Month: June 2018

A look at wonderful Bolivia

A brief overview of the political situation

Bolivia, much like most of the American continent, is a place whose history will bring about tears to those empathetic enough. Probably one of the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, it is currently the poorest country of the continent thanks to centuries of authoritarianism that benefited only a chosen few.

Thankfully, things are improving now since Bolivia elected its first indigenous (understand “native”) president, Evo Morales, more than 10 years ago. The country is now called the Plurinational State of Bolivia and with that change came a stronger recognition of the historical origins of the country as well as more rights for its many ethnic groups. While president Morales does not seem to want to leave power, it is undeniable that the average Bolivian now benefits more from its country’s wealth than ever before.

The Bolivian Culture

Bolivia, along with Peru, is the most “authentic” country you will be able to visit in South America. Contrary to most other countries on the continent, the majority of the population is from pre-colombian origins, Quechua (the language of the Incas) or Aymara (the language of the empire before the Incas) are still spoken today and old religious practices and beliefs survived colonization and Christianization.

Lama fetuses for sale in the witch market

lama fetuses for offerings

You will, for example, find a “witch market” in the capital, La Paz, where you can buy everything you need to make offerings to Pachamama (mother earth) to bring you luck and good karma, that includes fetuses of Lamas, as big requests demand big offerings (like building a house). A local story tells of the practice of human sacrifice for the construction of large buildings. Homeless people can apparently be lured into a party, where they will be offered free alcohol until so drunk they will never wake up again and will end up buried under the construction site of such buildings.

Fashion

The local women dress in a mix of modern and traditional fashion with a colorful multi-layered dress usually accompanied by a bowler hat too small for their heads. The fashion of wearing what would be considered men’s hat in most of the rest of the world apparently comes from a shipping mistake back in the days that left an entrepreneurial Brits with hats to small to sell for men and which he managed to sell off to local women as cutting-edge fashion from Europe. It worked so well it is now an essential element of a local woman’s neo-traditional outfit.

A local “cholita” (as such traditional woman are called) usually carry around a large colorful piece of fabric that is used to carry on their shoulders everything from large quantities of fruits and vegetables to babies. The amount they can carry is impressive and the street saleswoman trying to sell you a scarf will usually astonish you with the amount of other products she pulls out of there in an effort to lead you to a purchase. Respect!

It is worth noticing that men do not wear much of a traditional or neo-traditional outfit however.

Traveling across Bolivia

Sunset from Isla del Sol

Sunset from Isla del Sol

Traveling around Bolivia is awesome. It is not used to having that much tourism and therefore only very few places are geared for it. You rarely feel oppressed by local tourism agencies trying to sell you tours as you walk the street (hello Peru!) or that you are walking into a village that transformed itself to cater to the foreign crowd (hello San Pedro de Atacama, Chile!).

People are authentic; they are not overly nice but not particularly aggressive either. Yeah, they are normal, basically, potentially curious but otherwise rather intent on minding their own business while you mind yours.

It is better to speak Spanish to get along nicely as very few people speak English. You’ll otherwise have to make a good old use of the international language of using your hands and facial expressions to demonstrate your willingness to communicate. A fun experience always!

Patience is required in Bolivia (like in most of the continent), mini-buses leave when full, not whenever they were supposed to leave, things don’t always look as advertised, and you are usually guaranteed positive or negative surprises at one point or another of your trip. This makes it all the more rich and human however and you will usually come out of the experience happy to have witnessed it (like coming to a city under local blockade to protest some policy, great for the cultural experience, demanding for your feet as transportation in and out gets extremely disrupted).

What you will find in Bolivia

Hiking down the snow-covered Huayna Potosi mountain

view from 6000m high

Bolivia also boast an impressive diversity of things to do and of landscapes to see. It has a respectable chunk of the Amazon forest to visit in Rurrenabaque. You’ll be able to choose your pick of technically-accessible mountains to hike up to, reaching more than 6000m without requiring mountaineering experience, a few hours from La Paz. For adventure junkies, going down El Camino de la Muerte on a bike is a thrilling experience (People used to die when this was still a road for car but now bikers mostly get broken bones and only occasionally do some die in a fall of several hundred meters, it adds to the fun but stay away if you are naturally anxious about safety and risk-prevention).

view of the Cathedral in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz

Cities offer different charms as well, from more colonial Sucre to very bricky La Paz (you’ll understand what I mean the first minute you arrive there). Santa Cruz is the more modern, Western-like city and can be the beginning of your trip that will give you a progressive acclimation of the Bolivian way. Potosi will however show you the more ugly side of Bolivia and its history, do visit the mine with old miners but be prepared for a potentially traumatising experience.

Giant ferns in parque nacional Amboro

Elechos Gigantes

You’ll also get more natural parks and amazing nature to walk in that you can possibly hope for. Parque National Amboro near Brazil and the Amazon displays the very rare Elechos Gigantes, ferns that look like old wise men (they also take hundreds of years to grow) and can only be found in 3 places in the world. The gigantic Salar de Uyuni, salt desert of epic proportions and its surrounding regions will show you mountains of colors you never knew existed in nature and geysers and natural baths to relax around.

Lago Titicaca, mythical place in Inca ideology, especially for being the birthplace of the first Inca emperor. The chilled and beautiful atmosphere of Isla del Sol (the Sun Island) and the local dishes of quinoa and trout will provide you with a great opportunity to rest after more demanding activities.

In a few weeks, you’ll be able to go from sea-level to record heights, cross several different climates, each with their own culture and local dishes as well as gorgeous nature. The only thing missing in Bolivia is access to the ocean which was taken by Chile a few centuries ago, you’ll however not be left wondering what to do and will actually probably wish you came for longer to enjoy fully all this beautiful country has to offer.

It is definitely my favorite country on the continent and is also the cheapest country on the continent so well big up for that as well!

The harsh reality of mining silver in Potosi

For an out of the ordinary attraction, few things will strike you as a visit in the mine of Potosi will. A town founded by the Spanish during their colonisation of South America upon discovering the riches of the local mountain, the Cerro Rico; Potosi is no charming town. It’s city center has a couple old churches and colonial building but you won’t fall in love with the place: poverty sprouts out of every corner.
It is all the more strange that Potosi not be a flourishing and exuberant town considering the amount of wealth that has been transiting through it for centuries. The silver coming out of the mine has fueled the Spanish monarchy for many centuries before enriching a few local barons of Spanish descent after Bolivia’s independence. Today is not different from the past, although probably slightly better working conditions apply to miners. The product of mining is sold to foreign companies using chemical processes to extract the precious materials from worthless stone at rates that leave miners leaving modestly while companies collect high profits.

A network of cooperatives

Currently, miners are gathered in cooperatives who each exploit part of the mountain. There are about 900 miners spread in about 40 cooperatives.

Each cooperative work in the same way, “socios” (partners, experienced miners with a recognised status) work alongside aspiring socios or apprentices.

Only socios receive a pension and have health insurance. To become a socio, you must learn all the trade of being a miner during years of apprenticeship but not all manage in their life to access that status. It is much like becoming partner in a law firm if you will.

Cerro Rico

A view of Cerro Rico from Potosi

Cerro Rico’s riches

Silver, zinc and lead can be found in the mountain. However, they exist at different levels of quality so finding a vein doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be reaching the jackpot. Most time, miners find veins with lower quality which, in turn, sells for less and does not guarantee a hefty pay day.

Mining life

a crazy-looking man with a dynamite stick

What happens when a tourist gets his hands on dynamite for a minute 🙂

Very little modern technology exists in the mine. The majority of miners work is done with dynamite, a pic, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Slowly breaking through rocks, carrying them through the maze of the mine by hand in a painstakingly slow and demanding process. Dynamite can be bought in the towns’s local market for less than 4 euros a stick, anyone can buy it and it is customary to buy some or some coca leaf to give as a gift to the miners in the mine.

Miners spend hours after hours in the darkness of the mine, usually working alone. Their diet in the mine consists mostly of alcohol and coca leaf, one for courage, the other to cut appetite and give strength. The alcohol of choice is no refined beverage there and consist of alcohol at 90 degrees that miners you encounter gulp down expertly with a visible appreciation. Former miners that handle the tours will tell you of their stories in the mine, where drunk out of their mind, they thought they saw ghosts or spirits, or how some of their colleagues got mad.

one of the entrances of the Potosi mine

An entrance of the mine

People disappear in the mines too, either because of conflicts between cooperatives over territory and shared benefits or because of accidents lead by heavy alcohol consumption or the hazards of fate. Walking and crawling through the maze of the corridors of the mine, it is not hard to imagine accidents happening.

A small corridor in the mine

An example of small corridor

For all this, miners live on average until 40 to 50 years old. The ones that live the longest can apparently only thank their wives who fight of their alcoholism and ensure they are given a proper diet while out of the mine. In case of the death of a miner, a wife can apparently join in the efforts of the cooperative although we were told they would not mine but rather help with other tasks surrounding the mining efforts.

It is truly humbling to visit the mine and imagine the lives of people dedicating their lives to digging through the rocks, suffering the consequences of such a lifestyle and committing to risking their life for a slightly better income than the average Bolivian. You come out of such a visit vowing never to complain about the discomfort of sitting behind a desk or the petty frustrations you work gives you.

A little history too

Originally, Spanish colons enslaved millions of Andinos to work and die in the mines to fuel thirst of the Spanish monarchy. It is estimated that more than 2 millions people died in the mines during the Spanish occupation. The Catholic religion and its symbolism was used to keep local Andinos obedient and the image of the devil was spread to curb any attempt at rebellion. More traditional and brutal methods of controlling people were obviously used as well alongside this mental conditioning.

It is ironic to see today that locals created a devil-looking god, protecting them in the mines, which is displayed in several places in the mines and given offerings of coca  leaves, alcohol, tobacco in the pure tradition of the prior religious beliefs of Incas and pre-inca civilisations.

devil-looking god of mining in the Potosi mine with offerings around it.

The god of the mine with offerings from Carnaval celebrations

To take home

All the minerals extracted from the Potosi mines end up shipped abroad to become components of new electronic gadgets or to be turned into jewelries. The phone you have in your pocket probably has some silver or lead that was extracted in Potosi. Cherish more your electronic devices and jewels, make efforts to protect them more and have them recycled, people sacrifice their lives and health for them.

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