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Kara Scheid

photo of Kara reading©2012

Adventuring in Bolivia

My life map is full of dots.   I was born in Shanghai, but I don’t speak Chinese.  My navy blue passport with United States of America written in curvy silver letters across the bottom is a kaleidoscope of stickers and visa stamps.   I’ve already been to every continent, except Antarctica.  I’ve never lived in the United States, but I travel there every year.  We go to visit my Nana in Minnesota and Grandparents at their cabin in Mercer, Wisconsin. 

My parents are both teachers, or at least that’s how they started out.   Right after getting married they found an opportunity to teach overseas.  Everytime we move, one of the first photos they hang is of their first day teaching at an American School in Mexico City.  They are probably about twenty-five, wearing jeans and T-shirts with the flags of Mexico and the United States joined together under the name “American School Foundation.”  My dad has his arm around my mom’s waist as she looks up at him.  They are both smiling like crazy.   The photo is over fifteen years old now, but they still look like that everytime we travel to a new place. 

The plan was always to go back home to Minnesota, buy a house, get a dog, have kids.  I guess they tried.  They got a dog; a monstrous but gentle black Labrador named Winston.  But after being away, my parents say they didn’t quite fit in anymore.  So they packed up, brought Winston to live at Grandma and Papa’s, and left again.   This time they sold all of their furniture instead of storing it in Nana’s basement.  Nine months into their stint at Shanghai American School I was born.  Followed by my brother, Alex, nineteen months later.    My parents aren’t really teachers anymore.  Now they’re some kind of “consultants,” which basically means we move around.  A lot.  When they were teachers we were guaranteed at least a two-year contract.   Now we can be in a place for as little as a month for up to, well I don’t know, years I guess.

Our parents are busy.  In every new place, they hire a local nanny or au pair to take care of Alex and me, currently it’s Juanita.  We have a lot of freedom.  Our parents worked out an independent study thing for us with some teachers they know back in Minnesota.  Basically we just keep digital journals, read, learn about the culture, and log on to some math and science programs.  As long as we pass the yearly state tests they make us take every summer, we can study any way we want.  Alex and I like to do it through adventures.

We move wherever my parents have work, but wherever we go, Alex and I are in charge of the adventure; good, bad, and well, you’ll see.

For now, we have landed in the heart of South America: Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.  Though some call it Santa Cruz de la Tierra because the wind gusts continuously blast you with a face full of sand.   We live on the third ring.  The city is arranged in concentric circles with the Centro being the point around which all of the neighborhood rings revolve.  Our house is attached to the houses on either side, so we share walls, like in an apartment.  The backyard is a cobblestone patio with two hammocks and a parrilla for grilling.   All around the house is a nine-foot stone wall.  Creeping up and around the wall grow hundreds of tropical plants.  I know a lot about these.  I always study the plants in our yard as part of my science project.   We have strelitzia or bird of paradise flower (because they look like the feathers of the actual birds of paradise) by the front door.  The leaves are thick, wide, and long like banana leaves, or flattened footballs, fanned out around the flowers.  The vibrant orange flowers shoot out just beyond the leaves, as if they were birds perched in the foliage.   We also have patuju, one of the national flowers of Bolivia.  Its scientific name is heliconia rostrata, but it is also called lobster claw or false-bird-of-paradise.  Patuju (like kantuta, the other national flower) has the colors of the Bolivian flag, red, yellow, and green.  The height and leaves are similar to the bird of paradise, but the patuju flowers hang downward facing like bunches of bananas.  (illustration - science notebook entry)

Our guard, Antonio, walks with a limp, and spends most of his day sitting on a metal folding chair in his wooden, three sided guard house that is smaller than a bathroom stall.  We wave to him daily as we venture off.  Luckily for us, Tropicamba, a taxi company, also regularly parks their green and white cabs out in front of our house on Calle Igmiri.  So, Alex and I never have any difficulty with transportation.  We are debating where to go today.  He is hoping to go sandboarding at the Dunes.  I am more interested in going to see if there are still sloths in the Plaza downtown.  What should we do today?


We hop in the first cab in the line up out front.  I direct our driver to take us to the dunes, Las Lomas de Arena.  If he is at all concerned about a 14 year old girl and a 12 year old boy on their own, he doesn’t show it.  As the cab rattles along over the decades old pavement, we take in the city.  Storefronts bump up against houses.  In the street there are mopeds carrying families of four, micros (mini-buses), assorted cars most of which are other taxis, and even a few burros.  Suddenly we are out of the city and crossing the Río Piraí.  Not on a bridge, but driving straight through it.  It’s not a big river, more of a shallow creek, but it’s at least ten feet across with sandy banks on both sides. 

The next twenty minutes it is unclear whether we are on a road, a trail, or simply driving as the crow flies.  Suddenly we stop.  “Aquí están” grunts the driver, “treinta y cinco bolivianos”  Alex pulls three crumpled bills from his pocket and hands them over.  We get out, wondering as we slam the doors, how we will ever find a cab to get out of here.

In front of us is a huge mountain, or a giant ridge, of sand.  It looks like what you might picture when someone mentions the Sahara desert, an infinite sandbox under the blazing sun.  I look around and see no one.  Weird.  Reading in our Lonely Planet guide, we thought it would be more like a ski resort. We start walking and spot a little hut off to the left of the sand mountain.  Kicking off our Havianas we race to see who can get there first.  Breathless, I arrive just seconds ahead of Alex. 

The hut has only two stools, and on one sits a man who appears to be doing absolutely nothing. 
“María, you ask him about renting boards” Alex says, elbowing me in the side.

“¿Se alquila sandboards?” I venture.  

“Pues, sí.” He gets up off the stool, walks out of the hut and around to the back.  Leaning up against the weathered thatched-roof hut are three well-used sandboards, which look a lot like snowboards.  “¿Cuánto?”  Alex asks. 

“Eh, diez cada uno.”  That’s only a little over a dollar for each one.  My brother hands over the money, we grab the boards and start running up the hill. 

My legs start to burn and I am just about to complain, when suddenly we are at the top.   We spot someone headed down the other side.  He appears to be doing a backflip!  We quickly grab our boards and run down the hill.  At the bottom we meet up with the back flipper.

“¡Hola!  ¿Qué hace?” Alex asks panting.

“No español, any chance you speak English?” the back flipper asks.

“Yes!  That was so cool!  How did you learn to do that?  Can you teach me?” Alex blurts out.

“Hey man, slow down.  I’m Josh Tenge.  I’m from the States.  Are you guys Americans?”

“We are, but our parents work overseas.  We’re living in Santa Cruz now.  I’m Maria and this is my brother, Alex.  What are you doing here?”  I ask as Alex curiously checks out Josh’s pile of sandboarding gear.

“I’m a professional sandboarder on tour to check out new spots to board in South America.  I’ve been riding the dunes here for the last couple of weeks.”

“Professional?  Are you famous?”  Alex asks pulling his phone out of his pocket.

“I’m mostly known for my back flips,” Josh shrugs.

“You are!”  Alex squeals looking at his phone.  “You’ve won four world championships and five national titles.  You also set three Guinness World Records, including one for the longest backflip by distance.  44 feet, 10 inches!  It says so right here on Wikipedia!” 

“Whoa, buddy, slow down.  You guys wanna ride or what?  You have your own boards or are you using the shack boards?”

“Shack boards” we  admit.

“Lemme at least wax ‘em up to give you a little more glide.  It’s a lot like snowboarding.  Ever been snowboarding?” 

“Some,” I say shrugging, “depends where we’re living.”

“The key is to steer with your front shoulder.”  Josh bends down to draw a circle in the sand.  “Always keep the shoulder pointing to ten or two, never twelve o’clock, that’s called bombing, and you don’t wanna do that.  Not yet.”  He smiles, grabs his board, and starts running up the hill.  We do the same.  This time I know better than to complain.  When you are getting a private sandboarding lesson from a World Record Holder, you do not complain.

We spend the next several hours boarding down the hill, running back up, and eating a lot of sand!  Hot, tired, thirsty, and gritty, we are ready to head home.  We stop to ask the man in the hut to take our photo.  When I pull out my phone I see the text from Mom:

Won’t be home for dinner.
Empanadas in fridge or call for pizza.
Business in Potosí.  Leave tomorrow.
Pack your bags.  Love you.

“We gotta get home.”  I say leaning my sandboard back up against the hut.

Josh offers to give us a ride back to the house in his Jeep.  We gladly accept his offer and climb in to trek back to the city and away from this little desert oasis. 

Josh drops us off in front of our house on Calle Igmiri.  He gives us his card, telling us that he is going to be in Brazil trying out some new, lesser-known spots for sandboarding.  “If you guys ever get to Brazil, gimme a call, I’ll hook you up with some sweet boards!” 

“Hasta luego,” we yell, passing Antonio on the way into our house.

The Plaza

Heading out the front gate, we wave to Antonio who appears to be deep in thought, or maybe sleeping, in his guard house.  There is a cab waiting so we slip into the back seat.  “Al centro” I tell the driver, and we rattle off downtown.   The closer we get to downtown, the busier and more chaotic it gets.  Shops and houses smash up against each other.   There are even shops set up on the sidewalk with blue tarps strung up over the top, selling things like lotion and shampoo or sunglasses.  The buildings get taller, but nothing like the skyscrapers we’ve seen in New York, or even Minneapolis.  The tallest building in the Centro, the Palacio de Justicia, is only 22 stories high.

Plaza 24 de septiembre is the very center of all the neighborhood rings surrounding it.  It is over 500 years old and named for the date the city was established.   It’s only ten o’clock in the morning, but already the plaza is bustling.  People are coming and going from the Basilica de San Lorenzo on the southern edge of the plaza while others are sitting on benches chatting, sleeping, playing chess, or getting their shoes shined.   A lot of business is going on here as well: men with fat rolls of bills are calling out about exchanging money and several vendors are walking around selling coffee.  Several boys are also trying to earn money by shining shoes, selling gum, or offering to watch parked cars. 

We look up in the trees, but don’t see anything that looks like a sloth.  “Maybe we should ask someone,” suggests Alex.  He walks up to a couple of business men sitting on a bench having their shoes shined.  “Perdon señores, ¿hablan inglés?”

“Hola, yes. I do speak English.  Very little,” says the man closest to us.

“Do you know where the sloths are?  My sister and I wanted to take pictures of the sloths here in the plaza.”

“Oh no.  Here there are no sloths.  They take them away to the zoo when they redo the plaza.  Too many sloth get hit by the cars.  You see them in the zoo,” the man informs us, shaking his head sadly.

“Gracias,” we say turning away. 

“Do you want to go to the zoo?” Alex asks. 

“Not today,” I tell him, disappointed.  Just as I raise my hand to flag down the passing green and white taxi, I hear something rustle in the ambaibo tree above me.  We spot it at the same time.  Right above our heads is a sloth, moving in slow motion up the tree trunk.  I reach for my phone and start to ask Alex to take my picture, when I realize that Alex has already run back to the man on the bench and is tugging at his sleeve, pointing frantically at the tree above my head.

Both men are talking animatedly on their phones.   People in the plaza start to notice the commotion my brother and the two men are causing.  Within minutes, there is a group of about thirty people standing under the ambaibo tree pointing and taking pictures or video.  Alex and I hang out, listening to bits and pieces of the conversation.   Evidently there have not been any sloths in the Plaza for at least the last five years.  Finally, a man in uniform appears.  He is Juan Antonio Gutiérrez, the zoo director.  He arrives with a crew and a cage to take the sloth.  As his crew is preparing to capture the sloth, Gutiérrez explains to the news camera that just arrived, how the sloths are threatened by the growth in areas that were once considered to be outside the city.  This situation causes the sloths to migrate in search of their favorite food, the leaves of the ambaibo tree.

I take a quick photo of our sloth, and notice a text from Mom. 

Won’t be home for dinner.
Empanadas in fridge or call for pizza.
Business in Potosí.  Leave tomorrow.
Pack your bags.  Love you.

I take a few more photos of the sloth.  The man from the bench offers to take one of Alex and me with Gutiérrez and the sloth, so we pose underneath the ambaibo tree.  (This is the same photo that will surprise our parents on the front page of El Deber newspaper tomorrow morning.)  Alex flags down a Tropicamba cab and we hop in.

“Barrio Ubarí, Calle Igmiri,” I say, telling the driver our neighborhood and street.

Ten minutes later we are in front of our house, Alex pays the driver, and we get out.  We wave to Antonio as we let ourselves into the gate.

Chapter 2

I haven’t even opened my eyes when I feel Alex nudging me.  It is six o’clock in the morning and our flight to Sucre leaves at eight.  Since I didn’t pack last night, I quickly begin shoving clothes into my carry-on bag.  Into my backpack, I stow my phone, Bolivian resident ID, journal, and Lonely Planet Bolivia.  Lugging my carry-on and backpack downstairs, I nearly bump into Alex.  “Did you bring your headlamp?” he asks shining his into my eyes.

“No, why?” I ask, disinterested.

“For the mines in Potosí!” he practically screams.  “We are going to explore the mines.  I read that we can even buy dynamite on the street for them to use.”

“Really?”  I ask, already running back upstairs to unearth my headlamp.

When I get back downstairs Mom and Dad are drinking coffee at the kitchen table.  Juanita has made empanadas de queso, fried envelopes of salty cheese dusted with powdered sugar.  I gobble down three before the taxis honk out front to take us to the airport.  Since my parents travel with all their presentation materials we usually end up taking two taxis. 

At the airport Mom preps us for our week in Potosí, while Dad enters all of the important numbers into our phones.  We will be flying into Sucre.  There is a bus that goes from there to Potosi for only 17 Boilvianos (about $2), but with all the gear, we’ll be taking taxis.  Hiring a taxi costs 180 Boilvianos (about $23) and takes less than two and a half hours instead of over three.  I pull out my journal to jot this down knowing I can make a math problem that the online instructor will love.  Again we will be taking two taxis, so Alex and I will have plenty of time to plan our adventures.

The flight from Santa Cruz to Sucre is only an hour.  Alex and I fall asleep almost immediately.  The airport in Sucre is hot and high, in a natural bowl of mountains. The landing is rather complicated (I know because it woke me up).  Evidently at the end of the runway there is a small hill, forcing incoming planes to pull up sharply and then drop again, making the landing rather challenging.  We won’t be going into the city of Sucre, one of Bolivia’s two capitals, until our return.  Lugging our bags outside the terminal, we find Dad already waiting with two taxis.  Alex and I climb into the second taxi and pull out our guide books and phones. 

There seems to be some argument, but one of the books states that Potosi is the world’s highest city, at 13,420 feet above sea level, and the others maintain that it is one of the highest in the world.  At any rate, it’s got altitude!  We are driving through a desolate landscape of sand colored mountains spotted with green shrubby vegetation. Occasionally we spot a local on the side of the road. 

“I definitely want to go to the mines.”  Alex reiterates.

“Yeah, and the Casa de Moneda sounds cool too.”   I tell him, reading from my Lonely Planet,

The National Mint is Potosí’s star attraction and one of South America’s finest museums. It is a vast and strikingly beautiful building that takes up a whole city block, built to control the minting of colonial coins.  These coins, which bore the mint mark ‘P, ’ were known as potosís.

“We could get a lot of our social studies work done by going to the museum” Alex adds. 

“This sounds interesting” I start, reading from my screen. “Some Australian guy built a bunch of enormous stone sculptures; geoglyphs they’re called.  There are three in Potosí: Circles, Presence, and Rhythms of Life.”  I continue scanning the site for anything that might be interesting or give us information to fulfill our homework assignments.  “Oh, here’s something.  It’s called Ojo del Inca.  Looks like it’s some kind of hot springs, but there’s a bunch of Incan legends about it too, especially since it is a perfect circle.” 

“¿Ustedes piensan visitar el Ojo del Inca?”  our driver interrupts, wanting to know if we are thinking about visiting Ojo del Inca.  “Es que está aquí cerca si quieren pasar,” he adds encouraging us.

“I think he said it’s close.  That’s what cerca means, but I’m not sure about the last part.”  Alex mutters, frantically taps on the screen of his phone to translate. 

“He said it’s close if we want to go, right?”  I ask Alex, waiting for confirmation.

“Yeah, I think so.  And according to the map on my phone, we are pretty close.  Should we see if Mom and Dad wanna stop?”

“Sure, I’ll text them,” I say, tapping a message on my phone. 

About a minute after I send it, my phone chirps with a reply from Mom:

Sounds good.  Tell driver.
Good for science?

“Mom says yes and reminded us that we can use it for science.  You wanna tell the driver so you can practice your Spanish?” I ask.

“Perdon, Señor.  Sí, al Ojo del Inca por favor.” Alex tells him, looking at me smugly.

“Esta bien,” the driver replies.

Shortly, the driver turns off the paved road to a steeper gravel road.  We arrive at the thermal waters of the Eye of the Inca about twenty minutes later. 


Dried and dressed again, we load back up in the taxis (that Dad asked to wait for us) and head into the city of Potosi.  The taxis drop us off at the Hotel Coloso, just a couple blocks off the center plaza.

Upon arrival at the hotel, Mom and Dad have to head out immediately.  Dad gives us money for lunch.  “I think I saw a pizza place on the square.  And Potosí is a walking city,” he informs us, “so you should be able to do some good exploring without going too far.  Just remember to keep us informed of your whereabouts and be back for dinner at eight.”

“We will,” Alex and I tell him, heading off in the direction of the plaza and pizza. 

We order a Pizza Margharita and two Cokes.  While we wait for our food to arrive we try to decide what to do with the afternoon: check out the cooperative mines, the national mint, or the geoglyphs?


“The mines are outside of the city, and it says here we need to go with a tour guide,”  I say, reading from my guide.

“Lemme see.” Alex grabs the book from me.  “Oh, and you can’t even go,” he adds looking up from the book, laughing.

“What?  Why wouldn’t I be able to go?”  I demand while googling on my phone.  “You mean because I’m a girl?  Whatever.  This says that only a few miners believe that women underground bring bad luck.  It also says that mostly just applies to their own wives.”
Alex giggles; he loves to get me worked up about things like that. 

“So should we ask Dad if we can go?”  Alex asks.

“Let me think.  If we go with a tour group, it should be fine right?  We can just send him all of the information.  Wait, when he was putting stuff in our phones, I think he put in a former intern’s number who works in a tour agency or something.  He’d probably trust her.  I’ll call him.”

I was right.  Dad was confident Karina could set us up on an educational and safe tour of the mines; we only had to meet her at the agency to arrange everything.  As luck would have it, the agency was right down the street from the restaurant.  We paid for our pizza and headed off to find Karina. 

Karina’s office, Alpaca Tours, is on the corner, in a two story gray stone building.  The office itself is tiny, with three paper-strewn desks shoved to the center.  Faded tour posters cover the walls, and no one seems to be in at the moment.

“Hola?”  I call, wondering if Dad got a hold of Karina after all.  “Do you think they even have computers in this office?”  I ask Alex.

“Would you believe me if I told you we use tablets and our phones for all of our business purposes?” asks a woman, stepping out from behind a tapestry partition.  “I’m Karina.  Your father told me you’d be stopping. You want to see the mines, yes?”  she asks with an inviting smile.

“Yeah, I mean, yes, we do.  Do you really use tablets?”  I ask, still not believing it possible.

“No,” Karina says laughing, “I wish we did.  That’s my current job, to bring the agency up to speed with technology.  Right now we don’t even have a web site.  Maybe you can help us out with that.”

“We’d love to help” I offer immediately.  “We have to keep journals of our travels for school, so we could easily help you out with photos and video for the site.”

“Perfect.”  Karina smiles encouragingly.  “Let’s talk again after the tour, but first I need to figure out how to get you on one today.”

Karina sits down and shuffles through some papers on one of the desks, moves to another desk and shuffles some more.  Sitting down, she recovers an iPhone from one of the drawers.  A few minutes of tapping on the screen and she has all the details worked out.  We will meet the tour bus on the corner of the plaza in twenty minutes.  From there everything is included and we will be dropped off on the plaza at 6:30 pm, giving us time to shower up for dinner with our parents.  Karina assures us that she will send our dad the consent form electronically and process the payment with him as well.  We thank Karina and promise to stop by tomorrow to talk technology.