Astronomical Similarities


Two days ago I returned from a whirlwind voyage to Bolivia where thoughts of Iceland kept sporadically popping up in my mind.

At first glance this might seem odd. It may seem like I am trying to compare the sun to the moon but my internal microscope found commonalities that made this South American country feel eerily familiar.

The differences between both countries are obvious. The commonalities are pleasurably surprising.

While sitting at a café in La Paz sipping my deliciously sweet mokka made of organic coffee and 100 percent bitter cacao from the Yungas forest, I made a list of the quirky similarities.

1) Mokka aficionados.

Both countries love their mokkas! I discovered this heavenly concoction in the Icelandic cafés. It was a delight to fulfill my palate’s desire with the Bolivian version.

2) Hot springs galore.

There is nothing I enjoy more than a relaxing soak in thermal waters. Iceland is infamous for this. They have hot sinuous rivers, lakes, waterfalls and modern designed geothermal pools.

Bolivia similarly rewarded my exhausting hikes with a warm dip in its volcanic whirlpools, soothing my aching feet and relaxing my soul.

3) Cooking with volcanic pizzazz.

If you live in a country where the earth is still breathing, why not involve its bubbling surface into local culinary practices?

In the Icelandic town of Hveragerdi there is a restaurant that cooks all its food with the heat that lies just beneath the ground.

Its scrumptious trout cooked with volcanic heat is the first thing I thought of when I ate the typical dish of corn soup with spices in the town of Potosi that was a bit fiery with a volcanic rock bubbling inside the bowl warming this delicacy and giving it an ancestral earthy taste.

4) Extra helpful locals.

Both countries have a very strong ethic of helping others. When a British friend of mine lost everything he owned in his newly rented Reykjavík apartment as it burned to the ground, he was overwhelmed but not for the reason you would think.

He was not overwhelmed by the damage or the fact that he had lost all his belongings but by the endless support of strangers that offered him their furniture and unrecognizable faces going to his DJ gigs to offer him support.

Bolivia has this same nurturing spirit. So helpful are they in fact that if you ask a Bolivian for directions, he will answer and assist you even if he/she has no idea about what they are talking about. This intrinsic need to want to help ironically isn’t very helpful.

5) Feisty wrestling women.

I have clearly seen the Viking gene in some interesting incidents with Icelandic women such as seeing my boyfriend being held in a headlock by a surprisingly strong sprite who desired his expensive beer bottle.

In Bolivia women actually have an arena in which to vent their frustrations. Every Sunday at 4 pm in La Paz there is the cholita wrestling matches.

Cholitas are indigenous women who live in cities but continue to dress in the traditional garments of the countryside. Whether in or outside the ring, these women have fighting spirits.

6) Succulent blueberries.

While trekking along Iceland, depending on the month, I usually end up with blue-stained fingers. It is a common aftermath of picking and eating hundreds of blueberries.

Icelandic blueberries are smaller than the variety I had seen in the US and pack double the delicious flavor. To my delight, Bolivia’s blueberries looked and tasted exactly the same!

7) Tribalism.

Both countries have ancient virtually unchanged languages defying globalism and a strong cultural identity filled with mythological oral histories that make each native a proud tribal member. Families and communities are incredibly close-knit and it is hard to infiltrate.

8) Superlative capitals.

Located at an altitude of 3,660 metres (12,008 ft), La Paz is the world's highest capital city. Meanwhile, Reykjavík is the most northern capital in the world.

9) Furry delectable livestock.

Iceland is known for having the best lamb in the world and not only does this animal provide tasty meals but it warms the shivering locals. Its wool is used to make sweaters which every Icelander owns.

Bolivia has their llamas. I haven’t eaten meat in 15 years and don’t plan to start now but my boyfriend’s slurping tongue and protruding belly let me know how yummy this animal was.

He likened it to the Icelandic lamb and this magnificent looking creature is the material with which Bolivians warm themselves making ponchos, socks, hats, gloves, sweaters, you name it.

I personally prefer the llama sweater as it is softer and warmer than the Icelandic sweaters. (Sorry Iceland.)

10) Hearty Soups.

I’m guessing the cold weather is what makes these countries the culinary champs at making mouth-watering soups. Not only does everyone eat it, but it warms your tummy and they just taste so damn good!

11) Surreal landscapes.

I had never been able to repeat the freakishly other-worldly sensations that I feel in my encounters with the Icelandic moonscape.

There are countless places all over the island where I have had to struggle to believe I was not dreaming. The most beautiful and haunting sights of my life all lie within this island.

For this reason I was overcome with joy when finally I felt this unnerving awe-inspiring consciousness upon gazing on the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.

I thought I would never feel such a seraphic and surreal experience anywhere outside of Iceland and was ecstatic at the pure and oddly dreamlike feeling of this place.

12) Inebriated pastimes.

Icelanders and Bolivians definitely love their alcohol. Reykjavítes party like there is no tomorrow with an endless flow of beer and shots that can cause drunken rumbles and all night dancing.

Bolivians like their chicha (a fermented beverage made of maze) and singali (grape alcohol) leading to sporadic sing-alongs and clumsy zigzagging locals.

13) Pagan Christians.

Since the 1970s, there has been a neopagan revival of Norse paganism in Iceland and people outside the capital are known to set up miniature dwellings with diminutive churches to convert those pesky pagan elves.

Some people in the countryside also believe in huldufólk, or hidden people, and building projects in Iceland have on occasion been altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live in.

The history of Bolivia forced the conversion of Christianity upon its people but that did not dispel the daily offerings to Pachamama (Mother Nature) and the strong Aymara and Quechua beliefs.

14) Pink Floyd’s inspiration for “Is there anybody out there?”

With a population of 309,672 the Republic of Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe. Similarly, in a region known for its dense populations, Bolivia is the least populated of the nine South American countries that comprise the Amazon Basin.

This list actually goes on but what I most enjoyed about finding these similar novelties was that I discovered that the sun and the moon aren’t that different after all. They are both astronomical marvels that enchant and enrich the soul.

Alexandra Hertell – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.