Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oh my poor stomach, Cara

After traveling for over a month through all of Bolivia and Northern Chile, and some of Peru with persistent gastrointestinal problems, my condition worsened. I couldn’t even get out of bed for the terrible stomach cramps and my whole body ached. I thought for sure I had a temperature and asked John to find a doctor for me. John returned with the news that a doctor would be here (in my hotel room) within an hour. I peeled myself off of the sweaty sheets, shivering, to at least brush the morning breath from my dry mouth. The doctor arrived at my door with the owner of the hotel, Juan Carlos, who would serve as a translator (hey, give me a break, it’s hard enough to think in your own language when you’re sick let alone another language).
The doctor sat on John’s bed and listened to my complaints as John and Juan Carlos listened and helped as needed. When the doctor started the exam, Juan Carlos slipped out of the room. The doctor did all the normal exam things, including taking my temperature which was ‘bastante alta’ at 40oC (104 oF) and decided to give me a shot. I watched him prepare the syringe which contained a liquid that I couldn’t help but compare to the SamSong Rum John and I drank in Thailand. I held out my arm for him to give me the cocktail but he just smiled and said, ‘en la nalga’. In the buttock! Oh good grief. So there I was, with my bare butt to the doctor, John (who is probably getting used to me embarrassing him like this), and Juan Carlos who just happened to check in on us at the exact same moment that the doctor inserted the needle. So much for modesty, but I didn’t quite care at that moment because the shot took a lot longer and was a lot more painful that I had expected that I had to fully concentrate on not passing out or vomiting. But, for as much pain in the butt the shot was, I felt the heat leave my body and my temperature went down almost instantly. The doctor explained that he was 98% sure that I had typhoid (for which I had been vaccinated) and he wrote out a list of meds and dosages for me to take. Juan Carlos offered to go pick up all of the meds and cook all of my meals according to the doctor’s orders. We thanked and paid the doctor ($30) and Juan Carlos for the meds and I fell right to sleep. It wasn’t long before there was a knock on the door and Juan Carlos entered with all my meds and some cherry gelatin. Later on in the evening, again there was a knock, this time with a tray with the Peruvian form of chicken noodle soup, then again with mint tea. The next morning I was awakened with a tray of dry toast, anis tea, and gelatin. This continued for every meal around the clock for three days during which I developed a love-hate relationship with the toilet. I couldn’t believe how kind the hotel staff was to me and I was definitely lucky to be in such a nice place with our own bathroom (thank God) and cable TV.

Isla del Sol, "Island of the Sun", Bolivia

Lake Titicaca is on of South Americas most beautiful natural wonders. Here there are several idyllic islands where one can catch a glimpse of local life untainted from mass tourism. On the Bolivian side of the lake there is the quaint Isla del Sol. Here there are plenty of small villages with simple but adequate accommodation where the visitor can take a break for a few days from the travel on the road and watch life slowly pass by. You can spend time walking on the quaint cobbled stone pathways that meander around to different parts of the island.

On the west side of Isla del Sol are some interesting Inca temples. Here begins the creation story in Incan mythology.

Leaves find unfriendly Bush - John

The Coca museum in La Paz is considered by some to be the truest representation of Bolivian culture. Much of the statistics in the article below came from the museum.

After the Spanish conquered its half of South America and all the spoils of gold were hauled off from the Incas, the subjugated indigenous populations were turned into slaves under religious pretenses in order to further extract wealth out of the land to fuel the economies of Spain and Europe. The Spanish neither understood nor cared about the cultures, religions, or foundational myths that defined the people they had enslaved. For the Altiplano communities, which run from Colombia to Northern Chile and Argentina, the coca leaf has been fundamental for over 4000 years.
Although intensive manual labor is required to plant and harvest coca on the precarious slopes of the Andes; it is a sturdy plant that can grow in sterile earth, withstand drought, can be easily transported and stored, and can yield three or four crops a year. Even though each family has its own plots of land to cultivate, the community comes together to help each individual family sow and harvest the crop. The men sow and women harvest. All families cultivate at the same pace neither over nor under producing their neighbors creating a rhythm synonymous with Andean culture. Coca is used like alcohol as a “social lubricant” to facilitate exchange and strengthen rites, without having any of the dangerous and addictive qualities of alcohol

La leyenda de coca - “Cuando el conquistador blanco tocara la hoja de coca solo encontrará en ella veneno para su cuerpo y locura para su mente y cuando la coca intente ablandar su corazón solo lograra romperlo como los cristales de hielo demuelen las montañas.”

The coca legend – “When the white conqueror touched the coca leaf all he found was venom for his body and madness for his mind, and when the coca tried to appease his heart, it only served to break it like ice crystals destroy mountains.”

In fact, chewing the leaves provides an increase tolerance for work, stimulates the respiratory centers, regulates the metabolism of glucose, and reduces risk of thrombosis. It is used to celebrate health, to congratulate achievement, mark rites of passage, and to greet guests. Coca leaves have even been found in mummies in Northern Peru that date 2500BC. So when the Ecclesiastic Council in Lima banned coca leaves in 1551 claiming it “diabolical” the Andean cultures lost the foundation that bounded and defined them. It didn’t take long for the Council to reverse their decision because once discovered that chewing coca leaves gave slaves more energy the Spanish made chewing obligatory. The indigenous population could work in the mines 48 continuous hours without adequate breaks or any food when they chewed. The Conquistadores completely took control of coca production putting a 10% tax on the leaves. The indigenous people had to sell themselves in order to buy enough coca to survive the mines and coca became worth its weight in gold. Many things have not changed since the days of the Conquistadores. The current US administration seems to think that in order to fight the war on drugs in the United States they must make a battle field of the very foundation of a culture they know absolutely nothing about. This isn’t new. Western countries completely control the drug trade. Western manufactures make the chemicals used to transform and refine the harmless leaf into deadly drugs and the cleaning of drug money takes place in banks and businesses in Western countries. Even though the United States constitutes only 5% of the world population it consumes 50% of all cocaine and crack produced. So why make the poor Bolivian or Peruvian farmer pay for Western vices? The US sponsors programs to eradicate the plant by offering subsidies and incentives to governments for growing other crops have largely failed. The US essentially blackmails South American governments to fall inline with its anti-coca growing policy by threatening to withhold millions of dollars in aid that goes to building infrastructure, education programs, and health care. The local governments then force farmers to grow fruits or vegetables. These crops are susceptible to drought, do not store well, cannot be easily transported, and fetch a tenth of the price. By preventing the growth of coca local communities are forced to leave their homes in the country as immigrants to find work in the cities, a cultural sink. In the past when farmers refused to stop growing coca, governments sent their army to bully local communities by burning villages and killing resistant farmers which serves only to further disenfranchise the poor of countryside with its own government. Things may be changing. Evo Morialis, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and former coca farmer, is saying no to the United States, at least for now. No matter what policies are enforced, taking the coca leaf away from the communities of the altiplano is like taking away Coca Cola from the Americans. Now isn’t that a contradiction?

The Pampas (Plains) of the Bolivian Amazon – Cara

Our trip to the Amazon began with a loud and bumpy military flight to the town of Rurrenabaque, a change in altitude of -3,840m. Although it is unusual to have difficulty breathing when descending in altitude, it took a few hours for us to catch our breath from the change in humidity that hit us upon landing. We signed up for a tour to begin the following day with an Aussie couple we met on the flight and then checked into the cheapest hostel. Our Pampas tour began at 8:30 as the 8 of us (another Aussie couple and a French couple) piled into a van with Mama Julia, our cook, Domingo, our guide, and a driver. We rode for about 3 hours, stopping twice to help other tour groups broken down on the side of the road and once for lunch.
When we arrived at the Tuichi River we were greeted with some playful river dolphins which provided some entertainment while we loaded the motored canoe. The boat cruised upstream for 3 hours where we spotted toucans, macaws, parrots, alligators, monkeys, and capybaras (the largest rodent in the world which resembles a 100lb hamster!).

We arrived at camp around 5pm and had dinner before heading out on a night cruise with our flashlights to spot the red eyes of the alligators. It was pretty eerie to see the red eyes lurking just above the water’s surface. On the way back to camp we spooked a school of fish causing 4 of them to jump into our boat (luckily they weren’t piranhas) which caused some excitement. After a sprinkle of a shower we retired to our dorm beds clad with mosquito nets. The next morning we were woken by the throaty call of a family of howler monkeys that camped in the canopy above. After a first rate breakfast we geared up in our hiking garb and rubber boots for a hike into the grasslands and marshes in search of snakes.
We had only been walking for about 20 minutes with Domingo nearly stepped on an American cobra hanging out on the wet earth. Using his walking stick, he stirred up the snake into a coil then used the bifurcated end to pin down the neck in order to grab its head.

Unfortunately for the cobra, Domingo’s hand position at the base of its jaw caused a reflexive regurgitation of the frog it had just eaten and it slipped out of its mouth in one slimy piece. We continued through the grasslands into a forest where we came across our 2nd snake, an anaconda, in the base of a tree. Domingo pulled him out for us to see and as he told us about how anacondas wrap themselves around their prey to asphyxiate them, the snake wrapped itself around Domingo’s hand and wrist and excreted a powerfully pundgent poo (thank John for that one) as a defense mechanism.
When Domingo let him down he slithered between his legs and gracefully glided up the nearest tree. Continuing on we came across another anaconda in a hole which would have been a little too difficult to get out so we left him undisturbed. As we came out of the wooded area we saw a green mamba coming out of a hole in the ground. Despite its small size, the green mamba is the deadliest snake in this region. At the risk of sounding like the late Steve Erwin, “she’s-a-beauty”. As we watched it, it unbelievably escaped our gazes for a few seconds after which we found it climbing along a branch of a small nearby tree.

We couldn’t believe how fast and sly it was (which is a little scary). John got a little too close for my comfort to take some photos as Domingo told us that one bite could kill a human. As we walked away, I asked Domingo if he had any antivenin and he said no because they can’t maintain the antivenin here. If one of us were to get bitten he would put on a tourniquet, lance the area with a knife to bleed out the venom, cover the area with some sort of jungle leaf, then get us back to town (6hrs away) for the antivenin. Luckily we didn’t have to test out this process. We continued into a really swampy area where the water was deep and the earth beneath was so soft that we all sunk below the level of our rubber boots and took turns getting stuck and soaked. As we rounded the lake, we saw in the distance a stork eating an anaconda. As we headed back to camp we crossed the anaconda in the tree from earlier and came across a huge American cobra lying across our path. As we neared, we spooked it into a hole but we could see him move beneath the earth through a series of tunnels. We returned to camp stinky but happy about what we had seen. Following Domingo’s lead, we jumped into the river to bathe (staying close to shore for fear of the alligators). After lunch we took the canoe to a deep place in the river where the dolphins like to play so that we could swim with them. Domingo ensured us that the dolphins would protect us from the alligators as they do their young by circling around us.

We must have trusted him because despite an alligator lurking less than 50m away, we all got in. I didn’t stay out long because the current was strong and I’m not a strong swimmer but John stayed out for a long time and the dolphins got very close to him. In fact, he accidentally kicked one a few times just treading water. It started to thunder and lightning so we made our way back to camp in time to change and take the canoe to the sunset bar. After dinner we watched a group of howler monkeys ‘monkey around’ in the trees then headed to bed. What a day! The following morning we forewent our 5am sunrise excursion due to rain (we were all a little relieved about it actually). When we got up for breakfast, I realized that the backs of my thighs, under my shorts, were completely covered in bites which were welted and itchy. How did they get there? Ironically, the areas I did have exposed were free of bites (thanks to DEET). Annette fixed me up with some calamine lotion and antihistamines which helped tremendously.We watched the dolphins play as we waited for the rain to stop and I took a nap until we were called for lunch. As we were eating, Domingo surprised us with dolphin necklaces which he secretly carved and made in the morning while we were distracted by the rain. The rain didn’t stop in time for us to go fishing for piranhas but we were all so satisfied with what we did do that no one put up a fuss. Finally the rain stopped and we took the opportunity to make the trip back to town on which we saw ‘heaps’ (as the Aussies say) of wildlife. The road back to Rurrenabaque was muddy and bumpy. To finish off our wildlife experience, we saw a three-toed sloth in a tree on the way back. What an amazing trip!

Bolivia's Death Road

Between the barren altiplano capital of La Paz and the verdant Yungas coca capital of Coroico lies one of the most dramatic and deadly roads in the world. Built by the blood and sweat of prisoners during the war with Paraguay in 1932, the “Death Road” is still the only route that connects Northern Bolivia with the capital. This absurdly narrow road is heavily traversed by buses, minivans, trucks, tankers, taxis, private vehicles, and mountain bikes. Mountain bikes! That’s right; the world’s deadliest road is open for tourism, only in Bolivia. Despite the fact that (or because of it) there is an average of one accident every two weeks and 200 fatalities annually, tourists are just bursting go down this road and then proudly wear their “I Survived” t-shirts. Tourist companies are only too ready to oblige. There are no less than 25 companies in La Paz to provide for your adrenaline fix hundreds of mountains bikes (just think how many dodgy brake pads are out there?). Ironically enough, my father emailed us just after we booked our trip informing us that there is a deadly road near La Paz and we should “avoid it like the plague” (how does he learn about these places before we get there?).
So when the next day arrived, Cara and I met our small group of six (including guide and driver), suited up in garishly ugly orange pants and jackets, grabbed our gloves and helmets, and piled into a mini-van whose paint job proudly advertised what it was that the crazy gringos inside were about to do. We climbed up out of La Paz (already at 3800m) to a ridiculous 4700m. Below the outstretched arms of a large Jesus statue we chased down bread and jam with coffee. We adjusted our seats, tested the breaks, kicked the tires, and prepared ourselves psychologically for the ride of our lives. After a very brief instruction from Wince, our guide, the time came. With Jesus at our backs at three miles high we slowly rolled down the paved road that fell into the valley below. It didn’t take long. After seconds we were rocketing down the mountain at horrifying speeds. One tiny rock in the road would have been disastrous leading to “hair, teeth, and eyes” on the road (to once again quote my father). With our knuckles completely white, our noses numbed, and ears deafened, we passed trucks going down.

We had two brief respites in the first two hours when we had to walk our bikes through two DEA check points (can our government keep its stinking nose out of anything?) There was an 8km section of uphill cycling, which ended up being a show of machismo by the guys more than anything. At 3600m (12000ft) this was a killer and it took me nearly 10 minutes of hyperventilating before I could control my breathing. Shortly after, the two lanes of pavement ended. The new road, that was supposed to be finished two years ago (I figure local officials must put on the finishing touches to their new houses with the international aid to build the road before focusing their attention on the road itself) goes up and the narrow rock and earth road (that kills people) continues down into the lush cloud forest. Welcome to the “Death Road” said Wince. He instructed us to go slowly and stay on the outside of the road as traffic coming up gets the right of way along the inside passage of the mountain. After a few minutes of cycling the view down into the valley opened up and the tiny brown ribbon of road could be seen meandering through the deep green mountains to the horizon. This first section of the Death Road is truly frightening.

We biked only two feet away from the precipitous edge that fell vertically nearly a mile into the river below. The only thing that remotely resembled guard rails was the steady line of black crosses on the most precarious sections. Above our heads hung a thick canopy of trees that clung to the vertical rock wall on our right. Several times small water falls would come down on our heads making the road muddy and slippery adding yet another challenge. One blind curve follows another. There are traffic controllers with red and green flags that perch themselves on the most dangerous sections of the road. For a fare of one Boliviano, 12 cents, they help the large buses and trucks manoeuvre around each other using the rare passing sections. Stand offs between large vehicles are frequent causing huge traffic jams and take up to 20 minutes to sort out.

Despite the gorgeous views you just couldn’t lose focus for one second. We learned that a French mountain biker lost her concentration and then her life when backing up from a truck during one of these jams. She went right over the edge backwards. Along the way Wince pointed places where all the mountain bikers had gone over during his 4 years of service. All the bus accidents were way too numerous to point out but the recent ones were still easily seen from the road. Some had crews of men trying to pull the wreckage back up onto the road as if we all needed yet another reminder of the dangers. I stayed right behind Cara in case she slipped or fell off her bike. Father Garuccio (Cara’s Dad) would kill me if anything happened to her (come to think of it, my own father probably would too). Cara hit some rocks and lost her footing while avoiding a large Volvo truck which nearly gave me a heart attack. As we neared the end of our journey at an elevation of 1200m (a huge differential from 4700m) the temperature and humidity made the going very uncomfortable in our orange suits. The dust from the never ending buses and trucks was not only choking, but completely obscured the road for several seconds. When we finally made it to the bottom we were glad to be finished. Our guide handed out our “I Survived” shirts after we pealed off our soaked clothing. We rewarded ourselves with some Pacena beer and enjoyed a huge feast for lunch. But it was still not over. In order to get back to La Paz we had to take the “Death Road” once again. Our driver knew all the curves and intricacies of the road. This unfortunately gave him a little too much confidence, in my opinion, as he sped around the corners at a very uncomfortable speed. As the shadows lengthened obscuring the valley bellow the other riders slept in the back of the van as I hung my head out the window on the cliff side with the wind blowing in my hair and eyes bulging down the abyss below absolutely terrified and completely delighted.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Have a Fascination with Remoteness

- by John Macdonald -
I enjoy the occasional feeling of being in the middle of nowhere in a place where time is not measured. Exploring these ‘nowhere’ nooks around the world is like a return to a primordial era where human institutions have no meaning. The elements are the meaning. However, this is not to say there is nothing to see in remote places. Sometimes there is everything to see, and in southwestern Bolivia our goal was to see everything in nowhere. We began our journey from the eccentric town of Uyuni located absolutely in the middle of nowhere (this is a good start) with no clear reason why it exists.

There’s an energetic American here from Amherst selling delicious pizzas at the Minuteman Pizzeria, 70 something tour operators to take you into the wilderness beyond the town, endless flower patches of plastic bags, and a train graveyard just outside of town with no less than 30 rusting hulks of 1940s era locomotives disemboweled and strewn across the desert. With our guide, Valerio, and six fellow travelers we set off to nowhere.
Cara and I served as the translators as Valerio’s English included only the numbers 1 through 10 and our English speaking friends could only understand ‘si’ or ‘no’, which was good practice for us. Our first stop was the highest and largest salt flat in the world, Salar de Uyuni. Rimmed by snowcapped volcanoes and crowned with a deep blue sky the Salar is a 12,000 sq km expanse of unfathomable blinding white at a nose bleed altitude of 3,660 m. It is up to 120 m deep with the top 10 m being pure salt. Due to the amount of water below and an usual respiration of gases that bubble up, small rims are pushed up forming massive hexagons along the salar’s surface.

The geometric shadows stretching to the horizon from the setting sun creates the sensation of being the central theme in an Escher sketch. Near the very center of this immense expanse is an island completely made of coral which is home to a rather tall and prickly population of cacti called, Cactus Island. From here the views are even more bizarre. These species of Cacti grow ever so slowly at a rate of 1 cm per year. The tallest cactus is 12.3 meters tall making it 1203 years old (so the sign said, but I think they missed place a number). After a great lunch made by Valerio, Cara and I had some fun with the left over Fanta bottle. There is no perspective in a land of white and silly and unusual photos can be made (see cover photo). Our first night was in a salt palace. ‘Palace’ is slightly over stated because you would have to have more than one toilet for 40 people to be properly called a palace (unfortunately for Cara this would prove to be very inconvenient as she was suffering from ‘el Grande D’).

The ‘palace’ is made entirely from salt blocks including the salt chandeliers, salt tables, salt beds (with a real mattress of course), and even a salt floor. Our friends even used the salt from the floor for betting in a long game of Texas Hold’Em. Day two was long and hard. We left the smooth salt flat and continued our journey on bumpy off-road tracks that seemed to climb forever. Along the way we passed small Quechua villages that had larger populations of llamas than people. The altiplano path meandered around ancient lava fields between a string of volcanoes. Occasionally we came across small herds of vicunas, a relative of the llama prized for its silk-like fur. By lunch we made it to a first of several large but shallow lakes filled with three species of flamingoes. I always seem to get my clothes soiled with surrounding environment, and by the time Valerio had lunch prepared I had my fair share of flamingo excrement all over my boots and pants. In the early afternoon Valerio told me that we were about to enter the desert once we made it over the next pass.
I was confounded as how the landscape, which I had already perceived as a genuine desert, could possibly get any more inhospitable. It did. The landscape stretched out before us. The clarity and quality of the air made it impossible to judge depth of field and a small object in the distance ended up being a massive object that took ages to pass. A highway of off-road tracks ran to the horizon like an enormous plowed field of burnt sand. Occasionally, we came across the remains of a bleached lava field with huge malformed chunks haphazardly scattered across the desert. Our final destination today was Laguna Colorado, another otherworldly oddity that is strikingly red due to the prolific algae population. Although it is a feast for flamingos, it takes a sturdy constitution to withstand the freezing wind that blows across the bloody lake. After a slew of photos I found my traveling mates patiently waiting for me in the comfort of the 4x4.

Nearby was our adobe brick accommodation that we shared with several other groups. At a whopping 4,300 m we spent a drafty and frigid night on the Bolivian Altiplano. Noone slept. After thawing out and unsuccessfully helping another group jump start their 4x4 we set off for the highest point of our journey, Los Geysers de Sol Mañana, the highest geyser field in the world at 4,870 m. These were the first geysers Cara had ever seen and she was absolutely fascinated. Although steam roared from the vents climbing 50 meters above the frozen tundra, it was the bubbling pools of mud that captivated her shooting stinky sulfuric balls of wet ash overhead (and into my camera bag). The lack of fences (hey we were in Bolivia) made our viewing pleasure up close, personal, and slightly ill-advised. We climbed over our highest pass on our journey at 4,900 m and dropped down into yet another valley full of bizarre shapes and array of earthy colors.
Our final destination before crossing over into Chile was Laguna Verde, a death lake full of undesirable minerals such as arsenic. Bound by a massive volcano and frothy white arsenic foam (waiting to fly into my face) Laguna Verde shines a richly poisonous, yet inviting green with tiny snow white waves whipped by the wind. Sadly, we left our group to take a bus across the border into Chile. I felt our guide, Valerio, was a bit emotional on our departure and that our group would surely miss us (not just for our translating abilities). From the 4,400 m Bolivian altiplano we descended 2,000 m through the gullies and ravines of lava fields long cooled into Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, behind us stood no less than 25 volcanoes. Having completed our travels through nowhere we reflected on one of the most epic journeys through one of the most unforgettable landscapes showcased on this Earth. Then we took a long overdue shower.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Rich Mountain that Devours Men and Gringos Locos

My father questioned our going to Potosi, Bolovia after seeing the satellite image using Google Earth. He said it’s in the middle of nowhere, without a shred of green, and has an altitude of 4100 m. Well, Dad’s right as always. This city is in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t built because of its lovely arboreal population. But I not only wanted to see the city that grew from nothing, I wanted to see its benefactor. In 1545, the city of Potosi was built virtually overnight. Over the next twenty years, its population exploded to 100,000 making it by far the largest city in the Americas. By the 17th century it was the largest city in the world at 160,000. It imported everything from basic food supplies and construction material to Persian rugs and Chinese porcelain. All roads led to Potosi. Opulence and decadence best described Potosi at this time with gambling houses, theaters, brothels, dancehalls, richly constructed civil works buildings, magnificent mansions, and dozens of splendid churches (to absolve all sins of course). But surely it didn’t grow from nothing, Potosi grew from Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) the richest single source of silver in the world and from it Spain and Europe were propped up nearly singled handedly . . . but at a price. Over the three centuries of colonial mining it is estimated that 9 million indigenous and African slaves were consumed in the mine or died from related diseases. Many were forced to spend up to 4 months in the mine without pay as a mita (required service to the state started by the Incas and then abused by the Spanish). The boom bubble busted after 1650 and the city and the country declined dramatically. Potosi’s population fell to 30,000 by the time of independence in 1825. The town has recovered since then and enjoys an acceptable level of prosperity at 120,000 with a youthful vibe, but is still poor by most standards. After 500 years, minerals are still extracted from the mountains, but very little in the way of mining technology and safety standards have evolved. Little has changed with one exception … it’s open for tourism. This is why we’ve come. I’m here to play miner for a day and see just how back braking life is for these Bolivians. Our tour began at the miner’s market in town where each day the miners pick up their daily supplies including coca leaves, shovels, black-tobacco cigarettes, lamps (Chinese and American) and dynamite. The Cooperatives do not provide anything for the workers and keeping dynamite in ones home is a dangerous practice as miners are often drunk and a bit crazy. Speaking of crazy, for just $2 USD you can legally buy a fuse, a stick of dynamite, and sodium nitrate. There are three types to choose from, Bolivian (the best quality, por supuesto), Argentine, and Peru (the lowest). Our group bought cigarettes, coca leaves, soda (for the miners), and five kits of explosives. We suited up in miners gear including boots, pants, over coat, hard hat and lamp (the Chinese variety). Locals yelled, “Gringos Locos”, from a speeding van as we walked onto the street in our gear. We drove up the mountain and turned off about half way up onto a dirt road. The mountain is pitted with numerous holes and has small adobe villages at their entrances (the ‘natural’ bathrooms are everywhere, watch where you step). It is completely painted in tear streaks of red and yellows from the ferrous oxide and sulfur waste. Apparently, Cerro Rico had an elevation of 5165m in the 17th century but now has an elevation of 4830m due to centuries of mining. Before we entered the mine we were shown how to make a bomb. The dynamite was taken out of the package and rolled into a green ball like Playdough. They shoved in the fuse, put it into a plastic bag with a kilo of little white beads of sodium nitrate, tied the bag into a ball, lit the fuse, and handed it to us with an enormous grin. It’s just like in the cartoons, the fuse hisses, sputters, and smokes. As we passed the bomb around to have our photo taken the enormous grins changed to worry. The miners grabbed the bombs and ran to burry them. When the fuse finally triggered the dynamite and its tiny little white beads the explosion thundered. I could feel it my chest 200m away. Our guide, Pedro, spoke incredible English laced with dark humor with a keen knowledge of Western pop culture, all learned inside the mine. His father started bringing him into the mine when he was 10, he’s currently 25 (with teeth of a 70 year old), and his grandfather continues to work in the mine at age 68 (not sure of the state of his teeth). Pedro’s first language is Quechua (the language of the Inca). With a cheek full of coca leaves we followed him, nervously, inside the mine at an elevation of 4325m (that’s about 14,300 feet for you hard headed British Units people). Work is done by hand using basic tools since the Cooperatives took over from the government in the 1980s. Men work in groups of 15 to 20, 8 hours days, 6 days a week. There are a myriad of tunnels that bore down into the depths of the mountain looking for the precious minerals that run north to south along the Cordillera.

The mine we visited has 5 levels all connected by rails and ladders. As the clearance of the shaft diminished we could feel the temperature and humidity slowly rising with each step. As we dropped from the first level to the second we had to crawl on our hands and knees passing vertical shafts that fell into the darkest depths of level 5 that even our bright head lamps couldn’t illuminate. If our Chinese lanterns failed us we would be in total darkness (should have brought the American lamps). The dust that suspended from sliding down the next level was almost intolerable as it filled and burned my lungs and sinuses. I felt the panic inside begin to rise. I could see why the miners chewed coca leaves in the mine as it helped keep my throat from being parched. By the time we made it to the third level the clearance of the shaft had increased marginally but the temperature had reached 45 deg C (113 deg F). The oppressive temperature was compounded by the unventilated stale and humid air. We were completely soaked at this time from our own sweat. Water dripped on our heads from tiny stalactite crystals and pooled between the tracks making walking a precariously slippery and mucky affair. A new and unusually bad odor wafted into my nostrils and I was told by Pedro it was arsenic gas. I pondered this news of gas frowning while following directly behind Pedro, who was walking without his lamp as his battery was nearly dead. He then abruptly stopped. Into the pitch black nothingness he stared and listened. While gasping I looked down. In the illumination of my lamp I notice small ripples in the muddy water between the rails just before Pedro came running screaming at us to turn around. I could here it now. It sounded like an old style wooden roller coaster on its first descent or even an enormous wave of water. I turned and yelled running as I encouraged my new miner friends with a hand in the back. Just as we found a small space cut slightly back from the rail to press our selves against a two ton trolley roared by us with one man hanging on the front and one hanging on the back. We would have certainly been crushed if we had not found that miniscule space. The rest of our time in the mine, which ended up being 4 plus hours total, was filled with chatting with the miners while they guzzled the soda we brought. Many looked less than 18 years old. They seemed to have an easy going attitude and were very positive about their jobs and their lot in life even though most will be dead by 45 from a mining accident, silicosis, or alcohol. As we retreated from the mine I pondered over how much easier we have it at home and how much more we tend to complain about our jobs. Nearly out of the mine, I was further reminded when I had to climb up into the roof of the tunnel with my hands bracing one side and my feet on the other arching as train of trolleys thundered a couple of feet bellow me. With blackened faces beaded with sweat the miners wished me a final “buenas” as they beamed green contorted smiles up at me, one cheek bursting with coca leaves.