Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Yin & Yang of Traveling, La Paz & Potosí

Views of stunning La Paz, Bolivia.

Sometimes travelling makes me feel like I'm bipolar.  Certain days and moments are the happiest, most sensational, ecstatic moments of my life. Others (whether a day later or a minute later) are so isolating and alone, with a longing for the comforts of home and a feeling of destitution. It's like everything you can experience at home and on a regular basis, times a million! The ups and downs. Maybe that's why I like travelling and practicing yoga so much. They both confront you with your inner identity and allow you to shed layer upon layer that you didn't even know were there. I personally thrive and revel in these inner moments of introspection, as challenging as they can be. The path to knowing yourSELF is a constant one and in my opinion the most fascinating and worthwhile journey of all. And luckily for me yoga and travel (and horses for that matter) have enabled me to embrace the importance of the self within, that stillness at the center of the storm that doesn't identify with whatever it is you're going through or experiencing. It just accepts it, and appreciates it. Thank goodness for that!

Vibrant La Paz city streets.
My time in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, was a part of that swing. It felt really good to be traveling solo again simply for the tried and true adventure of it. And of course you immediately make 'friends' as a backpacker in a big hostel. But I found most of what there was to do was void and lacking... walk around city streets, go to the scrambling yet interesting city markets. Then what? Pay a ridiculous amount of US dollars to get an adrenaline rush mountain biking down the most dangerous road in the world? Something inside me told me not to, even though the views and drop offs are indeed pretty spectacular and something to write home about. Whether it was the reluctance to pay an entire week's worth of living expenses in one day's outing, a shortage of time, or to avoid what felt like a frat boy travel adventure, I decided not to. When you're traveling often the biggest dilemma is simply the sheer vastness of all your choices! And in South America there are plenty of them! So I find it best just to follow my heart and intuition and be happy and accepting of where it takes me, knowing it will be the right path.

A view of La Paz from nearby El Alto.
I've already mentioned the energy drain that big cities are for me (what can I say I'm a horse and mountains kinda girl) so I won't go much into it here. But I will say that La Paz does have a truly lovely and unique energy about it and many of the people I met there really enjoy it and come back to it often throughout their travels. And as a backpacker, the hostel you stay in makes all the difference. Mine had super comfortable beds and a pancake breakfast, but a pretty young crowd that goes out often and parties hard, coming home at 5 or later in the morning and often starting for their bike tours still quite borracho. Five years ago I'm sure I would've loved it! But now I'll just say that travelling ear plugs are one of the most crucial part of my adventuring and here they served me very well. After two nights I was thoroughly ready to get back into nature, smaller towns, and packed my bags for my 11 hour bus ride south to Potosí.

Teenage revelry.
And here I am, in love with it already! Enter yet again the conflicting nature I so often feel. My rainy day in La Paz yesterday, feeling isolated and disconnected in the big city, then a dark and not so memorable overnight bus trip.. followed by a gorgeous and sunny day in one of my new favorite small cities! Amazing how the weather can affect your mood. Or, as I often ask myself, is it the other way around? This colonial high altitude town (one of the highest in the world at around 12,500') is a joy to walk around, especially in the quietness before everything starts to get going around 10:30 or 11 in the morning. A parade of middle and high schoolers tromped by the main square with their dancing, their music, their sheer joyousness and loud celebration, filling me with so much happiness that my heart swelled and tears of elation came to my eyes. A stark contrast from what was only yesterday but feels like eons ago.

Early a.m. colonial streets.
I walk around smiling, sitting in the sun at a nice cafe as I write this, and yes I decide, I like this city very much. There's greenery, nature all around, everyone seems so lighthearted and happy. There's more of a sense of enjoyment and relaxation than I've felt in quite some time. I try not to be biased or ignorant, though, as I know the history here is a complex one. Potosí is an active mining town which at one point, around the 15th century, was at the heart of the South American continent. Much of the town still worships the devil, El Tío, as so many of its residents spend time underneath the earth, and conditions are still very harsh and demanding.

Tranquil Hostel in Potosí.
To put it into perspective, the silver that was mined out of this town, their Cerro Rico, inspired the industrialization of Europe and provided more capital wealth than the European Continent had ever seen. It 'bank-rolled the entire economy of Spain for over 250 years.' But at what cost? Millions of slaves of not only indigenous tribes but also those brought over from Africa, working in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. It is still a working mine with the workers now fortunately having control over their working environment, yet the average life expectancy of the workers is only about 10 years. Nowadays you can take tours of the mine, but in no way shape or form do I fancy going to gawk at the workers while they are trying to make an earnest living. It all feels way too much like 'white man' exploitation to me and I will from now on think twice about mindlessly buying silver.

Again with the back and forth nature about how I feel about things (I praise in the comforts of Potosí, then stand aghast at the reality of it). Maybe it's the yogi in me that increasingly appreciates the yin and yang of life, the dark and the light, the necessity of opposites in order to have balance. The contrasts just seem to pop out at me more and more as I journey onward, and I can appreciate that.

Planting trees in the main square of Potosí.
So here's a meditation for all of us to appreciate our own imbalances and contrasts coming into balance...

Close your eyes, breathe deeply into your belly, ribs, and chest.
Relax your eyes, relax your jaw, relax your forehead, your shoulders, your being.
Relax, relax, relax.
Bring to mind a place where you feel safe, supported, comfortable, and at ease.
Use all your senses.
Now simply allow one feeling or emotion that has been present as of late to surface.
Feel it, embrace it, don't identify with or judge it. Experience it.

Now, if you can, bring to mind its exact opposite using all your senses and your open being.
What does its opposite feel like and can you embrace it with all your being?
Now simply go back and forth between the original sensation and its opposite.
Back and forth until you find that perfect balance with in.

Feel better? This can be done at any time, with any overwhelming (or not) feelings, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. It really does help immensely, bringing us back into balance and awareness, to that center within. Try it often, or simply whenever you need it. Overpowering emotions can really eat away at the soul and doing this inward journey allows for finding the true meaning and harmonious balance within.

Thank you to all of you who are reading. Sharing here has been such a blessing and joyous experience and I hope you find some of what I write useful or just enjoyable. Personally, journaling has always been my best friend, and most especially while travelling or reflecting on my journeys in yoga. I have no doubt that it always will be, as who better to be there for myself then, well, my SELF? Make time for YOUR self whether it be simply appreciating a time out, journaling, or practicing a meditation exercise.

Overlooking the cerros (hills) of Potosí.
From here I have another day in Potosí to check out their beautiful natural hot springs and then I head to Uyuni and the Salt Flats, the pinnacle destination of my journey and what I know will be a phenomenally spiritual and soul quenching experience. I look forward to sharing it with you here!

NAMASTE y'all.


  1. What a contrast Jessica! Your comments about colonialism and slave labor funding Spain for so many years makes me appreciate our freedoms. I only hope that we are not doing some of the same things even today. Thanks for the meditation exercise. Although I enjoy the energy of a truly great big city, I too am most at home in nature. Glad you can enjoy both. Glad you are feeling better, and hope you enjoy the next destination. Keep up the blog and photos. Love, dad

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