05.08.09

Loco Bolivia

Posted in Bolivia at 4:30 pm by Jackson Lee

Bolivia’s fascination with unusual entertainment is hard to explain. Perhaps this mindset comes from a life of living amongst the exoticness and impossibleness of the Andean mountains, or maybe its more psychological and derives from the character of the large, historically oppressed, indigenous population. What ever the case, the upside for travellers is the chance to indulge in a wide range of unique tourism activities.

Wildly popular amongst backpackers are ‘tours’ of San Pedro prison – located conveniently in down town La Paz. Unless the local media are roving the area attempting to expose the corruption of the jails wardens, access to the prison is found via a lovely town square located directly outside the front gates. Tours, guided by English speaking inmates (sometimes incarcerated foreigners), pass through most parts of the prison, including locations where inmates have reported been murdered.

Word of mouth – via the adrenaline junkie backpacker trial – created the initial impetuous behind the steady flow of inquisitive travellers who first ‘visited’ the prison. Further notoriety came after the publication of Rusty Young’s book, “Marching Powder”, in 2003. The book tells the story of a black Englishman named Thomas McFadden who spent time in San Pedro after being convicted for drug smuggling. Stories about  inmate lynchings, cocaine parties and frivolous indulgence mingle with details of the prisons ‘economy’ and other oddities – such as the existence of live-in families (200+ children) and explanations of the in-house (in-cell) laws and codes of conduct. How many prisons in the world require new inmates to ‘buy’ their prison cell and tourists can sample and buy “world class” cocaine at the tours end?

As the many T-shirt wearing, proud patrons of the South American backpacker trial attest, mountain biking down what is euphemistically called “the worlds most dangerous road” is another popular adventure activity in La Paz. Before being replaced by a safer road, Bolivia’s ‘death road’ claimed more lives than any reliable source can accurately state – one source states 300 lives per year.

Descending steeply from the freezing Andea’s (4000 meteres) to the humid Amazon (1500 meters)  the road is often shrinks to the width of a single vehicle and is bordered by drops of up to 600 meters. Professionally adventure sports companies make daily trips down the road, taking between 7-8 hours to reach the bottom. Sadly a young British backpacker fell to his death, having misjudged a corner, a few days after I left La Paz.

Tinku is to fight club what war is to Americans.  Being a Andean tradition native to the Potosi region, Tinku began as a form of ritualistic combat – where blood or even death are considered a sacrifice to the goddess Pachamama – in pursuit of good harvests. Participates, both male and female, literraly punch each other into blooded dazed states.  The festival is held in the first weeks of May in Potosi.

The Potosi mine tours involve clambering around centuries old, hand dug, mine shafts while breathing semi-toxic air through damp cloths. Gifts are given to miners and their children (who often work in the higher levels), and whenever possible tourists are encouraged to get their hands dirty by helping the miners dig holes or help push carts down railway tracks. The tour finishes, literally, with a bang. First photo sessions are taken with TNT sticks between the teeth before fuses are lit, ears plugged, heart rates adjusted and a huge explosions, complete with dirt spray, satisfying ring out over the Potosi mountainside.

A few other highlights: –

  • Anaconda safari. Smile with a 8 meter anaconda in your arms – mosquito’s are so thick in Madidi national park that face screen are needed during the ‘searching process’.
  • Working with Puma’s, Jaguars and monkeys at Inti wara Yassi (See my posts from April 2009)
  • Jeep tours in the Salt plains – as close to Mars as you’ll ever find yourself. Includes driving up to 5000 meters.

05.06.09

Bolivia – Wrestling Cholitas

Posted in Bolivia at 2:49 pm by Jackson Lee

The cholita flew through the air. With arms outstretched and legs splayed she soared high, mimicking a Andean bird of prey as she descended on her hapless target. We watched in stunned silence as her bowler hat caught the air and cartwheeled away while her layers of skirts billowed angrily behind her. This was going to hurt.

Wham. The ring vibrated. Her target wheezed audibly as she slammed into him. We cheered.

Nowhere else in the universe do women in bowler hats and layered skirts propel themselves into the air above hard canvass wrestling rings to the cheers of apparently sober crowds. But this is Al Alto – the mentally retarded sister city to La Paz – and we are here to enjoy one of Bolivia’s more unusual sporting obsessions: wrestling – referred to in Bolivia as “lucha libre”.

Deriving from the more generic term “Chola”, Cholita is a ambiguous term which describes a group of Aymara Indian women who live in the high Andeas and to whom, amongst other things, is attributed a eccentrically distinctive fashion style. Rumours suggestion that the layered skirt and skawl combo originated from the fashion styles of the Spanish gentry during the colonial area. Enhancing the magic, Cholita often pleat their hair, often in pigs-tails, and don fetching grandma pleasing woolly jumpers. Bowler hats, the stable of the late 19th century gentleman, complete the look and help spin together a attire few styles in history can compare with.

Cholita’s are an iconic part of Bolivian culture who typically lie somewhere between Christmas carols and group hugs on the international scale of violent entities. The wrestling Cholitas of Al Alto aren’t, however, normal amongst Cholita’s but symbolise a gentle ‘nod’ towards womans emancipation in traditionally macho Bolivia.

Slam. Another big cheer.

The blatant overacting, crowd heckling and outrageous come-backs leave no guesses that this is staged entertainment… but who exactly is everyone cheering for? The overdressed, cocaine fuelled Cholita or the llama thin, masked guy in the poorly matching Lycra suit?

A flying somersault gee’s the crowd into a frenzy. The bowler hat is no where to be seen and both wrestlers are now looking worse for wear. I have no idea how they are able to maintain such vigorous movement at 4000 meters but soon they are bouncing off adjacent ropes and rushing into another mid-ring collision. The crowd breaks into hysterics as the masked wrestler finds himself lost under the Cholita’s skirts.

For this weekly event, the stadium is packed. The front row seats are filled with action hungry, high-price paying, backpacker while the majority of the small of the seats are packed with locals. Both young and old, mostly low-income earning, Andeans  sits glued to the action: cat-calling and applauding along with the action. Its hard not to get carried away with their enthusiasm.

The match progressives through a series of head locks, leg drops and increasing impressive moves. Soon it becomes clear the crowd has developed a soft spot for the flying Cholita. They quieten as she is tossed about the ring but spring back to life as she regains control of the match. Against stacked odds – including the nefarious interference of the referee – the Cholita claims victory.

The good news is the best is yet to come.  Up next is a bout between another Cholita, and her opponent, one of La Paz’s famous midget wrestlers… only in Bolivia…

Check out the following for a short video about the wrestling Cholita’s: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2008/sep/01/bolivianwomenwrestlers

05.05.09

Bolivia – A Short History

Posted in Bolivia at 12:00 pm by Jackson Lee

Hunter-gathers never reached Bolivia, instead,the region was first occupied by the Aymara people when they arrived around 1500 BC to build the great city (now ruins of questionable tourist value) of Tiwanaku. Around 950 AD, someone turned off the water and the Titicana basin, along with the Aymara people, lost much of there fertility and ultimately disappeared leaving another wide hole in the human history of Bolivia.

Pre Hispanic History Of Bolivia

El Fuerte de Samaipata - Pre Inca - Circa 1000 AD Religious Location in Bolivian Andes

Expanding from their base in Peru, the Inca empire conquered western Bolivia just before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1524. Taking advantage of internal chaos, in less than ten years, the Spaniards savaged the Inca empire and quickly moved their focus to doing what they loved most – ripping every penny of value they could find from the land.
The next 300 years were a period of almost seamless colonial control. Túpac Amaru, a well educated mestizo (mixed blood) named after his famous ancestor, was a notable speed bump to Spanish rule when he buoy the population into open rebellion in the late 18th century. By July 1783, after only two years of fighting, roughly 8% of the Indigenous population (100,000 people) had perished violently and the Spanish were back in total control.
By 1825 the independence wars of South America have reached the gold mines of Bolivia. After 293 years of colonial rule the great liberator Simón Bolívar (who the country is named after), supported by the military genius of General José de San Martín, succeeds in liberating Bolivia from the Spanish. Due to its mineral wealth, Bolivia was one of the last regions in South America to be freed of colonial rule.
From here, Bolivia’s history feels like it was hit (and dragged) by a 150 year long, out of control, steam train. While the rest of the world crusaded its way through the industrial, spiritual and electronic revolutions; Bolivia forgot to take its medication and developed a severe case of political bipolarism. More than 190 revolutions, coups, and tantrums – at a break neck spend of one government every ten months – restricted the country and left the population with a case of acute post traumatic stress syndrome.
Its neighbors, sensing its emotional difficulties, went on the offensive and during a bloody 60 year period Bolivia lost almost half its land. The War of the Pacific (1879 – 1884) ended with Chile annexing its coastline. Brazil’s invasion of 1903 earned it the rubber rich region of the Acre River. And finally the war (1932-35) with Paraguay exhausted both nations and resulted in the loss of 100,000 sq miles of the Gran Chaco’s. It wasn’t a good time to be looking for national pride.
The later half of the 20th century, perhaps reflecting the military failings of the previous 60 years, was a messy period of military governments, human rights abuses, violent coups, national bankruptcy’s and the rise of the coca leaf (narcotics) as the political and economic focal point of the country. Amongst a few short periods of economic and social stability, Bolivia limped into the 21st century as the poorest country in South America – having spent much of its history making Spain, and its more recent ruling class, filthy rich.
By the time my boots set foot in the southern border town of La Quiaca, Evo Morales  – the first indigenous leader of South America – had lead Bolivia since 2005: running the country with a fresh, I can sort out the past 500 years of problems, brand of socialism. What chance does this man have of improving the living standards of his people? Will Evo turn out to be another despotic ruler? What really can be done to improve Bolivia? These are all questions worth answering.Hunter-gathers never reached Bolivia, instead, the region was first occupied by the Aymara people when they arrived around 1500 BC to build the great city (now ruins of questionable tourist value) of Tiwanaku. Around 950 AD, someone turned off the water and the Titicana basin, along with the Aymara people, lost much of there fertility and ultimately disappeared leaving another wide hole in the human history of Bolivia.

Expanding from their base in Peru, the Inca empire conquered western Bolivia just before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1524. Taking advantage of internal chaos, in less than ten years, the Spaniards savaged the Inca empire and quickly moved their focus to doing what they loved most – ripping every penny of value they could find from the land and indoctrinating Christianity into the locals.

The descendents of Inca's - Andean kids take photos for cash with Lake Titicaca in the background (one of the historic wealth bases of the Inca's)

The next 300 years were a period of almost seamless colonial control. Túpac Amaru, a well educated mestizo (mixed blood) named after his famous ancestor, was a notable speed bump to Spanish rule when he buoy the population into open rebellion in the late 18th century. By July 1783, after only two years of fighting, roughly 8% of the Indigenous population (100,000 people) had perished violently and the Spanish were back in total control.

Spanish Church of Considerable Wealth in Sucre

By 1825 the independence wars of South America have reached the gold mines of Bolivia. After 293 years of colonial rule the great liberator Simón Bolívar (who the country is named after), supported by the military genius of General José de San Martín, succeeds in liberating Bolivia from the Spanish. Due to its mineral wealth, Bolivia was one of the last regions in South America to be freed of colonial rule.

From here, Bolivia’s history feels like it was hit (and dragged) by a 150 year long, out of control, steam train. While the rest of the world crusaded its way through the industrial, spiritual and electronic revolutions; Bolivia forgot to take its medication and developed a severe case of political bipolarism. More than 190 revolutions, coups, and tantrums – at a break neck spend of one government every ten months – restricted the country and left the population with a case of acute post traumatic stress syndrome.

Its neighbors, sensing its emotional difficulties, went on the offensive and during a bloody 60 year period Bolivia lost almost half its land. The War of the Pacific (1879 – 1884) ended with Chile annexing its coastline. Brazil’s invasion of 1903 earned it the rubber rich region of the Acre River. And finally the war (1932-35) with Paraguay exhausted both nations and resulted in the loss of 100,000 sq miles of the Gran Chaco’s. It wasn’t a good time to be looking for national pride.

The later half of the 20th century, perhaps reflecting the military failings of the previous 60 years, was a messy period of military governments, human rights abuses, violent coups, national bankruptcy’s and the rise of the coca leaf (narcotics) as the political and economic focal point of the country. Amongst a few short periods of economic and social stability, Bolivia limped into the 21st century as the poorest country in South America – having spent much of its history making Spain, and its more recent ruling class, filthy rich.

By the time my boots set foot in the southern border town of La Quiaca, Evo Morales  – the first indigenous leader of South America – had lead Bolivia since 2005: running the country with a fresh, I can sort out the past 500 years of problems, brand of socialism. What chance does this man have of improving the living standards of his people? Will Evo turn out to be another despotic ruler? What really can be done to improve Bolivia? These are all questions worth answering.

Evo Morales - military service photo

05.01.09

La Paz Hustle

Posted in Bolivia at 11:25 pm by Jackson Lee

There is a feeling of liberation, found at dawn, when your feet step off a long distance bus and into a new chapter of travel. Behind you lies uncomfortable hours of blearing disco music, wedged sleeping positions, toiletless discomfort and the ceaseless turning motion which accompanies any journey through the almost unbreachable Andean mountains. Ahead lies freedom – freedom of choice – freedom of responsibility – freedom of who you think you are – glorious, fresh air heavy, travel freedom.

Bolivian Bus - Without Toilet - Which can be tough on 12+ hour rides on Bumpy Roads

Your feet guide you to the underbelly of the bus. The bus conductor, a figure of momentary power, hands out luggage like the anti-Santa. Paranoia chirps in, reminding you that theft, especially of gringos expensive looking luggage is common on buses in Latin America. The tension in your stomach unwinds as you catch sight of the only familiar object in this foreign place. Soon the weight of every item you possess rests securely on your back. Your mood lightens. Through a haze of grogginess, you vaguely recall what fellow backpackers and travel books have told you about this place – you set off.

The bus terminal is a unfriendly place. The sea of half stares and the alienness of the environment play with your sense of vulnerability. You are the stranger here: raised somewhere affluent and travelling with considerable thickness to your wallet. How many of them are thinking, “Why would that gringo worry about paying a tiny bit extra  (or taking a more scenic route) for a taxi ride or how bad would it really be if he lost his easily replaceable camera…. or gold-lined backpack for that matter”. And indeed, their logic is sound – but you come from a world of law and order where theft is never justified – unless you dress in green tights and are handy with a bow.

The sign above the station’s entrance cements what you already know. This is La Paz – capital city of Bolivia – center of South America. There is no one here to welcome you, but that is a small price to pay for freedom.

La Paz - Capital Of Bolivia

Your aching legs, now bearing a backpackers burden, guide you past the “taxi Amigo” crying voices of the fare seeking taximen and into the cold, darkened, streets beyond. Pausing in a small square your eyes are drawn to the blip of light of a descending plane heading gracefully towards Al Alto airport. Air travel, shunned by locals due to its cost is uncommon in Latin America while the continents rail network – visionlessly neglected and poorly developed by the Spanish and Portuguese during the birth of modern South America – has been further degraded by the governments of the 1980’s and 90’s. The end result: The bus, humble and uneconomic, has become the defacto form of transportation for the massive lower and middle class of South America.

View of the Canyon Which Cradles La Paz City

The plane descends out of sight, easing beyond the tsunami shaped walls of the canyon which cradles this city. Formed over more years than it takes to change a solar systems sized light bulb, the canyon was carved by the river Choqueyapu, and is the most defining geographically feature of the region – aside, perhaps, from the 6438 meter high, snow capped and monstrously proud, mount Illimani – guardian of La Paz.

La Paz City As Seen from Al Alto – With Mt Illimani In the Background

Approaching taximen prompt you back into motion and soon you are passing heavily dressed, Botero like, locals as they shield themselves from the extreme weather of an Andean night. The hand drawn map gripped in your freezing hand tells you its only a few blocks to the safety of the hostel. Its common knowledge that bus stations are notorious for robberies and scams – and therefore important to leave them as quickly as possible. But you chose to walk for the usual reasons: The hostel website, perhaps unwisely, indicated it is only a two minute walk from the station.

Indigenous Bolivian Women - Dressed In Cholita Clothing

The sky has become milky with the first attempts of morning to control the day. Everything moves with the slowness of beginning – a man limps past quietly – a bus backs tentatively – a station guard wonders aimlessly as he gazes into the glow of his mobile phone – and in the background the colours of morning creep faithfully into position.

Pausing to get your bearings, you gaze around at the street signs. One block from the station and the streets, as if cowboys were about to showdown, are almost deserted. Calmly, a man approaches and offers greetings – recognising you are a lost foreigner he takes the map from your hand and cheerfully offers to help. Your senses, blunted by the earliness of the morning and the recent rigours of the bus, scream quietly in your bad ear – this is dangerous! – but your feet guide you in the direction of the cheerful local.

“Frio, sí (Its cold isn’t it)?”, you mutter as you grab the map back.

“Sí Amigo, muy frio (yes my friend, its very cold)”, the guy replies. His face is untrustworthy, so generic looking it would be hard to place him at the scene of any crime. His friendly mannerisms seem forced. There are enough people and passing traffic around that there is no chance that this guy is going to pull a weapon and rob you.

Before these thoughts has moved onto more rational ones, another man jogs past. The street is steep and his movements uncoordinated. La Paz is high in the sky. Sitting in the Andes, it is the highest capital in the world – over ten neaty stacked Empire State buildings high into the sky. You wonder why the guy is running and vaguely notice something fall from his pocket. Seeing this, your friendly guide makes a small cry and reaches for the ground. Suddenly in his hand is a small plastic bag. Peering through the clear film, you see a large bundle of Bolivianos: the currency of Bolivia.

Nervously you look up the street but the runner has disappeared – momentum seems to be dragging you into something bad – your new BFF is holding a fist full of Bolivianos and gesturing at you enthusiastically. As if Gandolf himself has sent them: a flood of logical thoughts take the helm of your disorientated body. Your feet start moving and are soon carrying you away from the situation. Ignoring the scam artist’s desperate pleads, and not looking the fuck back, you cross the street and aim for the nearby intersection.  The air is thin and the backpack heavy enough to flatten a small child but before long you are out of sight, breathing ruggedly.

Steep Street During The Day

Luckily the hostel is only a two minute walk away…

Ten minutes later the sky has gained a friendlier tone of brightness and the city has taken another tentative steep to coming alive but you still haven’t found that damn hostel. Seeing no alternative, you make your way back up the same street. Before you have time to think to yourself how smart this idea is, another generic looking man materialises at your side and begins speaking in a friendly sounding voice. Before any emotion can rise to the surface and tell you how to overreact to this new threat, the same runner from the last scam attempt runs past – this time you see as the guys hands expertly forces the package “accidentally” from his pocket. As before, the runner continues up the street, rather impressively considering your difficulties, and your new conversation buddy is soon reaching for the bundle on the ground.

“Fuck (add dramatic pause here) Off”, rings loudly around the hills as you turn and head angrily down the street. Is it really possible that the same scam group had tried the same trick on me twice in the space of ten minutes? Was my aggressive reaction, for that matter, safe?

A few minute latter, you are sitting in the hostel sipping on a life reviving cup of Earl Grey and watching the morning pancakes bubble into solidness. One of the hostel staff has just told you that the fallen money scam is “going around” at the moment. Others have been fooled by the scam, which works out as follows: Having ‘found’ the bundle of money, the conversation then leads to what to do with it – which then, after a token comment to hand the money to the police, leads to the idea of the money being divided between you (often, without the victims agreement) – in the midst of this dividing the ‘runner’ suddenly returns and demands his money back – ultimately the runner threatens to call the police unless he is paid some reparation money.

While working though the unbearable parts of your education you daydreamed about traveling, and again, later in life, while saving for the trip you suffered as time slowed mercilessly during the afternoons and turned your work day into mini experiments into Einstein relativity. It is now, as the much searched for feeling of liberation is hounded by your sense of vulnerability, that the meaning of all this becomes clearer:  Bolivian buses suck.

Your feet guide you to the underbelly of the bus. The bus conductor, a figure of momentary power, hands out luggage like the anti-Santa. Paranoia chirps in, reminding you that theft, espically of gringos expensive looking luggage is common on buses in Latin America. The tension in your stomach unwinds as you catch sight of the only familiar object in this foreign place. Soon the weight of every item you possess rests securely on your back. Your mood lightens. Through a haze of groggyness, you vaguely recall what fellow backpackers and travelbooks have told you about this place – you set off.
The bus terminal is a unfriendly place. The sea of half stares and the alienness of the environment play with your sense of valuability. You are the stranger here: raised somewhere affluent and travelling with considerable thickness to your wallet. How many of them are thinking, “Why would that gringo worry about paying a tiny bit extra  (or taking a more scenic route) for a taxi ride or how bad would it really be if he lost his easierly replacable camera…. or gold-lined backpack for that matter”. And indeed, their logic is sound – but you come from a world of law and order where theft is never justified – unless you dress in green tights and are handy with a bow.
The sign above the station’s entrance cements what you already know. This is La Paz – capital city of Bolivia – center of South America. There is no one here to welcome you, but that is a small price to pay for freedom.
Your acking legs, now bearing a backpackers burden, guide you past the “taxi Amigo” crying voices of the fare seeking taximen and into the cold, darkened, streets beyond. Pausing in a small square your eyes are drawn to the blip of light of a descending plane heading gracefully towards Al Alto airport. Air travel, shunned by locals due to its cost is uncommon in Latin America while the continents rail network – visionlessly neglected and poorly developed by the Spanish and Portuguese during the birth of modern South America – has been further degraded by the continents governments of the 1980’s and 90’s. The end result: The bus, humble and uneconomic, has become the defacto form of transportation for the massive lower and middle class of South America.
The plane descends out of sight, easing beyond the tsumani shaped walls of the canyon which cradles this city. Formed over more years than it takes to change a solar systems sized lightbulb, the canyon was carved by the river Choqueyapu, and is the most defining geographicaly feature of the region – aside, perhaps, from the 6438 meter high, snow capped and monstrously proud, mount Illimani – guardian of La Paz.
Approaching taximen prompt you back into motion and soon you are passing heavily dressed, Botero like, locals as they sheild themselves from the extreme weather of an Andian night. The hand drawn map gripped in your freezing hand tells you its only a few blocks to the safety of the hostel. Its common knowledge that bus stations are notorious for robberies and scams – and therefore important to leave them as quickly as possible. But you chose to walk for the usual reasons: The hostel website, perhaps unwisely, indicated it is only a two minute walk from the station.
The sky has become milky with the first attempts of morning to control the day. Everything moves with the slownest of beginning – a man limps past quietly – a bus backs tentatively – a station guard wonders aimlessly as he gazes into the glow of his mobile phone – and in the background the colours of morning creep faithfully into position.
Pausing to get your bearings, you gaze around at the street signs. One block from the station and the streets, as if cowboys were about to showdown, are almost deserted. Calmly, a man approaches and offers greetings – recognising you are a lost foreigner he takes the map from your hand and cheerfully offers to help. Your senses, blunted by the earliness of the morning and the recent rigours of the bus, scream quietly in your bad ear – this is dangerous! – but your feet guide you in the direction of the cheerful local.
“Frio, sí (Its cold isn’t it)?”, you mutter as you grab the map back.
“Sí Amigo, muy frio (yes my friend, its very cold)”, the guy replies. His face is untrustworth, so generic looking it would be hard to place him at the scene of any crime. His friendly mannerisms seem forced. There are enough people and passing traffic around that there is no chance that this guy is going to pull a weapon and rob you.
Before these thoughts has moved onto more rational ones, another man jogs past. The street is steep and his movements uncoodinated. La Paz is high in the sky. Sitting in the Andes, it is the highest capital in the world – over ten neaty stacked Empire State buildings high into the sky. You wonder why the guy is running and vaguely notice something fall from his pocket. Seeing this, your friendly guide makes a small cry and reaches for the ground. Suddenly in his hand is a small plastic bag. Peering through the clear film, you see a large bundle of Bolivianos: the currency of Bolivia.
Nervouslessly you look up the street but the runner has disappeared – momentum seems to be dragging you into something bad – your new BFF is holding a fist full of Bolivianos and gesturing at you enthusiastically. As if Gandolf himself has sent them: a flood of logical thoughts take the helm of your disorientated body. Your feet start moving and are soon carrying you away from the situation. Ignoring the scam artist’s desperate pleads, and not looking the fuck back, you cross the street and aim for the nearby interesection.  The air is thin and the backpack heavy enough to flatten a small child but before long you are out of sight, breathing ruggedly.
Luckily the hostel is only a two minute walk away…
Ten minutes later the sky has gained a friendlier tone of brightness and the city has taken another tentative steep to coming alive but you still haven’t found that damn hostel. Seeing no alternative, you make your way back up the same street. Before you have time to think to yourself how smart this idea is, another generic looking man materialises at your side and begins speaking in a friendly sounding voice. Before any emotion can rise to the surface and tell you how to overreact to this new threat, the same runner from the last scam attempt runs past – this time you see as the guys hands expertly forces the package “accidentelly” from his pocket. As before, the runner continues up the street, rather impressively considering your difficulties, and your new conversation buddy is soon reaching for the bundle on the ground.
“Fuck (add dramatic pause here) Off”, rings loudly around the hills as you turn and head angryly down the street. Is it really possible that the same scam group had tried the same trick on me twice in the space of ten minutes? Was my aggressive reaction, for that matter, safe?
A few minute latter, you are sitting in the hostel sipping on a life reviving cup of Earl Grey and watching the morning pancakes bubble into solidness. One of the hostel staff has just told you that the fallen money scam is “going around” at the moment. Others have been fooled by the scam, which works out as follows: Having ‘found’ the bundle of money, the conversation then leads to what to do with it – which then, after a token comment to hand the money to the police, leads to the idea of the money being divided between you (often, without the victims agreement) – in the midst of this dividing the ‘runner’ suddenly returns and demands his money back – ultimately the runner threatens to call the police unless he is paid some reparation money.
While working though the unbearable parts of your education you daydreamed about traveling, and again, later in life, while saving for the trip you suffered as time slowed mercelessly during the afternoons and turned your work day into mini experiments into Einstein relativity. It is now, as the much searched for feeling of liberation is hounded by your sense of vulnerability, that the meaning of all this becomes clearer: experience.

04.30.09

Ciao Roy

Posted in Bolivia at 4:00 pm by Jackson Lee

Walking up the road, away from parque Machia, towards the village bus station I start to feel overwhelmed. I’ve said goodbye to my trusty boots, dropped my torn jungle clothes in the second hand pile and shook the hands of new friends. My diary is full with contacts, notes and memories. I’m on the verge of tears. I feel attached to this place – the animals, the cause, the way of life…but part of exploring the world as a traveler is knowing when to move on…

Roy Young Playing in River

Thanks for having me. I’ve loved it. It’s been defining. It’s changed me. I’m a better person… I’ll miss you. You’re amazing. I won’t forget you… but for now, the road beckons… goodbye everyone, goodbye Roy.

King Roy 2009

The puma is a symbol of strength and stealth in the Americas. For millenniums the Indigenous cultures across the continent have honoured the large cat with ceremony, ceramics and folk lore. The puma is everything Latin – it is of the land – it is fierce and independent – it represents its uniqueness – and it lives in the hearts of the people. In a small town in the Bolivian jungle, Inti Wara Yassi and its volunteers work with these special animals – ensuring their well being and respecting them with the honour they inspire in a culture.

04.25.09

A Little About Roy the Puma

Posted in Bolivia at 5:14 am by Jackson Lee

Born in early October, Roy is a classic Libran. As his zodiac symbol implies, he leans towards an easy and uncomplicated life which, being a puma of strict routine, he achieves through methodical patrolling of his territory and messing with the minds of volunteers. Named after a Samoan New Zealander who built his cage, Roy likes walking in the forest, moonlight dinners and wildlife watching.
In November 2002, at 6 weeks of age, having survived the death of his mother and brother during his abduction, Roy was bought and given as a gift to a teacher in Sucre: at this point Inti Wara Yassi learned of his situation and confiscated him to Parque Machia. Seven years later, Roy has grown to become a semi-domesticated puma with a healthy, predictable (which helps when avoiding jump
attempts) and serious personality.

Born in early October, Roy is a classic Libran. As his zodiac symbol implies, he leans towards an easy and uncomplicated life which, being a puma of strict routine, he achieves through methodical patrolling of his territory and messing with the minds of volunteers. Named after a Samoan New Zealander who built his cage, Roy likes walking in the forest, moonlight dinners and wildlife watching.

Cute and Dangersous?

In November 2002, at 6 weeks of age, having survived the death of his mother and brother during his abduction, Roy was bought and given as a gift to a teacher in Sucre: at this point Inti Wara Yassi learned of his situation and confiscated him to Parque Machia. Seven years later, Roy has grown to become a semi-domesticated puma with a healthy, predictable (which helps when avoiding jump attempts) and serious personality.

04.24.09

Day in the Life Of Walking a Puma

Posted in Bolivia at 3:41 pm by Jackson Lee

Inti Wara Yassi, parque Macha, at only 36 hectares (approximately 60 soccer fields), is small considering there are over 200 animals, including nine cats, needing habitats and territory. To get around this problem the refuge has agreements with some of its neighbors – the rubber plantation, for example, is paid a small fee to allow the puma’s to walk amongst their neatly farmed clearings. Other neighbors, however, worried by the presence of the dangerous looking cats close to their families, strongly appose the park and – even given the income the refuge brings to the local community – lobby aggressively to have the park relocated. As a consequence of these factors, the layout of the walking tracks is tightly organised with many paths overlapping one another.

In any given day, Roy walks between 15 and 20 kilometers through the steep terrain of the park – approximately twice that of the next most active cat. Puma’s are usually sedentary – spending long periods lounging like domestic cats – thus it would take a good animal psychologist to guess to the reasons for Roy’s unusual exercise habits. His short track, which intertwines closely with Sonko and Tigre’s paths, is his favorite and takes about 40 minutes to cover the 2.8 kilometer length. His other main trial, unimaginatively called the “long”, travels into the most distant parts of the park, is almost 4.3 kilometers in length and takes over an hour to complete.

The Jungle And the Puma Walkers

The features of each trial became engrained after repeating there loops 3 to 4 times a day, 7 days a week, for a whole month. Like a  down hill skier visualizing a difficult downhill, I am able to remember Roy’s paths in detail – the twists and turns, the location of helpful hand-grips, the areas of unique beauty and the exact spots where Roy had jumped me or one of my fellow volunteers. And of course there were scenes drama…

In one large clearing, Roy caught the scent of a couple giant rodents and soon spotted them hiding up a tall, barrel thick tree. The first rodent, being the size of a small dog, made a dash for it while the second stayed perched up the tree. In an instant, the cycle of nature: of life and death, had stolen away the tranquility of our walk with this intense encounter. Roy, focused like a Arnold Schwarzenegger action character, was one the offence – taking a couple of powerful strides he leapt into the air and landing a couple of meters up the tree using a strong bear hug. Lacking the physical ability to react quickly, the rope pulled me violently and I tumbling ungracefully to the ground.

The second giant rodent, having obviously underestimated the seriously of the situation, looked as terrified as the ice cream man on a cold day. Sensing the need to escape, it hurled itself into the air – Roy’s head trialed its flight as it flew above us. Landing agilely onto another tree, it raced to the ground and into the foliage. In response, Roy leapt to the ground and gave chase. Once again reacting too slowly, I was pulled powerfully across the ground with my face and upper chest dragging several meters through the soil and shrubbery. It was my body weight, connected to Roy via the walking rope, that brought Roy (and his chase) to a stop.

Roy At Defon Five

Aside from action, walking the trials offered other rewards. The rubber plantation, the only area with unobstructed views for any considerable distance, was my favorite part of the park for a simple reason – it reminded me off my father. Born and raised in western Malaysia, Dad grew up on the small family owned rubber farm near Ipoh city – in town called Ayer Tawer near Sitiawan.

I grew up to Dad’s plain, ‘matter of fact’ stories about his youth: waking early to avoid the daytime heat congealing the latex as it dripped – returning home earlier enough to eat breakfast and make the school bus – dodging aggressive cobras and ways to kill them – dealing with the heat, tropical rain and humidity. Walking amongst the neatly spaced trees I could almost hear his loud voice, which boomed when he sneezed, calling to his brothers as they worked the plantation. The stories he told came to life while we walked the plantation – it all gave me comforting insight into my fathers life.

In one large clearing, Roy caught the scent of a couple giant rodents and soon spotted them hiding up a tall, barrel thick tree. The first rodent, being the size of a small dog, made a dash for it while the second stayed perched up the tree. The cycle of nature, of life and death, had stolen away the our usually tranquil walk with this intense encounter. Roy, focused like a Arnold Schwarzenegger action character, took a couple of powerful strides and leaped into the air – landing a couple of meters up the tree with a strong bear hug. Lacking the physical ability to react quickly, the rope pulled me violently and I tumbling ungracefully to the ground.

04.21.09

Video – Roy Goes Bush

Posted in Bolivia at 1:27 am by Jackson Lee

Short video we took showing typical behavior of Roy as he sniffs around the undergrowth at the side of the trial: –

04.20.09

Inti Wara Yassi – Volunteering Facts

Posted in Bolivia at 10:07 pm by Jackson Lee

Volunteering With Inti Wara Yassi – Basic Information (May 2009)

The best place to find detailed and up to date information is at http://www.intiwarayassi.org
Locations – There are four locations
(1) Parqie Machia
Located In Villa Tunari near Cochabamba city
Felines (Pumas & Ocelots – Monkeys (Spider and Capuchin) – Aviary – Bear
36 Hectares
(2) Parque Ambue Ari
Village of Santa Maria Guarayos
25 Felines (Pumas & Jaguars & Ocelots)
40+ Volunteers
600 Hectares
(3) Parque Jacj Cuisi
Near Rurrenabaque – Connected to Madidi National Park
New Location (Late 2008) – Only 2 Puma’s
Animals being added all the time
300 Hectares
(4) Antiplano La Paz
Near La Paz
Antiplano Animals – Suri & Llamas
Costs
Volunteer ‘payments’ go directly to providing for the animals (food, medicine etc)
fortnightly or monthly
The park is not supported by the Bolivian government.
Volunteer Costs US$200 – $350 / Month (Dependent: Location & Time Committed)
Living Expenses US$200 – US$500 / Month (Average US$300) – Mostly Food Costs
Total Costs: US$400 – US$900 Per Month
Time Commitment
Minimum of 2 weeks – Restricted Animal Options1 Month – Full Animal Options (Felines)

The best place to find detailed and up to date information is at http://www.intiwarayassi.org

Matan with Roy - April 2009

Locations – There are four locations

(1) Parqie Machia

  • Located In Villa Tunari near Cochabamba city
  • Felines (Pumas & Ocelots – Monkeys (Spider and Capuchin) – Aviary – Bear
  • 40 + Volunteers
  • 36 Hectares
  • Most Developed Location

(2) Parque Ambue Ari

  • Village of Santa Maria Guarayos
  • 25 Felines (Pumas & Jaguars & Ocelots)
  • 40+ Volunteers
  • 600 Hectares

(3) Parque Jacj Cuisi

  • Near Rurrenabaque – Connected to Madidi National Park
  • New Location (Late 2008) – Only 2 Puma’s
  • Animals being added all the time
  • 300 Hectares

(4) Antiplano La Paz

  • Near La Paz
  • Antiplano Animals – Suri & Llamas

The River Passing The Park

Costs

  • Volunteer ‘payments’ go directly to animals (food, medicine etc)
  • The park is not supported by the Bolivian government
  • Volunteer Costs US$200 – $350 / Month (Dependent: Location & Time Committed)
  • Living Expenses US$200 – $500 / Month (Average US$300) – Mostly Food
  • Total Costs: US$400 – US$900 Per Month

Time Commitment

  • 1 Month – Full Animal Options (Felines)
  • Minimum of 2 weeks – Restricted Animal Options

04.17.09

Walking Roy – The Terrain

Posted in Bolivia at 1:43 am by Jackson Lee

This video shows the difficulty of the terrain – take it from me – following Roy through these area’s is more difficult than it looks.

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