03.23.09

Cochabamba

Posted in Bolivia at 11:26 pm by Jackson Lee

There isn’t much to Cochabamba. Stuck helplessly without historical sights, an uninspired population and a much more attractive surrounding countryside Cochabamba is best left out of a busy travelers itinerary. It surprised me how many people I meet who were ‘stuck’ in Cochabamba, for various reasons, and were miserable about it.

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Like many night buses in South America we arrived into the city late into the night. Warned by the nervous looking bus attendant that the bus station was in a extremely dangerous neighborhood we chose to sleep on the bus until sunrise. Its a strange feeling to wake up 2 inches from a strangers face – its considerable more strange for this to happen on a stationary bus.

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Since leaving Buenos Aires at the start of the month I had been traveling as the wind blew and was feeling the urge to stop for a while. The South America backpacker trial runs vertically along both of the continents coasts. The advantage with this is every hostel has someone who has freshly come from your next destination – which means travel ideas and plans are made with the help of someone in the know. With enthusiastic encouragement from Shoval the dreadlocked Israeli and Steffen the modern German hippy my next destination was a wildlife refuge in the Bolivia jungle.

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I wasn’t to know it at the time, but one month from now I would return to Cochabamba with a horde of mosquito bites, a few impressive scars, a fresh perspective on life and a new great mate with four legs.

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03.20.09

Santa Cruz – Bolivia

Posted in Bolivia at 1:03 am by Jackson Lee

With an enthusium teenage cheerleaders would be jealous off, I lept out of the Andes and into Bolivia’s largest city – Santa Cruz. My mission was to repair my camera (fill of dust from the Salar) and take it easy.

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With endlesss mountains on one side and endless jungle on the other – Santa Cruz has developed very differently from its Andean sister city’s with many people considering it to have a Brazilian vibe. During carnival, a few Swedish travelers I meet spent 4 days covered in paint which is pelted at anyone brave enough to take to the lively streets – which is pretty much everyone.

Having accessable natural resources (lots of natural gas), Santa Cruz has attracted a lot of Bolivia’s Andean population because of work opportunitis and has become the countries economic center. There is vague, perhaps powerful, talk of the Santa Cruz district breaking away from Bolivia and becoming its own country. Blood would run…

Joining a bunch of people from Joganda hostel, I spent a day at the large sanddunes of “Lomas de Arena”. This is basically a huge amount of sand without the presence of the ocean. Ideal for getting over a nasty hangover.

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Santa Cruz has a theft problem. I was lucky enough to avoid any problems but amougst the various stories a French backpacker called Bruno was not so lucky. Walking one Sunday afternoon he passed two guys talking on the street. One of the guys turned and pointed a gun at Bruno’s feet. Bruno quickly stopped, raised his hands (and probably swore in French) – the gun was then raised to his head – the other guy quickly worked through Bruno’s pockets. Moments later, the two got into a waiting, already running, car and were gone – they were appromiately 40 Boliviano’s (US$8.00) richer. A few other people from my hostel were robbed at gunpoint while I was in Santa Cruz…

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03.17.09

Bolivia – Potosi (Photos)

Posted in Photos - Bolivia at 8:28 pm by Jackson Lee

Photos from the Potosi compliments of other peoples camera’s as mine is fill of dust at this point.

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A whole lot of Sucre

Posted in Bolivia at 4:33 am by Jackson Lee

Arriving in Sucre I felt like a Disney musical had gone off in my head. More satisfying than writing a blog without spelling mistakes, getting out of high elevation was a real moment for me. Once the summer/winter/spring/autumn retreat for rich Potosi folk, Sucre does quint, feel good, give yourself a really decent hug, really bloody well.

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Without doubt, the best thing a history graving backpacker can do when in Sucre is visit the Casa de Liberator (House of Liberation) – a historian (Mr Roberto Salina Izurza – recenting published book “La Obra Jesuitica”) working attached to the museum takes English tours every few hours. He was a breath of fresh air amongst the knowledge challenged, got my tourist licence in a fight with a llama, guides of Bolivia.

The most interesting item in the museum is the first flat of Argentina. Bolivia was the last country in South America to be liberated (after a 15 year war) from the Spanish clutches. Staging from the recently liberated Argentina, general Belgrano marched into Bolivia and fought the Spanish forces close to Surce.

Being a Creo (100% Spanish blood but born in South America) and educated in Spain, Belgrano decided to use the royal colours of Spain for the first flag of Argentina (and the 1st flag of independence in the Spanish colony’s). He decided on a horizontally stripped flag with white, blue, white.

Losing the battle near Surce, Belgrano retreated to Argentina only to realise that he no longer had the flag. Thinking it had been destroyed, Belgrano changed the pattern from to blue, white, blue (which is today’s flag arrangement). Years later, Belgrano was to learn the old flag was capture dand held by the Spanish in Sucre.

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Argentina’s 200 years celebration since independence is in May 2010 (next year) – at which point there will be a lot of political pressure for Bolivia to return this important historical item.

Sucre was a refreshing place after the tough trek through Salar de Uyuni and the altitude of Potosi. Heading out solo, I needed to repair my camera and get some R & R – Bolivia’s largest, but least touristed city next – Santa Curz.

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03.16.09

Potosi – Mine Tour

Posted in Bolivia at 8:18 pm by Jackson Lee

In additional to headaches, breathlessness and humbling short walks, Potosi also proides the chance to get amougst the dirt and go mining. For 100 Bolivianoes ($US20) a tour company provides guides (who are ex-miners from mining familes) and transport into Cerro Potosi.

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In little ol, well regulated, New Zealand it is illegal to enter construction sites – I suspect because of the danger construction sites have. So obviously its worth scratching the melon wondering about the safety of entering a mountain which has been over mined for the last 450 years – forever changing the original cone-like shape of the mountain.

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Our English speaking local guides has a smurf like enthusiasm and quickly have the cheesy jokes following. After getting us properly fitted into mining apparel we visit the miners markets for an introduction into items miners need on a daily basis. The most important being bags of coca to chew – a miner will easier chew through 500 grams in a day. Three types of Dynamites – of which we were reminded on numerous occasions that the Chinese quality was the worse- at this point he was lucky to avoid a painful kungfu chop.

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After purchasing gifts for the miners and a quick stop at the mineral processing factorys – which looked more like piles of rubble – we were on our way up the mountain towards the mines entrance. The idea of being inside the mine had been getting to me for a few days. I’ve not had problems with claustrophobia in the past, but people had told me stories of panic attacks and breathing problems. Nerves in hand, my legs shuffled me into the darkness.

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Contrary to logic, the Potosi mines have little heavy equipment and instead rely on blood, sweet and callused hand. After spending 20 minutes in the mines small underground museum (acclimatising), we ventured further into the belly of the earth. Crawling and shuffling another 300 meters we came across a processing area (some miners work in collectives).

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The smell of sulfur and other heavy chemicals clings to the air – we wet bandannas and wrap them over our faces to improve air quality. After only 15 minutes of being underground, I have almost no idea which direction is out. Staying close to the headlights of the rest of the group is fueled with light paranoia. The trill of being underground and in such a dangerous environment adds to the heart rate and the need for oxygen. The guides are experienced, they allow for constant rest stops and chatter about the different parts of the mines to keep our minds off bad thoughts. How the low levels of the mine are more dangerous – how the mines have endless passage’s many of which have collapsed – we come past a father whos two young (under 10) sons work on the level above him helping with the production. We learn about how the unpredictable international mineral prices influence the miners lives – from affording TVs to near starving.

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Emerging to the surface after two hours underground. The guides, and a few Israelis, gather the remaining dynamite – light the long wicks and wonder (I would have run like an Olympian) off to place them in the ground. After that moment of classic anticipation where you think to yourself that maybe the wicks have stopped burning, three large explosions rock the hillside. Being a reckless Bolivian is staying to grow on me.

03.15.09

Potosi – Mount Murder

Posted in Bolivia at 5:24 pm by Jackson Lee

I arrived in Potosi, sore eyed and exhausted from the journey across the Salar. Like most bus stations, chaos had control – we (Myslef, Derek and two dutch girls) escaped into a Taxi and were soon at the Koala Hostel. At 4090 meters, Potosi is considered the highest city in the world (verses Tibets Lhasa which is at 3650 meters), and it provides some comic moments. The three flights of stairs to the room required a least one break to catch my breath and generally finished in an exhausted collapse. Visiting sports teams (i.e. football teams) rarely beat the local Potosi teams which every year hangs round the top of the table.

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The city (founded in 1546 as a mining town ) is dwarfed by Mount Potosi (4,824 meters) – also known as Cerro de Potosi – and is famous in colonial history for financialing the Spanish for over 50 years. Official recors claim 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. Which equates to 177 lifes sacrificed for every tonne mined – for every 6 kilograms of silver you own, an Andean slave gave their life.

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As you can imagine, Potosi is a tourist destination focused on mining. At this attitude, people don’t come here to play golf, dance the tango or learn to whistle. Having avoided museums since arriving in South America I decided to check out the ‘Casa De Moneda’.

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Built in 1672 to process Potosi mined silver into coins before being shipped to Spain. As with much of the industry in the area, slave and indebted labour was used with extreme cruelty to run the operation. Its a moving feeling to stand in rooms where people suffered so horribly. The power, history and influence which buildings have on society has always intrigued me. We love to know what happens in places like the White House or the Vatican. When they stand the test of time, buildings always leave their importance on me. The treaty house in Waitangi of British manipulation and Maori pride. Darwin’s resident in Cambridge of humble enormity. The Roman forum for humanities grandness. Its being physical present that is the gift traveling gives.

Church in Potosi

03.14.09

Salar Photos

Posted in Photos - Bolivia at 8:11 pm by Jackson Lee

Photos from the Salar de Uyuni

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03.13.09

Salt Plains – Day Four

Posted in Bolivia at 9:25 pm by Jackson Lee

Driving in the darkness, like seamen searching for land a-ho, we strained our eyes for the first sign of sunrise. The full moon helped mask the slow progress of the brightening sky, but soon, the worlds largest salt flat welcomed dawn and the mysterious splashing noise of the wheels was explained by the water reflection of the sky.

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Covering 10,582 km², and bear in mind that 7.0 million Hong Kongese live in an area of 1,104 km² whie 7.4 million Israelis live in an area of 22,072 km², Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Formed some 40,000 years ago when a giant lake dried, it is widely considered by motorheads to be the coolest place in the world to break land speed records. At 3,650 meters , the Salar is near the crest of the Andes – yup, it is almost as high as New Zealands tallest peak – Mount Cook (3754 meters).

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The Salar’s 10 meter thickness is revamped each wet season leaving an extremely hard and smooth surface. Combined with general Bolivian madess, these ingredients helped propel our truck hysterically fast across the white morning landscape.

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‘The Magic of Dawn’ is captured here by famed Bolivian supermodel Juan Jackson De Lee.

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Take it from me, outside of the Swedish porn industry, you are not going to find a better place to take photos than dawn on the Salar de Uyuni. In a moment of excellence, Derek and I offer our salute to the rising Bolivia sun.

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The Salar is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is mined annually – at this rate, Mcdonalds will have more chain-stores than the world has salt shackers before the Salar is salt-dry (can anyone add another ‘Salt’ to this sentence?). In addition to tourism, the Salar acts as a major Bolivian transport route and is the breeding ground for three South American flamingo species (every November): the Chilean, James’s and Andean flamingo.

(Note – The “cracked-mud” surface in the photo below is formed from thicker layers of water drying).

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Scattered across the Salar are ‘Islands‘ of earth which rise above the level of the Salar. At breakneck speed, we quickly reach the island of Inkawasi (Quechua, meaning “Inca house”) for breakfast and a wonder around the ancient cacti. The island;s gigantic cacti (Trichocereus pasacana) grow over 5 meters and live for over 500 years.

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Following breakfast, we took adventage of the Salars famous depth confusion – caused by the constant white background (much like blue screening in movies) distorting depth perception – to have fun with our Camera’s.

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On a sad note – a few years back the driver of a tour group got drunk – which is common in Bolivia – one drunk driver lost the keys to the car resulting in 12 tourists being stuck on the salt flat for 2 extra days. The soluation was to allow one of the Japanese passengers to drive. The confusing environment of the Salar resulted in two trucks colliding and killing all 12 passengers. There is a small tribute on the salt plain (see photo below). I don’t have enough blog space to recount half the stories I’ve heard about drunk Bolivia driving.

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As mentioned previously, mining is not common on the Salar which interestingly holds half of the world’s reserves of lithium, a metal used in high energy density lithium batteries (cameras). There is currently no mining plant and the Bolivian government doesn’t want exploitation by foreign corporations, thus the valuable mineral lies un-utilised for now.

Leaving the Island we pass by small hand run mining operations on our way final destination – the town of Uyuni.

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Few countries in the world have the terrain which southwestern Bolivia had shown me over the last few days. Having been in South Ameria for almost 2 months, I was finally getting into the spirit of being an adventurer.

Pictured are our guides at the end of the trip. The next day they had another 1100 km trip with a fresh group of tourists.

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Next stop the infamous mining city of Potosi

03.12.09

Salt Plains – Day Three

Posted in Bolivia at 4:36 pm by Jackson Lee

Throwing Frisbee’s in unusual places has been a hobby of mine since plastic first touched my hands. I’m particularly proud of my diving catch outside Rome’s Colosseum a few years back. Having watched the All Blacks kick extra long kicks at high altitude in South Africa, I had been looking for opportunities to break my P.B’s.

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With that itch scratched, we were soon back on the road / path heading towards Desierto de Siloli and Dali’s stone tree.

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The flat, brown, barren landscape of Desierto de Siloli is randomly littered with large volanic rocks which have been carefully placed, I’ve been told from a reliable source, by a giant stone gardener called Albert. Over geologist pleasing lengths of time, these rocks have been carved into twisted, dried boggy like shapes.

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Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech (Aka Dali) painted the world through eyes warped with the near-insanity of surrealism during the mind provoking age of Einstein and Freud. Of Spanish origin, Dali traveled South America and its not hard to see why the ‘Stone tree / Arbol de Piedra’ (and its surrounding environment) became a major influences of his travels and art – and is now a deep-breath satisfying part of the Salar experience.

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Continuing north, we pass by a series of small lagoons. The most important are laguna Hedionda, Chiarcota, Ramaditas, Honga and Canapa.

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Adding to the geological diversity of southwestern Bolivia, we catch sight of Mount Ollagüe (5868m). Which is a (barely) active volcano located in northern Chile, on the border with Bolivia. Fumarolic activity is currently present. If you strain your face near the computer screen and screw your eyes up like an Asian, you will see a puff of smoke on the left hand side of the mountain in the distance.

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Leaving behind the Flamingos of Laguna Canapa, lunch and weird Israeli music provided by the ghetto blasters of our follow travelers – we reach the small Salar de Chiguana and decided to go a little nuts (special thanks to Jet Li for inspiring the below photo) with Derek’s camera. Salar de Chiguana is only 3mm thick and provides a gentle introduction to the madness of the mighty Uyuni Salar (the worlds largest) – which we will visit tomorrow.

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Our final nights accommodation is in the town of San Juan, which borders with the Salar de Uyuni. Built almost entirely of Salt, it sits on a hill overlooking the Salt plain / lake. Beds, tables, and many other items are constructed from large (heavy) blocks of Salt which are drilled out of the Salar (I’m not sure where from). See walls and bed foundations in the photo below.

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In this picture, the gang are sitting in the hostel lounge enjoying some cheap Bolivian spirits after a salt dominated, Jamie (absolutely not related to Jamie Oliver) dinner creation. The floor is coated in a thick layer of heavy rock salt which crunch satisfyingly underfoot. Some of the seats (on right of picture) are made from stacked salt blocks. Quiet the novel experience.

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The night sky was bright with the full moon. With all-America enthusiasm, Derek persuades both Elodie and myself to venture into the cold to take some ‘back lighting’ photos. Using a tripod, 30 second exposure times and a torch (Flash-light), we use Derek’s camera to snap these funky pictures.

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03.11.09

Salt Plains – Day Two

Posted in Bolivia at 7:47 pm by Jackson Lee

Darkness, like meeting big bird in an alley, has the power to scare the crap out of me. Add this to a serious dose of altitude sickness and the four walls of a guest house can feel like the least oxygenated space outside of the Russian submarine service. Imagine trying to sleep while breathing through a cocktail straw – my night was miserable. Under the full moon, I paced the yard chewing coca and admiring the distant snow capped mountains.

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Morning, with a 4:30 start, was a relief. Havier was back on the wheel driving us cheerfully into the sunrise, past tall peaks and endless, spot the Llama, barren land. By 11:00 am we had arrived at our first stop – the abandoned mining town of San Antonio, one of the highest (mining) towns in history – 4690 meters.

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Founded not long after the mineral hungry, El Dorado seeking, Spaniards reached the new world in the 15th century, San Antonio initially boomed before the more prosperous mine’s of Potosi took center stage. In true, do or die, miner fashion a small group stayed on in the town until 1991, at which point inbreeding forced the surviving group to leave. Nasty

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Heading out of San Antonio I couldn’t help but think about the faith these people had in the world as they saw it. Would you live in the roof of the world, breed with your relatives, dig away at dirt all day, if you had swum the beaches of Rio, meet the beauties of Dalmatia or had worked / sung / danced as a Bollywood superstar?

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Passing one of the trips high points of 4855 meters, we soon entered into ‘Reserva National De Fauna Andina Eduadro Avaroa’ – a national park of Bolivia – which to my untrained eye looked identical in landscape as the area we had driven through for the past 4 hours.

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Turns out that seeing Flamingos for the first time is some what anti-climatic. Animals such as large cats, snakes and unicorns fire up the ‘oh-gosh’ parts of the brain which burn an unshakable memory. Bright pink birds with cool beaks, however, leave the same impression as rush hour traffic. In saying this, watching packs of Flamingo swoop over the still lake was stunning.

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Like many a traveler before me, I found myself thinking… ‘What the f@ck were bright pink birds (with cool beaks) doing in the middle of nowhere and how the hell did they ever evolve to call this place home….’

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Lunch had been on my mind most of the morning. Showers had not been available the previous night and the bumping road had been constant reminder that ‘Adventure Tourism’ has its draw backs. Lunch, however, came with a swim in a hot spring (Rio Amaro) and beautiful views.

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The afternoon took us past lakes (Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca) full of nasty stuff like arsenic, magnesium and sulphur – which cause differing water colours (for which the lakes are named) and the human body, like penguins at a beach party, to die horribly. Some of these minerals are mined and exported to Brazil – where they are processed.

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One lake was dry leaving behind a small salar (Salt plain) called ‘Salar De Chalviri’..

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This part of the trip is within sight of the Chilean border and close to the Chilean tourist town of San Pedro De Atacarma (cool name huh!). Some cool pictures of the area.

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In the late afternoon we arrived at the geothermal area ‘Geysers Sol De Manana’. Jamie, our brave very un-Steven Siegel like chef waved his hands enthusiastically and lead us into the thermal area. Weirdly, most other tourists were admiring the park from a safe distance on a nearby hill.

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The thermal park is remote – it has no staff or nearby inhabitants and is basically a feel free to burn yourself to death zone. There is, thankfully, one sign stating ‘be careful’. The nearest hospital being two days drive away.

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A few minutes into Jamie’s wordless tour, Elodie’s foot broke through thin dirt and dropped into very hot volcanic mud – screaming loudly we rushed to her aide. Her shoe was a mess  – her foot was okay. Jamie would have made Steven Siegel proud with his quick response.

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I’m pointing at Elodies hole in this photo. Yup, I’m still not at a safe distance.

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Often in life we are reminded that other cultures hold different ways of seeing the world. Bolivians, like many South Americans, are known for their comparably careless attitude towards public safety. We travel to immerse ourselves in foreign cultures – this leads us to taking on some of the values of the places we travel. Some travelers go home and dance the salsa every weekend, others stop believing in normal sleeping hours (thanks Buenos Aires) while a really small group go home with a slightly burnt foot. This was a good reminded to stay practical about safety.

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Leaving the thermal park we were soon relaxing in simple accommodations at the edge of a large plain. Thankfully, we had dropped attitude so my head was feeling less like a used soccer ball. So ended another day of drama and adventure.

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