Death Road and the Trip of a Lifetime

It’s been over two weeks since I’ve returned from Bolivia, and I kept meaning to write, but life got in the way. Isn’t it funny how we permit ourselves the time to do the things that we love while we’re on vacation, but push them aside when we return to reality? 

And by funny, I mean sad. 

For those of you seeking closure in my Bolivia trip, here it is. 

Bolivia to me was like a Picasso. It was a surreal visualization of something familiar. I’ve seen many beautiful sunsets in my life, and because of said paradigm I understood that what I saw in Bolivia were also sunsets- yet somehow they didn’t feel real. And that’s how all my major moments in Bolivia felt.

I drank wine on the world’s largest salt flats, I crawled through the tunnels of the highest silver mine, and I rode down the world’s most dangerous road. And that is where my story ends. (I mean the trip, but that was for dramatic effect…)

Dubbed, “El Camino de la Muerte,” Bolivia’s Yungas road is a 40 mile stretch of road where about 300 people have been estimated to die each year. 

We took a ten person bus down the deadliest road, with a local man, Juan, as our driver. For those of you who know me well, you know that I’m overly trusting of other people to a fault. I entrusted Juan with my life- the man who rode his brakes downhill instead of shifting to a lower gear, and who I caught praying on more than one occasion. I saw this as a good sign in case Jesus needed to take the wheel.

Driving along the winding road of the Camino de la Muerte was impressive in itself. On your right side you had the wall of the mountain, and on your left a straight drop down. Crosses lined the road, marking where cars or full buses had fallen, and in certain places, if you looked hard enough, you could see old wrecks that over time that began to blend in with the jungle flora. 

I would occasionally peer over the edge and envision how our bus would tumble. 

Would we flip over the front like a gymnast or would we roll down like a log? 

And what would happen first: would I fly out through the glass or would a tree punch through the window?

I hurried to distract myself with the jungle views instead, because honestly life will happen the way it wants to and the details don’t matter. 

Plot twist, I survived, so I suppose I will never know the answer to those questions. 

But what I can tell you is that there is nothing that can make you feel more alive than the moments in which you take yourself out of your comfort zone. Whether that means traveling to a new country or entrusting your life to a Bolivian man named Juan. 

In the end, Bolivia and Death Road ending up being the ride of a lifetime. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a trip off the beaten path. 

Miner Barbie In Potosí

After an incredible stay in Salar de Uyuni, we headed towards the colorful and charming mining town of Potosí, that had once been one of the most powerful and rich towns in Bolivia. After the Spaniards arrived in Bolivia and learned of riches in Potosí, they created a mint here producing Spain’s coins using silver mined from Cerro Rico.

At 4,200 meters the mines in the Cerro Rico mountain of Potosí are the highest in the world. Each day, 14,000 miners enters the nearly 10,000km of tunnels within the mountain in search of silver or zinc. On the second day of our stay in Potosí, we had an opportunity to visit the mines and venture inside. 

Our first stop of our tour was at a small store where we needed to buy gifts for the miners per local tradition. These gifts consisted of soda, cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite. Yep, dynamite. In Bolivia you can buy sticks of dynamite from any tiny and weathered local woman with a storefront- no questions asked. 

Now, because you can’t just meander into a mine without proper attire, our next stop was at a warehouse where we were properly outfitted for our journey into the center of the earth. I wandered out from the building drowning in an oversized plastic jacket, pants and rain boots- the only thing that fit well was my helmet, complete with a lamp in front. This was certainly not the version of playing dress up I was use to, but that day I was Miner Barbie. 

I was prepared to make my grand debut in a new career, but as soon as I stepped into the tunnel, I felt myself choking on the mix of dust and fumes that filled the air. As our group ventured deeper into the tunnel, the light at the entrance became dimmer and the tunnel itself became smaller and smaller, to the point where most people couldn’t stand up straight. At all of 5 foot 3, I only needed to duck my head down a bit (I was like Goldilocks, and the tunnel was just right size). But, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone else managed to work in these cramped conditions when I could barely walk through.

I looked around at the tunnel walls, laced with traces of arsenic, and the stream of dust that my lamp illuminated, wondering what awful disease I will develop from these thirty minutes. 

Here I was playing Miner Barbie, when this was someone else’s reality. 

I work at a desk (with an option to stand because sitting is the new smoking, ya know?), I have healthy snacks and meals readily available, and I can go home at 5pm.

I do not need to pay for my own equipment like these miners do. I don’t have to crawl through tunnels for hours on end, breathing in toxic fumes. And I most certainly am not risking my life by throwing sticks of dynamite and hoping I can run away in time. 

As miners, young and old, passed us by,I was filled with admiration for the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that they do. 

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that gratitude and humility are common themes. So, I shouldn’t surprise you to know that as soon as the tour was over, I hurried out towards the sun and the fresh air- grateful for my education, the opportunities I’ve had, and my employment.

Plus, I realized that I would have made a terrible miner.

Heaven on Earth

There are a few moments in my travels that I remember distinctly as some of the most beautiful moments in my life. They are the moments when time pauses, and you look around and you’re wondering how something so magical can also be real. These moments include sleeping under the stars in the Sahara desert in Morocco, diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and watching the sunset over Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. 

Watching the colorful sunset reflect off the water over the salt flats in Salar de Uyuni was one of those magical moments that will remain with me until the day I die. 

Or until some awful disease ravages my brain, but you get the picture. 

For those of you who are not familiar with Bolivia and the salt flats (no need to be ashamed, just blame the lack of global perspective in the American education system) Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. In fact, it can even be seen from outer space. OUTER SPACE. 

We spent two days driving around the flats in jeeps, and the whole experience just felt very surreal, maybe even extra terrestrial. I was Hans Solo and this was Star Wars. (Bet you thought I’d go with Princess Leia, but Hans Solo has a way better outfit.) You looked out ahead of you and all you saw for miles and miles was pure white ground and an intensely blue sky. No cars, no people, no buildings. 

Just you and the white and the blue. 

Of course, if you turned around you saw the other jeeps and a handful of people-but perspective is all about choosing where to look. And I choose to look ahead. 

As if the flats couldn’t get more extraordinary, the area was entirely covered in a hexagonal pattern that the salt had naturally formed. From the honeycombs in my backyard to the basalt columns I saw last May in Iceland, nature just loves hexagons. And I suppose I do too- because it looks wicked cool. 

However, nothing could prepare me for the sunset that I saw my last night in Salar de Uyuni. Our driver took us to a part of the salt flats that was entirely covered with about two inches of water and you could see the clouds, the sun and the sky reflecting off the water. I poured myself a glass of lovely Bolivian wine and watched as the colors got more and more intense. 
Every time I thought the sunset couldn’t get better- it got better. Normally I would blame drinking wine at 12,000 feet, but this was pure magic. The sunset in itself was an incredible array of oranges, pinks and blues- the water doubling its effect. I felt as if I were floating through the kaleidoscope sky, just passing through the clouds- my reflection being the only form of proof I needed. 

It was heaven on this beautiful Earth of ours.

Breathless in La Paz

I arrived in La Paz a day ahead of the group that would be joining me, which was perfect because I got to explore the city alone for a day. 

I’ll admit that my day was mostly improvisation. Although I like to plan ahead, I figured I could just get to Bolivia and “wing it”. After all, every city in the world has the same skeleton. There is a plaza that you have to go see, an old church that you must go pray in and a market you can buy some souvenirs in. Between that foundation, and a few recommendations from my airport driver, the Lonely Planet book I skimmed on the plane, and a friend who had just visited- I was set. 

After three hours of wandering and checking off the main sights, I returned to my room huffing and puffing and proceeded to lay in bed for an hour. For those of you who don’t know, La Paz is 11,975 feet above sea level. For reference Chicago has an elevation of 595 feet. 

That’s quite the difference, and my lungs would agree. At this altitude breathing becomes a task in itself. If I got winded getting myself dressed, you can imagine what a flight of stairs did to me. My heart was pounding. 

Also if anyone thinks that flying to La Paz to climb stairs is going to be the next big workout craze-you heard it here first. We can call it: Breathless Fitness “where people can get un-Boliviable results!”

Anyway, once I mustered up some strength, I went for a joy ride on the city’s Teleféricos- a cable car system that covers the entire city. Because La Paz is very hilly, this is the best mode of public transportation. Best yet- it’s only $.50 for a ride so you bet I rode that cable car over and over. 

On my fourth ride down the red line, I spotted something peculiar from above- a complex of tall rectangular concrete blocks lined with ornately decorated windows. 

A great rule of thumb for traveling is if you see something interesting and you don’t know what it is, you must always investigate. Unless you’re in a horror movie, because that’s how the first character always dies. 

And with that, I hopped off the teleférico and found myself in La Paz’s cemetery which I had briefly read about. I generally enjoy exploring cemeteries (Père-Lachaise in Paris is a favorite) but I had never seen anything like this before. 

Bolivians cremate their dead, and purchase a glass fronted space in the cemetery walls. Each space is decorated with flowers and mementos, little toys for deceased children and mini bottles of Johnnie Walker or Coca Cola for the older folks. Each wall has hundreds of these windows, and some of the walls are a few stories tall. The cemetery was bustling with families cleaning and decorating the glass windows, and I walked through the cemetery lanes admiring how beautiful each window was. 

I ended my day there, content with the colorful side of La Paz I had experienced throughout the day. The city really took my breath away though, literally. 

Cheers to the Middle Seat!

I have been long overdue for a vacation, so when the day of my flight to Bolivia finally arrived- I left for the airport with a spring in my step. I was flying from Detroit to La Paz, with a connection in Miami. Security was a breeze and both flights were even on time, so naturally I was a little suspicious- something needed to go wrong. That’s when I noticed I had two middle seats. 

I arrived to my seat on the first leg of my flight, and to my horror realized it was really more like half a seat- the other seat and a half occupied by my neighbor. I politely squeezed in and tried to make myself as small as possible, thanking Orange Theory the entire time for my smaller butt. 

Midway through the flight, the airplane started to shake violently and I happily melted into my seat. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the lady next to me was terrified, and holding on for dear life. 

Although I enjoy chatting up strangers on flights, I was uncomfortable and slightly annoyed about the contortions I had to perform to fit into my seat, so I wanted to keep to myself tonight.  

After about five more minutes of turbulence I caved and asked my neighbor, “Are you okay?”
“This is my first time flying,” she responded. 

“Oh, you’re fine! This is nothing at all. Just some run of the mill turbulence. Sub par, really.” I told the lady nonchalantly. 

She exhaled, smiled and said, “Thank you.” 

When the turbulence hit again, I decided to get her talking. She was a bus driver in Michigan and had six kids. This was her first vacation away from her family, her first time in an airplane, and her first time going to Miami. She was nervous and excited. And of course she was- the lady waited 17 years to take a trip!

And there I was on my way to my 43rd country, whining about a middle seat. 

See, it’s easy to take travel for granted when it’s something you just do. It took a conversation with a stranger to remind me how blessed I am to always be traveling, and going on yet another incredible adventure. So, cheers to the middle seat! 
My middle seat got me here.

Kraków- City of Magic

I’ve been coming to Kraków ever since I was a child, and this November’s quick trip reminded me just how much I love this city. 

I mean, how can visiting a city so old, never get old? 

Those of you who read my blog regularly (okay, basically my mom) were probably thinking: “Wow Pauline, another rhetorical question.”

Alas, dear friends, I have an answer for this one. 

See the reason why I can be in Kraków hundreds of times and still come hundreds more is that, simply put, Kraków is magical. 

Since my mother and I landed here on Sunday, we’ve had our fair share of “magic moments.”

We swayed and sang along to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with hundreds of people in the main square commemorating the artist’s passing. We went to mass at St. Mary’s Basilica and gazed at the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world. We rode around town in a horse drawn carriage listening to the patter of hooves on the cobblestone streets. 

Pure magic.

Even if you didn’t do any of those things, the city would still be spectacular. You could wander around the main square in Old Town seventeen times and choose a different street of little cafes and shops to veer off and get lost in. (This was originally written as an exaggeration, but I counted and there are in fact twelve different streets that split off the main square.)

As if it couldn’t get any better, we just went out to dinner at a very lovey restaurant and had appetizers, mains, desserts, beverages and wine for two for under $50. I mean if that’s not wizardry to you, then you’re probably really well off and in that case I’m happy for you. But you’ll find me, and mama Kulka, ballin’ on a budget in Kraków. 

And if you still don’t believe it’s magical, then you can talk to the dragon who lives under the Wawel Castle. 

But he’ll probably eat you, so don’t. 

Australia

I flew to Australia on a whim, with a loose plan and a handful of set flights. And somewhere between the wonderful people I met along the way, and the cities, ocean and mountains, it became the best trip of my life.

Everything I did there I did full on. I dove the Great Barrier Reef, I learned to surf at Bondi Beach, I immersed myself in the food and art scene in Melbourne, and I rode through the Blue Mountains on a motorcycle.

And it was epic. It was beyond epic, but what really made it was all the people I met along the way. See, I was traveling alone, but in those three weeks I never once felt alone. Everywhere I went, new friends welcomed me into their lives with open arms.

In Melbourne, from getting picked up from the airport by an old friend, Izzy, to dropped off by a new friend, Chloe, I was constantly laughing. 

On the Great Barrier Reef, my dive buddy, Seth, quickly became the little brother I never had, and my roommate, Ciara, a beautiful Aussie mermaid who hopped out the ocean and onto the boat (I have yet to confirm that theory), reminded me how much inner power women who travel alone posses. The rest of the crew and passengers made every minute between the dive-eat-sleep-repeat an absolute pleasure.

In Cairns, the liveaboard crew hooked it up. Leighton gave me a place to call home for a day and got me on my next bus, while Kim kept the Jäger train running through the night.

In Ayr and Townsville, Meri, a German schoolteacher who I met at a bus stop, kept me company. She made me dinner, dove a wreck with me, shared her stories and advice, and gave me a glimpse of my future self. 

Between all the people he introduced me to in Sydney and making Bondi Beach feel like home, my friend Erik showed me how easily I could make the move to Australia one day. And of course, for giving me the most epic and unforgettable last day in Straya- I’ll always be grateful.

To the gypsies and the mermaids, and the divers and the motorbike riders. To everyone mentioned and unmentioned. To everyone who gave me a place to stay or gave me a ride, who fed me or clothed me, who bought me a drink or a coffee, who made me laugh or kept me company.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 Know that wherever I am in the world, my home is your home, and I only hope that one day I can repay the favor.