Thursday, April 30, 2009

Colca Canyon: Out

The next day, we went to the cascada outside of town. More interesting than the cascada was talking to Lucy, who is very bright for a 12-year-old. Here's hoping she'll be able to attend high school in Cabanaconde. On the way back, she offered to show us some "cabezas del los viejos," which literally means heads of the elders. I was confused, and remained so when she lead us to a little grotto that had a pile of human bones mixed together. They are not (known) relations to families in Fure. Lucy said they were of some pre-inca people. Erin and I both found it unsettling. I'm no anthropologist, but it seems very uncommon for a culture to bury its dead in a common unkempt grave. We couldn't help but wonder what abuse might be been responsible.

Andrew, Erin, Cascada #2

Lucy. Note the cool hat. It's extremely regional. If you go even an hour east, the women wear bowlers with sparkly sequins. I think I prefer the Cabana style hat.

Back in Fure we bid our goodbyes and descended back towards the Río Colca. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Llahuar, which seemingly only exists for the tourists that stay there. Nonetheless, it was a great place to hang out for a night. The friendly dueña greeted us and showed us the way to the hot springs. Later we watched dusk fall on the patio perched above the río Colca and drank beer that was probably scandelously hard to pack in.

We foolishly agreed to eat breakfast at the slovenly hour of 6:30. The south canyon wall (with cursed northern exposure) was already baking in the sun by the time we started the 4,000 foot climb out of the ditch. By the time we had neared the top, it was midday and there was no shade to be found. We hadn't quite ran out of water, but the food was gone. Coca leafs sustained me for a while, but soon I was bonking and dutifully hallucinating faces in the rocks. Erin wasn't doing much better. Without a hat, the hateful tropical sun was cooking her brains and sunscreen-laded sweat was pouring into her eyes. We cursed our lazy start and painfully crawled towards town.

Shadowed in the depths but an oven higher up

Hallucinating in the midday sun

We made it with a half-hour to spare before the 2PM bus back to Arequipa. It was full, but we managed to finagle our way on, standing for the ride to the neighboring town of Chivay. En route, we had a fascinating conversion with a grade school teacher in Cabanaconde. He works five days in Cabanaconde before making the six-hour trip back to Arequipa, where his family lives. This is a marked improvement over his old post which was at 4500 meters in the mountains outside Cabanaconde and a four-hour walk from the nearest road. He only went home once a month there.

I asked him what he thought about Fujimori being sentenced to life in prison. He thought the trial was fair and the sentence deserved. That makes two out of two Arequipeños I've asked about it in favor, but
Abimael Guzmán is from Arequipa, so who knows how that might bias things...

Once in Chivay, we got the last two seats on the late bus of the least-popular bus company. We quickly caught on as to its lack of popularity when we shuffled past rows of filthy, torn seats barely attached to the sticky floor and took our seat next to the (broken, of course) bathroom. Erin looked like a little Butch Cassidy with her hankerchief over her mouth in a vein attempt to filter out the rich scent of urine radiating from the bathroom. The bus was so bumpy, I swear I pooped a tooth. After an interminable ride, we arrived back in Arequipa.

Colca from the rim

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Colca Canyon: In

All sorts of hyperbole describe the Colca Canyon. By someone's warped metric it's over 10,000 feet deep (but you can hike from what sure looks like a rim to the bottom in less than 3,000 feet), it's swarming with man-eating condors (they are scarce, and they could probably only eat a small child at best), it has towns and hostels in its depths with nicknames like “Paradise” and “Eden.” Canyonwise, it's not too bad. It's no Grand Canyon, but it's a pretty darn good one.

Despite the siren promises of the 1.5 million tourist agencies in Arequipa, we escaped to hike by our own devices. We left Cabanaconde, a few hours later we arrived in San Juan de Chuccho.

Leaving Cabanaconde
From arequipa and colca

Baby-eating condor

Even 60 years ago, the towns on the north side of the canyon probably seemed unremarkable, apart from their spectacular position. But now, to my modern urban eyes, they are in a kind of quaint stasis, many without electricity, all without cars, relying on gravity-fed aqueducts for their water. We followed the aqueduct up to the hostel in San Juan and ate a dinner of textured vegetable protein by candlelight. The next morning, we trailed the hostel owner's son out of town, to San Juan's school. Four students attend.

We passed through the larger and more metropolitan Coshñirua and Malata, then started uphill towards Fure. The sun was unrelenting, so when the path changed aspect and a pool of shade appeared, we quickly sat down and took off our boots. A moment later, a Peruvian appeared and sat beside us. We offered him some banana chips. He munched on the chips, then asked if I spoke Spanish. I foolishly answered yes, and before I knew it I was the recipient of a fire-and-brimstone evangelical screed. Apart from learning that the Pope has the mark of the beast tattooed on his head (presumably that's why he has to wear the hat), I learned that the rapture was imminent. Isn't it always?

My neck was stiffening, but I was helpless with my socks and boots off to make a graceful exit. Fortunately, Erin took the initiative and began packing her bag so I started tying my boots while I dumbly nodded along with the apocalyptic Bad News. We stood up and started backing away slowly and he took the hint that his congregation was going to move. He offered to accompany us to the trail junction, but we demurred. We breathed a sigh of relief as he disappeared around the corner. The book of Revelations has got to be the most abused book in the Bible.

Pooping misadventures of the cactus kind. (Editor's note: this marks the second such misadventure of Gringo Tur.)

Threatening to dash myself on rocks in the Río Huaruro after the apocalypse hour.

Fure has a dramatic entrance. It's tucked into a fold in the canyon of the river Huaruro, invisible until you are right upon it and the guardian waterfall that towers over it. We crossed the waterfall and met Lucy, who took us to her family's hostel. After playing with her younger sisters and brothers for what seemed like an eternity (one we nearly had to throw into the river to be rid of), we had dinner.

Despite what it looks like, I don't like kids. Almost had to toss him into the river.

Fure and its waterfall

We brought a bag of pasta and some sauce to help sooth our consciences. Even though we paid for dinner, it still seemed unfair to eat their food that takes so much effort to supply. It's ten hours round-trip and 5000 feet elevation gain to Cabanaconde to bring food in by mule. Erin remarked to Lucy that she'd enjoy living somewhere without the devil's contrivances of electricity and cars. Lucy smiled politely and said that she wouldn't mind a little electricity. I told them that they should trade places.

Lucy's parents collect cochineal besides housing the occasional tourist. Cochineal are aphid-like bugs that feed on sap from the prickly-pear cactus. When crushed, they turn a deep red. Besides being the traditional dye for cloth in the Andes, they are used in food and cosmetics. It takes over 100,000 beetles to make a kilo, which wholesales for US$80. It sounds like hard work.

Cochineal on a cactus outside of Lucy's house

Campaign promises of electricity, irrigation and roads

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Santa Catalina Convent, Arequipa

Extravagance was the name of the game at Santa Catalina Convent. Wanting to keep the convent high class and pure, the monastery's founding mother only accepted nuns from the richest Spanish families. The chosen girls continued to live it up in solitude. Profligate with their dowrys, ornate furniture, paintings, curtains, and gowns were bought by Jesus's bridezillas.

Nagging rumors of hedonistic parties and pregnant nuns caused the Vatican to send a new madre. Sister Josefa Cadena carried a long stick and set new rules for the convent. Rules including: 1.) Women of the convent were to be called sora, and could no longer demand to be called doña, and 2.) Only one slave per sister.

The rules might have restored some order, but apparently did not help long-term with finances, and the convent eventually opened to the public to remain solvent. That is how we got to explore the vast fortress of a convent that takes up more than a whole city block in Arequipa.

The convent is still running, but only in a locked off corner. Geranium and narajo filled cloisters are divided by walls of red, blue, and orange. A little more cheery than I expected. But there were also things I did expect: lots of gaudy religious paintings, scary dolls dressed in gold-encrusted habits, and room after room of normal, daily things like beds for sleeping, kitchens for cooking, benches for kneeling, baths for bathing.

Poverty, chastity, and obedience were their vows. Obedience must have been their strong point, because there was obviously a little bit of plentitude and licentiousness on the side.

Window lighting up the opposite wall in one of the many kitchens.
From arequipa and colca

From arequipa and colca

From arequipa and colca

From arequipa and colca

Monday, April 27, 2009

Arequipa and Santuarios Andinos

We crossed into Arequipa, Peru, the jumping off point for some trekking into the Colca Canyon. We were planning on spending a night and hitting the trail early the next morning, but found Arequipa sunny with good views and vibes. So we took off our shoes and spent a few days.

Arequipa's Plaza de Armas
From arequipa and colca

Arequipa is surrounded by a few impressive volcanoes, growing conically from the plain, some of them snow-covered. With all of their aesthetic appeal it is easy to forget that they can also be imposing and possibly catastrophic. The Incas understood the devastation that the volcanoes could cause, and took steps to keep the mountains happy. They sacrificed on remote, high Andean peaks to appease the gods that had their fingers on the volcanoes' red button.

On top of El Misti, one of the volcanoes that you can see from anywhere in Arequipa, archeologists found six children sacrifices. About ten years ago on nearby Volcan Ampato, volcanic activity uncovered three still-frozen sacrifices. Juanita, the most well-preserved of the three, lives in Arequipa when she is not being magnetically imaged or genotyped.

We stopped by Museo Santury to take a peak at the Andean princess. From all of the testing, they know that Juanita died at age 13 from a precise blow to the right forehead after being marched to the top of Ampato at 21,000 feet. She was sacrificed with offerings of the Inca's best textiles and metals, probably with a ceremonial sending off to the next world. Because of the cold, Juanita, as well as the offerings made with her, are in perfect condition. You could not buy a newer looking tunic at the baby alpaca emporium a few doors down.

The museum took great pains to keep the viewings respectful, if not apologetic. We were repeatedly reminded that Juanita was a willing soldier for the cause: she rejoiced that she was chosen, and gladly took the step into the next life for her people. Maybe there was uncited evidence that she went without duress, but I found it not so credible. Human sacrifice implies violence.

From the top of the convent, with El Misti in the background.
From arequipa and colca

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Semana Santa celebrations in South America are not only a time to respectfully consider Jesus's death and resurrection, they are also a time to GET WASTED!!

We came down off the mountain late in the morning, and we found a wide cross-section of the population of Sorata drunk in the streets: grandmothers, twelve-year-old boys, Cholitas, bus drivers, priests, and lots of old guys. So, we carefully chose seats outside a cafe near the plaza, dropped our packs, ordered a few paceñas of our own, and settled in for some people watching.

In the middle of the plaza there were several music stages set up side by side, each with their own band playing simultaneously. The musical mayhem continued into the streets where marching bands dressed in full costume would strike up a lively tune and parade around the square a few times until drowned out by another marching band. Battle of the bands Bolivian style sounded like preschool music class after a while.

Party on the streets of Sorata
From Laguna Chillata

We watched with amazement as 90 liters of beer vanished within five minutes of being parked on the sidewalk. The dancing, once impressive, began to disintegrate. The men promenaded their Cholitas around in an inebriated stumble-trot, trying not to fall. The streets turned increasingly wet with the foam from hundreds of beers...and from a few people who had to break the seal.

Lady that was partied out at noon, and sat down for a nap at our table, the confetti slowly falling out of her hair.
From Laguna Chillata

The scene kept getting uglier over the next few hours. We decided to head down to our hostel after I was told (for the third time this trip) that I looked like “a virgin” or “The Virgin” of the two. Apparently this is a secret-weapon pick-up line of drunken middle-aged men across South America. I have my doubts about how well it works. (It definitely can't get more action than my all-time favorite pick up line: “Hey baby, can I take your derivative? I want to be tangent to all of your curves.”)

We headed away from the chaotic center and took the steep path down to our hostel at the bottom of the valley. By the time we got to the hostel, the clouds had completely lifted, and we were shown the impressive peaks of Illampu and Ancohuma that we had almost missed on the days trekking at their foot.

With clear views, Sorata struck me as an impressive place. With sun, you can see all the way from the bottom of the lush, jungle-like valley to the top of the snowy Andean peaks that hover over the city. The land around the town is steep, but still terraced and cultivated. Fields and houses cling to the sides of the mountains like lichen covering a rock, with different patterns and textures.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the quiet oasis at the river's edge, enjoying the sunshine, drying our gear, napping, and taking in the views.

View of Illampu from our hostel at the bottom of the valley
From Laguna Chillata

Pepe, the resident dalmation at the hostel, who was really good at his job: lying in the sun, barking at geese, and begging for food.
From Laguna Chillata

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Laguna Chillata

Sorata was a pleasant change from the austere Bolivian Altiplano. If it were a butter spread it would be called Jungle-Lite. Green, warm and dank like the rain forest, but with half the calories and no malaria!

We went on a hike. For the first time in my life, I paid a guide for a hiking or climbing trip and it proved to be an excellent investment in several ways. Bolivian maps are notably deficient and hard to come by. For example, it was only a decade ago that someone realized that Ancohuma wasn't 7000 meters (it's 6400). A rather notable oversight, since it would have been the only 7000+ meter peak outside of the Himalaya and the tallest in the Americas. Nevermind that. Even if you have a topographic quad, it's not going to have the roads and trails marked on it. And maybe most importantly, if you don't speak Aymara, you are going to have a hard time asking for directions in this part of the countryside.

The Bolivian weather office had lied and it was raining a cántaros when we left the hostel.

We had teamed up with a French and German who proved to be good company as we trudged up the valley to Laguna Chillata, the first night's camp. We rapidly found the next advantage of going guided, which was the horse that our guide Frederico brought with him that carried all our food. Erin had neglected to say her Guata's prayer was making use of many bushes during the 1500 meter climb, but fortunately had a light pack on.

After a few hours, we entered the clouds and the visibility quit for good. Fredi gamely lead us through the soup with calls of "más arriba, más arriba". With an hour of daylight to spare, we settled into camp next to what we had to take on faith was a lake.

The fog had been beaten into submission the next morning and we elatedly skipped up towards Laguna Glacial. We crossed a rocky pass and third classed it into the next drainage. After contouring around and climbing a slabby headwall, we confronted the obvious former presence of glaciers that reached at least 500 meters lower than they do now.

Remi basking in the sun

Fredi pointing the way up some wet slabs

The going got tougher above 4600 meters and we all slowed down as the altitude hit us. By the time we had made it to Laguna Glacial at 5000 meters, we were socked in.

Hole in the clouds before they closed for good at Laguna Glacial.

Fredi proved to be invaluable as he lead us down in the whiteout, weaving our way on nondescript talus fields with cliff bands lurking below us in the soup. By myself and without a GPS I would have been boned.


Fredi was also an excellent cook. The combination of a good camp cook and a horse laden with all type of provisions insured that we ate better than I can ever remember on a backpacking trip. After learning an excellent new card game from Guido and Remi, we turned in and slept like stones.

The next day dawned the fairest of them all. Unfortunately, we were descending back to town, but the views were still exceptional.

Laguna Chillata at sunrise with the fog below

Hardly able to touch each other after two months

Rush hour

As we rapidly lost altitude, the rain, fog, and dampness were forgotten. We walked into Sorata and found ourselves in the midst of a raging party.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hell is #17 on Repeat

We headed out of Copacabana in a packed bus, got off at a dusty nondescript crossroad, and waited to flag down anything that would take us to Sorata. We were successful. Finally, a jeep with only one extra passenger pulled up and offered a ride in the right direction for a reasonable price. We hopped in.

My mother, when she rides with me, will hold on to the sides of the car when I take curves a little too fast. And my father will stomp on a ghost brake pedal when I tailgate. I found myself uncannily turning into my parents on April 15, 2009: holding on to the sides of the car, closing my eyes, wanting to cry, and throwing up a little bit in my mouth.

Maniacal. The appropriate adjective was maniacal. The driver was a short guy, who could barely see over the tasseled and Virgin-Mary decorated dashboard. He also could not decide whether or not to wear his red baseball cap. On, off, on, off, on, off. And every time he changed the cap he would add another piece of bubble gum to the growing wad in his right cheek.

But, there were things he was decisive about. Music. In particular, tracks 2, 6, and 17. At first I thought it was an oversight, that he was too intensely focused on his driving to worry about the music that was blaring in the cab. But it was not a mistake. With one hand, he carefully insured that the stereo remained on repeat track with a complicated-looking, plastic-bag-covered remote control, and with the other hand he blew through stop signs and honked at lingering school children, nuns and the army. (Yes, women in habits and men in camouflage.)

I didn't mind the deejaying so much for the first 30 minutes of the ride, as he changed the song number a few times, and I got to know a new song, which I can only postulate is titled "Ay, mí cholita linda flore..." based on the triumphant refrain.

After topping out at a pass in the Andes, we began speeding down a "geologically unstable," curving road down into the fog. He chose number 17 to be the theme song for the rest of the hellish hour-long descent. I caught Andrew burying his head in his hands in disgust every time the synthesized drums vamped a new beginning to the song. And I buried my head in my hands with fear every time we would skid around a hairpin curve in the wrong lane. Apparently, honking insures right-of-way, but the rest of the traffic just didn't know it yet. Opposing cars ended up gesturing angrily and sliding to a stop when they encountered our jeep. Our driver just turned up the music.

The lyrics to the chorus of #17 were Hoy te toca llorar, Hoy te toca sufrir, or, "Today it is your turn to cry, today it is your turn to suffer¨. Truer words have never been sung.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Isla del Sol

The next morning it was raining as hard as ever. We dawdled over breakfast vainly hoping it would subside, so that it was nearly noon by the time we left Copacabana. Increasingly thick waves of pilgrims had washed in overnight and the lake shore was now littered with tents. However, as we walked towards the outskirts of town, the crowds thinned and a patch of blue sky opened wide enough to permit a few powerful beams of tropical sun to dry us out and make the rain jackets uncomfortably hot.

Crazy sea rocks?

There was a surprisingly steady flow of cars on the muddy, rutted road to Yampupata. Semana Santa is a great opportunity to sell some trout that you caught on your slice of lakefront Titicaca property that morning. We walked past numerous paceños who were playing tourist around the lake as well, before we wandered by a farmer who offered to ferry us across the channel to the Isla. We didn't think we were quite in Yampupata (the closest piece of mainland), but his price was about what we were expecting to pay and it was getting towards dusk so we hopped in the motorboat.

It was nearly dark by the time we crossed the channel and hiked to the biggest settlement on the island, Yumani. We had hoped to camp on a random terrace out of town. But with fading light and a stream of dubious warnings of nighttime thievery from the (obviously neutral and disinterested) hostel touts, we paid a few dollars to sleep in someone's backyard. Fortunately, it was well-drained, because minutes after pitching the 'Mid, the heavens opened again and didn't stop until dawn.

We slept poorly. But the insistence of the mid-morning sun forced us from our bivy and we stumbled out of town, heading north. Very rapidly the views opened up as we hiked along the backbone of the island, passing a steady flow of gringos a flotilla of boats had vomited on the north end. We continued our retrograde march for a few hours until we found the north shore of the island, and the highlight of the various ruins on the island, the coffee table of the Inca. Scholars insist it is a temple of the sun, but we thought otherwise.

Panorama from near Cerro Bárbara

We were nearly out of water, so a descent seemed appropriate. Water, water everywhere, right? We found the east coast of the island and the tiny settlement of Challa'pampa. Yumani with its clouds of piranha-like touts had been fairly mala onda, and fortunately Challa'pampa is its antithesis. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out on the beach, tying one on with a random contingent of other foreigners (as well as the island's resident shaman, who happens to be Australian and sells cheap jewelry on the side.) Random and buena onda. We stumbled again in the dark looking for camping, before we submitted to the approaching downpour and spent a kingly sum ($2 per person) on a room. The storm beat scandalously against the thin roof all night.

Dusk at Challa'pampa

Rainclouds swallowing the moon

We miscalculated a bit the next morning and got on the 1:30 boat back to the mainland. It was a slow, slow boat that took the rest of the afternoon. Dusk had fallen by the time we made it back to Copacabana. With a numb ass and dead iPod, I looked east and saw the Cordillera Real pierce a clear sky and could tell that the coming night would be fair.

Ancoma and Illampu beating back the clouds

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Copacabana sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca, which besides its hilarious name is famous for (supposedly) being the highest navigatible lake in the world. We managed to time our arrival for the day before Good Friday. Easter Weekend is a big deal in all of Latin America, but especially in Copacabana. Thousands of "pilgrims" arrive from throughout Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, but especially from La Paz. The classic "pilgrimage" is to walk from La Paz to Copacabana, which is a bit over 100 km. The reason for the scare quotes is because although there is certainly many who arrive to Copacabana for pious reasons, it's also a big ol' party.

We had other ideas, because, well, we hate a) people and b) fun. After spending part of Good Friday in Copacabana, we had a little pilgrimmage of our own to the city of Yampupata. Yampupata is a short boat ride across the lake from Isla Del Sol, the site of the most famous of the Incan creation myths, where we could enjoy a little cosmogony of our own.

The main pious event in Copacabana is hiking to the top of Cerro Calvario and visiting the stations of the cross. At the top, there are a half-dozen stands where beside the usual Coca-Cola and popcorn, there are toy cars, tiny houses, stacks of play money and miniature diplomas. There is a purpose to these objects. If one buys a representation of the prayer, let's call it an idol, perhaps, then you are more likely to receive the real thing. We thought that the beer was also a nice touch, since it might help keep you lubricated for a long prayer sess. We later found out it's to offer to the Pachamama. So less commercial, but more Pagan?

Regardless of theological implications, Calvario has a great view of the lake.

The pagan synchronism was kept a little bit better under wraps at the Cathedral in town. It's the only Moorish-style cathedral I've seen in South America.

We stayed at La Cúpula. A little pricey by Bolivian standards ($22 for a room with heat and a private bath. The horror!), but worth it for the slackline in the garden and free hat for each night you stay there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Guata's Prayer

Our guata, who art inside us,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy digestion come,
Thy excretion be done,
in Bolivia as it was in Chile.
Consume this, our daily bread,
and forgive us our street food,
as we forgive you for making us poop our pants.
Lead us not into nausea,
but deliver us from gastroenteritis.
For thine is the paristalsis, the microvilli and the chyme,
for ever and ever,

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

La Paz

Paz (peace) is defined in my spanish dictionary as a state of quiet, tranquility, solitude; without disturbances or agitation.

This word does not describe La Paz, the capitol city of Bolivia. La Paz is a city of chaos. The sidewalks are overflowing with vendors selling everything from tissue paper to DVDs to spatulas to bottled animal fetuses. Each stand is a virtual Mary Poppin's bag full of wea packed under under brightly colored tarps. Mobile hawkers pushing their goods (fossils and cocaine the most popular) take over where the fixed stands stop. Pedestrian traffic loses the battle and has to walk in the street. Walking against traffic seems to be the best bet for not getting clipped from behind with a car mirror. Follow a native to cross the roads.

The roads thrombose with traffic that sputters and jumps as it climbs the steep hills of the city, erupting with superfluous honks. Mini-buses full of people speed by with barkers hanging out of side doors shouting routes and prices. Guys dressed in zebra suits parade in the street doing...well, I´m not yet sure what they are doing. Some are directing traffic and some appear to be doing interpretive dance.

Songs blare from shop speakers, attempting to drown out the music of the institute to it´s right or left. Loud pops are heard over all the background noise every 20 minutes. We found out firsthand that these bangs are not cars backfiring or construction site noise, but the police firing tear gas into crowds of people marching or demonstrating in the streets. And demonstrating, as well as parading, seem to be favorite Bolivian past times.

From far off, even the buildings seem to be unorganized, tumbling down the cliffs that hold the city hostage. The city lies in a valley, and looking upwards you can see brown and red houses in all directions until the colors stop and are replaced by sharp gray rock. South of the city lies a large stretch of badlands, and you can see the snow-covered Andean peak of Illimani on a clear day.

La Paz has been the most interesting, yet intimidatingly inhospitable cities I have been in. I kept trying to talk myself into liking the city, because it just seemed like a city that I should like if I was an open-minded, adventurous person. I found it enthralling, but I could not embrace the chaos. I felt tired at the end of the day, jumped a little every time I heard the sound of a horn honking, and felt unsure of myself in my sleep. I don´t think it is La Paz´s fault exactly, just a fault of my own that I like green better than concrete and fresh air better than deisel fumes.

Never missing an opportunity for a march, in protest or otherwise. This one was complete with various military mucky-mucks shouting some orders to the contigent every 30 seconds.

Loving feeding the birds in the Plaza Murillo

Panorama of the infernal city from the one square of open, green space in La Paz.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Literary Fantasies

I looked around me. Was everyone else here for the same reason? Probably. There was only one guy, and he was in the corner admiring a model ship. All the women were lingering over the study and bedroom, sneaking glances at the poetry books they had brought along with them. Isn't there only one reason to snoop around Pablo Neruda's home? And isn't that reason to have a stage for your literary fantasies? I knew what they were wondering, because I was wondering it too:
Would he go marking with crosses of fire the white atlases of their bodies?
Was his mouth really like a spider, frightened and thirsty?

I know, I know. Neruda was a politician, an activist. There was much more to his life than writing love sonnets. But who falls to sleep with a smile thinking about expulsions from the senate?

Maybe my imagination remains over-stimulated from a childhood full of make-believe friends and pet rocks, but no matter what book/poem/essay I read, I find myself thinking about the author's interior life (within the restricted frames of my life their works). Who doesn't daydream about the conversation you would have sitting beside Dostoevsky on a 12-hour plane ride with free booze? Or...
  • How often Bukowski's house would get rolled? Would he bogart that shit or pass it to the left?
  • How Nabakov would act the subway?
  • If William Carlos Williams would wash his dishes right after dinner, or would he leave them in the sink, dirty, with a half-way apologetic note?
  • Would TS Elliot laugh or cry watching CATS! live on Broadway? Was he really a dog guy?
  • Would Thoreau make the trek home from college to have his mom do his laundry every weekend?
  • How would couch-cushion fort building go with JRR Tolkien? Would he be pissed when I destroyed his painstakingly intricate construction with one giant leap from the arm chair?
  • Would Salinger dress in tight American Apparel jeans and an ironic cat T-shirt, talk sourly about Death Cab for Cutie, and drink coffee at Victrola?
Maybe Keats was right, and an author can be totally divorced from their work altogether. But who fantasizes about Keats anyways?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Potosí and the Devil's Mountain

Potosí must be the oldest city I've set foot in. It's not only the knowledge that it was founded in 1545. It feels old. Only 100,000 people live there, but they are crammed into streets and buildings that obviously predate any thought of buses and cars attempting to circulate the city.

Terra Cotta view from the top of the Cathedral.
From potosi

Echoes of a richer age fill the town. Many fine colonial buildings and houses still nostalgically look out on the source of its former riches: Cerro Rico. When the mines of Cerro Rico were full of silver, it was the richest, most populous city in the Americas, even more so than Paris or New York.

Cerro Rico looming over town.

It's former wealth is misleading. Upon nearing the tan, slumping mass of Cerro Rico you finally see the thousands of mine shafts that pockmark its surface. Only amidst the terraces and pits deforming the mountain is there indication of the costs of its exploitation. The silver that used to fill Cerro Rico didn't mine itself. Eight million American Indians died slaving in the mines. Since then, Cerro Rico has been as much as a curse as a blessing to Potosí. The refinery supernate poisons the rivers. The silver has been largely exhausted, but zinc, lead and tin still cause the men of Potosí to crawl into its maw.

Ingenio or refinery. The valuable minerals float to the top of the slurry. The waste is dumped into the river.

And the mountain continues to devour them. The average lifespan of a miner is 30-40 years of labor. Working without respiratory protection, silicosis is universal. The degree depends on the duration and type of silica exposure. A drill operator who is constantly exposed to fine dust, often dies after only ten years. Besides the slow death of silicosis, cave-ins, carbon monoxide poisoning and trolly accidents kill 40 miners a year out of the current 5,000 working.

It was with trepidation, then, that we decided to take a “tour” of the mines. After donning coveralls, hard hat, and lantern and buying gifts to share with the miners, we headed to Cerro Rico. We first walked, then crouched, and finally crawled into the Candelaría mine, which has been in operation since Colonial times. Now, rather than Indian slaves, a cooperative of miners exploits what's left of the ore. They split the earnings according to hierarchy. The socio (head) making 5000 Bolivianos (US 700) per month, segunda mano (second hand) miners making about 1000-2000 Bolivianos depending on the month, and the gofers making about 20 Bolivianos (less than 3 US dollars) a day. A bottle of coke is 3 Bolivianos.

In the maw.

Our guides repeatedly told of improving conditions, some of which seemed accurate. A law was passed that banned children-miners, working hours have decreased, and the cooperatives provide health care. While on the one hand, we didn't encounter any children, most miners we met had worked since age 13 or 14. Yes, the miners can choose their hours, but if the ore is impure the groups must choose between rest or remuneration. Salary means survival. And regardless of health care, silicosis is untreatable.

So, it is still a hellish place. The miners know this. So they worship Mary on the surface, but worship Tío (Uncle Satan) underground. He rules their fortunes in the mines. He permits them to extract the ore that they find, supports or undermines the walls of the shafts, circulates fresh air or noxious gas. At the end of the week, the miners offer Tío some of their drink-of-choice. The belief is that the purer the drink, the purer the extracted ore, so they drink 190 proof grain alcohol. And, from first hand experience, it stings the nostrils a bit.


After descending three levels into the mine, we were more than ready to return to the world of the living. Back on the surface the guides were kind enough to demonstrate how dynamite is used in the mines.

Unsure of what to do with lit dynamite