MICHA.ELMUELLER

 

Backpacking South America (Part 4)

 

In the last weeks we have been to La Paz for some time, among other cities. I was surprised by the city, as I had anticipated a different vibe. In fact we found a modern city with a wide variety of alternative offers. Stumbling into an alternative market at night or eating at a vegan community kitchen, for example. The city has a very unique architecture, it really looks like it was build in a huge dent in the ground (photo at the bottom of this post). This means the houses are all on a steep slope. Our hostel was deep down in the dent and especially at night this was a unique scenery, since the slope was illuminated by countless houses and street lights.

It is very notable how many people we see with the South America Lonely Planet openly running around the city. I have been critical to the series in the past, but during the last weeks I have become even more critical. Since we have one of their guidebooks with us as well I see firsthand what this kind of mainstream backpacking inflicts. Travelers who would normally never have visited certain places do now, blindly following the “travelling bible”. This leads to the effect that once nice and secluded villages get overthrown by tourism within a few years and there is only little left of the original charm. I really hope that some of the really nice and secluded villages in Mexico never make it into one of the editions. I am sure this would otherwise spoil their magic.

In the last week I got more and more bothered by cities which are very touristy. We are currently in Copacabana and this is a sad example therefore. So many boring tourists. They all seem to have the same uniform, the obligatory Lonely Planet with them, visiting the same places, doing the same things. I feel that India and Mexico are countries where tourists like that just don’t emerge. Maybe this is due to the reputation of these countries. It makes me miss the vibe of those countries.

In the meantime I have finished three further books. The first was “How to write a Short Story” by Christopher Fielden. Whilst travelling I went through some creative writing material of mine that dates back some years. I was surprised by the quality of it and decided to hand it in to some competitions. Whilst researching, I stumbled upon the aforementioned book and read it. It contains a number of writing tips and insights into the short story/flash fiction scene. This has encouraged me to actually submit two stories to competitions. Besides that there were still things which I couldn’t identify with in the book. My most critical point is that the author suggests to do market research when writing stories and adapt the story material based on that. This is a different approach than I have to writing stories. For me, the trigger to write something is never a competition, it is always a personal experience or an idea that I aim to put into the best story I can write. Doing market research and adapting a story for a certain audiences contradicts my attitude. Nevertheless, the book was a worthwile read. It was quite entertaining and funny, especially since the author includes own short stories and details the work he put into them and how he adapted them based on the feedback of competition judges.

The second book which I finished is “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young. I got to know about the book after skipping through an old “Rough Guide to Peru” which lay around at a place where we stayed. The book mentioned the infamous San Pedro prison tours and after some research online I found this blog post. This was more than enough to get me interested in reading the book. The book tells the autobiographical story of Thomas McFadden who got imprisoned in La Paz (in the San Pedro prison) for international drug trafficking. Read the above mentioned blog post if you are interested in more details about this very unusual and infamous prison. The book is for sure my most favorite book since quite a while. It grabbed my full attention after I had started reading the first page and I am still flashed after having read it. Very thrilling. Reading the book was an experience as I imagine reading “The Beach” whilst staying in Thailand on Koh Phangan must be. I knew all of the cities, had been to most of them by now. Though, opposed to The Beach this book is a biography and not a work of fiction. I could relate to culture specific things he wrote and was totally stunned that all of this had happened here where I was, just a brief time ago.

The third book which I finished was Eric Clapton’s autobiography. I think the book could have been a lot better, since he plays his achievements a bit down and often not even mentions them (similar to Stephen King in his autobiography). Nevertheless it is a very honest autobiography and he mentions a lot of incidents which take a lot of courage to admit. After having read the book I started listening back to some of his songs. He describes how they came to be and I could relate to a lot of his creative process and motivations. In my opinion, Wonderful Tonight, My Fathers Eyes, Layla, and Tears in Heaven are songs in a totally different league than an average hit song. This is timeless music which is going to stay. The book also made it clear to me, once more, that at some point in the future I need to look more deeply into The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead.

There are a lot of things about the Bolivian culture which I like and we have met countless friendly people. But the macho fuss in this culture really disturbs me. I have already written about the sexism which I observe when we as male/female interact with Bolivians in Part 2 (I mentioned various examples there). But a couple of days ago the most outstanding incident in this direction occurred. We were eating at one of the better restaurant and the waiter handed only me a menu. He then continued to describe the various specialities of the day — again only to me. He didn’t recognize or interact with Val at all. I don’t know what the reasoning behind this is…that I decide what to eat for her as well? Thus, after getting a second menu, we made it deliberate that she ordered our menu and asked for the bill. The waiter, however, was stubborn and handed the bill to me — as experienced in countless other Bolivian restaurants before. I feel it hard to deal with this kind of sexism, since it is so deep in the culture. It saddens me whenever we experience something like this. I have not experienced anything similar in any other country.

 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 3)

 

To me, one of the most interesting things when travelling is to discover food. After having been to Thailand, I started to love Tamarind, Thai Tea, and Singha Beer. In Bolivia there have been a couple of similar things so far. The Cherimoya is a fruit which I have tasted occasionally in Germany, but it is very hard to find there. Here, in Bolivia, it is everywhere. And it tastes awesome! We also have a lot of fun buying random things in Supermarkets, which are not available in Germany but seem to be popular here — Fanta with Papaya taste for example (wuah…) or a wide range of sweeties which one cannot possibly have imagined (see photo below).

 
 

A while ago I started reading on the digital nomad scene — travelling around and making money working over the Internet, e.g. as a developer or designer. Within the scene one can find a lot of tips on how to live “on the road”. One repeating tip is a product called Sugru. From the product description: “…mouldable glue that turns into rubber. We invented it to make fixing and making easy and fun.”. Basically you get a couple of small packages in different colors. After you open a package you have time to form the glue. If you have created a desired form, you leave it to itself and after a couple of hours it hardens. If you just type “Sugru” into the image search of your favorite search engine you will find a lot of examples how it can be utilized. My favorite one is “How to make any toy LEGO compatible!“, though there are a lot more examples that have way more practical applications. I have a pack of Sugru with me and have been looking for an opportunity to try it out. Finally, I found one and recently used it to fix a shower in a cheap hostel. Basically the shower head needed to be held in the hand since the wall mount had been broken. Thus the shower head could no longer be attached to the wall. Sugru to the rescue!

 
 

On another note, I have started to occasionally contribute to Wikitravel in the last weeks. Adding some content here and there or fixing mistakes. In the last weeks I have utilized Wikitravel a lot and read many pages. After having actually been to the cities and checked out some of the stuff, some outdated information came up. I find contributing there to be actually quite rewarding. I would like to write a complete article about a village or city which does not exist there yet. It bothers me a bit that in the past I have been to a number of cities which don’t have an article, without having taken this opportunity. But maybe we will find an uncovered village in the next weeks.

I have finished another book in the meantime: Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks. This is the first book from his Culture Series. Hardcore Science-Fiction, artificial intelligence, interstellar wars, and space ships. I got interested in reading the books after having read that Elon Musk named various SpaceX facilities after things from the books (more details). I liked the book a lot, though I was a bit disappointed by the ending. But overall it is very well written and thrilling. It reminded me of the Ender Series, though the universe and the characters differ in a lot of ways. I am eager to read more of the Culture Series, from what I hear the first book is sometimes considered the weakest.

So, after an awesome stay in Sucre we went to Cochabamba. But we both didn’t feel comfortable in this city. Maybe this was due to two succeeding holiday days. There was very little going on here, many restaurants, markets, shops, etc. were closed. Very few tourists or backpackers. This seemed to bring out even more of the negative kind of people that plague tourists and backpackers. I haven’t yet gotten asked that unfriendly and penetrative to buy e.g. flowers. Neither have I yet been insulted when kindly declining. There were a couple of nasty experiences and interactions and we both were eager to leave Cochabamba. So currently we are heading to La Paz and I won’t switch on my laptop for a while, mechanical hard drives are mostly not laid-out to be operated on +3000m and data corruption can get a real problem (your warranty may even expire if you take your laptop above 3000m). SSDs are not affected. The issue seems to be caused when the thin air in high altitude is unable to further support the read/write heads of the hard drive. Thus they might scratch the delicate disk surface and damage them. So yes: Laptops can get altitude sickness as well.

 
 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 2)

 

Bolivia is quite nice so far. We have spent some time in a very quiet city called Tupiza in order to get accustomed to the height (altitude sickness should be taken seriously). A further stop was the salt flat “Salar de Uyuni” nearby the city Uyuni. One might recognize the dried out salt sea from typical photos where the size relation to other objects (mountains, trees, etc.) is missing. A lot of tourists utilize this to take “funny” photos which look like photo-shopped (it is easy to find examples online). We were unsure if it would be worth going there, but in hindsight the visit was very well worth the effort. The salt flat is quite impressive.
We participated in a small tour with some other travelers. On such tours it can be gruesome funny to compare the prices which the other travelers on the same tour actually paid (i.e. negotiated). Of course, nobody paid more than the two Swiss doctors. And of course, nobody paid less than the scruffy rastaman backpacker who chose to tag along last minute.

Since a couple of days we are in Sucre now. I like it a lot here. The city is beautiful. Even though it is the Bolivian capital it feels small and one quickly knows the different streets and directions. There are many vegetarian restaurants to discover and so far all of them offer a “meal of the day” as a lunch. This most often includes a soup, a meal, a dessert, and a drink. The price is normally ~3 euros. Also there is decent coffee available here! As in India, Mexico, and Guatemala, I found that Bolivia has the same characteristic: These countries grow a lot of coffee — oftentimes you even see wild coffee growing — but due to poorness they export all the good coffee and in the overall majority of cases you get some kind of black water if you order a coffee. In Sucre, however, it is feasible to find a decent coffee.

In terms of books, I have gotten unsure about the spanish edition of Jurassic Park. Puh! I have tried to read the first pages, but quickly realized that my vocabulary is way too small. So, I couldn’t resist the urge to read Stuckrad-Barre’s recently published autobiography “Panikherz” instead and have finished the book by now. It was a very interesting read and I think I have read it at a fitting time in my life. It also urged me to read more about Udo Lindenberg, Harald Schmidt, and Stuckrad-Barre himself. The book is quite long though and I think the overall work would be better if some stuff would have just been left out. On the other hand, Stuckrad-Barre leaves out anything related to women in his life. I see how one can argue for this decision (though he never explains why), but I still feel that the book would have benefited from at least some information or explanations, since this leaves some empty spots and yields unanswered questions.

A couple of days ago I had an experience which I briefly want to retell. We were taking a long distance bus late at night. After packing our luggage in the bottom of the bus (without any valuables in them), our tickets were controlled and we could enter the bus. We got into our seats and I placed both our small backpacks in the tray right above us — side by side. There was only one other guy in the bus besides us (a couple of seats behind us). Right after we sat down, Val asked me to get something out of her backpack. I got up and wondered why my backpack was no longer side by side with hers, but rather orthogonal. I thought that I must have somehow rotated it or that the ground of the tray may be slippy. After sitting down for a couple of moments I remembered something to take out of my backpack as well. I got up and only barely noticed the other guy passing me with his blanket and leaving the bus. My backpack was no longer in the tray above us. For a moment I wondered and thought that I might be mistaken, but after some quick glances it hit me. Fuck! I immediately went after the guy, out of the bus. But it was too late. He had already disappeared. I looked through the crowd, quickly ran to different streets, looked around the bus, looked into nearby shops. No chance. Away. I got back into the bus. Val had started looking around in the bus and found the backpack 6 or 7 rows behind us, on the ground, behind a seat. What a relief! And nothing was stolen! I double checked everything. I imagine that my getting up again and again might have come as a surprise and so the guy decided to leave everything before being caught. Wow, what an experience. I am still puzzled by how quickly he managed to get to the backpack and move it so many seats without us noticing. The whole thing happened in under a minute! We are usually very careful and protective of our stuff and were the only two people in the bus besides him. The ticket controlling, having the backpack right above me, and the nearly empty bus made me feel secure, but this experience once again reminded me of being more careful. When I found a pair of unknown shoes in my luggage in Thailand (blog post), that was kind of funny, since I had already anticipated that the luggage might get searched. This time it was more scary, since it was a very close call.

Another thing that we have noticed so far: In most of the restaurants it happens that only I (the male) get asked what we want to order or that only I are asked to taste the wine before it is served. It also happens that taxi drivers ask explicitly me (“Señor, …”) where exactly to stop, though Val has been telling him the way before. When we order the bill its always me who gets it handed to. Whatever you might call that — macho, old-fashioned, etc. — it does not feel right and I dislike it.

To me the culture here seems to be very friendly, concerned to look after, but also kind of dopey in a well meant way. There are countless little things at which I have to chuckle. To illustrate a characteristic that seems to be recurring: We visited a park today and a guide described to us how dangerous the following descent will be and how important it is to be concentrated. Once we started descending we noticed that all the railings and things to hold on to had just been painted freshly! And that on a sunday morning :D!

Another thing which I need to quickly retell. Last saturday there was a “Night of the Museums” in Sucre — free entry into many museums. We discarded our plans to attend this event after seeing the huge queues in front of the museums. But the most intriguing thing was who was in the queues. The crowd consisted of basically purely natives, many many of them teenagers or young adults. I think this would be very unusual in Germany. As it turns out, this event had been created to enable the local (poor) population to visit the museums. It seems as if “visiting a museum” is seen somewhat different here, maybe for exactly this reason: it is a privilege.

 
 
 
 
 

About Me

I am a 30 year old techno-creative enthusiast who lives and works in Berlin. In a previous life I studied computer science (more specifically Media Informatics) at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.

License

All content is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 International (if not explicitly noted otherwise).
 
I would be happy to hear if my work gets used! Just drop me a mail.
 
The CC license above applies to all content on this site created by me. It does not apply to linked and sourced material.
 
http://www.mymailproject.de