Sunday with the family

We spent Sunday in Yoli’s neighborhood.

We headed to her parents house first thing, and they showed us the new store and kitchen which are nearly finished. The old kiosko still stands, but it will be removed before long.

To get ready for lunch, we had to start moving some things into the new kitchen, like Doña Lucila’s little old propane stove. Her daughters all want her to replace it with a new stove, but she refuses because it was a wedding gift. And besides, it still works fine, she says.

Yoli was also surprised to see her Tio Emilio, Don Hector’s brother. I have never met him before, and Yoli hadn’t seen him since we married. He has fallen on hard times and is having many health problems right now.

Eventually it was time to head to Yoli’s old church, Esmirna, which is conveniently located right next door to her parents’ house.

The church has a new pastor now. The previous pastor, Adolfo, was a man Yoli and everyone loved. He died last year because they couldn’t find a kidney donor.

After church we got ready for lunch as the rest of the family began arriving. The new store is a big space, perfect for our big group to have lunch at one long set of tables. But before long it will be filled with groceries and supplies and display cases and such.

The biggest surprise was when Noemi showed up. She had ridden a train through the night just to see us. Like us, she had left her kids behind.

In the afternoon, I tried to help fix some of Don Hector’s computer problems: nonworking keys on his keyboard and a USB camera. I disassembled the keyboard and cleaned it, but ultimately all I had to show for it was a sore back and a cut thumb.

While I was doing that, Yoli had asked Jonathan (formerly known as Papicho) to show her how to use her new slingshot. But then her mom spoke up and said that SHE would show how. Yoli’s sisters were all astonished as Doña Lucila set up a bag as a target and hit it twice. Yoli knew from past conversations that, as a child, it was her mom’s job to shoot parrots and birds that wanted to eat oranges on her farm. Alas I wasn’t there, and have no photos of this. But one of Yoli’s sisters might.

Eventually it was time to go. Noemi had not yet bought a return ticket, and nearly missed her chance. She had to buy one from a reseller, at a more expensive price.

We spent some time visiting one of Yoli’s friends while a loud mariachi band played nearby. Them we ate ate some dinner at Hot Burger followed by some ice cream at Vaca Fria.

Either the vegetables on the lomito sandwich or the ice cream didn’t agree with us, because we both came down with stomach problems the next day. Oh well. At least we made it through most of the trip okay.

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25th class reunion

This year is the 25th anniversary of Yoli’s high school graduation (or “promo” as they call it here).

Getting together with her classmates was one of the things that motivated us to come on this trip. I haven’t mentioned it so far in our blog entries, but coming to Bolivia in the summer first required us to travel to Washington DC to get Yoli a new Bolivian passport and ID card (“carnet”). We turned that into a family vacation as we try to do, and we had a lot of fun. But dealing with the Bolivian consulate was decidedly NOT fun. They informed us that they had no record of our marriage, despite all the paperwork we did six years ago, when we last traveled to DC. We had to do everything over. Getting all the necessary papers required more money and a couple months.

All this to say that: it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to travel here. It’s more than just buying a (pricy) plane ticket and getting on the plane.

Yoli has been talking with her classmates about this trip for a while. Once we finally had her Bolivian documents in hand, and we knew for sure we would be coming, she tried to pin down dates and times for the reunion.

This was not easy. Everyone lives in different places, has different schedules, and not everybody uses Facebook. But eventually a plan did come together.

About 9:30 Saturday night we met with some of Yoli’s classmates at a Hipermaxi supermarket. They drove us to a very nice house in one of Santa Cruz’s outlying “urbanizaciones” (subdivision is the closest concept).

A couple things to know about Bolivian fiestas. They usually start late, people love to cook and eat very late, and they often involve very loud music.

I wasn’t crazy about the eating late part. But it makes sense in Santa Cruz, where summer days are sweltering and the only relief is late at night and early in the morning. Of course you would have your parties when everyone is off work and things are somewhat cooler.

As far as the music goes, I have walked past many loud parties over the years, but I’ve never actually attended one. For a fiesta, a family might hire a mariachi band and dance until morning while unbelievably loud music plays all through the night. On this trip we talked with one friend who sighed and told us his neighbor’s loud party had been going for two days straight.

Well, Yoli’s classmates had a set up big TV, speakers, microphones and everything you need for karaoke.

Everyone had a good time chatting, visiting, reminiscing, and joking. I had just as much trouble as I usually do in following any part of the proceedings.

The house was really impressive. There was no yard, but instead a beautiful tiled patio with a large grill and a roofed-in area where the karaoke equipment was arrayed.

When karaoke time came, Yoli and I flipped through the song book. There were hundreds of songs, mostly Spanish, with a sprinkling of English pop and rock.

This exposed my cultural shortcomings. I grew up listening exclusively to Christian Rock and CCM, and I don’t really know the lyrics to any Beatles or Michael Jackson songs beyond a few choruses. They had one Jaci Velasquez song, but I wasn’t going to sing that. I would have belted out some Switchfoot or Five Iron Frenzy if they had it.

In any event, a couple of the classmates were really good singers. Hopefully that was some consolation to the neighbors. Because the music was put-cotton-balls-in-your-ears loud.

The food was very tasty. I’m not sure exactly when we started eating, but it was probably midnight or thereabouts. I ate sausages, some steak, arroz con queso, yucca, and some veggies.

Yoli’s classmate Abrahan had two of his children with him. His youngest daughter was crying and he spent a lot of time pushing her in a stroller trying to comfort her. I remember those days very well, and it made me (again) realize the blessing of this trip where I don’t have to worry about my own kids because my mom and dad are watching them.

We finally got to bed after 2 a.m. But there was to be no sleeping in … The next day was Sunday, and that means church!

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Revisiting Cotoca, Paila, and old memories

After leaving the clinic with Roberto and Doris, we immediately caught a series of taxis to go to Cotoca.

This is my second time visiting Cotoca. We last visited in 2008. Doris took us to her favorite place to eat breakfast. Yoli and I had already eaten some bread at the ProSalud clinic, but we enjoyed a cafecito with an arepa. Yoli makes these at home now, and they are among my favorite Bolivian things.

We walked around the plaza for a long time talking. Roberto and I walked over to the church, which is now sporting new colors. In 2008, it was white and blue. Now it is white with tan and dark red. Roberto said this was to make the church conform more closely with other Chiquitano missions in the area. Makes sense to me, but I still think it looked nicer with blue.

Yoli wanted to buy a slingshot. So we looked around the market until we found some hiding under a the tarp roof of a stall. Squirrels back home, be warned.

After this we took a taxi to Doris’ hometown of Paila.

I have interesting memories of Paila. During a fishing trip with my cuñados, we got stuck in traffic in the town. The problem was the bridge across the Rio Grande. It was a rickety one lane bridge, shared by cars and trains. A car was stuck in the middle of the bridge when a train came, and things backed up on both sides of the river for hours. So we unloaded from the Jeep and walked across the bridge to another little town called Puerto Ibañez. Eventually traffic cleared and Alcides brought the Jeep across to pick us up.

You can click the link above to read the whole story of the fishing trip (it’s worth it) but I want to point out one other connection to today’s events: I had the same wheezing problem as I tried to sleep in the Jeep that night/morning. Out in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing to do but just breathe each loud breath and hope it wasn’t waking or bothering anyone else but me.

We stopped at the home of Doris’s mother and got a tour of their property. They had some really nice palm trees, along with some baby trees just sprouting up. Roberto and Doris say they make make a business later selling these. They take five years to grow and can fetch $200.

As we were visiting, a neighbor came. She had lost her new parrot and wanted to see if it was on their property. They didn’t find anything for a while, but then Yoli call me to come. The little green guy was hiding atop a tree.

For lunch, Doris’ mother took us to her favorite stall for fish. We had a great lunch of sábalo and boga, which is a local fish caught in the river. Both were very tasty, if a bit bony.

Eventually we made our way down to the river. I got to see the big new bridge, built beside the old one (which is now for trains only). This new bridge was under construction back in 2007 when I passed through. The two bridges are the longest in Bolivia.

After a nice visit, we four shared a taxi back to Santa Cruz. Yoli and I needed to rest and write blogs and get ready for her class reunion that would take place later that night.

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A trip to the ER

Saturday was supposed to be spent going with Yoli’s friends Roberto and Doris traveling to Cotoca and Paila.

But there was a little hiccup.

Or, more accurately, a lot of wheezing and coughing.

I woke up very early, unable to sleep, having trouble breathing. This only seems to happen to me in Bolivia and sometimes in St. Louis in springtime when we sleep with the windows open. At home I have a bit of leftover albuterol I can use in a nebulizer if things are really bad, but that’s very seldom.

Yoli had me breathe some steam, which helped a little bit, but I was still wheezing. After a while we decided to go to ProSalud.

I thought we were just going to a clinic, but it turns out we had to go the emergency room; my first trip to a Bolivian ER. I learned that, as always, they do things a little differently down here than I am used to.

The main difference is that you pay up front for everything. First you have to pay and get a receipt before a doctor will even look at you. Then, he writes up prescriptions for medicine, supplies and tests. You take these down to the pharmacy, pay for them, then bring all the paraphernalia back to the ER for the nurses to administer.

In my case the doctor wanted a chest x-Ray; he also prescribed a hydrocortisone shot, and three 10 minute nebulizations.

There was no way I was going to get an X-Ray just for this. It robbed me of a lot of sleep, but for me this condition improves as the sun rises and the air warms. What I really wanted was an inhaler or something just in case it happened again. But they don’t really do inhalers down here. The shot also seemed excessive, but they were treating it like an asthma attack.

When all was said and done, I felt much better, but our departure for Cotoca had been delayed a bit. It also messed up my morning: no shower, no changing clothes, no using the nice bathroom at El Jordan (ProSalud was a no-go; they are a bring-your-own-paper establishment, it seems).

Roberto and Doris met us at the ProSalud clinic. Read more about our trip together in the next post.

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A rocky return and a reconciliation

At last it was time to say goodbye to La Víspera and Samaipata and return to the big city.

I woke early and climbed back up to El Trono to try to take more panoramic photos. I’ll have to stitch those together when I get back to St. Louis.

We ate the rest of our bread, cleaned up the cabin, and prepared to get a taxi.

The thing with taxis is that no matter how clearly you explain that you want something, such as an express taxi straight to Santa Cruz with no stops to pick up passengers, the drivers always seem to be unaware of the arrangement you made in the phone. One side of me thinks this is innocent; another side can’t shake the feeling it’s a ploy to charge higher fares, since it’s happened to us three times so far.

There was just one thing standing between us and Santa Cruz: the road.

It had been very rough coming up to Samaipata. But with a light rain overnight, it became even worse.

At one point traffic was stopped in both directions as a large bulldozer attempted to clear the road after another landslide. After a while, drivers force the bulldozer to stop and let them through. Then we watched as tiny taxis and enormous trucks took turns slip-sliding their way up the road. At times it seemed they might slide into us … Or slide the other way, into the ravine.


I have a video of this slip-n-slide but haven’t yet been able to upload it due to slow internet here. I’ll share it soon.

But, at last, we made it past that choke point. The road was bad all the rest of the way down the mountain, but we were going downhill and had an aggressive driver, so the return trip home seemed much faster.

After unpacking at El Jordán, Yoli went to a crochet class to give the ladies a friendship bracelet kit with thread and pattern wheels (looms). While she taught them how to make these crafts, I edited photos and blogged. At tea time, the ladies sent someone to buy fresh baked bread. Yoli didn’t want to eat because she wasn’t hungry, but the ladies insisted. You won’t have this back in the U.S., they said. Yoli couldn’t argue with that.

In the evening went went to the Iglesia Cristiana de la Familia, to attend the re-marriage of Yoli’s sister Eliza and her ex-husband Boris.

The two had been separated for five years, and eventually divorced. We were saddened by Eliza’s suffering over these years, and very happy to learn that they had reconciled.

There were many tearful and many joyful moments in the service, which was very beautiful.

It was also our first chance to see Yoli’s family and visit with them. We will get together again on Sunday.

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We walked 10 miles


We had a great sleep in our little cabin/suite, called “La Sweet” at La Víspera.

Early in the morning before anyone else was stirring, I went to the café to see if I could connect to the Internet. La Víspera offers WiFi, but it is glacially slow. There is even a sign which asks guests not to watch YouTube or download videos. Given that it often took as much as ten minutes to check my email or refresh Facebook notifications, I’m not sure the sign was necessary.

The shower was a pleasant surprise. My experience has been that most places which serve foreign visitors in Bolivia provide hot showers using an electric shower head. I was delighted to find that in La Sweet, the shower had lots of hot water, but I saw no wires and felt no shocks.

La Víspera is a 15 minute walk uphill from the center of Samaipata. After showering and getting ready, we walked to town looking for breakfast. I felt like visiting a coffeehouse, but in Bolivia these are generally only open afternoons and evenings, when people have tea times. We went looking anyway, and to our great fortune we walked past a new business called “La Gatita”. The owner, Olaf, asked if we’d like a torta de manzanas with coffee. Of course we would!

Olaf’s wife Sandra had all sorts of pastries for sale inside such as a German apple cake (similar to one my uncle Oliver once made for us), and a lemon chocolate cake.  
What a warm welcome they gave us. We chatted for a while. When Olaf learned that we lived in St. Louis, he pointed to a Wisconsin license plate on the wall and told us he had been to St. Louis during a yearlong trip around the U.S. in 1993.

Olaf and Sandra opened La Gatita in June. Prior to that, Olaf ran a tourist business in Samaipata for more than a decade. We told him we were interested in hiking and looking at birds and flowers. He advised us to visit “Zoologico El Refugio,” about 3 km outside of town.

Along the way, he said, we would likely find birds and interesting views to photograph. He pulled a birdwatching guide off his bookshelf and pointed out hummingbirds and other species we might see. Olaf suggested we take a taxi or a motorcycle taxi to the zoo, and walk back. 
We thanked the couple and headed out. Feeling adventurous, we decided to walk the entire route to El Refugio, a dirt road winding across hills outside the town.

We stopped often to take photos. Sometimes it was a picture of a mountain vista, or a view back into town. Other times it was flora and fauna, like the tall poinsettias which grow here. And just as Olaf had said, we found a property that was swarming with hummingbirds. They zipped in and out of bushes with bright orange flowers, while we waited and tried to photograph them.

We were also surprised to stumble across “La Vaca Loca” (The Crazy Cow). During a previous visit, we had eaten at this restaurant in Samaipata’s plaza. We looked for it yesterday and were disappointed when we couldn’t find it. But here it was, outside of town. We resolved to eat there on the way back from the zoo.

Speaking of crazy cows, we came across cattle several times on the road, sometimes roaming free, other times being driven along.

During the last third of the walk, the road got muddy in places, and was crossed by a stream. In such cases, you do like Bolivians, and try to pick the direst path through.

The road isn’t well marked but there are a couple signs pointing the way to the zoo. At long last, we arrived.

El Refugio is literally a refuge for rescued animals. The zoo is run by a woman from Switzerland and staffed by volunteers from across the globe.

One such volunteer was Deborah Pomeranz from New Jersey. She told us she was volunteering for four weeks. As a volunteer, she works 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. In exchange for helping the animals, she gets free room and food.

As we walked around El Refugio, we saw all sorts of animals from monkeys to parrots to pigs. There was a playground for kids, plus a little store with incense, Bolivian handicrafts like vests and hats, jewelry, feather earrings, stone pendants and wall hangings.

We left the zoo and headed back to the Vaca Loca eager to eat a late lunch.

We decided to share a bowl of lentil soup and a grilled surubí fish, one of Yoli’s favorites.

We could see why the owner, Tony, chose to move this location four years ago. The views from the patio are stunning, and the weather was lovely. Also seated outside was a group of visitors from France.

The lunch was awesome and we followed it with homemade ice cream: strawberry and vanilla.

While we ate, a bird flew into the indoor dining room which is enclosed by glass. It kept banging into the glass trying to find a way out. Eventually it did.

Tony is from Germany. He told us he has lived in Samaipata for 11 years. The town gets have more visitors in summer, he says, after September. (The seasons are reversed from ours in the Southern Hemisphere). People like the temperatures, which never go higher than 86 F.

We hit the road and once we were back in town we asked locals for directions to a “panadería”, a bakery where we could find typical Bolivian breads baked each afternoon. We followed one man’s directions and we could smell that were we close. Another man pointed to the corner of Calle Saavedra and Calle Arenales, and said there we would find the best bread in town. We went inside and watched Doña Carmen dump loads of bread fresh from the oven into a basket in the front room. People were sitting in chairs, waiting for particular types of bread to finish baking.

We returned to La Víspera, and decided to walk up the hill from our cabin to find “El Trono” (“the throne”), a lookout spot near the top. As we climbed the winding path, we spotted a tall white-haired man in a grove of mandarin oranges. It was Peter, the owner of La Víspera. He told us he was from Holland and had run the natural retreat for 32 years. He and his wife have plans to retire and have put the place up for sale. They already have prospective American buyers.

After eating some oranges and saying goodbye, we climbed the rest of the way to the throne. This impressive stone seat with a commanding view of the town and the hills reminded me of Tolkien’s description of Amon Hen, the “seat of seeing” which Frodo visits near the end of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

As evening drew in, clouds descended. We decided to head back to town for dinner. On Calle Sucre we were drawn to Ambar, a colorful artisan store and restaurant. A lady outside tried to talk us into eating there, but we weren’t in the mood for a giant meal. Instead, we were intrigued by a window just next door.

The place was “La Cocina,” which advertised “comidas rapidas con panes artesanales” (fast food with artisan breads).

Its menu of hamburgers, sandwiches, burritos, and shawarma sounded just right. We ordered two chicken shawarmas with lemonade and visited with the owner, Serdar, as he prepared our food on a griddle at the window.

He told us he ended up in Samaipata four years ago, after traveling around. He built a business selling food from a cart in the plaza. Things went well and he later expanded into a full-blown restaurant.

The shawarma was delicious, and there was plenty of entertainment. We watched, mesmerized, as he and his two Bolivian assistants prepared orders placed by patrons of the bar La Bohéme from down the street. The cooking was quick and organized.

By this time it was starting to drizzle, and we decided to head back to our room just in case it might rain.

Back snug in our cabin, we checked my phone to see how far we had trekked that day. The number seemed almost unbelievable: 10 miles.

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Back in Samaipata

My favorite rock formation on the way to Samaipata.

My favorite rock formation on the way to Samaipata.

Greetings from Samaipata, Bolivia!

My parents generously agreed to look after our kids. So for the first time since 2005, it’s just Yoli and me travelling in Bolivia.

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VIDEO: Bolivia 2013

Now that we are back home, I’m going through all the video clips we accumulated in Bolivia during our three-week trip. I’ve put together a retrospective of the trip, set to music by Los Cambitas.

(If you like their music, you can buy their albums online. The website is slow, but it does work. Also, it’s in Spanish. Look for the “Descargar este disco” button to buy the album.)

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Saying goodbye


Our last morning was spent having a late breakfast of bread with chocolate icing leftover from Yoli’s cake-making. Yoli’s friend Dora came over and together they practiced making apple pie. They baked two: one for us and one for her.

We had to figure out how much money we need to pay out guesthouse bills, the Bolivia exit tax, last meals, etc. Then Yoli took a last trip to the ATM.

On her way she found a nicer restaurant near the guesthouse and bought some feijoada and tallarín for lunch. Wish we had found it sooner! I guess we’ll file that away for next time.

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Jesy’s quinceañera

Yoli works on the cake

Last night was our last hurrah in Bolivia: Jesy’s quinceañera.

Yoli worked on a chocolate cake for her, but the decoration didn’t go quite as well as she hoped. Still, it proved very tasty.

We went over to El Jordan where the party was to be held. Lucy was there, but nobody else. It soon became clear that the party, which was supposed to start around 6:30 would instead start on Bolivian time.

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