Friends, If I told you that the main ingredients in our three day mountain trek were:
- One non-English speaking guide
- One very gasseous pack mule
- Three days of hiking at 4,200 meters above sea level
You would think this was a recipe for Disaster Salad wouldn’t you? I mean, it would fit right in at a Minnesota church basement potluck. All orange jello and grated carrots and mayonnaise.
But, you guys? Trekking through the tiny villages and mountains of rural Bolivia is awesome!
And because I´m a little psychic, I knew that this trek was going to be awesome from the moment I laid eyes on our intrepid guide, Mario. Mario resembled nothing so much as an overgrown third grader, complete with a bowl cut, missing front teeth, teal track suit and orange Jansport backpack. To complete the look, he also carried every nine-year-old´s favorite accessory, the all important Stick. The Stick was obviously used for bashing threatening bushes, poking into mud puddles and menacing at our pack mule.
Yes! Our very own pack mule! Granted, this gentleman was prone to tremendous bouts of gas, refused to eat my apple cores and spent most of the trip engaging in disapproving, doubtful noises. But then so would I if someone piled 60 pounds on my back and pulled me by my face up a mountain.
As we started our hike it occurred to me that we were making our way up a path that was more than twice as high as Denver and was that a minor coronary that I was experiencing? And when had I developed asthma? I felt like I was living through one of those dreams where you´re trying to run away from A Scary Killer but your limbs won´t move and you can´t get any traction.
But in this dream I kept getting farted on by a mule and the soundtrack originated from Mario´s hand-held radio.
But as we made our way higher into the mountains, my newly developed breathing problems took a back seat to the insane surroundings. Lush valleys! Sweet little sheep being herded through the passes! Tiny cemeteries crammed to the gills with orange lilies and sparkling statues! As the afternoon wore one, the clouds began to roll in and eventually engulfed us, making things completely surreal. We could only see the path directly in front of us, unable to tell exactly how sheer that drop off on the right was.
As we neared Mario´s village, a tiny woman with gold teeth, black jelly shoes and a pick axe leapt down out of the fog and handed Mario her bag. Mario informed us that the tiny elf was actually his mother, and when I told her that my Spanish was very poor she slapped me on the arm like this was the funniest thing she´d heard all week. We trundled on to their village which consisted of 20 houses and lots of sheep, tucked among the clouds.
Mario kindly offered to let us sleep at his family´s house instead of camping out in the fog. And I was thrilled when I saw their house.
Now, you may not know this about me, but I am total nerd for anthropology. I go absolutely nuts for adventure and cultural difference and any travel experience in which I get to see an authentic, not-put-on-for-the-gringos corner of the world. And this house fit that bill perfectly.
While Mario put the mule out to pasture, we took stock of the digs. Drying sheep skins? check. Some sort of bone hanging from the rafters? check. Root cellar full of tiny red potatoes and onions? check.
Oh wait. That root cellar is our bedroom.
And again, I was oddly thrilled! Because this was a proper adventure! And, more importantly, we were not surrounded by nine other backpackers and an English speaking guide. We hunkered down into our bed (re: structure made of sticks and straw) and set to work charming the family´s puppy.
But despite all my best clicks and whistles and broken Spanish, Pups was having none of it. Mario laughed and informed us that Spartakou didn’t speak Spanish and only responded to commands in Aymara, the indigenous language spoken in the mountains. So once I started hissing ¨Chi-choo¨ at him, our young friend was all over us, jumping up into the stick bed and trying to lick our noses.
After some more pup cuddling, we ate dinner with Mario and spent a good hour making shadow puppets on the wall of the root cellar with our head lamps. In the morning we awoke to the requisite rooster and ate our ridiculously gringo breakfast of yogurt and muesli. We poked around outside till Elfin Mother motioned us over to the tiny windowless kitchen where she was boiling some potatoes.
As I watched her stoking her fire with what appeared to be dried cow manure, I caught sight of something small and scuttling under a bed in the corner. And what did I see there, crouching in the corner? Guinea pigs, guys. Four of them.
Now, I knew that guinea pigs were a common Andean treat, but I rather believed that these guinea pigs would be, um, wildish guinea pigs. With gray fur and long, fierce talons and sneaky, intelligent eyes. Not the white and tan dudes from your local pet store. But there they were, all fat and sleek and white and tan, crouching in the corner of the kitchen.
Elfin Mother laughed and handed me the flashlight so I could better inspect tonight´s dinner. ¨They´re big enough to eat now,¨ She told me in Spanish. ¨Two or three is enough for our family.¨
I nodded and thanked the travel gods for the Cliff Bar I knew I had somewhere in my backpack.
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