Friday, August 5, 2011

Potosí-The most dangerous mine in the world

Walking back into the light after two hours of being underground, with little air, dust in your lungs and suffocating heat, feels like each breath you take is the freshest you’ve ever taken.

Now, imagine being under such conditions, not for two, but 14 hours a day 5 or 6 times a week, for 30 years or more, if your body can handle it.

Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain,” also known colloquially as la come hombres – “man-eater” has been providing silver and swallowing people for 500 hundred years and conditions within it have changed very little since the colony.

Men with rudimentary equipment and close to no safety regulations mine whatever’s left of the nearly drained mountain that once fueled European development and is now the livelihood of 70 percent of the population of Potosi in Bolivia.

Back in colonial times, when Potosi was one of the richest and most populated cities in the western world, an expression caught on in Europe: “to be worth a Potosi,” meaning something was worth a fortune, as Eduardo Galeano describes in his book Open Veins of Latin America.

Under Spanish rule, from 1556 to 1783, tell official records at the National Mint of Bolivia, about 41,000 tons of Silver were extracted from this mine and taken to Europe. Although unofficial recounts claim the amount was far greater. It is said that what was taken from Potosí was more than the entire silver reserves existent in Europe at the time, and that hundreds of thousands of indigenous slaves died in the process. So many, that at some point the Spanish imported thousands of African slaves just to compensate the loss of indigenous work force.

This UNESCO World Heritage site was regarded as the world’s largest industrial complex” in the 16th century, according to the UN. Nowadays it is a poverty-stricken town where men die before age 40 either by accident in the mine or coughing up blood from Silicosis, after breathing dusty air for years.

Potosi is the perfect example of what has been the fate and history of Latin America. During the colony the indigenous were forced to work to death so Europe could benefit from the natural resources of the New World, and once those resources were depleted and the colony ended, locals were left with the scraps and struggling to make a living, under the management of international companies.

And just as bad as the exploitation of these people, is the way in which they were forced to attempt against their very precious Pachamama (mother earth). For the Incas there was nothing more valuable and sacred than Pachamama, so they would’ve never sacked it in the way they were forced to at Potosi. That is why the mining experience here is not like every other business; it involves rituals and traditions that will prevail until there is not one gram left to be taken out and the mountain collapses on itself – which is the most likely scenario.

Every once in a while the miners sacrifice a llama and spread its blood on the entrance of the mine, in order to “quench the thirst of the Pachamama,” told me Cututu (rabbit in Quechua), my guide. They also make offerings to a statue of the devil that lives inside the mine, called Tio or “uncle” for protection.

Cututu told me El Tio is not really the devil; this was the interpretation the Spanish gave it in their ignorance of Inca culture. But it is fact the mate of the Pachamama and just as she he must be shown respect in exchange of protection.

“You leave your religion outside of the mine. Inside,” said Cututu “you only believe in Pachamama and El Tio, because your fate is in their hands.”

The government tried to shut down the mine a few years back because of the latent dangers, but mass protests deterred it. This mine is all Potosi has. Not only 70 per cent of the population lives off of it, the remaining people depend on the tourism and commerce the mine attracts, therefore it will stay open for as long as it is standing. But the weakened structure that already takes hundreds of lives a year will soon be unable to hold its own.

More than eight million people have died here but there is no accurate official record. Cututu said his is the 4th generation of a long line of miners and that half of it has died in the mine.

One kilo of sellable material goes from 60 to 160 dollars, depending on the quality of the product. But although this mountain was once jam-packed with high quality silver, today out of 70 tons of rock only 50 kilos are sellable.

Miners don’t earn wages, they get paid by kilo of material they take out, hence they work endless hours trying to make as much as they can, working only with a steel rod and a hammer. They maintain their strength by chewing coca leaves, which also suppresses hunger.

“This is our home,” said Cututu. “Some spend more time here than anywhere else.”

Cututu said the government takes one per cent of the profits from the mountain,

“The government gives us nothing, se we give back nothing.”

Concessions to international companies are “ridiculously cheap,” he said. And companies care very little about the safety or wellbeing of the miners; there are no schedules or hours. Miners can go in and out at any time, so sometimes they work 14 hours straight without food or rest.

Despite the harsh life they live, miners are very high-spirited people. They were always smiling and joking around when they were not working. While working they were so focused they barely noticed the outsiders’ presence, but when not they were friendly and happy to receive the presents tourists bring in (it is customary to bring in water, dynamite and coca leaves as presents for the miners). They get even happier with their drink of choice: 96 per cent potable rubbing alcohol. Why they drink this, I don’t know. But I guess there is a lot about a miner’s life I will never be able to comprehend; it is a whole different world down there.

This is the steel rod the miners use:

Sexy pose of a miner after he showered and paraded for us:
Our presents to the miners:
According to Cututu, we were the sexiest miners to ever enter "Cerro Rico" hahah
Cerro Rico from the outside:
Inside: there were parts so narrow we had to crawl on four. I had to choose between watching my head or my step at all times. This is the widest part, where the kart goes.
Miner taking coca leaves that we brought for him:
Men at work:
Me sweating in the mine
Me happy to have made it out alive :)
cool videos:

Uyuni - the salt desert

This is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen in my life. It is a 10,583 sq meter (4,086 sq miles) salt desert on a plateau at 3,656 sq meters (11,995 ft) above sea level in the mountains of Bolivia.
It is absolutely breathtaking. The sad part: few Bolivians get to enjoy it because tourism is a concept that only those with extra income can enjoy; this is not the case for many Bolivians. Therefore, mainly foreigners who can afford to visit it and spend in dollars can enjoy this beautiful place.
It is a shame, but this is true for all of South America. During my travels I was one of few Colombians. I encountered a few Peruvians and many Argentineans, but not one Bolivian traveling for pleasure. Not only the resources of South America are at international disposal, the landscape also seems reserved for foreign enjoyment.
The salt desert, like much of Bolivia is a great natural resource. 50 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves are there. Reason why car companies, such as Mitsubishi, who are looking to mass produce electric cars, have their eyes set on it; lithium is essential in battery making.
I learned during my visit that in the past there have been attempts to allow concessions to international companies to extract the lithium, but the community, along with the current president Evo Morales, have resisted. This is good news because international companies exploit much of Bolivia’s resources, benefiting only the already rich and generating international profit rather than local. This is the case with many of their mines.
Going back to the point…Uyuni is pretty amazing…here are some photos and videos.

When I left Uyuni I headed for the border with Argentina. I was sitting on the isle of a super-packed bus for six hours swallowing dust as we advanced on the unpaved roads in the mountains of Bolivia. I made it to the bordering town around two in the morning and waited until sunrise when the border and bus companies opened. I was so exhausted I took the first option of transportation I found to Buenos Aires. I was 24 hours away by bus and the guy at the agency promised a smooth trip if I just took a bus on the Bolivian side and went straight to Buenos Aires. He said the bus would stop at the border and the process would be simple. Under different circumstances–I like to believe–I wouldn’t have been tricked into doing this. But the lack of sleep didn’t allow me better judgment.
The bus left an hour later than supposed to. Then stopped at the border, maybe three blocks away, and lo and behold I learned the process of migration for Bolivians.
The border was a pretty simple one. I have crossed multiple borders during this trip, so it is a process I am used to. I was the only tourist on the bus I had taken. I would quickly learn why.
As I sat in the agency waiting for the bus to leave I observed the man who had sold me the ticket have conversations with the other passengers, all of them Bolivian of indigenous descent or campesinos who work the land. I quickly realized that traveling can be very stressful for people who barely leave their piece of land and all they know is how to cultivate and work hard. I could see blank stares on peoples’ faces when he explained paperwork and laws and the migration process. A routine process for me was a much more complicated one for them.
We get on the bus and get off shortly after, right at the border. We are given instructions and told that the whole process will be done together, as a group. Odd enough for me, but I didn’t question it. We get out and stand in line for quite a while, like everyone else. After officially exiting Bolivia we are told to wait on the bridge, as a group, while the process unravels. As I wait I see the people who were behind us in line continue on to the Argentinean office and, in less than five minutes, be on the other side. This keeps happening for a while and I start growing more impatient by the minute. I didn’t understand what was going on. Why were we standing there without an explanation? After an hour and a half had gone by I was able to find someone from the bus company and asked what was going on. He said we had to wait until the Argentinean office was ready to receive us. I was then more confused than before.
I let another while go by and then asked again, now a bit more impatient. The guy tells me we will go into the migration office in 20 minutes. 40 minutes later we were actually standing in a different line waiting to continue the process. After we get our passports stamped we are told to stand in another line across the street, this line went nowhere, but no one questioned it. I was looking around completely flabbergasted. Was I the only one getting desperate? I could see everyone else cross the border easily, why were we stuck? I had had enough of it!
Of course, as someone that lives in the U.S I am used to a completely different dynamic. I felt I had the right to complain and even ask for my money back because I could just cross the border myself and get a bus on the other side rather than stand here and then there waiting for god-knows-what.
So I approach the guy once again, this time ready to talk to whomever I need to talk to get myself out of there. It had been FOUR hours and we were still on the border, having 24 more to go. At this point I had slept close to nothing in three days and I was about to burst with frustration and tiredness. So I tell the guy no one had informed me this would be the process and that I wanted my money back and I’d be on my way.
That's when I learned I had done business with a third person party that tricked me into buying an overpriced ticket with a false promise. I was stuck there because no one could return my money and we were waiting for the bus to get checked top to bottom by border police before we could move on; there was still another bus to go through customs before ours. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to kick myself for not being on top of my game that morning and falling for such scam. But there was nothing I could do about it.
The bus had literary left from three blocks away. It would’ve been much simpler to just cross the border alone and then take an Argentinean bus, but we didn’t know any better. For me it felt like a mind spasm moment what had led me there, for the rest of the passengers it’s just how things are, always.
Apparently, if you cross the border as an individual, it is just like any other border: you get your passport stamped, maybe answer a question or two and you’re on your way. But a bus full of Bolivians is a different story. They had to wait endless hours until the authorities checked ever person, bag and the entire bus. Some people had to go into a medical screening room to get checked for I don’t know what. They had to wait and wait and wait while everyone else went through in just a few minutes.
As I sat there totally frustrated I looked around and questioned the passiveness of those around me. Had this been the U.S or even Colombia, passengers would have lost it one hour into the whole ordeal. But no, the people around me were just sitting there, taking it. I was clearly the only one claiming some sort of right as a passenger to at least know what was going on. Every one else just sat there and waited without complain, except one lady who was evidently frustrated but did nothing about it besides commenting it with me.
I went from being frustrated to simply accept that is how things were going to be and then started processing the scene before my eyes. I realized I was living a day in the life of many Bolivians. Sadly this is what they are used to. It was a clear abuse, but they took it without complain. Why wouldn’t they? I thought. Their way of life is the result of hundreds of years of abuse. Why would they think they have the right to complain to a bus driver about being stuck on the same place for five and a half hours while everyone else isn’t? When they have been robbed of their land, their culture and their identity for hundreds of years. What would make them think is not OK to get different treatment than everyone else, if all their lives they’ve been considered second class citizens for being of indigenous descent? Why? With that though I took a deep breath and was thankful for having had the life I’ve had, but tearful for realizing the cruel reality of others’.
In the end everything went better than expected because although it took me around 40 hours to get to my destination I was happy to have lived that experience. I came to South America to see life as it is, not to pass by and simply get a superficial, touristy view of the place. So this was just a tiny part of what reality is for many on this land and I was lucky to get that perspective. Therefore, I have nothing to complain about. I am very fortunate in many ways. And for that I am thankful.

La Paz - Bolivia

Watching someone dig through a pile of trash, hunched over others’ waste on the side of the road, taking handfuls of rice and transferring them into a plastic bag for the taking, as I walk into a restaurant to indulge in a delicious – supposedly expensive – burger really puts things into perspective.

I had been in La Paz for less than a few hours and I was already witnessing the hard reality of this country, where 60.1 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line of $1.25 a day, according the World Bank.

As I sat in the only opened restaurant in the center of La Paz waiting for my meal on a cold night, I couldn’t get passed the image of the man rummaging trough garbage in search for his. I wondered how could it be possible that I was about to eat a burger and fries that cost 30 Bolivianos, or, around 4 dollars, yet there was someone just outside the door who cannot afford even that. That is to say, a four-dollar meal is almost a luxury for some Bolivians. Yet for me it was one of the cheapest meals so far on my trip. How could we have such different realities? I asked myself. But the inequality that exists in our world is far more latent than what we’d like to admit or even think about. So, this is nothing new.

The World Bank has determined that Bolivia is “the most unequal in Latin America” and La Paz is living evidence of this. I explored many neighborhoods in La Paz and I saw the contrast between the chaotic and poorer Centro with the wealthier and more sophisticated San Miguel, where the small upper class hangs out; an upper class that derives from colonial times and that still benefits from the exploitation of the rest of the country.

<- Centro San Miguel -->


San Miguel --->

Bolivia has been poor ever since their pseudo-independence and will continue to be because the dynamic has changed very little, if at all, since the colony.

Bolivia was stripped of tons — literary — thousands of tons of silver and other resources during the colony. Nowadays, it is being robbed of the remaining resources in a more inconspicuous manner: by international corporations (benefiting only the already rich). It is being kept subjugated by the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and defenseless without proper access to education.

Children working are a common view. The United Nations refugee agency found in 2009 that 22 per cent of children ages 7-14 work, but the worst part is the conditions under they do so.

Children in Bolivia are exploited in the worst forms of child labor, many of them in agriculture.” Says the 2010 document. “Other worst forms of child labor include street vending, shining shoes, and assisting transport operators, work in which children may be exposed to a variety of hazards, such as severe weather, accidents caused by proximity to vehicles, and vulnerability to criminal elements.”

You can read more about it here.

Women work at least 12 hours daily as vendors on the street. They unload heavy potato sacks that they carry on their backs, early in the morning, and they sit out all day, rain or shine, in the cold streets of La Paz until eight or nine at night when they pack up and head home, again carrying the heavy load. Men usually work far away in dangerous mines and children help however they can. Everyone working to “merely survive” as a Brazilian tourist put it during our conversation.

No wonder why life expectancy in Bolivia is 66.

The bit I learned about the way of life of the campesinas (peasant women) I learned from Asunta Silicuana, a woman selling potatoes and hats on the street with whom I hung out for part of the day. Her husband is a miner and she told me this is the most common work among men. She speaks Aymara and Quechua and her ancestors have lived in Bolivia for centuries, according to her.

If hard work were all it took to progress, Bolivia would be the most advanced in South America, let alone, the richest. Because they have enough resources and a work ethic that should allow them to thrive, yet they struggle to make it day by day.

Despite the hard conditions under which a lot of Bolivians live, it is still a very lively society. I was greeted kindly and with a smile everywhere I went. Indigenous traditions still play an important role, so as an outsider it was fun to enjoy the “witches’ market” and learn about their ceremonies to Pachamama (mother earth) and their ancient traditions and remedies (which are pretty handy when there is no access to healthcare).

Although most people work without rest for most of their lives, they manage to stay positive and live happily. Not once did I encounter someone complaining about their condition, or even their day, they accept their reality and face every day with a smile and a prayer.

Gracias a dios se puede trabajar,” said Asunta, which translates to: “thank god it is possible to work.”

This kind of perspective is not uncommon in South America. People are happy for the opportunities they have rather than frustrated about what they lack. Many are poor but happy.

Asunta smiles and happily tells me about her five children and how she’s worked for as long as she can remember.

La Paz was an incredibly interesting place, the contrasts, the landscape (there is a snow peak that can be viewed from almost anywhere in the city which lays on a giant crevice in the Andes), the flavors and colors, the people, the history, the reality. All of this comes together forming a pulsating society that represents what has been the history of this continent.

If you ever get a chance, give La Paz one; it can change your view on life.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lake Titicaca

I spent the day at Machu Picchu (awesome) and then headed back to Cusco the same day. I spent the night there and headed to Puno, on Lake Titicaca. I made it from Iquitos in the north of Peru, to Puno far south on the border of Bolivia in 4 days. Phew!!!

This is the Uros Island on Lake Titicaca. The Uros were once a very peaceful people who moved to self-made floating islands on the lake, escaping warfare between Incas and other groups. This pre-Inca people survived by trading or selling fish, but nowadays the resources aren’t enough for them to sell any. The over-harvested lake is now only able to supply enough fish for local consumption; therefore the Uros rely entirely on tourism to subsist.

It is a bit ironic to see how this culture has been mainly preserved due to tourism, yettheir way of life and environment has been greatly affected by it. Without tourists they would have a really hard time surviving and would have, most likely, had to move and adapt to life on land; but they’ve kept their traditional clothing and maintained the floating islands (which need to be up kept constantly) in order to make a profit, which has helped preserve these culture. They went from being a fishing community to one whose life now revolves around getting money from tourists. If you visit and don’t buy any of the overpriced handcrafts, you will no longer be as welcomed. Many of the visitors I met during the tour told me they felt very guilty and forced to buy things.

The Uros can’t be blamed though. They were once a people that lived peacefully on the lake with an uncomplicated way of life, and throughout the years they’ve had to adapt to a capitalists society and the tourism that flooded the lake. These were concepts unknown to them and now they do as they must in order to continue living on the lake – a sacred place for the Incas.

The Uros speak Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. The islands they live on are made of layers of totora reeds – a very prolific plant that grows there – laid over floating soil that they cut and tie together. Totora reeds are very important for the Uros. Besides using them for the islands, it is also eaten and used to make boats and houses.

An example of how this community has changed their way of life in order to cater to tourists and profit is their “Mercedes Benz” vessel designed exclusively to take tourists for a ride at a varying price. This vessel doesn’t even have a Quechua, Aymara or Spanish name; it is simply called the “Mercedes Benz.”

Despite the uncomfortable reality of these people, it is for sure a place to visit. It is absolutely beautiful and relaxing, although a bit expensive and of course, although they depend on tourism, the many boats on lake Titicaca are not helping the declining ecosystem.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Machu Picchu

I hiked up the steep trail to Machu Picchu early in the morning. The sun was just starting to rise and the day to warm up. Cusco is pretty high in altitude and cold, Machu Picchu is lower and it has a subtropical warm weather, so it takes a minute to adjust to the sudden change.

As I advanced the sun rose as if synchronized with my ascent. The weather was perfect, the view of the mountains around me was magnificent and the energy of this magical place overpowered my tiredness.

Surprisingly I was on of two people hiking up at this time. The hundreds of tourists that were also going to Machu Picchu that morning were taking the bus service. This is really ironic because Machu Picchu is located on an amazing natural place that needs to be protected if we want it around and beautiful for the years to come, yet most pollution comes from these buses than make constant runs, up and down during the day, so people can enjoy it more comfortably.

This is just one of they ways in which Machu Picchu is being greatly affected by the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit every year. Due to the negative effect of tourism, the Peruvian government is considering either closing it or limiting the entrance in the near future in order to preserve it, said one of the guides at the site.

It was very rewarding to walk up for an hour and a half and suddenly find this amazing place hidden within the mountains. It was actually the best reward anyone could ask for. It makes the experience much more interesting, almost like a pilgrimage to one of the most amazing places in the world. So, in my opinion, is much more worth it to walk up and earn the right to indulge in such beauty, than being bused up and down like a good tourist and bad citizen of the world.

The ascent

The Inca city shows up


The genius of the Incas. Amazing architecture

So lucky to be here!

It was a really good day :)