May 8th – From San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) we went to Uyuni (Bolivia) by bus, early in the morning. Looking back at our time in Bolivia it was a couple of weeks filled with highlights. One after the the other. It was almost constant, like seriously BAM, BAM, BAM. One might think ‘that must become mentally tiring’ but it never did.
The bus ride wasn’t really long and neither was the border crossing. It all went quite smooth. The road to the border was, as I as an European am used to, a hardened road. Once we crossed the border into Bolivia the road changed to a dirt road. Alright, gotta say this, by this time and I think even most people when they picture Bolivia, they won’t be so surprised. The thing I was surprised about is how fast the bus driver was driving. It made the ride even more bumpy, at some point I couldn’t stop giggling because I was, for real, being thrown from one end of my seat to the other. I tried to focus on the llamas we passed by and to not think at what speed we were flying over that dirt road. Every once in a while there was an abrupt stop, every time I looked out the window, I saw llamas and baby llamas crossing the road a bit panicked.
Somewhere between all that it hit me “I am here, I made it.”
Bolivia was the country I wanted to visit most before starting this adventure and I still find it difficult to describe what it felt like when we actually got to Bolivia. I cried during that bus ride. Man, I felt so happy, so excited, so willing, so ready. But above all I felt so lucky. Now, if I may fast forward for a second, being back for over four months now it is the weirdest thing. That dream came true and at that moment it, obviously, was so graspable and now it feels out of reach again but also very much so that I experienced it all. That I was there and not only in Bolivia but all the countries we visited, all the places we’ve been, I lived them, my dreams. Memories man, they’re one of the fucking best.
The realization, that feeling of ‘I made it to there. I’ve been there’ still brings me tears to my eyes when writing about it. I miss it so goddamn much.
Uyuni, a tiny, dusty town that seems to be almost trapped by it’s enormous surroundings. And tourists. I am not going to complain about tourists because I do realize I am as much as one as the other people are. But okay, before San Pedro de Atacama it had been weeks since we last saw other tourists. Just imagine traveling by local buses, sleeping at friends’ places or friends of friends’ places, volunteering at quite remote places and then BAM tiny town filled with backpackers. I had to blink. It felt like ‘So here’s where all the tourists hide; highlights’. We met people who did La Paz-Uyuni-La Paz and that was their ‘Bolivia-experience’. People even told us “Don’t stay too long in Bolivia, there’s not much to see” and yeah I understand everyone does it their own way and that’s all good but can I still be flabbergasted by that?
We stayed in an Airbnb which turned out to be a hostel, walked around town, soaked up and in my case admired the – to us- new, local way the people dressed, visited the local market and simply relaxed and layed in bed. The next morning we, together with a lot of other people, visited the Uyuni Salt Flats which by the way is the largest Salt Flat in the world, at an elevation of 3,656 m. We already picked a company before we even got to Uyuni to travel to the Salt Flats with and we had a Bolivian driver together with 4 other people from the UK. Tom ended up being the translator between them and the driver, I half understanding what was said and sometimes having an ‘Aha!’ moment when Tom translated the whole bit. I was quite proud of myself that most of the time, I knew what was being said. Where to begin with explaining what the Salt Flats are like? Two things jump out when I think back to that breath-taking place. 1. The intense white and 2. the silence. Recently I watched a video I took while we were there and the video confirmed my memories. Yes, the white and the silence they do jump out. There are two other places where the silence really could be heard, how strange really. The very first time I ever experienced that was while hiking Mount Aconcagua, no wind, no birds, no nothing and then the other time when the silence seemed even louder was when we visited the Alti Plano close to San Pedro de Atacama. There the silence was almost deafening and meditational which I do not know is it even a word?
After we had gone to the more touristy places (Train Cemetery, Salt Hotel, the place where all the flags are) and after we took the well known optical illusion picture, the other people we were with were still taking pictures and Tom and I stood next to each other and we both said “Wow, listen to the silence. There’s nothing. Look into the distance, the Salt Flats seem never ending.” The place is enormous. Even though there were a lot of other people, once you start moving in your little 4×4 car it’s just you and the other people you are with in the car and the endless white against the bright, bright blue sky and of course the blazing sun. Tom and I both reminded each other to take off our sunglasses for a little bit, to see how white and bright the salt is. This place really is indescribable. The deafening silence, the almost aggressive white and the-never-seem-to-end-view. And then Isla Incahuasi, which ‘is an ‘island’ that is the top of the remains of an ancient volcano, which was submerged when the area was part of an giant prehistoric lake, roughly 40,000 years ago’. It really does seem like an island, all of sudden you have this rock formation with a lot but like a lot-a lot of cacti on top in the middle of a sea of bright white salt. We walked up to the highest point of the island and had a stunning view overlooking the Salt Flats and I did a happy dance. For anyone who does not know, cacti have been my favorite flora for a long time. They remind me of the warmth and I love the warmth. After we walked around we kinda thought okay that must be the tour then and headed back to the car. Which started driving back towards the place we came from. After a little while I noticed we were heading more to the right then we should if we wanted to head back to Uyuni, I also noticed the sun was setting. At some point the floor of salt was getting more wet and I saw the sun being reflected in the mirror that a little bit ago was the ground we drove on and then the car stopped. All of us got out of the car and I think each and everyone of us gasped. Holy shit. There it was the setting sun, the mirror that was being created by the small layer of water on top of the salt which was as far as the eye could see. As the sun was setting, the bright colors were dancing in the sky, being reflected on the ground and that’s all I’m going to say about that because maybe the photographs should do the talking about this whole place. How’s this place real? How’s the Earth even real? The beauty that is Earth, that is Mother Earth she takes my breath away.
We stayed another day in Uyuni before we headed for Sucre. It was almost odd how this beautiful place is a tourist attraction where so many tourist gather in Uyuni to see the Salt Flats with their own eyes. The tiny town really seemed dusty with a little market, a little church, a couple of restaurants and hostels and hotels for the tourists that travel through. How odd that must be when you live there. Seeing so many people pass through. None of them staying, leaving that tiny, dusty town behind, forever taking the memories with them. I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of us or nothing at all? Are they so used to seeing people pass through that, that simply is just life? Nothing odd or slightly absurd about it? Simply a way for some to make a living? I don’t know. Maybe, yes. I guess in a way it is all just lives passing by other people’s lives anyway.
(This photo always reminds me of what vast and beautiful places that hold powerful softness can do to a person. Look at Tom’s wild hair due to the wind, his pink cheeks and his soft eyes. I took this right when we got back to town from the Salt Flats.)
¡Vamos a Sucre!
We took a bus to Sucre and honestly all the buses we had taken in all the countries were really good so I honestly didn’t know what to expect of the buses in Bolivia. The bus we took, I believe, was about 8 euros for a bus ride that approx. took 7 hours. What can you expect from that? I can tell you this, never not ever, not in Europe either did we ever travel by such a luxurious bus. It was the weirdest thing ever. The bus ride was filled with seeing beautiful views and gorgeous, almost dramatic landscapes. Every now and then we’d pass a small little village where all the houses were made out of adobe, we would stop and a couple of ladies would come in, who were selling some food and would hop off again, passing llamas and painted signs that either said ‘EVO SÍ’ or ‘EVO NO’ . The bus went from Uyuni to Potosí to Sucre and getting to Potosí was kinda like half way there. Potosí is a miner’s city and the highest city in the world. We thought about visiting Potosí before going to Sucre but in the end decided to travel to Sucre directly. So after a short little stop at the bus station and another one at a gas station (where everyone had to get out, wait and get back on again) we continued our journey to Sucre. I also learned the type of bus we ended up taking was quite uncommon because most people we passed stared at the bus. I have to say it looked really new. Arriving in Sucre was having to get off the bus somewhere in the city because the bus driver wasn’t going to the bus station. We double checked with other passengers and again with the bus driver but no this was the end destination. Where in the world were we? Offline Google Maps? The 21st century guys, insane. We walked to our Airbnb and I fell in love with Sucre and cursed at the city with all the baggage we were carrying, going up hill, down hill and up hill again… When I Googled Sucre but also asked other people about Sucre they all have one opinion in common ‘It could very well be the prettiest city of South America’ and at least for me it’s the prettiest city in Bolivia. The city center with her red and small little roofs makes it look cute which I don’t know, that’s not one of the words I would describe Bolivia with, in general. We again had booked an Airbnb for a couple nights and decided to take it slow for the days we were there to kinda take some time also to ‘process’ all the things we had seen and visited in San Pedro de Atacama and Uyuni. We discovered a wonderful vegan restaurant, enjoyed walking through the city center and sitting down, relaxing in little parks, went to a very interesting Indigenous Bolivian Textiles museum and really enjoyed the view from the balcony the Airbnb had plus we both really enjoyed the warmer weather because Uyuni was definitely colder.(Pictured above: Look at the Salt Flats all the way in the back! Pictured below: We saw a lot of ‘Evo Sí’ and ‘Evo No’ written down everywhere we went, depicting Evo Morales; Bolivia’s president.)
(Passing through Potosí.)
Un mes en Cochabamba
A friend had told us about a Dutch, non-profit foundation located in Cochabamba, Bolivia where a family member of hers works. We got in contact and so we traveled from Sucre to Cochabamba. Finding a bus throughout whole South America is interesting, well I mean just different that what I’m used to, there are so many different companies going to the same destinations. Which one is the best one to take? We did find out there were only night buses between Sucre and Cochabamba. We took a bus which departed at like eleven at night I believe it was and arrived in Cochabamba at 5-ish in the morning. Not that we tried but later we were told that before the sun rises you cannot leave the bus station if you are on foot. But no worries, we were safe and sound inside the bus station and were even picked up by our friend’s family member; Anna.
Anna is the most devoted person I have ever met. She puts her heart and soul into not only the foundation but the people and children she works with and helps. She showed me the true definition of caring, working hard and getting stuff done but above all the definition of giving. She gives all her energy, time and love to the children, parents, the school and the foundation.
We stayed with Anna for a month and helped at the local school which is located in a poor area in the south of the city. Which is about an hour drive (one way) by car mainly due to -to me- crazy traffic. Or traffic? More so, the way people drive. Oh and apart from the driving, the honking. When we got back to the Netherlands Tom and I could not, not focus on the quiet, non-honking way of driving here. Anyway, we helped in the garden, Tom fixed and built some stuff, I painted a mural, played games with the children, we both attempted to help with the children’s homework but explaining, especially math, in a language I speak far from fluent was hard. Explaining + and x was alright but explaining – and : to the children was kinda like a ‘no way!’ especially the way they were taught to do it. It turned out though, I wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Both Tom and Anna said it was the strangest method ever, in our opinion of course.
The weather in Cochabamba was lovely and I think it also comes along with a confession I have to make. On the 21st of March when in Argentina I promised myself to welcome Fall, change and colder weather with open arms, what I did not know yet back then was that real cold weather would only show itself sporadically. For a long time Tom and I had been chasing warm weather and the fact that Summer changed into Fall meant excepting the fact that colder days were coming. Looking back now apart from some really cold days, which also had to do with their location, the weather has been pretty damn great. Cochabamba was a nice 20 to 25 degrees Celsius the whole month we were there. Nevertheless the other name they give to Cochabamba is ‘The city of eternal spring’. Even though at some point Winter was coming closer and closer.
We also visited other places close to Cochabamba. The first small town we visited was Ramada and Anna had to go there to see how the building process of a boarding school was going. Children who live far away from the town can stay and sleep there so it becomes much easier for them to go to school since the school is located in the same town. The drive to Ramada was long, or long in the sense when you think of how many kilometers it was compared to the time it took to get there. Ramada is about 40km from Cochabamba but it took us well over three hours to reach it. Once we got off the main road, the road became very winding, sandy and bumpy. But the views were yet again stunning so give me a window and hours to stare out of the window and I am happy. On our way back we stopped somewhere along the route and looked down upon an almost dry river with the beautiful mountains in the background. Another little trip we did with Anna and a couple medical students from the US who were there to volunteer in a hospital for two weeks was to another boarding school which was nestled in the mountains, in a small town but this one is already up and running. Beforehand Anna already told us this little trip promised even more beautiful views than the one to Ramada, so I was eager to see it all. And it was true, we went higher up into the mountains, into the Andes and saw snow! But before we took off we stopped at a market and Anna bought about 100 bananas. Let me write it down, a hundred bananas for approx. two euros. Crazy. We had a little pick-nick, saw llamas and alpacas from real up close, Anna brought second hand clothes along as well so people we passed by high up in the mountains were given clothes and bananas and we all appreciated the beautiful views.
There was one thing that sucked real bad. While on our drive back down, I was starting to feel, a little unwell. About the time we got back to Anna’s house I was really not feeling good. The next day a test was done and it turned out I had caught Amoeba. The thing I found most difficult to deal with was that it was pretty much time for us to continue our journey again and so our last day at the school (which was also a Friday), saying goodbye to everyone I wasn’t able to come along. I was in bed and close to a toilet. I had three things on my mind that day. 1. I’m not able to say goodbye 2. I cannot finish my mural and 3. How am I going to survive the bus ride to La Paz? When Tom came back he and I discussed the situation and we decided to stay a little bit longer. On Monday I was feeling much better, I sort of finished my mural and I was able to say goodbye to everyone. And I wasn’t as afraid of the bus ride anymore now that I was feeling better. (Oh by the way that following Saturday I got medicine for it so no worries for anyone reading this…)
Impressive La Paz, stunning Lake Titicaca and indescribable Tiwanaku
I believe it was a Tuesday when we continued our journey towards La Paz. In the morning Anna had dropped us off at the bus station and somewhere in the late afternoon we arrived in La Paz. Driving down from El Alto towards the city center of La Paz and the views you get while driving down is a sight I wish I could wrap up as a present and give to everyone. Maybe especially to fellow Dutchies… Seeing what a city looks like up against the mountains when in the Netherlands everything is so flat (so we are never able to see what a city looks like from higher up), it is such a magnificent view! Hopefully, the photos can give you some sort of impression of what it is like! In La Paz we were going to couchsurf but she canceled last minute so we had to look for an Airbnb that was available that same night and we found one. While we were there we strolled through the city center, ate some awesome vegan food, bought some stuff (read; too much stuff), looked at murals and went to museums. We were only in La Paz for a couple days because we were also heading for Copacabana!
We took the bus and I remember thinking at some point when everything was so flat “This is what the Alti Plano looks like. No, scratch that, this is what it is. High but flat, The Alti Plano.” It’s weird though. You are so high there are hardly any bushes let alone trees but there’s no mountain in sight, it’s flat. It’s the weirdest thing. I don’t know for a lack of a better word I thought it was the coolest thing. It was like it was playing a trick with my mind. ‘It’s so flat we can’t be that high up! The Netherlands is flat and like we’re mostly below sea level. But for crying out loud we’re high up! 4000 meters to be exact. But how…?’ My mind and I thought it was the funniest thing ever.
Plus the photos and videos I had seen my father had taken over 5 years ago, were really present in my mind. Him filming Lake Titicaca and his voice saying “This is Lake Titicaca!” and us crossing the water the same way he had. Picturing his photos in my mind and experiencing it myself felt pretty magical. Knowing he has seen what I was seeing, it gave the experience more of a shared feeling somehow.
Copacabana meant again more tourists, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations and again being a little bit bewildered by how quick some people were traveling. I also realized at some point my mind started telling me traveling for three months is short while for most people three weeks a year of vacation is all you get. Holy shit fuck. How’s that life?! How can you call that a life?
Arriving to our Airbnb made me realize something. “We’re in Copacabana, that means we do not have much time left before we go back to the Netherlands. For a long time it was like okay, we are going here, here and here and here and, and and… But now it’s here, Copacabana, back to La Paz, Tiwanaku, flying to Santa Cruz and that’ll be it. There’s a real limit now and it’s close. So close.” For the first time since February 2015 I felt tired physically and mentally. I felt the longing for being in one place for a little while. That longing had become foreign to me. Both Tom and I felt it. We had been taking it slow since Uyuni I realized. Now also in Copacabana we took it slow. We walked around town and into nature, found some really tasty vegan food once again, I looked at Tom in front of Lake Titicaca and promised myself to remember that view forever. Such a special soul in front of such a special place. The water always welcomes Tom in such a warm manner. On one of the days we took a little boat to Isla del Sol and the boat was in no hurry. There we were the sun shining down on us, the water surrounding us. I smiled. ‘Here we are, in Bolivia’ I thought and smiled again. I will give you a little background story on Isla del Sol and then I will leave you with the pictures because I have no words within me to describe that beautiful place. Isla del Sol (or Island of the Sun) is where according to the beliefs of the Incas the sun god Inti was born and where the first people were put onto Earth, along with Inti’s son. Because of a flood all people were washed away and only the son of Inti and his wife remained. The son of the sun god, Inti became the first Inca ruler and thus the Incas call themselves the children of the sun.
After a couple days spent in Copacabana we went back to La Paz and this time we stayed in an Airbnb together with Fleur. We went back to La Paz to travel to Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanacu) on June 21st. Quite last minute we decided to go to Tiwanaku in the evening of June 20th. Alright maybe also here let me give you some background information first. ‘Tiwanaku is a Pre-Columbian archaeological site and is thought to have been a moral and cosmological center for the Tiwanaku empire. Also said is that Tiwanaku is significant because it is believed to be the site where the world was created.’ Below there’s a picture where Tom and I stand in front of The gate of the sun. Here’s a little more information. ‘The Gate of the Sun is a megalithic sold stone arch or gateway constructed by the ancient Tiwanaku culture over 1500 years before the present. The structure is approximately 3m tall and 4m wide and is constructed from a single piece of stone. The mysterious inscriptions found on the object, the carvings that decorate the gate are believed to possess astronomical and/or astrological significance and may have served a calendrical purpose.’ So why were we there on June 21st? We went there to celebrate the Solstice and the Aymara New Year. Early in the morning when the sun rises everyone gathers at the site and welcomes the sun by lifting their hands and feeling the sun shine down on your hands. Not too long ago I was telling a couple people about this experience and it brought me to tears just like it did back when I was there. It felt so peaceful, along with a feeling of togetherness of how everyone there was appreciating the Sun and Nature; Mother Earth so deeply.
Being there on June 21st was also a very personal moment for me in a complete different sense. At some point during our traveling Tom started asking me ‘what do you think is a time to go back to the Netherlands?’ My answer was, not before June 21st and Tiwanaku. So when that day and moment arrived I was filled with emotion of how that day had come and had gone again. Like I have mentioned before it is strange living your dreams and being so extremely aware of living them. But such a good strange. I am still so thankful for being able to experience that moment. That we were there. Moments that turn into memories make people and places everlasting.(Pictured above and below: Gate of the sun.)
La Paz to Santa Cruz by plane
An enormous thank you from the heart from both Tom and I to Anna’s neighbor who paid for our airplane tickets because it was her way of saying thank you for our help for the foundation and the things Tom fixed inside her house. What a generous gift. Thank you.
There we were instead of waiting for the bus, we were waiting for our plane to leave. I have to say, that was a little weird. Getting to Santa Cruz in little over an hour instead of like an eighteen hour bus ride. It felt very luxurious. And it was. We got to our very last destination. Santa Cruz was our last destination because that’s where our flight back to Europe left from. Santa Cruz to São Paulo, Brazil to Lisbon, Portugal to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Before all that started though we had a couple days in Santa Cruz. What I didn’t know then but learned while we were there is how happy and grateful I am for seeing Santa Cruz because it was such a different experience compared to everything else we had seen from Bolivia. We left the Andes behind, so Santa Cruz’s elevation is much lower, it was also much warmer compared to La Paz we yet again had 28 degrees Celsius weather. Even though we had just celebrated the beginning of Winter… there were palm trees… I mean somehow it reminded me of Brazil, the place we had started this journey. The Amazon really felt closer, I mean in the Andes that feels and obviously also is kilometers away. Really a different side of Bolivia, we saw less traditional clothing as well. The whole bit; the weather, the landscape, the way people dressed all contributed to a different experience to what we had experienced of Bolivia before. In Santa Cruz we did not do a whole lot and I think also due to having to process the fact of, ok this is it. But we did walk around town, found beautiful buildings, enjoyed the temperature, sat in parks and yet again found awesome vegan food.
The flight back and the lack of remembrance
June 25th 2017 (7 weeks in Bolivia) – Probably the mix of my nervous and feeling tired back then makes me not remember much from flying from Santa Cruz to São Paulo. I cannot really remember the flight and both the airports I can’t picture in my mind. My memory comes back to me, thinking back to flying to Lisbon. I remember watching ‘Belle and the Beast’ and I really do not even like watching those kind of movies. I must have been looking for simple distraction and amusement. Oh well. I can’t remember anything horrendous so all the three flight must have been pretty good.
For now that’s where I am going to leave it. I think in another post I will talk about arriving back to Europe and what that was like for me. I am noticing, since I really took a lot of time to write about this journey it has brought up a lot of memories and thoughts. One of them being ‘What the fuck am I doing in the Netherlands?!’ But my mind is getting clearer again. Writing all of this down has helped me to process and look back at an amazing, eye opening, sometimes really painful journey and I will forever take it with me. Throughout these nine months two thoughts have dominated all the others, I feel extremely lucky and I feel so goddamn grateful. I think the next post I will go and dive a bit deeper into that but for now this is it.
(Pictured below: I took these two pictures while on the airplane. I found these images in one of those books the airline provides.)
Thank you to everyone who has opened up their home, thank you to everyone who has opened my eyes. Thank you for your stories, your words, your inspiration. Thank you for your love. This is a journey I will never forget and thank you for wanting to be part of that. I am forever grateful.
(Pictured below: The photos I took while volunteering at the school in Cochabamba.)