In the Bolivian lowland – on a mission in the missions

The magic continued during the following three days, which the six of us – Marjolein and Edward, Carito and Luis, Marin and I – spent in the sparsely-populated cattle-ranching area northeast of Santa Cruz called Chicitos. Luis was originally from San Javier, and his family owns a hacienda and a house there, so that he kindly invited us to come for a visit and get to know a part of Bolivia that none of us had been to before. The Chicitos region is famous for its beautiful Jesuit churches in former mission towns, which were built during colonial times. In the 17th century, the Spanish missionaries succeeded in converting the indigenous population to Catholicism and getting them to settle in small towns and practicing agriculture. While the mission towns themselves have not really survived, six of the ten Jesuit churches have been restored and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We visited the churches in San Javier and Concepción and were even given a tour by one of the conservators, which was very interesting and demonstrated how much effort went into the restoration process of these churches. The bell towers and courtyards especially were very pretty and the intricate and rich paintings quite intriguing. Besides the churches, however, the towns of San Javier and Concepción did not have any other real attractions except for their laid-back atmosphere and their location in the middle of fast-disappearing tropical forest and grassland.

We enjoyed a particularly beautiful day and night together at Luis’ family’s hacienda near San Ramon, which was a bumpy jeep ride away from the main road and surrounded by a savannah-type vegetation. On our way to the farm, we stopped at a natural pool formed by a river that allowed us to take a plunge and sit underneath a small waterfall. All very picturesque, even though the sky was overcast and the water more than refreshing! I enjoyed picking and tasting small pakai fruits in the nearby vegetation, and we all squeaked when we felt little shrimps or gobies or some other animals nibbling on our toes in the muddy water! At least we did not have to worry about piranhas!

When we reached the hacienda in the late afternoon, we were welcomed by Luis’ family and farm hands and took a good look around: This dairy farm with its many happy cows and calves, with its free-range sows and cute sucklings, its goats, horses, nandus and wild tropical birds seemed like the perfect organic farm to me! Apparently only natural food and farming practices were used; every morning the cows were milked by hand for five hours, and it was made sure that the calves still had enough milk for themselves; the milk was then sold to a cheese dairy. I will always remember the one morning when we came to watch the milking of the cows and were surprised with a special wake-up treat by Luis and his mum: They brought glasses with concentrated coffee and filled them up with warm, foaming milk straight from the cow’s udder! What a delicacy! Of course I had to try to squeeze some milk out of the poor cow’s udder myself but then realised that I needed a bit more practice… We also went horseback-riding on the farm, cuddled the kids, had warm home-made cheese bread and saw very colourful birds – all very idyllic but surely lots of work for the farmers!

In the evening some of the men put a recently slaughtered goat over a fire, while we girls prepared some other food or made ourselves comfortable around the fire. Edward and Marin had brought a guitar and started to beautifully play and sing. We all joined in a bit later but also had to keep an eye on a cow named Ñeco, which was tame and wanted to be around us all the time. Ñeco was born with a harelip and thereby had to be raised with a bottle; this harelip now caused him to dribble; sometimes it got dangerously close to the fire or drooled on someone; we therefore had to push the cow away numerous times. Another funny situation near the fire happened when a huge insect flew towards the light and dropped to the ground. My biological curiosity was immediately awakened, and so I inspected the moth-like animal, found some false eyes on its hind wings and discovered a huge projection at its front that resembled a crocodile head. I had seen these “lantern bugs” in documentaries and zoological drawings and started to get super excited when suddenly my study object was crushed by Luis’ shoe! While he insisted for days that he had saved my life at the time, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that this beautiful insect had died for the wrong reasons… For the rest of the evening Luis told me that this Vibora cuco (it turned out to be Fulgora laternaria, a planthopper) was the most dangerous animal in the area, that it was aggressive and could kill me within 15 min after being stung and that I was very lucky that I survived… My biological gut feeling told me that he couldn’t be right, and I tried to carefully set this straight. But only when we had an Internet connection again and found out that the dangerousness of Vibora cuco was a myth particularly in the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia did we make peace about this subject again. What a laugh!

After our truly wonderful time together in Chicitos and Santa Cruz, Marin went back to Cochabamba, while the rest of us continued our journey in Tarija in southern Bolivia. Marjolein, Edward, Carito and Luis were invited to a wedding of another Dutch-Bolivian couple there, and we were hoping that I could join them as well. I could, and the wedding party was good fun, even though there was not much of a local aspect about it except for the guests and the music. Besides that of the others, I enjoyed Cecilia’s company very much, she was a common friend from Cochabamba, and we would spend more time together over the next few weeks.

Tarija is a charming city set in a fertile, agricultural region that felt very Mediterranean on account of its many vineyards, arid mountain scenery and warm climate. The valley is also the site of numerous fossilised bones of Pleistocene megafauna, which apparently were quite accessible but not easily found without a guide. I tried my best to organise a tour to these fields but, unfortunately, didn’t succeed since it was Sunday and no guide was available. Next time! So instead I joined my friends on a tour to a bodega in the Valle de Concepción outside Tarija, where there were supposed to be wine tastings and a fiesta and a beautiful countryside. The taxi ride to the valley was already an experience, as the driver was quite talkative for a change and played absolutely great local music – together with the wind in my hair, the sunshine on my skin, the pretty scenery and friends in the backseat a reason for much happiness! Our day out at the bodega included lots of grilled pork (of course), very sweet (red) and very sour (white) wine (which, when mixed, is called a rosé and quite bearable, I learned), dancing to lively local bands on a Sunday afternoon and a bit of sentimentality, since this was our last day together and I would travel on my own for the next little while. But one door closes and another one opens…

Bolivia – the Perfect Start into the New Year

Having my own little flat and becoming a “couchsurfing” host for travellers passing through has already paid off in so many ways! Joint sightseeing tours and intensive talks over dinner or breakfast have facilitated new friendships and, in one case, even caused me to expand my travel radius to a completely new-to-me continent! It was Marjolein and Edward, a Dutch-Bolivian couple about to move to my city and visiting me twice in 2012, who made me more and more curious about Bolivia in South America. “Very authentic”, “highly diverse”, “not touristy” and “cheap” were some of the trigger words I needed to decide that my next big holiday was going to be spent in Bolivia. And as soon as I found out in November that I was going to get the whole month of January off work, I booked my flights and started looking forward to backpacking through this seemingly magnificent country and visiting Marjolein and Edward, who were there on holidays at the same time.

Altogether five flights (via the USA) and thousands of kilometres later, two mornings before New Year’s Eve, I arrived in the city of Cochabamba, where I was met and kindly welcomed by Marjolein and Edward together with their friends Carla and Marin. Due to a three-hour stop-over at La Paz’s El Alto airport, situated at an altitude of approx. 4000 m, I was already feeling the first signs of altitude sickness (faster heartbeats, headache, nausea) by that time. We therefore took it easy in the beginning until I recovered; luckily Cochabamba was “only” 2500 metres above sea level. Worse, however, was the fact that my checked-in backpack didn’t arrive – and wouldn’t do so for another five days! The subsequent daily phone calls to the airline staff at unearthly morning hours were becoming exercises of our patience. But without being able to “properly” arrive, change clothes and take photos (my battery recharger was in the bag), you do tend to feel a bit uneasy at some stage… especially since we were moving around in Bolivia and I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere waiting for my backpack. Fortunately, my belongings did arrive just before the delay would have become really complicated for my travel plans. And luckily this lost luggage incident ended up being the only major drama throughout my trip.

Marjolein and Edward had arranged for us to spend New Year’s Eve and the first few days of 2013 together with their friends in the Santa Cruz area. Before moving on, we therefore spent one and a half days in Cochabamba, getting me started with local customs, going to the local markets, trying the wonderful local specialties api (thick maize juice), salteñas (pastries with a juicy meat filling), trucha (trout) and chicha (beer made of fermented maize) and deciding whether to buy yellow (for wealth) or red (for love) underwear for our upcoming New Year’s party. We also spent some time with Edward’s family in Quillacollo outside Cochabamba and cruised around in Marin’s car in the rain to explore the surroundings. My first impressions of Bolivia: surprisingly many similarities to the Asia I knew, such as bustling market stalls offering all sorts of products and services, yummy street food, chaotic traffic and smelly exhaust fumes, red-cheeked children and wrinkly old ladies carrying heavy burdens, tile floors and kitschy decorations. On the other hand: no staring or pestering at all, which was very common in Asia and Morocco, plus surprisingly many indigenous faces and women in their traditional dresses and hats. Altogether lots of positive impressions that made me look forward to travelling and photographing both country and people.

One day after my arrival in Cochabamba, we took a plane to Santa Cruz. Bolivia’s biggest city, located in the eastern lowlands with a much more tropical climate, is the country’s commercial centre and seemed quite different in character and more wealthy compared with the rest of Bolivia. It boasted quite a few huge American-style supermarkets with processed food and American-style suburbs with fenced-in houses and lawns and was renowned for its good night life. We were met by Marjolein and Edward’s friends Carito and Luis, who we stayed with, and during the following two days also got to know their friends and family. Marin from Cochabamba joined our group a little later as well, so that I felt perfectly integrated in local social life, just as I had initially hoped for! Our time together in the Santa Cruz area also allowed me to gain more insight into local eating and drinking habits: Bolivians love their meat! During my first week in Bolivia I must have eaten more beef steaks, chicken wings and inner organs than in the whole year before! Also, Bolivians seem to drink until the last drop of alcohol in the house is finished and no more hidden bottles can be found! In which case the party continues in a pub somewhere else… holy moly! Our year 2012 culminated in a posh New Year’s party at a private home, filled with karaoke, DJ music, dancing, roasted suckling and lots of bottles on the table. It lasted until 6 a.m. and ended with the traditional New Year’s breakfast: fricassee (spare ribs with corn and potatoes) – a hearty start into 2013! I felt so lucky to be able to take part in and get to know all these traditions and was particularly happy that I had chosen the right colour of underwear for that day… and hey, the magic worked!

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