Monday, April 21, 2014

Salar de Uyuni

We had been trying to get ourselves out to the salt flats for at least 3 weeks, and with sickness and a road blockage, we had to reschedule numerous times. I also have to admit that it was a bit of a journey to get there and so there may have been some apprehension, but we went for it and I'm so glad we did.

We got up early on Friday morning and got on a bus to Oruro...a 4.5 hour trek across absolutely nothing. Seriously flat land at high altitudes. When we arrived at Oruro we caught a 7 hour train to Uyuni, arriving at 10:30pm. Thankfully, the train was comfortable and our hotel was right across the street from the train station. The only thing on our way that was really worth seeing was the lake full of wild pink flamingos.

The next morning we joined another group of tourists to begin our day-long tour of the Salar. We all loaded ourselves into a jeep and headed out. Our first stop was the train cemetery. We weren't given any explanation of this place at all, but it looked like entire trains were just left there to rust. It was pretty amazing.

We visited a small village that's entire livelihood is dependant on the Salar...whether through the tourism it brings or through processing and selling the salt. They literally live on the very edge of the Salar, and do absolutely everything manually...even down to sealing the bags of salt.

Houses made entirely out of salt.

I believe these hills have something to do with the processing of the salt. 
From there, we drove further and further into the became more desolate, and more insane with every kilometre that we went. It literally felt like we were on another planet...all you could see for miles was salt, which made distance and perception so distorted. It is the world's largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometres. They have also begun processing lithium next time you use a lithium battery, it just might come from Bolivia!

Flags of the world...the Dakar car race came through here this year.

Crazy formations that occur further into the salt flats. 
Our next stop was Incahuasi's a bizarre "island" that is covered in giant cacti (standing at 10-15 ft tall) and juts out of the salt flats like something that really doesn't belong there. We hiked to the top of the island for an incredible view of the never-ending Salar.

Our final destination was a blindingly pristine area of the flats where our driver took personal pleasure in arranging "perception" photos for us. It was hilarious and fun! There is little to no depth perception in the Salar and so you can create strange pictures.

The group we traveled in the jeep with.  

Duane and Amelia licking the salt.  

Our tour lasted the entire day and we got back to Uyuni exhausted...we slept for 2 hours in our hotel and climbed back on the train to head home. We "slept" on the train that night and caught a bus in the morning back to La Paz. Our trip was the equivalent of driving to Vancouver from Saskatoon for one day and driving back. Even though we felt like we were insane at times, we all felt like it was worth it! Amelia proves over and over again that she is a good some ways, a better traveler than Duane and I.

Hip Disarticulation

 Normally, the Center does not treat hip disarticulation patients, but with the foreign prosthetist here, we can do anything right?! Ha! As a team, we were happy to accept the challenge, especially after meeting this incredible patient and hearing his story. His is young, strong, and motivated and has shown excellent progress learning to walk with his prosthesis.
We have been continuously blessed by generous donations here at the Center. This time, it was a like-new Ottobock 7E7 hip joint including spare parts.

We've been fortunate to have a Physiotherapist from Switzerland join us for a short time. The timing has been perfect for her to spend many hours with our hip disarticulation patient.

Its been a fun challenge ONLY having thermoforming technology in this lab. Most prosthetic facilities at home will have both thermoforming and laminating technology available. I've found that really, once you know the tricks, you can do everything with plastic thermoforming. Do to the capacity of our oven, we had to form the plastic for this hip in 2 stages, with 2 pieces.

One of our volunteers fabricated an angled adapter for us from delrin. It's perfect. At home, it's frustrating when you don't have the right adapter; here, you just make it!

Sunday, April 20, 2014


With only a few days left I find myself trying to absorb everything I see…every smell, every sound, and every emotion…in attempt to lock La Paz in my memory. Pictures just won’t do this 6 month journey any justice. They can’t depict the loneliness we felt for the first few months, the cultural adaptations we have all had to make (namely Amelia), or the incredible gratitude we have toward the people who have opened up their lives to us.

It is these people who completely changed our experience of this place…and for reasons unbeknownst to us allowed us to be a small speck in the grand tapestry of their lives. And so as we begin to pack up six months of life abroad, we also begin to pack up our experiences and sift through our stories, the changes we’ve undergone, and the impressions that Bolivia has left on us…that people have left on us. Even as I write this I feel disheartened at the thought of having to say goodbye. The difference being when we left Canada we knew it was only for a period of time. Leaving here is much more permanent. We plan to come back but we can’t predict what the future will bring.

Duane and I have been spending many nights talking about the things we are looking forward to, and the things that we will miss...I have compiled a list of both.

What I Will Miss:
  • The ease of public transport here. You can catch a mini bus without having to wait for more than 15 minutes…there’s even one that goes directly passed my front door.
  • The absolute elation at finding things we take for granted at home (ie. Organic vegetables, delicious burgers, flavorful beer).
  • The stunning topography that never ceases to make me look a little longer. I’m often awe struck.
  • Speaking Spanish everyday. It has been fun learning and watching Duane and Amelia learn as well.
  • The fresh fruit. There is awesome fruit available all the time.
  • The markets. No matter how crazy they are they are always fun.

What I’m Excited For:
  • I can’t wait to actually be in a field. A huge field where I’m allowed to be, and that is not covered in dog poop. A friend and I got in trouble the other day for sitting on a small patch of grass to have a picnic. Dogs can wander freely, but not people. Nope. 
  • I’m excited to be in a house that is warm. I know many of you think we’re jerks for missing out on winter, but I guarantee that you were much warmer in your homes then we were. There were moments where I thought that I had never experienced the sensation of being THAT cold before. 
  • Duane and I counted all of the new businesses that have gone up since we left. I think we came up with 7. We want to try them all!
  • Food has to be one of the main things I can’t wait for…thick, Greek yogurt, farmer sausage, bacon, hormone free meat, hormone free eggs, healthy food options, non-UHT milk.
  • Looking forward to not being at altitude any longer.
  • I can’t even express how awesome it is to KNOW that a business will be open when it says it will be, and that you can check the hours on the internet. Also, it’s so exciting that restaurants will be open before 7pm.
  • Riding bikes. Seriously. I can’t wait!

So Saskatoon, we’ll see you soon! And it is with sadness that we say goodbye to all our friends here in La Paz. It has been a wild experience that I’m glad we’ve had. Chao.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sajama National Park

Our neighbours told us about this amazing national park that Bolivia shares with Chile. This park is home to wild vicunas, llamas, alpacas, pink flamingos, and holds Bolivia’s highest mountain.  At 21463 ft / 6542 m the mountain looms over flat, barren land with some of the harshest and varying temperatures I have ever experienced.

Sajama Mountain
We began our trip early in the morning and caught a bus going to Arica, Chile. We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere about 15 minutes from the Chilean border. This was apparently the gate to the national park, but there was very little to indicate that this was in fact true. We had decided to hike the rest of the way into Sajama village…a mere 12km couldn’t be that bad, right? Well it wasn’t, until after an hour we could see Sajama village and could continue to see it for the remaining 2 hours that we walked. It was like dangling a carrot in front of a hungry man, but never letting him eat it. Our 3-hour, uphill hike across Isla del Sol was easier than this flat, sandy, taunting walk in severely hot sunlight. I felt like my pants might light on fire.

Paco, at the national park "gate"

People live here

Amelia once again impressed us! I’m beginning to think she really likes adventures! During our breaks she would walk off into the fields, reveling in the freedom and the space that we lack in La Paz…and we just let her. She could have walked all the way to Sajama and we still would have been able to see her, so we weren’t worried.

Our new little buddy "baby alpaca"
Our adobe huts were there to greet these dusty travelers, and we all settled in for a bit of a rest. Do not be mistaken…resting with a toddler does not mean that we sleep. No, rather it means that we attempt to read kids’ books and keep ourselves awake while our child jumps on the bed and wants our undivided attention. After about an hour of this we decided to go outside to defeat the sleep that wanted to overtake us once and for all…it worked. It was like winter outside. I put on all of the clothes I had brought with me. I was still cold. We had killed enough time for supper to be ready and we filled our bellies with llama meat, rice and soup.

Our huts

The next morning we decided to visit the world’s highest forest. These trees are capable of growing at high altitude. They can survive as high as 5300m from what I’ve read. They aren’t like trees we are used to…they are more like a tall bush, have a blood red trunk that is super flaky, and are as hearty as anything. We climbed a decent sized hill on a perfectly straight path without any switchbacks and found ourselves at 4500m. The view was amazing and once again the temperature was hot.

One of the trees from the forest


After bouldering to the top of a ridge, she jumped right off!
That afternoon we hired a guy to drive us out to the hot springs…he dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and pointed us in the general direction of where they were. We wandered for sometime, marveling in the warm waters flowing in the river, the lizards, and the slightly more lush vegetation, and finally found where these hot springs were. It was a picturesque, natural pool fed from a spring further up, with an unobstructed view of Sajama Mountain. The water was warm and soothed our tired bodies…the air around us was cooling off as the sun dipped behind the mountain, so we were glad for the warmth.
At the hot springs

We walked back to Sajama village…about a 6km walk through arid brush, and llama poop. We had a difficult time finding a place to get food when we got back, and wandered around the dark town looking for a place to eat. We ended up at a small shop we had eaten lunch at earlier in the day…her door was closed, but the light was on so we tentatively knocked and she gladly let us in and fed us up.

Our trip home was just as eventful (although, it included much less walking). Our hostel host would not give us breakfast in the morning so we had to make due with the snacks that we had for our 5-hour journey home. We hired someone to drive us to the Chilean border so we could catch a bus heading back to La Paz. When we arrived at the border there were semi-trucks lining both sides of the road (all heading in the same direction, mind you) for about 15km. We waited for a while to see if things would clear up…they didn’t. Our driver couldn’t take us any further so we walked the rest of the way to the border where we quickly found a bus. On the last leg of our trip we came to El Alto, the city just above and attached to La Paz, where they made us get off the bus and wait for another one because they said, “something was wrong with the bus”. This was not the case…rather it has something to do with permissions and certain buses can get through without paying tolls…so after waiting 30 minutes we got on another bus that drove for only about 5 minutes when the driver stopped, came back and told us that this bus didn’t work either and we’d have to wait for another one. So…we waited and got on another bus that thankfully took us the rest of the way to La Paz.

We absolutely loved our time in Sajama! It’s so nice to take breaks from the congestion here in the city and to experience other parts of this wild country. I would strongly encourage you to visit this national park if you come to Bolivia…it was a great experience with Amelia, and I would say that it is doable with kids. One lady in the village told me that people often don’t bring kids there, and this was evident by the stares that Amelia received from the other children that lived there. It’s harsh, and challenging, but totally worth it! 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Just outside of La Paz is a wildly high mountain that you can drive up. It was once touted as the world’s highest ski resort, but there remains very little of a once immense glacier. This glacier has disappeared only within the last 20 years or so. For a little day trip we all packed ourselves into our friend’s car and drove an hour and half through the flat altiplano, through herds of llamas, and finally into the mountains. We ascended almost 2000m and came to a stop at 5300m (about 17,300ft). Being acclimatized to the altitude in La Paz, I was surprised by how I felt…tingly fingers, tingly lips, and difficulty breathing. Duane said his “ears felt tight”.

What you can't see...Amelia on Duane's lap, and Lluis WAY in the back holding on to luggage.
Huana Potosi. The mountain I hope to climb in April.

The view was breathtaking (literally). We could see the vast sprawl of El Alto falling into the valley of La Paz, an amazing mountain range beyond the city, and beside us the intimidating peak of Huana Potosi. The kids played in the snow…eating it, throwing it, and sledding! So fun!

Lluis and Ely, our brilliant neighbours who have made living in La Paz a wonderful thing. 
After about an hour we noticed Amelia was acting kind of strange and decided it would be best to descend. She was suffering from a bit of altitude sickness, and fell asleep in my arms…when we had come down about 1000m she woke up and acted as if nothing had happened. That is the magic of altitude.