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La vida de otros

The lives of others


La vida de otros
(The Life of Others)

15,827 feet above sea level Potosi, Bolivia is the highest city on earth. It was during Spanish rule the richest and largest in terms of population, at more that 200,000 people. The mountain Cerro de Potosi looms over the town and casts a early shadow on the city each afternoon even in the summer the temperature never really reaches anywhere near something that would be considered warm or comfortable. You can see in the faces of the indigenous people the effects of generations living at this altitude and climate. Their bodies are smaller and have a more round figure that makes it easier for them to get oxygen at this altitude.
The city of Potosi was once the center of the Spanish empire in the Americas. More than a million Africans and Indians were enslaved to work within the mines extracting the gold and silver which made Spain the wealthiest empire on earth. I knew very little of this when I arrived in Potosi. All i had heard was that it was a must do while traveling through Bolivia. Taking a tour through a mine where the conditions are unbearable and more than one hundred thousand people may have died. I remembered what Laura, a South African girl i had met while in Lima said about the mine tour,"it was one of the coolest things i have ever done, but i will never do it again. I'll never bitch about my day job again" Why not?
I signed up for the tour through my hostel. The van would be by in the morning to pick me and the other people up at 7am. I asked if there was a later tour but they said it wasn't possible, I cringed at waking up before ten on a vacation and i thought of ditching the whole thing. The next morning was cold I was sitting outside drinking a cup of coca tea smoking a cigarette watching the fog gently lift from the city which gave way to bright sun with a crisp blue sky. I got lost in the peace of the clouds and the silence over the city and thought about the massive amount of history that this city must of been part of. The small van arrived at around eight, a hour late. Three men jumped out of the van dressed in dirty overalls covered in dirt and soot.
They spoke only in spanish and I spoke no spanish. There were five other people that had signed up for the tour, most of whom didn't speak spanish either but their was one Israeli who could. He actually could speak five languages and he made sure everyone knew that about him, he reluctantly translated for us when it suited him. The tour guides introduced themselves and went on to speaking, I couldn't understand a thing past their names. It didn't necessarily matter to me that I couldn't understand them I was excited about the tour and experiencing something that was so cool and at the same time i would never want to do again.
We got in the van and the guides brought us up the mountain to a section of the town where most of the miners lived. The guides let us out of the van and told us that it would be a good idea if we bought something to give away to the miners as gifts. They suggested; grain alcohol, coca leaves and above all, dynamite. I was impressed how easily anyone could buy dynamite, it cost about two dollars and came complete with a matchbook, a wick, the dynamite stick and a mixture of some chemical to make a more powerful explosion. I bought four sticks, a bottle of alcohol and a bag of coca leaves all for about nine dollars. I packed all of it away in my backpack.
The guides then took us into their shop where they gave us rubber boots, a jacket and a hardhat with a lamp. We walked over to a large truck and got in its back bed along with a few other miners. The truck started and headed up to the entrance to the mine. The entrance was almost like going into a train tunnel their was a small track leading deep into the darkness of the mine, and what seemed like dark black oil that coated and stained the walls surrounding the entrance.
There was a hold up with us entering the mine and the Israeli translator never thought of letting everyone know why. After about twenty minuets of waiting more and more miners started to fill the small area in front of the mine's entrance. Their was a noticeable sense of excitement in the air. The miners were talking and cheering all while stuffing their mouthes with handfuls of coca leaves. A large llama was pulled down from behind the mountain to the entrance of the mine. The animal was trying to escape its eyes seemed to try and crawl away toward its freedom, the miners pulled at the rope tied around its neck. They pulled at it dragging it toward the mine's entrance.
The guides started saying something and the Israeli laughed and nodded his head, still no reason in his mind to let us know what was going on. The miners pushed at llama down to its knees and onto its side. They brought out a few plastic bowls and a knife. They pushed the llamas head to the ground and pulled its jaw back. One of the miners took the knife and pushed it against the llama's neck and started to saw at its neck. The llama started to cry and shake violently, a few of the other miners held the animal down as the the man with the knife continued to try and break the animals skin. It was almost as if he was trying to hack through a tire the animals skin would not give into the blade of the knife.
The knife wasn't sharp enough and the miner continued to hack at the llamas neck with it continuing to cry. A woman came up to the miner and handed him another knife. The animal continued to scream as the miner let up to change knives. The man took the new knife and within a few storks blood began to pour from the slit. The screams of the llama were then replaced by a gargling struggle as the animal drowned in its own blood. As the blood poured from its neck the plastic bowls that the miners had brought out were placed under the animals neck to catch the blood. Then the blood of the llama was thrown over the entrance to the mine.
Within minuets the black stained entrance to the mine was red with the blood. I looked back down at the lifeless body of the llama as the miners had already began to cut the stomach open and pulling the meat off the carcass. The grain alcohol was being passes around, one miner turned to me and poured a shot. Even though it was pushing ten at the latest i took the shot and fought to keep it down as it burned my throat. The Israeli finally told us what the guide had been saying. The miners were sacrificing the llama to Pacha Mama or mother earth. They believe due to the fact that throughout their generations, thousands of people have died and continue to die because the devil or Tio, lives within the tunnels of the mines. This sacrifice was to appease him, give thanks to Pacha Mama for allowing the miners to take silver from the mountain and to protect the miners.
The guides signaled for us to follow them into the entrance to the mine where the blood of the llama was still dripping down the sides of the wall. Along the side was a shrine to a horned Tio covered with coca leaves, cigarettes, beer and a fresh glass of llama blood.

Posted by TylerJames 09:40 Archived in Bolivia Tagged strange llama bolivia mine potosí blood miners Comments (0)

I hate salad

A test

I Hate Salad
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world its infrastructure is virtually nonexistent. I spent about a month backpacking through some of the mountain ranges around La Paz, hiking in the Amazon, and driving through the largest salt flats in the world in the countries' southern region. I had always heard about people getting sick and the odd traveler telling horror stories about their bouts with parasites and other problems. It was perceived by many travelers as almost a badge of honor, something that proved you were a traveler that took risks and didn't care about the danger that may follow.
To be honest while I enjoyed the late night bar stories from other travelers about parasites and poisonings but I had little desire to get to know these stories first hand. The problem was I really enjoyed eating the food of the people of the country. Street food is something I feel represents the people of a given region and culture. I loved walking out of my hostel each morning and getting freshly squeezed orange juice, then having empanadas or charque de llama for dinner.
There is a section of La Paz that is about a mile long and is packed with small food stalls, the smell of burning charcoal and simmering meat fills the air. On a budget of about four dollars you are able to eat like its Thanksgiving; hot sausages with French bread, roasted pig with potatoes, balls of corn with cheese and meat wrapped in cornstalk and steamed, grilled Lama, and the ever present hamburgers. I ate this food throughout my entire stay in Bolivia without any problems, apart from maybe gaining a pound or two.
During my last night in Bolivia I was staying in the small town of Tupiza which is about an hour or two north of the Argentine border. The town is a dive; it is a small dusty old mining town that is past its prime. Tall colorful barren mountains surround the small town almost like prison walls. The streets were cracked and dusty and the city center's park was a patch of dead brown grass and tall dry trees. The few statues their along with the walls of shops and buildings were marked with red, yellow and blue political lettering and pictures of Che Guevara. The only really interesting fact of this town is that it is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed. I disliked the town from the moment I had arrived.
I had to stay in this town for the night while waiting for my bus south to the Argentine boarder. I had been away from home for about three months and I was feeling like I wanted a taste of home, at least in my mind. I went out and looked for a restaurant, there were only two to choose from and neither looked very good. I went with the one that had the most people. The restaurant was nothing more than a small store front. The door was a cheap plastic screen that dragged on the floor as I opened it and made a loud scratching sound as, causing the entire restaurant to look up at me. The brown tile floor looked as old as the mountains and roads outside, the stained white walls were covered over with Bolivian soccer posters and what I assumed were popular musicians of the country. There were about half a dozen plastic tables with plastic red table clothes held down with a plastic waxed napkin dispenser and shaky wooden chairs. I took a seat in the corner.
I picked up the stained paper menu and looked over what I could eat. I wanted something to remind me of home, I ordered a salad with some pasta bolognese and a Pacena beer. The food was terrible the salad was tasteless, the meat tasted like rubber and the pasta was overcooked and almost a resembled a creamy mash, the beer however was fine. My check was two dollars which I quickly paid and left to return to my hostel to try and get good nights sleep before my bus. I had to be up at three to get to the bus station and make sure I got on. I was woken up around midnight with some of the worst pains I have ever felt in my life.
My stomach sounded like an angry dog, forcing burps that tasted like spoiled eggs. I rolled to my side groaning, bringing my knees up to my chest and blanket over my head, trying to hide from the pain that was rolling in like waves. The pain seemed to increase with each wave, it felt like something was tearing at my insides. My mouth was dry and my tongue felt thick with a texture of sandpaper. I reached over to my night stand for my bottled water which was nearly empty and took a sip. I immediately felt ill and fell out of bed and crawled to the trash can in the corner and threw up all the water I just drank and some of the food I ate.
I didn't have a bathroom in my room; although I was offered a room with a bathroom for more money at the time I didn't see any reason to spend an extra three dollars. The only bathroom was down the stairs at the end of the hall. I went over in my mind almost dreaming that I had made it to the bathroom, only to wake up in my bed in more pain. I struggled to get the strength to walk to the bathroom, all the while cursing myself for not spending the extra three dollars to have a private in-suite bathroom.
I crawled out of bed and managed to put one flip flop on and put my shirt, I fumbled with the buttons but quickly gave up and pushed the door to my room open. I fell out of my doorway to the hallway wall and tried to balance myself on the railing. I reached the stairwell and was in so much pain I sat down and fell asleep for at least a half hour. I awoke and wished I was back in my bed and thought about going back.
I continued shaking in pain and guided myself down the stairs to the ground floor. An old woman was cleaning the kitchen and looked over at me in my old boxer shorts an unbuttoned blue shirt, one flip flop and probably smelling of vomit and sweat. She started to yell at me in Spanish and in my state at the time I understood nothing I mumbled something that was neither English nor Spanish and even I didn’t understand. She shook her head and went back to cleaning her kitchen. I found the door to the bathroom and fell inside. I stayed there for about an hour; getting sick, falling asleep, getting sick again, and again falling back asleep on the cold tile floor.
I continued this; crawling back and forth from my room to the bathroom at least a dozen times. In Bolivia toilet paper it not customarily for toilet paper to be kept in the stalls for the enjoyment and pleasure of the guests. You are expected to bring your own or buy some from the attendant. I knew this but the dozen or so trips I had made to relieve myself had quickly depleted my stash. My complete state of helplessness was in full view. I used anything from napkins, ATM receipts and old socks, I carelessly searched through the old lady's newly cleaned kitchen for paper; it was truly a low point in my life.
The next morning slowly came and my pain was still in full force. I dreaded the thought of spending any time in a Bolivian hospital, but i feared my pride would soon have to be relinquished in order to help myself. I was out of fresh water and drinking from the tap was out of the question. I knew I had to muster up the strength to walk to the store and buy water, food and antibiotics. I had no energy, I looked like a pale old man with the strength of a small child. I managed to roll myself out of bed put my shorts, shirt, flip flops, a hat and sunglasses. I stumbled to the door.
From then on I had an out of body experience. The pain I was in seemed to disappear and I was almost able to see myself walking down the dirt road. It was a clear sunny day, a high crisp blue sky set far above my head. It was cool out and the same smell of charcoal and simmering meat filled the air. I walked in to the corner store and picked up two, two liter bottles of of water a bag of Oreos, a bottle of antibiotics, a sandwich and a coke to give me a sugar rush in order to get back to my room.
I handed the man behind the counter money and left. My head started to spin and I felt weak my skin got cold and my knees gave out. I fell down on the stairs and closed my eyes drifting lightly in and out of sleep. I opened the coke bottle and took a sip, it did very little. I knew I had to get back to my small room. I got up and stumbled back down the street in full pain shooting throughout my entire body. I got to the front desk and asked for another night, I Immediately upgraded to their best room.
I was hoping for something with a TV, room service but I would settle for something with a toilet. I was now in a room which was the same size as my other room but this had a toilet with a shower head coming down from the celling in the corner of the room, a drain was in the middle of the room. The white tiled floor was cracked and stained and the walls were a shade of pale yellow as if they were coated with cigarette smoke for years. An in-suite bathroom was taken very literally in Bolivia. I didn't care I fell into the bed and the pain continued to rip through my stomach. I took a few pills and exhaustion from my walk to the store caught up with me.
The pain again woke me up about five hours later I thought it would help to take a shower and clean myself up. I thought about this for an hour or so trying to build up my strength to walk over and turn the water on. Finally I managed to get the strength to pull myself out of bed and walk over to the shower head in the corner of the room.
Showers in Bolivia, are two words that do not go together. I have come to the conclusion that nobody ever really bathes. Then showers in Bolivia, or at least the ones I have had the pleasure of experiencing are nothing more that a water pipe protruding from the wall and bent to form a shower hear. The thin rusty pipe above your head drips and has slowly been rotting away at the wall. On the end of the pipe is an small box with two exposed electrical wires, that run from the box down to the floor and into the wall. This box is the water heater and in order to operate it you need to switch the current on and connect the two exposed wires. No matter how skilled you may be as an electrician you always would end up being electrocuted.
Unless I wanted to take a cold shower I was going to have to shock myself. I turned the water on and within a minuet I had cold water sporadically flowing out of the leaky pipe. I stared at the water flowing down the tiles and to the drain in the center of the room while trying to cope with the pain. I lifted my head and looked up at the white box and two exposed wires. I touched the wires and slowly started to bring them together. Nothing. I then touched the power switch and as i lifted the small switch suddenly I felt a strong shock that pushed me to the floor and burnt my hand.
Immediately the lights and power in the entire building went dark. My hand was throbbing and bleeding, with the waves of pain still tearing my insides apart. I grabbed an old t-shirt and wrapped my burnt hand, while I crawled back onto the bed. Within a few minutes I heard a knock at the door. I groaned and a man from downstairs at the desk opened the door. He looked angry and pointed to the shower, apparently he had told me not to use the shower because it had a tendency to short out the fuse in the building.
I didn't care. I shouted back in my broken spanish,"llameame una doctor" or call me a doctor. I had given up and desperately needed professional help. I could see that the man was still angry as he walked over to the wall where a small fuse box was and opened it and replaced the fuse with a small coin. The lights came back on and the man looked over at me. He spoke quickly in spanish, of which I understood very little. The words I was able to make out were; "manana" meaning tomorrow, "vas a venir un doctor" a doctor will come. I said thank you and the man stood their with his hand out as if i should tip him.
Normally I would not tip someone for providing me a room that i had paid more to be able to have a shower and than was electrocuted by that shower but I was in no state to argue with him. I reached into my pocket and gave him a crumpled up one hundred Bolivian note, double what I had paid for my room. I asked him again for a doctor, he looked down at the note and shook his head.
Within the hour I heard another knock at my door and a voice, "doctor." A middle aged man walked in the door with a small black leather medical bag. He smiled at me and sat down in a small wooden chair and unpacked his bag. It was as if he already knew what was wrong and what he had to do. He picked up a thermometer and gave it to me. He said something in spanish and pointed to his stomach. I shook my head and said I had eaten something.
The doctor smiled and said, "solo en Bolivia" or only in Bolivia. He then reached into his bag and took a needle out he filled it with medicine. He stuck the needle in my arm without asking my permission. The doctor then placed a small bottle of pills on the desk and handed me a bill. One hundred dollars. It seemed expensive but I had no choice, i handed him some money and he told me to rest for two more days.
He closed up his bag, smiled at me again and left. The medicine that he gave me was strong, it knocked me out for a good 14 hours. When I woke up the next day my stomach was still in pain but much noticeably calmer. The next two days i spent the majority of my time taking the doctor's pills and sleeping. Finally on the third day I felt my stomach finally feel as if it was normal again. I was able to walk around my room and stretch. I wasn't one hundred percent as i could still feel how sensitive my stomach was.
I wanted nothing more than to leave the country and never come back. I got dressed, packed my bag and headed down the stairs. I paid for the room and stepped back out to the cracked dusty streets, tall barren mountains and bright blue sky. Anywhere else it would of been a nice day, i got into a cab and drove directly to the bus station and bought the next bus south.

Posted by TylerJames 11:18 Archived in Bolivia Tagged food sick bolivia tupiza posining Comments (0)

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