Sunday, May 06, 2007

Weekend in Samaipata

Yesterday, together with several colleagues, I made my first weekend excursion out of Santa Cruz. We came to the town I'd heard most about, Samaipata. It's a mountain hideaway, snuggled amidst tropical green hills, with a cool, fresh air and an enveloping scent of flowers, ferns, pines and herbs. It's also very quiet. One feels the night when the blackness falls here, which led me to bed early. And thus, I appreciated the morning, the fresh greenness, the sound of the birds and the crickets, even more.

I shared a station wagon with three other passengers, 2 male and one female. As we began to drive out of town, it felt good to be heading somewhere new. And it was nice to be with people other than my colleagues, to hear about some different topics and opinions.

The passengers were an interesting enough bunch. The man in front was from La Paz. He is in town to check the radiation levels emitted from cell phone towers, to make sure they aren't harmful to human health.

"In reality, they never reach even half the level of the limits set by the FCC," he said. "The bigger problem is holding the phone up to your head. They should ban that."

The other two passengers got into an impassioned discussion about societal problems.

"The most important thing is liberty," said the man.

"Yes," agreed the woman. "Democracy. We should help the poor with education and health. Because a person with a bit of education can defend himself. Instead of spending money on stupid things, like sheets and paintings, we should spend money on schools, hospitals and churches. The churches helpas well, because a person without values, who isn't afraid of anything, isn't good for society."

"That's the most serious," said the man. "We live in Santa Cruz, where we live well, and we forget that the rest of the country lives in a different world."

"But Santa Cruz as well used to be without water and light," argued back the woman. "But who brought those things. The village did it itself." She complained about how the local rich take their money and spend it in Europe and the States. She thinks it should stay here, to help the local economy. "What do Europeans do?" she asked. "They collect taxes and invest it in their country. We also have brains, but we have bad customs and habits. We need to do this ourselves. Everyone who has the ability has the obligation to teach, educate, help."

Shortly after she left the taxi, the man threw a plastic bag with the remnants of his snack onto the mountain ride, a nice example of a bad habit.

The drive was beautiful. Leaving Santa Cruz, we saw women selling stalks of sugar cane, and little baggies of peeled, individual-sized pieces. Fifteen minutes outside of the city, it already felt open, more free, greener. Donkeys pulled carts on the side of the road, a man rode an umbrelled bicycle with a canister in front filled with a local drink for sale, and white geese waded along the mudded, wet brown roads. As we traveled further, I had vast, wild views of tropical green trees. As the road became smaller, the trees came closer and we entered a countryside of green field, green trees, and green misty mountains. Small village cemetaries were marked by a tall, colorful oval of flowers atop each white tomb.

We made our way into the mountains and I suddenly felt myself back in Kyrgyzstan - the windy roads following rivers below, the sheer rock faces emerging from mountains, and portions of road that just disappeared into the canyon below. We were stopped by an avalanche, which caused us to pause for close to two hours while they cleared the roads.

"I don't know what we are waiting for," the radio tower guy said. "The rocks will continue falling. It's like a lottery."

We saw several falls during our wait. During the first one, a rather large boulder rolled down the hill and across the road. It could have done quite a bit of damage to whatever might have been in its path. Most the others were small rocks. But no one knew when another large fall could come. We watched two motorcycles risk it. They got across OK, but several rocks fell behind them. The rest waited until the crane cleared the way. Then a parade of vehicles came through, one by one. Giant trucks and buses wavering on the rough road, then picking up speed and gunning across as fast as they could.

"I've been to Samaipata 11 times and this is the first time I've come across an avalanche," my colleague Maria said. It made it all the more an adventure.

The rest of the journey was along a windy road, through thick greenery and a gorgeous landscape of red soil, rolling mountains, and cliffside white homes with red tiled roofs, fronds, flowers, cacti and trees. We crossed a bridge over a sheer rock waterfall, and within a couple of kilometers, were in the small town of Samaipata. The central square is the prettiest I've seen, dense with flowers, greenery, stone arches and sculpture. It has a speaker's corner, modeled after London's Hyde Park. When one stands on the circular platform and speaks, you can hear your voice amplified. The central streets are made of cobblestone, making it sound like we were driving over a washboard.

We stayed at an organic farm called La Vispera. It has a spectacular setting on a hillside, the air rich with the heady scent of lavender and tropical flowers. I had a gorgeous little cabana called the Sweet. I could look out at pink bouganvillea, at cacti, rhubarb, herbs, and all kinds of tropical flowers - blue, yellow, red, white - that I didn't recognize. They also serve organic, vegetarian food at their cafe. Only problem was the service. They say their food is slow. But when my pancakes didn't appear after an hour and 45 minutes, I had to leave. I'd forgotten my camera in the taxi and had to go try to find it before the driver returned to Santa Cruz (luckily, I got it back). They said they'd leave the pancakes for me and I could have them for dinner. When I returned at dinner, no one knew where the pancakes were. The kitchen had already closed, at six. I asked if I could have something simple and cold, like bread and cheese, because I had nothing to eat. Nope, the kitchen closes at six. So I was unhappy to spend much of the afternoon and evening hungry.

This town has a serious fixation on the healthy. The sugar is brown, the tea is herbal, the bread is wheat, and meat can be hard to find. When I sought out lunch in town, I went to a place that I heard had good hamburgers.

"Would you like a vegetarian or meat burger?" the waitress asked me.


The hamburger came accompanied by lettuce, grated carrots and grated beets. I was so hungry I didn't notice at first, but it soon became apparent that my burger was greenish and the texture soft. It looked like I'd gotten vegetarian - like it or not. There is lots of great, homemade stuff for sale here - from herbs and herbal teas to cheeses, sliced ham, chutnies, james and marmelades.

While some of my colleagues went to visit some nearby ruins, I stayed on the farm to participate in an outdoor yoga class, to walked up to the golden throne (a thrown made of rock under a flowered arch up high on the hillside), and to listen to the crickets and watch the butterflies, sip lemon-orange herbal tea, and enjoy the tranquility.

No comments: