Bolivian Revelations                                 (part two of Bolivian Adventures)

The morning after Solstice I awoke early to methodically assemble the colorful jumble of my belongings into my trusty pack. While we were feeling cautious of Bolivia’s tendency to reconfigure reality, I was optimistic, despite bus station rumors that a road block had manifested along the route to our next destination. Nonetheless, we loaded our bulging backpacks onto yet another bus, which was to carry us to the scrubby town of Uyuni; located on the edge of the salt flats and surrounded by a series of surreal desert landscapes. Our Bolivian luck had not yet turned, however, and the bus stopped at least 10 kilometers short of our destination… there was a humble line of rocks scattered across the sweltering desert highway. This, we were informed, was the beginning of a Bloqueo, a road-block staged by protestors from the desolate town of Uyuni. 

If you weren’t interested in supporting the protest, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a way thru…

Being a bit of a revolutionary myself, I was eager support them, so I repeatedly asked what the intention of the protest was, but got only vague, random answers about government promises and housing issues. The mysteries of Bolivia continue… In the spirit of the adventure, I strapped on my pack and made cheerful conversation with the other passengers as we slowly made our way on foot over the mountainous road and down into the shimmering valley of Uyuni. The town looked like a mirage: tin roofs reflecting a blazing sun, white salt deposits stretching to the horizon, our destination seeming to move farther away, the longer we hefted our bags in it’s direction.

Our first view of the Uyuni Desert

I maintained the bounce in my step, sharing fresh fruit with fellow travelers, and even stopping for tea and cookies amidst the desert scrub. My smile was undefeated by the deteriorating plastic bags snagged in almost every shrub, the occasional enshrined crucifix, or even the bloated, dead dog (which I only noticed after I had sat down to rest for a moment). Eventually we made it thru the other side of the bloqueo, and a rowdy woman there informed me that the mayor had promised them land for housing and (until he made good on his word) the only way out of this remote, derelict tourist-trap was by air or on foot.  So, I contemplated the precarious balance of power, justice, solidarity and rebellion as I trudged the last few kilometers into town, all the local taxis passing me by in solidarity with the protest. 

Roadside altar: prayers for rain and power to the people

Luckily, all our efforts were rewarded when we embarked the next day on a tour, by jeep, thru the incredibly unique and diverse landscapes of southern Bolivia. Here is where the gems of this trying country are tucked away, where only the most adventurous (and comparatively affluent) will ever see them. Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva Nacional de Eduardo Avaroa are like the (almost) undiscovered Yellowstone parks of South America. Hot springs, exotic animals, and rare foliage are the norm; we experienced viscacha (related to chinchillas!), ostriches and the magical yareta plants. The yareta has minute leaves that look like thousands of tiny succulents growing in a brain-like coral pattern, and it secretes a piney sap that is good for sore muscles (imagine our eagerness to smear the sticky, spicy substance all over our recently burdened backs!). 


The next few days were a blur of wild and wondrous sights, punctuated by a thousand photos. We saw red, green and white lakes full of blushing flamingos that trolled the grey mud for microorganisms. We gazed at enormous volcanic peaks spouting vapor, and vicuñas who appeared to be grazing (though the rocky, arid soil bore nothing green or apparently edible for miles). One of my favorite views had fleecy, plush llamas munching on miniature grasses beside a lake with rusty red waves, bold white borax deposits streaked along the shore, pink flamingos soared thru a stormy sky, and thermal geysers were spouting steam in the distance… 

Psychedelic llama experience
Flamingos favorite pastime

We also took the classic optical-illusion-photos in the vast blank canvas of the salt flats, where distance and proportion are easily warped by perspective, (if only you can convince your camera to focus on two things at once!). Many of the painted mountains and wind-sculpted rocks were reminiscent of the southwestern landscapes of the U.S., and one such desert was actually named for Dali (in honor of its surrealistic, gallery-worthy formations). We harvested handfuls of chunky salt crystals from the desert floor and spent two nights in hostels made from blocks cut directly from the flats- I licked the walls and can verify that every brick was authentic.
Double llama love
Boot balancing act
Tropical fruit trance
Uyuni salt blocks
I collected enough to share with friends and flavor my food for the next few months

All in all, It was an awe inspiring journey, and an incredible way to close this chapter of Bolivian adventures. Luckily we had the pure magic of the Isla de la Luna and the miraculous vistas of the deserts to bookend our rather rocky journey thru this unique country. In the end, the Bloqueo contingency was negotiating with the mayor, and we were allowed to explore the surrounding desert and depart the country. For me, there were many lessons on how to flow with gratitude and humor thru less than ideal situations. To have deep compassion and forgiveness for a people who have faced many struggles, and have often been stuck in cycles of poverty and conflict for so long that they’ve become apathetic or dishonest.
Geysers at sunrise
Laguna colorada
 

I am very grateful to have been able to move thru this tumultuous land with grace and have had the resources to leave as soon as I was ready. In parting, I send many prayers to the Bolivian land and people: prayers for rain in this time of drought, prayers for the pueblos in their struggles for land and justice, prayers that these unique and sacred ecosystems remain intact and uncontaminated by tourism, industry or greed. 

Hot springs celebration
 The problems that Bolivia faces are actually global issues, and very soon we may find the comfort of our own countries contending with the realities of scarcity and doubt. I also believe that there is a lot we could learn from and teach to our Bolivian brothers and sisters regarding how and why we manifest protests against unjust government decisions. In such moments of struggle, global communication, personal connection and respect for another’s way of living can help protect our planet, salvage our cultures and heal our hearts.

Bolivian Adventures: from la Isla de la Luna to Solstice in Potosí

Querida Bolivia, how I want to love you, despite all your faults and twisted karma, like a codependent friend, I continue to excuse your deceitful engaños, your grumpy fruit-ladies and the piles of rubble that block your highways, because I know that beyond this begrudging surface, lie incredible treasures and potent indigenous wisdom…

Bolivian Bicycle Bliss: on our way from the Altiplano to the Jungle (in the distance: Coroico)

Gems such as the Island of the Moon, set in the sparkling waters of Lake Titicaca, miracles like rosy flamingos trolling thru the scarlet waters of Laguna Colorada, mysteries like the swirled surface of statues silhouetted against a stormy Tiahuanacu sky. I came to you from your beloved sister country, Peru, and did my best to sift thru the turmoil of droughts and roadblocks, emerging (relieved to have passed thru unscarred), holding a few golden moments in my memory.

In Love with Llamas

I crossed the border and arrived in Copacabana on the day of the full moon. I met up with a soul sister and her newfound colombian friend, and together we managed to avoid the expensive tourist track; finding a local boat to carry us across the glittering surface of lake Titicaca to the rocky shore of la Isla de la Luna. As we rounded the mainland peninsula and motored across the vast expanse of water, the sunset highlighted immense snow-capped peaks on the far shore of the lake and painted the island’s adobe village with rosy rays.  The distant cordillera of sacred mountains was especially enticing… I had forgotten that nested in the snowy breast of the Apus was an indigo heart of ancient stone, but there it was, beaming at me, with the same potency I’d experienced on my last quest here in Titicaca. 

Sunset over Titicaca seen from la Isla de la Luna

The Island of the Moon is small, but upon our arrival on the western shore, its humble mound of sturdy earth, striped stones and eucalyptus trees eclipsed our view of the alluring mountains beyond.  We were the only travelers on the island, so we quickly settled into a sparse, tidy little hostel and scrambled up the trail to the peak of the ridge, racing to meet the moonrise on the other side… 

Meeting the Moon

We were well rewarded, upon cresting the spine of the island, an incredible view awaited us: Mama Killa was round and beaming, enormous and just emerging from behind blushing snow-capped peaks; so at first she appeared speared on the sharp summit of the cordillera. In the center of the distant glacial range was the indigo heart, I had admired its distinct shape and symbology four years ago when I last visited the islands, but it was a pleasant surprise to realize that these powerful Bolivian Apus always wear their heart so boldly exposed… What followed was several long minutes of the three of us whirling on the apex of the isle, unable to decide whether the rainbow sunset over shimmering waters or the glowing moon climbing into a fuscia fog line deserved the gaze of our eager eyes. Eventually, after much ceremony and admiration, we wound our way down the trail to the far side of the island, where the Temple of the Virgins was quietly basking in the moonlight. A lone llama stood watch over the peaceful stone-scape, and the gate was open, inviting us into the moonlit courtyard.  I set up my altar on a lone flat stone in the lawn of the temple, and we ventured back down to the choppy shore to scoop up water from the waves. Upon returning to our circle, we made quinoa soup and tea to warm us thru the cold, bright night, grateful to feel welcomed, protected and infused with the magic of the moon. 

Enticing stones on the shore of the lake
Next morning in the Temple of the Virgins
Many more adventures followed: first bussing into La Paz, along roads that had so many washboard-riddled detours that it took 6 hours to make the 4 hour journey, but I was content, high on the pure bliss of a new experience. I passed the turbulent ride chatting with locals, including the broad mamita in so many thick skirts and petticoats that she could hardly squeeze between the seats and perch in the aisle of the bus.  At some point after sunset, (I had just drifted of into a time-warp of half-dreams and bus-visions) we were informed that everyone must disembark from the bus, and load onto a series of motorboats to cross the lake. I welcomed the unexpected adventure, happily paying a few Bolivianos for the brief crossing, checking my compass to find East; hoping for a glimpse of the moonrise and marveling in the change of pace.
Barges for Buses (Tiquina, Lake Titicaca)
 It wasn’t until my friend asked why they hadn’t built a bridge between the two not-so-distant shores did it even occur to me to question our unusual path… It turns out we had almost an hour to contemplate this, since it took that long for our rickety bus to be loaded onto a rustic wooden barge and ferried across the inlet. Meanwhile, passengers milled about in the puddles of orange lamp-light, bought food from street vendors, and watched a variety of vehicles be loaded onto flat barges and polled away from the shore.  Eventually, the answer to our query became clear: if the people of this tiny town allowed a bridge to be built, the small economy of ferrying and feeding the travelers would evaporate. And so the bridge remains unbuilt, and both the townspeople and our adventures are a little richer for it. At times, South America can seem completely backwards, but I find that when I make an effort to connect with compassion, the reason behind the confusion will arise. Logic and rational thinking have a lot to do with cultural perspective and how much desperation you contend with in your daily life. 

Slowly the silver slivers of moonlight reflected on Titicaca waters were replaced by the metal gates and piles of rubble that make up the poverty riddled suburbs of el Alto. The height of the bus allowed me a view over the elaborate barricades and thick adobe walls into the rubble strewn and mostly barren properties within. I wondered at the logic of spending so much money on surrounding your property, when all that you hold within the wall appears to be a crumbling adobe oven and a pile of garbage. Trash was piled amidst the rubble strewn streets aswell, some mountains set ablaze, others being picked thru by packs of dogs, tearing at the plastic flesh to reach the fermenting refuse within. I wondered at the clusters of people I saw walking about naturally in the apocalyptic scene. What are the stories of the old men? What will become of the small children, clutching the immense ruffles of their mothers skirts? What am I going to do when I step off this bus at nearly midnight? 

Sunset Graveyard, Southern Bolivia

Once we descended from el Alto, La Paz was a surprisingly clean-cut city: tidy brick buildings lining the vast valley with a view of an epic glacial mountain to the south. All of the poverty and detours are apparently banished to the altiplano on the fringes of the suburbs. We took advantage of a national art fair, the witches market, and the delightful teleférico lines that carried us over the city streets in metro cable cars strung from peak to peak (which cost a mere 3 Bolivianos per trip!). From La Paz, we ventured out on a few short ventures, getting a taste of the beautiful stonework and mystical statues of Tiahuanacu, and cycling down one of the steepest roads in the world from the andean altiplano to the lush jungle below. I loved the feel of running my fingers across the smooth surface of ancient stone blocks, and the sweet scented humidity of the jungle wrapping my skin in floral breezes. 

Detail on ancient Tiahuanaku statue
Tiahuanaku Temple
An image so vivid, you can almost smell the Plumeria
A photo in memory of my Grandpa

We departed the capitol city by night bus, which turned out to be a nightmare for any passenger who was in need of the bathroom. Apparently it is common practice to simply lock the door to the toilet so the driver doesn’t have to clean it at the end of the 10 hour trip. This results in frustrated, weary tourists banging on the door to the conductor’s compartment, being let off to squat on the side of the road while he honks to hurry them back onto the bus at 4 am- a frustrating situation for everyone involved.

Needless to say, we were relieved to arrive to the clean cobbled streets of Potosí, which we had chosen as our Solstice destination because of the highly recommended thermal pools. Alas, the Ojo del Inca hot-springs had more Bolivian mysteries in store for us. Disembarking from a dusty ride on a bus thru the arid canyons, we were informed that the spring was closed, although no one knew why (kinda like the bathroom… maybe it is so they don’t have to clean it??). But the rumors were so vague that we decided to hike in anyways. Upon arrival, we were informed that this tranquil, picturesque lake set among gorgeous mountains, happens to have a spontaneous volcanic vortex capable of drowning and disappearing unwary tourists in a matter of moments. Apparently this tragic incident has happened rarely enough over the past few years to become almost mythical, but as our luck would have it, only a few days prior an ambiguously identified foreigner was claimed by the unexpected whirlpool. So we were left feeling daring, but dry on the shore of the delicious hot pool. We made out way back to our hostel and had an untraditional meal of homemade sushi; Happy Summer Solstice… at least we weren’t swallowed by the Earth.

 

Heart renewal in the Sacred Valley, Perú…

Sweet sacred valley you have wrapped your beloved mountains round my heart and melted her wider, warmer more open than ever before, a molten river of love and gratitude flowing like the Chesqua Mayu, Milky Way, River of Stars… Again, and every time deeper, brighter, sweeter than before, the connections with the people, the land, the spirits of this place, a blessing that bathes my soul with light and healing. El Valle Sagrado, where stone temples crown the ancient Apus and vibrant corn dances along the banks of the Urubamba River. Gracias, thankyou, urpuyai sonqoyai, (in your heart a little dove).

My first glimpse of Apu Lingli

 

My first stop, as the taxi crested the Andean ridge and wound down the carretera from Cusco to Pisaq, was to offer gratitude and ask for the blessing and bienvenido of Apu Lingli. Apus are sacred mountain beings, and Lingli is like a grandfather guardian whose great presence towers over and infuses power into the tiny town of Pisaq. The view from across the valley is breathtaking, fresh snow glistens on distant peaks, chakras shimmer their verdant crops of corn, potatoes and fava beans in the sunlight. The stone streets and adobe buildings nestle between the skirts of the mountain and the hips of the undulating Urubamba River… I beam at Lingli and feel him smiling down upon me, as we both assess the precious pueblo of Pisaq from above. From this vantage I can see each of the houses where I once made my home, the school where I volunteered, the tents of the many artisans vendors which crowd the central plaza with their colorful wares.

My elation, gratitude and relief grew with the descent of every switchback, and I was flooded with the sense of both venturing into the unknown and coming home at the same time… It has been three years since I set foot in the Sacred Valley of Peru, and while I was deeply in love and involved with the community here, I feel as if I’ve lived an entire lifetime away, and I wasn’t sure what sort of welcome I would receive upon returning….

Gatitos cariñosos, mis nuevos amigos

 

Turns out, it was the sweetest, warmest, heart-beaming welcome I have ever been blessed with… My dear friends had a clean and cozy spare room ready with all the familiar smells of earthy adobe and peruvian floor polish. Their yard was a series of lush terraces, San Pedro cacti, roses and jasmine climbing the walls, trapezoidal windows in the stone work where the kitties perched and napped. The creamy clay colored living-room was adorned with detailed relief patterns: a series of chakana zig zags with birds, and a divine sculpture of a pregnant Pacha Mama emerging from the wall above the altar. I sat along the curved window seat, snuggled by gatitos and colorful pillows on both sides, Apu Lingli gazing over my shoulder. My dear friend Denise and I shared nutritious, medicinal coca tea and stories, deep breaths and laughter. It felt like a delicious miracle to find myself here again, consciously grounding into this magical place and feeling its energies already at work on my soul.

The colorful spirit of Pisaq

 

After a nap, I ventured into town to pick up a few provisions and soak in the familiarities of the plaza and its mercado mamitas. The greeting they gave me was so sweet and tender it brought tears to my eyes and I felt my heart expand exponentially… Peruvian women are as adorable as it gets, perched amidst their vibrant weavings or abundant piles of fruit, long dark braids tied up with yarn, embroidered skirts, and floral aprons whose deep pockets must hold kilos of peruvian coins. The first mamita to recognize my foreign face cried out and grasped my hand in hers for at least five minutes (no exaggeration), showering me with greetings, compliments and questions as to where I had been for so long. She released me only to tie a friendship bracelet on my wrist: olive and indigo alpaca threads woven into a diamond pattern and adorned with cobalt blue beads. Only then did she allow me to proceed on down the row of stalls, greeting familiar mamitas, holding babies wrapped in brightly woven mantas, purchasing a few needed items and resisting the urge to buy more blankets, jewelry and sweaters than I could ever cram into my backpack and carry…

The colorful mercado mamitas of Pisaq

 

I received equally warm and heart-full bienvenidos everywhere I turned in the tiny town of Pisaq. Fruit vendors remembered my name and my love of the tart golden aguaymanto berries, school directors who celebrated my return with as much enthusiasm as the students, fondly recalling our time together and inviting me into their protective community to share more golden moments together. I only spent nine days in this precious niche in the world, but I emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon, wings glistening and ready to fly. Faith in myself, humanity and the world renewed, feet firmly on pacha mama, spirit soaring in the stars of the southern hemisphere…

Los niños de Kusi Kawsai

During this brief time, I spent several mornings volunteering at the local Andean Waldorf elementary school called Kusi Kawsai (which means Happy Life in Quechua). I carry face paints with me for moments such as these, when I adorned almost every cheek in the school with colors to match the vibrant smiles and personalities of the students and teachers alike. I felt so blessed to be included in this community so infused with intention and adoration, all for the sake of the precious children of Pisaq and its surrounding villages. I handed out gifts to all my friends: shoes, toys, medicines and classroom supplies that are difficult or impossible to find in this remote land. It felt so good to reciprocate the generosity and nurturing that I have absorbed from this sacred place, to see the joy and appreciation reflected back from the community, to be a bridge of cultural exchange between the two places I love most in the world.

A la casa de Hilaría y mis ahijadas

A friend and I took a colectivo up to the village of Chawaitiri, renowned for its incredible weavings, where we visited the family of my goddaughters, bringing fruit and gifts for the kids, and in return receiving a lesson in spinning and dying alpaca wool with natural plants. Together we walked up to a mountain ridge, raw and rocky spine of the Andes where the cliffs are adorned with mahogany llama petroglyphs. There we exchanged kintus (a traditional way of offering blessings and gratitude) by carefully selecting and arranging three precious coca leaves in a fan between ones fingers. For each person present, we blew our intentions thru our breath, on the wind, up to the powerful Apus and into the hearts of our loved ones.

 

La linda Llanua

Another dear friend accompanied me up to a sacred site tucked into the rippling ridges of Lingli to set intentions and ask for guidance and healing on my journey. Kintus, songs and gratitude flowing from our lips; bathing ourselves and the world in our love and gratitude for all we have received, and opening our hearts to the wisdom of the ancient Apu Lingli. I felt so happy, whole, saturated with potent possibilities and ready for whatever the universe has in store for my soul….

A painting in my journal reflecting the renewal of my heart

 

So many tender and sacred moments rolled into a brief, yet expansive time. Daily doses of heart-medicine: playing with the children, buying flowers at the Sunday market, numerous natural therapies, ceremonies and songs, all overseen by the Apus who cradle the valley in their ancient arms. I feel so profoundly humble and grateful for all the gifts of this enchanting place. Beloved home of my heart, which pulled me in for an all encompassing embrace and recharged my spirit before gently releasing me to travel the rich and wonderful worlds of South America… Pisaq I love you, I will be back soon, bearing gifts and bridging the people and places I love with this most incredible meridian on mother earth… Gracias, thank you, urpuyai sonqoyai, in your heart a little dove…