Back in Ollantaytambo

We left La Falda a month ago today, taking the reverse of the journey described here, with the difference that we spent a night on the bus, a night in Humahuaca (in northern Argentina), then a night on the train followed by a bus to La Paz from Oruro.

It was a bit surreal to be back in La Paz as tourists after having lived there for five months last year. We stayed at the Adventure Brew Hostel, where we had stayed for 10 days back in 2012, in part to see the city from a different center point. We did the things we needed to: stopping by the university for last logistics, dropping off a borrowed phone and saying thanks and so long for now to the good folks at the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund who helped us settle in and find a place for Anna and Zeke at the Los Amigos school. We didn’t manage to have api and bunuelo or say hello to Dona Marcela at our neighborhood store or ride the teleferico one more time. But we think we will be back in La Paz.

After two days, we headed for Copacabana and the Peruvian border.


Duck boat at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca


Lake Titicaca


Walking into Peru

It was a familiar journey, having done the reverse in 2012. It is rarely bad for a bus to arrive early, but our overnight bus got into Cusco at 4:30am, an hour before we were told it would. We had just resigned ourselves to waiting at least for daylight before finding a taxi when a woman came up and told us about a hostel for 80 soles (about $25) a night. Now I wouldn’t normally recommend getting a hostel from a stranger in a bus station, but we didn’t commit to taking it, and she said we could go there and check in now, at 4:30am. So we did, and the Hostal Milenio was a bit rundown, but clean enough and it felt good to sleep horizontally for a few hours.


Zeke with Wawa at Casa de Wow

We spent two nights there before heading to Ollantaytambo and the Casa de Wow, a sweet hostel we spend a few weeks at in 2012. Three and a half weeks later (with a 2-day gap), we are still here, and we think we will make it our base for the next few months. Ollantaytambo is known as the “Living Inca City”; on this street are many houses with the famous slanted doorways; inside, instead of a museum or shop, there is laundry hanging and chickens in the courtyard. In 2012 I wrote hereOllantaytambo is charmed; we still think so. We realize that in February 2012 we were still recovering from the car accident in January, and we didn’t explore outside of town all that much. This time around, we are. There are the famous Inca structures just above town (that cost lots of money to get into) but there are free things with hardly anyone else around all over. These last photos are from a recent hike to ruins above the famous ruins.


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A run from Ollantaytambo

Five years ago I wrote a post with this title, describing one of my first runs at altitude. Here’s another one; same town, different run.

At 7 this morning it was still cloudy and a cool-for-summer 60 degrees or so. I walked the block from our house to the creek, stretching my sleepy legs. I headed south, turned right, took, the one lane bridge across the creek, and wound past the school, the soccer field, and west out of town. A few dogs lifted their heads as I went by, and there was some barking, but none chased me this morning. Just before the little village west of town, I turned left on the dirt road and headed toward the river, but before reaching it I went left again along another dirt road, the one that parallels the railroad tracks. I had to wait for a short train at the crossing, but went on past the train station to where the road is squeezed between the hill and tracks on the left and the river on the right. The cars and trucks passing me threw up roostertails of dust, but thankfully there weren’t many this early. I passed another one-lane bridge, this one crossing the river, and continued east to where the dirt road along the river meets the main road. I crossed the tracks, a little ahead of another train, and made a hard left to take the main road back into town. Running a little past the house to warm down, I ran into my friend Ben and talked and walked back the other way with him for a few minutes before coming home. 4.3 miles, 39 minutes.

As I reread this, it seems like it could take place in rural Indiana, but we’re in Ollantaytambo, Peru, in the sacred valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Ollantaytambo was the town where Inka nobles and priests live, and unlike Machu Picchu and other places, people still live here. You can see the famous Inka stonework in slanted doorways, with chickens in the courtyard inside. The house is the Casa de Wow, one of the sweetest hostels we found on our 2012 trip. The run out of town passes beneath the archaeological site of Ollantaytambo, which is swarming with tourists most days. Along the road are a few piedras cansadas – tired stones, ones that didn’t make it to the site before the Spanish conquest. The train that goes by is the crazy-expensive tourist train to Machu Picchu. Several pass each day; oddly, their horns make me think of Shoals, the town in southern Indiana where my parents live.

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Night on the Mountain

The Banderita is the mountain above La Falda, and it is the mountain that the Weber-Loomis 4 have climbed more than any other (I can count at least seven times, the first few with Zeke in a backpack. You know, one of those kid carriers, not literally inside a backpack.).

What we write of today is something completely different – a bold post-supper ascent of the Banderita, a venture nearly unthinkable to most Argentines, who have supper between 9 and midnight. Our plan was to eat an early supper, then head up the mountain, summiting by sundown. We planned to go fast and light, leaving behind camp stove, tents, and board games (though this author, unbeknownst to other members of the team, did sneak David Halberstam’s 800-page history The Fifties into his pack), meaning that we would be forced to bivouac in the open overnight.

Our team had been chosen carefully, with each individual chosen for their particular skills as well as their ability to work well together. Leon, the eldest, was calm and steady, always prepared, and has spent more time on the Banderita than any native of Pennsylvania we know. Leticia was chosen for her logistical skills and her ability to keep the group together and on task. Anna and Zeke were along for their youthful energy, contribution to morale, and interest in nature. This author was added to the team by a sponsor for reasons unclear to the other team members.

Three members of the team set off at 6:30pm from Base Camp Francia (BCF), with two more following shortly after. The first part of the ascent is a mile and a half through the small village around BCF, during which the trail ascends from 3080 to 3500 feet. We joined forces at El Chorrito, where a small stream coming down the mountain meets the road. After a brief discussion, we decided the summit attempt was on. Over the next two miles we would gain another 1250 feet of altitude, reaching the summit at 4750 feet. Well-prepared by recent daytime ascents of the Banderita and Uritorco, we made good time. We passed two parties coming down from the summit, and though friendly greetings were exchanged, they were unfamiliar with our plans for an overnight bivouac and seemed concerned about our late start. But we forged on, enjoying the cool breezes and relatively mild evening sun.

As we neared the summit ridge, though, these cool breezes turned into a hard wind that blew us sideways when its gusts were strongest, making our goal of summit-by-sunset out of reach. As it was, we were high enough to enjoy sundown over La Falda, and we reached the summit about 15 minutes later. We had arrived in less than two hours, which would have been good pace even without sleeping bags on our backs.

The wind was blowing hard at the summit. We would later hear that at BCF the wind had also picked up significantly, causing consternation among those remaining at base. As we scouted a bivouac site, we were pushed around by 40mph winds which made much of the mountain untenable. We finally found a relatively level spot west of the summit slightly sheltered from the wind which also gave a view over La Falda and the valley. It was a clear night, and to the south we could see all the way to Lago San Roque and the lights of Carlos Paz.

We were happy with the choice not to bring tents; trying to erect them in this wind would be difficult. A few inches off the ground, though, the wind was calmer, while still enough to keep the mosquitos at bay. We lay under the night sky, watching the stars come out, though the lights of La Falda below meant that these were nothing like the stars at Condoriri, two months ago and almost 10,000 feet higher. I woke several times in the night, once to find Zeke had slid down the slight grade and was mostly into the grass at the edge of the precipice. I pulled him back up to our platform, which had the effect of pulling me down, but getting myself back up wasn’t difficult.

I woke at 3:40 to find the wind calmer and a few mosquitos buzzing around my ears. My default strategy was to wait until the buzzing seemed at its loudest, and then slap myself in the ear at maximum velocity. I’m not sure if this killed any mosquitos, but it passed the time until I fell asleep again.

I woke for good at 4:50 to predawn light and an increased wind. None of our team had been swept off the platform in the night. By six there was enough light for a few chapters of The Fifties concerning Werner von Braun and the American rocket program post-WW2. Soon Zeke and Leon were off to take pictures of the sunrise on the east side of the summit, and not long after that we were eating yogurt, granola, and bananas, as well as some very welcome cold coffee that Leon had thought to pack.

We headed down by an alternate route, following the Chorrito for much of its descent of the mountain. This route entails more rock-scrambling than the traditional ascent but offers opportunities to dip ones feet in the creek whilst snacking. By 11am we were back at BCF, a bit weary but delighted to have spent a night outside on the mountain.

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First Day, Parade Practice, and Parade

(Another old post: Zeke writing about the first few days at Los Amigos.)

The first day of school was a little overwhelming because everybody was asking “Que es tu nombre?”, “De donde eres ?”,”cuantos anyos tienes?”,”De que parte de los Estados Unidos eres?”….

Apart from one or two normal classes we went to the courtyard and marched around in circles “practicing” for the parade the next day . The parade practice wasn’t too interesting but I’ll say what I can about it. The only thing we really did was march in circles around the courtyard for about 50 minutes.


7:30am at the cemetery, waiting for the 6 de Agosto (Independence Day) parade to begin.

At the school they said to get to the cemetery at ocho en punto (eight o’clock sharp). (Actually, it was 7:30 – ed.) We got there ten minutes early, and there was one kid there. Five minutes late the first group of kids got there. I forget which they were but I know who two of them were: Waldo and Limbert.

After a little talking Waldo led me through the crowd which was not a regular crowd where its not too hard to get around but one where you have to push to get anywhere.




Figuring out the lines.

When the first school started marching we were kind of panicked because we were planning to be the second school to leave, so we quickly got ourselves together and the first band left and then we went. The march was pretty tiring not because of the length of the walk (it was only about a mile) but because half the time we were marching in place. At one point it was hard to know which band to follow because one stopped while the other kept moving. It was easier at first because the stopped one was closer, but when the bands were next to each other it got harder.

When we got to the school kids were everywhere but when Anna came in I joined her and we went out and found Ticia and Paul.


6 de Agosto

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(Here’s a post from a hike we did back in November.)


The three peaks of Condoriri, as seen from lower in the valley.

On a clear day, the highway from Tiwanaku to La Paz gives beautiful views of the Cordillera Real (is it?), stretching north from La Paz and east of the road. One of the most striking peaks is Condoriri, which with the glaciers coming down the front looks like a condor with wings outstretched. We had brought sleeping bags and tents to La Paz, but it took a visit from Tony, Hernan, Riley and Remme to get us out there. They had found a trekking outfitter who would drive us out near there and pick us up two days later, wedged in between teaching days at the UMSA.


Heading upriver and upvalley.

After a few days of logistical work by Leticia, Tony, and Hernan, we were up at 4 something Saturday morning, on the van at 5:30, and out at Estancia Tuni at 8:40. Even at 6am traffic in El Alto is bad, and most of that time was just to get out of the city. After that, Estancia Tuni – which feels like the middle of nowhere – isn’t too far. We spent most of the day walking gradually uphill to Lago Condoriri, the lake below the glaciers below the mountains. All this was above 14,000 feet, and we were heavily loaded with water and food. I was carrying 12 liters of water, in part to help me be patient with a slower pace. We could have given a few of those to Zeke, who repeatedly had to be pulled back to the group. We circled the Tuni reservoir, which looked low but was in the news a few weeks later as one of the better-off reservoirs supplying drinking water to La Paz during the water crisis.

From there we followed a dry aqueduct up the valley, past a number of dams and lakes, a few swampy mazes, past llamas and a friendly burro that came over to us to be rubbed on the head, all in increasingly narrowing valleys toward the head of the valley. There is a refugio – a no-frills place to spend the night – there, but we set up our tents a little ways away, over a hill and out of view, but close to a creek and in view of grazing llamas on the nearby hill. Here at the head of the valley we were surrounded by impressive glaciered peaks – Pico Austria to the left, the three peaks of Condoriri in the middle, and Aguja Negra to the right.

At 14,500 feet, it got cold quickly after the sun went behind the mountains, and after a good supper we were all in tents before too long. (Except Hernan, who erected a shelter with a tarp, rope and trekking pole. We woke up that night to hear him yelling Fuera! Fuera! (Out! Out!) at a dog that was trying to find its way in.) Leticia and I had two sleeping bags zipped together with Zeke in between us, which was plenty warm but somehow much tighter than when we had tried it out for 3 minutes at home.

It is a standard experience for me to have to get up to pee in the middle of the night when camping, and I always lie in the sleeping bag for a while delaying getting out in the cold (and in this case, delaying the challenge of merely exiting the bag), but once I am out, and if the night is clear, I would consider these some of the most clearly religious moments I experience. The night was completely calm, the sky clear, and the stars brilliant in the thin air.


Once high enough, Huayna Potosi is visible to the south.

We were up slowly Saturday morning, eating oatmeal, enjoying the delicious arrival of the sun over the mountain. We were finally off at 8:45 with a plan to hike up Pico Austria, at an elevation of 17,500 feet, meaning a 3000 foot elevation gain. Really, our plan was to take it slowly, stick together, see how everyone dealt with the altitude, and then decide how far to go. It turns out there was a shorter (if steeper) way up, but we started by heading right around Lago Condoriri following a trail marked on the best map we could find. I had the same big pack (it’s the Lowe that I bought in 1997 to backpack around northern Scotland), but now with only 4 liters of water, food, and extra clothes. Either from the altitude or not enough caffeine, I had a mild heachache all day, but it never got worse. We were slow, but in general we all did reasonably well with the altitude. And so we went, up rocky slopes, across little creeks running down from the glaciers, across meadows and gravelly bits and rocky bands and then up a steep scree slope leading up to Paso Austria, where we arrived at 1:45pm.

Surprisingly, it was calm at the pass – a guide we met said the wind usually picks up around 3pm – and we ate lunch, enjoying amazing scenery across more glaciers, a hanging lake, and, far below, another lake and ground without snow. We had gained enough altitude that we now had good views of Huayna Potosi to the south. Two groups with guides went by, heading up to Pico Austria, which was clearly mismarked on our map, and wasn’t visible (and hence looked daunting) from our vantage point. I think that some of us could have made the rest of the trip, but we were happy to stay together, enjoy the views and the sandwiches, and feel pleased about getting above the 16,000 foot mark.


At Paso Austria

Going down was, of course, much faster, but still not easy. Soup with quinoa for supper hit the spot, and we were visited by an old woman from the refugio who came to collect the 10 bolivianos per person (about $1.43 each) to spend the night. She was so warm and friendly and pleased we had come so far to see this place. It seems folks don’t often bring tents up there, and she asked why we hadn’t stayed in the refugio, but noted that we had “brought our houses with us.” Once again the nighttime bathroom break gave a chance to have my head in the stars, and I gave a little prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be out there.


Somehow this happened on the way down.

There was some confusion about where the driver would pick us up Monday morning at 9, and so we were up at 5 and moving by 6:40. We packed up the tents with frost still on them and headed down the broadening valley. Tenaja tweaked her knee on the way down, and we spread her load out among us. She was a trooper, though, and walked out, even though it turned out she had torn an ACL and had to return to the States a few weeks early for surgery. The driver turned out to be in the right place, and he took a long detour around El Alto – the kind where you drive on tons of little unmarked roads, sometimes apparently driving in circles, until suddenly he pops out in El Alto near the road that plummets down to Sopocachi, where we lived. An hour and 55 minutes after being picked up, we were back in Pasaje Gasco. Really, Lago Condoriri is less than an hour from all the bustle of El Alto, which is amazing in its own right.
That meant I was home in plenty of time to teach math 634 and 381 from 2 to 6pm, to come home to supper with a house full of friends, and to go to bed hoping that the next day’s elections would turn out OK.


One more of Condoriri on the way out Monday morning.

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Oruro to La Falda in 52 hours

Oruro is a fairly nondescript altiplano town, but the roads are such that almost everyone travelling in Bolivia passes through. Our memories from 2012 are mostly of going to the market in the morning and having our first ever api and bunuelo. Oruro is also the town with a huge Carnival celebration in February, though, and it seems they also do it up big for Christmas. We got to Oruro around 7 after a 4 hour bus ride from La Paz, found a hotel at which to drop our mountain of bags, and wandered out into the streets. We found blocks and blocks of streets closed to traffic, and in the plazas, food, performers, lights, and a long long line to talk to Santa and have your picture taken with a stuffed polar bear.



The 145-foot-tall Virgen de Socavon, built on a mountain overlooking Oruro in 2013.


Walking through the market in Oruro, Leticia spied a fruit we had never seen before. Ocoro! (That white thing comes from inside the poky yellow outside; it has a big seed in it.)

The next day we had the morning to walk a bit before getting our truckload of stuff to the train station. They looked a little surprised when we checked in 6 huge bags, but they let it go. We lightened the load a little by eating more of the food from the UMSA Christmas basket, had our last tucumanas in Bolivia, and were on the train at 2.


Guardaequipaje (luggage storage) at Oruro train station.


Peaches, crackers, tuna at the Oruro train station. (Thanks, FEDSIDUMSA!)



Waiting for the train to leave Oruro, we were treated to Spanish pop hits and ballads from the 70s and 80s. Unforgettable.

The train pulled out exactly at 2:30, the only transport we have found in Bolivia that leaves on schedule. We were in no hurry for that to happen, though, as we were entranced by a succession of vintage music videos. You owe it to yourself to spend a few minutes with Donde Estan Tus Ojos Negros?, which is like a message from a parallel universe. I still have it running through my head, and I’ve learned to play it on guitar. Look for it at every gig I play in 2017.

The train goes through lots of empty land, some of which used to be near Lake Poopo (pronounced POE-OH-POE), which was once the second largest lake in Bolivia but is now almost gone, a victim of water being diverted for irrigation and mining. Here are some views – one has flamingos.


We had supper on the train (there was even a vegetarian option! OK, it was egg, rice, and fries, but still) and watched four movies with varying levels of interest before drifting off to sleep. A few of us woke up in Tupiza, where the train switched tracks, and where we bought such good humitas in 2012. (At 4am, the humita lady wasn’t in the station.) About an hour after sunrise we pulled into the station at Villazon, at the Argentine border.


Villazon, the end of the line, just north of the Argentine border.

We got a station wagon cab that stuffed our wagonload of baggage into the back, leaving the hatch open, and drove the mile or so to the frontier. We hadn’t had breakfast, but figured it would make sense to try to get through before things got busy. Two hours later, Paul was still in line and the others were guarding our herd of backpacks. Two hours after that, Paul was in process of paying the fines for overstaying our time in Bolivia (it was worth it),Leticia was in another line, this one for entrance into Argentina, and Anna and Zeke were somewhere in between, protecting our pile of pertenencias. After that, it was one more line, in which our small army of bags was scanned. The trunk with the padlock attracted special attention, and they asked what was in it, but didn’t open it. For the nth time officials couldn’t understand why we had so much stuff, and for the nth time we explained that we were (more or less) moving house from Bolivia to Argentina.


Anna and Zeke guarding our mountain of luggage at the border, where we spend 5 hours waiting in lines and paying fines.

Once across the border, it took our usual shuttling operation (which takes at least three people big enough to fight over a bag or scream bloody murder if necessary) to get the bags down to the taxi stand, where a succession of taxi drivers looked at our tired hungry faces and our small shipping-container sized load of stuff and decided they wanted nothing to do with us. Eventually we got to the bus station, where we got a bus for a few hours later to Jujuy, left the bags to fill the office of one bus company, and went to find some lunch. It was 2pm by the time food arrived, barely averting a meltdown into a puddle of low-blood-sugar induced misery.


This is the station in La Quiaca, on the Argentine side of the border. Once upon a time you could take the train all the way to Cordoba (and then on to Buenos Aires).

And after that it was better. We got to Jujuy around 9pm, after a bus ride that included two or three stops by customs officials. Only once did I have to get off the bus and explain what was in the trunk with the padlock (dishes, clothes, books). We figured that after a night of sleeping on the train, we’d all be tired enough that we’d sleep soundly during a night on the bus. And that mostly happened, and as day broke we bore on southward toward Cordoba. For the first time, they weren’t happy about our epic stack of luggage and charged us extra (about $4 total). We got to Cordoba around 3, found some food in the bus station, and within an hour were on the bus to La Falda. I was looking forward to this part of the trip – I still remember well the ride from the airport with Felipe in 2007 when we came to spend a year here – but I fell asleep and missed most of it.


Exciting times around midnight at the shiny new Jujuy bus station.


Before too long we were in La Falda, where I went and found two taxis willing to take our mule-train worth of stuff to the corner lot were Pat and Hector’s new house is, and where Leon and Louisa live in the old house. We got in around 6:30pm on December 18th, 52 hours after the train left Oruro, and 75 hours after pulling away from the apartment in Pasaje Gasco. It felt good.

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Leaving La Paz

The last few days in La Paz were bittersweet, as we tried to do various things one last time  and tried to soak up as much as we could. In my number theory class, my students took me completely by surprise by having a small party immediately after the last exam and giving me a backpack. The whole experience of teaching at the UMSA (while having its hard moments, and with my usual doubts of how well I’m teaching) has been all I could have hoped for.

We made the most of the last few days. We covered 13 miles on foot on Saturday, ten of it out of town from Chasquipampa toward Ventilla, then a few more walking down to the Christmas parade on the Prado. On Monday we went to the big stadium in La Paz for a football game, and saw Strongest beat Nacional Potosi 7-2, making the home fans happy. (Nine goals in a game!) Tuesday we had supper with my colleague Oscar and his wife Mercedes, the only time we were invited to eat at someone’s house in our 5 months in La Paz. After being told by the whole world not to forget to pick up my Christmas basket, we made the trip down to Cota Cota to get it. It turned out to be not a basket but a wheeled cart, filled with groceries, snacks, treats, and a bottle each of wine and rum. On Wednesday we had a last supper at Marrakech, our favorite Moroccan restaurant (and perhaps our favorite in general) in La Paz.
Mixed with all of this was the last of my grading and logistical work of the end of the semester, plenty of goodbyes at the university, and cleaning and packing on the home front. We had originally planned to send one checked bag home with Tenaja, but when she had to leave early on crutches and with an injured knee, we didn’t really feel we could in good conscience send an extra bag with her. So there was everything we came with plus all we had accumulated minus what we managed to give away in the last week.
December 15 was moving day. We were up early to work on the last of the cleaning and packing. We worked hard and fast, checking time every half hour or so. At times I felt I could hardly breathe. Leticia was the mastermind, and somehow got everything packed by noon. We had, though, 5 large bags and 8 small bags, more than we could pick up and carry in one trip. This went down to 5 and 7 after eating lunch, but it was still a ton. Ivonne, our landlord, was nice enough to let us finish up on our own time after settling up, and we got the last of the stuff out and I went to get two taxis (4 of us, plus all the stuff, doesn’t fit in one.) We said farewell to Primo the security guard, Alina the building’s cleaning lady, and our neighbor Ramiro, who pulled up as we were loading. I would have liked it to be a little calmer, but we needed to be off. The taxis took us to the bus station, and helpfully parked right at the correct bus stall, meaning we didn’t have to shuttle our mound of baggage across the station. At 3:30 in the afternoon we were off to Oruro.
Looking northeast from our bedroom window on Pasaje Gasco.

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The Wrapping Up

Two potential renters came to look at our apartment yesterday, meaning that there was a big cleaning and clearing push on Sunday. Seeing the place nearly as empty as when we moved in makes it clear that yes, we are soon moving on.
Tomorrow is Zeke’s last day of school, and Friday will be Anna’s. It has come very suddenly, and I am trying to soak up the 4 or 6 times a day walk on Calle Max Paredes as much as possible. I have the desire to tell all the vendors that we greet most days that we won’t be by any more, and thanks for your friendly smiles and greetings. At school we have had this conversation several times:
“Now that school is ending, are you going home?”
“No, we are headed to Argentina, where my in-laws live, and where there are an aunt and uncle and cousins.”
“And after that, you are headed home?”
“No, then we are headed to Peru.”
And if the conversation goes on, I explain that we can’t stay in Bolivia longer. My work visa expires in a few weeks, and Leticia, Anna, and Zeke’s have already expired. There will be a substantial fine when we leave, but that fine is only a bit more than the cost of all the documentation and application for a visa extension, with the extra expense worth it for the hours not spent in the immigration office. And we can’t really go home, for we have rented our house out until the end of June.
It is psychologically interesting to think about breaking up a year this way. In many ways it feels like we are just settling in. Thanks in part to recent school projects in Zeke’s class, it feels like we have made friends among other parents, and some of them have expressed sadness that we won’t be back in March for the new school year. At the university I mostly feel like I have figured out how things are done and I have a rapport with my colleagues and students. And so we are leaving friends and connections behind, but not heading home to other friends and connections, but instead heading off to Peru, where we are (mostly) starting over.
Thus it is nice to be heading first to La Falda, where we have family, and where we spent a year in 2007-2008. This will be our third time back since then, and in addition to reconnecting with people, it is enjoyable to walk the streets where Zeke learned to walk, where we pushed a stroller filled with Zeke and groceries and occasionally laundry, where we walked Anna to preschool as the sun came up on cold winter mornings, and where Leticia tried to walk every street in town.
At work a standard conversation starter is “where do you live?” and when I say “Alto Sopocachi”, they say “Oh, so you have water.” So I ask where they live, and if they have water. Bolivia has been in an extended dry period, and when we arrived in July the news was of loss of crops in the lower central part of the country, around Cochabamba. November begins the rainy season, but the rains have been slow to come, and now the reservoirs that supply the city with water are below 10%; many are below 1%, and there are photos in the paper of dry reservoir bottoms.
Three weeks ago water shortages hit La Paz, but as different neighborhoods are served by different reservoirs, not all neighborhoods have been affected. We have not been affected at all (and I tell myself we only need to hold out for 16 days more). There is an official schedule of when different neighborhoods will have water, but people complain that it is not followed at all, and some places have been without water for weeks. Ironically, the Zona Sur, the lower, wealthier part of town that feels to us like southern California, has been hit hard, while El Alto and the upper neighborhoods, which are largely poorer and more indigenous (here more money buys you lower land with more oxygen), still have water. There are exceptions, of course, and there are poorer neighborhoods across the valley without water. The newspaper enjoys publishing photos of demonstrations in the streets and long lines of people with buckets to collect water. (In the midst of this, we had a 4-day garbage strike, and so there were also pictures of mountains of garbage blocking one lane or more of streets.)
It is refreshing that the public discourse doesn’t contain the strong strain of climate-change denial that infects the U.S. With warming temperatures, the glaciers around La Paz are receding, reducing the water supply, and with changing weather patterns, the rains are regularly coming later. The opinion in the editorials is that this is what the future will look like, and that we need to make adjustments to live with it as well as possible. Even though the large economies of the world are largely to blame, there are still things that can be done here, like reducing burning of grasslands for agriculture.
But time marches on. The rainy season is coming; most days there is thunder, often lightning and/or hail. Given how much thunder and cloud cover there has been, though, not much actual rain has fallen. My grades are due in 13 days, and I have a pile of exams and homework to grade, a few more lectures and five exams to write, and then more grading and calculating. At the same time, there will be packing to do, and there are all these things that we’d like to do at least one more time, because we don’t know when we will be back. For me it is reminiscent of the last few weeks of my senior year of college – schoolwork to finish, an apartment to clean and pack, and friends to spend time with, all with a clear deadline. It is a little sad, but if the alternative is never leaving a place and never moving on, then I’ll take this in an instant.

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Running in La Paz


Running in La Paz is like trail running, on steep trails with lots of roots and rocks. I have found some routes – like higher up on Av. Buenos Aires, or the descent on Kantutani below the Puentes Trillizos toward the Zona Sur – that are mostly smooth pavement. Ever since I started teaching three classes, I have been looking for ways to squeeze in the runs. The most common is at 8am after dropping Zeke off at school. Instead of the half-hour 1.4 mile walk, I take a half-hour 3.5 mile run, either using Av. Buenos Aires (but not making it to the calm upper part) or crossing the Prado into Miraflores, turning right at the stadium, coming across the Puente America and then up through Sopocachi.

Both of these runs start in the market district, which is bustling at 8am. There are plenty of other runners out, but they are parents and children rushing to school or men in suits or women in skirts and heels on their way to work. The sidewalks are partially and sometimes completely blocked by stands selling everything from – well, everything – and people pausing to look at stuff block even more. So the walkers and the hurrying runners weave out into the streets, where the traffic is often moving slow or stopped with taxis and vans loading and unloading passengers and goods. There are old men with huge bundles on their backs or with hand trucks, sometimes running downhill half out of control. The parents holding children´s hands are a particular challenge, as they are wider and you can´t always see the kids in the jumble of foot traffic. A few weeks ago I passed a mother and daughter just as they jumped up on the sidewalk after running across the street in front of a bus. The daughter, maybe five years old, tripped on the curb and I caught her by the armpits, propped her up, and we all kept going in opposite directions. At times this all seems like an elaborately choreographed dance, and it is enjoyable to try to weave through it (and fit into it) while moving at double speed. In addition the streets are often cobblestoned and slippery when even a little wet, and there is the usual dodging of dog poop and smashed fruit from the day before. The edges of the sidewalks have slanted bits for cars to drive into garages, and these can be slippery too. In short, I feel I can go days without ever really opening up my stride into full speed. With the hills, a 4 mile run can have miles ranging from 8 to 11 minutes. But it isn´t boring.

At the end of October I ran the La Paz 3600 (referring to the altitude, in meters) 10K, a huge race that somehow manages to avoid many torturous uphills. I got a ride in a taxi with my friend Diego from the math department which managed to drop us fairly near the start in Miraflores. We seemed reasonably close to the front, but that notion faded away when the gun went off and we stood still for almost a minute. Just as at large races in the United States, there were tons of people who started way too close to the front for their ability, and I spent the first mile and a half passing people who were moving much slower – some already walking. The race started downhill on the Avenida Busch, with one direction reserved for the runners. Like many, though, I went over the grassy median into the other lanes to pass the hundreds of slower runners ahead of me, a strategy that ended when the road closure abruptly ended and we found ourselves facing oncoming traffic. I started my watch when I crossed the start line, and the all-downhill first mile went by in 7:29, probably a minute slower than it could have been without traffic, but still one of the fastest miles I had run in La Paz. We passed the stadium, where people were waiting to buy tickets for that day´s Bolivar – Strongest game, and there were many competing chants. I continued to pass people, some with backpacks of various sizes, a few with clipboards with papers attached, some with packs of kleenex or bags of water.

By mile 2 (passed in 7:13) we had passed the Parque Urbano Central and taken two left turns onto the Prado, where for the first time the race felt open. As in every moderately hard run I´ve done in La Paz, my lungs were feeling the effort – that slight burning feeling like when you sprint for long – but my legs felt no fatigue at all. We passed a rock band playing at the Plaza de Estudiante, turned right on Aspiazu, and mile 3 went by in 7:01. On Av. Ecuador I passed the family, and Anna and Zeke came out and ran with me for a few blocks before I asked them to turn around to be sure they reunited with Leticia. I had asked them to count places for me, and they said I was in about 300th place, so I made a game of counting how many people I passed after that. Around this time I began noticing runners leaving or joining the race course, and some people I passed were moving so slowly that they couldn´t have gotten that far that fast without cutting the course somewhere. Mile 4 came in 7:14, with some uphill to Plaza España and then downhill to Plaza Avaroa, another place where runners were re-joining the course.

The Puente America seems like a mild uphill when you walk it, but when you run it in the 5th mile of a 10K, it seems like going up a cliff. Still, I was passing runners, and counting. By now I had passed 50 or 60 people, though I wasn´t counting people who it didn´t seem could legitimately be in front of me. Soon off the bridge we turned right and barreled downhill, and my count, almost at 100, went backwards for a little while. Soon enough, though, we were on the final uphill to the Puentes Trillizos, and I was passing people again. At the top and the right turn onto the bridge, a crowd of volunteers was chanting NO FALTA MUCHO! NO FALTA MUCHO! (not much left) and I tried to pick up the pace while getting my breath back. With 200 meters to go I managed to kick past two chubby grandmothers in sweatsuits, and the finish came quickly. There was no visible official clock, but I stopped the watch at 44:24, faster than I had imagined I could run at this altitude. That hard 5th mile had been a 7:50, with the last 1.2 in 7:36 (actually it was 1.1 by my watch. I had passed 128 ¨official¨ runners, meaning I estimate I was around 200th of a reported 8000 runners and walkers (and course-cutters). All told, it was a delight and a great way to tour the city, seeing a few parts I didn´t know well. Having been at altitude for three months, I´ve clearly acclimated a lot, but if the course had used more hills – for instance, the one I walk every day to get home from the university – it would have been a lot rougher.

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Time, and How it Flies

(An indication of how the time is flying by is this post, which I wrote 19 days ago but have not had time to post. Also in this time, a camera died, and we bought another. And the computer at home seems to want to erase the files of any drive you put into it. So we are not putting anything into it. I am including some photos from a September trip to the Senda Verde animal refuge near Corioco, in the Yungas, about 8000 feet lower than La Paz, and an October trip to Chulumani, a less touristed town also in the Yungas.)


Capybaras are fantastic.

Time, it goes fast. By now we have been in La Paz for 12 weeks; today I will go to the bank to pay the rent, marking the halfway point of our four months in this apartment. Leon and Louisa came to visit from Argentina, stayed for two and a half weeks, and are now back in Argentina. On Monday night I took Tenaja to the airport to fly to her grandmother’s wedding in Pennsylvania; she’ll come back in a week and a half. Walking into the airport in El Alto, I could not even remember being there; when we arrived in July, we were all in a blur of short sleep, entry visa logistics, and lack of oxygen. After walking the airport a bit and coming around a corner as we did on arrival I remembered being there. But it does all seem like so long ago.


This was perhaps Tenaja’s most memorable moment of the weekend. You’re not supposed to pet the animals, but they don’t always give you the choice.

One thing about time spent in Bolivia – and travel in general – is that it often seems like much more living is crammed into the days than it is at home. We have had a pattern of trying to get out of the city at least one weekend a month, so there have been weekend trips to Coroico and Chulumani in the Yungas (only 60 miles away, but 7000 feet lower) and a day trip to Tiwanaku, an archeological site west of the city. I spent three days in Cochabamba at the annual congress of the Bolivian Mathematical Society, where I gave a talk and was one of the honored foreign guests. All the other foreign guests were older and more distinguished, whereas I feel like a random guy who just happened to be in Bolivia at the time. Nonetheless, in the official photos, there I am in the front row with the distinguished guests. At the university, I have taken over two courses for a professor that had to go to the United States for health reasons, so now I am teaching two master’s level courses – Theory of Rings and Fields and Seminar in Algebra – as well as my advanced undergrad course in analytic number theory. Next week I will give a talk to the Bolivian Computer Science annual congress, talking about the number-theoretic roots of cryptography. Every Thursday the math students and a few professors play futsal (indoor soccer, on a wood floor), and I have done that twice now. I am signed up for a 10K run at the end of October, and I’m trying to run a few times a week to prepare. There are a few guys I meet with weekly to converse with (mostly in English, but we often lapse into Spanish) to help one of them prepare for the TOEFL so he can study music in the States. And there is the daily walking of Zeke and Anna back and forth to school, meaning that I walk somewhere between 5 and 8 miles daily. So I am busy, happily busy.


And monkeys come to watch us eat, too.


A and Z with Pablo of Senda Verde.


This road was dodgy for hours on end. The strangest part is how normal it all started to seem.


A classic Andean road experience, the hour long delay as a road crew clears the road after a small landslide.


A view of where the landslide had been from across the valley.


A walk above Chulumani.


At the cross above Chulumani. Thanks to Leon for these!

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