Thursday, May 28, 2009

More Adventures in Bolivia

October 1996 to August 1997 I spent traveling from California to Tierra del Fuego overland, by bus. Bolivia was probably the most interesting country and, at the very least, made for the best stories. Here is a letter I sent from an internet cafe once I arrived in Santiago Chile. While not as amazing as the Freddy Tour, my silver mine tour and really bad bus ride are interesting as well.
The Potosi Mine Tour
After La Paz and that infamous prison tour I wrote about in my last letter I headed south to Potosi. the city sits at the foot of a hill at over 13,000 feet, making it the highest city in the world. The chief attraction to Potosi, however is the hill behind it and the some 5,000 mines (mostly abandoned) bored into it. The hill has been mined since Incan times but it was the Spanish who turned it into a big time operation. The silver from the mines financed the Spanish crown for over two centuries and turned Potosi into the second largest city in the world during the 17th century.

While most of the silver is now gone, mining continues albeit on a small scale. it is possible to tour one of these small, cooperative mines and observe the working conditions which are straight out of Dickens.

Tour companies arrange for tourists to go inside the mines and have a look around.Our guide was a former miner who had studied Englished and switched over to the more lucrative (and safer) profession of tour-guide. Before going up the hill we stopped off at the miners market to buy gifts for the miners, things such as bottled water, cigarettes, coca leaves, and dynamite (the miners typically have to buy their own so it makes a very useful gift). We were also with a coat, hardhat, and a gas lamp. We also began chewing coca leaves as this is supposed to help with, among other things, claustrophobia. The mines are at nearly 14,000 feet so it is hard to breathe even when you are not in a shaft barely the diameter of your body.

The entrance to the mine was a simple hole in the side of the mountain about four feet in height and hidden behind a pile of junk ore. At the entrance sat several miners calmly chewing coca and looking in no hurry to begin their work. The miners chew prodigious amounts of coca leaf for the dual effects of warding off fatigue and hunger. It allows the miners to work monstrously long shifts.

Geronimo and I entered the mine and descended several levels, crawling thru passages about four to five feet high. After a few minutes of descent we met yet more miners resting and chewing coca. It was morning and Geronimo informed us that they had been working since the night before. There was a manager (an equity holder in the mine) and two hired assistants. they had dynamited a passage and were now extracting the ore, carrying it up four levels in 90 pound sacks on their backs. this was a good find. When a passageway is mediocre a manger will work it by himself with a pick ax, not wasting expensive dynamite.

Next in the tour I was lowered by Geronimo down a 90 foot shaft with nothing more than a rope tied around my waist. Geronimo followed me sliding down the rope (an old miners trick, no doubt). I was a little surprised by my courage but by this point in the tour I had been chewing coca for quite a while and my judgment was, to say the least, suspect. At the bottom of the shaft we encountered two miners, brothers aged 19 and 15 working in the place of their father, who had recently died. Most miners, I learned, retire by the age of 35 so strenuous is the work. Even so, miners typically do not live past the age of 50, dying from one of the many miners diseases. Still, for the poor, indigenous residents of Potosi it is one of the few ways to make a living.

As bad as the conditions are in the mines today they are a vast improvement over the past when the Spanish sent thousands of Indian slaves to their deaths in the mines. Today, at least, the miners have a stake in the profits of the mine (there are some 200 mines in operations, mostly very small scale) and can take rudimentary steps to insure their safety. Last year (only) 48 miners died in accidents.

On the day of my tour there was a special ceremony going on involving the slaughter of llamas to give thanks for a prosperous year. After our emergence from the stifling mine we witnessed the slaughter of several llamas, all slit by the throat. Later the miners cooked up the meat on a large grill and buried the entrails in a offering to mother earth.

Geronimo and I descended to a lower mine where they were already cooking up the meat and helped ourselves to some. A miner came to us and bragged that llama meat has the lowest fat and cholesterol of any red meat. It struck me as a little odd that miner who will probably die before sixty would know anything about fat and cholesterol.

The meat was not bad, I should add, altho nothing compared to alpaca, which is delicious.
The Worst Bus Ride
It goes without saying that by this point in my trip I have become quite accustomed to bus rides. If ever I had an aversion to long rides I have long since gotten over it. Up until Bolivia my worst ride was a night bus from Arequipa to Cuzco, in Peru. For 13 hours I was subjected to the coldest, bumpiest, and dustiest bus ride of my trip, all while sitting next to a very large man with precious little respect for my personal space.

All this was mere preparation a ride I took in Bolivia. Since Colombia I had been hearing stories about the horrid condition of buses and roads in Bolivia but for the most part I had been quite lucky. My luck, however, ran out when I had to take a bus from Tupiza to Uyuni on a road connecting two of the most isolated corners of the Andean highlands.

The bus left at noon and the nice woman in the ticket office told me the ride would last six hours. Despite what notions you may have of how Latin Americans keep time, estimates of this sort were usually pretty good. This time it was an utter lie. The bus never arrives in under 8 hours, I later learned. Even so, an 8 pm arrival would have been a blessing.

My first inkling that all would not go smoothly came about four hours into the trip, after two hours of crawling up a not so steep road at barely 10 mph. At 6pm we pulled into the small town that marked the halfway point on this otherwise desolate journey. That is halfway, distance-wise. I assured myself that surely the road would get better if we were to make it even close to our schedule. In fact the road got worse.

Within 10 miles of this town we had two flat tires, the second of which took well over an hour to change. When I heard the clanging of a swift hammer on metal, I knew it was not an ordinary flat. From then on every time we slowed down to navigate a rut, which was quite often, I feared we were stopping for yet another flat. My body tensed up in the fear that we would not even arrive that night. The road was deeply rutted with a washboard grating and the bus (whose shocks were long gone) vibrated with such intensity that items in the overhead bins shook loose and it seemed the entire bus would come flying apart at the bolts.

To avoid the washboard sections the driver often choose alternate routes along the side of the road. This got us into our next bit of trouble. An hour outside of our final destination the bus got bogged down in sand and we all had to get out and push. At first I just had to laugh at the turn of events but the laughs soon turned in shivers. It was a cold, cold night in the desert. We were at 13,000 feet and the sun had set long ago. The temperature must have been in the teens. Thanks to that nice woman in the ticket office, who led me to believe we would arrive by sunset, I had left all my warm clothes in my pack, now totally inaccessible on top of the bus.

It took us an hour to get out of the sand, going 2 meters at a time. The driver and his assitant would dig out the area just in front of the back wheels and place a couple of boards there. The driver would rev the engine and the bus would lurch forward, rolling over the boards and then immediately bogging down in the sand again. It was while watching this farse that I decided that this was my worst bus ride, by far. Still, I mused to myself, it was not nearly at bad as some of the horror stories I had heard about buses in Bolivia, which included having the wheel fall off and being stranded by a flooded river and waiting 12 hours for the water to go down.

By the time we arrived it was just past one in the morning. it had taken us over 13 hours to go just under 100 miles. I got my stuff and quickly found a hotel room. I undressed and, filthy, went to bed, trying and failing to get warm under the thin sheets.