Bolivian Rush Job

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February 24th 2007
Published: February 24th 2007
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All right, you people harrasing me for more blogging, here you go... this one will sum up the last month, during which I have been all over Bolivia...
I spent my 3-ish days in La Paz trying to leave La Paz, which now seems very silly. I was on my way somewhere, you see, had a mission. And so I didn't really do enough... all of which only means, I have to visit again...
The funnest part of my time in La Paz was definitely the friends I made. I was staying at a hostel called El Lobo. A strange place - everything was written in Hebrew, the desk help was very surly, and the top floor housed a bar containing everything you could ever wish for in a bar - except it had the worst vibe ever. No one was ever hanging out there! Lonely Planet describes the place as "just like a college dorm, only louder and full of Isrealis." I couldn't do any better.
In this dorm, I ran into no less than 3 people I knew from Loki in Cusco - including Courtney, who is from Buffalo and has family in Wilkes-Barre or somewheres around there. She had two roomates also from the Northeast US, and the three of us had a grand ole time seeing Borat and speaking rapid American English.
I did make one day trip the the Valle de la Luna, which is a small area a half hour outside the city filled with surreal rock formations that, you guessed it, look like they belong on la luna. You walk a little path through it, which only takes about an hour. This was very neat-o.
Also I visited the witches' market, which features such items as dried llama feotuses (according to Courtney, you're supposed to bury them under a house when you build it) and dried frogs painted with glitter. I wanted very badly to send Keith a llama feotus, but I was unsure how U.S. customs would react.
La Paz is a huge city, and I suppose my comment on it is that I was surprised at the number of obviously middle and upper-class people there - the nicer neighborhood I visited would be at home in the U.S. or Europe. I was also struck by the obvious relationship between racism and classism - in Peru I sort of had the impression that aside from a very few, everyone was poor together. In Bolivia it is quite obvious that the descendents of immigrants are doing pretty ok, while the indiginous folk are selling crap on the sidewalks.
From La Paz I booked it to a small town called Samaipata outside Santa Cruz de la Selva, which is the largest city in Bolivia. Here I worked on a farm for about two weeks. I won't go into detail about this experience, as it was pretty terrible - the Dutch owners and I didn't really hit it off, and, well, what was it I said above about immigrants doing well while the locals suffer?
I ran away of-a-sudden, going on instinct to Sucre in the south, which is the official capital of Bolivia. This turned out to be a reliable instinct - this city, along with Cusco, has been my favorite in South America so far. It is relatively small, and the entire city center, which contains very many lovely colonial buildings, is painted in the original white. It's the home of the oldest university in Bolivia. The square is filled with trees. It was a perfect respite after a stinker of a time.
Also my hostel was fantastic. Staying there was a Mennonite family - for your edification, in the last century a number of Mennonites have left Canada and the U.S. and established small communities in Bolivia. This family was in Sucre because the daughter, a sweet, obese teenager in homespun dresses, was quite sick and needed the hospital there. Very sad. Most nights when I returned to the hostel, the daughter would be chanting prayers, or the whole family would be singing hymns together in some Germanic language. Along with the Mennonites, the hostel also featured a small marijuana plant growing out of some potting soil in the courtyard. Alas, it was uprooted before I left.
I took a break from Sucre and went to Potosí, the highest city "of its size" in the world. I visited a thermal pond outside town, about which my guidebook says the following: "On no account swim in the lake. People have died in the boiling waters." Pshaw! Well, I didn't mean to go to the lake, but when I got off the minibus in the middle of nowhere, it was to there I was directed. And there were people swimming. And I was wearing my bathing suit. Honestly, it wasn't that dangerous, you just shouldn't swim too far away from the edge...
The main reason tourists come to Potosí is to tour the cooperative mines. These were started by the Spanish in the 16th or 17th century, using native slave labor. They used to mine primarily silver, but that's pretty scarce now, and in modern times they look for silver, zinc, and lead. The workers took over the mines a while ago, and work in small teams, anywhere from 3 to 15 people. The conditions are positively medieval. As a friend put it, at home the miners wouldn't be allowed in these conditions - let alone tourists! The tour consists of walking through the very narrow tunnels, hunched over, at times jogging after the guide (ours a former miner who went happily along, chewing coca leaves), at times attempting to run after the guide so that you can duck into small depressions along the side, out of the path of an oncoming cart filled with rocks, being pushed by a team of workers. At one point we slid through a tiny hole into a smaller cave, in which three brothers were sorting rocks and digging a hole for dynamite. The air in the mines is so dusty, it's difficult to breath. It is very hot and extremely claustrophobic. When asked by a member of our group why they didn't modernize, our guide said that the workers had decided not to - as it would put many men out of work. When asked how they knew where it is safe to dig in this mountain that has been burrowed into for 500 years, he replied "oh, the men know." This was not reassuring.

If anyone is wondering about the change in blog format, there are two reasons: 1. I feel that I am perilously close to becoming so horribly behind that I give up, and 2. My camera was stolen at Carnival, and I lost all my pictures since Cusco. And for me, the pictures shape the story... I find it harder to write without them, especially for events that happened weeks ago... however, I'll try to keep up.


26th February 2007

Where's my dried fetus?!?!? ;-)
29th March 2007

the camera!
the camera got stolen?! your pictures have been amazing to look at. beyond pround. so sad some loser took it. miss you.

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