And The Winner Is...?


LA PAZ, BOLIVIA: November 4-6

Leah: Bidding Puno (and Peru) farewell, we hopped on a 7:30 a.m. bus to La Paz, although we’d need to transfer across the border in Copacabana, Bolivia to reach La Paz. We had requested seats at the very front of the bus behind the driver to accommodate my dear husband’s long legs, which meant that as we were hauling through the outskirts of Puno and Steve was engrossed in the movie (Swing Vote--how fitting), I was staring straight ahead and happened to see a dead border collie in the middle of the road. Needless to say I was completely shattered and suffered through my own flashbacks; that incident colored the rest of my day in a negative light, which was already stressful enough since we were going to have to apply for visas on the spot at the Bolivian border.

After a few hours we hit the same border crossing Diana and I used on our last South American trip, although as we were waiting outside in line for customs the sky opened up and started hailing. Lovely. Dripping wet and cold we made our way to Bolivian immigration with the following in hand: yellow fever vaccination records, print-out of our bank statements, onward travel plans, hostel reservations, copies of our passport and visa solicitation document, along with $135 (each) in crisp, uncreased, unmarked perfect cash (they examined each bill meticulously). A few minutes later we had secured brand spanking new Bolivian visas good for 5 years (I was peeved that my old passport had expired, since the Bolivian visa in it would have still been good for this trip and we could have saved us $135—bummer!) The one highlight through this whole experience was that we ended up chatting with a lovely English couple in front of us in line, the McCrickards, who invited us to please come stay with them in northern England so we could continue our conversations, wash our clothes and enjoy a comfortable bed. I love spontaneous interactions like that and we’re definitely planning to take them up on their offer! The rest of our day involved grabbing some lunch in Copacabana before boarding a second bus, crossing Lake Titicaca on a wooden ferry (our bus) and an overloaded motorboat (us) and winding through hills and beautiful vistas before winding down into La Paz around 5 p.m.

Our Couchsurfing requests had amounted to nil, so we were forced to secure a hostel for a few nights; excited at the idea of a book exchange (me), the chance to enjoy free non-pee-colored beer (Steve) and a free pancake breakfast (both) we plunked down $13/night for 2 bunks at the Adventure Brew Hostel. We soon realized that while our hostel had many pros, one of the major cons was that people were allowed to smoke inside, which meant that cigarette smoke was hard to avoid. Therefore, we grabbed our two free on-tap beers (Steve enjoyed both of course) and made for the panoramic rooftop space with stellar views of the city (Steve: I need to add that these beers were superb; Saya Brewing has a good thing going and has left this amateur beer aficionado highly  impressed). We enjoyed the twinkling lights and decompressed from our travel day, but I was still in a funk over the dog incident and feeling crummy and drained. Making our way back to our dorm, we noticed that there were 3 (non-accented) English speakers milling around and Steve and I made bets as to if the girls were Canadian or American. He went off to shower and I was reading our guidebook, but soon interjected into their conversation to ask where the girls were from. The exchange went something like this:

Leah: So whereabouts are you from?

Girls: California

Leah: No way, what part?

Girls: San Diego (a few of them studied at UCSD and one, Becca, was a SD native ) and San Francisco

Leah: So cool we’ve only met two other people from CA on our trip so far!

Leah/Girls: chat, chat, chat (I learned that all three met while studying abroad in Santiago, Chile and that two graduated this year, while one was the year before.)

<enter Steve>

Leah: Sweetie, they’re from CA and Becca here is from San Diego!

Steve: What a coincidence! Do you have jobs back at home, what’re you doing?

Becca: Well, my friend and I are actually going into the Peace Corps in Africa in a few months to focus on HIV/AIDS work

<Steve stares at me…>

Steve: Are you kidding me? That’s what Leah did after college!

<girls get wide-eyed and freak out that we have another thing in common>

Everyone: chat, chat, chat (I shared my experiences, asked what their families thought, etc.)

Leah: So Becca, what part of San Diego are you from?

Becca:  A small area in the north called Valley Center. My parents are both British and they moved here so my dad could work in aeronautical engineering—they ended up getting divorced and now my mom and stepdad have a farm, but their main business is running a native plant nursery called Moosa Creek.

<Steve cocks his head, clearly thinking>

Steve: Wait a minute…is your mom Su?

<Becca’s jaw drops to the floor, the room goes silent>

Becca: Yes!

Steve: I worked in landscape construction and talked to your mom quite a bit, since they (Moosa Creek Nursery) were one of Valleycrest’s plant suppliers. 

Becca: This is so crazy! I remember them talking about ValleyCrest all the time and right before I left on this trip my mom even mentioned that she hadn’t heard from her contact in quite some time.

Steve: Probably because her contact left to travel with his wife!

Leah: Okay, Becca, I have to ask. Since you grew up in Valley Center, do you by any chance know Chelsea Dugger? She was one of the very first members in the Girl Scout HIV/AIDS peer education group I started and I adore her.

<Becca’s eyes bug out>

Becca: Are you kidding me? She’s my younger sister’s best friend and we all practically grew up together—I remember watching them get ready for prom together!

Everyone: This is so WEIRD! Of all the places in the world we end up sharing a dorm room in La Paz, Bolivia and have a scary amount in common. We are definitely staying in touch…

So there you have it…despite having an absolutely crap day, this exchange warmed my heart and left us incredulous at the people who continue to cross our path. Plus, much like my hummingbird friend appearing at Machu Picchu when I needed her most, this lovely trio of ladies bolstered my mood when it was in the pits and it didn’t seem like a coincidence at all that we were supposed to meet them then and there.

The rest of our time in La Paz involved perusing the cobbled, steep street markets for warmer clothing now that we’re heading south, which included a festive red hoodie (Steve), hat and gloves (both) and North Face jacket (me—for $28!). We even took in the Witch’s Market, where they sell dried alpaca fetuses (to bury underneath your home for prosperity), various tinctures and medicinal potions for a range of physical and mental ailments and good luck charms by the dozens hewn from small rock in various designs . Being another year older must also be affecting my “mommy brain,” as I often found myself stopping to caress and coo over the tiniest little wool outfits for babies, which of course Steve had to document; I don’t want babies yet, but those itty bitty sweaters were simply too flippin’ adorable to ignore. And somehow I even managed to once again find the hotel where Diana and I stayed on our trip last time—pretty random. Steve even managed to find a Smeagol/Gollum character in a store window and set about creating a lost scene from Lord of the Rings, which had me in stitches on the street and the locals looking at us like we’d escaped from the loony bin.

Steve: Our time in La Paz coincided with the minor event known as the U.S. presidential elections. As some of you might have read, I had already secured my vote by sending in my federal absentee ballot while in Ecuador (of which I did get an e-mail verification of receipt by the San Diego Registrar of Voters—an efficient mail system means Ecuador gets another vote in the awesome category).  Having crossed into the Bolivia I found myself constantly reminded of how special and important it is that A) I am blessed to be an American; B) regardless of frustrations and opinions about our two-party system we are lucky to even have (relatively) fair and open elections; and C) I am blessed to be an American. Considering that a large part of the world does not have access to free and impartial elections or universal suffrage, I take our right to vote very seriously and in being in a arguably authoritarian, openly socialist country such as Bolivia made me especially cognizant of that fact (I should note that I do believe some socialistic theories are worth consideration and work well for some of our European allies and therefore should not be completely disregarded based solely on connotation alone).

One of the first reminders that we were in another ballpark was during our layover in Copacabana, just over the Bolivian border and on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Whilst on our lunch break we came across a tour bus that had a lovely mural of Osama bin Laden and Che Guevarra. I understand why the latter is symbolic and revered in Bolivia—and Latin America in general—but to see Osama being honored gave this American a gut check. I know that part of travelling is opening yourself to the perspectives of other people;  I could try and imagine that to the uneducated or misinformed (find me a news agency who doesn’t have a slant) Osama may be a symbol of defiance against American and imperialistic Western society. I won’t pretend to say that American is an entirely innocent country but having seen the destruction and aftermath of 9/11, seeing that terrorist being praised reminded me that even after ten years some scars still hurt.

So the day of the actual elections put Leah and I somewhat on edge. Without going into a diatribe on whom I voted for and why, I will just say that we both realized that there were some very important issues at stake. With daylight savings having occurred the weekend before we were now an hour ahead of eastern standard time and four hours ahead of pacific time, so we knew that meaningful results would not be available until very late (if not the next morning). We therefore opted to put it out of our minds leave it up to the American voters. After waking the next morning—after several election-centric dreams—we woke up and ran down to the hostel’s computers as if it was Christmas morning. And as we all know now, the rest is history.

Leah: On one of our final days we took a local bus about 30 minutes outside of the city to visit Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), an otherworldly landscape with rock formations that looked like a cross between stalagmites and African termite mounds. We wove our way in, around, up and down this landscape, marveling at the nooks and crannies and natural arrangements, all of which appeared in a single sandy-colored hue.

Our time in oxygen-depleted La Paz complete, we somehow crammed our new purchases into our backpacks (for me it also involved finding space for the first two—and not so small—books in the Game of Thrones series, which I snagged at the book exchange) and made for the bus station. Steve was already mourning the loss of his nightly two free beers, but in the words of Tom Petty, it was time to move on, time to get going—cities tend to deplete our reserves faster!

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