some horses and ride all day through the gorgeous canyons and mountains. It was beautiful but man were we sore afterwards. 

Bolivians have been protesting about low wages for teachers and whether or not to export gas for a month or so and roadblocks surrounded Tupiza making Glenn's departure for Argentina difficult. Road blocks are usually made of rocks, dirt, sticks and other nearby effluvia. Sometimes there are irritable campesinos there, serving as rockthrowing human roadblocks. You might suddenly find yourself in any given village for several days more than you wished. Finally, he chartered a horse and road out at sunrise one morning, which I thought was terribly adventurous and romantic but he didn't seem to feel the same due to his aching bum and so on, but I think he secretly thought it was pretty exciting, too. 

So. Glenn left and I went on a tour of Uyuni. I bumped and banged around in a 4 by 4 with 5 gringos and a Bolivian tour guide/driver and his wife through some cold and gorgeous desert. There was a young American rhetorician (I don't think there are any old American rhetoricians because they have to get jobs that pay money after they get their PhDs unless they get one of the maybe oh about 3 jobs available to Rhetoricians in universities.) There was an Irish man and a French woman who had popped into Bolivia from Argentina for a tour of the desert and were alarmed at how third world and difficult it was after Argentina. I got the feeling that this was the big adventure of their lives. And there as a woman from Spain and a man from France who had lived and worked all over the world and knew how to travel and be with a group and with themselves and each other in a way that made me want to hang out with them some more. They are going to study and work in Singapore now and from there, I suppose they will become high powered business people and from being around them for a few days in the desert, I can easily say that they can have the keys to my kingdom any old time. We bumped and banged and shivered and shook our way past technicolor volcanoes in front of bright red and green lakes full of bright pink flamingos. We walked in awe onto the biggest salt flats in the world forming pentagonal patterns of blinding white as far as the eye could see through a deafening silence that creates simultaneous giddiness and awe. We wandered around a cemetery and peeked into tufa tombs with pre-colombian mummies tucked inside with their pre-colombian accoutrements around them minus the precious turquoise and silver jewelry and other things that grave robbers like. Sunrose Sunset Sunrose Sunset we blabbed and sang our way through the desert and eventually got past the same old same old gringo traveller conversations that we are all sick of having: 

theme a: where you've been where you're going how long you've got on the road. 
theme b: how much you have paid for room, food, tour, bus, etc etc etc
theme c: body problems including but not limited to: diarrhea and generally regularity and sturdiness of poop, headaches, whether to drink the water or not, how sick is the sickest you have been on this trip
theme d: how dangerous this place or that is 

boring boring boring but you have to bore your way past all that stuff in order to get on to the good stuff, so i pick from theme a through d and the same old conversations play on over and over like a broken record. I used to barrel right into a bizaare conversation topic that might derail us from the banalities but that just made them label me as 'the eccentric one' and we plowed onward. Great conversation is an art. I am still working on it. 

I went back to Sucre to pick up two credit cards and Peter. We flew out of there in a little airplane to Tarija in the southeast of Bolivia for a week of fishing and wine tasting at the local vineyards. No buses. Roadblocks. Even if there were buses, we probably wouldn't have taken one. Between the two of us, I bet we have 100,000 accumulated hours of shivering and banging around on windy bumpy roads through night after night. We are bus riding virtuosos. We are getting too old for that shit. We threw our money at the problem and like magic landed in Tarija just an hour after leaving Sucre. We checked into a fancy hotel. Peter didn't believe me when I told him there was a bathtub in our room, but it was true! Much bathing, backgammon battles, and fisheating ensued. A convention of Herbalife people showed up and played YMCA at top volume in the lobby downstairs. But they never played the whole song. Just snippets. Like they were playing musical chairs. How very Bolivian of them. We felt morally obligated to swim in the pool. It looked so sundappled and refreshing. We dove in. It was painfully freezing. We got out. We toured the singani factory to find out what they do to those poor grapes to turn them into singani. Singani is Bolivian firewater. It is barely drinkable by itself but if you water it down with about ten parts soem sweet sugary carbonated something or other, it has been known to lead to a good night of madness and mayhem followed by a headsplitting morning of deep regret and fist shaking at the inventors of hangover inducing singani. So, we wanted to visit the motherlode, the place where it all came from. There was no nice balcony with a view and a spitting cup and a waiter in a stained apron serving us sips of this and that vintage. Just a dozen gigantic red plastic vats housing Bolivia's favorite drink and a bunch of machines that looked like they belonged in Charlie and the Chocolate factory. The tour took about 10 minutes and then we found ourselves spit out into the cold countryside with to prospects of a ride back to our hotel and its bathtub. Eventually we made it back to asphalt and even visited a winery (lots of winevats, a machine with lots of lights and numbers on it, no wine tasting there, either) and found ourselves at the all Bolivia motocross motorcycle races for the last two races of the day. We breathed dirt and watched them zoom around and around the course before heading back to town to eat some more giant delicious fish. 

Our appetites were whetted and we were luxuried out so we headed to Villa Montes for some river fishing. Villa Montes is a small, green, gorgeous little village that no one ever talks about. Bolivians would choose nearby Yacuiba for its ample shopping opportunities anytime and I wouldn't wish the cold bumpy all night miserable bus ride that it took to get there on anyone. But Peter and me, hey, we're bus virtuosos.  The central plaza of Villa Montes has handwritten signs that say: 'Don't kill the parrots.' Peter saw a sign on the road to Villa Montes on a bridge that said: 'Don't dynamite the fish.' Barbara from Spain saw a sign in a holy water font in Argentina that said: 'Don't use the holy water for witchcraft. God doesn't approve.' 

Despite the presence of fresh fish in every restaurant and the fact that most fish in Bolivia comes from Villa Montes, we were met with blank stares when we inquired around the village about fishing trips, fishing gear, fishing guides and other things fishing related. Until a boy who looked to be in his late teens approached us and offered us his services as a guide to the town. We told him we weren't interested in the town, just in fishing, and I don't think he believed his luck that we would pay him to go fishing with us all day. Then again, I don't think we believed our luck that we found an entrepreneurial spirit in Bolivia who could help us out.  

We bought lines, hooks, meat, rented a net and set out on our expedition. After a morning of feeding meat to fish on handlines, we crossed the river to a little shanty town of stick huts where the locals were casting out a huge fine net every hour or so and hauling in about a dozen giant fish every time. It took at least a dozen people to pull in the net, so they were barely getting by. We bought a fish from the net people and gorged ourselves on it, fell asleep on the bank, woke up and tried a bit more with no luck. Toucans flew overhead. Kids barely old enough to walk fished along the banks. People waded out into the river and threw small nets out onto the water under the late afternoon sun. We got sunkissed. Peter caught a catfish. It was a beautiful beautiful day. 

We flew back to Sucre a few days later. I was already all spun out on good byes from the past few weeks so managed to escape dry eyed with a lump in my stomach to Cuzco via La Paz. We soared over big snowy mountains, Lake Titicaca, miles and miles of winding dusty roads no doubt filled with rock piles and irritable Bolivians and despite my eagerness to get out of there and hit the road again I was sorry to go. 

See, the dogs don't wear tshirts and sweaters here. Shop owners are sharp business people and friendly instead of impudent and shifty eyed. I got used to fighting for everything. Taxi drivers know their way around and try to sell you a tour on top of the ride. You don't have to figure everything out for yourself. All the men flirt with me again; it's their male prerogative (ooga booga - blonde. gringa. must. flirt.). Glossy brochures abound and the meat only looks a day old. And I haven't seen a parade in two days. 

There is one thing, though. Cusco is just covered in rainbow flags. ROYGBIV! Every street is adorned with them. Suspended from shops and homes, the gay nation flag flaps merrily under the blindingly bright equatorial sun. And this very week in San Francisco, hundreds and thousands of boys who love boys and girls who love girls are riding fabulous floats and big bad motorcycles through the city in all their gay finery pleased as punch to be playing for the pink team. And here comes a scowling Quechua man who really could use a bath carrying a rainbow flag big enough to protect a whole family from a rainstorm. He passed me by on the cobblestoned street oblivious to the anachronism that he is presenting to me and I burst out laughing. He's gone all Bolivian on me. Perhaps there's a little Bolivian in all of us. Viva Bolivia!

Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?

Hmm, let's see...I want to...

Play with orcas...
Float up the Rio Paraguay...
Dance the Forro...
Learn 10 reasons why Bolivians are the weirdest people in the world...
Float through the jungle...
Find a tropical island paradise...

None of the above. I am too busy for that crap. And I think it is time for you to get a real job, Katherina.

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