Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Tales of Bolivia: Calle de las Brujas

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Life
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Sitting on my desk as I type is a small glass vial.  It is sealed with a metal cap and is filled with a clear liquid I presume to be water.  What appears to be a small gold chain runs around the bottom.   Filling the vial are tightly packed objects, perhaps bits of cloth, of various sizes and shapes and bright colors.  These in turn press several gold-colored objects up against the glass.

One is in the shape of a truck, one a horseshoe, another a hand.  There is a man & woman holding hands.  A key, a frog and maybe an angel.  Plus a couple I can’t make out.  Each looks very much like the sort of charms young girls collected on their charm bracelets in the America of the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up.  Maybe they still do.  I’ve lost track.

Anyway, what these are is something much more potent.  These are powerful talismans.  Each represents a different aspect of life and each is designed to bring good luck in their assigned area to their possessor.  The whole thing is one big, universal lucky charm.  I know this because the 8-year-old witch who sold it to me  (20 Bolivianos, about $2.87) told me so.  Not a bad deal.

None of the witches I met looked like this.

Now if you happen to be in the market for the services of a witch, and these days who isn’t, it helps to find yourself in La Paz, Bolivia.  In many parts of the world, over the past few centuries, witches have been driven out, driven into hiding or simply burned at the stake.  In other words, in short supply.  But in La Paz…..well there you can just mosey on down to the Calle de Las Brujas (Street of the Witches) and take your pick.

Calle de las Brujas

Lining this street for two or three blocks you’ll find stall after stall, each with its own witch or two, their goods spilling out onto the cobble stones.  Jar upon jar of potions, herbs, spices and charms for every occasion.  Oh, and dried llama fetuses.  Lots and lots of dried llama fetuses.  They come in all sizes.  Small enough to fit in your pocket right on up to about four feet tall.  I have no idea where such a range comes from.  They all appeared to my uneducated eye to be around the same stage of development.  Maybe different size llamas?

Llama fetuses, your choice.

From what I gather if you hang one in your home it will bring blessings and good luck.  Of course, then along with good luck you’ll have something pretty creepy hanging in your house.  Which is why I didn’t bring one home.  Well, that and not immediately figuring out how I might explain it to a curious customs agent.

But llama fetuses are only one of the many talismans available.  Unlucky in love?  Embarking on a journey? Looking for a job?  Seeking wealth? Feeling ill?  No sling nor arrow of misfortune or opportunity sent your way is without a remedy or assistance to be found here.  At a great Boliviano v dollar exchange rate to boot.

We’re also told there is…

…Black Magic…

…to be had, magic to curse and destroy your enemies, if you ask in the right witches in the right places.  We didn’t.

No, my little 8-year-old witch could not have been purer of heart or more charming.  Not to say she didn’t know her stuff.  Closely watched for accuracy and with pride by her grandmother, she took us thru their shop carefully explaining each item.  She even explained the good fortune each charm in the little glass vial I bought from her would bring. There must not have been one to improve my memory, however, as I can now only vaguely guess at their powers.

I do know that shortly thereafter I found and bought the baby alpaca wool sweater that was to save my life during the frigid nights on Salar de Uyuni.  No small feat when you’re my size and shopping in a land of petite people.

Later that evening we ventured up a dark and creaky flight of ancient wooden stairs.  The walls were lined with dusty old objects randomly hung seemingly hundreds of years before.  A narrow hallway led to a dim room set with tables and chairs as old as the building itself.  On the menu I found and ordered Lemon Trout.  Went back for it again the next night.  And the next.  It was truly magic.

My companions mocked me for buying the silly little glass bottle good luck charm.  But I was really buying the charms of the 8-year-old little witch who sold it to me.  Or so I told them and, as far as it goes, it’s true.  But clearly, the magic is already working.

This is what the real witches we met looked like.

Of course, neither the girl or the old lady pictured above is an actual witch.  As our little witch patiently explained to our photo-happy traveling companion, she could not allow her picture to be taken.   She knows that should her image be captured on film a little bit of her soul and a little bit of her power is taken as well.  Silly superstition?  Maybe.  But before you scoff too long and hard think for a moment on the sordid lives of our nation’s over exposed child pop stars.

I rest my case.  And hers.  No pictures were taken.

This is where we went

If you find Lima on the map, that’s where our journey began.  From there we flew to Cusco for the excursion to Machu Picchu.  Travel by bus then took us to Puno on Lake Titicaca and the Altiplano; Copacabana, La Paz and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia; San Pedro de Atacama and Iquique in Chile; back up to Arequipa in Peru.  Then another flight to Lima.  Basically a big circle as locating Lima, Cusco, La Paz, Iquique and Arequipa on the map above shows.

We had a wonderful trip, met fascinating people, saw fabulous sites and found some great restaurants and enjoyed at least one bottle of Peruvian wine and we never even knew there was such a thing.  But it was also a very tough trip.

I’ve said almost exactly that to everybody who’s asked since our return.  Without exception, each immediately wanted to know:  “What made it tough?”   So I’ll start there.

The worst of times….

1.  We were sick for most of the journey.

As you might recall from my last post, I had a bad reaction to the shot for Yellow Fever.  10 days later, on the Sunday before departure, I was concerned enough to visit an emergency clinic.  They assured me that the reaction to the shot had passed and had simply morphed into a bit of a respiratory infection.  Which I promptly passed on to my wife.  A week later, she was on antibiotics courtesy of the clinic in Cusco.  We were never quite able to shake it because….

2.  Most of the trip was on the Altiplano between 12,000 and 13,000 feet (3700 – 4000 meters) of altitude.  Cusco itself is over 11,000 feet and there’s just not all that much air in the air at those elevations.  Adjusting when you can breathe normally is tough enough.  When your lungs aren’t fully functional….

3.  The Altiplano is a bone dry and dusty desert; and very, very cold at night.  Very tough on your respiratory passages.  Plus, there is no heat in the hotels.  At least not in the kind of hotels we stay in. Commonly it was colder inside than out.  More than once we slept wearing every stitch of clothing we owned buried under enough blankets that the very weight of them made it hard to breathe what little air there was.

Understand, I grew up in Chicago and live now in New Hampshire, both areas known for their intense winters.  But the difference is, the buildings have heat.  Where we were, with rare exception, the only heat available was that of the mid-day sun and whatever our own bodies generated.  Add to that the dust and lung drying air.  Tough for me, much tougher for my wife who grew up in a tropical paradise.  Not conducive to shaking respiratory infections.

4.  We were traveling with a third person.  No matter how charming and cheerful, and our friend was both, three is a tough number.  Couples can go off on their own, keep their own council.

But a third wheel….  Enough said.

5.  While of our own making, this was a tour and as such a violation of my own rules of travel.  We did this by design.  There were many places we wanted to visit and none we thought we would want to settle into, at least not before visiting first.  So being on the move served its purpose this time.

Certainly it was nothing like a “package tour” that hustles folks about in a relentless effort to leave no sight unseen.  We could, and did, adjust the plan as we went along.  Still, the longest we stayed in any one place was five days and, for us, that’s moving at light speed.

Could we have changed any of these, it would have been #1.  Had we been healthy, numbers 2-5 wouldn’t have mattered much.  But we were sick and that made everything tougher.   Truth be told, this is the first trip we’ve ever considered aborting.  But we’re glad we didn’t.  The highlights made it all worthwhile.

Here are a few:

The best of times….

1.  Machu Picchu.

One of the world’s foremost tourist destinations, getting here encompasses everything I hate about tourism and being a tourist.  And yet.  And yet, after you climb the narrow stone steps, break over the ridge and catch your first glimpse of the “hidden valley,” breathtaking is not word enough.  Were this simply a natural wonder the view alone would make the trip worthwhile.  That the Incas built a terraced stone city here that the Spanish never found (and therefore never destroyed to build yet another church) is simply stunning.

2  Lake Titicaca bus crossing.

bus on a barge.  how is this a good idea?

This is the highest navigable lake in the world and it is home to the Uros, artificial islands made of continuously replenished reeds.  Your visit there will be very cool and very touristy.  But for us the best part was the views of the lake as we left by bus for La Paz.  Climbing ever higher, the views got ever better until we descended back to the lake shore for a crossing.

They unloaded us from the bus and on to small boats.  Then, amazingly, they drove the bus on to a rickety old wooden barge.  The waves were such I was trying to figure just how cold the water was going to be and if I could make the swim to shore; and just how they were going to pull the bus off the bottom.  But we and it both made it.

As I’m sure countless buses and people are doing right now as I write.  All of whom are wondering, “Can I make the swim to shore and how are they going to pull our bus off the bottom?”

3.  Salar de Uyuni.

That white stuff?  Salt.

I’ve been to islands.  You’ve been to islands.  But until Salar I’d never been to one in covered in cactus in the middle of a great, unending brilliant white expanse of salt.  Largest in the world, they say.  Oh, and at some times in some years the salt is covered with water.  Laying down still more layers of salt.  20+ meters deep in places.

I’ve stayed in hotels.  You’ve stayed in hotels.  But until Salar I’d never stayed in one made completely of salt.  Walls of salt.  Floors of salt.  Tables, chairs and beds carved from blocks of salt.  No heat, but lots of salt.

4.  Arequipa.

El Misti.

What a volcano should look like.

Quite simply a stunningly beautiful city.  Spotlessly clean, gorgeous central plaza, fine old colonial buildings made from the area’s unique porous white lava stone and filled with interesting restaurants, clubs, churches and convents.  This is the place I’d return to for an extended stay.   Majestically overseeing it all is El Misti; what a volcano should look like!

5.  People.

dried llama fetuses

available only in your local Witches Market

Miguel, Carlos, Michael, Katerina, all in their twenties or thirties and on their multi month/multi year travel odysseys.  The crazy (even though he only spoke French I know because Katerina leaned over and whispered to me “He’s crazy!) old Venezuelan in the salt hotel, the South Chilean family in San Pedro de Atacama.  Patrick who abandoned his friend with the broken arm.

The little witch in La Paz.  Thankfully I bought a good luck charm from her, which is why I had the sweater that kept me from freezing to death on the slat flats of Salar de Uyuni.  Passed on the dried llama fetus however.  But Patrick had two.   He’s carrying them home to Spain.

There’s a bit of the adventure.  As the stories occur to me I’ll post a few more.

For over a week now I’ve been afflicted with Yellow Fever.

 I blame the Bolivians.

Reasonable people might suggest I also bear some personal responsibility.  It was I, after all, who made the appointment at the clinic, drove over and said to the nice lady, “Say, why don’t you load up a syringe with a bunch of that Yellow Fever virus you guys have sitting around and pump it into my arm?”  Which she, in a most accommodating fashion, did.  She also suggested I might experience “flu-like” symptoms that could last “up to a week.”

“No worries,” I said.  “Stick that needle home.  I can take it.”  I might have flexed my bicep just a bit. The next day I was a whimpering, fever ridden hollow-eyed shell.  Flu-like indeed.  If flu viruses pumped iron on steroids.

But without a stamp in my documents that I can only get after having the shot, the Bolivians wouldn’t let me cross their border.  So I blame them.

Still not quite over this little adverse reaction, in less than a week I’ll be adjusting to the high altitudes of life in the Andes.  Not something to be taken lightly if you value having air in the actual air you breathe.  Like a financial lesson:  Learn to live with less.  Should make for an interesting start to our summer.  Bolivia had better be a pretty spectacular place.

Last year we disappeared to Ecuador.  It is a spectacular place. We rented a place in Quito and, using it as a base, made side trips around the country.

A few blocks from our apartment we discovered a chocolate shop/cafe.  Poking around we got to talking to Ruth, the owner and shortly found ourselves at a table drinking mugs of her very special hot chocolate.  Then her friend Celeste showed up and a few hours of lively conversation later we mentioned we were looking for a Spanish tutor.  Celeste has a friend who does exactly that and the next day she brings Sylvia around to our apartment.  In short order we have our tutor and, soon, a new friend.  Last October she came to visit us here in New Hampshire during a week of peak fall colors and perfectly bright and crisp New England weather.

Sylvia is, of course, not just a tutor.  Apparently nobody in Ecuador is just one thing.  Her daughter is a travel agent and Sylvia serves on occasion as a tour guide.  Two of her specialties are Peru and Bolivia.


The very destinations we had planned next.

Normally I avoid tours but I also believe the best way to see a place is with a local.  Her extensive experience with these countries in her back yard makes her enough of a local for me and this an opportunity not to pass by.  We’ll see the nooks and crannies she’s discovered over the years and we’ll do it at our own relaxed pace.

Other than my being kitten weak, it’s all coming together nicely.

Since we travel without smart phones or laptops (don’t own either) the blog will go dark for a while.  Every now and again I might stumble into an internet cafe but that’ll be just to check in.

Since it has only been a few weeks since my guest post over on Mr. Money Mustache, I feel a bit guilty about abandoning all my many new readers.  Sorry guys!  But not so much as to change my plans.  Longer term readers know to expect this.  I am, after all, retired and can no longer be expected to be reliable.

If you haven’t already, you might take a moment to subscribe.  It’s free and that way the moment I get back (and who know when that will be) you’ll be notified of any new posts.  Figure around September.  Meanwhile below you’ll find some random stuff I’ve  found interesting of late.  Maybe you might too.

When I was about 10, one of my older sisters brought home:

They Call the Wind Maria

South Coast

Zombie Jamboree

From that moment I wanted to leave home, hang out in smokey cafes, wander the wild coast and get hurt in a landslide.

Here, in case you are looking for something to do, are 10 of the world’s unsolved mysteries:

Several things here I can’t do:  Yoga & Dance

Damn. Another brilliant MMM post:  The 4% Rule  Far and away the best explanation/defense of the 4% rule I’ve yet to read.  How I wish you’d been writing when I was young and just sorting thru this stuff.  4% is the guiding rule I use. Nothing, of course, is guaranteed. That why we all need to remain flexible, alert and, well, Mustachian.

Along those lines, I just dealt with a lengthy comment from ddrem on my own blog describing the disastrous position the world is in today and calling into question my portfolio recommendations accordingly.  Not only will we muddle thru, it is my belief we are on the verge of another great bull market. For lots of reasons, not the least of which is simply these things go in cycles.   People always seem to believe the world will end on their watch. But it never does. It is the dark that sets the stage for the dawn.  If I’m wrong and the dawn is still a ways off, that’s OK too. There are lots of adjustments I can make and options to explore.

If I were a billionaire I’d do it as a combo of these two guys:

With a cool name like Elon Musk how can you wind up as anything other than a billionaire?

Check out this 60 Minutes interview by Scott Pelley.

Pretty good until Scott gets all a flutter when he learns Elon has put 100 million into Spacex.  Mega bucks until you remember Scott himself reported just minute earlier that the guy is worth 2 Billion.  So he’s risking a scant 5% of his net worth.  Mmmm.  I’ve blown more than that (percentage) on a bad gold mining stock.  One of the many reasons I’m not a billionaire.

Everybody with a couple of billion should find a really cool project like Spacex.

My pal Shilpan makes the great point that becoming a minimalist is not about deprivation and it is about purging from your life things, thoughts and people no longer adding value.  Something I’m working on my own self.

How the hell does this happen?  One day the duck decides, “Ya know, pet fish would be nice….”

Japanese Beethoven 9th symphony   Ode to Joy from my pal 101 Centavos.  You’ve never heard, or seen, it like this.

Nice house.  Wonder if they can get pizza delivered?

 If you are looking for a good book or two, here’s what I’ve been reading of late:

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale.  Beautifully written novel with phrases I wish I could conjure up:  “….as rare as baptized rattlesnakes.”  Think of Huckleberry Finn with lots more violence.  Three kids escaping on a raft down an East Texas river with a jar of money, jar of their friend’s ashes and a bunch of really bad people close behind.  It opens with the main character’s no good step-daddy fishing with poison and pulling up May Lynn’s body wired to an old sewing machine.

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland.  Mr. Holland’s history of the birth of Islam reads like gripping fiction.  The cast of characters is endlessly fascinating as is the geography across which they stride.  Of course, no story of Islam is complete without a telling of the evolution of Christianity and Judaism, its two great monotheistic predecessors.  Even if you think this is a topic not for you, give it a shot.  I’ll be reading more by Mr. Holland.

Have a wonderful summer!

I’m off to freshen my iced tea.