Hiking in the Mountains

1 06 2009

I know the rules.  I know how to be safe, and what tactics pickpockets are likely to use.  But if you were hoping to see those pictures from Potosí, you will have to forget about it.  I lost my camera on a “micro,” a city bus, on Friday.  It was so slick I never knew it happened.  So I have lost all the pictures except the ones I had posted on here, which are reduced quality.  Fortunately, Devin, another student, has offered to send me some by email.  They just won’t have the ones of me from Potosí, and I won’t get them intime for my reception.  I do plan to replace the camera, and he was kind enough to take quite a few pictures of me on Saturday.

Because, bad news over, I would like to try for some word pictures of our trip hiking on Saturday.  I spent about 3 hours writing in my journal yesterday, so this will be long, but I know some people will be interested in reading it.  If you aren’t one of those people, don’t feel obligated!

I wanted to take a trip on foot into el campo (the countryside) after seeing a little bit of it on our trip to Potosí by bus.  So did Devin and Emily (the other two scholarship students), so we told our teacher Marcelo, as he had mentioned occasionally working as a guide.  (He is a multi-faceted person; although he does that and teaches Spanish, he considers his profession to be restoration, as of colonial period religious art.)  He told us that he knew of an old Incan road, 1 1/2 hours drive away, and 1 1/2 – 2 hours walking.  But he was busy on Saturday, and he would recommend a friend of his (Orlando), who was also a guide.  I wanted Marcelo.  I’ve enjoyed his teaching.  I trust him personally after getting to know him, but I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of fellow this long-haired outfit who likes to drink on weekends might recommend.  However, he recommended Orlando without qualification, and the man had taught at the school, and it wasn’t like I was going alone.  Besides, you find yourself just trusting some people here.  If you’re going to accept one person, then you accept their network, and you feel that … somehow, there would be a breach of honor if their friend violated your confidence – that you can at least trust the people Marcelo introduces you to as much as you trust Marcelo.  And we got to meet Orlando before leaving, after all.

There ended up being four of us going; it cost us fifty dollars each.  The first thing that made me glad we were getting Orlando was that he suggested we also take a road near the one Marcelo mentioned and visit some cave paintings.  When Marcelo tried to correct him, he said (as I thought myself) that it was hardly worth going so far just for the Incan road.  I had wanted an all-day excursion, and this sounded more like it.

So for the two hundred dollars, Orlando chartered a van and driver, and brought along a backpack with an inexhaustible supply of food.  We were supposed to meet at 8 a.m.; of course that meant 8:30, and after that the van still had to go pick up (and wait on) Orlando, who was buying food in a different part of town.  Emily had a cold and didn’t make it.  (The other three were Devin, from Colorado; Clara, from Wales,; and Marc (Mark?) from Switzerland.)  I had a cold and went anyway, as you will hear more of later.

I thought that an hour and a half was a long way to drive to find a good place to walk.  I didn’t realize that it was at (my estimate) 20-30 mph over a dirt/rock road zig-zagging through the mountains; the distance probably wasn’t great.  I also didn’t realize I would be riding on a bench seat jammed into the cargo area of a minivan with very little suspension.  Just call it a massage.

When we arrived, the guide pulled out a bottle of water and a gigantic apple for everyone, also a chocolate bar for the way.  I didn’t carry anything else besides my jacket; the others had backpacks, for whatever reason.  Devin was kind enough to take quite a few pictures of me.

At first, it was easy going and just fun.  Another great thing about Orlando was that he was full of information about the mountains and local culture.  He pointed out a large crater in the distance, presumed the work of a meteorite, and told us of a small town that had lived there for centuries, isolated and self-sufficient, although visited occasionally.  (I believe he has been thre.)  He would stop us to point out things like a tree with flaky, layered bark that acted as insulation against the cold.  There were fantastic panoramic views all along the way, so tempting to stop and do photo sessions.  The rock formations were fascinating.

In places, the road was actually stair steps of rock.  The first section that we did was the cave painting one.  I actually didn’t realize that it was separate at the time; I thought the paintings were just a continuation at the end.  After the first little uphill stretch it was downhill most of the way.  We found it pretty easy till we hit the end and went to descend to the caves – there are two, from quite different periods, remarkably close together.  We actually went down a little bit of rock at perhaps a 45* angle, without a marked path – just a few yards, though.  Then it was stair steps, pretty steep, but no real trouble.

The cave paintings were fascinating.  The best of the first set had been chiseled out of the cave and stolen, and since then there is a locked gate leading to each, and a “guard.”  This is set from a cabin on an opposing mountainside with a clear view of anyone coming.  As we reached the end of our trail, a little boy of 10-12 years, with two small dogs, was effortlessly coming to meet us, and he accompanied us till we left, unlocked and locked the gates, and collected admission money from the guide.  He was very bashful, and would only grin if anyone but Orlando spoke to him.  Although he gratefully accepted a chocolate bar.  The dogs were bashful too, but they understood backpacks, and kept their eyes fixed on Orlando’s until he distributed sandwiches.  We ate sitting on a rock looking at cave paintings on the underside of a low cliff, up to a thousand years old.  They still were bright in their red and white designs, depicting mostly human figures.

Since we went down to the first cave, we had to come back up.  Since we went down another direction to the second paintings, we had to come back up again.  We were at an altitude of 3500 m – about 14,000 ft.  the effect of this is that oxygen is less accessible to your body, your lungs and heart can’t keep up, and your muscles run out of fuel.  By the time we reached the path, I would normally say I had reached the limit of my endurance.  And as I said, it had been downhill almost all the way coming.

Orlando would tell us to “breathe deep,” and I certainly did, but I had this cold.  I was breathing – gasping – cold, thin mountain air through my mouth, and on the way back, about every breath hurt.  I guess I was sucking drainage into my lungs – hence the cough now – and at points my voice was totally gone.

We would be climbing for quite a stretch – stairs, mind you, in places.  Orlando would pause for breathers here and there.  I wasn’t the only one finding it extremely difficult.  In fact, at points, Marc (from Switzerland of all places!) lagged behind me.  But as Orlando said, there were no taxi’s there, and if we wanted to get back we had to push on again.  He was quite comfortable – with his backpack, too.  They say your body develops more red blood cells according to your need, even in relatively short periods of time.  I didn’t want any taxi, but it wasn’t easy.

I am a big fan of R. L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and one passage played through my head for an hour or two.  David and Alan are trying to cross a hot, dry moor, crawling, without being spotted by the soldiers.  David says he had never really known before what exhaustion was.  Finally he says to Alan, “Alan, I can go no further.  It’s not want of will, but want of strength.  If I could, I would, but I cannae.”

“Very well,” says Alan.  “Then I’ll carry ye.”  And David got up and went on.  And I figured that as long as I didn’t fall down, I could keep walking.  But sometimes I sure wished I would fall down.

Orlando kept up a bit of a Spanish conversation class with the students who had the breath for it.  And the last stretch was downhill, and he told a Bolivian story that I think was set in Germany when I read it as a child (but it’s too complex to have developed separately).  And I almost forgot I was tired in trying to keep close enough to him to hear it all.  Almost forgot.

It was crazy.  That’s what I still keep telling myself: Fue loquísimo.  We would stop, and my body would slowly catch up with its need for air.  Orlando would look at me and ask if I was better, and I would be functioning again for a minute or so after we started again.  When we stopped once during the downhill part, he looked at me and said, “Mucho mejor.”  And I was, but even at that I only had breath for a “.”

On arriving where the bus was waiting, we piled in and drove a little way back to a chapel where we all ate sandwiches again.  As a crowning touch, the inexhaustible backpack produced orange soda and mandarin oranges (I think this had been at the van, though).

Then… I found out that we had saved the Incan road for last.  The students told me to stay with the van, and I don’t know but what Orlando would have preferred it.  But it was all downhill, 1 1/2 hours, and the van was to meet us at the end.  And it’s very possible that I’ll never again have an opportunity to walk a road that the Incas, or their slaves, cut into the mountainside 400 years ago, and look out on the same views they saw.  The road was all “paved” with rocks, although I’m supposing it has been redone since then.  But Orlando pointed out rock “gutters” crossing the road that were typical of Incan construction, to prevent wash-outs.

It was indeed downhill, and I survived it.  We still stopped periodically, and we four instantly collapsed onto the nearest rock “seat.”  At one point the backpack produced water refills and more chocolate bars, although hunger wasn’t my problem.  This road really did zig-zag, in such a way that we would walk just a little stretch one way, then turn and go the other direction, in places severaltimes in a row.  In others we would go a long way “sideways,” around some peak, perhaps.  Everwhere we went, there was dung from some herbivorous animal, perhaps burros, and it shocked me that they could navigate those roads.  (Of course they would be domesticated.)  We only met two people in all the seven hours, a couple of indigenous men who greeted us with a friendly “Buenas tardes,” quite unlike the people in the city.

Toward the end, my feet and legs hurt.  When your toes have jammed the ends of your shoes for 90 minutes going downhill, it’s just going to hurt.  Today my legs are still very sore … it hurts going downstairs, and my ankles even hurt.  We went so far that the change in altitude was actually perceptible.  Not so much in anything but temperature.  Although it was within an hour of sunset when we reached the valley, I felt that the air was so much warmer … it actually felt “sunnier.”  The guide told us we walked 18 kms, about 11 miles.  I’m sure that’s a record for me, even in the lowlands, the flatlands, of Kansas.

There actually was a lot of wind in places on the mountain.  But I have come to the conclusion that (excluding the rainy season) Bolivians from Sucre can’t tell Kansans much about weather except how nice it can be.  We have had three cloudy, cool days since I’ve been here.  But since they don’t have to install heating in their houses, they think it’s c0ld … and they have a Missourrian’s mindset about wind (they think that it is windy sometimes around here, that is).

Finally, as to Orlando, I was impressed with how much he seemed to love what he did.  He met what little bits of trash were along the trail with disgust, and as many as he could he put into his backpack to dispose of properly.  Then, with all of his helpfulness to us, I really would call him an expert.  I certainly felt that I hadn’t wasted my money or my time.

Of course we had a flat as we arrived in town.  Just to make it completely Bolivian.  But the day was so worth it. 

Well, I’ve tried to tell my teachers that I had developed a mental block to writing and it wasn’t flowing naturally.   This is 2300+ words.  Written out by hand, to start with.  I imagine that beats anything that I have turned in during the last four years … Congratulations if you’ve stayed with it so far!  I hope I haven’t wasted your time too badly.




5 responses

2 06 2009

I finally got to sit down and catch up on your blog posts! I hadn’t been able to read any of them yet, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the last hour of reading about your adventures. I felt like I was there with you! You write so well.

I’m sad to hear that your camera got nabbed, but way to bounce back and move on! I’m not sure I would have regrouped quite so well. Hopefully you are able to recover some pictures from your friends down there.

I’m impressed that you managed to get involved with your missionary friends and their church so quickly! I would be way too shy to pursue something like that without great difficulty in convincing myself to actually hold onto the phone long enough for it to dial and connect and talk to somebody! Sounds like you are having a great time making new friends, and by the time you have to come home, you’ll have so many new ones that you probably won’t want to come back!

Well, I’ll look forward to the next update!

2 06 2009

Thanks, Lorna! I’m really glad you think I’m getting it across. It feels like just random sound bites … 🙂

3 06 2009
Gretchen Eick

a wonderful way to accompany you without feeling the soreness, breathless exhaustion. Thank you for writing. Please keep it coming. Sounds like an amazing time in your life that will change you.

3 06 2009

I’m glad folks are enjoying it! But you really have to feel the soreness, breathless exhaustion to really know what I’m talking about. 😉

19 09 2009
More observations « Notes from Latin America

[…] from that first two weeks, the part where I lost my camera.  They include a lot of pictures of our hike in the mountains.  If you’re interested, you can view them in the Kodak gallery over here.  (Let me known in […]

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