My last two days in Rurrenabaque were a bit of a blur. It was Election Day in the Municipal de Beni on Friday, which (unbeknownst to me until 7 pm the day before) meant that every single business (except for the hostels) would be closed to allow Beni residents to vote until about 6 pm that evening. Upon hearing the news, I quickly went to order a pizza so that I could have something to eat the next day. When the election results were announced and “El Beni” won the Governor’s race, I soon found out that Election Day partying consists of motorbike parades through the streets and loud music throughout the night into the wee hours of the morning. The guy next door to me at Hostal Santa Ana actually knocked on my door around 11pm that night to ask me if he could “borrow some earplugs”.
Note to visitors: When holidays or election days go down, most if not all businesses shut down. Plan ahead accordingly!
The next day I took an early morning flight back to La Paz, with tentative travel plans for my next destination. Did I want to do the 3 day “Choro Trek” that allowed me to backpack through Coroico? Did I want to go to Uyuni to do the Salt Flats? Or did I want to try and mountain bike down “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” in the Yungas (I had heard mixed reviews about the trip – one guy said it was amazingly gorgeous and one of the best things he’s ever done in Bolivia; while another girl was so freaked out she said she’d “rather be in the middle of a human centipede” than do that trip ever again).
Well, as I’ve mentioned before – the rainy season had ruined many of these options. Biking down a narrow dirt road through the jungle in the rain didn’t sound like the safest idea, nor did going to Uyuni at that time. The rains were so heavy that a jeep full of tourists got stuck in the salt flats for a few days. Luckily they were found and everything turned out okay (well, as okay as one can be after enduring a night or two in the freezing cold salt flats in a tiny jeep with five other people).
Well as it turned out, a friend of a friend (of a friend) in Cochabama who works at a non-profit organization focusing on community water rights was in need of some urgent volunteer support. I once learned about how Cochabambinos once fought off corporate water privitization to gain local ownership and self-determination over their own water resources in the area – and wanted to learn more and find ways to support in some way. So after killing a day in La Paz, I was off the next day by bus to the very serene (and very large) city of Cochabamba in the heart of Bolivia.
My first experiences in Cochabamba were a bit of a mess, however. After a 7 hour bus ride from La Paz, I arrived at the most INSANELY busy bus station in the middle of the city. As I tried to find my way out of the station (which was quite a challenge), people from all over called out the names of Bolivian city destinations (“SANTA CRUUUZZ!!” “LA PAAAZ!!” “VILLAZONNN!!”) while adults and youth alike scrambled in different directions to buy tickets, go to the bathrooms, take showers (!), or find their buses. After I finally located the exit, I waited for 10 minutes – in the rain – in hectic 6 pm evening traffic – until I finally found a cab driver that could take me to my hostel.
I was pretty tired, hungry, and overwhelmed with all sorts of feelings when I arrived at my hostel around 7 pm that evening. Luckily, the hostel I was staying at – Cabana Las Lilas – was the most amazing and lindo hostel I’ve ever seen. I was shown to my dorm room (I had a bed all to myself in a four bed dorm room) and got ready to meet up with Marcela (the friend of a friend) and her family for dinner that night. It just so happened that I had chosen a hostel that was 5 blocks from where she lived. The city is huge. What are the odds?
Despite having very few plans for my trip to Cochabamba, my stay turned from a few days to two weeks. It ended up being one of the best times ever during my entire trip throughout Peru and Bolivia – because I made some amazing friends (who I hope to stay in touch with forever!) and got a real chance to experience a part of life in another city (albeit for a very short period of time). I absolutely loved it.
There’s no need for me to list out everything I did each day here. The one thing I can do is list…
The Top 10 Reasons Why I LOVE COCHABAMBA:
ONE: Hanging out with friends, family, and traveling visitors (there were a few of us) who were staying at her house at the time
I spent a lot of time hanging out with these awesome people (above). Our crew including a traveling student who showed me how Uruguayos pronounce “ll’s” as “ssshh’s”, and another American (AKA “Daniel”), both visiting this home at the same time as my visit. Great conversations about traveling, life, love, and social justice organizing from the States to South America.
TWO: Supporting an awesome Water Rights grassroots organization
While most volunteers who travel to South America do direct service work, my volunteer role consisted of translating a fifteen page international foundation grant proposal from Spanish to English. It was incredibly challenging, a lot of work…and yet VERY inspiring and pretty fun, actually. I learned a TON. It allowed me to gain a great amount of insight on how NGO organizations in Cochabamba have been working with community-based water collectives to coordinate water services, share best practices, and increase people’s access to clean water no matter where they live. Water is definitely a basic human right.
Hanging out in the office and listening in on meetings was also a great learning experience.
THREE: Taking a political tour of Cochabamba and attending a forum on GMO seeds in Bolivia
Marcela invited me to go along with a few of her co-workers as they took a few guests (including some ecological justice advocates visiting from the States and Canada) to the Water School for a panel discussion and forum on el impacto de trangenicos en Bolivia (AKA “Genetically Modified Organism” or GMO seeds). SO inspiring and very informative. I sat and listened to a panel of local leaders from Cochabamba talk about the horrific impact of agra-business companies like Monsanto on farmland and crops in big Bolivian cities like Santa Cruz, where up to 90% of all farms have been using GMO seeds. GMO’s completely destroy farm soil, force farmers to be dependent on GMO seeds for life, contaminate organic farmland and other crops, and necessitate incredible amounts of pesticides to maintain – causing serious health and environmental problems.
During the morning before the conference, I served as a bit of an impromptu English translator/tour guide for the non-Spanish speaking gringos on the bus ride over. It was kinda funny – I felt like a weird gringa tour guide: “On the left is a community that was very active in the anti-privatization water rights movement in Cochabamba…On the right is a temple dedicated to Pachamama…” We all laughed about this as it was happening.
After the panel discussion and a delicious lunch, we all engaged in a ceremony to give thanks and make an offering to Pachamama. It also involved drinking a lot of chicha, a fermented drink made out of corn that Cochabamba is famous for…
FOUR: Roaming the streets of downtown Cochabamba
They got everything for sale down there!
FIVE: Cooking dinners with friends and family
Since they were such amazing and gracious hosts during my entire stay in Cochabamba, I offered to cook them Chinese food. Chinese food is actually pretty common in South America, but mostly in the form of chaufa, or fried rice (there are “Chifa” restaurants all over the place!). I ended up doing a lot of meat and vegetable stir frys and making baked chicken, Chinese-y style.
I have to say that cooking Chinese food in Bolivia was quite an experience. I spent most of the morning at the market looking for vegetables and anything resembling Chinese sauces. While I didn’t find sesame oil, I did find sesame seeds and ground those into a paste to use with my eggplant dish. It was pretty tasty, if I don’t say so myself. Cooking at higher altitude was quite a challenge however. Everything takes much longer!
On Friday nights, the family always gets pollo y papas fritas take-out and goes upstairs to watch movies. This gave me a great chance to watch Disney movies about cute fuzzy puppies (in Spanish), as well as watch numerous (!) episodes of some stop-motion animation cartoon made by the creators of Wallace and Gromit.
SIX: Backyard BBQ’s at the house
These get-togethers reminded me that weekend lunches and backyard BBQ’s are a great way to spend time with family and friends. The food they cooked was the shizzz! Some of the best food I ate during my entire time in Peru and Bolivia. Nothing beats home cooking (or BBQ’ing) sometimes.
During one weekend BBQ/birthday party for one of Marcela’s coworkers/nieces, I ended up doing a series of tarot card readings for a few of her friends. It ended up being a pretty deep experience – I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know each person on such a personal level. And…at the same time, the discussions sometimes got somewhat heavy! I wish them all much love, strength and healing as they make many efforts to work through some significant issues in their lives.
SEVEN: Learning about cultural arts activism work in Cochabamba
Neyda was another friend of the same friend who not only did work around water issues and youth issues, but did a lot of cultural work in Cochabamba. We had great conversations about Bolivia and where it’s at today politically, her community-based arts work, and more. I also had a chance to visit “the Slaughterhouse” complex where her arts organization is housed (it actually used to be a real slaughterhouse until they transformed it into the arts space that it is today). It’s a great space that has everything from artist residencies to children’s art classes and a community theater stage.
Check out the dope mural in her office:
EIGHT: Great conversations with great people
Besides meeting and getting to know new travel friends, one of my favorite travel past-times is talking to all the local taxi drivers that I meet on my journeys. Most of the time they’re awesome people and hella down to talk. I met a young family guy that worked in Sweden for about five years and loved it there. I also met another guy that used to do construction work in Virginia, who said that it was beautiful, the people were kind, and that it was one of the best experiences in his life. And I met a lot of other drivers that talked to me about Cochabamba’s history, explained how many of Cocha’s residents moved to other countries in Europe and South America when times got hard for a few years, and shared their own opinions about current Bolivian politics and the government. Great stories, diverse perspectives, and amazingly kind and friendly people.
I also had an amusing conversation with M’s friends about typical AND unusual food that people eat in Cochabamba. While there’s not too many crazy dishes, a few of the more interesting ones included a whole small monkey, a sheep’s head (baked in an oven, with the wool), bugs of all sorts, body parts of all types (I’m not a liver, kidneys, or stomach type of person), and more.
NINE: Movie night, midday BBQ feasts and almost EVERYTHING about my stay at Cabana Las Lilas Hostel in Tiquipaya
Alex is the BEST HOST ever. Besides being the awesome owner of Cabana Las Lilas, he did everything he could to help us enjoy our stay in Cochabamba/Tiquipaya – including taking me and another tourist out for drinks one night downtown, hosting movie nights (I had a chance to watch Skyfall and American Visa on a big screen), BBQing up delicious meals, and letting me and “M” use a local spa and sauna he used to work at for free! Plus the hostel is just gorgeous. I could lounge there all week.
TEN: Finding a sense of home in Cochabamba
I loved hailing tight-fitting minivan taxis to downtown Cocha, walking around Tiquipaya’s big homes and farmland, and exploring all over town. A lot of tourists say there’s not a lot to do in Cochabamba, but that’s not really true. Besides all the great parks and nature areas in the vicinity of Cocha that offer everything from jungle tours to dinosaur tracks (more on that later), Cocha is a big city with a lot of heart that felt like home. The people that you meet often define the experience, however. Cochabamba wouldn’t have been nearly as dope if I didn’t meet such great people and make such amazing friends along the way…
Next up: The 11th reason to visit Cochabamba: Making the trip to Torotoro National Park!