April's Notes from the Road: Bolivia (2004)
The next in my series of previously-written travelogue posts… this time from Bolivia and Paraguay, where I spent nearly two months as part of a longer odyssey through South America (including Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) in 2004. Travelogues from these other destinations have also been written and will be posted in due course. Please keep in mind that this was all in the pre-Morales era, before the set of current leftist leaders were in place and anti-U.S. sentiment was at least marginally subdued on the surface.
Bolivia as a whole remains one of my all-time favorite places, and although I have returned to the country since my inaugural trip (summarized below), I doubt that my initial impressions will ever be matched. Bolivia challenged, engaged, excited and scared me as much as just about anywhere else I have been – in some ways like India, Guatemala or even Switzerland, and in others in a world entirely its own.
And Paraguay was fun too! So please enjoy…
Before delving into travelogue details, I can candidly summarize its mottos as:
- The question is not what you look at, it is what you see
- and -
- Remember always to see the bright side of things, and that they could always be (sometimes a lot!) worse…
Saludos – greetings – from Bolivia, and then again from Paraguay! Since you last heard from me in Peru, my travels have continued to go extremely well (with one exception – keep reading). I continue to be fascinated, challenged, and at times in awe of the things I am seeing, experiencing and learning, the people I am meeting, and the ways in which this trip is causing me – both actively and passively – to grow.
I do not want to speak too early, but I have a feeling that Bolivia is going to end up being an all-time favorite place. My time in the country was far too short, and already I have a long list of places to return to visit. It is difficult to put my finger on precisely what is so attractive about the place. Perhaps it is the positively stunning scenery, which when coupled with literally breathtaking altitude creates an almost hallucinogenic experience. With cities located at 13,000+ feet (4,200+ meters) Bolivia is also known as the "Tibet of the Americas," and given its isolation, ruggedness and altitude it is easy to understand why. Or perhaps it is the remoteness of the place, which given the notable lack of infrastructure (e.g., dirt roads still connecting some of the largest cities) truly makes you realize that you are in the middle of nowhere. Or perhaps it is the super-friendly people, who greet you on the street as if they have known you for ages. Or perhaps it is because Bolivia is the kind of place where in a single day, without seeking or trying, one can see or experience (as I did) one local market, 3 random fiestas in small pueblos, 1 bullfight, 1 scenic island hike, 30 car blessings, and 1 stunning sunset without people, electricity or noise of any kind to disturb the view. My best conclusion is that it is some combination of all of these things.
Bolivia is a country that has been "forgotten" historically in many ways, both within South America itself and with regard to the broader international community. Ever since the silver ran out and the Spaniards left, it has been relegated to backwater (albeit landlocked, so there is not much water other than Lake Titicaca and mountain runoff) status, both politically and economically. The country has lost over 50% of its territory since Simon Bolivar proclaimed independence in 1825, due to various wars and other scheming on the part of its neighbors Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Peru and a host of U.S. and British corporate and government-sponsored entities meddling in internal affairs. For example, the disastrous Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia in the early 1930s was essentially set up by the petroleum interests of Standard Oil backing Bolivia and Shell backing Paraguay; in the end no oil was found in the area that was the crux of the dispute, but Bolivia lost a huge chunk of land. Not only has the country shrunk in size, but its political stability has often been in question – there have been 192 governments since 1825! Economically Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in all of South America. 70% of its total population of 8 million people live in poverty, and the average household income is $2200 per year. (I was stunned and a bit disappointed to see "micro credit" storefront signs, which turned out to be pawn shops. That said, Bolivia also has what is considered by many to be a robust and progressive microfinance sector.) I was stunned and encouraged daily by the people's ability to do SO much with so little and with such good humor. That attitude would serve me well throughout my time in Bolivia – to always see the good side of things, and to always remember that things could be worse.
A few kilometers after the border crossing from Peru into Bolivia, I arrived at my first destination: Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The Incas reached as far as the lake, which they called Titi Khar'ka, which means "rock of the puma" in the Aymara language. However this was too hard for the Spaniards to pronounce, hence Titicaca. The name Copacabana itself is derived from Kota Kahuana, which is Aymara for "lake view." And what views, indeed! I arrived in town early enough to take in the few sites and plan the next day's trip to Isla del Sol, located in the lake. By far the most interesting event in Copacabana town was the twice-daily "cha'lla" blessing which occurs in front of the huge, whitewashed, Moorish-influenced cathedral. Cha'lla is a blessing or supplication to Pachamama (earth mother) and other pagan gods that might affect one’s luck, health, or whatever the case may be. And let me tell you, cha'lla reaches enormous proportions in Copacabana. At 10am and 2pm most days, there is a swarm of vehicles in front of the cathedral. Each vehicle – sedans, trucks, even a bus or two – is ornately decorated with bright ribbons, flowers, confetti, silver car-tiara sorts of things and all imaginable type of votives. The block in front of the cathedral is packed with stalls selling all this stuff. When it is time for the blessing, pure cane alcohol is sprinkled on the vehicles, everyone celebrates, and – hopefully – the drivers are ensured of safe travels and the cars are ensured of a long life. As for me, I just enjoyed watching the spectacle and how seriously most of the people took it.
Isla del Sol is located 1.5 hours by putt-putt boat from Copacabana. I had been told that it was very peaceful and had great hiking, but other than that was unsure what awaited me. Upon arrival I was greeted with a very steep, straight-up hike to the top of the island – and from there, I did not want to leave! The island has no roads (only small footpaths and two-lane dirt tracks), no cars, and not even much electricity. This is more than made up for by its expansive crystal-clear vistas over the lake all the way to the snow-capped Bolivian Cordillera Real with peaks as high as 18,000 feet (5,800 meters), numerous donkey paths that criss-cross the island, and kind villagers. The island has a distinctly Aegean feel to it, and if not for the different architecture, dress and skin color of the people (and cordillera views on the horizon, of course) I might have thought I had been transported back to the Greek islands! I took a long loop walk around the island by day, was invited into an island wedding ceremony (my first opportunity to see a group of Bolivians really drunk – entertaining, but once is enough!) and was followed back to my hospedaje (family lodging) by a small shepherd boy playing his pan flute just in time for sunset. The sunset alone was worth the trip! Given the high altitude and absence of environmental distractions or city lights, I am convinced that the sun shone brighter as it set, the stars shone brighter throughout the night, and one cannot get much closer to the heavens on earth.
While watching the Isla del Sol sunset with a cerveza in hand, I realized that I had no water left to drink. Venturing out without much hope of finding anything, I ran into a tiny old lady who I asked for directions to anywhere that might have water. Her eyes immediately lit up as she replied, "Oh, I have a kiosk- come with me!" We switched directions and started walking... little did I know that her store-shack was 15 minutes away, nearly in the next village. But she was so kind, and kept chatting with me the entire way, that I could not resist. By the time we got there, I felt badly only buying water, so I purchased also two candy bars and a package of biscuits. Nevertheless, I spent a grand total of $.70 for all of it! (Speaking of costs, Bolivia is a real bargain for travelers – on average I spent $2.50-$5 for a single room with private bath, $1.50-$2 for a 3-course set meal, $6 for a 10 hour bus ride, and $1 for a liter of beer – which is more than twice the price of a liter of either water or gasoline! But don't worry, I didn't actually drink entire liters of beer while there… J)
Returning to Copacabana, it was time to skirt the Cordillera Real and head to the capital city of La Paz. This was definitely one of the most scenic bus rides I have ever taken, with cloudscapes that could compete with (and beat) those in Texas, USA or Burgundy, France before a storm. Arrival into La Paz itself is equally stunning, as the city is set in a valley surrounded by mountains on three sides, and you enter by cresting one of these sides (El Alto) and viewing the entire city spread out below you. (El Alto is also worth a short visit in its own right. It used to be a suburb of La Paz, and has now grown to be Latin America's fastest-growing city. The influx of rural immigrants has led to severe poverty and constant activity in the area – rumor has it that the El Alto black market operates 24 hours a day.)
La Paz (aka La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz) was founded in 1548 by the Spanish captain Alonzo de Mendoza. It was originally established due to its proximity to the large quantity of gold found in nearby Rio Choqueyapu (which is now completely contaminated and runs neon-orange just south of town). Although the gold has long since run out, the city can still claim to be the highest capital in the world with an altitude of nearly 3,700 meters (12,500 feet) – and the soroche (altitude sickness) that accompanies it should not be understated. I huffed and puffed the entire time I was there, but that did not stop me from enjoying the city! Highlights of La Paz included the witches market, the coca museum, and the general street scene. The witches market is renowned for its (shall we say) “unique” products and potions for sale, such as dried llama fetuses and various herbs used to supplicate the pagan gods that might be feeling fickle or feisty. (I was told that the llama fetus is to be purchased in anticipation of the purchase of a house, but that a real llama should be bought and sacrificed if the potential house-buyer can afford it.) The coca museum was very comprehensive and presented in a refreshing manner. I learned all sorts of interesting and random things, like "la mamacoca" (coca leaf-readers who apparently can tell the past, present and future from the leaves) and exactly how the "acullico" (coca leaf chewing process) works. But most memorable for me was the emphasis on coca as a cultural symbol and anchor, and NOT as part of the drug war. Coca and cocaine are two entirely different things (several additional substances and chemical reactions are required to produce cocaine), and the US-led drug war in Bolivia does not always attack the correct target (or attack it in the correct way). In my opinion the problem lies equally if not more within the United States itself; for while the U.S. contains only 5% of the world's population, it is responsible for over 50% of the world's cocaine consumption. Is it fair for the U.S. to stamp out a symbol of Bolivia's cultural heritage (keeping in mind that there are still several entirely legal coca markets in operation today, primarily for casual chewing and for making harmless mate de coca) for the benefit of addicts in the U.S.? I realize that the drug war needs to be fought on many fronts, but I definitely question the U.S. government's strategy more than ever before. What is the fair balance? (As a perhaps hypocritical sidenote, the coca museum contained a section on Coca Cola which I found ironic. Did you know that Coca Cola today does not contain cocaine but it does use the coca leaf as a taste enhancer? Having been to the Coke museum in Atlanta and given Emory University's Coke-based endowment in the U.S., I found it almost surreal to see photos of Coke founders (and Emory benefactors) Woodruff and Candler in La Paz, of all places… ah, the things one encounters on the road).
One event that was most definitely NOT the kind of travel adventure I had bargained for – and in fact was one of the scariest travel experiences I have ever had – occurred on my third day in La Paz. My plan had been to go bike riding down "the world's most dangerous road" outside of Corioco (for details on the trip, see www.gravitybolivia.com – an average of 26 vehicles per year go missing off the edge of the road!). But I was the victim of a nasty scam instead. Whether the road or the scam was more dangerous, I will perhaps never know.
The morning began tranquilly enough. I was walking up a hill in search of the musical instruments museum, in full daylight and close to the city’s historic center, when I was approached by an elderly man who clearly (at least to me) was also a tourist – hiking boots, tourist cap, map, the works. He told me he was from Chile and asked me if I could please direct him to the costume museum. I informed him that I was not aware of any such museum, but according to my map the ethnography museum was nearby. At precisely the moment that we were discussing directions, another man approached both of us and asked to see identification. When I asked him why – and right about the time I noticed his gold teeth and gun – he immediately pulled out his wallet and produced identification indicating that he was a police officer. I had read that undercover police exist throughout Bolivia and should be taken seriously, and that the key is that he or she has proper identification. He asked both of us to accompany him to the police station so that he could do a standard "tourist search" of sorts, which I’d read meant basically searching us for drug money. (In hindsight should have trusted my instincts at the time and bolted right then and there, but admittedly the gun scared me, and the Chilean man was cooperating fully and reassured me that we would go together.) We got in (what looked from the outside to be) the police car nearby and began driving to the station. At this point in time the head-honcho still had my passport, so I was pretty much stuck. Within minutes – or probably seconds, as time seemed to stand still – we were clearly driving in circles and my mind started racing. They were trying to disorient and scare me. The driver stopped the car, and the ring-leader-with-the-gun turned around and demanded my entire bag "to search for drug money." Still worried about my safety, I handed it over. He sniffed through it, took a look at my camera and credit cards (didn't seem too interested in my journal or Lonely Planet – hmmm, I wonder why not?), made a "check" of my ATM card by calling the Central Bank (yeah, right...) and handed my bag back to me. When I demanded my passport, the driver started driving again – and I started to sweat. As we went through the next intersection he reached back and gave me my passport. I noticed that his hand was trembling severely. And when we rounded the next corner, I punched the car door as hard as I could with my elbow, rolled out of the moving vehicle and did a somersault Hollywood-style, scrambled to my feet and bolted to find a reliable taxi that could take me to safety. That occurred about five minutes later, by which time I was half shaking, half crying, and just glad to be in one piece. But that is when I noticed the worst thing of all... in all the chaos and confusion, the three men (I pieced together after-the-fact that the elderly "Chilean," Mr. Gun-and-Gold-Teeth, and the driver were working in unison) had gotten off with my camera. Aughhhh... my heart sank, and the fact that they got my ATM card and about $80 in cash as well paled in comparison. Having brought three cameras on the trip and having lost two of them already within the first two months of travel, I must admit a pretty bad track record so far! They also made three unauthorized withdrawals on my ATM card, all within three minutes of one another and for a total of $1000. Thankfully my bank immediately cancelled my card and applied its "no liability" policy to the incident, but the entire ordeal left me rather shaken, very angry at having been taken advantage of like that, and creatively cobbling together how to get enough funds to last until I could obtain my temporary ATM card in Argentina. All in all a very bitter experience and a painful learning lesson. BUT as I noted above, it also left me feeling lucky that things did not turn out worse. I still have my health and my passport, and – not a bad thing – I am finally now using my digital camera. And moreover, the world's most dangerous road would not have made for nearly as good a travelogue story...
Having enjoyed my time in Bolivia so much up until the scam, I resolved myself not to let the incident dampen my optimism and excitement about my travels-still-to-come in the country. Hard as it was at first to commit myself to this resolution, the next day I re-shot as many of the lost photos as possible (which included a fun taxi ride back up to El Alto), treated myself to an extra dulce de leche dessert (see the food section below), double-locked my backpack, and headed out of La Paz towards the towns of Oruro and Uyuni in the south of the country. Oruro is not much more than a built-up, predominantly gray transport hub, and Uyuni is a somewhat more colorful version of the same. Uyuni's city hall is pale yellow and the clock tower resembles a miniature Big Ben. Equally important for travelers there is the "famous" Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza Place in town, run by a guy from Amherst, Massachusetts who married a Bolivian woman – we had a nice chat about the Minuteman bike trail. Small world!
Far more memorable than the towns was the bus ride to get there, and then the majestic Salar de Uyuni which was the point of the entire excursion to begin with. The 15 hour bus ride was absolutely awful and gives "teeth chattering" new meaning. There were no shocks on the bus, the gravel road was full of pits and holes and deep ditches on the sides (which the driver had an affinity to go into every ten minutes or so), and the driver thought he was competing in the Bolivian Formula One competition. I could not even steady myself long enough to ask my seat companion how much longer we had to endure the ride. Thankfully we arrived a whopping two hours early (at 3am instead of 5am – yes, the middle of the night! Look out Schumacher...) and the trip gave me ample opportunity to stargaze. In Bolivia I saw more shooting stars than ever before, perhaps because the sky is so thin and the entire galaxy is on display with nothing to disturb it.
My four-day trip to the Salar de Uyuni was worth every bit of difficulty, discomfort, and freezing night spent to experience it. "Salar" means salt flat, and at 3,500 square feet the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt lake in the world. It originated approximately 10,000 years ago as part of ancient drainage of Lake Titicaca – basically, Titicaca started drying up and the Salar de Uyuni got left behind. The first day of the voyage was spent exploring this bleached-white no-man's land, which included time in Colchani (a small pueblo where the refinement and processing of the salt still occurs with traditional pick-axe methods) and a visit to the Salt Hotels (yes, buildings built entirely out of salt bricks!). However the hotels have been closed for business due to environmental concerns. Apparently the builders did not take into account that hotel guests would need water, would leave trash behind that would need to be dumped, and that sort of thing... hmmm, not quite sure how they missed that. The highlight of the day in the salar was the Isla del Pescado (aka Incahuasi Island in the native Quechua language), named "fish island" for its illusory fish-like form when seen from afar on the salar. It was perhaps there that I felt most in the backside-of-beyond, middle-of-gorgeous-nowhere. It stands alone, covered in tall saguaro-type cactus, surrounded by a retina-piercing white expanse for as far as the eye can see. You are not sure if you are on the moon, or in someone's surrealist dream, or what. The characteristics of the place allow for plenty of optical illusions, like being able to "shrink" people and things. We had fun with photography tricks there, for example taking pictures of each other holding a truck in our hands or balancing someone sitting on our heads. We left the Isla del Pescado right at sunset, and the memory of our Jeep racing towards the edge of the salt flat as it became dark, with shades of lavender, cornflower blue and pastel yellow disappearing behind us will remain forever in my mind.
The salar trek included a lot more than just salt flats – lagunas, volcanoes, geysers, endangered wildlife and thermal baths, just to name a few. The second day focused on lagunas – and lots of dusty driving. We passed through scenery that was straight out of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting (with rock formations by Salvador Dali mixed in) to get to the Lagunas Cañapa, Hedionda and Ramadita. Lonely Planet's description of the mountains as resembling "spilled chocolate sundaes" is perfect; I would only add that there are cherry, vanilla custard, and pistachio ice creams in those mountains as well. So many rich, deep, and pastel colors in the terrain! We stopped at each of the lagunas, both to appreciate their beauty and to view the wildlife. Our ultimate destination and home for that night was the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, home to three of the six varieties of flamingo in the world and also provides protected habitat for Andean rheas, endangered vicunas, pumas, foxes and unique flora such as the llareta plant (which looks like a cross between a head of lettuce and a clump of neon-green thick moss). It became difficult for me to remember all the animals, as at times they started to look the same. Is it an alpaca, llama, vicuña, or guanaco?
Arriving at the Laguna Colorada for that night, we had been advised that the temperature would be cold and likely windy. Talk about an understatement! There was no heating or running water even in "standard" accommodation there, and the electricity was cut off early which meant that we were all huddled in our sleeping bags by 8pm because there was no other option. Apparently the temperature variations in the area can be vast, going from -25°C to +25°C in a single day. The next morning the water bottles in our room had turned to ice – brrrr! However the temperature is in part responsible for making the Laguna Colorada red, Laguna Verde green, and Laguna Blanca white; more physics and geology are involved but are beyond the scope of my comprehension. All I can say is, richly red water with flocks of bright flamingoes is quite a sight – I wonder if the water color makes the birds look even more pink than would otherwise be the case.
The following day kicked off at 5:30am (brrrr yet again) and we headed for thermal baths and geysers. Due to the relatively young development of the tourism industry in this part of Bolivia, you can still climb in, on and around the geysers. Painfully hot (and smelly, due to the sulfur) cave-ins do occur, something I cannot imagine the park rangers of Old Faithful allowing! But still so much stinky fun for those willing to take the risk. From the geysers the route headed through more lagunas, past the 5,100 meter (17,000 feet) Volcan Licancabur and back through the Valley of the Rocks. We came close to the Chilean border, at which time I got excited at the fact that I would be on the other side in about two months' time – "coming full circle" from the Bolivian altiplano to the northern Chilean desert. From here the terrain changed distinctly once again, this time reminding me of Utah in the spring (other travelers said it reminded them of New Zealand as well). Lush green vegetation abounded, and I never realized that multi-colored rock rubble could be so pretty.
Towards late afternoon we arrived in the tiny village of Culpina, where we would spend the night. Not expecting much, I headed out to wander around the two square blocks of town. Little did I know that soon I would find myself on the local football field, playing with local kids and Coco the llama (who doubles as the kids’ playmate). What fun! There was no need for verbal language, and the kids could not get enough piggyback rides and being swung around maypole-style. The interactions were joyful, but at the same time I could not help but feel concerned about the fact that both 2 year olds (with infant teeth) and 8 year olds (with adult teeth) have completely rotten teeth, and the nearest dentist is in Uyuni some 3 hours away. Further, the 3 year olds simply do not speak – not even with their mothers (who admittedly did not speak much either). Speaking of language, our hosts that evening were quite a delightful bunch who taught us the words to various Bolivian love songs as well as 1,001 handy uses for an empty wine bottle. Another inspirational example of how to do a lot with few physical resources and much good humor!
We arrived back in Uyuni the following day. Before leaving town, I checked out the local "train cemetery" (a rusty photo opportunity but not much more) and by chance was interviewed by a couple of World Bank field researchers about the facilities and services offered in the Uyuni area. From here it was time for another night bus (again, the only choice out of town – but at least this one arrived at 1am which meant that I could still get half a night's sleep) to Potosi. More endless kilometers, more time to reflect... this time, how about food? Prior to arrival I had not expected anything grand from Bolivian cuisine, and upon departure I can say that I got what I expected. However, at the same time I was most impressed with the Bolivians' culinary creativity with few ingredients. The basic dietary staples seem to be corn, beans of every type, peanuts, tomatoes and meat. But they mix and match them every which way. For example, there are more types of mani (peanuts) than I have ever encountered – roasted, sugared, boiled, covered in confectionary, almost burned, totally burned, etc. And an educated traveler soon learns the difference between salteñas, empanadas, and humitas. While each of these filled pastry packages contain some combination of meat, cheese and vegetables, the dough/crust is different. And for the price of 20 cents, any one of them is quite a treat when served fresh from a street vendor! The most memorable Bolivian dish that I ate was charque khan, which is basically mashed hominy (they have quite a variety of corn kernels as well) with chunks of dried llama meat and doused with fresh cilantro. More often I encountered "internationalized" dishes that incorporated the Bolivian staples but added a twist – for example, pasta with Bolivian meat, chicken with fire-hot Bolivian chilli sold under the name of "curry", and nachos with everything-under-the-Bolivian-sun on them. Much to my sweet-tooth delight, the country has quite a few sweet treats available. Favorites include the fresh fruit juices (made with either water, milk or yogurt, and available in the most exotic flavors imaginable) and dulce de leche in bar, liquid, and nutella-consistency varieties and stuck into all sorts of pastries, usually topped with shaved coconut as well. Yum!
After arriving in the dead of night and taking my first shower in five days, I went out to explore Potosi by day. The first things that struck me were the intense sun, the biting cold air and the same inability to breathe... welcome to an even higher altiplano! The history of Potosi is quite incredible and very sad. The summary version is that in 1544 silver was discovered in the surrounding hills, and the town was founded the following year. Legend has it that a shepherd could not find his animals in the middle of the night, struck a match to light a fire, and within two minutes silver was melting in his hand. The Spanish quickly gained possession of the area (at this time the city was formally part of Peru) and used the profits from the mines to underwrite the finances of the Spanish empire for almost the next 200 years. It became an incredibly rich city, and even today one hears the expression "vale un potosi" (to be worth a potosi, which was the name of the silver coins minted there) to indicate something of great value. Thanks to silver Potosi grew from a tiny village to a city of 160,000 people in the 1550s – less than 10 years. This made it the largest and highest city in the entire western hemisphere at the time; even today it claims the latter title, and at 4,090 meters (13,200 feet) I did not have the oxygen to argue about it.
Given its history, the difference between Potosi of the 16th century and that of the 21st was like night and day. Indeed, perhaps that is what I found most difficult to comprehend about the place – what it was like in centuries past, how grand it must have been. For the Potosi of today is a sad, cold, gray and bitter place. The Cerro Rico ("rich hill") that provided so much wealth and prosperity to the city in the past continues to loom over it, but with dramatically different results (see below). By now so much of the silver and past glory has been looted, both literally and figuratively; there is not even any high-quality silver for purchase, should tourists or anyone else wish to. The town’s cathedral seems but a carcass of what used to be; granted, it was rebuilt after the city's heyday but nevertheless contains virtually no silverwork, and faux marble striations along the molding are drawn on with magic marker. The Casa de la Moneda (royal mint) and a few still-operating convents house the only remaining treasures in town. Having served not only as a mint but also as a prison and the headquarters of the Bolivian army, today the Casa de la Moneda is home to quite a stash of equipment used historically to mint silver and turn it into various items. In the museum's plateria (silver display area) there is a purse that literally has been woven by pure silver thread, such that it is as soft and supple as silver fabric. Such gorgeous and refined artistry! In contrast to the paucity of silver available these days in Potosi, one thing that I did encounter plenty of in town were... abogado (lawyers) offices. Strangely I counted no fewer than nine in one city block, all of whom were independent lawyers who hung shingles out (although six of these appeared to be permanently closed). I am not sure what the big legal deal in Bolivia is these days, but Potosi is prepared.
One of my primary purposes in going to Potosi was to visit the Cerro Rico mines. The silver mines of the 16th century have been in continuous operation until the present day, although tin, lead and zinc are now mined instead of silver. What has NOT changed, however, are the working conditions of the miners. They are very much just as they were 500 years ago when slaves were imported from Africa and elsewhere to work there. Lonely Planet describes it as "the job from hell," and I wanted to experience the inferno full-on (call me crazy, but that's just who I am) to see what, whether and how the situation currently is and might be improved for the sake of the miners. To be honest, even days later as I write this travelogue I have difficulty comprehending exactly what I experienced that day and what can be done.
The day began with a visit to the miners' markets, where our guide and ex-miner Efraim explained the structure of mining in Bolivia today and prepared us for what was to come. Mining in the Cerro Rico is entirely independent, i.e. you earn money only for what you pull out of the mountain. The number of miners working is directly related to the world price of the minerals. Higher prices mean more workers and vice versa (though 95% of miners state that they work in the mines "because there is no other work available"). Currently there are about 8,000 miners, who tend to work in groups of 10-40 miners (since one person cannot lug 2-ton carts of rock alone). Men begin to work in mines as young as 12 or 13 years old, and an "old" miner is anyone over age 40. Silicosis of the lungs generally kills a man within 10 years of entering the mines, to say nothing of the other work-related toxins and hazards (like dynamite and transport accidents) present. Because it is an independent free market, dynamite is freely available for purchase at the miners' market, and you see 5 year old boys purchasing several sticks of it for their fathers. (If you wonder why I only speak of men going into the mines, it is not because women are prohibited. Rather, there are myriad economic and cultural reasons why they do not go there (care for the family, high incidence of illness and death, etc.) and this situation appears unlikely to change anytime soon.
After the miners’ market we went to a ramshackle processing and distribution plant to see what happens to the minerals after being pulled from the mountain and before export. Then it was time to enter the mines ourselves. We geared up with full protective and waterproof gear, helmets, boots and head lamps. We spent four hours in the mines, and descended to the 4th level of the mines; the heat and suffocation-feeling increases with each level, reaching as high as 40°C (104°F) and by the time we got out I was ready to both faint and choke. That said, the experiences inside were worth the sickness afterwards. We walked about 1 kilometer into the mountain before descending to the second level. Carts lugged by two teenage boys would come careening past us in the middle of the dark passageway. The dust was so thick that I took my glasses off after 5 minutes because I could not see. The asbestos particles hung thickly in the air without moving and were easily visible with a head lamp. Thanks to Efraim, we spent the better portion of an hour sitting and chatting with the miners, some of whom also had been part of Efraim's miner-work-group. We learned about things like work hours (usually from about 10am until 6pm, with a 10 minute break at 2pm to chew coca), habits (for example, miners never eat lunch, both because they lose their appetite by chewing coca, and because any food they would eat in the mountain would be directly contaminated with toxins) and traditions (namely coca chewing). Indeed, it seems that the hope and anesthesia provided by coca is the single most important factor contributing to the longevity of the appalling mining industry in Bolivia. Every miner I saw had a wad of coca leaves the size of a tennis ball in his cheek. It is used both as a food source (it is relatively rich in nutrients) and as a suppressant of appetite and feelings generally. In fact some miners are even PAID in coca leaves, which led me to wonder whether the role of coca encourages or constrains the continuation of the industry (and what is the most desirable and feasible path to mitigate this plight). I am not sure about the answer to this, but what I am sure about is that one visit to the mines is enough to have a sufficient appreciation for how hard life is there. From that one day alone, I had difficulty breathing comfortably for the next four days. Ugh.
After the relatively "tougher travel" of Uyuni and Potosi, I was ready for a more comfortable environment. But I never expected Sucre to be as pleasant, mild and beautiful as it was! I was shocked and delighted to see flowers abounding in the main plaza and to be able to wear short sleeves for the first time since Nazca, Peru. It made me realize what a harsh(er) climate I had been living in during the weeks in the interim. And at "only" 2,550 meters (8,500 feet) I could breathe easily again – phew! Over the next few days I would discover several other ways in which Sucre's population lives quite well, including an overflowing market, numerous clothing shops (even a tuxedo shop for men) with items I would actually consider purchasing, and the fact that most things are closed on Sunday. This last observation indicates that people in Sucre are actually living well enough to take a day off, which is something I had not encountered much elsewhere in Bolivia.
Sucre is perhaps the richest city in Bolivia from historical and cultural points of view. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much like Lima and Cusco in Peru, Bolivia has two (or some would argue three) different capitals. La Paz is the political capital, Sucre is the judicial and artistic capital, and – more and more – Santa Cruz is the economic capital. Sucre was the city where Simon Bolivar founded Bolivia and wrote its constitution after defeating the Spaniards in the early 1820s. The city is full of political-social history and events that influenced new republics in other Andean countries, particularly between 1640 and 1850. In fact the day I arrived saw the Bolivian and Argentinean presidents in town to sign an accord for mineral development rights – lots of fanfare and a half dozen parades, which meant that I could not get to my hospedaje by taxi but got to walk through the mayhem instead, which was even better. In addition to its judicial and cultural claims to fame, Sucre also is home to the University of San Francisco Xavier (which is older than Harvard) and holds the title of chocolate capital as well. So I found myself feeling closer to home than I had in quite a while.
I spent three full days in the Sucre area, exploring the city and environs and learning a lot about the founding of the country. Simon Bolivar, aka "El Libertador," was responsible for the independence of today's Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. He was born in 1783, spent time in France and Spain as part of his education, and by the 1820s was back in South America to be part of Peru's liberation from Spain in 1824 and Bolivia's liberation from Peru the following year. Bolivia's declaration of independence was signed at Sucre's Casa de la Libertad, which is now a charming museum complete with a four-meter high wooden bust of Bolivar. In the late 1820s Bolivar began working on his dream goal of "la Gran Colombia," which was to be a single state comprised of present-day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. However, Gran Colombia was doomed from the start due to regional and cultural differences between the states. Oddly, by the time of Bolivar's death in 1830 his popularity had waned; he died alone and was buried in a borrowed (or rather, donated – since he wouldn’t see it again) suit from a friend. For much of the 19th century Bolivar was a name not warmly recognized, and it has only been in the 20th century that a Bolivar-is-great sort of cult admiration has developed.
Other highlights of my time in Sucre included visits to the excellent textile museum (see below) and a day-long bike ride to Ka'talla and Las Siete Cascadas (seven waterfalls) with a Dutch cycling organization. It was great to see the surrounding countryside of Sucre and how the area has developed – and a real Heineken and bitterballen at the end were welcome rewards! My only complaint about Sucre is its very limited and sporadic opening hours of many churches and museums. I was amazed to find some museums officially open only 1.5 hours per day, then to show up at that time and find them closed. Oh well... my favorite excuse for a museum closing early (which actually happened to me) was that the workers had to go attend a strike on the main plaza. My question to them would be, why did they bother to show up for work that day in the first place?!
Given that Sucre is the cultural capital, perhaps a small digression to the topic of Chola culture and dress. The term "Chola" refers generally to Bolivian Indian women, and if you have ever seen photos of Andean women with long black braids wearing bowler hats, then you are looking at Cholas. The distinctive dress was actually imposed on the native population by Spanish decree in the 18th century, but it has long outlasted the Spaniards' departure. I guess the Bolivians found it comfortable, or maybe just did not have the wherewithal to change back. In any case it is very colorful, fun to admire, and also serves to identify one's social status and place of origin. From top to bottom, the key Chola pieces are: the ubiquitous bowler hat (worn flat if married, and tilted to the side if single); the pocacha, a wool tuft that ties the ladies' two long black braids together; the pollera, a short pleated skirt (Bolivian women often wear multiple layers of petticoats, which makes them look quite overweight around the hips even though in reality they are not); the chompa (all-purpose sweater); the llijlla (wool shawl); and finally the aguayo, a bright woven cloth carryall worn on the back and able to carry everything from small children to animals to a month's supply of popcorn. Impressive!
My stay in Sucre was timed such that I would be able to visit the Tarabuco market, held only once a week on Sunday, home to some of the country's most colorful textiles and supposedly the best market in Bolivia. Sucre's fabulous textile museum had prepared me for the basics of what was to come; I simply added my camera and desire to people-watch and have fun. Historically there have been two main textile-producing centers (also referred to as "cultural areas") in Bolivia, Tarabuco and Jalq'a. Each has its own distinctive textile patterns and techniques. (Interesting to note is that the key distinction of "cultural areas" is whether or not the community is actively engaged in llama-herding – you can tell from the textiles whether or not they do.) Tarabuco and Jalq'a were central to Bolivia's historical role as the Rio de la Plata viceroyalty's most important textile center while the Spaniards were in power. However, with the departure of the Spanish and the opening of the Bolivian market to free trade and foreign competition, artisan textile weaving has all but vanished from Bolivia. Tarabuco is one of the few places it is still found. Textiles from Tarabuco are characterized by green, blue, and light colors on a white background. Designs are intricately organized, and depictions of animals and events of this world (my favorite is the children playing) are common. In contrast, Jalq'a textiles use red and black thread only, and they typically depict the underworld, imaginary beings, and chaotic designs. (I like the Tarabuco weavings more and find the Jalq'a ones to be spooky.) In any case, at the Tarabuco market I found more textiles than my eye could comprehend. In addition to textiles there are also bowler hat and musical instrument sections to the market. I particularly liked the wajra, a cow's horn attached to a bamboo reed. Just next door were more run-of-the-mill items like entire skinned animals hanging raw from a spit (yuck), enormous bags of coca leaves, and an ice cream vendor with the largest styrofoam box (from which to serve the frozen-melted-frozen again concoctions – not advised for travelers) I have ever seen in my life.
Following my fun in the Bolivian foothills, it was time to head east into the Bolivian lowlands to my final destination, Santa Cruz. It was my last night bus for a while (thank goodness), and 12 hours en route resulted in a myriad of changes. All of a sudden, the morning light revealed a hot and humid climate (it reminded me quite a bit of Panama with a touch of Nicaragua), palm trees, lush greenery and very easy breathing (we had been in continual descent through the night to less than 1000 meters (3800 feet). Moreover, I encountered the first rainstorm of my entire trip. So much for the desert dryness of the altiplano, where my lips refused not to be chapped. What is more, I got to don shorts again! Compared to the cold, harsh climate of La Paz, Santa Cruz is balmy paradise. I was not surprised to learn that in 2003 Santa Cruz became the largest city in Bolivia. The only downside of the heat for me was that there was no chocolate to be found (because it melts)! But that shortcoming was more than made up for by the plethora of ice cream shops in town. There were palatial heladerias on each block, serving up sundaes bigger than a basketball! I suppose it would be an ideal dating scene, with so many ice cream sodas to share. Speaking of relationships though, what was odd (for I had not seen it elsewhere in Bolivia) was the number of fathers and young-teenage daughters walking hand in hand. At first I thought they could be girlfriends, but there is no way that they could be that young, perhaps 12-17 years old and many wearing school uniforms... at least I hope not!
Santa Cruz itself is not much of a tourist sight-seeing mecca. Rather it is a place to conduct business and to use as a jumping-off point for travel in the Amazon Basin. I saw a lot of publicity about both Brazil and Argentina, and no doubt the city's proximity to and trade with these countries helps to fuel its economy. At one point I had considered taking the "death train" (I know, it sounds even worse than the world's most dangerous road) through the Brazilian Pantanal region and then by land to Asuncion, Paraguay, but once I worked through the logistics I realized that there was NO way that my rear end would put up with so much time sitting on a wooden train bench. Plus, four days is a lot of valuable travel time!
After spending a day and night in Santa Cruz, it was time to say goodbye to Bolivia and head to Paraguay. As much as I was looking forward to exploring another country, I did not want to leave Bolivia... still so many places I would like to visit, mountains I would like to climb (especially Huayna Potosi) and things I would like to experience (horseback riding in Tupiza and volunteering in a school or orphanage, to name but two). But flights do not wait, so with my passport, visa, and backpack in hand, I headed to the Santa Cruz airport. I checked in with the airline carrier, got my ticket, checked my bag, cleared security and headed to the gate. While I was at the gate (which is to say, after no fewer than six people had investigated my documents), a flight attendant called me to the counter and asked to see my visa. She then informed me that my visa – which the consulate in Miami had originally told me was valid for 90 days upon entry to Paraguay – had expired two days prior, and that in fact Paraguayan visas are only valid for 90 days from the date of acquisition. Needless to say, I was so livid I nearly lost my head. I called the Paraguayan consulate rather enraged (why else would I have ever bought the darn airplane ticket, if I had known that my visa would be expired by then?) and was told that unfortunately I would have to procure a new visa and would not be permitted to enter the country until I had done so. So much for having to say goodbye to Bolivia... I got to spend an extra night there after all. I treated myself to a giant sundae for supper and tried to see the bright side of things once again. Ah, such is life in Bolivia. Thankfully the next day's flight was smooth. All of the people I had dealt with the day before personally greeted me, leaving me to wonder whether a "beware – angry customer alert" had been issued with my name.
As I flew over the Amazon and into the Chaco of northern Paraguay, I was struck once again by the incredible diversity of Bolivia. The eastern part of the country is so lush, so green, and so very different from the Lake Titicaca that greeted me upon arrival at the other end the country. It is not only the climate and topography that are diverse – the languages spoken, the look of the people, and the economic bases also run the gamut. My mind wandered back to my first night in La Paz, when I noticed signs and slogans everywhere (in churches, buses, and even roadstops) encouraging people to "celebrate diversity," "find unity in our diversity" and so forth. At that time I had no idea of the breadth of diversity that exists in the country, and I have an entirely new appreciation of it now. I might even propose that the fact that most people in Bolivia speak Spanish is more por casualidad (by chance) than for any other reason. There is so much cultural diversity in the country that one can hardly lump the various regions and cultures together as one. I am only left to wonder whether such diversity, if and when confronted with substantial economic disparities along the same lines, might someday lead to insurmountable social strife within the regions. I sincerely hope not…
These sorts of ponderings led me to reflect on Eduardo Galeano's critique of “development” in Open Veins of Latin America, in which he states, "Underdevelopment isn't a stage of development, but its consequence. Latin America's underdevelopment arises from external development (i.e. the growth and wealth of the US and Europe) and continues to feed it." While I realize that there are many places in South America that I have yet to visit, I believe that this statement resonates especially profoundly in Bolivia. It is a country which had (and potentially still has) enormous internal and natural resource wealth. Yet it has been pillaged by others economically and (in part as a consequence of this) has been unable to develop an internal market. Galeano noted that the existence of an internal market is one key to development, and the more global an economy becomes, the more difficult it becomes to develop one internally. Thus the gap between "banana republics" (and now "Volkswagen republics,” countries that provide the raw materials for export) and the countries that refine and add value to these materials will continue to widen unless and until countries like Bolivia have an economic base to call their own. Notwithstanding undertakings such as Mercosur, intra-continental ventures, and foreign direct investment, the country remains dependent on external factors (e.g. the international price of tin, debt servicing requirements, and competition from more efficient producers) for its economic survival. Taking into account a certain Darwinian element that "that's just the way things are," I cannot help but at the same time question whether ever-widening inequalities will or even should be allowed to persist, both among South American countries themselves and between the more developed “North” and less developed “South.” And at the end of the day, whose responsibility is it? Perhaps I am overly idealist, and yes I feel quite young at heart, but I believe that many in the north has failed in this fundamental responsibility to humankind.
But enough of my soapbox for now. I absolutely loved Bolivia for my own doing, and I cannot wait to return.