Bolivia (a guest blog post by Robert Byla)

After 2 weeks in Bolivia (Dec 13-26) with my friend Robert Byla, I asked if he would write a guest blog post about his experiences, and he agreed. So for a bit of fresh voice and perspective here’s what Robert took away from our journey through “Un’bolivia’ble” Bolivia.

My recent journey across Bolivia with Karolis Karalevicius was a challenging and unforgettable experience. With practically zero Spanish and no prior experience travelling in South America, I was grateful for the opportunity to enjoy Bolivia’s colorful culture and breathtaking environment. Above all, I was awed by the country’s unbelievable ecological and geological diversity. From alpine mountains to sub-tropical landscapes and volcanic deserts, the beautiful yet constantly-changing scenery made it seems like the entire thirteen day adventure was just a dream.

The entire trip was a spellbinding affair, however, if I had to pick two highlights, it would be trekking up Mount Huayana Potosi and the Tunupa Volcano in the Southwest. While I have enjoyed hiking all my life, prior to Bolivia, I had never before scaled any mountain with ropes and crampons. That said, it was daunting to know that my commitment to climb Huyana Potosi would lead me to climb to an elevation of 20,000 feet with no prior training. I couldn’t even imagine having to jump a three foot crevasse in the dark at such an elevation. Throughout the journey, I had to fight against negative thoughts telling me I wouldn’t make it. At approximately 18,700 feet, however, I had to make the decision to turn back as I was unable to speed up my pace to keep up with the group. Heavy snowfall from the night before made our trek more difficult than normal.

While substantially less challenging, climbing the Tunupa Volcano was an equally incredible experience. Set on the side of the beautiful Salar de Uyuni, the climb featured spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and salt flats stretching to the horizon. One of the most thrilling aspects of this climb was the weather and geology, which changed dramatically as we ascended. Reaching the rim of the volcano was the most satisfying part of this trek, as it gave us a fabulous view of the horizon and the crater itself. Together with the Huyana Potosi climb, this was an inspirational experience that helped me learn more about myself.

While I have travelled to so-called “developing world” in the past, my recent trip to Bolivia was profoundly different from my other experiences exploring lower-income countries. Compared to other places I have visited such as India and Indonesia, Bolivia felt significantly more isolated from the rest of the world. Connections to the internet and foreign media/press seemed significantly less prevalent and reliable in Bolivia than other places I have visited. While I had heard about South America’s slow-pased “mañana” lifestyle and reputation for service unreliability, I was not expected to run across two politically-motivated roadblocks that threatened to upset the logistics of my entire trip. In contrast, my experiences travelling throughout South and Northwest India (which in 2011 had a GDP per capita of $3,700 versus Bolivia’s $4,800) were marked by reliable infrastructure and transportation services. Finally, in comparison with Jakarta and Delhi, Bolivia’s capitol of La Paz did not reflect comparable levels of income inequality as in the former. Whereas in India and Indonesia, fancy cars, shopping malls, and skyscrapers mingle with slums and abject poverty, the situation in Bolivia seemed a lot less extreme—walking through La Paz and scanning its horizon, not once did I see a fancy Rolls Royce, Prada Boutique, or flashy five star hotel. While it would be impossible to do justice to my experience in words, I can truly say that the journey was an educationally fulfilling and spiritually enlightening one.

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