Merry Christmas

December 25, 2005

Soyan and Jonathan at Lake Titicaca Merry Christmas to our Christian friends from Tanzania… The photo is from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, but the Santa hat did not make the trip because of the lost luggage. Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends and happy New Year to all.

Getting Really High in Bolivia

December 21, 2005

Jonathan at 5300 metersThis is not a story about getting high on drugs, but don’t worry, coca does play a roll.

Months ago we went in search of altitude to prepare us for our Kilimanjaro climb (which is now just a scant six days away). Last week we came to La Paz, Bolivia to acclimatize as much as we could just before we headed to Africa. Our hotel is at about 12,000 feet. This is more than twice as high as Denver. As soon as we got off the plane, it was abundantly clear just what that would mean. As I exited the plane, I watched a Japanese tourist hurry in front of me. Within ten steps he was swaying like a drunk teenager as he hurried to get his bags. I hope he stopped at the emergency oxygen medical station in the baggage claim. That’s right-there is emergency oxygen at the baggage claim.

I walked very slowly and deliberately having just come from Buenos Aires which is essentially at sea level. I immediately felt that it was different here, but I was ok as long as I walked slowly. We put our bags on a cart, got a cab to our hotel and checked in around midnight. We were told our room was “just up the stairs on the court yard”. I hoisted my bag on to my shoulder and walked up the stairs. I was so winded at the top of the stairs I had to drop my bag to continue the search for my room with out luggage. I stumbled around in my hypoxic darkness and eventually found the room. Then I had to work up the energy to go back for my bag and lug it to the room. It was a real effort.

The next morning I woke up and looked around. I was pretty amused to realize that I had left my bag less than 30 feet from my room. Soyan and I were pretty tired and were feeling the effects of the altitude, but because of the elections this was to be our only day to go to the El Alto market (see photos). We mustered up the energy and took a cab up another 1000 feet to El Alto. We walked around the market for several hours and I had a headache the entire time. There was a pressure on my temples and a dull pain that felt like it was an inch behind my forehead pretty much the entire time I was awake that day and the next.

We returned to our hotel for a nap to try and calm our heads and took it easy for the rest of the day. The next day we followed a map and took a walking tour of the city. We were nervous every step we took downhill, knowing it would mean that we´d have to walk back uphill to return to our hotel. The streets were filled with people selling everything from food to electronics. I passed a woman selling coca leaves and asked to take a picture. She said sure, if I bought a bag of coca leaves. Since it was only a quarter, I agreed. It was a nice day and while I still had a headache and had to duck in to an Internet cafe to catch my breath in the afternoon, I was feeling OK. I still head a headache, but it wasn´t bad.

Miners on ChacaltayaWe made plans to take a hike the next day (our third at altitude) to get a little higher. The usual plan is to exercise high and sleep low. I guess 12,000 feet was our new “low”. The next morning a cab driver took us out of the city and into the mountains for a steep hour to Chacaltaya, home of the world´s highest ski resort, and not much else but a handful a subsistence miners. The cab driver left us along the road at about 16,600 feet and we spent a little over an hour making the “half hour walk” up to the Refugio run by the Club Andino Boliviano (Bolivian mountain club).

Soyan sick at altitude I was feeling pretty good and Soyan was feeling “OK”. The slope of the road was very gentle and we were not moving very fast. I was elated to reach the refugio for some lunch and then planned to make the summit. Soyan, it seemed, had other plans. As soon as we sat down and ordered our coca tea, she began to vomit. She drank a little tea and threw up some more. Obviously we abandoned our plan to make the summit and headed back down to the city. It was 4 or 5 hours before she was feeling normal again.

Amazingly and impressively while we were still in the cab heading down she suggested that we return the next day to try again! We decided we would have another day of acclimatization under our belts and that we would do a few things differently.

Coca for sale in El AltoWe had to leave La Paz at 7 AM because it was election day and we needed to get out of the city before the police started hassling drivers. We decided to start a little bit lower (15,800 feet) and walk up more slowly. We also brought along our 25 cents worth of coca leaves. We had visited the Coca Museum the evening before and it had offered a step by step guide to chewing coca leaves, along with a stern condemnation of cocaine use (squarely assigning the blame to US addicts for converting an ancient custom in to a drug problem). I was mainly curious to try it, as much to say I had done it, as anything else. Soyan on the other hand was looking for some of its well documented high altitude protection. We said what the hell and started to chew some leaves. They tasted like a mix of the way fresh cut grass smells and green tea. They have a slight sweetness and a slightly stronger bitterness.

I felt no effect outside of a slight tingling in my mouth. Much like you might feel from Novocaine, but much less pronounced. This should hardly be a surprise since Novocaine (and Lidocaine and Procaine) are synthetic versions of the same alkaloids in the Coca leaf. After 45 minutes I spit mine out. You “chew” them in much the same way I understand that you chew tobacco. You only chew them slightly to break down the cell walls, then you mostly hold them in your cheek. Soyan thought they were helping her and stuck with them.

After a little more than two hours we reached the Refugio, because of the elections it was closed and blocked our trail to the summit. Soyan hoped that this or the light snow that had started falling on us would be an excuse to head back to the city. I wanted to make the summit. While we were discussing this and talking about the if it was even possible to get to the trail with the refugio closed, our cab driver demonstrated how to climb the low rock wall, skirt the edge of the building along a steep drop and cross the open water bin to get to the trail. I suggested that she wait in the cab and I´d make a dash (as much as one can at 17,300 feet) for the summit but she would have none of it.

Jonathan and Soyan on top of Chacaltaya
We headed up the winding trail that climbed a few more hundred feet to the summit. About 30 minutes and 150 feet later all ten of my fingers started to tingle from the tips to the knuckles. It really freaked me out. I sat down for a few minutes to rest and had started to chew some more coca leaves. 30 minutes later we were at the top. The max altitude according to my gps was exactly 17,600 feet! I was elated. Finding that my cell phone actually had coverage I left a joyful and triumphant voice mail for my parents and then started to think of more people, but my cell stopped working. I got the timer on my camera to take a photo of us (see left) and we packed up and started to head down. It finally seemed like Kilimanjaro might not kill me!

Bolivia has a New President.

December 20, 2005

Evo PresidenteAnd that’s a big deal because it was generally assumed that no one candidate would win 51% of the vote, because it has not happened since Bolivia became a democracy. To read more about the elections I’d like to hand you off to Global Voices. I can endorse this site as incredible brilliant because they both quote me, and have licensed one of my photos. Beyond that they have done a good job of collecting information from a wide variety of sources on the Bolivian election.

Mary had a little Ambien

December 19, 2005

Ambien During my first few nights at altitude in La Paz, I had trouble sleeping. On the third night I was laying in bed awake, when I remembered that my doctor had prescribed Ambien for this very problem. Reluctantly I took one.

WOW, it was awesome. Within 3 minutes I was asleep. I woke up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and then immediately went back to sleep. It warns that it can be habit forming. I now see why. I restrained myself from taking it again, but it was sure tempting.

Election Day in Bolivia

December 18, 2005

Localwoman after voting in today´s presidential election in La Paz, Bolivia.I have mocked the political ads in Argentina. I have mocked the political ads in Chile. I will not do the same in Bolivia.

Having found myself in La Paz on election day, with an electorate substantially more divided than the US during it´s most recent pair of elections, I felt I should give the matter a serious look. It is my duty as a reporter … OK, I am not a reporter, but here I am reporting live on elections. Is everyone with a blog now a reporter? What has the world come to? …to write something thoughtful, or at least not glib.

I think a really quick (I promise) overview of the Bolivian Presidential race is in order because I am sure most of you are not familiar with the candidates or the issues, but if that sounds unbearably dull skip down to the section comparing the Bolivian election process to that of the United States (it is more fun than it sounds).

The Candidates and Issues

The Leading Candidate is Evo Morales, of MAS, Movement for Socialism party. He is an Aymara Indian from the countryside and built his reputation fighting for farmers against Coca eradication programs. He is widely supported by the poor, by the farmers and by residents of the countryside. He is expected to win the most votes, but not to get 51% of the votes.

The likely second place finisher is Tuto Quiroga of ADN. He is a businessman and was the former vice president under Hugo Banzer. Banzer had died in office and made Tuto president.

The likely third place finisher, the man to be courted if you want to build a coalition, is Samuel Doria Medina of MIR. He is a former government minister and a successful businessman with both a cement business and the Burger King Franchise for Bolivia.

There are five other candidates, none of whom matter much.

Since nobody is likely to win 51%, under Bolivian law the parliament will elect a president in early January. Evo is the socialist outsider and many fear that if he were elected president it would mean a disastrous end to US aid to Bolivia. The Evo supporters fear that backroom deals signed in the middle of the night will lead to “more of the same”. That is electing Tuto (or possibly Medina). If this happens, many fear protests (riots) by the farmers and campesinos who feel that Evo is the only one who cares about the poor and he will likely have won the most votes.

Either way it is not going to be pretty come early January.

Bolivian Elections versus the United States Elections

With the politics out of the way I have some observations on the profoundly different way in which elections are conducted in Bolivia versus the US.

In Bolivia, voting is mandatory. You need to show your proof of voting for almost any government permit or license. Some banks even require it in order to get a loan.

Bolivian Campesino showing off his purple pinky indicating that he has votedWhen you arrive at the poll they check your ID and then publicly display the ballot to indicate that it is “clean”, free of any marks. Then the voter takes the ballot into a private room and makes his mark. He refolds the ballot and drops it in sealed cardboard boxes in front of everyone. Then his pinky is dipped in indelible purple ink and he is given his certificate to prove he has voted.

Bolivian Presidential BallotThe ballots are huge, maybe 11 by 17 inches. They are full color, with the Candidate name, party, logo, photo and a check box filling a tall rectangle about 2 inches by 6 inches. You put an “X” in the very clearly marked box by the candidate. Perhaps we (Americans) could learn a thing or two.

There also seemed to be no political ads near the polling stations. In the US I always know when I am 150 feet from the poll because of the throng of lobbyists and exit pollsters. These were also missing at the 5 polling sites I visited.

Elections are held on a Sunday and it is illegal to “work”. There are handful of restaurants open, I saw a call center and I am writing this from a cybercafe but more than 95% of business are closed and the normally teeming streets are empty of all but a very few of the vendors that normally clog them almost to the point of preventing traffic.

You may not drive a car (or operate a taxi) without a special permit. These permits are only issued the day before to prevent forgeries and are only issued to members of the press and taxi´s that will serve the press. This means everybody is out walking or biking to the polls. The streets around my hotel which are normally chocked with traffic were empty.

All of this created a little hassle for your intrepid non-reporter, but I managed to cut a deal with a cab driver, I will call him “Jerry” to protect the guilty. He promised he would get a permit and chauffeur me for the day for $30.00. When we met outside the hotel at 7 AM (because I had a mountain to climb before I could report on the elections, but more about that in another post) he was there with his cousin, “Larry”. It seems that Jerry had other obligations, but Larry could take me. One tiny hitch. They had been up till 1 AM trying to get a permit and it had cost $20.00, because they had to buy it on the secondary market. As you can imagine, they wanted me to pay $40.00. As my political ambitions grew the total eventually reached $50.00. Nevertheless, I was able to visit several polling places and despite my driver´s fear, I was allowed to take pictures in the polling station once I asked Daisy Camargo, the Notaria for permission.

Daisy was kind enough to explain the whole voting and vote counting process to me and it seemed that the polling place she was running was very orderly and efficient. It was guarded by military police and there were several election observers present, though they seemed to be chatting amongst themselves.

Outside there were children, businessman and women in traditional dress all stopping to buy a napkin to mat the damp ink on their pinkies. Let´s hope that is all there is to the post election clean up.

More election day photos, including political ads, grafiti and polling places, as soon as I can manage a better connection.

For more information about the elections, try reading somebody who learned about the elections before last Wednesday:

UPDATE: Evo has officially won! He managed just a hair over 50%. His supporters are very happy. He´ll take office Jan 6th. My limited survey of the locals suggests he´ll have a 6 month honeymoon. After that people will expect results. 6 months is not long and Evo will almost certainly have made enemies of foriegn investors by then by nationalizing the petro business.

Infrequent Fliers

December 17, 2005

I am a frequent flier. I have elite status with American, Delta, Continental and US Air. I use Seat Guru to pick my seats. I regularly read the awesome blog, “View from the Wing”. I long ago noticed the enormous difference between a Monday morning flight from Boston to Los Angeles and a Saturday flight in the winter from Boston to Miami. — Business travelers versus leisure travelers.

None of this prepared me for the folks on my Lloyd Aereo Boliviano flight 932 from Buenos Aires, Argentina to La Paz, Bolivia.

While waiting in line at the gate to try to change my seat, a Pervuian struck up a conversation with me. He was curious to know what I was waiting for. (If there is a line, maybe he should be in it.) I explained that I wanted to change my seat. He said he had not even been assigned a seat. Since I knew this was a full, but not overbooked, flight, I thought it was pretty unlikely that he didn’t have a seat. Maybe it was overbooked, and he might be one of those unlucky few with a confirmed reservation but no seat, and at risk to get bumped. After all I had not been allowed to reserve a seat when I bought my ticket and I had checked in very early. Of course, it was nothing so complicated. He showed me his boarding pass and I showed him that he did in fact have a seat.

Apparently this confusion is fairly wide spread, because I overheard a woman being directed to her seat and exclaiming, “A window, how lucky!”. I may not be typical, but I can’t imagine many people not asking for a window at check in if they wanted one. I, of course, had been disappointed to find that seat guru did not include LAB among its airline reviews.

Perhaps all this explains why they repeatedly announced over the PA that you must sit in your assigned seat. Maybe this lack of awareness about assigned seats explained why people rushed the door to board in a way that makes frequent fliers jockeying for overhead bin space look like glacial movement. I am pretty sure it was not because they had read the article that I read. It seems one passenger reported that despite assigned seats the plane actually had open seating.

Other little surprises included people trying to stow bags under their own seats rather than underneath the seats in front of them. When the stewardess gave the safety advisory people actually seemed to be paying attention. Even more shocking the woman, in her mid fifties, seated in our row did not have the card with additional safety information in her seat back pocket. She asked if after Soyan or I finished reading the card she could borrow it. I explained that I had read it thousands of times and that she need not wait. She said thank you, and explained it was her very first time flying.

As we were told we were approaching La Paz I took a look around the plane and noticed that besides my reading light there were only two others on in the whole plane. I won’t venture to guess if that is because people did not know how to turn them on, or it had not occurred to them to bring something to read. They certainly weren’t going to be reading the in flight magazine. The most interesting article (and I use that term loosely) was on “How to read your airline ticket.”

The final nod to my pavlian flyer status is that after landing while we were still taxing in to the gate I sat waited for the “ding”to spring in to action. 40 other equally impatient but less trained passengers got up and started wandering the plane assembling their things while it was still moving.

Let’s do the time warp again.

December 15, 2005

Please forgive the time wrap of out of sequence posts. We have been in Buenos Aires for the last 2 weeks and arrived in La Paz, Bolivia yesterday. We are here in an effort to acclimatize before our climb. In a week we go to Africa.

Before we leave South America, I am cleaning my virtual closets of all sorts of things that I had been meaning to mention. Which is why the posts about Santiago have just appeared.

Coming soon is a taste of Patagonia, Buenos Aires and Bolivia.