Friday, September 24, 2010

Saturday Post Travel-Log Special -- 25/09/10

While on our trip, I spent about half an hour each evening scribbling down the events of the day, for the benefit of my generally useless memory. I wrote to no other audience but myself, so I'm not sure how interesting the following will prove to the casual reader, but I reckoned it would at least make for a slightly different Saturday Post this week. Just edited highlights here. I'll try to post some more pictures, too, over the next few days.

As for prayer this week, give thanks for the refreshing time we had while away and pray for energy and renewed vision as we adjust back to the working day here in Trinidad.

Saturday, 11th of September
• Arrive in La Paz around 2:30pm. Stepping off the plane is like walking into a fridge with the light left on. Wonderful.
• After a short hunt, locate our base for the majority of the week: Hotel Fuentes on Calle Linares, a street in the heart of the touristy (and hilly!) San Francisco district of town. The woman at the hotel tells us a room with a double bed is available for only one evening. I explain that she’d told me otherwise on the phone. Sure enough, we get the room for three nights. I’m reminded that we may be in a very different city, but we’re still in Bolivia.
• We take a micro [La Paz’s main form of transport, mini-vans which struggle up and down the hills] to Wagamama – not that one, but an independent Japanese restaurant in town. It’s our first taste of Eastern cuisine since arriving in Bolivia and well worth the wait – subtle flavours I’d forgotten even existed take an extremely powerful hold.

The street just outside our hotel. Chocos abound.

Sunday, 12th of September
• A patchy night’s sleep, to be expected as part of the adjustment to high altitude.
• At breakfast in the hotel, I take my first cup of coca leaf tea this holiday, and Amanda her first ever. It’s a tad bitter, but a tried and tested guard against altitude sickness, though of course, it has been known to have other uses.
• A marathon of a service at El Jireh church in the city [home to Pastor Juan Antonio Maldonado, old friend of FT and the church’s namesake here in Trinidad]. The Lord’s Supper takes up the first 90 minutes, though with a markedly different feel to what I’m used to. Worship songs are repeated over and over, with a very lively, quasi-Hebrew feel to things. Later, I’m invited to address the church on behalf of the church in Trinidad. As in Trinidad, the children come up to the front to sing before heading to their Sunday school, only here they also fight for the microphone to recite huge chunks of Scripture – as in, full Psalms/chapters. It is truly inspiring stuff. We leave at around 12:45pm, some four hours after arriving.
• After fevered anticipation, we head straight to ‘Burger King’ on the Prado. But it takes only a few bites for the excitement to dissipate as we contemplate the poor quality grub at non-Third World-adjusted prices.
• After a post-lunch siesta, we take a micro down the hill [up is the only other direction in La Paz] to catch the 5pm showing of ‘Inception’ at a recently-opened multiplex. We’d heard snatches of information about it beforehand but nothing could have prepared us for the reality (or is it?!). Mesmerising, the best film we’ve seen in a very long time.

Monday, 13th of September
• This morning we aim to get our sole FT-related business out of the way and we make tracks for the Bible Societies shop round the corner from our hotel. There, we spend the morning picking out tracts for FT and the church, with the bargain prices (around 10p per tract) meaning we only just make it out before lunchtime closing.
• My watch stopped working a few months ago and had been planning on getting a new one here for some time, so we wander down the Prado to a watch shop recommended by the hotel manager. Inevitably, genuine models are thin on the ground (‘Rolexes’ come at missionary-friendly prices), though at least here, the woman has the decency to declare her forgeries (not usually the case back in Trinidad). I pick up a nice Casio (never let me down) which comes with a guarantee. When I ask for the guarantee, I’m told it’s etched into the reverse of the watchface. Sense any further effort may be in vain.
• We get a taxi to a street market (again recommended by our hotel manager, whose Super Mario-like appearance betrays a genuine affability and desire to please). Amanda picks up a set of kitchen scales and a vegetable steamer – like decent watches, these are, again, impossible to find in Trinidad. [trust readers are getting a sense of just how exciting the ‘little things’ have become to us over the last year]
• Pop into a restaurant next door to the hotel. It’s quiet, but serves a good, traditional set menu, which results in my first llama steak of the holiday.
• Super-sized jugos (fruity, South American milkshakes) nearly cause us to keel over, so we take another much-needed stroll down the Prado, browsing the various fake DVD stands and shoe shops. On way back to hotel, we nip into ‘Oliver’s Travels’, La Paz’s token British bar, though I’m the only British customer. Nonetheless, we enjoy the closing games of the US Open final while bantering with staff (both Brits) about all things La Paz.

Tuesday, 14th of September
• Both showered and changed by 7:15am. We check out and catch a micro heading to the cemetery, where buses leave for Copacabana.
• The four-hour bus journey is as spectacular as usual, though desperation to urinate [my bladder shrunk considerably at high altitude] dampens the excitement somewhat. With hindsight, a gigantic lake perhaps not the most comforting scenery.
• We arrive in Copacabana at the back of noon [there was a toilet stop an hour earlier, thankfully]. A bit of a hike to our hotel but we are duly rewarded for our effort. A specatacular lake view is afforded from the gardens. We swing in the hammocks for a while before lunch.
• We toddle up and down the streets [funny how high altitude is never flat] of Copacabana, reminded of just what a far-out place it can be. Hippy-inclined chocos abound.
• Amanda suggests we rent a pedalos. We mess around in the boat for half an hour and I get some good pictures of reed boats [Titicaca’s signature vessel] in the process. We spend the remainder of the afternoon sourcing ice cream and visiting Copacabana’s striking cathedral.
• Amanda takes pictures of Copacabana’s ‘Museum of the Poncho’ for the benefit of her sister, Jessica (who hates ponchos).
• As ever, I’m up for a climb, with Cerro Calvario [one of the twin hills which book-end the town] positively calling my name. Amanda suggests we wait until sunset and it proves a stellar call. The walk up the hill is, once again, breathtaking, if only in a medical sense. But the end justifies the means, with the best view I can remember in a long time. I get a fair few sunset shots.

The two of us on Isla del Sol.

Wednesday, 15th of September
• Get down to beach in time to catch our boat to Isla del Sol. We manage to get seats on the upper deck and, naturally, I take a sackload of pictures.
• We arrive at northern port of the island, Challapampa. With time fairly short, we’re keen to set off alone but we’ve been ambushed by a local tour guide who won’t let us buy tickets for the island’s Inca sites until we’ve listened to him describe his (pricey) tour to us.
• We manage to sneak away and, while walking, meet a couple of French-Canadian chaps, one of whom expresses an interest in coming to Trinidad to volunteer at FT. We stop at the island’s main Inca site before walking another 15 minutes to the summit of the hill at the north-west point of the island. There are stunning views all around – well worth the effort.
• Next stop on the boat is Yumani and the island’s Inca Stairwell. We rest here for 30 minutes and are reunited with our Québécoises friends.
• At 3.30pm, we start heading home, stopping off at the final ruin on the island on the way, where I take a photo of a llama and am then promptly charged one Boliviano for the privilege – after our tour guide experience and now this, I find it sad that such a striking wilderness is increasingly bearing the hallmarks of a tourist trap.
• On the boat back to Copacabana, we chat with a young couple from London who have been travelling in South America since January. Midway through a footballing conversation, the guy’s backpack slides off the top of the boat and into the water! Our driver turns back and we manage to salvage it. The contents dry quickly in the high-altitude sun. Mercifully, no important documents were contained therein.

Thursday, 16th of September
• This is the travel log entry that very nearly didn’t happen, as sure enough, my traditional disaster-moment of the holiday reared its ugly head.
• We’d showered and packed and while Amanda was getting ready, I stepped outside into the hotel garden to drink in Lake Titicaca one last time.
• After breakfast in the hotel we headed, with bags, to Copacabana’s main bus stop. We locate a reasonably comfortable micro due to leave at 9am. We pay and board.
• Amanda makes a reference to last night and my thoughts turn to my travel log entry. I suddenly realise the notebook is still in the hotel, with only five minutes until our departure. Amanda suggests we try to get a refund and take a 10am bus. Inevitably, and despite the crowds looking to travel to La Paz that day, the driver isn’t interested [the customer is never right in Bolivia].
• The driver, therefore, gives me five minutes to get to the hotel and back. The hotel’s a mere five minute stroll from the plaza, so it should technically not be a problem. I sprint and get there within two minutes, but the altitude takes its toll. I somehow get back to the bus on time but am severely winded for the best part of an hour!
• When we get back to our La Paz base, everything is in order and our suitcase is ready to be claimed from safe storage. We’re a floor higher this time (such insignificant details take on a whole new meaning at this altitude).
• We walk to bookshop ‘Los Amigos del Libro’, which, according to our guidebook, stocks the biggest range of English-language texts in the city. That ‘range’, it turns out, consists of two dusty old boxes of self-help manuals. I figure the Atkins diet can wait a few years yet.
• We catch a trufi [a regular-sized car, like a taxi, but picking up multiple passengers] to take us (and four others!) to La Paz’s much-heralded ‘Megacenter’ shopping mall. Our hope is to spend some of Amanda’s birthday money before catching a film later. Alas, the prices are stratospheric, the whole experience only serves to remind us that Bolivia has no middle-class.
• Our film, ‘Salt’ is utter nonsense, yet engagingly twisty throughout, complete with a sequel-ready climax.
• We get back to San Francisco and scale the hill back to our hotel. The climb has definitely gotten a lot easier since leaving Copacabana.

Friday, 17th of September
• The plan had been to go to Tiwanaku today [a major Inca site just outside La Paz] but as soon as we got back from Copacabana yesterday, the thought of sitting on a minibus for another couple of hours completely lost its appeal. Therefore, with added urgency after last night’s ‘Megacenter’ disappointment, today was designated ‘shopping day’. Amanda duly obliges.
• We head to Mercado Buenos Aires, which covers 30 square blocks and appears to have no end. Need I say, it goes up a big hill?
• We dump the morning’s spoils in the hotel room and then proceed to ‘Oliver’s Travels’ for lunch, where I become the first customer ever to purchase Irn-Bru!

A view over Valle de la Luna looking towards 'The Devil's Molar'.

Saturday, 18th of September.
• A typical last day of the holiday. That strange mixture of longing for things not to end countered by the sense of impending closure. Nonetheless, we make the most of it.
• After breakfast, we return to the cemetery to catch a micro heading in the direction of Copacabana – on Tuesday, I’d noticed the photographic potential of the view as we ascended La Paz’s canyon, with some stunning views of the city with the snow-drenched peak of Illimani in the background. Unfortunately, the view today is severely obscured due to mist. We take some pictures nevertheless. It’s more than a little unnerving being so high, mind you.
• Finally we land our sole English-language book of the trip, Amanda finding a 1956 [the year my Dad was born – talk about old!] edition of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Scapegoat’ in the market for 15 Bolivianos [should explain here that Bolivianos is the currency – we’re not in the business of slave-trading].
• After lunch (over Sunderland v Arsenal in the ‘teatime kickoff’) we make tracks for Valle de la Luna, a journey which takes 50 minutes or so on a big, hulking, snail-like bus (formerly used to transport schoolchildren in Virginia, it appears). But we’re well rewarded when we get there – a truly spectacular sight. We take endless photos, the late-afternoon Light adding to the beauty. From viewpoints over the craters, I can’t help but notice a sliver of green in the distance: La Paz golf club, the world’s highest, so they say.
• We dither over going to see the golf club for ourselves (rumours are it’s ultra-exclusive) but in true last-day-of-holiday spirit, we reckon, “why not?” and find a taxi driver who can at least take us to the gate.
• We manage not only that, but receive a guided tour of the clubhouse from a helpful young woman. I manage to sneak a few shots of the 1st/18th. Looks a great course in a spectacular backdrop. I make a casual inquiry re. membership, expecting to be rebuffed. A lifetime membership will cost you $4000, steep here but a bargain compared to many inferior courses back home. We take a bus back to the city to enjoy our last La Paz meal and pack our bags for our Sunday morning flight home.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More pics

This is the last batch of pictures I'll be posting here. If you have Facebook, I'm in the process of arranging a more complete album there. Thanks.

Fellow travellers on the road back to La Paz from the Lake.

A view of the city from our hotel.

San Francisco market, just round the corner from our hotel, known as 'gringo alley' for its abundance of Bolivian arts & crafts and the tourists that flock to buy them. Guilty as charged, before you ask.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Photo finish (3)

Started uploading these just as pre-boarding was announced. Home now in Trinidad, as I post. More to come later this week, though sadly the internet speeds here (nor our blogging account size) will allow us to do photographic justice to a great trip.

On the two-hour boat ride to Lake Titicaca's Isla del Sol.

An Inca settlement overlooks the lake (that's Peru in the background).

The view over the lake from the northernmost peak on the island. Can you spot the mountains in the distance?

Photo finish (2)

Copacabana's cathedral, one of the most spectacular in South America. Weirdly, locals come here every Saturday to have their cars blessed by dousing them in pure alcohol.

Overlooking Copacabana from hill Cerro Calvario (the town, with its beach and bookending peaks, would lend its name to the bay in Brazil).

No explanation necessary.

Photo finish (1)

Reckoned there are worse ways to spend our extended layover in Cochabamba airport on the way back from our trip (Trinidad currently engulfed in thick smoke) than to upload a few pictures from our trip. Will be posting some prose later in the week, as usual.

Amanda posing on the La Paz's Prado, the main street running through the city centre.

Amanda again, this time swinging on a hammock at our hotel in Copacabana, overlooking Lake Titicaca.

A reed boat, typical of Lake Titicaca.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Saturday Post -- 11/09/10

We’re both going on a somewhat holiday. Tomorrow lunchtime we’ll be vacating the Trinidad region for the first time since we arrived back in January and flying to La Paz. Our intention was to take a break from our life and work in Trinidad and, location-wise, we couldn’t have done much better. A vast metropolis set at a height of over 3500 metres above sea level and nestled within a dramatic crater (Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon would not be an unseemly landing vehicle), La Paz provides a stark contrast to the hot jungle lowlands of the Beni region. Weather-wise, meanwhile, it won over this Scotsman long ago. 20 celsius would be a pleasant day (though the proximity to the sun can make it feel warmer) with temperatures plummeting to zero or below in the evening. Needless to say, as oxygen lacks, hills abound, so a few days’ acclimatisation are essential.

Culturally, things are no less distinct from the Latin-infused Trinidad. La Paz is the main hub of the majority Aymara population of Bolivia, who descend from the country’s native Indians. Women in bowler hats carrying babies in their back-pouch can be seen trundling up and down the streets all over the city. Vibrant arts and crafts are furnished and sold at many a street corner. And rare is the restaurant meal which isn’t interrupted by a folk band thrashing their charangos (a Bolivian variation of the mandolin) and beating a drum.

All of which will be wonderful. But I’m not going to lie to you. Probably the thing we’re most looking forward to about La Paz is that, as a big city, it provides many of the amenities we took for granted back in Glasgow. It has bookshops. It has a multiplex cinema. It has Burger Kings – I’m not even sure if I’ve visited a Burger King this millennium, but all of a sudden the thought of a Whopper prompts me to reach for my bib.

It’s a ‘somewhat holiday’ as we have items of business to attend to but we’ve managed to keep these to a minimum; one being to purchase tracts for Fundación Totaí – a simple and effective way of ministering to those who pass through our doors every day – and the other is sourcing a new laptop to replace our faithful Macbook, which processed its last megabyte a few weeks ago. This coming Sunday, we’re hoping to pay a visit to the church of a chap called Juan Antonio, an old friend of the church here, whom we’ve heard so much about over the last few months.

On Tuesday, we’re going to take a three-hour bus trip up to Copacabana – not the beach in Rio but the original town from which it took the name. As a small town it’s worth a visit in itself, but the big attraction is the body of water it sits upon, the largest in South America at 190 km long and, at 3,810 metres altitude, the highest of its size in the world. I refer to Lake Titicaca, shared by Bolivia and Peru, as close to the sea as you’ll get here, but what a substitute! The navy blue water gleams like a diamond on the usually sunny days up there and is surrounded by some dramatic mountainous scenery. While we’re there, we hope to do something else we were getting used to back home, albeit, a lot more healthy than an XL bacon double cheeseburger: walking. The Isla del Sol, a two-hour boat ride from Copacabana, is home to some well-preserved Inca ruins and some excellent paths for exploring.

So much to look forward to, and you can probably sense my excitement, but above all, we just want to have a relaxing week and re-charge the batteries for the end of the calendar year, which we’re led to believe is usually the most hectic period at FT. And we hope that, in the moments of solitude in our hotel room, in a boat or on the road, the Lord will continue to reveal his plan for us and our work here in this country, where the myriad of spectacular landscapes provide a backdrop to corruption at all levels of society and rabid superstition (of which more when we return).

No post, then, next weekend, but I’ll be sure to regale our readership with photos and anecdotes when we return. God bless you in whatever situation you find yourself in right now.

• For safety as we fly to La Paz – the smoke of a few weeks ago has returned to a lesser extent than previously. Flights are operating to the best of our knowledge.
• For a relaxing time away from Trinidad, and a renewed vision for our work.

• For Craig’s sermon on Sunday – really felt the Lord’s guidance as I addressed a difficult topic.
• For successful completion of all the usual end-of-month admin tasks.

¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Friday, September 3, 2010

Saturday Post -- 04/09/10

Blog readers who question the power of prayer may wish to take note of events 48 hours after our previous entry. You’ll remember we’d requested prayer for rain over Bolivia, a hitherto unknown quantity for some three or four months. On Sunday evening, a downpour ensued and has been followed by two further storms (one of which caused Amanda to literally jump out of bed the other night).

The immediate benefits are obvious. Night driving is no longer the hazard it was and the colours of Trinidad are on show again. Looking out our kitchen window, we can see rich shades of green in the dense jungle that we’d forgotten existed. And the airports are fully functioning again, meaning that we should be able to travel to La Paz next weekend for our week in the Altiplano of Bolivia.

And longer-term, the smoke’s recession means stress-free breathing and an end to that feeling that you’ve woken up in the middle of the Marlboro factory. Happily, though heavy, the rains weren’t so prolonged as to cause any significant flooding or damage to properties – many properties here, of course, being a simple combination of sticks and tarpaulin.

I got an insight into just such housing while driving FT’s ambulance earlier this week. Recently I’ve been charged with going twice a week to a clinic on the other side of town to pick up some children who come to FT for physiotherapy care. The uptake, however, had tailed off in recent weeks and so our physio, Paris, was keen to accompany me as we opted to drive directly to the doorsteps of many needy patients. We drove through one barrio to pick up some cases that I hadn’t even known existed before though it soon became clear why Trinidad’s town councillors would be unlikely to make a song and dance about it. While waiting outside one house, Paris pointed out to me the adjacent cuneta (sewer) where, just a couple of weeks back, he’d spotted a live alligator!

With a team from FT on the annual “Oye Bolivia” trip north, the usual health excursions have been sidelined this week so Amanda has been mostly based at headquarters while I’ve mostly focused my attention on my sermon this Sunday from 3 John 9-11. Our usual church/youth responsibilities will make for another busy weekend, though quiet weekends have long been a thing of the past (which is why we’re planning on being away for two of them in a couple of weeks). But with Amanda’s 25th birthday falling on Saturday, I’m sure we’ll find time to enjoy ourselves.

• For Craig as he preaches on Sunday.
• For continued refreshment from above – i.e., rain.

• For the week’s showers.
• For the opportunity to help isolated physio cases this week.

¡Qué Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda