Pan & Empanadas

Halfway through our time in Llapallapani and after another long 10-12 hour day, I reach the top of our climb from the work site to the community center. I’ve adjusted somewhat to the altitude, but I’m still slightly winded after the walk. From an exercise perspective, they say it takes 3-6 weeks to fully acclimate from sea level to high altitude and my fitness-driven ego takes comfort in that knowledge.

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Ishmael’s oven is out back, to the left

Adam is speaking with a community member outside when I reach the community center and they keep looking at me. Am I breathing that hard, I fret. “Ishmael wants you to bake bread with him. The kind we have for breakfast,” Adam translates. I awkwardly look around to see if he could be speaking to anyone else and blurt, “Me? Why me?” Adam shrugs and confirms Ishmael is specifically asking for me.

The wood-fired outdoor ovens towering outside many—if not all—the village homes have not gone unnoticed and I was certainly not going to pass up this opportunity. “Let me clean up, then I’ll be right there.” However Adam chose to translate my response, it gets the point across.

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Forming the patties

Showered and dressed in clean clothes (translation: 2 body wipes + deodorant + my
other, non-work, set of clothes), I make my way next door to Ishmael’s. He greets me and escorts me to where Señora Ishmael is preparing the bread dough. They have already portioned off into balls of dough so our task is to form the patties. I’m too late to help form the empanadas (the same dough + cheese in the middle), but not to pat my share of upwards of 100 patties. Next step: prepping the oven.

Like the pre-prepped dough balls, Ishmael has already seen to gathering firewood—long, spindly dried branches and twigs piled high outside. He demonstrates by picking off a handful, breaking it so it fits into the oven, and then tossing it through the opening into the blaze. Aha! Breaking firewood is something I know how to do. When the branches don’t make it back far enough into the oven we use a long stick, charred at the end, to push it back. The stick is quenched in a bucket of water, its sizzle sparking memories of soldering in high school jewelry-making class.

Time is ephemeral here, with the height of the woodpile and heat of the oven the only indicators of its passage. Eventually Ishmael signals me to stop stoking the fire and gestures to a seat. He has fresh (wet) greenery tied to the end of a stick like a broom and uses it to sweep the hot embers and ashes outside the oven through a side window. He then takes what appears to be a dried version of the greenery hanging next to the oven and “seasons” the oven with it before replacing it with the fresh greenery for next time. Even the oven “broom” is used in its entirety in the process.

Señora Ishmael arrives with the patties arranged on several trays that Ishmael deposits into the oven using what looks like a pizza peel. And then we wait.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to flip the patties quickly. One-by-one he pulls out the trays and we use our fingers to flip the (scalding) patties before they return for final baking. And then we wait.

It’s peaceful, sitting by Ishmael watching the flames flicker, relishing the utter silence of the moment. Time is easier to let go out here. I can release the constant nagging that I have something to do because here I need nothing more than to be.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to pull the freshly-baked pan out and into the big basket sitting ready. The next batch goes in. And then we wait.

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Fresh empanadas are heavenly (especially after days of stale pan)

But waiting this time is filled with fresh pan to savor. At home, I’ve always said nothing is better than bread fresh out of the oven. Here, it’s a world above that experience—and not just because we’re up around 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) in elevation. I’ve been around made-from-scratch bread making at home, treasuring the process (and results). But those are gas or electric ovens. Here, building and seasoning the flames is just as integral to the experience as caring for a yeast culture or hand-forming loaves. And you can taste it.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

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Bolivia: First Impressions

After two sleepless nights flying across as many continents, I find myself in a world both foreign and familiar. It’s 3am. The air at 4,061 meters (13,323 feet) is notably lacking. Welcome to La Paz.

English is almost entirely absent here, and I’m immediately regretting not spending more evenings on Duolingo, reading Bolivian newspapers, and listening to Spanish music. Attenuating ears and a tired brain interspersing unfamiliar words with high school French aren’t helping.

Adam speaks enough Spanish to get us use of a shopkeeper’s telephone to track down the Airport Shuttle we had reserved. It’s not there, and it’s not on the way. Great.

Already, the combined effects of exhaustion, hunger, and altitude (oxygen shots for sale litter the airport lobby area) are creeping into my head and stomach and all I really want is to be somewhere where curling up in a ball is acceptable behavior.

My advice if you find yourself en route to the highest elevation airport in the world? Full, nutritious meals throughout travel, resisting the urge to binge watch all the blockbuster movies you missed in theater because they’re now at your fingertips during an 8+ hour flight, and investing in an Ostrich Pillow. Address exhaustion and hunger and the body has a fighting chance against the effects of high altitude (re: soroche).

The airport is bustling despite the early hour. It’s obvious Adam and I are not locals. Though countless drivers ask us if we need a taxi, we hesitate while discussing how much one ought to cost. At this point, I can’t think straight anyway.

We’re rescued by a pair of Koreans who approach us with “compartir taxi” written on a smartphone screen. Brilliant. The young woman teaches Korean at a local university and negotiates a taxi ride for the four of us for 80 bs (about $12). Though the 20 minute ride smelled of gasoline and did not include seat belts (a component we soon learn is commonly absent from vehicles here), the ride also included a backseat tour of La Paz narrated by a Korean teacher who speaks enough English and Spanish to communicate with both us and the driver.

I’m reminded of how my single language status is quite stereotypically “American.” Addressing this shortcoming just moved up several notches on my to-do list.

We split the cab ride and thank the two Koreans for their help getting us to our hotel. Kindness knows no barriers; this much is familiar.

Early arrivals and departures must be an everyday occurrence at this hotel. We camp out in the lobby (Adam kicking off his shoes and curling up on the sofa while a continental breakfast is visited by early hotel patrons) until it’s a reasonable enough hour to phone our group lead in his room.

A shower, nap, and some food a while later get me to a state in which I can at least travel. The flying is finished, but we still have a long journey ahead in rental cars through various roadside towns. The anarchic traffic here is complete with minibuses stopping when and where they please. Our escape from the chaos leads us down a steep one-way 60+ switchback mountainside dirt road to a community called Llapallapani.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

What brought us to this isolated village in what’s considered the least developed country in South America? The answer goes back about a year and a half to when a co-worker—as Adam and I both work for the same engineering firm—forwarded us an email about a pedestrian bridge. The bridge was being designed for a remote village in Bolivia by a team of Kiewit and Parsons Brinckerhoff employees working through Bridges to Prosperity (B2P). Construction would be lead by the same two firms. Team applications were open.

As the urban La Paz and El Alto faded into our rearview mirrors, we were soon to find out just why the Llapallapani bridge is the most technically-challenging bridge B2P has undertaken to date out of its hundreds of pedestrian bridges worldwide.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.