Birthday Backpacking

As usual, we happened to arrive just in time for another holiday. Celebrations in Ocurí kicked off with a town talent show with a mix of dances, skits, traditional music, and even a one-man-magic-show for the kids. Trinity made her way back to us after seeing Sonnet off via several hours and various modes of transportation due to the holidays- we were sandwiched right between Bolivian Labor Day and 3 de Mayo. We first heard of the 3 de Mayo festival when we were in Uyuni. Warnings of mass brawls, fights to the death and human sacrifices had swayed our decision to steer clear of the main cities (i.e. Macha) but we hadn't realized how widespread the celebration is in rural Bolivia. Ocurí was just getting ready for the crowds! Our hostal-of-sorts Señora didn't understand how we could leave the day before the festival began, we headed back on the road. According to our undetailed map (a photo of a wall map from Potosí), Surumi was in line north for our next destination. Surrounded by endless mountains and an abundance of trails, and with unreliable maps on the GPS, we now depended entirely on the friendly locals for guidance. Our new "roadblock"- the first language of rural Bolivia is Quechua. Upon leaving Potosí, we only knew how to say "house" (huasi) and "water" (yaku). After a few failed attempts at conversations, we started to preface them with "Quechua no, pérdon. Castellaño?" but the locals still tended to gave us a toothless grin and chat away in their native tongue all the same.

The scenery in Bolivia is anything but mundane
Intricate geometric designs of the rock walls covering the hillsides
We learned that lupins (one of our data collection projects) are actually grown and harvested to eat part of the plant
One of the many switchbacks and patchwork mountains
Back in the Salar, Sydney had pointed out how close to the equator we are getting- the big dipper just peeked over the low desert horizon (although the North Star still hid far below). The big dipper has long since disappeared below the horizon of these immense, rolling mountains. With each switchback in the steep valleys, the riverbed disappears as well, leaving an intangible sense of depth and space in its place. A colorful patchwork of harvested plots on the cliffsides seem impossible to reach, let alone cultivate. The road from Ocurí led us through flocks of sheep (so many adorable babies!), greeted by the working women in their gorgeous embroidered skirts and down to the small village of Jirajira- where we quickly realized we had not gotten very far from the 3 de Mayo festivities after all. We were enthusiastically invited to come try Chicha (a drink made from fermented corn), among the freshly slaughtered bull with parts laying all around us. To kick off the birthday week, they even gave Sarah a shot... of rubbing alcohol. Luckily, our "host" led us away from the party pretty early on. We learned the Quechua translation for "We don't want anymore chicha, thank you" at our next opportunity.

The mountains keep going in every direction... on and on...
Surrounded by lush vegetation, no wonder this is Bolivia's farmbelt
The rural Bolivian kids were very intrigued by us and our tent (and loved the cookies!)
From what we gathered in a jumble of Quechua, Castellaño, and hand gestures, we would reach our next "town"- Guadalupe- by nightfall, then Surumi the next day. Although plenty was lost in translation with Quechua, the Castellaño phrase everyone loves to repeat is "leeeeeeejos eso" (meaning it is very far away) and the hand gestures seemed to indicate extreme ups and downs. One man who accompanied us on the trail down to Guadalupe explained the trail to Surumi to us- when he pointed out two peaks far in the distance we debated amongst ourselves if we were understanding correctly. We couldn't possibly be going through that pass...
Crossing at Guadalupe, although there were many branches the river was not higher than our knees (even though we had been warned various times that the river was chest deep)
The tributary from the left was salt water and from up high the salt looked like a glacier flowing into the valley
Literally felt like we were on top of the world!
The old Incan trail zig-zagged its way from the riverbed up a long ridge. The air was both thick and thin at the same time with the combination of humidity and altitude. The overgrowth was bright and buzzing with daisies, the scent of honey was nearly palpable. As we passed an old stone patio overlooking the enormous valley, I noted again how the Incans really picked prime real estate. Across the valley we could see a precariously perched house mid-mountain, a faint path for foot access meandered through the near-vertical washes, bisecting the 3,000 ft peak. On top of the ridge, we were amazed to see a soccer game and wondered who had to get the ball when it went out of bounds... and down a 2,000 ft cliff? By the end of the day we had climbed approximately 1,500 mts (nearly 5,000 feet!) over only 15 km and were sleeping directly under the summit of those peaks that had seemed so untouchable. Our legs felt it! We saved the last stretch to Surumi for the morning, and marvelled at the clouds rolling in through the valleys at sunrise.

We kept hearing random "booms" throughout the day which we later determined to be associated with the road construction (they are building a road to connect Surumi to Toro Toro)
Sydney enjoying a peaceful morning to write and reflect in the mountains
Trinity taking in the unending spectacular views
Staring down the many curvy roads makes me feel dizzy like I was standing in M.C. Escher's staircase drawings not knowing which one leads to which

The folkloric pipe flute echoed off the mountains as a procession entered Surumi below us. But it was May 5th? We were confused that there was yet another unknown holiday. A young girl flagged us over from awkwardly observing the music and dance from the sidelines of the city. She explained this was the grand finale to the May 3rd celebrations in Surumi. After trying to steer clear, we had again wandered right into the middle of the party! We were assured that yes there was going to be fighting, but we were not in any danger. At this point you might be asking "What is the 3 de Mayo holiday?" but the answer is we honestly still don't know the history, just that we loved the colorful traditional clothing, music, dancing, and parading. And that it involves a lot of drinking and a lot of fighting (however, our new friend informed us people don't die nearly as often anymore because they are no longer allowed to throw rocks). We felt like we were watching scenes from a National Geographic documentary, missing the narations.

May 3rd Festival in Surumi... women with babies strapped to their backs actually jumped in the fighting as well
Conflicting information about the way to San Pedro de Buena Vista kept us debating our route forward while we watched. There appeared to be two options: resupply with very few food options for a 5-day trek (missing the deadline we gave ourselves to arrive in Cochabamba by Sarah's birthday) or bus from Surumi down and around for an approximate total of 16 exhausting hours to get to Cochabamba. Neither sounded very appealing. Like a godsend, a Bolivian Clint Eastwood look-a-like appeared and told us San Pedro was a mere day and a half hike away... although his directions were vague: cross the river, up some switchbacks and down the mountain. We jumped at the possibility. Better than setting up camp near adrenaline filled drunks, we headed toward the river by the light of the full moon, taking in all we had witnessed in the day. This valley was significantly less inhabited valley and very peaceful. We ventured off the partially constructed road to Toro Toro in order to make our way across the river. From the road the river appeared relatively gentle but when we approached we could hear it roaring. We spent the next three hours searching up and down the banks for an easier route. With linked arms, we attempted again and again until the strong current forced us to retreat. Feeling defeated and nearly ready to turn back to Surumi, we gave it one last go. TRIUMPH! Good thing we have such strong legs after hiking for all these months!

The one major obstacle of the leg!
The river doesn't look like it is as trying from up here...
Sarah's birthday and San Pedro were just... several more mountains away. As we inched up the road, we accepted a ride from one of the construction trucks. The delicious employee lunch we got made up for the fact that we are pretty sure we were taken of course to San Pedro. When we started hiking again, we still had 6 hours to hike along the riverbed. Although there are no roads in this part yet, the riverbed seemed like a foot highway with people bustling along to and from "the city" and kids playing in the water. Once the sun went down, river crossings in the dark seemed less appealing. We laid down to sleep under the stars just shy of the city lights. The 1.5 days predicted had turned into 2.5, but we made it in time for cake! 

Its the lovely Birthday Girl Sarah! (We had only been counting down to this day for 4 weeks...)

  • After a few very unsocial days, I finished the Hunger Games series (Sarah, Trinity and Sonnet had their own antisocial stretch when they read the trilogy earlier on the trip), and Sydney has started. Too bad the movie isn't playing in Bolivia!
  • The bright-colored traditional outfits for the 3 de Mayo fiesta
  • Helping with the tiny braids in a little girl's hair for her dance performance in Ocurí and having her jump on me with excitement after she finished
  • Plump, delicious, green mandarins!
  • New record: 15 days without a shower!!! Well, 16 for Sarah... she wins the dirty award when she refused to take a cold shower in the dark on the birthday 
  • "Birthday Week" benefited us all- trail treats daily thanks to Trinity!
  • The customary salute to Pachamama (Mother Earth) before they take a drink
  • Seeing a set of ten switchbacks up a cliffside at the end of a long day and feeling elated it wasn't more!
  • Bringing back "hairwraps" while we had down time in Ocurí, just like we are in 5th grade again
  • Meeting photographers for National Geographic down to cover the 3 de Mayo festival in Macha
  • Sarah gave a pair of dice from Las Vegas to one little boy who wouldn't lose sight of us in Jirajira, and he is undoubtedly going to cherish them forever
  • Lollipops! Much better than in the states with flavors like Pineapple Yogurt, Passion fruit and Banana Split
  • Hanging out on the hostel roof, drinking beers and eating cake for Sarah's birthday
  • Watching the "Soccer Olympics" in San Pedro (which meant a plethora of street vendors as well)
  • Waving to the adorable little kids, but having them run for cover when we noticed them
  • Falling asleep to the folkloric pipe flute and waking up to a Ukulele-type instrument  
  • Sarah pierced her nose for her birthday!
  • Getting handed cooked beans and potatoes from our "neighbor" in super small town Jirajira
  • Sleeping under the stars, watching the bats snatch up the bugs overhead and the full moon rise over the peaks
  • Eating all the delicious street food we could find and not getting sick!
  • Switching to eating in restaurants, nearly all of us got sick in a few days time- how we survived all the street food in rural Bolivia, where they wash the shared cup in a bucket of water before serving the next guest, we do not know...
  • Getting so sick and dehydrated from vomiting (assumed food poisoning) that I passed out in the bathroom and split my eyebrow open on the tile floor... although, not deep enough to require Sarah stitching it up, even though she is dying to practice more
  • Ocurí did not have any showers. Though not nearly as satisfying after a week on the trail, we washed our hair and scrubbed down in buckets alongside the local women (but it did have wifi- this is not the first time on in South America where we have found wifi, even when our most fundamental needs haven't been met)
  • Noticing how much the locals drink rubbing alcohol (although we are happy that we know we can always find our stove fuel in small rural towns!)
  • When trying to ask for directions to Surumi from townsfolk in Ocurí (even after explaining to them we were traveling by foot and wanted the direct route) most would refer us to the round-about ways because that is how the bus travels and that is the only way they know how to go. There is not really a concept of a map, more like "Surumi is after Colquechaca on the bus route."
  • Not finding anyone to ask directions from mid-day and going to the wrong way up unnecessary switchbacks for an hour
  • Our popcan stove collapsed on one side. Trinity salvaged the fiberglass (which she could not find in the large city of Cochabamba) from the old stove to construct a shiny new one.
  • In the crowded market, Sarah's totebag got sliced open... luckily she felt something, turned to look and the culprit ran away before getting anything of value! 

Sarah is making donations on behalf of the Catholic Dioceses of Carson City, NV as we trek along. This priest from Ocurí has to travel between three villages. He blessed us with a rose as we carried on our way.
Gorgeous lupins are just the cherry on top to the colorful hillsides
The Original Tres Chicas - Sarah, Shelley and Trinity
Trinity had brought lots of goodies with her from Potosí when she met back up with us in Ocurí to start  "Sarah's Birthday Week Backpack" - culminating with roasting marshmallows over our popcan stove!
We tracked down a local woman to make Sarah's cake... fittingly, in Quechua!
The daily buses from San Pedro to Cochabamba had left in the morning, so Sarah's birthday week was extended so we could celebrate with all the amenities (showers!). We fell in love with this city! Despite the occasional smell of urine and overcrowded markets, we feel very inexplicably happy here. Adorable cafés and bars line the streets, each with their own distinct personality. The markets are piled high with fresh fruits and veggies. Food courts are lined with tons of mini kitchens and filled with women cooking heaping piles of traditional meals. The fountains in the plazas and vibrant green grasses are inviting to sit and do nothing but simply enjoy being in Bolivia. The giant statue of Jesus overlooking the town has definitely blessed this city with a subtle charm. Recovering from stomach bugs in Cochabamba, we took a couple days longer than expected to get back on our feet and run our errands. Instead of a short 3-day hike we had planned between here and Oruro we opted to side trip to Toro Toro National Park to explore the caves and dinosaur footprints! Then we will head straight to La Paz so we can squeeze one week in the Yungas in before we (sadly) say good-bye to Sydney and (happily) say hello to Sarah's family!   

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