Birthday in Berlin


A month in Berlin has taught me many lessons.

The first being to leave bug bites alone, as scratching a small bite on my ankle I acquired in the Tiergarten turned into a pretty nasty infection that left me in bed for four days. I felt like Jimmy Stewart left alone with a window in my favourite Hitchcock movie, except I was lacking his curiosity and Grace Kelly.


A trip to the former central Stasi prison in the city, Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, taught me just how cruel humans can be to one another, and that suffering should not be measured by statistics. We spoke with Karl-Heinz Richter, a former prisoner who was endlessly tortured for years after he was caught helping 17 people escape the GDR.

IMG_2216Mr. Richter was an inch away from successfully escaping himself, when he jumped onto a train bound for Paris. He was an inch away from a completely different story of his life. But his fingers lost grip of the train, and he was forced to jump off a seven meter bridge to the hard concrete below. In doing so, he broke almost every bone in his body.

These injuries would remain unhealed as he spent the next year of his life in prison. In the following years, his father died of a heart attack in his arms, he was shipped back to the same prison for 3 years more, his daughter was forcefully adopted away from him, and his wife lost her grip of the world.What struck me is that every defense I’ve heard in school about torture has been hypothetical. Hearing the words of a man whose world has been shattered by its application really put those theoretical arguments in their proper place.


I’ve learnt that ordering tap water in Germany is the equivalent of leaving a nickel tip in Canada, and that Germans don’t speak as much English as you’d think.

As my studies here have come to an end I’m left humbled by how little I understand the world. When you read the history of a place, or take a course on a time period like the Cold War, you are bound to believe in a logical and linear explanation of events. But to people who lived through these events, the causes and justifications rarely seem so simple, or even understandable. For better or worse, the lives of most people are led while trying to make the best of things.IMG_2288


I can’t understand how a man we spoke to now sleeps with a gun under his pillow after he was put into prison for 9 years in solitary confinement. I can’t understand how a woman we spoke with has forgiven her best friend, who spied on her for a decade on behalf of the Stasi. But so they beat on.

I’ve spent this last week with my folks, trying to get them as interested in the city and the history as I have become, while also trying to get them to as many coffee shops and breweries as possible. So far I think the beverages are winning out.





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Wall Games



It’s been a frenzy of activity since we arrived in Berlin.  Last Sunday, I led about six of my classmates to a lake an hour outside of Berlin when people were still recovering from jet lag. The beach was closed by the time we got there, and just for good measure we got rained on. I have a real gift for making friends.IMG_2173

Between classes and museum visits this week we also visited the town of Oranienburg to tour through the former Nazi and Soviet Sachsenhausen concentration/labour camp. The experience was very challenging and provoking, making for a very quiet journey back to the city. Photos didn’t feel quite right, but it was really something to see how history has layered upon itself, as the location of systematic murder was later used by its liberators as a labour camp, and eventually a propaganda tool.IMG_2154

In the following days, we’ve visited much of the Wall that’s still intact, and I’ve gotten lost in the city a few too many times for my liking, but in doing so discovered some wicked areas of Berlin a little bit off the beaten track (one of which I’ve since learnt was the red light district, no wonder those ladies were so friendly).

IMG_2190IMG_2164It’s incredible how useless I feel without a base knowledge of German. During my trip to South America I always could recognize words, or use key phrases to get somewhere, but I’ve been constantly humbled here by not knowing what to do except point and say danke.

Until next time,


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Blog 2.0: Settling in Berlin

IMG_2138Hello again! I’ve arrived in Berlin to conduct field research on the Cold War. Although I’m here primarily for school, during my time in Germany I will also do a bit of travelling around on my own to satisfy my cravings for cold beer, swimming holes, and climbable mountains.


IMG_2134I’ve decided to reboot the blog for the month of August with the promise of fewer words (and much fewer adjectives), fewer sweeping generalizations, and many more photos.

Today, after spending much of our arrival day yesterday in a jet-lagged delirium, I decided to get my feet wet in Berlin. I walked through the Tiergarten, which I first read about in Erik Larsen’s non-fiction drama In the Garden of the Beasts. Larsen presented the Tiergarten as the beautiful eye of a deeply troubling Nazi hurricane in the mid to late 1930s. The beauty persists, but the Nazi surroundings have been replaced with memorials and tributes to its victims.

IMG_2129I also travelled to the famous Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, both of which were reduced to no man’s land during the Cold War. The development at Potsdamer is impressive, and I spend much of this afternoon there at a Balzac’s with a book and a latte indulging in the guilty pleasure of capitalist development.IMG_2126

A great moment came when a group of tourists next to me started to rave about Berlin’s metro, comparing it to Toronto’s, which they called the “most underdeveloped system” they had ever seen. Couldn’t agree more.

Ich bin ein Berliner… for at least a month.

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192 hours spent on 24 bus rides later and now only minutes away from boarding our flight off this continent. That number translates to 8 full days and 14 hours spent on board cama, semi-cama, regular, and just plain broken seats travelling thousands of kilometres through Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.

It still hasn’t fully sunk in yet that it’s over, the past few days in Santiago have been spent in an almost trance for me. We revisited some of the places that were the first things we saw a few months ago, and not only did they look incredibly more elegant after a month in Bolivia, but the things we noticed about them completely changed. Instead of noticing the differences, we were noticing all the similarities to home. Along with the fact that the last 6 restaurants we’ve eaten at have been American fast-food chains I think it is a sign we’re ready to come home.

Our trip from La Paz to Santiago was a long one. The first bus ride to Arica, the most northern city in Chile, was extended by a roadblock just after the Bolivian border. We were both having flashes of our Rurrenabaque bus nightmare as we saw the sun setting out our window, but luckily we arrived in Arica only a few hours late. Arica, which we only planned to visit as a jumping off point for a bus to Santiago was actually quite pleasant. Surrounded by massive sand dunes on one side, and the ocean on the other, it sits as an almost oasis in the driest desert on earth. Oh, and it helps that Arica’s ocean front is home to the only really swimmable water on the whole coast, anything further south is too cold and requires a bodysuit.


When Anna lost her head for a bit

We spent two days in Arica rejoicing in supermarkets again, lamenting high-priced hostels, and bodysurfing waves for hours. It was a wonderful, unexpected last stop on our trip, it was just unfortunate that we stayed at a small hostel with the biggest jerk owner I could ever imagine. This old American guy just never had something nice to say to us, within minutes of arriving he had criticized us for volunteering, saying,“So you really didn’t see much here of South America did you?” And he found fault with us for going to school, he poetically said to Anna, “What is it about geography that I don’t already know and have to go to college to learn?” If that isn’t ignorant, well then I just don’t know what is.

But he didn’t succeed in ruining our happy and nostalgic moods, and we left Arica blissfully excited for our last bus ride, which for the first time on our trip was full-cama. That meant first class, fully-reclining, leather chairs, which would be the only real way to do the 28 hour bus ride back to Santiago.

I have to mention here two things, firstly that while in Arica I attempted to resurrect my camera and memory card out of their rice filled tomb. I tested the memory card, which I was most concerned about, first, and to my utter relief it worked like a charm. The camera, which I tested without much hope, didn’t start after two tries, but after coming to terms with its loss, on the third try it started up again, and is fully functional once again. I feel like this is the start of a beautiful friendship. The second thing is that while in the beautiful supermarket of Arica I found my Vienetta cake. It was beautiful and just as I remembered. Just a damned shame that I didn’t notice until I’d bitten into it that I had bought the rum flavoured one. Oh well, I guess the hunt will continue.

Our bus was pleasant enough, but again we breached the 30-hour mark before arriving, and the speaker system was broken the whole trip. This meant that we could only watch the dozen movies that were shown in mute with Spanish subtitles, but I will say that the cinematography in War Horse was outstanding.

Among the highlights of our final two days in Santiago was meeting up with our Californian friend who we met in Bariloche for drinks, and also walking through an area that had been recently tear-gassed. That shit burns. We also visited a beautiful museum honouring the victims and highlighting the injustices of the Pinochet era. If you ever find yourself in Santiago you must go, the final speech given by the Chilean president is one of the most moving and empowering speeches I’ve heard. The man knew he was about to be killed, the government building he was in was being bombed and shot at from all sides, and his military had betrayed him, and yet somehow he was able to give a speech more elegant and composed than any I’ve seen in movies or written by professionals. Going to that museum was an interesting way of spending our last hours in Santiago, but it truly was enlightening and made us feel quite stupid for not knowing more about such an important, and recent part of Chilean history.

I will try, mainly at Anna’s insistence, to limit any preachy or corny undertones to finish my blog. These past 3 months have been the biggest shot of life I’ve ever gotten. At times its been scary, at times intimidating, at times trying, but mostly it was wonderful, real, and in front of my eyes. I don’t feel any changed from when I left, but I feel that I understand just a little more about people and the world. The world just feels a little bit smaller. And although right now I am incredibly excited to get home, to get back to school, to continue as things were going, I know that one day the urge to go will come once again. And hopefully I can begin to unravel another part of the world.

I am extremely proud of the friendships we’ve made here, the way we handled adversity, and that I still have all of my limbs after walking through an Amazonian swamp. Above all I’m ecstatic that Anna and I don’t hate each other, and somehow that even after being exposed to more dancing and singing from me than any human being should have to witness, that she still is willing to be seen with me in public.

Finally, I’m proud I made it through this blog.  For someone who’s creative writing experience amounted to two one-page drafts of an alien invasion story when I was in grade 2, this was big. Along the way I realized it’s not really important how much people at home liked it, or how good my grammar was, or if this was the start of an illustrious writing career, but just the fact that I did it and have something of this trip always to remember is enough. But I do hope at least my mom liked it.

 I now come home to friends and family, and hope that the coming months amongst such comforts as my parents’ cooking, hd baseball games, and Tim Hortan’s are as fruitful and enjoyable as my time here. If anyone else wants to learn more of my travels please feel free to buy me a beer.

Adios and to be continued after a law degree.


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Into the Wild

We made it out alive, hopefully malaria-free, and unfazed from our last and most daring adventure yet, a trip into the Amazon. The past week has been filled with some low points, all mainly occurring during the 34+ hour busride to Rurrenabaque, but the rest of the trip was spectacular, magnifique, eye-opening, and at some points terrifying. I can not think of a better way to cap off our three month journey. But first things first, let me tell you about the bus ride to hell.

I’d been warned a lot about the bus ride to Rurrenabaque. Travel agents, fellow travellers, and my lonely planet book all warn about how the ride should be avoided at all costs. But with the rainy season coming to an end, the bus ride being a fifth of the price of a flight, and Rurrenabaque sitting no further than 300 km away from La Paz, we just figured how bad really could the 18 hour ride get? Now I know, it might not be 18 hours.

Although La Paz might feature a Death Road, it has a companion in the road to Rurrenabaque. Truly, the Ride of Insanity, which would lead any normal kid who grew up in the fast-paced, stream-lined, efficient Markham, the high-tech capital of the world (signs never lie), to repeatedly bang his head against the glass window. Thank god I have Anna.

The worst part was being stuck in the middle of the jungle on the side of a cliff for 12 hours because a truck had tried cutting a corner to tight and had gotten stuck with half its wheels in the air. The road, at this point, which was 2.5 metres across, was therefore closed. And we were the first vehicle to get stuck. Eventually 100’s of others joined us, and Bolivians of all shapes and sizes attempted to try to pile up rocks on the side of the cliff below the floating tires…. For about 2 hours. Then they decided to just call it a night and try again in the morning.

There are a lot of things that passed through my delirious mind that night, stuck in the middle of the Yungas. Why hadn’t anyone explained to anyone on the bus what was happening? Why was the child sitting next to me peeing into a bucket? Why was there over 100 bolivians watching just one man pile rocks under a tire? Why once there was a good pile underneath did the driver not at least try to move the truck? And maybe if we had stopped at our 30 minute pit stop for 45 minutes instead of an hour and a half we would have made it ahead of the truck. This point actually was nullified after I learnt that we had actually been in an accident without me even knowing. Seems when I had dosed off before dinner the side of our bus was hit by a truck taking out the two front windows. Who knew? Lastly, pushed to the end of all my efficiency and logic, I thought, why don’t we just push the truck off the cliff?

Well in the morning, exactly 12 hours after we had first stopped behind the truck, a construction shovel helped lift it out of its predicament, I don’t know if more joy has been witnessed in Bolivia since the expulsion of American drug inspectors. The next 11 hours went by without a hitch, well besides the bus getting stuck in a mudpile, and the suspension breaking for 30 minutes, and of course that time the engine simply disconnected from the wheels. I now know that Rurrenabaque is the place where buses go to die, and to think our bus was just 2 days away from retirement.

I should say that the part of the ride when we were moving was beautiful. We ended up going on the alternative to the Death Road, which still is quite a precarious drive. We winded our way down the side of tree covered mountains, dropping over 3000 m in altitude, often driving on the side of cliffs with a 500m drop only inches away from the left side of the bus. Glad Anna wanted the window seat. Once we reached Rurrenabaque, and the jungle proper, the view was breathtaking, a vast plain of trees as far as the eye could see. I’ve never seen anything like it before, a horizon of pure green.

We started our pampas (the plains) tour the next day. Pretty much we were going to be spending our next three days on a motorized canoe traversing the river and surrounding swampland. Within 10 minutes of leaving I was in the water swimming with pink dolphins. They never made contact with me, but I think my girlish screams and death threats every time they came near might’ve done enough to scare them away. Pretty cool fact about why we could swim in the water when the pink dolphins were around; turns out every other animal is scared by them. Caimans, alligators, anacondas, piranhas, they all flee as soon as a group of dolphins come near. The dolphins alone could be taken easily, but they always stick as a group, and as a group can peck almost any animal to defeat. After I was told that I wondered if I really wanted to swim with them in the first place.

We arrived at our camp a few hours later, a cluster of huts and plank ways supported by wooden beams above the river. The volleyball net in the middle of the water seemed like a sick joke as the waters were swarming with alligators and caimans. There was a gator right by where we docked our boat, sitting below our cabin, I laughed at the cheap parlour trick. Everyone was taking photos, but I knew the thing was fake, I mean I’d seen enough amusement parks and movies to recognize special effects when I saw it. Look I said, you can even see the paint coming off on its nose. We soon saw its older brother, a 6 metre long caiman glaring at us ½ a metre below the plank leading to the kitchen. I was impressed with the craftsmanship of the designers. They had even made its eyes and nose move. As I pondered how Bolivians were able to import so much robotic technology our guide Taz brought out a piece of meat on a string. I think at the point the meat was devoured in one bite I was willing to accept the thing was real. As for its smaller friend,  turns out he was real and friendly, he came over to be petted as soon as our guide Taz called his name. My group didn’t let me forget about my words of brash stupidity for the rest of the trip.

Also, I have to mention the group of 3 American Moms also at our campsite. They looked and sounded so out of place, that I thought I had stumbled into one of my mom’s old bookclub meetings. They thought it was a good idea to surprise their guide by singing Happy Birthday to him at dinner. Turns out his pleading to them to keep it quiet had been for reasons beyond humility, as we soon witnessed the tradition for the guides to team up on the birthday boy and throw him into the water next to the giant caiman. The whole time the ladies were with us I was just waiting for a stereotypical spousal joke. My prayers were answered the next morning when we feeding monkeys bananas. One of them exclaimed, “ He looks cute, but he’s got a bit of an attitude problem…just like my ex-husband!”

The second morning we went and visited an island to search for anacondas. To me that seemed like just a horrible idea, but everyone else seemed pretty enthused to get out of the boat and walk around searching for things that have 4 kilos of crushing power per square centimetre. Clearly, I was the only one who had seen the J-Lo classic, Anaconda, and did not want to share the same fate as John Voight’s character. The first part of the search was on dry land, but after 5 minutes of searching in bushes which are daily visited by tourists for 8 meter long animals I got a bit cocky and declared, “It all seems like a bit of a show.” Not the right thing to say in front of your guide who’s been doing this for 14 years and had been bitten by an Anaconda 4 weeks earlier. He threw down his machete at my feet, and walked away exclaiming, “Just a show! Just a show!” After apologizing, he then led us out of dry land and into swamp water up to our waist. Thinking this was his way of punishing me, I was quite tentative to follow, and every step I took in the black water for the next hour and half I expected to be my last. I was genuinely terrified, and hoping to god that we would just not see anything alive. We all did see a few deadly snakes, but luckily up in trees instead of in the water with us, and we did make it all back to the boat alive. I don’t think I would’ve quite so brave if I had known then what I know now. Last year a girl had been walking in the same swamp and without realizing it stepped on the head of a caiman. Her upper thigh was promptly bitten and was rushed to a hospital. There’s no way I would’ve ever left the boat if I had known that, and although I’m glad I made it out alive, some part of me thinks the tour operators have a duty to tell you really just what type of risk you are taking.

That afternoon we fished piranhas, and I can proudly say I caught one. I can also say that just because your fishing piranhas, doesn’t make fishing any more exciting or fun, but being able to say I caught and later ate a piranha is kind of cool.

My final story in the pampas occurred on the last day when we went to go find more dolphins to swim with. When we finally reached the clearing where 10 other boats were parked, and I heard yelling as dolphins popped up mere meters from our boat, I overcame my fear of aquatic animals and just excitedly dove in. Turns out I was too excited to take the camera out of pocket first. All 800 of my photos, saved in one place, are now drying in a box of rice. If anyone out there knows of the best way to save wet technology, I sure would appreciate any advice I could get.

Later that day we arrived back in Rurrenabaque, and spent the night out with some of our fellow travellers. It was quite noteworthy however, because it was Holy Thursday and no bar in town could legally sell alcohol on Easter weekend. We had to spend our night going from bar to bar seeing how much the bar owners were willing to bend their rules for gringo cash. The norm turned out to be only cocktails that could be seen as fruit juices, and usually with us out of sight from the street. However, after about 45 minutes at a bar we would be whisked out the bar upon rumours the policia were coming. I know that sounds like a ridiculous way to spend a night, but it was the closest I’ll probably get to living out a prohibition era night out.

Our last day in Rurrenabaque we spent ziplining above the forest canopy. It was incredible, 9 different treetop stations, over a km in wire, and 50km/h speeds. The trip also included a guided hike through the jungle, and the whole thing was organized by a local indigenous group.  It was just the authentic experience we were hoping for, as we drank water out of a vine, ate grapefruits out of a tree, touched a giant termite nest, and learnt about all the variations of trees in the forest. That included the walking tree, which because of its above ground roots, can literally move around over time. Ents, eat your heart out.

That night we left Rurrenabaque, but this time by plane. The 70 dollar flight erased 34 hours of uncertainty, growing insanity, and overwhelming frustration. It got us back to La Paz in 36 minutes. It’s not true what they teach you in school, money can buy you happiness, and time.

We now are back in Chile, on our way to Santiago and our eventual flight home next Thursday. From this point on we are hoping for very little adventure, and personally I am ecstatic to get home and watch some baseball. I hope you’ll tune in sometime next week for my last blog, until then go watch J-Lo in Anaconda.

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Slow News Week

The above link is of an exchange from the Paul Newman classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the characters first arrive in Bolivia. Before reading this blog it should be watched. The scene depicts a 150-year-old version of Bolivia, before American political coups, before the nationalist uprising based on the coca leaf, and before an indigenous revolutionary became one of the most popular presidents in history. However, I gotta say that the thoughts of Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid are strikingly similar to my own. In my not quite humble enough opinion, Bolivia means the exact same thing to a foreign traveller today as it did centuries ago, a wild nowhere. There are so many good things that come from that, but in the past week Anna was hit hard by one of the side effects: sickness.

After arriving in La Paz we quickly found out we had too much time, and too little money. We knew we wanted to do one last big thing, see one more must-see before going home, but we just didn’t know which must-see we could afford, and what to do with the rest of the time we had left. We found a solution to the time problem quite quickly; our hostel was hiring bartenders to work in exchange for accommodation. Two meals a day, 3 beers per shift, and a discount on American chocolate bars? Sold! After a full day of going to 20 different travel agencies we also decided on our last adventure; Rurrenabaque, the entrance to the Amazon.

Before that though, we had a week of work to get through, and before even that started Anna got really sick. She was pretty much bed ridden for 6 days, hit with a sinus and throat infection, along with an upset stomach and headache, although the later two are pretty much common for anyone staying in La Paz. What this sickness amounted to in the end was an unhealthy amount of the West Wing, Anna only working two of her shifts, and me getting to know all the different locations in the city for instant noodles, cough drops, and canned fruit.

What this also meant was that we weren’t really able to see that much of the city, so I don’t really have too much to say about La Paz considering I lived there for 9 days. The streets are full of diesel exhaust, venders selling freshly squeezed juices for 50 cents, stores selling fried chicken, and people peeing in the middle of the sidewalk. That last one really surprised me when right downtown, a child with his mother just started peeing on the stones in front of me. Granted it was raining, but does that really call for an anything goes attitude for dropping liquids wherever one wants? I mean what about those of us wearing sandals? Also, to add to this summary of a slow news week, I made a visit to a local arcade one afternoon, where I got schooled in the art of Street Fighter and Bust-a-move by 9 year old kids.

As for bartending, I worked over 35 hours in total, and really enjoyed the job. Pretty much just passed the hours talking to fellow travellers, playing comfort music over the speakers (the hip), and looking up every bit of information on the upcoming MLB season. It’s definitely a job I would like to have back at home because then tips would be included, and I wouldn’t have to reject my boss’s offers of drugs every 10 minutes. Along that note, it really was the most unorganized job I’ve ever worked, no one trained me how to use the beer taps, and food orders involved going up 3 flights of stairs (difficult at 4000 m above sea level) telling the cooks the order, going back down to the bar, and repeating the process about 10 minutes later to get the food. I thank my stars no one ordered a mixed drink, and that the martini glasses never had to be brought out. Still though, I didn’t really expect anything more though from the place, and in the end I was able to talk beer and football with people from all across the world and hear some pretty good stories. Best one was a Canadian guy who volunteered in the Amazon taking pumas for walks in the jungle. When the cat decided to pursue a kill he had no choice, but to run with her because he was tied to the cat from his chest. How does one explain that to their mother?

After Anna recovered and I had finished up at the bar we had a few days to kill before Rurrenabaque and decided to take a quick three day trip to the highest lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. We left on Wednesday for Copacabana, the city sitting on the edge of the lake and the entrance to the famous Isla del Sol, and headed off to the bus station and bought tickets. About 5 minutes before we were about to get on the bus Anna remarked to me, “Jesse this bus is going to Cochabamba…” Thank god! Turns out in our haste and my brilliance I had bought two tickets to Cochabama, a similarly funny named Bolivian city, but 8 hours in the wrong direction. We quickly grabbed our bags, and found out that we’d have to wait till the next morning to get to where we wanted. The bigger problem though, was getting our money back from the bus company.

Now I understand the hardship of running a bus company in Bolivia, at each station there are 40 other companies offering the exact same trips, on the exact same buses, at the exact same prices. Money must be hard to come by, but this lady working at the desk refused to give me back my money because I was the one who had made the mistake, even though the bus hadn’t left and others could take our seats. That’s customer service for you in Bolivia, gringo ignorance is never an excuse. I could’ve just let the 50 bolivianos go (just about 7 dollars Canadian), but the principal of the matter led me to go to the police. And much to my surprise the justice system of Bolivia came through, these two older officers could’ve just shrugged me off, but instead for 10 minutes argued vehemently on my behalf and at last I was given a refund. I tell you the two tallboys Anna and I bought with that money couldn’t have tasted any sweeter.

The next morning we finally were able to leave for our destination, Copacabana, and after a 4-hour bus ride there we immediately got on a ferry to Isla del Sol. Little background on the island, the Incas believed it to be the birthplace of the sun and an incredibly sacred place. Today it is overrun with hostels and pizzerias. There are also no cars on the island, the only way to travel is the original Incan stone paths. This meant that when we landed on the island, the only way to get us and our 45kgs of belongings up to our hotel, 750 m above lake level, was to walk up the Inca staircase. We were forced to stop every 15 steps or so for desperate gasps of air, and what should have been a 15- minute uphill climb was turned into an hour long ordeal. For anyone that hasn’t ever experienced altitude, the feeling of walking is similar to running a 200m sprint, however when you bend over gasping there’s no relief, there’s simply not enough oxygen in the air to bring your breath back. On the bright side though, our hostel had a great view.

We spent our two days on the island traversing it tip to tail and back again, a difficult journey that pushed both lungs and calves. The island is stunning, pretty much made up of green mountains covered by terraced agriculture, immediately surrounded by the pristine waters of the lake, and in the distance surrounded by snow-capped peaks. It just was a little over-rated though in its Incan influence. Look there’s a table that used to be used for sacrifices, but is now a great place to eat lunch! Or look, there’s a bunch of rock towers that probably would’ve looked really similar in style to the Incas! It was a peaceful two days, but I think both Anna and I would’ve liked to have spent less time hiking to all of the “ruins”, and more time sitting on the balcony of our hostel with a beer or two.

We are currently back in La Paz getting ready to leave tomorrow for our 24+hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque.  We have booked a Pampas tour once we arrive there, which will include a swim with pink dolphins and crocodiles, fishing for piranhas, and a night-time hunt for anacondas and tarantulas. I think by the time I survive all those things I won’t even be worried about our flight back to La Paz on a 30 year-old propeller plane. Hey, I know its dangerous, but at least we’re not taking any pumas for walks.

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A Trip to the Salar

Arriving in Tupiza was like a scene out of a Hitchcock movie. Our hostel was located outside of town, down a gravel road, on the side of a cliff, and we were the only guests there.  Both Anna and I were sceptical of taking showers, and by the end of our stay I was expecting to find the corpse of the owner’s mother in some back room…
Luckily we both survived our 2-night stay and could focus on booking our salt flat tour and getting out of Tupiza as quickly as possible. The town of Tupiza was pretty much a dump, but then again after Sucre I’m sure any Bolivian town we visited was gonna look pretty ragged.
Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat lies about 40 km west of Uyuni. There are about 80 tour companies, ranging from legitimate to criminal, operating out of Uyuni, but we had been recommended to do an alternative tour from Tupiza, about 230km south of Uyuni. The tour is 4 days long, and the first 3 days are spent driving through deserted mining towns, coloured lakes, llama and flamingo hotspots, and hot springs. On the last day you visit the salt flat at dawn, and spend the morning and afternoon traversing part of its massive expanse. Everyone had told us to go with a company called Tupiza Tours, a little more expensive, but the quality level and safety record were apparently well worth the price.
 Before we set out though on our Jeep adventure, I convinced Anna that we should do our best Butch C. and the Sundance Kid impression, and go out on a 3 hour horse tour of the gorgeous scenery surrounding Tupiza. My enthusiasm was doused a bit after I was introduced to my small black and white spotted horse, and I realized that I could not quite pretend I was riding Seabiscuit or Hidalgo. My want to live through a real life movie montage of me galloping over hills and valleys was soon put on the back-burner to my want to have children when I’m older. Finally, my one-with-nature, living off the land mentality was squashed after I ate, at the urging of my 16-year-old Spanish guide, a local fruit off a bush. Only after did my lips pucker, and I heard laughs from both him and Anna did I realize I’d been had, turns out those fruit are delicious only for horses. The scenery was gorgeous though, and although I was sore for the next two days I have to say the experience was worth it, even if only to know never to do it again.
The next morning we left quite early for our Tupiza Tour adventure, and things looked pretty good at first. The older French couple we were supposed to have been paired with was replaced by a young couple from Israel and Germany, and our guide was not only experienced, but also spoke fluent English. 15 minutes later after our first checkpoint, when the young Israeli started to sing along with Linkin Park, and our guide suddenly left us and was replaced with a questionably18-year-old Bolivian with no English whatsoever, we started to have some concerns…
 I will give Jorge (our guide) some credit, he drove very well considering he’d only gotten his licence earlier that year, and joking around with him in my limited Spanish provided some pretty good laughs. Best one was when I asked him what type of women does he like, Bolivian, Chilean, or Argentinean? Jorge provided a swift answer, “Japanese”. Globalization really is present everywhere you go. It was a little harder to find redeeming qualities in our Linkin Park loving companion though. Some of his finest hits included, “ I can’t sit in the front because I can’t sleep there. You wouldn’t understand, It’s a military thing.” Or a Colautti favourite, “ Why are you guys so excited about seeing flamingos? They’re not rare or anything, and they are all over North America.” Or the instant classic, “ I just think its so ignorant that French Canadians refuse to speak English.” In the lines of my grandmother, a trip with him was a once in a lifetime experience I would never want to live again.
The rest of the tour, well I haven’t yet made up my mind about it. We saw some incredibly gorgeous things, I mean sometimes you had to pinch yourself and remind yourself of what you were surrounded by. There was Laguna Colorada, an expansive red lake at the foot of a mountain, filled with over 5000 flamingos. The stone tree, and its surrounding rock valley, filled with shapes and designs that made clouds look uniform. Roads that at one time plunge down the side of dunes, and at another are completely submerged in water with llamas surrounding from all sides. And of course the Salar de Uyuni itself, an expanse of salt so overwhelming that the mind can only grasp it by comparing it to a field of snow.
 But it was the method of seeing these things that makes me unable to provide a coherent review of the experience. Being spoon-fed through once in a lifetime landscapes, one after another, with no say in which direction you’re going in, or any real understanding of what you’re seeing, is as unappealing as it sounds. One of fellow travellers put it best, “ I feel like I’m in kindergarten again.” The area is so remote though, and the roads are so bad that I can’t even advise someone to try this trip on their own, tours are the necessary evil for a normal person to see such incredible things. Kind of made me think of Berlin’s concepts of freedom. It’s not important what a person is free to do, but if that person feels free to do it.
 In the end, I’m grateful for the fact our jeep was part of a 3-vehicle convoy, and that we were able to hang out with some great people from the other vehicles. There was a group of 4 Israelis that were travelling across South America with an interesting ritual. The image of when I first witnessed it won’t soon be forgotten. There they were, on the edge of the flush red Laguna Colorada at sunset, standing with their legs spread apart, shoulder to shoulder in a straight line, and majestically looking out at a breathtaking landscape. It was so picturesque I decided I needed to take a photo. As I zoomed in I realized that their identical postures were not mere chance, but in fact they were giving their all at tackling the concept of mixing primary colours.

After our tour ended we were stuck in Uyuni for 10 hours, until the next bus to La Paz came. The ugliest and dustiest town I’ve ever been to looked like a scene out of the Old Testament, with hundreds of backpackers aimlessly searching in all directions for signs of life. We were all about as useless as Mosas looking for such basic amenities of life such as water, food, baggage storage, and wi-fi.

We did eventually find the promise land of La Paz, an oasis filled with gas exhaust and knock off clothing to the heart’s content. Due to a series of strange circumstances we landed a gig as bartenders at the hostel we were staying at, but that story will have to wait till the next time Anna falls asleep before me.

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