Saturday, 16 August 2014

La Paz, Bolivia: Part 3: Pick Pocketed & The Ring of Fire

After death road and conquering my bucket list item of going above 6,000m I still wasn't quite finished in La Paz. There was one more challenge awaiting me... The World's Most Dangerous Vindaloo!

I wanted to earn my 3rd T-Shirt from La Paz. The challenge awaiting me was a huge bowl of vindaloo (beef for me) with about 30 chopped up chilies. I had been eyeing off this challenge since my second day in La Paz but didn't want to touch it until after I had finished all adventures that required being away from a toilet for extended periods of time.

Look at those chilies and seeds all through it.

Looking pretty happy for someone about to give themselves a ring burner

I've always been able to eat chili like a champ and after the first couple of mouthfuls this actually wasn't the hottest thing I had eaten but there was so much. After about 10 mouthfuls in I was well and truly feeling it and still had most of the bowl to go. Mouthful after mouthful it got hotter and hotter. I was determined and finished it in about 15 to 20 mins.

Well before I finished I knew the "Real Challenge" was going to occur hours after finishing.

Still smiling!

3rd T-Shirt

I now had 3 T-Shirts just to wear around as passive brags and I really needed more clothes after over 14 months of traveling. 

Death Road, 6,088m and the Vindaloo

As I correctly predicted that night (I did the challenge for lunch) I woke up early in the night sweating profusely with what felt like a raging inferno in my chest spreading outwards. I had never felt heat like that... Let's just say Johnny Cash's The Ring of Fire played about 15 times during that night.

The next day my hostel friend, Louise, a Malaysian girl from Melbourne asked me to go to El Alto with her. I was feeling pretty dehydrated and out of it. Still, I really wanted to see the famous Thursday market in El Alto.

I had warned many people that it is a thieve's market and you need to be very careful. I stupidly still took my wallet. After taking the gondola into the sky Lou and I had arrived. 

I told Lou I was going to grab some water then come back. That's when things went very wrong for me. I bought a bottle of water and started walking back to Lou. The walking traffic came to a stop, water splashed across my face (I think spat from someone's mouth), someone on the opposite side (who also got hit by the water) instantaneously started speaking to me really fast in Spanish... Then my brain recovered from the split second information overload and went OHH FUCK. I knew what had just happened before I even reached for my now unzipped and empty jacket pocket.

Everyone was in on it, the people that stopped traffic flow, the water spitter (sometimes they throw shit on your face instead), the fast speaker and the guy I never saw that was probably walking behind me right next to my zipped up pocket. I like to think the money helped out their families.

Lou sorted me out with some money to survive my last 3 days in Bolivia.

The next morning I was on a Bolivia Hop bus to Cusco, Peru via 2 stops.

Next Stop Copacabana, Bolivia!

Lessons Learnt:
T-Shirt + Burning Ass = Possibly not worth it
Making new friends while travelling pays off. Lou has helped me out again since I moved to Melb 2.5 years later.
La Paz = City of many Adventures.
Sometimes you just have to admire how good people are at what they do (even if they are thieves).
Hack-sawing a padlock to get into a locker is pretty quick (key was in my wallet).

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

La Paz, Bolivia: Part 2: Slaying the 6,088m Demon

The day after conquering Death Road I explored the city and struggled walking around in the altitude. After a day of being a tourist I met up with a few Aussies that I had shared hostels with in Cordoba and Mendoza for a few night drinks. We shared a few death road stories before it was time for me to head back to my hostel via another after running into a couple of Russian girls in the street.

On the way home I saw a guy take a bag from a homeless person and run off with it. For some stupid reason in my drunken state I though it was a good idea to chase after him. He even dropped the bag after he realised he was being chased but I still continued and caught him but I was completely out of breath given my state and the 4,000m altitude. He explained that he was very poor and I kind of felt sorry for him. Then the homeless guy caught up and they tried to fight each other. I separated them and gave them money to forget about it (about 3 bucks to the homeless guy and 1.50 to the other guy haha). But the other guy was being a wanker and kept saying stuff to the homeless guy so I was back in between them. Then suddenly about 10 police officers in military/riot gear crash tackled both of them. I explained what happened then walked home.

One of my South American bucket list items was to conquer a mountain above 6,000m in altitude. After advice from a friend and doing some googling I changed my plan from a peak in southern Peru to Huayna Potosi just outside La Paz. Huayna Potosi stands at 6,088m above sea level and can be done as a 2 or 3 day hike/climb. I was leaning towards 2 but a German girl (Bea) talked me into booking the 3 day with her. We were booked and fitted for gear ready to leave early the next day.

Not Huayna - Huayna Potosi is behind the snow covered peak behind the cloud.

We turned out to be a group of 6 (4 Germans, 1 Dutch and myself). I picked up a big bag of Coca leaves for less that a dollar. I new I would need them for the altitude. After a 2 hour minivan ride we at the low camp (4,700m). We had lunch and dumped our gear before a small hike for some Ice Climbing practice.

I made it
After ice climbing we went back to the low camp for dinner and sleep. I never slept too great, not sure if it was the temperature, the altitude or all of the coca teas that I had drunk.

That is the water supply! It flows most of the day.

The next day was an easy one. Just a 2 to 3 hour walk up to the high camp.I wasn't having any problems with the altitude yet.

It was a beautiful hike up along rocky paths up to high camp. The views were quite spectacular.

One of the guides having a rest.

Having a lie down along the way.

The high camp sitting at 5,130m was a new altitude record for me. We had lunch and were told to take it very easy and just chill. I walked around taking photos.

There were many more groups at the high camp. Maybe 30 people plus 1 guide for every 2 people. The plan was dinner and bed at 6pm to wake up at mid-night.

I struggled with sleep due to the temperature and how early it was. Midnight eventually came and I soon had a light meal and lots of coca tea... And probably made the dumb decision of taking 2 altitude sickness pills as a precautionary measure (at this stage I had no altitude sickness).

The guides were doing staggered starts based on how easily people made it up to the high camp. I was partnered with the Dutch guy, Kevin and we were the very last group to leave so we were unfortunately rated the fastest. We left at 2am, probably 1.5 hours after the first group. We all had headlamps but it was a clear night and the moon lit up the snow.

The hike involved Kevin and I being roped to our guide, Kevin in the middle and myself at the back. It was crampons (spikes) on our boots from the start. The beginning was easy but once I hit 5,500m I was done. I was struggling big time and less than half way to the summit.

I knew that I was not giving up. I was getting slower and slower. Eventually after every step I was stopping for 2 deep breaths. I was completely out of breath and not in a good way. Altitude sickness was hitting me hard.

The hike involved jumping/stepping over crevasses that I couldn't see the bottom of.

Sunset came before we reached the summit so we stopped to look for a bit.

I was too out of it to really think about the photos I was taking.

We were near the final section and most difficult. This required our ice axes due to the steepness and slipperiness. Smash the axe through the ice take 2 steps and repeat... It was actually fun. Although the summit felt like it would never come.

When I reached the summit completely exhausted and sick I was so relieved.

I made it!!!!
6,088m - On top of the world

All 6 of us and our guides made it up from our company. I think out of the 30 people only 2 groups didn't make it to the summit on this day.

The walk down was very slow for me and I was too exhausted to take photos of the amazing things that I could see.

We were finally back at the high camp. I felt so sick but after about 2 hours I was completely fine. After lunch we walked back down to low camp and when the next groups arrived in the minivans we jumped in and went back to La Paz. 2 of our guides stayed to take the next groups and one came back (2 days off). The guides climb the mountain 2 to 3 times a week.

This was the hardest thing that I have done in my life. It was physically and mentally draining, not very fun but worth it.

When I got back to the hostel I said if someone asks me to climb another mountain in the next couple of weeks I'm going to punch them in the face... Joking of course.

Next Stop... still La Paz!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

La Paz, Bolivia: Part 1: El Camino de la Muerte - Death Road!

La Paz, officially Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of The Peace), is Bolivia's other capital city. In the 19th century all of the government and power slowly relocated from Sucre to La Paz. Although, La Paz isn't the official capital of Bolivia, parliament and all government functions (except for the Supreme court of Bolivia) reside there. It is still considered the highest Capital City in the world.

La Paz is broken up into 2 cities, La Paz and El Alto (The High). The centre of La Paz is in a bowl completely surrounded by mountains on all sides with the suburbs built up the sides of the mountains and El Alto being the city on top. La Paz and El Alto are regarded as two separate cities but there is no empty space in between. The combined population is almost 2 million (combined it is the most populous city in Bolivia, when separate El Alto is 2nd and La Paz is 3rd). The altitude ranges from 3,200m in the centre of La Paz to 4,100m in El Alto.

As cheap as Bolivia is I somehow still ended up on the least luxurious bus... good sales people! After the 14 hour bus ride with mainly Bolivians I was finally in La Paz at 6:30am. I wandered in the direction of traffic to find the centre.  I passed a couple of hostels along the route of my search for proper coffee and WiFi. After coffee and cake I checked into one of the hostels I had passed.

The week of celebrations leading up to Bolivian independence day was in full swing. The street was full of marching bands for the next 4 days.

The rest of the day just involved 1 mission: Book Death Road for tomorrow!

El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road)
Until the 20 year completion of the new road in 2006 it was estimated that 300 people perished annually over the cliff drops of up to 600m.

I was picked up from my hostel about 40 mins later than the 7.30am pick up time (damn marching bands!).

1 of our 2 Vans

Once the vans had collected everyone in our group we drove to a flat area below our starting point to put on our gear and test the bikes... A girl went over the cliff and died the day before so I was quite nervous. Injuries occur daily but deaths by going over the cliff is only about a once a year occurrence.

After testing the gear we hopped back in the vans and drove up slightly higher to just over 4,600m in altitude... It was time!

We had 3 guides: 1 lead (snapping occasional photos), middle (snapping the majority of the photos), and one rear to stay behind the slowest person.

The Start

Our Group - Mainly French and English
The first section of our ride was 30km of downhill on a modern 2-3 lane road. Once I got used to it I was flying. The group had separated quite a lot but 3 of us were racing behind the front guide while overtaking many trucks and buses... no need to peddle, gravity does all of the work.

We stopped quite a few times for everyone to catch up.

1st to arrive and waiting!

The others starting to pull in

Me on the left!

After completing the 30km downhill section of the new road it was time for breakfast/morning tea (provided). We then loaded back in the vans and skipped a 5km flat section before turning off onto what remains of the old death road... Things were about to get serious!

In front of us was another 30km of down hill. This time on an uneven rocky 1 lane dirt road with a cliff that has drops up to 600m on our left.

We stopped pretty frequently in the beginning. I took the first few parts in between stops pretty cautiously before getting comfortable. After that I was going as fast as I could and jumping over small ditches in the road. I was only slowing down for right hand corners, for obvious reasons, while pushing it around left hand corners. The front guide just keeps pushing faster and faster when someone is behind him (it was easy work for him). As the sections got longer so too did the time the front guide and I would be waiting for the next person.

Me giving a thumbs up in one of the early sections

Not a good place to fall
The funnest part was overtaking the groups in front of us. There isn't a lot of room on these roads so you pick your spots and yell out "On your Left (or Right)!"

We had one drink stop along the way to remove some sweaty clothes and put on mozzie repellent due to the massive drop in altitude. We were heading into the amazon.

We finally finished at 1,200m in altitude in the amazon (3,400m less than where we started from). This was my lowest altitude in about a month.

1st place! Even after a stack that involved me jumping over the handle bars.

We Finished!

We drove to a resort area with swimming pools, showers and.... an all you can eat lunch buffet included in our tour!

I was dropped back off at my hostel at 6.00pm. I decided to walk to the bike company to collect my shirt and DVD with photos and videos before they shut at 7pm. I was considering leaving La Paz after my first 2 nights (this turned into 2 weeks).

The First Shirt I earned in La Paz

Death Road was one of the funnest things I did in South America. It's a must do and it's actually not very scary but over 60km of downhill while dropping 3,400m in altitude is incredible.

I don't usually give businesses a plug in my blog but I would also strongly recommend Vertigo as the company to use. They only have duel suspension bikes, are on par for price with the cheap companies whilst being half the price of another well regarded company with equally good bikes. All of the guides are Bolivian (the lead guide had almost perfect English), they regularly check your bike at every stop, especially the breaks, they had 2 spare bikes in case something went wrong and probably the best vans out of all the companies.

I slept very well that night.

Next Stop: Still La Paz... So much more to do!

Lessons Learnt:
Travelling doesn't stop me from being competitive and wanting to win.
The last few weeks had acclimatised me pretty well to 4,000m.
I knew I was back in a major tourist destination (not a good thing).

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Sucre, Bolivia: Street Food, French Sugar and Back to School

Following a short 2 hour bus ride I was in Sucre. Without seeing a map or anything I walked as I normally do, except this time it didn't work so well. After walking around in circles for about 2 hours I saw a sign for a HI Hostel. After checking-in seeing a map I realised that I was actually walking around the suburban area and the city centre was not close to the bus stop or the hostel I eventually found.

Most people will say La Paz is the capital of Bolivia (it is the administrative capital, the seat of government and congress) but Sucre is the constitutional, judicial and official capital of Bolivia. Sucre is the 5 largest city with a population of about 250,000. It has also had 4 official names with Sucre being the most recent along with the unofficial nickname of The White City. Sucre is also French for sugar which lead to the Frenchies and I giving it a 6th name, Azúcar (Spanish, and also Arabic, for sugar).

After settling into my room it was time to say good bye to a pair of Jeans that I had sewed up about 20 times since buying cotton and needles in Uruguay. I always get my jeans altered so they are the exact length for me to wear with thongs (flip flops) so I held onto these way too long... I was definitely showing off more than just my accent in South America!

I got a year of travelling from these Calvin Kleins
The next day I wandered into the central market. This place is unbelievable. You can buy absolutely anything and get proper meals for under $2. My favourite is the square of juice stands all competing with each other. For less than $1 you choose which fruits to go into a blender with milk or water (always milk for me) then you sit down and drink it in a fancy glass... then you hand the glass back and they fill it up AGAIN! 2 incredibly fresh fruit smoothies for less than a buck became a morning ritual for me.

Afterwards I walked to the main square. While I was taking photos a Bolivian man approached me and started talking. One of the bad things that comes with travelling is you see a lot of scams and the majority of locals that approach in central places are generally after something. I was very cautious of my wallet and camera while expecting some sort of scam. 

He was actually a traveller himself from another Bolivian town and had a camera very similar to mine. He just wanted to talk about photography and explained a lot about the history. I hated assuming the worst of a good person but unfortunately the majority of the time it would be a scam... I even got to hear Quechua for the first time (a native language that is still widely spoken, Google Search allows you choose it as a default language).   

After my quick morning tour I met up with Alex and Becca, an American couple I met in Tilcara, Argentina, they were renting an awesome apartment for a month in the very centre of town for a ridiculous price. Every time I entered this apartment Becca would immediately make up a cocktails that would almost knock you off your feet.

This day became a long one. Alex and I had lunch at the central market before heading up to a cafe over looking the city for some beers. Alex is pretty cool guy and the 2nd person I met in South Am that used to work for Google. He and Becca had camped up most of South Am going through most of the same cities/towns as me.

We were thirsty after the long up hill hike.
While we were drinking Alex recognised one of his American classmates Sara (who became my Sucre running buddy) and her Austrian housemate Christoph (who became my classmate). 

Sara and Christoph invited us to join them at a bar for a screening of a Spanish movie. We took the scenic route down from the hill via the largest Fuzzball setup that I have seen. Each team was actually painted to match real teams.

We were finally at the Amsterdam bar for the movie También la lluvia (Even the Rain)... Watch this movie! In 2000 there were massive violent riots/protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia when the government tried to start charging some of the world's poorest people for rain water (a real event). The movie is about a film team from Spain and Mexico filming a Christopher Columbus conquest in this city when suddenly the riots breakout with their lead native actor being the ringleader (fictional). 

After the movie Sara was due to meet someone from Couchsurfing for the first time ever and was a bit worried about meeting a random from the internet. Since I'm a Couchsurfing veteran I said I would come along. We ended up a bar/restaurant of my future hostel with the Bolivian Couchsurfer, a Spanish girl he was hosting and a Bolivian in town from Cochabamba.

The Couchsurfing Gang!
The next morning (Friday) I changed hostels, met a lot of people at my new hostel, enrolled in my third language school and did some more exploring.

During my daily wandering I discovered the big park with a climbable Eiffel tower in the middle (no photo because young kids were always playing on it) and the old train station (no rail network in Bolivia anymore)... I also ran into 2 Frenchies, Hugo and Clovis, that I met in Tilcara and again in Potosi... I can't escape.

The Old Train Station

After returning to the hostel I discovered Papa Rellenas (potatoes stuffed with anything, generally meat or cheese) in a pasta sauce... So good! Soon after eating, Sara collected me for a late afternoon run around the big park. 

The altitude in Sucre is just over 2,800m, my lowest altitude in 2 weeks but still enough to kill me. This park (of death) became my regular running track. It was a 500m rectangle with 2 long sides on a slope and 2 curved short sides. Perfect for altitude training!

After the run I quickly showered and went to Sara's place. Sara, Christoph and I made our way to a hidden Italian restaurant. It is a house with a little sign, you ring the doorbell and the Italian owner/chef answers. We were joined by 2 others, 1 was my other future Dutch classmate (Suzanne). Alex and Becca also happened to have a booking as well, so did a few others from my hostel, and Rolando the CSer was there for a work function. 

I made a spontaneous decision to eat here and I knew half of this tiny little restaurant a random Bolivian city. This restaurant is number 5 on Tripadvisor and will set you back around $10 for a decent meal (This is the high end price in Bolivia).

After returning to the hostel it was party time, the drinking games began in the bar with my roommates, 3 young Americans that teach English in Chile and Patricia (Rolando's CSer). Patricia is from Asturias (the north west region of Spain) and speaks Spanish faster than my ears can listen. 

After dancing at the hostel I saw 3 girls eating Birthday cake so starting singing Happy Birthday to the birthday girl from Hong Kong. Patricia and I immediately had plates of cake in our hands. I soon found myself in a taxi with the girl from HK and the 2 Bolivian girls she was with on my way to Mitos (1 or 2 night clubs in Sucre).... My American roomies just happened to be there too... memory gone for the rest of that night.

The weekend involved drinks at Alex's and Becca's place, meeting many more people, my first visit to the non profit vegetarian Condor cafe, more drinks on the hill, meeting the Frenchies again, and getting very acquainted with Singani (the national spirit of Bolivia made from grapes) and Chuflay (the common Singani cocktail)... And brushing up on my Spanish before my first day of class.

Monday morning saw me up bright and early for a level exam and 1 on 1 Spanish discussion at my language school. My level was rated at the middle of intermediate. My class would be from 2-6pm for the week, 20 hours for a total cost of $100 US, half the price of Spain, Chile and Argentina.

I was surprised when my classmates were Christoph, Suzanne and an old(er) French lady, Myriam.

Classmates plus half of Christoph's younger Brother, Benny
The school held quite a few social events after class. Salsa dancing was the one I attended, and showed off my skills. There was also a ping pong table which occupied our 4pm break. Chris and his brother were literally ping pong champions in Austria that competed on a university team... I had played semi regular ping pong at hostels during my travels but I was hopeless against these 2.

The next couple of days involved more class, a Cacho competition (like Yahtzee but teams of 2), Sara and I finished somewhere in the middle. There was also a big dinner (3 course meal and a beer for 7 bucks) at Condor Cafe where I ran into Alexia (Frenchie from Tilcara and Potosi also), another monster breakfast at the cafe with a view, changing to my 3rd hostel (private for less money) and dinner at a steak place with Alex and Becca. 

Dinner at Condor Cafe

The steak place was out in the suburbs and crazy. You could order full or half steaks but little did we know that full was a whole cow and half was half of one... almost. We ordered 2 full sizes between us and a bottle of wine. Then all of these sides (included) covered the table in front of us. 2 plates of potatoes, 2 plates of some rice stuff and 2 plates of chilies and other things. Then out came 2 massive steaks, both over a foot long and thick. We tried our best but required doggy boxes to take half home... All of this for about $15 dollars each.

My $5 Breakfast (Eggs, bacon, salad, croissant, toast, jam, coffee, smoothie, yogurt, glass of fruit).

Some random drinking game, Becca and 2 guys from my 2nd hostel.

During the Cacho competition I met a German couple that were previously in Tupiza and set to go on the Tupiza to Uyuni tour but the guy was too ill in the morning they were due to leave. He was admitted to hospital wrongly diagnosed and recovered. He sent emails of his x-rays to his German doctor and was correctly diagnosed with Pulmonary Oedema with instructions to stay put until fully recovered. I informed him that if he fell ill 1 day later he would be a dead man.

While walking through the street I randomly ran into a Frenchie that cooked me dinner in Tupiza, my first Bolivian city... All of the Frenchies want some sugar.

I bought a hand made beanie for $4

We had a poker tournament scheduled at Alex's and Becca's later in the week, problem was we didn't have a poker set. We decided to into my last hostel to sneak out the poker set, borrowing of course. We had to stop late in the game for a 1am alcohol run... I love South Am and 24 hour convenience stores that sell alcohol.

The weekend was here an it was house party time at Barbara's place. Barbara was born in Bolivia with native parents but adopted by her German parents and grew up in Germany. She was here visiting her biological parents that only speak Spanish and she was a beginner at my school. She was also doing volunteer work for the community.

Barbara, Benny and I

Alex, Becca, Benny and I plus an arm and half a German guy
The night led to a bar before finally finishing at Mitos.

The next day was my last. Alex, Becca and I conquered the mountain behind Sucre. The hike was tough for me in the altitude even with running on most days. The peak was probably around 3,500m

The Beginning

3 quarters up

Becca & Alex

I had a fall being stupid on my way down.

A week after the fall
My last night involved attending a dinner for Suzanne's last night, there were about 20 of us. Then quite a few of us headed to a multi-story bar with different types of music on each floor. The live music was for me.

After 12 awesome nights in was time to say good bye. While walking to the bus stop I ran into another Frenchie, Alban, that I was hiking with 2 months earlier in Córdoba.

Next Stop La Paz!!!... The other Capital of Bolivia.

Lessons Learnt:
My first Spanish school that wasn't located in a world famous beach city was still just as awesome.
Sucre is a great city to study Spanish on a budget or for altitude training.
The market culture in Bolivia is awesome... but quite unhygienic.
You don't have to live somewhere long to feel like you know everyone or make awesome friends.
Singani and Chuflays are deadly.
Wine is the best value drink in Bolivia.