Dance Party!

Trip Start Jan 17, 2005
Trip End Oct 10, 2005

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, July 23, 2005

After a few journeys now I am beginning to understand the how's and why's of Bolivian bus travel. Four and half hours? But its only 150 km! These are thoughts I had before the journey from La Paz to Sorata. The first 30 minutes of the journey were used up getting from central La Paz to the edge of El Alto, the sprawling brick and adobe-land 'suburb' on the edge of the altiplano overlooking the bowl of La Paz (also home of the native political movement that overthrew the president a few months back). For much of this journey it was difficult to identify if we were driving on a road or through the middle of a market. This covered perhaps 10 km. Then the open road! An hour to cover the next 90 km along a paved highway. Only 50 km to go and only 90 minutes have passed! The road becomes a lot less paved at this point as we pass through dusty altiplano towns. This continues for maybe an hour or so to cover the next 30 km where we reach the edge of the altiplano. There it is! Sorata! I can see it! Here begins the tortuous crawl into the valley down switchback after switchback to drop 1,300 m in elevation to get to the destination. 2 hours of switchbacks. Over the course of the drop the temperature rises steadily making the ride less and less pleasant. Especially with the woman eating an orange next to me. Amazing the things that can make you feel ill in these situations. Would someone open a window please???

Not a moment too soon we arrive. Didn't get sick!! Where am I? Palm trees??! This is cool! Sorata is a town of about 2,000 or so that at one time was a colonial center for exploitation of the riches to be found further down the valley in the jungle. I think. It has a sort of... crumbling charm? There are many beautiful buildings that aren't quite getting the care they deserve... But if they were, I might have to pay more than $3 per night for my room. Its become a destination for trekkers and climbers as its located at the northern edge of the Cordillera Real, about 3,800 m below the summits of Nevado Illampu and Jankhouma (both top out around 6,400 m). Its got a lot of conveniences tailored to the gringo, but hasn't sold out completely. It still feels and acts like a real Bolivian town.

By dumb luck, I arrived in town about 30 minutes before the parades started through the town square. I'm not sure exactly what the festival was (some type of mining celebration? - a large soccer tournement also accompanied the festivities), but all of the small communities dotting the valley around the city were represented by a groups of people dressed in traditional garb of their villages. All this while enjoying the hot sun at a sidewalk restaurant serving... Mexican food? Does it get any better?

Brings up an interesting peculiarity of the place. There are 4 restaurants around the town square. Each is an Italian/Mexican restaurant. The menus are essentially the same. The stranger part was that the waitress would sometimes run into the adjacent restaurant to get our food. Or the waiter would enter the restaurant on one corner and then reappear at the restaurant on the opposite corner of the square...

Being a trekking center, I should have been prepared to meet someone I'd met previously. But I was still surprised to run into James during the parade. James, who I'd met back in Esquel, Argentina in April. At least we had taken completely different paths to get here. This worked out well because we both had the same trek on our itineraries and now we didn't need to do it solo.

I spent a few days walking about the small villages in the hills surrounding Sorata in order to get my legs back under me after my extended period of malaise. All areas below about 4,000 m have been cultivated with small plots of vegetables or pastures. Walking in any direction one invariably will encounter people tending to their crops or livestock. Not exactly a 'wilderness' experience, but very interesting.

These few days also gave me an opportunity to check out the local nightlife. Sorata did not disappoint! The highlight was evening checking out the 'underground' scene. Our first stop was El Tren Nocturnal. The Night Train served one thing: Paceņa (Bolivia's national beer) in 1-liter bottles. The action was in the basement, which reminded me a lot of my friends' basement in college (the Zoo for any U of M alum out there) where parties were held on occasion. The floor was crumbling concrete, covered with lots of stale beer and perhaps a little urine here and there. Very little lighting, as one would expect from a place called the Night Train. Seating consisted of some folding chairs and card tables. We were definitely the only gringos in this place. After a few Paceņas we decided to move on to a more interesting place. Down the street a crowd of young Bolivians had assembled at a doorway. Curious gringos we were, we went inside. This again led to a basement and a much less formal establishment. It may have been just some guy's basement. But the tunes were better and this led to some dancing amongst the locals. Bolivian dancing resembles what I imagine an 8th-grade dance to be like (I have to speculate as I never attended one). The men and women formed lines facing each other with at least 3 feet of clearance between them. Dancing involved shuffling of the feet and slightly swinging the arms as a 90-year-old man might. I couldn't tell if everyone was partnered up intentionally or it was just luck of the draw with who they were facing. I tried a little free-form dancing myself but was quickly instructed by one of the men that my movements were much to exaggerated. I think his girlfriend liked it though.

After recovering from all that fun it was time to head out trekking. This was my first trek since Patagonia way back in April... and it definitely felt like it. Adding to this was the first day covered 1,500 m of elevation gain which became especially difficult as the air got thinner and thinner. As I mentioned, not really a wilderness hike, as locals were present along the entire hike up. Locals who might take the gringos expensive camping gear if the appropriate wheels aren't greased... Trekkers are strongly encouraged to use guides for their trips. James and I are of the same mindset and prefered not to take one. Nothing against guides (who in this case are mainly people from the local villages), but part of the fun for me is figuring everything out on my own... Anyway, approaching the campsite three locals passed us heading back down the valley (one brandishing a hammer - to help the gringos pound tent stakes?). They quized us for a bit about why we didn't have a guide, and told us that we should be very careful with our stuff... Bottom line is that if you go with a guide, your stuff is safe. If not, well... At the camp there were a few people with guides and also another man who was just floating around... The Bolivian Mafia. As we successfully learned, pay the man some Bolivianos and your stuff is still there when you leave the next day to check out Laguna Glacial. We were unsure when we left because he didn't speak Spanish. He responded 'si' to all questions and comments. Much like myself back in January. But when we showed him the money, his eyes lit up and we seemed to have an understanding. Despite taking a 3 month break and moving north a few thousand kilometers, my luck with weather continued. Each evening and morning dense fog rolled in making the cool air at 4,200 m feel even cooler. We cut our trek short by a day as neither of us were prepared for the cold.

And we knew what awaited us in Sorata! One of our last nights in town was a street party, featuring more Bolivian line dancing, though this time with a live band. Combine this with a dodgy burger covered with sliced hot dogs, onions and a fried egg from one of the late night hamburger carts that pop up around the square... well I think that might be better than watching a parade eating mexican food in the afternoon sun.
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mmargolis on

A fine entry my boy. The Bolivian Mafia sounds like a well run organization--are they hiring?
mc golis

trenduevel on

dance party
Next time wear something a bit brighter.anneofannarbor

kellyrasmussen on

Bolivian Mo-Jo
What? the locals did not like your Charlie Brown? (that's freestyle dance for those of you not in the know) They must like to keep their mo-jo tucked in their pocket.

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