Monday, October 1, 2007


I barely slept for five hours before getting up at 5:00 AM to head to DIA only to arrive in Miami for a nine-hour layover. It was exciting.

24 hours after I left my plane touched down in overcast La Paz and I greeted the shaggy faces of Forrest and Jay who held a sign reading "Señor Aaron Hooley." They asked me where I had been at 6:00 AM the previous morning, as they had misread my itinerary and not realized it would be impossible for me to leave Denver at 8:20 AM and arrive in La Paz on the same day three hours earlier.

We hailed a mini-bus taxi and I experienced some of the chaotic yet functional entropy of Bolivian traffic.

We dropped by the hostel where Forrest and Jay stayed the night before and went in search of breakfast.

La Paz is a city of over two million people sprawling through a rocky valley and climbing up the sides of some 10 to 13,000 foot mountains and surrounded by the altiplano. It is the world's highest capital city. The triple peaks of her majesty Illimani rise 21,000 feet in the distance. I only caught a brief glimpse of the glacial peaks later in the evening when some of the smoke from the burning rainforest in the east cleared. We walked up and down the steep, stone-cobbled street and went into a swanky, touristy place that served decent food, but served Nescafe instead of coffee, as is the custom.

Afterward we went to see if Pepé opened his coffee shop, nestled in the narrow streets with shops selling alpaca and llama clothing and llama foetuses (burying one in the foundation of a new house is good luck), but it was not. Pepé's opens approximately whenever he decides to get up.

Instead, we walked to the bus station to get tickets for Potosí that night. Potosí is a city about 12 hours south of La Paz in the altiplano. It sits at 13,420 feet and is home of Bolivia's largest silver mine, the Cerro Rico. People claim it is the highest city in the world.

Pepé's opened by the time we returned and Forrest retrieved his camera gear which he left there the previous day. Miraculously, Pepé saved it from certain doom.

We spent the afternoon at the World Press Photo 07 exhibit in the museum inside the Church of San Francisco. There were powerful images, including many from Lebanon after the country was bombed by Israel. We also took a tour of the church itself. Most of the old parts, including a winery run by monks, had been stuccoed over at some point and were slowly being restored. Our tour guide didn't speak any English and so we only got a basic grasp of what she was talking about.

We sat outside on the Plaza San Francisco for a while and photographed people and pigeons. Some student-looking types were making some kind of film, and a couple people were dressed in giant animal suits.

After an interesting dinner of questionable chicken parts (feet, etc.) at a Cuban restaurant, we packed our things and grabbed a couple beers at Oliver's Travels, a "100 percent fake English pub," somewhat out of place in La Paz. It is run by Zach from Boston, who has a master's degree in political economics, has travelled quite a bit and is marrying a Bolivian for residency. We talked with him and another boy from Birmingham, UK, who said Glasgow is the most dangerous city in the UK. Zach said he likes the idea of opening a non-profit club in La Paz where rich people can get drunk and then he can give the money to charitable organizations, kind of like Robin Hood.

Then we went to catch our bus. Forrest and Jay gave their backpacks to the "baggage guy" and we followed the "bus guy" past two buses, out of the bus terminal, across the street and down the block. We were confused. Apparently they were avoiding paying a tax and walked all their passengers down the street.

So we got going on a rather cramped bus ride. We stopped a lot, for sometimes unknown reasons, and tried to make the most of the cold and lack of space.

An hour or two outside of Oruro the bus stopped and the driver shut off the engine. We waited and then finally got off to investigate and saw, in the light of the full moon, a line of parked trucks and buses stretching off into the distance in the middle of nowhere.

After chatting with some Peruvians about Eminem, we got word some miners set up a roadblock in protest of the Bolivian government's high taxation rates on the mining industry and weren't going to move for three days, although I was never able to verify this information. What to do?

The bus driver informed us he would be returning to Oruro, but if we walked to the other side of the blockade we could find transport to Potosí. It was about 2:00 AM and chilly out but we grabbed our packs and headed down the road.

Jay ran up ahead with some of the other people and Forrest and I went after him. When we got to the blockade, rocks were lined up across the road and groups of people dressed in traditional Bolivian clothes were gathered around burning tires and sage which gave the night air a sickening but spiritual aroma. We watched for a while. They weren't really into being photographed, though.

It was at this point, despite my desire to stick around, that we started questioning Jay's whereabouts.

It took a few minutes of wandering around to decide to go to the other end of the line of cars. So we did, and finally found Jay with his headlamp coming toward us. He found a llama truck to Potosí.

At the beginning of this leg of the journey, riding in the back of a llama truck seemed much more appealing than a cramped bus. As more people squeezed in like sardines it became clear we were going to have to remain in one freezing, uncomfortable position for another three or four hours to Potosí.

Three or four hours turned into six or seven, but sometimes I was distracted by the surreal experience of being surrounded by Bolivians, staring up at the stars of the southern hemisphere, driving through the middle of nowhere.

Morning finally came and we were greeted by the breathtaking mountains of the altiplano.

We arrived in the city happy to be finished with the ridiculous journey and, after some of the other passengers argued with the truck drivers about how much to pay for the ride and threatening to call a taxi for the last three minutes into Potosí, we deboarded our blue llama express and looked for a hostel.

I was, at this point, not having slept for more than 24 hours, dehydrated, starving and at a drastic change in altitude, utterly exhausted. But totally enthralled.

We found a hostel and a café and chowed down on some crepes and Bolivian cheese, which Jay dislikes.

After passing out for a couple hours, we roused ourselves and found another café in the central plaza, which had good food and decent beer. On our way back to the hostel we saw a car with a large, cardboard Bible attached followed by a procession of young people. A small boy handed me a piece of paper:

Señor, hazme un instrumento de tu paz; donde haya odio, ponga amor; donde hay ofensa, perdón; done hay duda fe; donde hay desesperanza, esperanza; donde hay tinieblas, luz; donde hay tristeza, alegría. Oh Divino Maestro, no busque yo tanto ser consolado como consolar. Ser comprendido como comprender. Ser amado como amar, porque dando se recibe. Perdonando se es perdonado. Y muriendo a sí mismo se nace a la vida eterna.

The next day we headed into the mines. A guide suited us up in proper miner gear: Rubber boots, pants, jacket, belt, helmet, headlamp and battery pack. She also explained how the miners chew coca leaves all day because "you feel strong when you chew coca." The coca also kills the appetite so miners eat once in the morning and then at night. We smoked some unfiltered cigarettes with coca, tobacco and anise, which were extremely harsh, and chewed some coca, which tasted like leaves and made my mouth numb. Fancy that.

The Bolivian president Evo Morales once chewed coca leaves (which, when refined, make cocaine) at a United Nations meeting to prove a point about coca being part of Bolivia's indigenous culture.

The guide told us how the miners use dynamite and ammonium nitrate for small explosions to move medium-sized rocks. We purchased coca, cigarettes, dynamite and ammonium nitrate to give to the miners.

We took a mini-bus and miraculously four-wheeled up an extremely rocky and steep road in a two-wheel-drive vehicle to the Cerro Rico and the silver mines.

The inside of the mines are a maze of tunnels and different portions are owned by the "first class," many of who are retired miners. They rent mines to the "second class" who run their own mining operations and keep whatever they find and employ the "third class" workers to help.

We descended into the dark tunnels and the guide pointed out veins of mixed silver, zinc, tin and lead. We also noticed the silicon growing on the ceiling.

In one cavern we met El Tio, who looks very much like El Diablo but who is not. He was sitting with his legs slightly spread, his rather sizeable genitalia protruding prominently from his nether region, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other and hundreds of dried coca leaves spread on the ground around him.

El Tio is the god of the mountain and together with Pacha Mama, the earth goddess, creates the silver. The miners believe El Tio helps but can also punish them. There are many representations of El Tio throughout the mountain and often the miners sit around and drink and smoke with him, giving him offerings of alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves.

Traditionally, women are not allowed to work in the mines as it may cause jealousy between El Tio and Pacha Mama.

We descended further and met Calixto Condoli who was hauling 50 kilogram bags of rocks up a mineshaft. He demonstrated how he uses small pieces of the dynamite and ammonium nitrate to find the silver. He worked in the mines for 12 years and said he hoped to retire in 2007.

The tunnels were steep and often we had to crawl to get through a passage. Some were layered with inches of slippery mud.

After this adventure we hit our usual dinner place and drank lots of Paceña, Bolivia's national beer, and talked about economics, politics and sucky relationships. Jay was given the nicknames of Monroe, Ginger and Ginge, and Forrest, Mufford, Amish Jeb and Sass.

We found breakfast the next day at a café inside a theatre at the plaza. After we ate, we climbed a narrow stairway onto the roof for a 360-degree view of Potosí. All the steep streets and cramped bus rides had taken a toll on my right knee and I couldn't bend it when I walked. The stairs were a challenge but the view was worth it.

We saw schoolchildren in angel and nun costumes amassing in the plaza below. We climbed down and wandered through the crowd where Santa Rosa school was holding a religious fair. Hundreds of children were performing re-enactments of Noah and the Great Flood, the Creation and the Nativity. They were also demonstrating the ceremony of marriage and the Holy Sacraments.

Luz Mary Paváz Guzmán, the professor of religion at Santa Rosa School, requested some of our photos and asked Forrest to come by the school later.

I had asked our guide from the day before about finding someone to be more of a translator and less of a tour guide so we could return to the mine and the mining village and talk to people. She suggested we ask Rob at Koala Tours, so we wandered over.

Rob, from Dublin, explained that his guides were "in a bad way," drunk from the night before and possibly still drinking and we should come back later. We did, and another guy, Efraín, said we could meet him the next day and talk to some of the miners.

Rob also told me about some other people staying at the Koala Den hostel, Emma and Lucas. Lucas is an anthropologist from Austria who was writing his thesis on the mining culture. We visited the Den and chatted with him briefly about going to the rumoured miners' party that night, which allegedly takes place on the last Friday of every month.

After some convincing (harassing), Forrest and Jay agreed to leave our boring hostel where no one ever seemed to be around and move into the Den.

Forrest had a time trying to figure out where and when to meet Ms. Guzmán, and all three of us ended up going to Santa Rosa to look for her. The young Catholic girls were absolutely enamoured with Jay and Forrest and their incessant giggles echoed throughout the schoolyard as they peeked through doorways and waved at the boys.

In the evening, we met Lucas and ventured off to find the miners. No one was around the mining village so we walked up toward the Cerro Rico and saw a few little lights moving down the mountain. We approached some of the miners and they told us nothing was going on, so we walked back down and looked for a pub.

Lucas lived in Argentina for a time and decided to visit Bolivia to write his thesis. The Cerro Rico isn't just the economic foundation of Potosí. In the same way that the mountain itself looms over the city, the mining culture reaches all aspects of life. The miners are working class heroes, risking their lives to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and support their families.

We talked for hours in the pub about our travels, politics and ourselves.

We met up with Efraín Mamani Tapia at Koala Tours the next day as yet another procession of children wound its way through the streets. He was a miner himself before opting for a safer job with better pay as a tour guide.

Our first stop was the miner's village where women were cooking llama stew and the miners were eating breakfast. I tried a bite of llama meatball and Jay and Forrest chowed down on the rest of the stew with noodles and vegetables. The miners eat a hearty meal in the morning and sustain themselves throughout the long day on coca leaves, as it is somewhat of a health hazard to eat inside the mines surrounded by silicon dust (not to mention breathing it), and so they don't have to stop working.

We picked up a big sack of coca leaves, cigarettes and a bottle of Ceibo, 96% grain alcohol, pretty strong stuff. We drove up the Cerro Rico, this time in an actual four-wheel drive vehicle, and met some of Efraín's friends to share coca and the Ceibo. Another miners' ritual when drinking alcohol is to pour a little bit onto the earth for Pacha Mama before drinking any yourself. Efraîn also said some miners believe if you drink Ceibo mixed with soda you may find mixed minerals and if you drink it straight, you may find pure silver. We drank it with fluorescent orange soda pop.

I refrained from getting too effed up and asked Nataniel, Jhimy and Filomeho questions about their experiences in the mines.

Nataniel Mendes is 30 years old and began working in the mines at age 15. He is married and has two children. He said he would like to retire but is sticking it out for his pension.

Government pensions for retired miners are the source of much conflict in Bolivia. As Efraín explained it, every miner gets silicosis, the lung disease, from working around all the silicon dust for so long. It's nearly inescapable and almost always fatal. A miner must have 80 percent silicosis in his lungs before the government will grant a retirement pension. Most miners cannot afford to visit a private hospital to be examined and must go to a government-run facility. According to Efraín, if you visit a private hospital the doctor will most likely say you have more than 80 percent silicosis in your lungs and should retire, but if you visit a government hospital they will send you back into the mines. Efraín's father worked in the silver mines for 36 years and is dying of silicosis at age 56.

There are some 15,000 miners working in the Cerro Rico, including men and teenagers and children.
Jhimy Maldonado is 26 and has only been a miner for three years. Filomeho Espinoza started at 16 and is now 22. He used to be a farmer.

The mountain has been mined for some 500 years and the silver grows scare and difficult to find. There are no other real sources of income in Potosí, either, no animals, no farms, no coca, only minerals. The three miners did not seem concerned about job security or the fact that they make a living only by what they find. Apparently the last time someone found a good piece of silver in this particular mine that we visited was 1992. Mining silver is just a way of life.

By this time Forrest and Jay were drunk, but we headed to one of the silver processing facilities. Efraín explained how the minerals "float" on top of the water and separate from the dirt waste. The leftover silver dust is exported to the United States, China, Europe and other places outside of South America.

Women are not allowed to work inside the mines but they are allowed to work at the processing plants, although there are similar health hazards. Many deadly chemicals are used.

We then hurried to catch the end of the Potosí versus La Paz miners' football game. The stadium was packed with drunken people cheering for the players. It was a decent field and each team had colourful jerseys – a sign, to me, of the patriotism of football and the heroic status of the miners despite poverty in other areas of life.

Maybe it was the bite of llama or my inability to stave off exotic Bolivian bacteria, but about this time I began to feel sick. We went back to the hostel and I told Efraîn how much I appreciated his willingness to share his life with curious Americans, even if he was just doing his job.

Jay and Forrest wandered off and I wrapped up in my sleeping back with a fever and ill stomach and distracted myself with 100 Years of Solitude. After a few hours my strange disease vanished.

On Sunday we went to the cementerio and I spent time wandering around alone. In the United States death is often dealt with in such a sterile, impersonal way that it's hard to come to terms with the heavy reality of it. This ancient cemetery was so colourful and detailed and totally imperfect. I only saw one person crying. He had been hanging over a balcony putting flowers on a hard to reach grave on the mausoleum wall. "Papa, oh papa!" he said.

I saw families gathered around mausoleums, eating lunch and playing music. Two older women stopped near a grave I was photographing and we had a friendly chat. They paused briefly to say a prayer and leave flowers and then smiled and waved to me as they left.

The miners were once again honoured with their own separate mausoleums and murals.

A middle-aged woman seemed to be doing paperwork in a corner of the cemetery.

I walked through the area where there were pits covered in black ash, just about body-sized. Melted white candles filled the windows of the morgue.

A young man dressed in black sat near a statue of Jesus, playing a haunting song on his churango with eyes closed. I photographed him quietly from a distance and I don't think he even noticed I was there.

After toying with the idea of travelling to the small village in the middle of nowhere where the CIA assassinated Che Guevara, I realized, by Bolivian standards of travel, that it would probably take weeks to get there. We decided to go back toward La Paz and head north to Lago Titicaca and the Isla del Sol.

I'm pleased to say this time our overnight bus ride was more comfortable than any bus I've ever been on in the United States. Forrest and I got cushy, front-row seats that reclined to a delightful angle. Since the bus was tall and the driver's seats were underneath us, we got an impressive view through the huge front window of the pitch-black night and thousands of stars as we wound our way through the mountains. We made a midnight stop in Oruro where Jay and Forrest got "real egg sandwiches" and where I had to pee.

I consider myself a good traveller, I can endure unpleasantries for the sake of life-changing experiences and I do not always need the comforts of home. I could hardly breathe in the tiny room with the clogged toilet where every surface was covered in human waste and I wished I could just pee in the woods. Unfortunately there were no woods at hand. It was all soon but a happy memory as the bus moved swiftly northward.

We arrived at the bus station in La Paz as the sun rose and, much to the chagrin of my right knee, hiked a mile or two up the steep streets to catch another bus to Copacabana. We passed by the market where people were just beginning to set up shop to sell whole, gutted pigs and cow, sheep, goat, chickens and probably llama meat, some of which was strewn about in an unsanitary manner.

We deboarded the bus once we got to Lake Titicaca so it could be transported across a narrow part of the lake to land on the other side. The bus took a rickety wooden barge and we took a small, rickety wooden boat. There were many barges along the shore, including one called The Titanic.

When we reached the other side, the Bolivian navy examined our passports. Except for Lake Titicaca, Bolivia is a landlocked country. The navy was founded when the Bolivian government owned parts of Peruvian coastline, which Peru eventually got back during one of many wars in Bolivia.

We got back on the bus and drove through more mountains. Eventually, we reached Copacabana, a strange little tourist town on the coast. I don't know if it was the off-season, but it seemed Copacabana was overcompensating for the number of actual tourists in town. There were many shops selling llama or alpaca-related textiles and along the dirty beach were hundreds of unused swan paddleboats. And there weren't very many people around.

We walked down the beach and I laid on one of the wooden piers while Jay and Forrest skipped stones into the lake. We were amused by some of the names of these swan vessels such as "The Batman," and discussed possible options for an armada.

Here, we ran into a problem. I arrived in Bolivia with about 50 dollars of American money, as Forrest had told me I didn't need to bring more nor bring Bolivianos. But I really should have, because I discovered early on my credit and debit cards did not work at ATMs anywhere. Forrest had also left his debit card at an ATM somewhere and couldn't access his funds, either. Jay had a working debit card but did not take cash out before we left La Paz, and apparently ATMs don't exist in Copacabana. Banks are also closed on Mondays. What to do? We didn't have to pay the hostel until we checked out, so that left us with something like 20 dollars between the three of us.

We decided the best thing was to get cheap pasta for dinner and spend the rest on Singani, the powerful grape-based liquor of Bolivia. Jay and I found spaghetti noodles and tomato paste and we cooked it over the camping stove. We also made instant chicken bouillon soup that was extremely salty.

The hostel was four stories tall and had a patio on the roof that overlooked the entire town and offered a spectacular view of the lake. We sat around and watched the sunset, drinking Singani and coke in cups I had fashioned by cutting plastic water bottles in half with Forrest's knife. There was much discussion of economics. Jay toted an economic textbook around him for what I gather was the duration of the trip and had spent some evenings sniggering to himself in the corner of our hostel rooms while reading it. We also debated whether or not corporations should be allowed to patent living things. Glorious day.

And we got up the next morning and hurray! The bank was open. We got some money out and found tickets to the Isla del Sol. The island was an hour or so ride on a slightly larger than the last but still rickety wooden boat which leaped over the waves out into deep water. We sat on the little deck on top of the boat and I continued my 100 Years of Solitude. The boat went through a very small passage between two random little islands and then the Isla del Sol came into view, with the smaller Isla de Luna in the distance. We arrived along the shore, shaken by waves from a ship carrying tourists that was made of reeds shaped into dragon heads.

Some of the people we were on the boat with got off at the main stop where there is a stone Incan stairway. We continued on and pulled up to a tiny beach where cows and donkeys and chickens wandered. A child led us to a hostel nearby and then we searched for food.

My meals usually consisted of round, flat bread with butter or jam, maybe an egg and some cheese if it was available, and beer. Today was no different. The boys had steaks, I believe. After having been around the place for a while I supposed their digestive systems became more accustomed to such things.

As we ate, a boat resembling a tiny cruise ship pulled up to the dock and a herd of old white folks got off. They were greeted by a "traditional Bolivian band," who we'd seen rolling dice in the alley below the restaurant, and Bolivian women who put leis around their necks like they had just arrived in Hawaii. I wondered where the hell they got such exotic flowers.

After making fun of the tourists, we decided to hike the Incan road to the actual Incan ruins, which are apparently the best ruins next to Macchu Picchu. The road went up and around a big hill and out to the tip of the island. The ruins were mostly stone walls and windows perched on the steep side of the mountain. From this vantage point we could see the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, rising above all the smoke from burning rainforests.

We could also see a bunch of rocks tourists, or maybe the locals, had at some point stacked along the hillside.

The Rock of the Puma glowed golden in the setting sun as cows and sheep headed home for the evening.

A flat, table-like rock was directly across from the natural rock formation and had been used by the Incans to make sacrifices. The guidebook the boys had said the rock made "an excellent picnic table."

When we got back to the town on the beach, it was dark. One small restaurant was still open so we had some food there and watched the tourists getting drunk and dancing inside their cruise ship.

Our tiny hostel room had obviously not been used in a long time, as it was chock full of spiders. I had trouble sleeping, especially after Jay and Forrest gave me a bunch of crap for having an irrational fear of the little beasts.

I woke up to go see the sunrise and said hello to a little burrow who was tied up on the beach. The sun shone crimson through all the smoke, reflecting slivers of fire on the waves of Titicaca.

As we had some breakfast at the restaurant near the dock, we saw the cruise ship leaving, taking the lamp pole on the dock with it, the electric wiring snapping off and falling into the water. Apparently someone forgot to untie the boat. We found a boat back to Copacabana and I finished another few chapters of 100 Years of Solitude, which I found more and more appropriate to be reading in Bolivia.

We waited for a bus back to La Paz and wandered around the church of the Virgin of Copacabana that was covered in intricate woodwork and statues of saints. There was also a room with the actual representation of the virgin where many candles burned.

Back in La Paz, we checked into the hostel Solario that had become home to Forrest and Jay and got dinner, shepherd's pie of all things, at Oliver's Travels. Forrest wandered off, probably to email Cassandra, and Jay and I watched Liverpool versus Marseilles and got drunk. The pub had some murals of yellow butterflies and a man dancing in a tiger suit and other scenes from 100 Years of Solitude. We met a Kiwi and an Aussie and convinced them they should go climb Huayna Potosí.

On my last day in Bolivia, we went in search of a tattoo parlour after breakfast at Pepé's. Forrest had come up with the idea to possibly get a tattoo of "Sin Guias," or "Without Guides." We asked some people at Oliver's for directions and went wandering into the more affluent area of La Paz. We found the shop, but it was closed until later so we kept walking. There was some protest going on outside the Ministry of Education but I couldn't figure out why. Someone just kept firing flares into the air at random intervals.

On the way back we watched some performance artists dressed in neon-yellow radiation suits accost various people. It was a bizarre sight.

We returned to the tattoo shop and explained our desires. The tattoo artist had Jay pick out a font from a huge book and then scanned in the lettering for "Sin Guias," the old fashioned way, cleaning it up in Photoshop. He showed Jay and Forrest the facilities and tools, attempting to calm any fears they might have about getting a tattoo in Bolivia. Unfortunately, he could not do the tattoos right then and they had to return the following day after I left.

The evening ended back at Oliver's with fish n chips and more beers.

The next day we got up early and the boys took me to the airport. I took some of their gear with me and the security people in La Paz flipped out. They actually brought me into the luggage security area to explain the crampons.

I got a spectacular view of Huayna Potosí on takeoff and we flew directly over it and other breathtaking, icy peaks. It seemed I could almost reach out the window and grab a handful of snow.

Back in Miami, things got pretty boring again.