"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" -- J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Out and About

It was a rather ordinary Thursday afternoon in Santa Cruz de la Sierra when the three foreigners—two girls, one from Peru, the other from Italy, and a guy from the U.S.—climbed up the short, narrow stairway of the bus that would take them halfway across the country.  The itinerary was far from definite, though they had a general idea of where they wanted to go—“general ideas” were about the best one could hope for as far as planning goes in a country like Bolivia.  Yet, despite the uncertainty and the sweltering heat, the sweatshirts and coats and hats stuffed in the bottom of their backpacks signaled, at the very least, a definite intention to seek out cooler climates.  It was to Sucre they meant to go first and, after 14 hours or so and a handful of pesky on-bus sales pitches, they arrived in Bolivia’s cultural capital, the colonial, tranquil city that, as it so happened, was hosting a ‘Night of Museums’ that very evening.


The funny thing about Sucre is that the mere mention of the name sets off a series of confused and puzzled responses regarding the status of Bolivia’s capital.  For the record, Sucre was in the past the capital, but now is only the ‘cultural’ capital—the government rests in La Paz, though Santa Cruz is unarguably the economic capital. 

Sucre was indeed our initial stop, but first a bit of background on the trip, because I, at least, was surprised to be traveling only 2 months into my Bolivia excursion.  My two traveling companions:  Karina from Peru and Diana from Italy.  Karina, wanting to travel a bit before leaving Bolivia, invited me along on what was initially her trip, justified as a sort of ‘grand finale’ to our time together working on the research project.  Diana wanted to come along as well—the more the merrier.  Traveling with a native of the continent makes a world of difference:  throughout the journey, Karina haggled over nearly every price we met and probably saved us hundreds of Bolivianos, not to mention some confusion navigating what could be at times a ‘spontaneous’ bus system.  I’m not quite sure how one goes about purchasing an ‘aisle’ seat on the bus, but for a good deal of the ride to Sucre, I had an ancient indigenous woman who only spoke Quechua resting on my knee.  Between her and the various men who climbed on board to pitch various ‘new’ and ‘novel’ substances that cured everything from bed wetting to aching bones, it was a comical voyage.

But back to Sucre—an absolutely beautiful city.  The streets wound up and down the mountain, and, in order to catch a glimpse of the city in its entirety, we climbed to the summit—quite the trek, to say the least.  It’s a peaceful, quiet city, and the majority of the walls are white-washed with stucco roofing.  We happened to arrive in the city for the ‘Night of Museums’ which meant after 6pm everything was free.  We killed some time looking at dinosaur footprints—not sure why so many dinosaurs passed through Sucre, but in a quarry just outside the city there’s a collection of over 500 prints from 8 species of dinosaurs.  We found ourselves in the Folkloric Museum that night learning about indigenous culture, confronted by some pretty awesome traditional masks, and watching a video about that exploitation of indigenous resources.  We also wandered over to the Cathedral museum—kind of lame; just a lot of gold and silver and a weird candle ceremony.  We didn’t even get to see the inside of the Cathedral!  Then Diana and I took a rather lengthy cab ride to a rather odd ‘castle’ just outside city.  Empty, poorly labeled, and full of people.  (“How much to get to the castle?”  “Which castle?”  “How many castles do you have in this city?”)

It was the Salar de Uyuni that originally inspired their voyage—its promise of otherworldly sights and grand adventures was too much to pass up.  An expanse of white as far as the eye could see?  Flamingos nesting in red lagoons?  Buildings made entirely of salt?  The Salar de Uyuni—in reality, the entire southwestern circuit—was said to be one of Bolivia’s most intriguing attractions, something not to be missed.  And so, rested from their peaceful stay in Sucre, our travelers set out for Uyuni by way of Potosí.  Rolling hills of green dotted by the occasional llama sped past the bus as it climbed through the Bolivian wilderness, up and over mountain passes, across seemingly dessert-like terrain, winding around otherwise treacherous dirt and dust roads, passing rock and brick buildings long abandoned to the elements. 


The city of Uyuni looks like it could be aptly placed the end of the world—chilly, with short, random, colorless buildings placed on either side of wide streets.  The first thing to do in Uyuni was find a suitable tour agency to make the trek into the ‘wild’ and, while we did at one time have 4 possibilities, our minds were made up when, in our first choice, we encountered angry Israelis raving about the injustices done them on their journey and, in our second choice and ultimate agency of preference, we met pleasant, contented Austrians who just returned from a lovely experience.  The next day we set out, joined by Raul our driver and 3 Canadians who were exploring South America

Words lack in describing what we saw.  We drove through small, dusty villages that were settled in and around magnificent natural phenomenons.  The Salar itself was an endless array of white—the largest salt flat in the world, we saw trucks coming and going transporting salt and building mini mountains to be collected on future voyages.  We climbed the Isle of the Incas, a patch of rock and cacti (the largest and oldest in the world) in the center of an otherwise blank landscape.  Two llamas greeted us.  We slept that night in a hotel of salt; literally everything was made from salt.  The next morning we rose with the sun.  The following two days were full of crazy rock formations, towering mountains, steaming volcanoes (though we were assured only the Chilean side was active), lagoons of green, blue, and red full of 3 species of flamingos, geysers, hot springs, and other wonders.  Our jeep only popped a tire once, though we did have to stop several times to check the engine.  And we made it to the Chilean border to drop off the Canadians.  An outrageously awesome adventure!

Tupiza had been an uncertain addition to the itinerary, though the promised beauty of ‘Bolivia’s Wild West’ and the potential for a horseback riding adventure drew the travelers to the mountainous terrain.  Only a short ride from Uyuni, the bus deposited the weary wanderers in a town that had yet to see the rising sun.  An old, nearly deaf man offered them cold bread and hot drinks for breakfast, and, with the little light provided at 6am, they walked the silent streets, feeling as though they’d stumbled into an old western film. 


We had originally given up hope on riding horses after being told they cost nearly Bs. 300, but as luck would have it we found an agency offering 5 hours of horsebacking riding through the canyons of Tupiza for only Bs. 150, lunch included.  Whoa.  There is no other way to see the terrain of Tupiza—rolling mountains, dessert like landscape, sandy terrain dotted with scraggly trees and bushes, and as many colors imbedded in the rock and stone as in an art museum.  Again, pictures are really necessary here, especially if you want to see me in a cowboy hat.  Turns out horses are a little more uncomfortable than I thought, and maybe saying, “Yeah, I’ve ridden before,” referring to lesson I’d taken when I was 5 was a bad idea.  Maybe then they’d have given me more instructions then “left, right, stop.”  But we rode up sandy hills, descended steep terrain, passed under rocky alcoves, and crossed the Canyon of the Duende, where apparently a witch once lived collected sacrifices to fulfill a pact with the devil. 

Though Potosí was originally a question mark on the itinerary, the tragic mark the city has left on Bolivian history elevated the impoverished community to an essential stop, especially since it was along the way back to Santa Cruz.  Cursed by mines full of silver, legend says that an indigenous llama herder stumbled upon the riches and soon the Spanish conquerors followed.  It is commonly said that a bridge could be built from Potosí to Spain with the silver found within those mines; it is not so commonly said that a similar bridge could be built using the bones of the those who lost their lives in the exploitation that followed. 


It turns out we arrived in Potosí on the 201st anniversary of the city.  The city was alive with parades and music, and we got to watch some folk bands perform and dance in the afternoon.  The mines were what drew our attention, and, though we had little money for another guided tour, we found our way to the Cerro Rico and Karina found a miner willing to talk to us.  It was a day of contradictions: the celebratory atmosphere of the city, proud of their history and culture against the bleak, devastating work of the miners.  We saw many men and children at work in and about the mines, and many woman sitting outside houses that were built right on top of the mountain.  Though we didn’t enter the mines, we did get to wander briefly through a dark, dank tunnel.  The miner encouraged us to climb to the summit, and we did, following a little boy named Ernando who, when he wasn’t in school, gave tours of the mines.  He was ten years old.  He told me the legend of the llama herder and mentioned the commonly held belief that the devil, “Tío,” lurked in the mines.  We reached the summit in time to be greeted by a lightning storm and so quickly climbed back down.  Back in the city, amidst the parties and music, we caught a film—La Tentación de Potosí (The Temptation of Potosí)—which was a documentary inquiring into this idea that the devil hid in the mine.  Certainly anything that was able to turn such apparent riches into so much death, destruction, and sustained exploitation must be demonic at the roots. 

And so the journey came to an end and, after two police searches and a much delayed bus, the weary travelers found themselves once again in Santa Cruz, the heat an unwelcome old friend.

The funny thing about being back is that now everything changes: Karina leaves, and so the research project is more or less over, a few lingering pieces left; with the commencement of ‘summer’ vacation at the end of November, English classes will end and Barrio Juvenil will close and most of the kids will go home, wherever that might be.  Even my mandolin lessons are ending, though I’m trying to find a new place to continue.  I find myself rather impatiently waiting for the next stage, whatever that might be.  Sitting idly has never been a strong point in my personality, though perhaps it will be when all is said and done? 

1 comment:

  1. Your pictures are outrageously awesome. Please don't go into mines.