The Trip Home… My Final South America Adventure Reflections!

Leaving by taxi from the Kokopelli Hostel in Lima in about 3 minutes. Will update this post of my final night and the return journey when back in the USA…

The trip to the airport was uneventful. My mind raced as I looked out the window at the streets going by. Since I left Montana in February, I have met so many incredible people. Some, like Marina Toscan of Sweden (the lady who studied Spanish with me for a couple weeks in Bariloche and then came back to Argentina (Salta) from her time in Peru to meet me and head north with us into Bolivia) and Will Le Roy who traveled with me from Mendoza on up north and through the Salt Flats… we will be in touch for years to come.

Others, like Bevan Hirst – the bloke from Australia who loaned me a couple hundred dollars and helped me get through my Bolivian financial crisis — how will I ever repay him? And then there are others, like Kam Abilov – the Russian I met in Puerto Montt on Easter Sunday that I spent three incredible days with in a rental car touring around the Isla de Grande Chiolé – what a character!

And, of course, I’ll always be in touch with Alexandre Naves, Bernardo Medeiros in Brazil and Ale Mehring and Lucas Macias from Buenos Aries… their hospitality was undeniably overwhelming in welcoming me to their continent.

Yes, the people… wow, the people. What an adventure. These people and my memories flooded through my mind as the cab swung north along the coastal highway. I was watching huge semi-trucks dumping dirt along the coast – trying to prevent mother nature from doing her work of gobbling up the shoreline. My mind wondered back and forth from the people to the landscapes – the wide-openness of central Brazil and southern Argentina; the immense scale of glaciers and mountains in southern Patagonia, the island climate and fishing economy of the Isla de Grande Chiloé in Chile… the French people wanting to open a restaurant in Valiparaíso… the man pulling a knife on me and trying to steal my camera in the same town… the craziness that turned what was to be my first two nights in Brazil into my first two weeks during Carnival… all so insane.

I had done it – I had traveled on my own, with virtually no reservations and no plan – for over four months in a foreign country… I had learned some Spanish. I have learned a ton about the land, the people, and the cultures of S. America. Not only that, but fellow-travelers I’ve met from elsewhere in the world… that in and of itself has been worth my entire trip. What an experience…

Customs went smoothly, and before I knew it, I was on plane from Lima to Los Angeles, California. It was all so surreal, going from my bunkbed in Lima’s Kokopelli Hostel to a huge room at the Embassy Suites Hotel at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport)… the contrast in 24 hours could not have been greater!

As I flew back to Helena the next morning, I made a list of the TOP TEN things I would MISS about South America and a second TOP TEN list of the things I would NOT MISS about life the past four months. I share these lists with you here to end my blog on my South American Sabbatical Adventure:

10. Free time – lots of free time with NO deadlines!
 9. The continual stimulation of daily new experiences.
 8. Fancy busses with movies and meals.
 7. Near daily interaction with an incredibly diverse set of fellow-travelers from around the world!
 6. The sounds (classic playlists) and tastes of Latin America!  (from ABBA to Mate and coca leaves).
 5. Free wi-fi almost everywhere in most parts of Argentina and Chile.
 4. Becoming more and more comfortable with Spanish, practicing daily to live… Need to find a Spanish group, tutor, or some Spanish speaking friends to keep improving!
 3. Ice cream in Argentina.
 2. All of the people from around the world who have entered my life and enriched my experience.
 1. The South American people who opened their hearts and their homes to share their perspectives and their lives with me.
10. Having a cell phone again (although about 95% of the areas I visited had strong coverage, I didn’t take my phone – have been without for months)!
 9. Music and Beer – Having access to Spotify for tunes and Helena’s two superb microbreweries!
 8. Cleanliness and sanitation… Not having to watch people and have the stench of urine/sewage in the street.
 7. Being able to communicate ‘deeper’ ideas to others without a language barrier.
 6. My own bed (and being ‘home’ in my own house again) – not needing earplugs every night and often having to sleep in a room with 3 to 7 others!
 5. Peanut butter.
 4. Seeing my students, my family and neighbors as well as many awesome Montana friends again.
 3. Riding my mountain bike with the Dynamos, with Alex and other friends, and with Nephew Kellan!
 2. Drinking water from the faucet again.
 1. Flushing my used toilet paper instead of having to wad it up and put it in the bathroom garbage can!

Crossing into Peru – The Adventure Continues!

Last Sat night, I took a 8 pm bus from Uyuni to La Paz with Mickael and Cecile, the two people from Paris that I met on the salt flats tour. The bus was COLD, and that is an understatement. We had blankets, but even when using it with my two coats on, it was a bit chilly! When we arrived in La Paz about 7 in the morning, we walked about 5 blocks to their hostel. We then went to eat breakfast. The whole town was closed this Sunday morning. We walked for about an hour before finding a little spot that had some food. I didn’t have the address of where I needed to go.
While in La Paz, I stayed with the Marcos Rios Family. I had met his son, Yasser Rios Lopez, a couple years ago. Yasser was an exchange student at Helena High. He came to my classroom in the spring as one of the annual foreign student panel members. His enthusiasm and humor was an immediate hit with my students.
Yasser had given me one, but it was his father’s work address. After eating, then, I strolled back over to a hostel I had seen a wi-fi sign in. The Lion Hostel had a very nice man at the front desk. I asked to use the. Wi-fi for a moment. He said sure and when I offered to pay him for it, he said ‘tranquilo’ – no problem! But the wi-fi was painfully slow, and after almost 10 minutes without getting a message to Yasser, I decided to go find a phone and call his father. The man told me there were a number of call centers just up the street. I then asked if I could leave my backpack – sure, he said! I put my pack behind the front counter, offered again to pay (and was again turned down), and headed out armed with the phone number.
The phone conversation was hilarious. Gabriel (Yasser’s 14 year old brother) answered, but when I said his dad’s name, the phone was passed off. Marcos gave me his address. I then said goodbye to my French friends, and grabbed my big bag from the hostel. I walked a couple blocks and then flagged a cab. The driver was very nice. He told me it would cost 30 Bolivianos to get to that address. Instead I should take a #4 something. He showed me a #1 across the street and said take a 4 for only 3 Bolivianos!
So I stood on the side of the street for about 25 minutes, ultimately deciding it would be better to spend the money and get to my destination than standing on a busy city street with everything I have on my back. So, I opted for a taxi. Another nice driver. He taught me some words in Quechau and A’mani. We had a hard time finding the place, but after the driver asked about 5 people, we pulled up at an amarillo (yellow) home. Marcos was standing at the front door to greet me! I gave the cabbie 40 Bolivianos for his trouble, and went into the home to meet the rest of the family. I was super lucky because it was a holiday weekend, so the family didn’t need to work or go to school on Monday or Tuesday!
Over the next few days, I got to ride a ferry across Lake Titicaca on my way to Cococabana, a little town on the end of the large island in the middle of the lake. We also saw the city from a number of angles and I took pictures like mad. La Paz is perched atop a number of incredibly high – and steep – mountains. It is a fascinating place, and having a couple local guides and a car made all the difference in the world! We went by the President’s office just as the flags were being lowered for the day. Classic that I saw flag ceremonies in 2 of the 5 countries I have visited (Brazil and Bolivia)!
We also went to the Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon – named by astronaught Neil Armstrong) and to the zoo, both of which are just blocks from what they hope will be. Their new home in a few weeks. We went by the President’s residence and the Embassies of the USA and of Venezuela.
Tues morning, ‘mom’ and I went into the bus station. Many of the businesses were closed, but a Peruvian bus company was open and had a first-class ‘cama’ (bed) service that left for Juliaca at 4:30p. Perfect!!  My first opportunity to ride luxury service had finally arrived.
Or so I thought….
Turns out that after a final lunch at the house, I was at the bus depot by about 3:30 — perfect! But this is where my plans once again changed…
The lady who had sold me the ticket in the morning came over and asked me to come visit with her at the office. She told me there was a problem because the border was not open due to the holiday. Instead, I should take the 8 am bus – it would cross the border and get to Juliaca at 2. But I had a plane to catch to Lima at 11:30 – arriving to Juliaca, Peru at 2:00 was a couple hours too late! And, I also had my ticket to the USA the next morning from Lima – I had to get there!
As I stood there wondering what to do, a man and a woman standing nearby and getting the same story from the bus employee got upset. The lady at the counter suggested we go together and take a cab. The couple sized up the foreigner (me) and agreed. A tall European looking lady wanted to come too, but because she had purchased her ticket at a travel agency, she couldn’t get her money back like I did, so she was forced to stay.
We took a cab to El Cemetario – which is a huge transportation hub for non-buses in addition to being the resting place for former La Pazians. We got out of the cab and maybe walked 30 feet before they had negotiated a deal with a driver to get us to La Frontera (the border). In we piled, me in front, the two of them in the back. Just as we thought we were set, another man climbed in the backseat. I recognized him immediately, as he had also been standing in the bus station. We greeted each other again. Gonna be a long couple hour ride, I thought, so I asked their names. Diego, the last man in, was from Cusco, but has been working in La Paz for 15 years. Fransico and Sara were also from Cusco. We began chatting – and while I didn’t understand it all, I was surprised how much I could comprehend!
The ride was crazy. Diego had called and knew the border on the Bolivian side was closing early. This didn’t matter to the three of them, but I needed an exit visa stamp! So, we did the two hour ride, with heavy traffic, in just over 1.5!
The scenery was spectacular, but I was afraid to take out my camera. We got passed a military checkpoint about 100 miles before the border. Good sign, I thought, as the military is working today! We hit the small, dusty border town with horn a blarin’ as we screamed to the end of the road. When we stopped, Sara got out and in moments had arranged a 3 wheeled bicycle with a platform on front. The man loaded our bags and began pedaling them to the border sign while we walked behind. At the exit building, it was open!
The three of them waited outside with the bike and our bags (yes, I was trusting these people I just met with everything I owned… but they were helping save my life and not making me have to carry everything on my back) while I got my exit stamp. We then continued over a bridge and looked out over Lake Titicaca as the sun set and the snow capped peaks on the Bolivian side glimmered in the distance.
It was on of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, but there were tons of people in the street mulling about and selling street market items. This was not the time or the place to play tourist. So, I kept walking.
The group again waited while I completed my entry paperwork and got stamped for Peru. I also changed my money – Francisco was with me, and led me to a lady sitting at a little desk in the street rather than a house of cambio (money exchange business). He made her show him the rate and double-checked the amount she gave me. This guy sure was looking out for me! The bike shuttle guy had looked for a vehicle, but came back saying there wasn’t one. He continued with our bags. We went about a block and decided to unload and wait. No sooner were our bags off the bike than a man drove up in a newer car and in we piled. This time I got in back.
About two hours later, after stopping to pick up one man of about a dozen stranded by a broke-down micro-bus (he rode in the back with our luggage), we made it to Puno. Due to safety concerns, we had decided to stop here. The three of them headed to buy their tickets to Cusco. Francisco helped visit with a couple people trying to lure me to their hotels. Francisco suggested I stay in the terminal for the night (35 soles), but one of the people said I’d need to get across town in the morning. That didn’t sound good. I headed off after saying goodbye. A lady approached. She said her hotel was next to the micro-bus station for getting to Juliaca. Perfect!
I then walked out with her and got in a three-wheeled motorcycle cab — classic! For 2 soles, I got a ride across town. The man let me off right in front of my hotel. Perfect! There was no hot water, and it was a loud night, but at least I’m in Peru and according to the guy that let me in last night, I can get a direct shuttle from here to the Juliaca airport for just 15 Soles ($5.50). Going to go check that out now!
… I caught the mini-bus to the Juliaca airport. It was about an hour ride, as I remember. I would have updated this entry when I arrived, but there wasn’t any wi-fi in the airport terminal. The plane was late, and it was quite the ordeal, but in the end I got on and saw the countryside of Peru out the window of the plane as we flew to Lima. Guess I’ll have to come back one day soon (maybe with my brother to see Machu Pichu and go to the Galapagos Islands)… until then, what I saw out the window of the Andes Mountains and the city of Lima is all I will experience!

The Salt Flats – SW Bolivia!

One week ago (it is now May 3…)… this should have been posted. Unfortunately, I will have to finish it in the states!


It all began last Monday. Will (USA-AZ), Marina (Switzerland), Bevan (Australia), XY (Singapore), and I left our hostel in Salta about 5:30 in the morning. We walked about half a mile to the bus depot, strolling and visiting in the early morning as we went. We got there about 5 minutes before the bus left. It was fun to be traveling with friends… far less stress in a foreign land, for sure!
When we went up the stairs to the second floor of the bus, Will and I found we were in luck – we had the two seats right at the top of the stairs, behind what we thought was a water dispenser, but turned out to have café con azucar (coffee with sugar) and tang! The counter gave us a nice view forward and plenty of leg room; we were traveling to La Quiaca in style (the little town on the northern border of Argentina)! The sights were great. I took a few pictures (surprise) and have two people’s Email to send copies to.
When we got off in the village of La Quiaca – we were at La Frontera (the border), we asked and found the border was 4-5 blocks away. We followed the instructions to go down the hill a couple blocks and take a left. We did, and came to a large structure with a couple guards at in. In we marched, but Marina wanted a picture first. As she pulled out her camera and we began to suggest we get through the border first and then take pictures, some gruff commands from the two guards stopped us short. Turns out we weren’t at the migration checkpoint, we were at a military facility – NO PICTURES!
We apologized and asked for directions to the border. Down across the tracks and to the left. Easy enough! A few hundred yards later we walked up and joined a line of people waiting in the sun for their stamp.
About 15 minutes later, some Israeli tourists came up on the right hand side of the walkway in the shade of some trees. There were others in the shade, but they had left a person to hold their place in the sun. The Israelis – 2 guys and 2 girls – were intent on just having 2 lines, not one. This led to one of the best discussions I have had on this journey.
The woman behind me grumbled that there was only one line. The tourists stood their ground. I was uncomfortable and apologized for their behavior. I told her it was too bad the actions of a few tourists reflected on us all. We had a great visit. By the time we had cleared the Argentinian side and almost got to the front of the line on the Bolivian side, the lady from Peru proclaimed she was the 6th member of our travel family!
This is where life got tricky. My friend Will didn’t have an entry visa to travel into Bolivia. We had read you could simply buy one at the border. When will got up to the counter, though, the border guard made him go around the building to the other side. When he got there, Will realized they wanted him to pay in US dollars. Well, he didn’t have any! And they wanted more than it was supposed to cost too!
It was a fairly intense half-hour delay… Will had to fork over a lot of US money, but he got through. Speaking of money, I wanted to get more cash too! I had been almost out in Argentina that morning.  I wanted to get into Bolivia before getting more cash, since it costs money to exchange currency. So, once we got through, we all crammed in a little run-down cab and got hauled the 1/4 mile or so to the train station. I spent the little I had left on my train ticket and then Will and I walked back into town to get some cash.
The first bank I tried wouldn’t give me cash. We walked another block and got the same result. We began searching for a third bank, but time was running short. The train only runs once every two days from the border up to the town of Uyuni. It leaves at 2:00 p.m. Well, it was about 1:40… so Will and I headed back to the station – and me, with absolutely no money!
The train was slow and dusty, but a way-cool experience. The sun set that afternoon and darkness came as we rumbled down the tracks. We arrived at Uyuni about 8:30 or so. We walked through town to the hostel we had reserved. Once I put my pack down, I took my cash card and went to find some Bolivian money. My friends headed off to find a place to eat, and I said I’d find them soon. Well, two banks later I was still without cash. Something was wrong, as none of the banks would take my card. I was getting a little nervous. My Australian friend Bevan had paid for my room at the hostel. I had no money for dinner. This was ridiculous.
I went to a calling center. There were about 6 phones in little cubicles of the office. You pick one of the phones up, make a call, and then the person at the register by the door charges you when you leave based upon how long you were on the phone.
I called the number on the back of my debit cash card. After being on hold for what seemed like forever, the woman I spoke to on the other end apologized, but said that Bolivia was one of two countries in the world that they refused to allow such cards to be used. They felt Bolivia’s currency was too unstable! GREAT… she told me I would not be able to use the card again until I went back to Argentina or found my way to Peru.  Yikes! What to do now?? I was out of money, period. I was hours from the Argentinian border. My friend Bevan had paid for my hostel room. I had no more money. We were leaving for a 4-day excursion around the Salt Flats of Uyuni at 8 in the morning. I owed a couple hundred US dollars for that trip. I used every last bit of change I had to pay for the phone call and went out into the dark streets to find my friends.
I found them at a little restaurant – having pizza if I remember correctly. For the first time in my life, I had to rely on my friends for my existence! They each gave me a bite of their food as I told them my story of not being able to get money while in Bolivia. My friend Bevan really stepped up at this point. We had known each other for less than a week, but he said he wanted to help. He paid the $200 for my Salt Flats tour and said he’d cover me until we got back to civilization!
The trip could (and would) go on for Mr. Elder – even though he had NO MONEY!!
Our “Travel Family” in Bolivia… the eight of us spent four nights and five days out on the Salt Flats of Bolivia – the Salt Flats Gang:
  • Kelly Elder* –
  • Alexandre Richard –
  • Cecile Tenaud –
  • Pauline Le Fur –
  • Mickael Papin –
  • Bevan Hirst* –
  • Marina Toscan* –
  • William La Follette* –
* – These four people were in one of the Toyota Land Cruisers. The other four, from France, were adopted into our family as we ate and traveled together for the duration of our trip!