Archive for June, 2011


the mountains near Tunari beckon

Before even getting to the Vargas house, I found myself on a guided tour of the monument to the “Heroinas.” Apparently there was a historic moment in Cochabamba where their was a war going on and all the men of fighting age were away from Cochabamba – and the Spanish soldiers arrived to sack the city.

So there was a battle on a hilltop where women and old men fought the Spanish… and the legend is that one old woman, when stabbed in the chest, pulled her heart out and threw it at the Spanish soldiers. At least this is what I gathered from the Spanish and pantomime…

a heroina pulls her heart out...

After a quick stop at the house to drop my big bag in “my” room, I understood Mirian to be asking me if I wanted to take a drive into the mountains… and then she suggested that we go to Morochata, where she had a summer house. I agreed, and off we went into the sunny afternoon – the three of us, in a little car that would turn out to be an adventure in itself.

the Morochata adventure, part 1


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view from the monument to the Heroinas

Where to start? I had spent a few days in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which was hot and flat, and with a transportation strike looming, I employed the kind aid of my surrogate uncle, Victor, to get me on a bus cama headed for Cochabamba overnight. I had a single seat, which reclined all the way (cama is bed) for the 12 hour or so trip toCochabamba. It seemed like the perfect way to travel… not paying for a room overnight, and instead sleeping soundly on the bus. It was warm upon leavingSanta Cruz, and I was puzzled that the bus didn’t seem to get any cooler as we traveled, especially since we were gaining altitude and it was night time. Turns out that my seat also was directly over a heater, which stayed on the entire trip. So much for a sound sleep. There was a funny ticker at the front of the bus that alternatively said the wrong time, and then 75 degrees Celsius. It was hot, but not that hot.

I should add that my surrogate family, the Cocas, had warned me about how everyone except Crucenos inBoliviawere liars and thieves. This combined with stories I’d heard of bags disappearing and fake police officers, etc. had me a little worried about how valuable this little paper ticket in my pocket was that would supposedly allowed me to get my bag at the end of the trip.

I was pretty sure that I’d seen my bag get on the bus, but throughout the course of the night, the bus stopped probably fifteen times, and each time the doors to the luggage bays opened and people lingered near them. By the end of the night, I was fairly certain that my bag was going to be gone.

So in the morning, sleepless and sweaty, I was very pleased to see a very familiar mochilo deposited on the pavement beside the bus. Both bags in hand, I went in to the terminal, and waited to meet my second surrogate family, the Vargas. Victor had, of course, phoned ahead, and arranged for the Vargas to meet me at the terminal and take me home with them to stay at their house during the duration of myCochabamba visit. The kindness and generosity of the Bolivian people I’ve met continues to amaze me. My only link to these families is that my friend Johnny is a nephew/grandson/cousin to them, and this little connection had me treated like a treasured relative.

After a bit of waiting in the terminal, I was approached by a young man holding a sign that said “Daniel Harrinton… Daniel Vargas and Mirian Vargas” and myCochabambaadventure started. As it turns out, Daniel spoke enough English to match my bad Spanish, and we ended up understanding each other pretty well. Mirian, too, spoke some English, and by the end of my visit both were asking me questions to improve their English. At least I could give them something…


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Jardin Zoologico, Santa Cruz de la Sierra

As a new traveler, what I have learned so far is that everything is more difficult and slower here. The up side of this is that things that you would consider commonplace at home, like getting money out of an ATM, can become major victories in your day.

And so it was today during my first attempt at a caje automatico. After my attempt, the screen read “card retained, call bank” and I had a momentary flash of utter disaster before I glanced down and saw that the machine actually had spit my card back out in a peace offering. Whew. But still no money. For a moment I began considering how long my funds would last without ATMs, etc, but was able to let it go and continue walking toward the zoo. Tranquilo.

After a few blocks it occurred to me that the ATM in question did not have any Cirrus, Mastercard, or Visa stickers on it, and perhaps that was the problem.

The zoologico was pretty cool. Run down, half under construction, yes, but it occurred to me that if the facilities were nicer and catered to photo opportunities (pictures are tough through small chainlink fence), it would be a good zoo even in the US. Definitely cool animals and birds, and some signage about the animals, too.

anyone seen Billy's head?

condor de los llanos

That last picture is one of my favorites of the zoo … condor de los llanos (of the plains) on the sign. It looks to me like he ought to be a superhero by the look of his mask. Small cage for a big bird, though, which was also true of the several Andean condors that were hanging out on the ground in small cages. Oh well. I get a little bummed out whenever I go to zoos, even back home.

It took me about 30 minutes or so, I think, to walk from the city center to the zoo, which was interesting in itself. I don’t think people walk much in Santa Cruz, and the one woman who stopped to help me when I was looking at my useless map seemed truly puzzled when I said i wanted to walk — offered me two good bus options.

The city seemed less dirty and the people much prettier on my second day here. Maybe it was the effects of the 12 hours of sleep I got the night before. An Israeli I ate breakfast with was commending the nightlife in Santa Cruz and telling me how he was in a club last night with supermodels. I’ve been told that westerners come to Santa Cruz to find wives. And it is all probably true. But not really my interest, and besides, I don’t believe I’m rich enough for all that. And I’m realizing that a modern vibe and nightlife is probably what Santa Cruz really has to offer, but not a whole lot for someone like me. It makes me curious what the other places will be like…

Jodanga Hostel was a good place to land on my first day and night. English-speaking people, clean… friendly folks. But the $25 USD per night for a private room is just a bit much. It has a pool table, a foosball table, a pool, and a great breakfast, but again it just didn’t feel right for me. But the fact that I could book the reservation on the internet before I arrived was a big plus.

So tonight I am in Residencial Bolivar. A stone’s throw from the Plaza de 24 Septiembre (the city center), only about $14 USD a night for a private room (shared bathrooms)… nice room with a desk and a set of shelves. And it is an old colonial style building, which makes the room a bit quieter. Did I mention the pet toucan wandering the common area?

Residencial Bolivar

Did I mention customs? It was actually a breeze. They didn’t need the extra papers the guide books warned me about (yellow fever vaccination, hotel reservation, etc) … just the visa application filled out and the $135 USD in cash. No bags searched, no delays, nada.

I suddenly realize that I haven’t told about the taxi ride into Santa Cruz yet… the hawker on the road replied 50 Bs when I asked how much to the hostel. The driver himself tried to go for 60 Bs, but I told him the other guy said 50, and that was that. There was a protest with people blocking the road on the way into Santa Cruz, so after calling out to a couple of people along the road, Douglas took us off into side alleys and dirt roads to get around. I wondered for a bit whether we were headed somewhere that his friends could mug me, but eventually we got back to pavement and traffic.

On the way in:

– a woman openly breast feeding while sitting on a horse-drawn cart that the man was driving against traffic on the shoulder

– some caballeros about to drive 20 cows or so across the main highway

– two guys on a motorcycle carrying a 25′ or so ladder

And then I was at the hostel. Pristine and clean. It’s late. Enough for now.

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I have realized, while killing time in Boston and now in Miami, that it is strange to be in an airport traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world. The airport is a place of opulence. Just to be here you have to be able to pay a couple hundred dollars (at least) for a ticket. And it is a consumer’s paradise – fast food and duty-free shops and excessive packaging. Should I buy a magazine that I will throw out before I get on my plane?

Still, there is a pleasant diversity here in Miami. Many languages spoken, particularly Spanish, and the gates are entrances to legendary places like Grand Cayman and Sao Paolo and Santo Domingo. And Bolivia. I’m tempted to try a different gate…

Tomorrow morning I will land and I have no idea what to expect. I hope the customs officials are friendly and forgiving. It’d be great if they spoke English, and I suppose that is possible, but too much to expect. Have I brought the correct documentation to get into the country? I sure hope so.

Here in Miami they have a “Sky Train” that travels between groups of gates. I prefer to walk, but it has firmly stuck that old Replacements song, “Skyway” in my head as I wander here aimlessly. Two hours before the plane will start boarding.

You take the skyway, high above that pretty little one way, and in my stupid hat and gloves at night I lie awake, wondering if I’ll sleep. Wondering if we’ll meet out on the street…

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I begins tomorrow.  My kind parents drive me to Boston, where I (hopefully) board a flight to Miami… which lands in La Paz, Bolivia for a few minutes before continuing on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. My traveling experience is negligible, save for 15 years of seasonal movement across the American West. I know my way around packing and a backpack,  but my Spanish is passable at best, and my international experience amounts to one trip to Quebec seeking strong beer and dancing girls and one quick wade across the Rio Grande into Mexico for a total of 10 minutes.

I am a rookie at this and it scares me.

But the fear is to be embraced. Actors and actresses know it. Musicians know it. Anyone who steps onto a stage knows it. There is an incomparable thrill to stepping out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to the potential ridicule of your peers. Some say that if you are not pushing the envelope, then you are not truly living. In my case, there is no denying that I am stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself. There is a thrill to it. And also a whole lot of fear and apprehension. But in the end… resignation. In the end, I have an incurable faith that everything will work out just fine. By saying that, I do not mean that everything will be easy… but rather that I will survive it and grow from the experience. Some would say that this is the essence of being alive, and to them I would raise my glass and agree. I have to. It’s too late to turn back.

I’m carrying a 55 L Gregory pack supplemented by an ancient Lowe Alpine fanny pack… 2 months worth of survival in those spacious confines. I hope to avoid being robbed. I hope to come back with everything I brought and more. We’ll see. I can provide a packing list if anyone desires, but I would mention that there are two last-minute additions that may be key to my survival and comfort…a Steripen and a mosquito net. A friend and a veteran of traveling, Matt Brooks, vouched for the Steripen… which I have my doubts about, but he says it works and I have anything but a reason to doubt him.

And so tonight I revel in the many things that make my home comfortable and good. There is nothing like leaving a place to make you appreciate it. In a drive today I see the beauty of the forests, the kindness of the people, and the comfort of family. I am leaving all of these things. But in a certain sense, I have no choice. There is a wide world out there, and I could not excuse myself for settling simply for what I know. And there is more, too. I know, deeply, that there is something to learn from these “backward” places and people… something vitally important. And then there is the resistance to capitalism and globalization that is such a draw to this place. But my Spanish is way too poor to converse in these realms. I will have to settle for seeing amazing birds, meeting different people, and viewing ancient ruins. Good enough, I think.

I will do my best to keep writing about this experience. I cannot promise anything. The writing may be banal, the pictures awful, and the sentiments trite. But I’ll give it a try.

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After an early spring of frustrated days of casting fly after fly into unforgiving waters, I can, at last, dispense some words of wisdom to those spring fishermen of the meandering and plentiful rivers of Vermont and New Hampshire. Have patience.

Have patience because the stocking trucks will eventually arrive. If you’re lucky enough, they will even dump bone-headed hatchery fish into a river near you, saving you the trouble of driving to find them. If you peruse the Vermont website, they will even tell you the exact size of the fish being dispensed into your local river, to the decimal inch. What is a 9.3″ fish, anyway? The New Hampshire authorities are a little more circumspect, but here’s another hint… they dump a lot more fish than their compatriots in Vermont. They just don’t give you the precise statistics.

I will preface the following comments with this disclaimer – I am by no means an expert fisherman. I am, however, a fast learner and someone who pays attention to things that interest me. I also learned my beginning lessons of fly fishing in the West. I was the beneficiary of a patient tutor, who repeated a few important maxims to me in the course of waiting while I fumbled through my knots and pondered the difference between leader and tippet. “90% of their diet is underwater,” he explained as I complained about nymphing when we could be casting dry flies. He smiled and shook his head as I insisted on the purity of dry fly fishing as he pulled fish after fish out of a Colorado river using nymphs and a “strike indicator” (fly fisherman for bobber).

Eventually I relented and studied what he was doing. Cursed and swore when I repeated his motions without catching a damn thing. Waist deep in frigid waters a 6 hour drive from home, no waders. No fish. The high country of southern Colorado. Absolutely beautiful. After a few days of learning to mend line and make sure of a dead drift, it finally began to happen. Fish. And not just any fish, but big, fat fish. Full of vitality and color and fight. I held the first one in my hand, and there were rolls of fat rolling over my fingers. They don’t stock the river we were fishing. Native fish… wild fish… wary fish. A good day for me was catching two. But they were big, and the wildness of the country and the river was as much of a reward as touching a denizen of the watery underworld.

And so, when I returned to my home state of Vermont after more than 15 years away, you might understand that my expectations had a distinctively western flair to them.

In April, with the water temperatures finally breaking 40 degrees, I began to test the waters with no luck. The nymphs that had worked just fine out West snagged no waiting lips. The days were empty. And of course, I began to doubt myself. I had heard and read about the discriminating fish of the eastern waters, that could only be fooled by a perfect presentation by a skilled practitioner. But there was this, too… as I patrolled the local waters, I wasn’t seeing fleeting shadows of fleeing fish. It was as if the waters were just strangely empty.

The first suggestion of a different state of fishing came when a friend listened to my mentioning of fishing in late April and responded that I was fishing for “holdovers.” This was new to me, but I found it again mentioned in a worn edition of a guide to fishing Vermont’s waters (copyright 2001) that some pitying person had bequeathed to me. After some study, it became clear that they were talking about stocked hatchery fish that had, somehow, miraculously survived the winter. A few weeks later, over a beer with a stranger in Chester, I heard him say that there weren’t any fish in Vermont rivers anymore. The Williams, the Saxtons, he said… all used to have fish when he was a kid, but he hadn’t pulled a trout out of them in years. They don’t stock them, he said.

And it appears that this is the case. The rivers of New England are dead zones. Perhaps some lingering brook trout wriggle in the top waters at the heads of hidden creeks, but the big waters are inhospitable to trout. Be it warming waters, pollution, fishing pressure, or a deadly combination of these elements… without the state dropping fish into the waters, there would be no trout here.

And this, my friends, is an incredibly sad statement. What has this come to? There are no native trout left?

As a fisherman, it lessens the experience. What glory is there in fooling a fish that grew up on protein pellets and brushing fins with his neighbors? What skill in catching such a fish? What satisfaction in hooking a fish that would not survive the winter anyway? There is something wrong with the world when the skilled fisherman is the one who keeps abreast of the stocking report or who has inside information about where and when the trucks have been sighted.

And I begin to wonder about the people that profess their own skill in finding and landing the elusive, picky trout of the east coast. I am tempted to whisper to them 90% of their diet is underwater and hand them a couple of copper johns. I wonder if describing these fish as cryptic and difficult is just the fisherman’s way of pumping his own chest.

But then again… maybe there are some hidden pools out there. The undisclosed headwaters of some long forgotten stream without a name, nestled in the shadow of the Green Mountains. Maybe there, in the deep, cool water, are some monster fish that will look with disdain at my meager copper johns and wait for something better, something more real. Who will only rise out of the depths for the absolutely perfect presentation of the correct flies. Maybe that’s the ticket.

cold river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

ashuelot river, nh

black river, vt

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