National Volunteer Week article

Just taking a moment during the Canadian coffee roaster visit, to post the following article:

National Volunteer Week: Crossroads International volunteer serving up real change

Thank you to Crossroads!


Shoe shiners and zebras on the streets of La Paz

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Every day, thousands of lustrabotas (shoe shiners) line the streets of La Paz, squatting on stools, clutching their wooden boxes and touting for customers.  Most are male and although there are some older men, many are adolescents and children as young as 8 years old.  These men and boys wear baseballs caps and cover their faces with woollen balaclavas or ski masks, concealing their identity due to the shame and social stigma surrounding their trade.  

Lustrabotas are often presumed to be petty criminals or addicts and are harshly discriminated against, thus they prefer to remain anonymous than to risk being recognised by peers, neighbours or teachers.  For some shoe shiners it may be their only means for scraping together a living, while others are in school or university.  Having your shoes shined here can cost as little as 2.5 Bolivianos (36 cents/24p).

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Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

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Traffic zebras

To describe traffic in La Paz as chaotic is an understatement.  It is akin to the madness of rush hour in Bangkok or Kathmandu.  Due to the customary 2.5 hour almuerzo (lunch break), there are actually several rush hours per day, and the traffic doesn’t seem to be much calmer in between.  Trufis (minibuses) and cars cram the streets, cutting each other off, honking impatiently and pumping black clouds of fumes.  If there are lanes, they are not used, and if there are traffic rules, nobody is paying them any attention.  Crossing the road is a feat not for the faint-hearted.

Cue La Paz’s troupe of dancing cebras (zebras).  In the heart of the city centre, youths in zebra costumes guide traffic and usher pedestrians across the road.  Armed with flags,  the cebras dance, skip, and comically express their dismay at those who do not respect the crossings, wringing their hands and shaking their heads mournfully.  

This creative road safety initiative began in 2001 as a means to educate and sensitize the public to respect the zebra crossings.  It is also part of a social program that aims to help under-privileged youth by providing them with employment.  In contrast to lustrabotas, these cebras are popular with locals.

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Street-side vendors

Another frequent sight in La Paz are these street-side vendors.  Resembling miniature sidewalk dépanneurs, they sell everything from snacks to toiletries and also double as public phone booths.  Often staffed by a knitting cholita, it is not uncommon to see a toddler playing in a cardboard box at her feet.

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Tomorrow spells the arrival of four Canadian coffee roasters, a much-anticipated week-long visit that I will be facilitating.  Stay tuned!

Magical Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

After discovering Machu Picchu was only an overnight bus ride from La Paz, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit.  I made a fleeting trip there with a friend last weekend, and it proved to be well worth it.  After previous excursions across the border, I surmise that of all Bolivia’s neighbours, Peruvians bear the most resemblance in terms of both physical appearance and accent, likely due to the large indigenous population.  

Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu means ‘Old Peak’ in Quechua and dates back to the 15th century.  It is thought to have escaped the Spanish Conquest, lying undiscovered for centuries, thanks to its hidden location amongst thick vegetation high up in the Andes.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu overlooks the Urubamba valley with majestic Huayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) towering above.  

Up until 2011, this legendary tourist attraction welcomed an astounding 4,000 visitors daily.  However, the number of visitors has since been limited to 2,500 per day, with a view to preventing erosion and preserving the ancient archaeological site.

With limited time, hiking the Inca Trail on foot over several days was sadly out of the question, thus my whirlwind visit included various modes of transport instead.  Having booked a tour that involved several transfers, I was instructed to look out for someone holding a sign with my name at the train station.  A novel concept for me, I was highly amused to spot a sign for “Juni Wats” on the outward journey and “Yoni” upon my return – two brilliantly original variations to add to a lifetime list of misspellings. (“Like Mitchell!” isn’t as effective an explanation around here.)

The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a picturesque journey, with breath-taking views of rolling hills, waterfalls and snow-capped peaks.  After so many lengthy and unpleasant bus rides, the train seemed positively luxurious in comparison, despite the pan-flute instrumental of Elton John’s ‘Sacrifice’ which played every 15 minutes.  A small town nestled in the mountains at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes caters to the constant crowds of tourists and boasts natural aguas thermales (hot springs) in a truly idyllic setting.

From Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu is an uphill hike or a shuttle bus ride away.  Waking before 4am, I made the steep, sweaty hike up to the entrance as soon as the gateway opened at 5am.  I quickly realised hiking up a mountain through rainforest in utter darkness is less than ideal, but with a steady stream of hikers it was easy enough to follow the flickering lights of torches.  A breathless 50 minute climb later, I emerged from the trees.

At dawn, the mountains were shrouded in thick fog and a steady rain was falling.  Gradually, as the sun rose and the mist lifted, the spectacular sight of Machu Picchu was slowly unveiled.  It was surreal to be confronted with the stunning postcard image in person, that I’d seen so many times on screens and in books.  Even with the throngs of tourists, somehow it did not feel remotely congested, but peaceful and awe-inspiring instead.  I spent a full day contentedly taking in the scenery before making the hike back down.

Cusco was only a brief stop before heading home to La Paz, but from what I glimpsed it struck me as a beautiful, captivating city.  With its colonial feel, the historical area is a maze of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets and a mass of terracotta roofs spreading for miles.  

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

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Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

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View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest

View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest



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Football fever and Semana Santa

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa

During Bolivia’s Holy Week celebrations, I witnessed the largest of many Good Friday processions taking place in La Paz.  La Procesión del Santo Sepulcro spent three hours gradually winding its way through the city streets, eventually circling back to a downtown church.  Approximately 95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, thus it was no surprise to see the streets filled with onlookers.

The procession depicts the fall and rise of Jesus Christ and was a sorrowful, sombre spectacle, an act of mass mourning rather than celebration.  School groups marched in uniform, chanting Biblical passages led by one child with a megaphone, while crowds of locals followed behind carrying flickering candles.  Most dramatic of all were the robed figures, with their tall, pointed hoods, eerily reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Apparently the costumes represent mourning and are entirely unrelated to the KKK).  These haunting figures move slowly and silently through the streets, carrying enormous wooden platforms displaying effigies of Jesus and Mary.

A striking, shocking sight to the uninitiated, I was prepared to be somewhat alarmed this time around, having witnessed larger and more intense Semana Santa processions (i.e. more hoods, plus clamouring, wailing crowds) in southern Spain many years ago.

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Live football

Despite hopes of attending a live football match during my trip to Argentina, I opted to wait until returning to Bolivia, where I was less likely to fall victim to outrageously inflated tourist prices.  It paid off, since Messi and his team visited La Paz the very next week for a World Cup qualifier.  I scored a third row seat for only $17, a fraction of the price I was offered in Buenos Aires.

Of the South American teams competing for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, Bolivia was trailing at second to bottom of the table while Argentina were flying high at the top.  Bolivia, however, possess the intriguing ‘altitude advantage’; visiting teams have to contend with adjusting to the dizzying heights of La Paz.

The packed stadium was a sea of bright red, yellow and green and the atmosphere electric.  Three sides of the stadium would chant in turn “BO, BO, BO!”, “LI, LI, LI!”, “VIA, VIA, VIA!” and then altogether “VIVA BOLIVIA!”.  The Chilean referee was subject to relentless abuse from the crowd, reflecting the increasingly strained relations between the two countries.  (I learned a whole host of new expletives which I’m not sure I’ll ever have an opportunity to use.)

Admittedly my support of Bolivia was dubious, since I was secretly hoping to see Messi score (he didn’t).  Whenever he would venture close to our section, there would be taunting cries of “Messi! La ALTURA!” (“the altitude!”).  Bolivia went 1-0 up in the first half, Argentina equalised just before half-time and despite many close calls, the match ended 1-1.  Polystyrene squares are sold for 1 Boliviano (15 cents/9p) as seat covers.  At the end of the match, thousands of these were hurled into the air from all sides of the stadium, falling like ungainly snowflakes onto the pitch.

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Tango, tombs and Malbec: a week in Buenos Aires

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Having heard nothing but rave reviews about Buenos Aires, I was excited to head there for a week`s holiday last month.  Often referred to as the `Paris of the South`, it was a far cry from La Paz with its European air and cosmopolitan feel.  There was not a bowler hat in sight and suddenly I was back to being short again.  Porteños (BA residents, literally `people of the port`) are much taller than paceños it seems.  The Argentinian accent threw me completely at first, but with the speed slower than in Chile, I had half a chance of being able to keep up.

As far as I`m concerned, it`s hard to go wrong holidaying in a city where the staple diet comprises steak and Malbec (note to self: resume yoga immediately upon return).  Thanks to the Italian influence, Buenos Aires also boasts some incredible gelato, with mouth-watering flavours like super dulche de leche, and the streets are abuzz with coffee shops.  I was overly excited that my cortado automatically came with biscuits and accompanying sparkling water.  Montreal – take note!

I found Buenos Aires a great city to roam around, since many of the neighbourhoods are unique in their character and appeal.  Rather like Montreal, it struck me as a city to be experienced, in that there is not an abundance of major sights to be seen, so much as ambience to be soaked up.  Strolling along the wide city streets, I was reminded of the advice of a friendly, proud Argentinian I encountered at the airport – to look upwards – so as not to miss the eclectic architecture, with its spires, domes and shuttered buildings.

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

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Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

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I spent time exploring the various quarters: La Boca`s Caminito, a vibrant cluster of streets with brightly-coloured houses and outdoor tango; San Telmo, the oldest area of the city, with its narrow, cobblestoned streets and a huge outdoor flea market on weekends with traditional handicrafts and antiques galore; Palermo, a lively area with leafy streets boasting many of the capital`s restaurants, shops and bars; and Recoleta with its magnificent, sprawling cemetery housing Evita Perón`s tomb (I had that darn song in my head for days).

Outdoor tango in Caminito

Outdoor tango in Caminito

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

The colourful houses of La Boca

The colourful houses of La Boca

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Recoleta`s cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

Recoleta`s Cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

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Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

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Recoleta Cemetery spires

Recoleta Cemetery spires

Another highlight was El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a gorgeous bookshop housed in an enormous, ornate former theatre.  With its decorative ceiling, cafe on the stage and plush theatre boxes to lounge and read in, it was well worth a visit.

I also ventured across to Uruguay for a day trip, taking an hour-long ferry ride to explore Colonia del Sacramento.  A quiet, pretty town with hummingbirds darting in amongst the trees, its historic quarter is a UNESCO site.

Dog-walkers are a common sight in Buenos Aires and it is not unusual to see porteños walking 10 or 15 dogs at a time.  An absurd spectacle to the untrained tourist eye, I was very amused and ever prepared to chase a tangle of dogs down the street for a photo opportunity.

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

El Ateneo

El Ateneo

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Dog-walking, porteño-style

Dog-walking, porteño-style

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Buenos Aires is, of course, reknowned for being the birthplace of tango.  I dutifully attended one of the many tango shows on offer, preceded by a class, just for fun.  It was an impressive spectacle (the show, that is) and the drama and passion was palpable.  From my amateur perspective, I concluded `tango face` is a combination of looking sultry and furious all at once – effective when demonstrated by the professionals on stage, and downright comical in the class I took.

Tango show

Tango show

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Unfortunately, scams, theft and pickpocketing are rife in Buenos Aires and it seemed as if almost every traveller I met had a (horror) story to tell.  I luckily escaped any misfortunes myself, though I moved hostels after an anxiety-inducing incident on my first night.  A local man allegedly checked into the hostel for 15 minutes during the night, swiftly stealing a whole host of valuables from various dormitories, including the one I was sleeping in.

There is a fascinating phenomenon of money-exchanging in Argentina, which I was tipped off about before arriving.  Due to heavy Government control and the ever-decreasing value of the Argentine peso, US dollars are in constant, high demand.  Consequently, there is a growing disparity between the official and `informal` rate of money exchange.  The difference between the official government exchange rate and the dólar “blue” (black market dollar) has been known to climb to a staggering 70% or greater; a fact which many tourists and travellers capitalise upon, to make their dollars go much further.  With the current exchange rate, withdrawing money from a cash machine or exchanging at a bank would give only 5 pesos = US $1.  On the notorious mercado negro (black market), however, it is possible to receive a substantially higher rate of 8+ pesos = US $1.

Despite the various dangers involved, such as counterfeit money, it appears to be a widespread, booming trade and one only has to walk a few paces along Calle Florida to hear cries of “cambio! cambio!” at every corner.  Generally, crisp US $100 bills are most sought-after, offering a higher rate; and the larger the amount, the better the deal.  After negotiating a rate, money is either exchanged on the street or more often than not, customers are led to an inconspicuous store-front office nearby.  Thus (hypothetically-speaking of course…) if one were to engage in this sort of illegal behaviour, a hostel bunk bed could cost as little as $10 and a bottle of excellent supermarket Malbec only $4.

Up next: Easter celebrations and live football!