The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: over-packing

Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.

I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:

SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.
WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.
S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?
WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.
Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.
This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.
We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.
Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.

I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

 The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.

Pre-departure Farewell

The time has arrived! Leslie, her sister Amanda and I will depart Ohio tomorrow morning around 6am, with a brief layover in Chicago then Miami before our actual flight to Santiago departs around 7pm.

I have everything I could possibly need, and then a little bit more. Leslie helped me pare down some things I was undecided on (i.e. a hammock and spice jars…hey, those are almost-necessities), but I’m still bringing the most crap of us all. I think some of it has to do with my jewelry inventory and supplies, and the heavy-duty Manduka yoga mat. And the cowboy boots. And the variety of tank tops and leggings. To my own credit, I have a definite USE for everything I’m bringing. There is no unneccessary item. For example, that pair of red sandals I bought and never wore? Not coming with me.  And when you think about it, the Shanonce afro wig takes up almost no space. For how large it can expand, it condenses surprisingly well.

(Yes, the wig is a necessity. That’s one of my creative pursuits, guys.)

I’ve triple and quadruple-checked that I have my passport. I have my finances arranged. I’ve said goodbye to everyone, tearfully. We have a place to live. I know Spanish. I’ve got these two girls with me. And we have resources, creativity, and travel know-how bursting from our pores.

I think we’re ready.

I’ll post again soon, from the bottom half of the world! Hasta luego, amigos!

How to Condense a Life

I have this problem with packing. When I take a trip, I over pack…to the extreme. Legend has it that I once took the Tulsa phone book on a trip to London, just so I could peruse the “Hanson” entries (I was a very dedicated fan). In more recent times, a two or three day trip can result in a backpack almost as heavy as the one I carted around Europe for three months. I don’t know why this happens – I just like to be prepared. With clothing options. And accessories. And shoes for all weather scenarios. And my hemp supplies, in case I have time in my action-packed weekend away to make a bracelet. And this pair of red sandals I’ve never worn but might just find the outfit finally that they go with. And ….the list goes on.

I’ve been traveling recently – lots of visits to Chicago and Nashville – and each trip results in the Confrontation With the Backpack: stuffed full of things that I think I need, a moment’s reflection on the upcoming trip, indecision regarding the fifth pair of pants I packed, then eventual back strain as I hoist the thing up and out of the house. And each time, 80% of it goes unused.

This pattern of over-packing and under-using has forced me to assess the general concept of Belongings. I have been a fringe hoarder my entire life, and therefore I have a lot of *stuff*.

Actually, I used to have way too much stuff. Now I just have a decent amount of stuff. I have been slowly, steadily, painstakingly ridding myself of my possessions. It started with cleaning out my closet, several times. Each time, several more tons of junk would exit my bedroom wrapped in garbage bags, destined for Goodwill or the dump. Then I began to assess things in the spare room closet – all sorts of mementos, childhood objects, school records, stuffed animals galore.

Again, a large majority went to Goodwill or the dump.

This process has crept slowly throughout the entire house. And with each new item or object that I part ways with, I feel lighter. Relieved.

Incredibly, my life continues without the ironing board from college, or the Black & Decker griddle that I haven’t used in three years but just didn’t want to get rid of in case of a pancake emergency, or the variety of stuffed animals that I distantly remember from childhood. It turns out I don’t really need to have all of the homework I completed from my sophomore year of high school in order to fondly recall my school days. Nor did I need to hang on to the miniature Pat Catan’s store I’d created in my bedroom featuring a wide array of unused and almost-empty oil paints, “just in case I got back to painting”. (I never did.)

At times, my hoarding tendencies weren’t so much an unwillingness to part with objects but just simple overlooking – these things had existed for so long in my breathing space that I forgot they were even there. They had become a part of the backdrop – physically, and emotionally. Because a lot of the things vying for space in my house were connected with the past. Childhood, my teenage years, college experiences, and beyond. Even the unusable oil paints were a sort of placeholder for my past, because they represented a phase of my life when I was incredibly inspired to express myself through painting.

All of these things were occupying an incredible amount of space and ENERGY. It became exhausting to even spend time in my bedroom because there was just so many parts of my life on full display. I couldn’t look around without absent-mindedly recalling some aspect of my own life, which is a fun journey, but quite time-consuming to enact every single day. So I tore stuff down, and painted, and hung artwork that had been laying unused for years, and most importantly, I purged.

In fact, I am still purging. And as the Departure Date grows nearer, I am finding that not only can I get rid of more of my possessions, I also do not need the majority of what I think I need. While 80% of my backpack gets unused during a vacation or weekend trip, 80% of my general belongings and earthly possessions are similarly unused.

Plain English, folks : We don’t need much to live.

A travel blogger once commented that he rid himself of Stuff until all of his earthly possessions could fit into one cardboard box (minus his guitar, which he left with his mom). I’m not going to claim that this type of Reductionism is the only way to go, but the forward motion that this startling idea produced was enough to get my to begin whittling down my stuff, which was essentially an act of paring down my life.

Is it any coincidence that things in my life are much easier now? Less crap is less crap.

A couple areas I refuse to budge on:
-I will not get rid of my library. I have gone through my bookshelves a thousand times, struggling to find just one more book to donate or sell, and I won’t. Books are extremely important to me and it may be something I have to confront down the road, but for now, we’ll let the beast sleep.
-My piano. This is going to continue living with my dad.
-Photos. Like, real, actual, 35mm photos. This is one of the best ways to remember a life, as opposed to crusty tubes of decades-old oil paint. Photo albums are good things to keep tucked away for fond reminiscing, and the whole “tucked away” aspect ensures that those memories won’t physically exhaust you daily.

I’m not done with the process yet. There is still more to let go, to purge, to release into the wild yonder of second-hand thrift stores. And I need to seriously assess what I will need for my upcoming trip to Chile, because I know the frenzy of the outfit what-ifs will take over as it always does.

At the very least, the more that I take with me in the beginning is more stuff that I can drop off along the way, whether as donations, emergency sales, barter uses…or maybe somewhere out there in the world, I will meet a girl that will need the pair of red sandals I’ve never worn and I will triumphantly stand up, hand her the shoes, and say, “Here, I brought these just for you.”

(Now go read that article that made me start shedding my physical possessions: Minimalism)

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