Fried june bugs

We were offered this snack while we were volunteering in Ecuador; fried june bugs (wings and legs removed) and cancha (Andean popcorn). After the rain, the bugs come out and the indigenous family who lived nearby collected them and fried them up for us.

Considering that one of my favourite snacks in Taiwan was deep fried shrimp monkey (see below), I was keen to try these bugs. Ultimately, they were a little disappointing. They mostly just tasted of oil and salt. The texture was crunchy. Pretty much like any fried thing.

Maybe if they had been served piping hot straight from the frying pan and doused in MSG like my beloved shrimp monkeys, I would have liked them more.

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Colibri Camping – where to stay in La Paz

You may have already heard about Up Close Bolivia, where we had an amazing time volunteer teaching English classes. Today I wanted to let you know about their sister organisation, Colibri Camping.

Colibri CampingStaying in the village of Jupapina, shopping at the little stores and eating in local restaurants was one of the best things about our time with Up Close Bolivia. We felt completely at home in this friendly community. Not to mention the gorgeous scenery! The camp site was still being built when we were there, and now that it’s finished I wish we could go back to experience it. You can use your own tent, rent equipment from them, or even stay in a teepee or A-frame cabin!

If you’re looking for somewhere a little different, somewhere you can feel part of a community and not just a traveler, I can absolutely recommend Colibri Camping.

And don’t forget to say a big hello from me when you get there!

Waste disposal and recycling

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This sign on a bus in Ecuador says, ‘Don’t vote for trash out the window.’

[Obviously it’s supposed to say ‘Don’t throw trash out the window’, but despite Spanish being one of the easiest languages to spell, I often see people mixing up votar and botar. But that’s another story.]

While it might seem like common sense, or at least common courtesy, not to throw rubbish out of a moving vehicle, it isn’t in Bolivia, Peru and, to a certain extent, Ecuador. But at least Ecuador puts up signs like this one and provides bags for rubbish on bus journeys. And since I’ve only seen someone throwing rubbish out the window once, I’ve got to assume it’s working.

This behavior seems incredibly selfish and ignorant to me, and I get really mad when I see people doing it. However, the other side of it is that people make a living sorting through rubbish and recycling salvageable material. If someone is always ready to go through your waste for you, then you don’t really have any need or incentive to do it yourself, let alone think twice before littering in a public place that will get cleaned up quickly.

If you’d like to find out more about recycling and the informal economy, this interesting article explains about the system in Lima (which is very much like that in La Paz). For a look at Uruguay’s recyclers, see our blog post.

How to spend a week in Samaipata

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Day 1: Sunday
Arrive after 17 hours from La Paz, 2 hours waiting in Santa Cruz and a 2 and a half hour drive in a cramped minibus full of French people who speak to each other and ignore you. Go to Don Gilberto’s Tours to get a taxi to the farm where you’re volunteering. Wait over three hours for the surly Don Gilberto to return from helping a man with a cow. After explaining where you want to go, ride in his ancient car while the sun sets over the green hills around you. Be greeted by a dread-locked Brit with a headlamp who leads you up a slippery mud trail to an earth-built cottage. Once inside the one-room shack and sitting under the dim light bulb, drink some kind of tea and eat rice and vegetables from a wooden bowl offered by your host. Explain a little about yourselves and listen to your hosts beliefs on ‘forbidden archaeology’ and other conspiracy theories. Finally, take your bags halfway back down the slippery mud trail to the volunteer shelter (which is mostly just a tin roof surrounded by tarps, with a couple of hard bed bases and sleeping bags that leak feathers). Ensconce yourself under a mosquito net (not forgetting to trap a mosquito in there with you) and fall asleep quickly despite fears of scorpions and pumas coming from the nearby Amboró National Park.

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Day 2: Monday
Wake up late, but still earlier than your host. Make an attempt at using the dry eco-toilet but decide the bushes have far less flies hanging around. When your host finally awakens, go into the main house and see it in all it’s glorious dirt with light coming in from the plastic-bottle-windows. Cook porridge and listen to BBC World Service while discussing more conspiracy theories. Gather spades, a saw and pliers, and begin transforming part of the slippery mud trail into earth-and-wood steps. After several hours work, feel quite proud of your achievement even though it was mostly just following simple instructions. Take a tea break and then (following more simple instructions) plant two types of beans. When your host asks if you’re leaving tomorrow, nod non-commitally while mentally tallying up how many days you think you can survive this lifestyle. While climbing into bed fully clothed (and caked in mud), decide that tomorrow would be a good time to leave.

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Day 3: Tuesday
Although two weeks of volunteering turned into only two days, feel good when you wake up this morning knowing that soon you’ll not only be able to have a hot shower but also eat with clean plates and utensils. After breakfast (yesterday’s leftovers reheated), finish the last of the steps and then get a taxi ride from a man named Felix. Once in town, check in to Residencial Kim because it has a cute sunny courtyard and a parrot in a cage. Go to La Chakana and order the menu del día, even though lunchtime is over. Afterwards, take a shower (despite assurances of hot water, lukewarm is all you get) and quarantine all your dirty clothes together. Walk around town and find a cheap tour that’s leaving the next day. Go to a corner shop where a one-eyed cat butts its head against you in aggressive affection and buy bread and chocolate spread for dinner. Return to your room, start reading a new book and promptly fall asleep.

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Day 4: Wednesday
At Across Tours Amboró, realise that the group you’re joining are some of the same French people from before. After this disappointment, speak to them in Spanish and decide they’re not so bad but still feel happy when a lanky German joins at the last minute. Get into a big pick-up truck with your guide Clemente and travel along a dirt road to the cloud-forest area of Amboró. Walk through lichen- and moss-covered forest, with occasional patches of giant tree ferns. Pose for adequate pictures and imagine dinosaurs stalking through the primeval landscape. Start walking faster when it begins to rain. Eat a lunch of bread, ham, tomatoes and fruit while standing in a semi-sheltered spot and eyeing everybody in the group to see who looks the most bedraggled. Eventually make it back to the truck. On the return ride, periodically mutter swear words and clutch your bag tightly when the truck slides on the liquid-clay surface of the road. Instead of watching how close the truck is to the edge, concentrate on the terrified expression of the French girl and the fascinated look of the German filming everything. At the last patch of slippery surface, get out of the truck and push it from one side every time it starts to slide to prevent it from going into a ditch. When you get back to Samaipata, thank Clemente profusely and then ask about going on another tour tomorrow. Arrange to come back at 8:30pm to confirm. Enjoy removing your soaking wet shoes and take another lukewarm shower, then go to Cafe 1900 and order hot chocolate and chocolate cake. Splurge on dinner at Latina Cafe and be mildly surprised when the chicken curry contains carrot and potato like a Japanese curry. On returning to the tour agency, find it closed and discuss with Mikael the German about what to do tomorrow. Say you’ll check with the agency in the morning and then knock for Mikael at his hostel.

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Day 5: Thursday
Wake up to grey clouds and rain and decide not to get out of bed. When Mikael comes looking for you, feel a little relieved to hear that the agency was still closed. Since he’s going to the farm you just came from to volunteer for a day, arrange to hire a taxi tomorrow and go somewhere after the solstice celebrations at El Fuerte. Head over to the museum on Calle Bolívar. Before reaching your destination, be accosted by an out-of-breath Mikael who is now not volunteering as there was a mix-up on the phone. Change into your walking shoes (still wet from yesterday) and get a taxi together to Las Cuevas. On arrival, hide your ignorance that Las Cuevas are in fact waterfalls. Walk leisurely and take ample pictures of gushing water, red sand beaches and misty hills. Back in town, get the almuerzo at La Chakana again, then laze about in your room since the weather is chilly and your shoes are still wet. For dinner, go out to a tiny restaurant on Calle Sucre whose only indication that it’s an eating establishment is the woman out front saying “Hay pizza!” Enjoy a nice Neapolitan while small children, a dog and a puppy run in and out. Watch representatives of four villages dance in the plaza in a ceremony for the solstice. Attempt to get information about whether taxis will be available to go to El Fuerte before dawn next morning. Despite asking several people, fail miserably and decide to just buy cheap Brazilian beer and drink it in your room.

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Day 6: Friday
Wake up at 4:30am and drag yourself out to catch a taxi up to El Fuerte for the solstice sunrise. Decide that 80Bs for a taxi is too much when normally it’s 10Bs per person. Wait half an hour for more people to join you. Watch a crazy woman shout at, and demand money from, some young guys drinking in the plaza. Try to haggle the taxi fare down unsuccessfully. Give up and decide that you don’t need to be there at dawn, plus if you visit during the day it’ll be less crowded with New Age hippie types. Go back to bed. Get up late and eat bacon and eggs for breakfast at Cafe 1900. Start walking to El Fuerte because you’re still mad at the Samaipata taxi syndicate. On the road out of town, be stopped by a turquoise jeep offering you a ride halfway to El Fuerte. Accept and have your faith in humanity restored when the driver refuses your offer of payment for petrol. Disembark and keep walking, periodically passing groups of Brazilians struggling in stiletto heels. Once at El Fuerte, try to avoid walking in front of Brazilians posing for umpteen shots in front of information panels, trees and, occasionally, picturesque ruins. Try to identify all the rock carvings from the viewing platforms and realise that from this angle they really do look like an alien landing pad. Take a taxi back down because rain clouds are looming ominously. Eat ice cream in the plaza, then take a final lukewarm shower and pack your stuff. Realise you’re really hungry and go to eat at 6pm just as La Oveja Negra is opening. Order three different types of beer and lament the fact you can’t get any of them elsewhere in Bolivia. Go to bed early and happy, having spent too much money.

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Day 7: Saturday
Go to the market and order api and pastel (confusingly called an empanada here). See a potato-cheese-pancake-thing that looks so delicious that you order a second breakfast. Ask a shared taxi driver when the next one leaves for Santa Cruz. He tells you now, so explain you’ll just be five minutes picking up your bags. Return in two minutes to see the driver loading up the luggage of different people who just took your space in the taxi. Sit in the plaza and wait an hour for the next one, reflecting that this is probably better than waiting longer in Santa Cruz for your bus back to La Paz. Finally board the taxi to find there are two people extra but that it’s not really a problem since the driver crams them in the front with him. And so with a final farewell, begin the curvy drive back.

For more pictures of Samaipata, see our photo essay.

Volunteering with Up Close Bolivia

It’s been nearly a year since we first came to La Paz, and we haven’t yet posted about what brought us here in the first place. So, here’s a run-down of our volunteering experience with Up Close Bolivia.

What:
From a children’s centre to English classes and community tourism development, Up Close have several projects based in the communities of Jupapina and Mallasa, two villages just outside of La Paz. The organization was founded by Emma and Rolando, a British-Bolivian couple. With the help of Karen, the volunteer coordinator, they continue to be very actively involved in the activities of Up Close Bolivia.

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What we did:
Since we’re English teachers, we worked on developing free English classes for the community. They had previously run a course with a book written by a volunteer, but we knew we needed something more structured because in the future the courses would be taught by volunteers without teaching experience. Working with another volunteer, a Maths teacher from Melbourne, we sourced materials, wrote syllabi and created flashcards. Then we taught.

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We ran a short children’s course during the winter holidays as well as beginning a long-term evening course for adults. This evening course is still going, and while living in La Paz we’ve continued to help out by training new volunteers.

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Where we lived:
The volunteer accommodation is absolutely beautiful. There are several small cottages which are really well-equipped with proper hot water (uncommon in Bolivia), full kitchens, cosy duvets, TVs and a big selection of DVDs (as well as an indoor hammock and fireplace, depending on which house you’re in).

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The grounds around are perfect for lazing in the sun, barbecuing or playing football. We spent many a night cooking communal dinners with the other volunteers or hanging out with the playful pets, and attending welcoming or leaving dinners up at Emma’s house as volunteers came and went.

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Down-time:
We actually had quite a bit of free-time in which to explore the surrounding area: Valle de la Luna, Muela del Diablo and La Paz. Up Close expects hard work from volunteers, but they also know that people want to take the opportunity to explore Bolivia while they’re here and so they’re happy to let you take a long weekend to do that. Several other volunteers even went further afield to Lake Titicaca, Sorata, Coroico, Uyuni, Rurrenabaque and Machu Picchu.

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Requirements and fees:
Volunteers with all types of experience are welcomed and encouraged to make use of their particular skills. Minimum age is 21, but younger volunteers may be accepted if they can show suitable maturity. You don’t have to speak Spanish, but obviously it helps. Up Close can arrange Spanish classes at a competitive rate or help set-up a language exchange. One month minimum commitment. We paid $450 per person, which included accommodation, support from Up Close staff and some money towards developing the English classes (and other Up Close projects).

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Final thoughts:
Being given total trust and responsibility for our own project was both empowering and a little daunting. But once we actually started, I realized just how much I had to contribute and seeing how things actually got implemented quickly, it was a huge confidence boost and I realised that this was something that really had an impact on the local community. A year on, and with the help of all the amazing volunteers since that first English class, the program has now grown to include three different classes open to the public as well as special courses for local government workers. To be part of this close-knit community of volunteers and locals has been a really wonderful experience and we’re so happy we found Up Close for this opportunity.

Salta la Linda

Salta the Beautiful.

It’s true. Salta is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful city I saw in Argentina.

They like that word in Salta. A girl asked us where we were from. Her response, “Qué linda!”

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Want to do something beautiful while you’re in Salta? Visit Cloudhead at their lovely Arthouse (see the view in the picture above) and get involved with their community projects.

Aymara New Year at Valle de la Luna

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We set off at 5:30am. Dawn wouldn’t reach Valle de la Luna, just outside La Paz, until at least 7:00. Among that valley of oddly-eroded mud columns and crevices, people were gathering to celebrate the Aymara New Year.

The rituals and offerings which take place at the winter solstice are meant to ensure good fortune in the coming agricultural year. Not only has the legitimacy of the Aymara New Year been called into question, but the holiday, only made official in 2010, is still controversial. That morning, as we walked along the road from our volunteer accommodation in Jupapina, fighting off stray dogs and sleepiness, we had no idea about the history of this holiday. All we had to go on were rumors of llama sacrifice and a flyer that told us there’d be live music and dancing.

As we neared the Valle de la Luna, electronic music blasted from a speaker. We joined the line of people, bundled in warm clothes, slowly filing through the subterranean entrance. Lit by oil lamps made from recycled cans and tins, we walked under a grey dawn sky, along the narrow path between sandy-stone formations and on wooden walkways. Ahead, the landscape opened into a flat area, oddly illuminated with green floodlights, where a group of people huddled close to a fire.

On that small promontory of land it was hard to know where to give my attention. In a concrete pit a woman was chanting, wrapping something in a brightly-colored cloth. Musicians wearing turquoise ponchos and woolen hats played pan pipes and stamped their feet in rhythm. Further away from the fire a man sprinkled ‘alcohol de caiman’ over coca leaves and pastel-colored charms that looked like Love Heart sweets.

Teenagers snapped photos on camera phones and whispered amongst themselves. A Scandinavian-looking couple enjoyed the advantage of their height and swept their heavy SLR lenses above the crowd. Old women, clad in several layers of conflicting wooly patterns, pushed their way to the front for a better view, some having even brought stools with them. A few officials, with the La Paz logo emblazoned on their warm jackets, stood on the outskirts making sure no-one got too close to the edge.

Our group had dispersed into the throng. The South Africans were up on a slight ridge; FC with his eyes closed taking in all the sounds while Dirk watched some drummers who circled through the crowds. Rachel and Maggie held their hands out to the fire where the cloth-covered bundle now burned. Regan and the kids laughed about something. Paige was chatting to one of the pipers before being whisked away by a short-haired, yellow-coated woman to dance with the drummers.

“You know everyone,” I whispered afterward.

“It’s what happens when you’re here five months,” she replied. “That woman’s the mayor of Mallasa.”

I looked over at Rolando, who I knew had previously been mayor. He was posing for a photo with his wife Emma, while their kids still laughed with Regan. A mixed Bolivian-British family, they have deep connections with their local community and set up an organisation, Up Close Bolivia, to help connect willing and knowledgable volunteers with projects in the villages of Mallasa and Jupapina.

When we first arrived, we were welcomed with open arms into their home. Since then we’ve been welcomed into their community through both their efforts as hosts and our own efforts in the projects we’ve been doing. We’ve visited the nursery set up and run by local mothers. We’ve created and taught English classes for children and adults. We’ve eaten almuerzo in local restaurants and bought our groceries from the little tiendas in the village. We’ve hiked up the Muela del Diablo, cooked together over a bonfire and traded our stories with each other. Although volunteers are always coming and going, Up Close Bolivia has succeeded in making an international family here in the Andes. It’s almost become a cliche at leaving dinner speeches, when everyone mentions the extraordinary sense of community they’ve felt being here.

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Someone tells us that we should raise our hands ready for the first rays of sun, but being in a valley is deceptive and we wait in shadow a little longer. When finally the sun peeks over the mountain, there’s a collective cheer and someone leads the crowd in an Aymaran chant.

Then it’s all over. The musicians start packing up and people wander towards the exit. I warm myself at the fire which has died down a lot. Amongst the charred bundle I see tiny bones – was this the llama sacrifice? The woman who’d performed this ritual was sitting on a wall, talking to an old man, both of them in costume. A friend of theirs approaches and they greet each other happily. They take a few pictures together then say goodbye.

On the way out I stop to watch a live band which mixes electric guitar and drums with traditional Andean percussion and a couple of charangos (a lute-style instrument popular in Bolivia). The lead singer has an inexplicably deep voice for such a young person. His singing is interspersed with crazy laughs and whoops, and the crowd laughs back as they trail out and buy api and salteñas to give them fuel for the journey home.

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Farm Film Shorts

We were volunteering on a small farm in middle-of-nowhere Chile.

“I’ll be back tonight,” Mario told us after we finished the tough work of squeezing the last juice out of tangled grape vines and not dodging the wasps who were extracting as much sugar as they could from the plastic, rectangular vat of unfiltered wine. Like junkies, they eventually ODed, drowned by their own addiction, to be filtered out later.

“Like people, if you don’t try to hurt them they won’t hurt you. Behave like they don’t exist.”

I took his advice until one crawled up my pantleg and couldn’t find its way out.

“Ow! It’s in my pants. Ah! It got me again!”

I stripped down to my underwear and watched the stupid thing fly away.

“I’m going into town. I’ll be back by 6 or 7 tonight.”

Mario didn’t return for two days. This kind of thing became common. We found ourselves with a lot of time without the distractions of civilization; there was no Internet, no TV and no people.

To entertain ourselves we made movies with Rosie’s iPod touch.

Title: Dinner in Olmué
Genre: documentary
App: Reeli and Splice
Music: “Maisie” by Syd Barrett

A fairly straightforward look at the twice daily chore of feeding the animals on the farm. Splice allowed us to make several short cuts, which we then imported into Reeli. Using Reeli allowed us to add the soundtrack.

Title: The Machinist 2
Genre: surrealist
App: Reeli
Music: “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” by Klaatu

Let’s just say that watching The Machinist earlier in the day didn’t put us in a dark or reflective mood. Sorry you lost all that weight, Christian Bale.

Title: La Negra
Genre: horror
App: Reeli
Music: “Am I Demon?” Bonnie “Prince” Billy (covering Danzig)

La Negra is the oldest dog on the farm. She eats dried horse poop, drools on everyone and likes to rub her body against you to relieve her various itches, but she’s a sweetheart.

Wwoofing in Olmué, Chile

We spent two weeks volunteering on a small farm in the mountains around Olmué (a village outside of Santiago). The owner had built the house himself, learning about the process while he went along. His aim, as he frequently told us, is to become self-sufficient and live ‘outside the system’.

Oh yeah, we didn’t have Internet.

After a tough first morning learning the ropes, the rest of the two weeks were spent house-sitting while the owner worked with his wife at their pizzeria in town.

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on the way to the farm

It’s an indication of how social media has become ingrained in my life that I automatically began formulating facebook status updates, knowing full well I couldn’t post them. Instead they became a sort of distilled journal about life on the farm.

Day 1
Things I learned today: 1. Hand-making wine involves A LOT OF wasps 2. I’m not allergic to wasp stings

Day 2
Disconcertingly woken in the night by second earthquake in as many days: 6.3 causes no damage, but does rattle the house quite a bit.

Day 3
Limited ingredients mean I have to be more ‘creative’: beet root fried rice, anyone?

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Day 4
Must remember not to walk near the goats unless it’s feeding time – they headbutt the door so violently I’m afraid they’ll break it.

Day 5
No matter how many times you rinse old wine bottles with water and grit, at a certain point you have to agree any leftover residue will be a ‘flavour enhancer’.

Day 6
Home-made wine is starting to taste like home-made vinegar.

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Day 7
Figured out how to play DVDs! Paul Giamatti double bill with Win Win and Barney’s Version. The rest are trashy action movies.

Day 8
After a week in the wilderness, we went into town today. So happy to see fresh veg, email, beer (in that order)!!!

Day 9
Jon just found a huge, half-dead spider…in his trousers…the ones he’s wearing.

Day 10
Water pump broken. If it comes down to it, it’s us over the animals.

Water pump fixed. Turns out it just wasn’t plugged in.

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Day 11
Mist surrounds the farm and rain drips everywhere; we’re living inside a cloud!

Day 12
You know it’s cold when you can see your breath inside the house and water stays icy even though it’s been out of the fridge for hours.

Day 13
Seeing the dogs eat horse shit and slobber all over each other reminds me why I’ve never been a dog person.

Day 14
Saw a guy who walks around town espousing on politics; he believes he’s the real president of Chile, and the other is an imposter.

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Volunteering arranged through WorkAway.