Monthly Archives: April 2012

Southwest Bolivia by Jeep

the road

with llamas

The southwest corner of Bolivia is dry, high, and sparsely populated, with volcanos, geysers, deserts, lakes of various colors, salt flats, and no paved roads in sight. The standard way to see it is by Jeep tour, either from Uyuni, the “city” nearest the salt flats, or from Tupiza, farther away but prettier, with mountains and canyons. It is not far from Tupiza that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended their careers, a fact that local tour agencies have caught on to, and they offer tours related to that too. The tourists that we crossed paths with in Potosi all said that a tour of the salar was one of the coolest things they had done in Bolivia, so on arrival in Tupiza we made the rounds of the different agencies. There must be ten or fifteen of them, with about the same prices, same itinerary, even the same way of diagramming who sits where in the Jeep. At the one we eventually chose, though, the agent (Sylvia) talked about Jaime and Sara, a husband and wife with two daughters who would be our driver and cook, respectively, if we left in the next few days. Our main question had been “How would it be to spend four days with someone we didn’t like being around?”, but Sylvia’s talk about Jaime and Sara eased our minds. We elected to pay a little more than otherwise necessary to have just the 6 of us in the van (adding an unknown fellow traveller could have saved us about 20%.) As it happened, the night before we left, we were leaving a park with a giant slide when we saw a Land Cruiser that said “Natural Adventures” (our tour agency) with two parents and two girls getting in. So we ran over and said hello, and, as expected, it was Jaime, Sara, and their daughters Lucero and Daniela.

llama

Anna, Zeke, tall friend, not far from Tupiza

First day

We left on Monday morning of Holy Week, driving out of Tupiza on a road that turned to dirt at the edge of town. This was a day of 10 1/2 hours of travel (including many stops for photos, walks, lunch, bathroom…) over single lane mountain roads with occasional dropoffs to either side, too many creek crossings to count (Zeke loved these- the more water, the better, the best being when the Land Cruiser actually makes waves), and incredible vistas of canyons of multicolored rock. Also, lots of llamas, alpacas, and cactus, which sometimes resemble llamas and alpacas. We spent the night in Quetena Chica, a cold, dusty, windswept settlement of concrete block and adobe buildings at 4300m altitude at the foot of Uturuncu, a snowcapped volcano. Anna and Zeke fretted some over the notion of an “active” volcano, but we got that calmed down in time for bed. The hostel compound had a courtyard which the Land Cruiser (I’m just going to call it a Jeep from now on, even though it is really a Toyota (question from Zeke: “How can it be a both a Jeep and a Toyota?)) pulled into, joining a truck that was up on blocks, with about four basic rooms (ours with 5 cots, unheated, bathroom down the hall) and a room for a kitchen and dining room. The kitched only had a sink, and Sara, like most of the cooks, carried food, dishes, and propane stove in the Jeep. One great surprise of the trip was how Sara kept making great meals (with lots of vegetables, not always the case with vegetarian food) that all of us liked – a surprise since eating in Bolivia wasn’t always easy. We ate well and the kids fell asleep almost right away. We had covered 175 miles, most of it at about 20 mph.

Kollpa Laguna with flamingos

Hot springs

Desierto de Dali (he spent 3 months here)

Day two had less driving and more activities. We were now out of canyonlands and into a sandy landscape with wide valleys and snowcapped mountains in the distance in many directions. In the morning we stopped to visit Kollpa Laguna, where we saw flamingos for the first time, to bathe in hot springs, and to have lunch at laguna verde, a lake made green by mineral content. Laguna Verde is as far southwest as you can go in Bolivia. Above it is the volcano Licancabur, and the far slope is in Chile. Straight south (and in sight) is Chile as well, and heading east you would cross into Argentina. This was an amazing landscape to sit and look around in any direction.

Laguna verde

Laguna Colorada

We spent the night at another basic hostel – this one where you flush by pouring water down the toilet (a skill all Loomis cousins learned at the Bass Lake cabin) and instead of one cold-water shower, there is no shower. Another cold windy night at 4270m altitude, another yummy supper, this time with some llama meat for L,Z, and A, and a bit of talking with fellow travellers (3 jeeps spent the night there) from Holland and Israel, and again our basic room made warm by the heat of four. We arrived at 3pm, time enough for a good walk in strong wind along the edge of laguna colorada, a lake made red by algae and with huge islands of borax that look like snow from a distance. Oh, and flamingos. A bit surreal, all told. All the electricity here came from solar panels, and I paid 5 bolivianos (about 75 cents) to charge my camera for 90 minutes at a nearby store.

Arbol de Piedra (stone tree)

Sara, Anna, Jaime, Zeke

Which lake was this?

Vizcacha

Day 3 began with a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But the bathrooms seemed to be in use, so I went outside the wind gone, the desert quiet, and an incredible sky of stars above. After breakfast we started walking north and Jaime and Sara picked us up 20 minutes down the road. At some point you might wonder “Could I just rent a jeep and see all this for cheaper?” And maybe you could, but most likely you would end up lost in vast expanses of sand with tracks going many different ways. Jaime said the first few times he did this trip he followed another jeep, and after three or four he was ready to go on his own. But nothing is signed or posted, and one knows by memory how to connect the dots. We stopped at the arbol de piedra (tree of stone) in the desert of Siloli, a great playground for relatively easy rock climbing that Anna and Zeke wanted to stay at for hours. But we went on, stopping at geysers and steam vents, belching sulfury air at high pressure, and then a series of lakes, some with flamingos, some of strange colors, some smelling of sulfur, some with snowcapped peaks reflected in them. The last of these was Laguna Negra, a black lake (algae again) with ducks and more fun stones to climb on. Then a push northward on roads that were better maintained (but still dirt) used by trucks from the mining companies. Actual towns with electric lines appeared, and then a long incredibly straight road as we headed northeast toward Uyuni and the salar. Uyuni itself is an unprepossessing flat town of concrete buildings, and I was fine not staying there. We had elected to spend the night in Colchani, a smaller town with more basic accomodations, but closer to the salt flats. Colchani was cold, windy, and barren-seeming, a little like Quetena Chica two nights before, but after a little rain passed Jaime drove us out onto the salar to see the sunset. The pictures that come do a better job than words of describing the salar – it is, in the middle, almost featureless, save the mountains around the edges and the hexagons on the ground. On the edge are lots of mounds of salt piled that way to dry, and – this may be a surprise – water. Much of the salar isn’t accessible until later in the year, and we drove through a bit of water onto a little island for sunset. Cold and windy but incredible.

Dawn, April 5, Salar de Uyuni

Paul, Salar de Uyuni

sunset, Salar de Uyuni

Salt mounds, Uyuni

Sara making the good food

The next day we got up at about 5 to be on the salar for sunrise, which, as one would imagine, was spectacular. With us were maybe 12 other jeeps full of tourists, all waiting for the sun like one would on new years or the solstice. We had breakfast inside a hotel made of salt blocks, again prepared by Sara (we should note that Sara was often up at 3 to prepare the day’s food, and spent a lot of time in the car playing with Anna and Zeke). Then time on the salar, playing soccer with Jaime, looking at salt crystals, walking, taking silly pictures made possible by the lack of perspective. We had a long way to go to get back to Tupiza, so we reluctantly left after a few hours. More stops – at the train graveyard outside Uyuni, then for lunch – and the long ride back to Tupiza, again over those slow mountain passes. I grew to truly appreciate chewing coca on this trip – Jaime says it would be impossible to do his job without it, and it helps with attentiveness, digestion, headaches, and altitude. A big bit in the cheek can give a feeling a little like novocaine after half an hour, but (from what I have heard) coca is nothing like the nightmare of chewing tobacco.

All of us, but especially Anna and Zeke, were sorry to part with Jaime and Sara, but we wanted to let them get home to their own kids. We compromised by hiking with all 4 of them two days later – but perhaps that is another post.

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Jujuy

We arrived in Argentina the day before Easter a little tired of travel and unenthusiastic about seeing new places. Our plan was to spend about a week in northern Argentina but three days in I realized that if we took a bus to Jujuy the next morning we could probably store our luggage for the day at the bus station, walk the city of Jujuy, get an overnight bus that night to Cordoba, and be in La Falda (a town we know where we have family) sometime the next morning. After a brief family discussion, sadness over not going to Salta was trumped by the thought of seeing family soon and the plan was on. We arrived in Jujuy around noon and spent a bit of time figuring out our bus options. The ATM at the bus station had a huge line so we were happy to find we had enough pesos on us to buy tickets. (We hadn’t yet figured out the exchange rate so we were reluctant to pay in dollars.) This left our hungry crew with insufficient funds in local currency for lunch which made me a little nervous but we headed to the city center  and found that ATMs 6 blocks from the bus station had minimal lines. We found a good vegetarian lunch and walked around the plaza. Then we headed to the park where we found a playground and then we played soccer until Zeke was starting to get clumsy. We walked back towards center and had just ordered icecream when the skies opened up and poured. It was still raining a bit when we got done so we walked every isle of the grocery store nearby slowly as we bought some provisions before heading back to the bus station stopping at a market on the way. We walked a few extra blocks after the bus station but the kids were tired so we went back and spent a happy hour hanging out at the bus station snacking and waiting for the bus. It was a really fun day, we got a feel for Jujuy and it was great to not have to find accomodation or unpack and repack backpacks. We didn’t sleep great on the overnight bus but we were delighted to be in La Falda midday the next day and I feel a little braver about traveling more quickly from time to time.   We are all happy to know we are going to be based here for several weeks, it is great to be with people we know and love, and to be living in a house with a kitchen and a yard.

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University Visits

Cerro Rico above Potosi

World famous in Potosi

Us with dinosaurs, outside Sucre

I have not yet written about my visits to universities on this trip, but it has been an important part of the experience, so here is a summary. It is difficult to make plans ahead of time – for starters, finding a contact person, and then getting a response from that person.

So, once in town, I find the university by some combination of internet searching and asking people. I wander around and ask for directions until I find the head of the mathematics department or some reasonable substitute. Sometimes I have to wait until the next day to meet with the head, and sometimes I can talk to them right away. I say who I am and what I am doing (travelling with my family and visiting universities along the way, a mixture of work and tourism). And three times out of four, I have had good luck. (The fourth was a one-day visit to a university in Lima – in retrospect, it was foolish to expect to accomplish much in one day.) The heads of departments have given me almost free rein to visit any class that interests me. Professors, even when they did not know I was coming, have opened their classrooms to me without reservation. It still amazes me a little that it works.

Visiting math classes is fascinating. It is a little like hearing a cover version of a song – you mostly know how the melody and lyrics go, but the interest lies in the interpretation. And so it is here – math is math, even in a different language, and what has struck me again and again is how familiar a math classroom feels, even if everything else around it seems new and strange. All in all, I have been impressed with both professors and students here. Some lectures have been at a level higher than I would feel comfortable lecturing, and I am told that failure rates can be very high. And yet students – the best of them – seem to rise to the challenge.

At three of these visits, I have been asked if I would give a talk. All this has taken place in Spanish, and there has not been any question about whether I am capable of giving a math talk in Spanish. At my first talk, in Huancavelica, Peru, I suggested a 50-minute talk, and was told “No, 90 minutes to two hours.” I should mention that most classes run two to three hours here. So I wrote much of that talk out, word for word, though when the time came I didn’t need to look at the notes very often. The talks since then have been easier, though I have changed the level and the material each time to try to fit the audience. This is also amazing to me, that I can stand in front of roomful of people and give a math talk in Spanish.

Thus I have given talks at the Universidad Nacional de Huancavelica (UNH), in Huancavelica, a small, somewhat isolated city in the central Andes of Peru, the Universidad Mayor de San Andres (UMSA), in La Paz, the capitol of Bolivia, and the Universidad Autonoma Tomas Frias (UATF), in Potosi, a city in Bolivia known for its silver mines. Perhaps I have already given more talks at altitudes above 12,000 feet than all but a handful of mathematicians not from the Andes. Though I have a tendency to second-guess myself afterward, I think all of these talks have been good and well-received. On some level, I am enough of a novelty – a North American professor with a document who just shows up and can give a talk in Spanish – that it is interesting even if you don’t understand what is going on. But on a deeper level, I think I can give a good talk, and now – amazingly – I can do that in Spanish.

Huancavelica was special because it was the first visit, and I was totally unprepared for the warm welcome I received. UMSA in La Paz was good visit, made even better by finding my friend Noemi (who I knew when she was a student in Cordoba five years ago) teaching there. The third talk, at the UATF in Potosi was perhaps the best received (I think I am getting better at this) with an audience of about 80, including 10 or 15 standing at the back, the chairs all full. Any of these places would be good for a future sabbatical, and it seems to be a possibility.

Though I felt appreciated in La Paz, I felt it even more in Huancavelica and Potosi, because these are more isolated places. Visitors from outside the country are, I think, fairly rare there, and it seems – just by virtue of who I am – that I bring a glimpse into the larger mathematical world. I hope it does not seem my head has been swollen by these visits. Rest assured that I maintain a realistic view of my own position in the mathematical community. But realizing that I can offer something of value here has been very rewarding.

Tomorrow, the second of April, we are headed out on a four-day tour to see weird rock formations, lagoons with flamingos, geysers, llamas, and the Salar de Uyuni. Tomorrow also marks the halfway point of this trip. Though three more months still seems like a long time to travel, it is startling how fast it has gone. And yet it seems like a long long time ago that we landed in Lima, and it seems like we have packed an incredible amount of life into these three months.

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