The grass is always greener on the other side on the fence. This was especially true of Cochabamba, in relation to our neighbouring city in the lowlands: Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz literally did have grass that was greener, because our grass was dust. It was also factually accurate and scientifically proven that: 1) the girls were prettier in Santa Cruz, 2) the food tasted better, 3) everyone had more money, 4) it was always warm and humid so shirts were optional. For these reasons & more, we always envied our neighbours in Santa Cruz, and took any opportunity we could to go there. I’d have gone to a bowel decompaction convention if it meant seeing Santa Cruz for a while. So when the opportunity came to head there on a school Mission Trip in 1996, we all jumped at the chance. We were supposed to raise a bunch of money to pay for the trip, with car washes and the like, but it’s good to have a backup plan. Be prepared, as the cookie girls used to say. My backup plan as always: Mum & Dad’s stagnant bank account.
After travelling 87 hours by bus, a trip which included seeing some old lady get busted by a drugs patrol at a checkpoint and a driver-swap (when a second 4’3″ driver emerged from the baggage compartment below) we arrived in Santa Cruz and at our luxurious accommodation: dirt floors in some kind of shed and comfortable, slightly warm, spider nests. One night Abi awoke screaming to find an ant gnawing through her inner ear. It was probably just trying to escape from the Tarantula that had filled her nasal cavity with eggs. Regular listeners might be forgiven for thinking portions of this blog are full of exaggeration and hyperbole (on rare occasions) but this next part is completely true. On the subject of spiders, Sam & I left the worksite one morning to go for a walk and saw the most incredible thing: a spiders’ web running along the road, reaching from the top of the hedge all the way to the electric wires above it, bordered on either side by the electric poles, for hundreds of metres along the old dirt track. Seriously, this thing was enormous, and dotted with millions of spiders. I think they banded together in the hope of catching a wayward Condor. Or a G6. My only regret is that I have no way to prove it, since this was in the days before camera phones, and kids still spoke to each other using their mouths.
Our aim on the trip was to build foundations for some kind of youth camp that was getting built 12Kms outside Santa Cruz. This meant digging and hauling huge rocks and cement bags around all day, which was fine, except my nose absolutely hated it. My nose ran so bad they hooked a hose up to it to make the cement. I’ve since discovered I’m allergic to dust, and not in fact, manual labour, which grieves me greatly. My history teacher, Miss King, who I was always mildly suspicious of, gave me something called an “antihistamine” which should probably be illegal. This particular one had been designed for elephants, since my nose dried up for the next 3 years. I could have joined the Rolling Stones. I was once again free to sweat all day in the 104% Santa Cruz humidity, back to working hard. More importantly, It also meant we could get back to competing with Luis over how many cement bags we could cart back and forth. They were 50kg bags, and I had a spine like a sea horse by the time we were done. If Luis had an Achilles’ heel, it was his competitive nature. One morning, Jeremy and I were kicking the soccer ball up against one of the brick walls, hopelessly trying to get as many bounces as we could without it touching the ground. It was like watching 2 Dugongs trying to play badminton. “What’s your record?” enquired Luis, rolling up his sleeves in readiness. “47,” I lied in response, keeping our actual record of 1 and ¾ to myself. True to form, Luis then spent the rest of morning trying to beat an imaginary record. Kinda cruel, looking back, but it laid the foundation for his burgeoning soccer career, which in turn certainly improved his chances with the ladies.
On the final night of the trip, we gathered around in a circle on the ground where we usually ate breakfast, and conducted a team bonding session. This, we had been told, would consist of throwing toilet paper at each other. Having misinterpreted the instructions earlier in the week, I’d been saving mine on a daily basis, but my stash was subsequently burnt after it induced vomiting amongst the females, and a fresh roll was supplied. No matter. Whomever started held the loose end of the roll and threw the roll at someone they had gotten to know better over the course of week. That person would then toss it onwards etc etc until we had an unfurled star-like web of paper binding us together in a circle. We were forever bound by the unwavering strength of Bolivian toilet paper, which at times has been used to winch all-terrain vehicles out of swollen rivers, or to scrape graffiti off walls. A worthwhile team-building exercise all up, and certainly less painful than the giant flaming Anaconda back tattoos I’d suggested.
18 students and 5 teachers went to Santa Cruz on that trip. I have no recollection of how many made it back. All in all, we completed 5 cabin foundations, saw a lot of bugs, stared in awe at the world’s largest communal spiderweb, and enjoyed some tropical weather before we returned home triumphant, still covered in toilet paper.