He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man
My South American travels are over, officially, but my travels aren't. A new challenge has brought me to China. My main purpose here is to attend a conference. But, interesting as the worlds fastest growing economy looks to me, I'll spend a fortnight in this booming country to get to know more about Chinese and their culture. I'll start in Dalian, which is in the far north-east, close to the North-Korean border and end my trip in Beijing.
After a ten-hour flight I arrive in Hangzhou, where I'll have a couple of hours to kill before my connecting flight to Dalian departs. Although Hangzhou is said to be worth a visit because it's considered one of China's greenest cities, I decide the time is too short to leave the airport and relax a bit before continuing my journey. After going through custums and migration, which is quite easy to my great suprise, I'm looking for an ATM to take out my first Chinese yuans. The ATM, however, doesn't same to accept my Visa card and I try to use my other card, without any success. Luckily another machine is very close, but this one also refuses to give out cash due to "machine anomalities". After trying the third machine without any success I start to feel a little nervous. I go to the airport information point, where I encounter my first experience with Chinese politeness: friendly people who are willing to help me but only provide answers to questions I'm not asking. Good afternoon Mr. language barrier. They send me to the currency exchange bank, which turns out to take cash only. With only a few euro coins in my pocket I won't get far. Back to the information point, where the friendly lady recommends me to take a taxi into town to go to a bank. However, this might be difficult to pay for without any money. Then I run into a police man who's driving an electric trolley through the airport and I explain him my story. He invites me to get into his vehicle and drives me to a colleague. After some Chinese discussion into which I obviously cannot mingle his colleague decides to drive me to the nearest bank. So without planning it, I get to see some parts of Hangzhou. At the nearest bank my first try is a succesful one and I'm able to take out 1000 yuans (about €100) here. Lesson learned: always bring cash!
My first experiences with China are very positive: people are friendly, seem to be well-organized and now and then they tend to speak some English or try to. If they speak it, they'll always ask me where I'm from and how much money I make. I have to get used to some more of these curiosities (not to begin about the spitting habits most Chinese men practice) such as the friendly way they approach you, but the silent indifference they seem to show when they won't be able to help you. Chinese people are generally much more introvert and convinceable which makes it quite easy to get things done. They simply can't say no. Please don't think I treat people like that. I'm just saying how it feels to talk to them.
Food is interesting in China. On my first day I have to control my reflexive thought that every store showing Chinese signs on the front door (virtually all of them do) is a Chinese restaurant. It's one of these typical things. But restaurants are easy to find and it's not as difficult as I thought to order a foreigner-friendly meal. During my first dinner, however, the ladies in the restaurants tend to make some fun of me. Not because of the way I use my chop-sticks, but apparently I'm supposed to eat this specific dish with a spoon! Crazy foreigner, they'll probably think.
Dalian is a pleasant city, although there's not that much special to see. It's a good city to acclimatize to Chinese culture and lifestyle. After my first week I take the overnight train to Beijing. These trains are fairly comfortable, including a little bed and wake-up service with Chinese music. Early Tuesday morning the train brings me in Beijing on time, and I make my way into this massive capital of Eastern history and ... bicycles!
Although the sun and the moon are the same, on the southern hemisphere the stars are different. One can see many constellations which are not visible from the northern hemisphere. Before leaving to South America I had been dreaming of one day being able to admire the beautiness of the southern sky. I even had a book about the southern sky and it made me determined going there one day and seeing them by myself. Last December I started fulfilling this dream and hit the stars.
Rio de Janero is the finish line of me and my trip. And it's an amazing line to finish. The city is so diverse that it cannot be described by just one word or sentence. Each of its districts offers a unique atmosphere and the racial mixture of people makes it look like a kind of racial melting pot. Lightly-tanned people are the culmination of an interesting mixture process from all different types of skin colors from all over the world. Some people tell me that considering increasing globalization Brazilian cities are therefore a perfect example of the future society.
Panaramic view on Rio de Janeiro!
My final day in Rio I spend on Copacabana beach as it's a beautiful and sunny day. Collecting my final memories gives me time enough to look back on the past eight months before I return to the Netherlands. Eight months that have brought me so much and being here at my final destination I just can't stop reflecting upon this time. I'm standing on the finish line but it doesn't feel like it. It's like losing the race but winning the game. Or the other way around. It makes me feel confused.
On this final day I get to know Raymundo who lives in Ipanema, one of Rio's districts. Given his surname, he tells me his grandfather is from Dutch origin. Raymundo clearly loves Ipanema and Rio and he has a great passion for traveling. He shows me around in Ipanema and we share drinks and life stories. That evening I get to see Lapa district, where a lot of street parties are going on. Everybody is dancing, drinking and playing music on the streets. Despite the little bit of rain I really enjoy my final night in South America in this area.
Saturday is the day of my departure and of the moment of good bye. After repacking and having a good final breakfast in Ipanema Raymundo offers to drive me to the airport, an offer which I cannot refuse. The sun is shining and the view on the bay, Sugar Loaf mountain and Cristo Redentor statue is just amazing. For those who've watched the "Rio" movie: it's exactly this stunning feeling of relaxation and freedom this city is giving me. Getting at the airport I feel a bit nervous, because I know that for the last time I'm saying good bye to a place in South America. But I also feel satisfied. I'm ready to go and prepared to say good bye. Knowing, however, that this "adios" will be more like a "hasta luego" I don't feel sad because I know I will return to this magnificent continent one day.
Having fulfulled my dream I do feel happy because I'm sure there are so many more dreams to fulfill. It's just a matter of getting started! Flying away and leaving this dream behind I embark on my next one. With my eyes wide open I'm flying. Flying in between dreams I lay back and relax. For the last time I see the stars of the southern sky setting down the horizon and I think of my book and the desire I had to see these stars. Thinking about it I realize that the stars of the southern sky, although very beautiful, were not the ones above my head. The real stars were the ones down on Earth. My stars were the friends I made, the happiness we shared, the adventures I lived and the beautiness I saw. Muchisimas gracias! Knowing you'll always be there I gratefully kiss you, my stars of South America, good bye.
Leaving the gorgeous Iguazu falls behind me I make my way into Brazil heading for the city of Curitiba. Curitiba is a nice and well-maintained city in southern Brazil and well-known for its exceptionally well-developed public transportation system. My main reason for going there is the famous train ride to the coastal town of Paranagua.
The train ride is spectacular passing through marvellous landscapes and cliffs. It brings me to the colonial town of Morretes where I have lunch. It's my first experience with the typical Brazilian "per/kg" restaurant. What you do is fill up your plate with whatever you'd like to eat. At the checkout they put it on a balance and you pay for the amount of kilograms. I like the concept and it's a good way of economizing a bit on food expenses.
People in Brazil speak Portuguese. For this reason during my first days in Brazil I feel a little lost. Lost because I cannot talk to anyone anymore like I used to do in Spanish. Lost because it seems to be Spanish but sounds like Russian. Lost because all of a sudden I feel like being a stranger. It's kind of frustrating but interesting: a language so close to Spanish, but so differently pronounced. Brazil is very different from previous countries in other aspects as well: cities are well-developed, transportation and accommodation are expensive, even compared to European standards.
My journey continues into São Paulo. With 22 million inhabitants, São Paulo is the largest city on the southern hemisphere. It's a huge metropolitan jungle and I'm planning to stay only two days here. On my first day, I walk around the city center and from one of the highest buildings I have a nice overview of all the mushrooming skyscrapers. The next day it's raining so I spend most of my day in the hostel. In the afternoon I make a short excursion to the Ibirapuera city park, the largest park designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer. From São Paulo I take a night bus to Rio de Janeiro, the final destination of my journey! Arriving there gives me mixed feelings. I'm feeling a bit nervous because the end of my trip is near! My final destination: this is it! I've been looking forward to this for so long. Is this it?
It's 5:30 in the morning. I wake up and I'm on an empty bus in a dodgy terminal. The driver friendly requests me to get off the bus and to collect my baggage. At least, that's what I assume what his words mean. Even at this early hour the terminal seems crowded with people. I buy myself a coffee and still half asleep try to find a bus that will bring me to my hostel. The weather is bad: it's pouring down. Is this the famous awesome Rio? Despite the bad weather I spend a good couple of days in my hostel in the neighborhood of Botafogo. During these days I check out the city. On my third day I embark on a city tour to see the famous statue of Cristo Redentor that overlooks the city and welcomes everyone with open arms. Of course this is a huge tourist trap, but inevitable when visiting Rio. The view from here over the city is just incredible! I also see the famous bohemien neighborhood of Santa Teresa where many artists live and work. It's the only part of Rio that is still connected to the center by a tram. The slums or favelas" can now be visited as many are controlled by the police. This offers me another view on Brazil where not everything is glitter and glamour. Going up the Sugar Loaf mountain on the first sunny day gives me another stunning city view from the seaside. Counting down the days I'm enjoying Rio de Janeiro spending my final days in South America on the beach. While enjoying it in all its glory I'm spending time to reflect upon my eight-month journey that's about to come to an end here!
From Asunción I will leave Paraguay and travel straight to the Iguazu waterfalls. They are located in Argentina and in Brazil close to the triple border point with Paraguay, which makes the journey tedious but interesting.
Three countries, one picture... I'm in Argentina. Left: Paraguay. Right: Brazil.
The city on the Paraguayan border side is called Ciudad del Este and is best known as "South America's shopping mall", because all Brazilians and Argentinians go there to buy cheap goods. And it's actually true: at the bus stations I see tonnes of people carrying huge bags with clothes, electronics, toys, blankets and other cheap stuff that they're bringing to their homes in either of the two neighboring countries. From Ciudad del Este I have to take a shuttle bus that will bring me to Puerto Iguazu, the town in Argentina from where I'll visit the falls. The shuttle bus crosses the bridge into Brazil but won't stop there, meaning we won't have to get Brazilian stamps. Although this saves us a little time the short journey still takes us about two hours due to all the border crossings and all formalities due there. Puerto Iguazu is a well-maintained but very touristic town. The next days I visit the falls and they are just astonishing. Words cannot describe the incredible awe that fulfills people when seeing the falls, so I won't even try. What I cán do is quote a famous American named Roosevelt: "Poor Niagara is nothing compared to Iguazu".
The park is very touristic: it's like walking through an amusement park. The second day I visit the Brazilian side. From the Brazilian park I can look across the river and see Argentine people and visitors staring at us. It's kind of intriguing and bewildering at the same time: such a magnificent piece of nature with people staring at it. Moreover, they're standing in different countries, which fascinates me and distracts me a bit. Where a borderlline runs on the map I see plain water and where the powers that be rule their respective territories all I see is a peaceful united marvel of nature. It seems to justify my belief that borders are only a spin of the human mind. Nature doesn't respect them and the birds can just freely cross the border. These birds remind me of the Dutch lyrics in "Over de Muur" about the Berlin Wall:
En alleen de vogels vliegen van oost naar west Berlijn,
Worden niet teruggefloten, ook niet neergeschoten.
Over de muur, over het ijzeren gordijn.
Omdat ze soms in het westen, soms ook in het oosten willen zijn
(Only birds fly from east to west Berlin
Are neither called back nor shot
Across the wall, across the iron curtain
Because now and then they prefer either west or east)
When visiting Iguazu it was exactly 50 years ago that the Soviets put up the wall that physically split the continent into two parts. Germany now celebrates its reunion and together with the rest of Europe they take pride in the free and open European Community as we know it today.
However, at the same time, in many parts of the world borders still dó exist. I think of the people from Cuba whose government doesn't allow them to leave their island. I think of the Colombians that are hardly given any opportunities abroad just because they are Colombians. I think of the people from Venezuela that have a set budget for traveling each year. I think of Europe, where borders are open for natives, but which proves an unaccessible 'fortress' for non-residents. I realize that the borders between which you are born determine your nationality and your nationality determines your life.
Leaving the waterfalls I go back to Argentina. With my Dutch / EU passport the little journey across the border takes me about two hours. Staring out of the window I see the birds flying. Without any passport they accomplish their journey in two minutes. Spreading their wings they vanish into the distance.
Change is an intriguing issue everywhere I've been to in South America. Not only because of the political pamphlets I see posted everywhere: "Vote for change!", "Por el cambio". Especially there's the problem of a lack of small cash in most countries here. That's what I found out. However, contrary to my expectations, Argentina outbeats them all! Due to devaluation of the Argentinian peso prices are subject to sudden change. For example, where most guidebooks give price indications for hostels for about 30 pesos per night, to my disbelief the cheapest seems to be 50 pesos now. Taking a city bus seems easy, but the bus tickets cost 1.75 pesos. This is absolutely a nightmare fare in terms of coins, because a machine issues them, doesn't take bills nor does it give any change.
Peso bills: the smallest denomination is 2 pesos, or about 30 cents!
On my second day in Salta I'm stuck at the bus terminal and want to get back into the city center by bus. So before I get on the bus, I need to get change because I only have bills! Good luck. Going into a sandwich bar seems a straightforward solution of getting some change, but after ordering a couple of sandwiches I find out that all prices are rounded up to even numbers. The two-peso bill is the smallest bill. So no chance I will get any change here. Then I try a small shop on the same block to buy a chocolate bar for 3 pesos. I pay with two 2-peso bills and anxiously I wait for my 1-peso coin to come back. But this quickly turns into a deception as my change is given in the form of little sweets. "Sorry, no change sir" is the simple answer i get. Almost desperate (I want to get back to the hostel) I look around for which bank I should rob in order to get some of these precious little coins. A very friendly lady tells me the way to the closest bank. But at least fifty people are waiting in the line so no chance here either. I decide to give up, walk back, and enjoy Salta once again. On my way back I pass by at least twenty bank offices all having huge lines in front of them. This is Argentina. Developed and rich but with some fascinating monetary problems. Having money but without change you'll live like the poorest here.
I spend three days in Salta, a pleasant city in northern Argentina and of course I have my first good steak here. Then I take a bus to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. Actually my next destination will be the marvellous Iguazu falls, but I'm fascinated with the idea of visiting Paraguay: hardly any traveler knows about it. The unknown is wat attracts me so I decide to check it out.
Welcome to Paraguay! The country of red, white and blue!
My stop in Paraguay will be Asunción, the capital, which is located just across the border. Asunción is a beautiful old colonial city with fascinating constrasts: rich Paraguayans live here together with the poor. It's hot here: at almost sea level and close to a huge river it reminds me of Guayaquil on the coast of Ecuador.
People in Paraguay aren't really used to tourists. They stare at me and at the few other tourists I see. It's like they want to express me their disbelief: "Did you really come to Paraguay to see our country? Are you crazy?". Street vendors seem to be significantly more aggressive here. While dining with Christin, whom I traveled with to Paraguay, the same watch vendor approaches us at least four times. He is dropping his "ultime price" at least three times before he finally gives up. At least three other vendors try to sell their stuff to those who seem to be the only tourists in town. It's funny and tragic at the same time. All of a sudden an old lady runs into our table. Immediately I grab my belongings, however, that doesn't seem to be necessary. She picks up the full glass of beer from our table, downs it and heads off as fast as she came. Leaving us perplexed as we are, I request another glass with the waiter. (voor alle BoLe die dit lezen: het glas was absoluut beheerd!)
Governmental palace in Asunción decorated for the 200th anniversary of Paraguay!
Like all countries I visited before Paraguay is celebrating its independence day around these days. Because it's the 200th anniversary all streets and buildings are dressed up in red, whit and blue. The Paraguayan flag resembles the Dutch flag so it's easy to feel at home here. To be honest, this is absolutely hilarious. Every day I question myself if oranje has to play today. The interesting thing is that Paraguay, though lacking major tourist attractions, has a lot to offer. There are vast areas of nature, national parks and wildlife being easilly accessible. It's a good country for hiking, trekking and birdwatching . Most of the country is very agricultural and not very populated and many people live on ranches. People in Paraguay are very friendly and although not very used to tourists they're happy to receive them. They're proud of their country now celebrating its 200-year anniversary and maybe it will just take a little more time for the tourists to come. Until that day take the chance and enjoy Paraguay in all its purity!
Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat is incredibly beautful. It's a surrealistic landscape, it's like being on another planet.
Despite its beauty, in Uyuni it's extremely cold so I'd like to leave as quickly as possible for a warmer place. My next stop will be Tupiza, a pleasant town in southern Bolivia. Together with Christin, from Germany, I decide to take the 8 pm bus. Only a six-hour drive separates us from an appealing warmth compared to the deep-freezer Uyuni is like. After an incredibly running dinner and race towards the bus stop we make it just in time. 'Is this our bus? ' Christin notably questions, as it doesn't seem that luxury (which is an understatement). But yeah, this is it and although almost empty it suprisingly departs on time. This is against all South- American standards! Leaving Uyuni the most bumpy six-hours of my live begin. Just imagine yourself riding a supermarket trolley on a cabblestone road for six hours. No light. Freezing cold. That's about the feeling we experience for six hours. Something you should experience at least once in your lifetime. Frozen but safely we arrive in Tupiza.
In Tupiza I relax a bit and on the national Bolivian independence day with a lot of fiesta I embark on a roundtrip to see the beautiful surroundings. Jeep driving, horseback riding and mountainbiking are all included. The huge variety in colours and vegetation in the landscape are breathtaking.
I meet two Danish people and they explain me the possibility of catching a taxi that will pick us up and bring us all the way to the border with Argentina. It sounds attractive for the price given and for the fact they'll leave earlier than scheduled bus services so together with them and with Christin we're four people and make a good deal with the guy. He promises to pick us up at our hostel at 6:00 a.m. so we'll be able to catch a connecting at the border around 8:00 a.m. We pay him 50% upfront.
The next morning we're all packed and ready, waiting in front of our hostel, but after 6:15 we're starting to get a little nervous. No driver, no car. Because I lost the little note with his phone number I decide to walk to the office, two blocks ahead, to inquire but no-one is here to answer my questions and I walk back to the hostel where the other three are still waiting more or less having accepted the situation and considering other options. On that moment a car stops and here he is: our driver. Visibly exhausted he starts to upload our bags. Because there's another girl in the car, our bags have to go on top of the car, but there are no ropes to fixthem. While arguing with him I start asking him questions and while asking these it becomes clear he must have drunk a lot last night, like everybody, being the cause for his delay. I suggest to go to his house to pick up some ropes so we can secure the bags and finally leave.
In about five minutes we arrive at his house and collect the required ropes. Togeth er with him we climb onto the roof of the car to fix our baggage. However, one of the ropes breaks so the whole process takes forever. When we finally leave Tupiza it's already past 7:00 and I start complaining that we're never going to catch our next bus, but the driver assures me that everything is going to be all right. Smoothly we drive onto the road under construction: most parts are well paved. Normally this would have pleased me but in this case I'm noticing our fellow driver has a hard time not falling asleep so I'd have preferred a bumpy road instead. The whole situation now really begins to stress me out and all I want is to arrive safely at the border and not crash because of this stupid and irresponsible guy. In order to keep him awake I just start talking to him and make him drink half of my bottle of coke which I luckily brought with me. This gives him a new boost as his eyes seem wide-opened now. After 45 minutes he stops again to spray some fresh water and we move on quickly. After five minutes, however, we stop again as the tire has gotten flat. I question the whole situation and suggest to replace the tire, but our fellow driver tells me doesnt have a spare tire and I now realize why: he has already been driving on his spare tire for the whole journey! He assures me that we're close to our destination and that we'll just continue carefully so he gets back in the car and keeps on driving. But after a few minutes we hear a loud bang from the exploding tire and we're stuck in the middle of nowhere. Can you call someone?" I suggest to him. "No sir, there's no signal". So stuck in the middle of nowhere I inquire about the possibility of walking. He says it would be 3 or 4 kilometers but considering his state of mind we don't really believe this.
All we can do is wait for another car with a spare tire. Luckily we don't have to wait very long before a taxi driver stops. He doesn't have a spare tire either but I ask him if he could take us to the border which he's willing to do for 15 bolivianos per person. Our reliable driver comes in between and suggests we pay him the remaining 50% of his fee and he will negotiate a price, but I immediately wave him off saying we're not going to pay him anything and order my friends to grab their bags and move them into our rescue vehicle. We drive for about twenty minutes and considering the velocity it must be at least another 25 kilometers before we arrive at the border crossing which is fairly easy and brings me into Argentina!
Argentina brings me a European feeling as it is so much more developed than all countries I traveled through before. Buses are luxury and pricy. For the first time in eight months I'm driving on a real highway with several lanes, guardrails, exits and so on. I'm leaving behind Bolivia, South America's highest but poorest. Bolivia that has so many beautiful things to see and to offer but at the same time lacks significant development. Bolivia the landlocked state that is governed by a corrupt regime. Bolivia: it was not always easy, but it was a pleasure.
Crossing the bridge with my backpack on my shoulders I'm looking back, back upon my trip and back into time. Not just one hour as the clock tells me, but decades separate Bolivia from Argentina. Ahead I see a different world. I'm touched by these two worlds so close together in place yet so far apart in time. Crossing the bridge I gratefully say goodbye and look back once again on this marvel of nature. Chao Bolivia!
From Peru my journey continues through Bolivia. Known as the poorest country in South America, having the worst roads and the extremest cold in some areas, I'm quite excited to cross the border and to experience the extreme!
The border crossing is easy and my first stop is Copacabana on the other side of Lake Titicaca. This town is definitely a tourist trap and my only reason for stopping here is to see the Isla del Sol, which offers beautiful views over the lake and has several ancient Inca ruins, as the Inca empire was founded here. After this short trip I take today's last bus to La Paz, leaving at 6:30 pm. La Paz is the de facto capital of Bolivia and its largest city. It directly reminds of Quito: squeezed into a valley at high altitude it's a crowded, chaotic but lively and pleasant metropolitan city. I check into quite a large and gringo-like hostel. Usually not my preference but the free pancake breakfast is appealing and good.
On my first day I explore the city by just walking around. Its steep streets directly remind me of Quito. The whole city seems to be like a huge open-air market. This is similar to many cities in Latin America, but I've never seen it like it's here: people literally selling everything from the early morning until late in the evening. Even at 10 at night people are still withstanding the cold to make a couple more bolivianos.
As La Paz is located at an incredible 4000 meters of altitude, it gets terribly cold at night. At daytime it's quite pleasant as long as the sun is shining. One of the museums in La Paz gives an interesting outline about the Pacific War during the 1800s. During this war, Chile conquered the coastal area of Bolivia and ever since the country has been landlocked. Realising myself that having no seaport means a significant drawback compared to most other South American countries I conclude this must be one of the causes for Bolivia being the poorest country in South America. While I'm in the museum a group of school children come in. The teacher recalls the Pacific War asking them: "What did we lose during the war?"Chorally, the children reply: "Our sea!" Another cool museum is the Coca museum in which everything about the production of coca, coca-cola, cocaine and whatsoever is outlined in an appealing way. Of course mate de coca is available to drink.
In Bolivia bus rides are challengeing and spectacular. Whereas in Peru more comfortable and luxury buses are easy to find and as a gringo you can pay yourself into a western way of traveling, in Bolivia this is far more difficult. It's especially challengeing when it comes to the less crowded routes. It's always a surprise whether you end up with half a meter of leg space, or hardly any space at all having a lama on your side. Roads in Bolivia are simple and many of them are unpaved. To and from La Paz, the majority of the roads is fairly acceptable, but in the southern or eastern parts of the country, one should not expect much more than a bumpy track through a desolate landscape. Just imagine yourself sitting in a supermarket trolley on a cabblestone road. For hours and hours, making 180 degree turns on rickety cliff roads and throug hairpin curves. Then try to imagine that it's minus 20 degrees outside while the windows of your bus will only partially shut or give some additional ventilation through the many cracks that are in it. Welcome to Bolivia.
(we carry passengers with safety and comfort. Notice the broken window on the top left)
After La Paz I make my way down to Cochabamba. This place has a milder climate as it's off the cold and high altiplano. I spend two days there on one of which I rent a bike to explore the indicated bicycle route. From Cochabamba I decide to take a flight to the capital, Sucre, to save myself a 12-hour bus ride. In 20 minutes I get into Sucre, the landing in the mountaineous area is just spectacular.
Sucre is outstanding. Being called a white city, it definitely is and it reminds me directly of Cuenca. Driving into town I see signs everwhere saying "Sucre capital de Bolivia", just to remind people of its official capital status Today is Sunday and I've been told that there is nice indigenous market in the village of Tarabuco, about an hour from Sucre. I take a small collectivo (a minibus that you share with as many other people as possible so the drive makes as many Bolivianos as possible). I walk around the market, have lunch and buy some souvenirs. On the bus back to Sucre I share an interesting talk with a Bolivian gynaecologist. We talk about the economical and political problems in Bolivia and why it is so tough to make a living in this country. He gives me some great travel advices.
Leaving Sucre the taxi driver brings me to the bus terminal. The taxi driver is a friendly man well interested his passengers. Because there's a lot of traffic and the bus will leave in 25 minutes, he makes a quick and smart detour to make it to the terminal. Before arrival he asks me if it were possible to pay him in my own currency. The taxi ride is 8 bolivianos and as it is 10 bolivianos to the euro, I give him one euro coin of which I still carry a few in one of my pockets. Jokingly, I excuse myself for giving him a Belgian coin instead of a Dutch one and let him keep the change.
From Sucre my trip goes further south towards Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt lake in the world. Even without having seen this highlight, Bolivia has already met my expectations being a country of extremes.
Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake at an altitude of about 3,800 m. It has a Peruvian and a Bolivian side. No borderline is visible on the lake, of course. Close to the city of Puno are the floating Uros islands on which people actually live: the so-called Uru people.
In Puno I decide it would be a cool and interesting experience to spend the night on one of the floating islands. Most tourists take daytrips to some of the bigger islands, but I think a closer look and experience will bring me closer to the real thing. Doing a little research in Puno I obtain the phone number of one of the families and after a short phone call they pick me up at the main plaza in Puno in the afternoon.
From there we take a taxi towards the lake shore, where a little boat is awaiting us. In about thirty minutes we arrive at the Uros community. Some of the islands are visibly very touristic. On Qhantati island people can spend the night, but only a few people do this every week, as it's not offered by the travel agencies. This means that the money I pay directly goes to the family and not into the pockets of sketchy agencies.
The family whom I'm staying with, Christina and Victor Vilca, gives me a warm welcome. I walk around the island, which is actually a huge floating device, it's incredible! They're made of totora, a type of reed that grows in the lake. The islands thus require a continous and labor-intensive process of maintenance. On the island, I meet a Brazilian couple and we go out for fishing. Questioning myself where the rods are I realize that we're not going to catch anything today,: we're just setting out some nets for the next day while we're enjoying the sunset.
At the island I also meet a French lady (Fabienne) who works for the French "La Runa" association with social development projects in Latin America. Passionately she tells me about their latest projects in Peru. Right now she's at the Uros islands to donate toothbrushes, toothpaste and second-hand clothes to the communities that live in poverty. In addition, she gives instructions how to brush your teeth, which is the educational aspect of the program. She brought items all the way from France, which wasn't an easy job. Although KLM - Air France offered her free carriage of the goods, Peruvian customs were a little bit surprised to encounter 1200 toothbrushes in her bags. The next day, she'll go to the other side of the lake to distribute them. "In this part," she says, "tourists never come. People here live under hard conditions, below the poverty line." She invites me to come with her to help her with the distribution. "It's a totally different world, " Victor assures me. Without hesitation I promise to go with her and Victor, who is going to captain the boat.
The next day the three of us load all clothes, toothbrushes and some food (I brought some fresh apples from Puno) into the vessel and set sail towards the islands named Ccapi. After sailing for about 1,5 hours we arrive at the community. However, as there is a wedding today, most adults seem to have already left. We visit one of the schools, but nobody is there. It's interesting though to see that one of the school has solar panels, financed by Euro-Solar, an EU-funded program. Victor tells us that education on the islands is of low quality. "All teachers come from Puno. They usually arrive from the city on Monday, so class won't start until Tuesday. It's really a problem for the community." We move on to the village, where a couple of kids are playing. Immediately it is evident that Victor was right: this is a totallly different world. The children look neglected, unhealthy, starving and very fragile. Some of them approach us on their rafts, interested by this foreign visit. Victor asks them if there are any adult people in the village, because we need a responsible person to give the toothbrushes to. One mother shows up, carrying a little baby. Though being the only adult present, she's probably not older than fifteen years. She seems really reserved, not willing to be approached by strangers.
More and more children are gathering around us. "Let's give them something to eat", Fabienne proposes. Victor starts handing out some cookies to all of them, which they're happy to receive. Fabienne opens the bags with clothes and starts matching sizes with kids. As soon as they realize they will get some neat and clean clothes they get really excited . Some of them try to jump into our boat. In the meantime, the mother has joined the group together with a few more little children. In total, I think, we're surrounded by at least 25 villagers. While Victor and Fabienne are doing the clothes-stuff, my main task is to take photographs and capture video material for the association.
Victor coordinates the process speaking to the kids in Aymara language and he translates this into Castellano for us. Every child receives a new jumper and some new pants. Despite the pityful situation in which they obviously are, it's heartbreaking to see the many happy faces. Upon departure, one little boy has decided to become captain of our boat, not being prepared to let it go. Victor talks to him and I hand him an apple, which proves sufficient distraction to make him move onto his friends' raft.
Leaving the first island, the three of us are more or less silent, thinking of what we just saw and experienced. Victor explains that he and his family try to support the people in this part of the lake, but that it's not easy. "Even the government doesn't do much to support these people," he adds. "The only thing they do is fishing. My wife came from this part of the lake. With the money we make we try to do our best to help them." Fabienne, usually not the most silent person, doesn't have a lot to add. "It's very tough," she utters , "but it's reality." I ask Victor why they don't move to the wealthier part of the community. "This is their land, their culture, their tradition. They want to maintain it."
Carrying the clothes, toothbrushes (they will be delivered later) and the experience from the first islands, we head towards the second island. Here we find six children without any parents at all. They're living in the same poor conditions. But as their parents are away they're making a lot of fun. We invite them to come to our boat and they follow us excitedly. Here the process of handing out clothes starts again. Patiently they take a seat in our boat, awaiting turns to receive a Spiderman t-shirt, some clean pants, or a hat .
The oldest girl is probably about eleven, so we don't have any size available for her, but we give her some for her little brothers. Fabienne gives a brief toothbrushing instruction with the model she brought. When we head off, we leave the children behind us, gratefully waving at us.
Sailing back to Qhantati island we talk about what we've seen and done today while we enjoy the sunshine and tranquility. A little breeze pushes us forward across the gorgeous deep-blue lake. We're approaching Qhantati island, our home-base. Back to the other world. We just crossed the poverty line again. We didn't see it. But we know it's there.
For more information on "La Runa" association, their projects and volunteering positions in Peru or Bolivia, feel free to visit their website: http://www.laruna.fr/ . In English soon!