Fat Guy

Cochabamba, Bolivia

Location No.: 78

Time spent there: 04-21-17 – 04-26-17

I don’t like the nickname we gave him but it was involuntary. His name starts with a “J” and his weight isn’t his most prominent feature. However, every time we tell this story, we end up calling him “Fat Guy, the one who took our money”.

We met him through Couchsurfing, he had eighty-seven positive reviews so no need to worry. He picked us up at the bus station on a Friday and took us to his family’s home. He was a  really big guy, long hair in a braid, a friendly smile, and an arm in a cast. His mother cooked lunch for us, we took a nap in his room and he explained that he had to work that weekend.

Fat Guy was an operator on a radio/tv tower on top of a hill outside of town. The tower had a small bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in it. It sounded like an adventure and we had read some interesting reviews about it in his profile.

We spent the next two days with him, cooked meals together, learnt about his job, shared personal stories, gazed at the city lights below us, and hiked in the trails nearby. There were a couple of inconsistencies in his stories, but who doesn’t have those? Life doesn’t always add up perfectly. We liked Fat Guy. He had unique life tales, he related to the world around him in his own way and he welcomed us into his whirlwind of colourful experiences. He was Bolivian yet so un-Bolivian both inside and out.

Nice guy, but we still kept our backpacks locked at all times, except for those thirty minutes. Damn moment of carelessness while we skipped over to the nearest store for breakfast items. Half of my hidden emergency fund was gone and Thomas’s wallet was ransacked with about seventy percent of it missing. We didn’t want to point the finger immediately but after going over every possible scenario we couldn’t find any other suspect.

Thomas, who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt was willing to believe that an alien had abducted our cash before blaming Fat Guy. Until he decided to take a break from our  hushed Sherlock discussion and eat a snack. Thomas keeps a hidden stash of gourmet chocolate in his backpack. To find the pocket where he keeps his treasure, one would have to be intentionally searching his bag, throughly. That was it, no further proof needed. What kind of man takes another man’s chocolate?

There is always the chance that our conclusion was wrong so we decided not to confront him. We packed up and said a brief and short goodbye to Fat Guy and his radio tower. He didn’t seem surprised to see us depart in such haste. As we shook the dust off our feet, we wondered if he had eaten the chocolate already or if he was savoring it right then.

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PS: I reported him to the administrators of Couchsurfing and his profile has been removed. Usually, with an allegation of this type, a user might be blocked for a time but in his case he was removed completely in less than two days. It’s possible that other guests reported him in the past as well. I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences with Couchsurfing and continue to vouch for the community yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch.

Coin

Sucre, Bolivia

Location No.: 75

Time spent there: 03/31/17 – 04/17/17

“They have been in my family for generations. My grandmother made me the current custodian. We have twelve of them.”

He places one in my hand.

“I’m lending this to you. Now we will have to meet again in this lifetime. You need to return it.”

Undoubtedly, I will see David again.

 

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Vintage coin reads “Republic of Bolivia”

El Condor Pasa

The Andes, South America

Location No.: Too many to count spanning over Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia

Time spent there: 01/06/17 – 07/15/17

I’ve spent 6+ months traveling and hiking through the Andes with Thomas and this one song. The same song. Six months and the one song.

The Andes, in Spanish, cordillera de los Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world, the highest mountain range outside of Asia and has the world’s highest active volcanoes.

Home of many famous peaks, including my first real mountaineering experience summiting Huayna Potosi Mountain in Bolivia at 20,000 ft. One of it’s coveted peaks is Chimborazo Mountain, farthest from the Earth’s center than any other location.

The Andes guard half of the world’s copper production. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest source of lithium and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.

Some Caribbean hubs are peaks of an extensive submerged continuation of the Andes in the north. La Paz, Bolivia’s seat of government, is considered the highest capital city of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the most widespread crops on our planet, originated from the Andes.

The Amazon River is born in the Andes Mountains. Traveling on it was a bucket list fulfilled experience. They are also part of the American Cordillera, a mountain range that is the “backbone” of North America, Central America, South America and Antarctica. I’ve walked on a section of this spine on the Appalachian Trail back home.

In religion and mythology of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador; the Andes are the home of the apus. These are the spirits of the mountains that protect the local people in the highlands. We hiked through one of these sacred apus, Salkantay Mountain and visited Machu Picchu. I felt the energy.

Pretty cool mountains, right? We traveled all over the Andes and every single day I was subject to this one song. In our mutual fascination for this mountain range, Thomas decided we should listen to El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon & Garfunkel. Every day.

Granted, it’s a great song. It’s part of the soundtrack for the movie Wild and I am woman hiker; the music is considered Peru’s second anthem and a national symbol of the spirit of the Andes. Appropriate for our setting, but to listen to it every single day?

El Condor Pasa, the condor passes. We constantly searched for condors while hiking. They are often seen soaring near rock cliffs, rising in heat thermals. The Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world and one of the longest-living birds. It’s a near threatened species. Like the song, they depict freedom. They are the hammer, not the nail.

When we see them soar, we feel free.

The condor is deeply imprinted in Andean culture inspiring orchestral musical pieces like El Condor Pasa composed in 1913. Simon & Garfunkel’s cover in 1970 made it the best-known Peruvian song in the world.

With more than 4000 produced versions of the melody and after Thomas playing it hundreds of times over six months, it’s also a song I’ll be glad to never listen to again.

Albeit, tired of the song, I could spend another six months in the Andes traversing its sacred mountains, seeking the freedom of the condors, feeling the earth beneath my feet. If I could, I surely would.

 

I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.

CHORUS
Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan that’s here and gone
A man grows older every day
It gives the world
Its saddest sound,
Its saddest sound.

I’d rather be a forest than a street.
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.

I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet,
Yes I would.
If I could,
I surely would.

(lyrics to El Condor Pasa “If I Could” by Simon & Garfunkel)

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Thomas,in front of Salkantay Mountain, one of Cusco’s 12 sacred mountains. – Peru –
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Salar de Uyuni, seen from Incahuasi Island. This is the world’s largest salt flat. – Bolivia –
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Glacier lake at the base of Fitz Roy Mountain. – Patagonia, Argentina –
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Sunset and the Corcovado Volcano – Patagonia, Chile –

 

 

Esmeralda, the “llama girl”

Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Location No.: 83

Time spent there: 2+ days 05/13/17 – 05/15/17

Esmeralda is 9 years old, she lives on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on Lake Titicaca. She is a brave human. When I grow up I want to be like Esmeralda.

The first time we saw Esmeralda she was walking with her llama, Albino and her 5 year old cousin through the narrow streets of her island. I thought it would be a great photo since I was walking behind them and pulled out my phone. She spun around immediately before I got a chance to snatch the image and eyed my phone fiercely while I tucked it under my arm. We started walking together.

Me: That’s a cute llama you have there.

Esmeralda: Do you want to take a photo with my alpaca for 2 bolivianos? By the way its not a llama, it’s an alpaca.

Me: We are poor travelers so I don’t have any money.

Esmeralda: Can you buy me some papaya then?

Me: I already told I don’t have money.

Esmeralda: Do you make and sell jewelry then? Or do you sing for food?

Me: Mmm.

Esmeralda: You must be hungry then.

She stops and pulls off her “aguayo” (a rectangular carrying cloth widely used by people in the Andes) and retrieves a small bag with a snack.

Esmeralda: This is “jampi” (dried and toasted fava beans). This is natural food, this is important for children to eat. We grow these beans on the island.

She handed us two beans each and proceeded to explain how they are toasted. She only had six beans for her snack. My heart melted.

We walked with her for a while longer and chatted about everything and anything.

Esmeralda: (picks up a colorful bug from under a rock) I’m going to make good money today. When I find this bug I’m lucky and tourists take lots of photos and give me good tips. One time someone gave me $100 dollars.

Eventually we parted ways and the first thought in both of our minds was:

“We need to find some papaya for Esmeralda”.

Turns out that most of the store owners didn’t even know what a papaya was and getting a papaya on this island was impossible. We mentioned the encounter to the owner of the hostel we were at. Her daughter is Esmeralda’s classmate. She told us that Esmeralda’s dad had left the picture  a few years ago and that her mother isn’t the best parent either. Sparing the very sad details, she hasn’t been dealt the best cards in life.

However, Esmeralda is an industrious little human and she supports herself by letting tourists take photos of her with her alpaca. She works in the afternoons after school and all weekend to buy her own school supplies and clothes with her earnings. Tour guides also know her and make sure their groups stop by to meet her; aware of her situation they often bring clothes or toys for her. The hostel owner mentioned that Esmeralda had to repeat third grade because she is a slow learner, struggles at school and doesn’t receive help at home with her homework. Regardless, Esmeralda struck me as an incredibly bright, smart and unique individual.

After learning all this and not finding any papaya, we decided to give Esmeralda a small monetary gift. We spotted her walking home with her alpaca a few hours later and I ended up spending the next hour or so sitting on a cobblestone street playing with her, Maribel and Bertita and making videos. She is actually quite the filmmaker.

I never saw her again after that afternoon and didn’t get to say goodbye. She wasn’t around before we left the following day. When talking about Isla del Sol with fellow travelers I always ask if they met her, or if someone is going to travel there I ask them to make sure they look for her and tell her we said hi.

I think of her often and I hope she is doing well. I wonder who she will become when she grows up.  I hope life is as generous to her as she was with us. I hope she will one day live somewhere with lots of papaya. I hope she is safe and I hope she is loved on some level. I hope to see her again.

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This is the only photo I have with her. She wasn’t as serious as she looks in this photo.
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Albino, the alpaca, not a llama.

PS: Unfortunately this free blog platform doesn’t support video files. If I start taking this blog more seriously and switch to a better platform I’ll post some of the videos Esmeralda took.