A New Direction for Mountain Lion!

Now that my Odyssey to Bolivia is over, I will be repurposing the blog as my contribution to the young Catholic blogosphere. The modern university environment is (if not outright atheistic) spiritually apathetic. Hopefully, this blog will now become part of the growing movement of young people who reject this mentality, and instead direct their lives by reason and a faith in the love of Christ.


A Day at Pedacito de Cielo

I didn’t get a chance to upload this video until we got to our hotel in La Paz (which has pretty fast internet for Bolivia). Ah well. Enjoy!


A Parting of Ways

Welp, it’s September 30th. We have only two days left here in Cochabamba until we leave on Friday morning to catch a plane to La Paz.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to the kids at the orphanage and I just got back from my last Spanish class with our professor Toni. The prospect of saying goodbye to my host family and going on my way seems a little surreal. I’ve been part of the goings-on in this house for almost three months, and (while it will be good to get back to the states), it’s still a little daunting.


Potosi! : Part 2

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On Saturday, we awoke to a hurried breakfast of coffee, tea, and toast before packing up the jeeps once heading south once more. In the morning, the land was flat, populated only by calico herds of grazing llamas and huge fields of soy and quinoa. The jeep bumped constantly over the thick, brown dust of the road, which (after passing through the tiny town of San Juan del Rosario) eventually yielded to the red, metamorphic gravel of a desert that might as well have been the surface of Mars. Besides the soaring mountains in the distance on all sides, there was only the wide open red hills and the winding rushing through all of that space. In a huge rock formation that stands at the foothills below the desert, we found viscacha, an animal that looks like an irritated rabbit with a tail. It was also here that the dust clogged an air filter in the jeep, and Don Ismael had to go spelunking in the engine compartment to replace it. Quite the encouraging sight in the middle of one of the loneliest wildernesses on Earth.

The rock formations in this area were unbelievable, notable among them “El Arbol de Piedra” (the stone tree). If anything, Bolivia as a country is a surprising place, and it didn’t disappoint when, after driving for hours on the Martian surface, we drove over a hill to find a laguna that was the darkest shade of blue I have ever seen in a body of water. Pink flamingos bobbed on the surface of the salty water (the white stuff you see in the picture is salt), and sparse scrub grew up around its banks. We finally wound up at La Laguna Colorado, which basically means “Red Lake”, and that is certainly a different title. Because of the iron content of the water and the algae that live in it, the lake appears to be blood-red. We stayed the night here in a small (decidedly shady) hostel next to the lake, which we shared with several groups of European young people on vacation. Steven and I wound up playing cards with three Irish girls and slightly drunk Dutch guy, which, if you have never tried, I highly suggest.

Wake up call on the Lord’s Day came at the frosty hour (night in Potosi is cold) of 4:30 AM. Packing on every layer we could find, we stumbled out to the jeep, helping Don Ismael load, and continued on our way. The first stop were the geysers. Volcanically fuelled, these holes in the barren earth belched sulfurous steam high into the blue morning sky. Pools of boiling muck glooped lazily in sunken pits, and shrouded the whole area in clouds of mist. Very cool. Laguna Verde, made around 9:00 that morning, was our southernmost stop, bringing us dangerously close to the borders of Chile and Argentina. After admiring the emerald-green of the lake, we turned around and started making the long way back north. We did stop, briefly, at a volcanically heated laguna about 30 kilometers from the Laguna Verda, which has a sectioned-off pool for swimming. After bouncing around in a jeep for two days, covered in dust and muck, hopping awkwardly down a frosty gravel hillside in a only pair of swimming trunks (much to the amusement of one’s companions) is a small price to pay for relaxing in a natural Jacuzzi surrounded by flamingos and Andean mountains. The way back was arduous and long, but all of the discomfort was more than worth it. Uyuni is a wild and amazing place, transforming from salt flats to farmland to desert over an amazingly short distance. And to think that this is only one of Bolivia’s many natural treasures.


I Have Been to the Mountaintop

Bella Vista was one of the most lonely places I have ever spent a night.  Only about ten people lived there, but it was apparent that it had not always been that way. Several small houses stood abandoned around what had once been the main square (which was right about the size of half a basketball court). Behind the town were the ruins of what may have been the original Bella Vista, the crumbling remains of several rows of tiny houses.

As we walked among these houses, the day was approaching twilight and the light was creeping away from the tops of the mountains that rose up on either side of us. On the left mountain, I saw a cactus with about five arms on one side, which gave it the look of the Quasimodo of cactuses. It didn’t look all that far away, and I bet one of the other students that I could climb to that cactus before the light of the setting sun left it.  He shrugged and said “Go for it.”

With that, (being of little brain) I set off up the side of the mountain, dodging the occasional ground cactus and watching out for snakes as I clambered up the dusty red rock. It didn’t take long for me to realize, like so many other things in my life, that this was not going to be nearly as easy as I thought.  The piles of rock and dirt shifted under my feet, and, with every few meters of ascent, the thinness of the air left my lungs burning like I had run three miles. As I looked up during one of my (embarrassingly frequent) breaks, chest heaving as my lungs looked for oxygen that wasn’t there, I could see Quasi-cactus leering at me from on top of the mountain, never seeming to get any closer.

I guess I came pretty close to quitting, but, as I was already about halfway, I figured that the physical discomfort involved in getting to the cactus would be less than the shame of having given up, so I kept on keeping on. After a few more minutes, I looked down to see my friends in the valley below, little more than colored specks among the ruins of the Andean town below.

The last few meters were decidedly rough, but, after a good thirty minutes of climbing, I reached out and triumphantly pulled one of the three-inch spines (and a sizable quantity of self-respect) from Quasi-cactus.  The view from there was magnificent, but I was only a few steps from the top, and I figured why not go all out.

At the top of the mountain, a group of rocks stood clustered, basking in the dying Andean sunlight. I stood on the foremost one and took in one of the most staggering sights I had ever seen. With one chain of the Andes at my back, I looked across the valley, traced with rivers and dusty roads, and bigger than anything I had ever seen before, to the soaring chain of snow-capped mountains on the other side. To the left, far off in the hazy distance, I could see the blinding whiteness of the Salar. And all of this under the biggest, deepest, bluest sky I had ever seen.

And the single most amazing thing about that sight, I thought, was that even though I could see this immeasurably immense piece of creation, I could not see a single human being in all of it. I was, as far as I could see, completely alone in this vast corner of the world.


Potosi!: Part 1

On Thursday, we met early in the morning to leave on a bus for the town of Oruro, located in the southern departamento (the Bolivian equivalent of a state; the country has nine) of the same name.  Oruro itself was unseasonably hot when we arrived around noon, and people walked through the dusty, spacious streets wearing sweaters and jackets, obviously unprepared for this change in weather.  From Oruro, we caught a train, which took us eight hours further south, into the departamento of Potosi to the town of Uyuni.  I try to approach life with a persistently stupid kind of positive attitude, but that train ride was decidedly rough.  Due to the lack of atmosphere, the Andean sun is merciless, and while Bolivians seem to be perfectly happy to ride in a boiling train car with all windows closed (due to dust?) for eight hours, I have to say that I don’t share their sentiments.

All whining aside, we were very glad to get to Uyuni when we did. The town was like something out of the old west. Built on the long-defunct silver and tin mining industry, Uyuni is sustained by tourism, and most businesses are something tourist-related: souvenir shops, tour companies, etc.  After a night at the comfortable Toñito hotel, we set out in an aging Toyota Land Cruiser in what was to be a three-day circuit of the very southern-most part of Bolivia, almost to the Argentinean and Chilean borders.  With our guide and driver, Don Ismael, and our cook, we set out first to a site just outside Uyuni: the Train Cemetery, a resting place for the trains that used to transport minerals from Uyuni back into the heart of Bolivia.

After the train cemetery, we drove to the southern edge of Uyuni, the ground changing from a dry, hard brown to a faint beige as its salt content steadily increased.  After a brief visit to the Salt Museum and a salt-processing company, we set out into the blinding whiteness of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. Words cannot describe the beauty and strangeness of this landscape. The whiteness stretched on to the horizon in all directions, ruining all perspective. The Wikipedia page for the Salar is interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni.

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Around the middle of the day, we stopped at Incahuasi, an cactus-covered rocky “island” that rises out of the Salar.  The place was beautiful, but CRAWLING with tourists. It’s very hard to appreciate the majesty of a place such as the Salar while there is a fifty-five-year-old American woman with a fanny-pack talking loudly about how quaint everything is and how that stupid guy at the hotel brought her cream instead of half-and-half with her room service AGAIN.  I find almost all tourists extremely grating. If you hadn’t determined that.

A brief aside on that point: There is a fundamental difference between a tourist and a traveler, and it comes down to mentality. A tourist is someone who goes to a different part of the world with the idea that that part of the world and its people should and will change themselves to meet his/her needs. Money is the justification for this demand. A traveler is someone who travels to a different part of the world and expects not be met with change, but to be changed by that experience. But, I digress.

Anyhow, the day consisted of much shenanigans on the Salar, and later, staying spending the night in a small town nestled into the cleft of mountain behind fields of quinoa. A VERY small town. This town had two families in it. The night was quiet, the stars were brilliant, and we awaited the next day.


Incallajta

A few weeks ago, we had a weekend field trip to Incallajta, an Incan ruin about three hours outside of Cochabamba. This was one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen. The city itself was huge, nestled between two mountains on one side, and two rivers in the gorge below.  A waterfall plunges down the soaring walls of earth and rock that rise above the ruins, then deep into the canyon that runs through the center of the city.  As the son of a museum planner, when I visit sites like this, I always expect there to be a visitor’s center, with maps, pictures, exhibits, and models to guide the visitor. Here, there were none of these things, just the bones of an ancient city in an abandoned valley in the middle of nowhere.

More than anything else, this experience raised questions. What was the society like that lived here? What did they do? Why did they leave?  Frustratingly, the lack of physical evidence there leaves many questions about Incallajta shrouded in mystery.  Still, an amazing place.