Tuesday, January 19, 2010

To Sum Up:

Alright. Finally have a good internet connection. Except for La Paz, everywhere I went in Bolivia had computers and internet that seemed to be from the early 90s. So slow that I would type a sentence and then have to stare at the screen waiting to see if it appear.

Right now I am in Lima. Alf is speaking Spanish on TV. I got in the night before last. Alix gets in tonight. She is currently on a plane to Houston, and gets into Lima at midnight. Exciting.

People in the hostel are saying that there is a bus strike going on, and that it will last for at least three days. But there are also rumblings that it is just at night. We will have to do some investigating and see how it affects our plans.

I think I have blog posts due all the way back to Chile. So, I will start with New Year's Eve in the desert. Some of this has been in a previous post, but I will try not to be too redundant.

I was in San Pedro de Atacama, in the very north of Chile. When I got into town at 10pm, New Year's Eve, I rode around in a van for a while, waiting to get dropped off at my hostel. Outside of all the restaurants were sort of scarecrow dummies slumped in chairs. The streets were dirt and had no streetlights. They were lit only by laser lights mounted outside all the restaurants and clubs, cutting patterns in the dust and adobe walls. Except from the occasional tourist stumbling from one bar to the next, the streets were devoid of all humanoid forms except the dummies, who sat there in their chairs staring blankly at the street as green lasers danced across their burlap bodies. It was creepy.

At my hostel I met two Colombians named Miguel, and we went to a bar for the midnight countdown. At midnight we ran into the street. The dummies had been moved into the middle of the street, and all down the length of it there were circles of people around the dummies, which were on fire. It turns out that these dummies are a tradition in Latin America. They are supposed to represent the past year. The people build them the day before with burlap clothes. They stuff the clothes with straw and then stuff the straw with fireworks and then stuff the dummies in a chair. At midnight they douse them in gasoline and light them on fire. All down the dirt street were circles of people dancing around flaming bodies in chairs, silhouetted by fire, screaming "Feliz Ano!!! (happy new year)" to the stochastic cadence of dummy-bound firecrackers.

Like all the rest of the moths, we found ourselves dancing around one of the flaming dummies. We met some Brazilians that were friends with one of the Miguels. We followed them back to their restaurant, where they had some friends with a guitar. We sat with them for a while. They were playing and singing (with Portuguese accents) The Doors, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, all sorts of classic rock. We had heard there was a party outside of town in the Valley of the Dead, so after about a hour we made our way back to the street to look for a ride. We looked for a van, but no luck. After half an hour of trying we went back to the hostel. I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. As I was getting under the covers one of the Miguels poked his head in the door and said "Come on! We're going to the desert!"

Why we came back to the hostel in the first place, I don't know. We returned to the street and stood there, looking for a van. Nothing doing. So we went to a club for a while, and then back to the street to recommence standing. Amazingly, a van pulled up in front of us. It was full of kids and charging 4 dollars for a ride. There were no seats, but we piled in and stood and someone closed the door. I asked the Miguels where we were going. They didn't know. I asked the other kids in the van. No one knew. The general consensus was probably the desert, but nobody could be sure. It felt like the scene in Pinocchio when all those kids were piled in that boat going to Pleasure Island.

But this ended better. It dropped us off in 10 minutes at the Valley of the Dead. There were DJs, speakers, laser lights, bonfires, glowsticks, people dancing. It was fun. At about 5 a.m. it had gotten night-in-the-desert cold, and we were tired. One of the Miguels had gotten lost in the crowd, so the remaining one and I started the walk back to the city. After a few minutes a pickup stopped for our thumbs, we climbed in the bed, never speaking to the drivers, and they dropped us off right in front of the hostel. Crazy.

I had to stay in San Pedro for a few more days waiting for the Tour Operators to recover from the New Year. It is a very popular tour to take a 4x4 for three days into Bolivia. There are loads of agencies all competing for your business. Once you get into the desert you are completely at their mercy, so the guidebooks and other tourists all have recommendations about how to choose. Some of the agencies' first selling point was that they promised their drivers wouldn't be drunk, completely sober, they swear. Next, please.

My company ended up being pretty good, except that they promised us 5 liters of water per person for the trip. After the first day we realized they'd only given us one liter of water. We had two more days in one of the driest deserts in the world. Some of the people in my jeep had a water filter. The first night we stayed in a refugio near a volcano that had running water. My guidebook had said the water in northern Chile wasn't safe because of arsenic, not any sort of microbes. I read the book that was included with their filter, and it said specifically it doesn't deal with minerals. Big surprise. I tried to point this out to the Germans whose filter it was, but they weren't concerned. They were in the bathroom pumping water out of the sink into our water bottles. They said once your stomach gets used to the water of a place it is fine, you just have to get used to it. I pointed out that that didn't quite hold for POISON, but they were nonplussed. Pump. Pump. Pump.

We all stood in the bathroom around the sink as they were pumping. Everyone else was pretty excited to have solved the problem, laughing and talking, and I was trying to figure how long I could survive the desert heat before giving in to peer pressure and satiating my thirst by drinking their arsenic flavored cool-aid. All of a sudden the woman who was pumping stopped and said "feeesh!" I looked in the sink. It wasn't a fish at all, but some sort of insect larvae trying to twitch its way away from the thirsty mouth of the filter. I told them it was a larvae, but they didn't believe me. They drained the sink and refilled, kept pumping. A few minutes later: "feeeesh!" Repeat until all water bottles are full.

I had brought extra water in case 5 liters weren't enough, so I held out for the first day, saw that no one else keeled over or seemed ill, and over the last day drank the possibly tainted water as little as I could manage. The desert crossing was spectacular. We supposedly got as high as 4800 meters, 400 meters higher than the summit of Mt Rainier. There were green and red lagoons, loads of flamingos, stinking sulfur. The last day they served us some sort of bird. It was sliced very thin and breaded rather enigmatically. Some Spaniards kept asking the guides what it was, insisting it wasn't chicken. Eventually the guides admitted that it was flamingo. I don't know if they were serious or not.

The second night we stayed in a salt hotel on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world. There had been signs on the road for something called the Cavern of the Inferno. The father of the family who ran the hotel was an elderly man that agreed to show us even though it was closed. He walked with us down the road carrying a big plastic jug of some sort of green liquid. I didn't know what for. One of the guys walking next to him lit a cigarette and the man cried out and jumped away, shouting "gasoline! gasoline!" Apparently it was gasoline from the generator, and the guy had lit a match and let the cigarette dangle 12 inches from the mouth of the jug of gasoline. Close call.

The landscape was spectacular. It felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings. The distance looked like Mordor. The mountains were lit by some sort of red glow and lightning and we were walking towards the Cave of the Inferno. There seemed to be lightning all the time every day in the desert, and I took probably 100 pictures of empty sky trying to catch it. I finally got one, which I put online. The cave was far and away the most organic-looking non-organic structure I've ever seen. It felt like you had been swallowed by an alien. Pictures are on Picasa.

The third day we were in the salt flat. Luckily for us it was the rainy season. There was a centimeter or two of standing water that turned the whole thing into a giant mirror. Cars appeared to be riding on the tires of their own reflection, floating together through the clouds. There were dry spots where we got out and took pictures of all the optical illusions. Also on Picasa. It's hard to make clear just how cool it all looked.

We ended at the cemetery of trains right outside of Uyuni. Uyuni is a little desert town. All the buses to my next destination, Potosi, were full, so I had to spend a night there. I should stress how immediately different it felt when we crossed the border into Bolivia back on that first day in the desert. You could immediately tell a difference. Chile is wealthy and modern, and Bolivia is not. The bathroom on the Bolivian side of the border was an old rusted out husk of a bus. You just walked behind it, and there you go. There were also women in indigenous clothing with bowlers balanced on their braided hair. Very different and very immediate.

So. At this point in our tale we are in Uyuni, Bolivia, paying 10 US dollars a night for two single beds in one of the nicer hotels in town. Before starting the Bolivian part of the story, I will preface with a few illustrative truisms about travel in Bolivia. Ahem:

If a hotel brags that it has hot water, it probably doesn't.
Paved roads are for sissies.
So are bridges.
Buses can drive right through rivers.
Old women can stand in bus aisles for up to 10 hours.
All transportation will leave late, unless you are only on time, in which case it will have left early.
Women selling llama fetuses to worship mother earth don't like you taking pictures of them.
Not even a little.

Anyways. My first stop after Uyuni was Potosi. It used to be the richest town in the world due to its silver mines. The mines are still functioning, but now only producing lead, zinc, and trace amounts of silver. One of my tour guides said records are scarce because of the revolution, but that the mines produced between 40 and 60 thousand tons of pure silver. That is as much as 42.9 trillion dollars by today's prices. If I did any math wrong there I'm sure Robert will point it out and I will have the corrected value up shortly. [Note: A scant 12 hours after posting this, Robert chimed in and claims that the value is actually 35.8 billion dollars. I don't have time to check it at the moment, but if anyone else does and can say he is wrong, I would appreciate it. Otherwise, I am going to blame the currency calculator I used online for my mistake.]

[Note Number Two, which has become its own paragraph: I have also since heard from Michael (Penner), who has offered his finance degree services to resolve the issue. He makes a pretty convincing case, so I will quote his answer and his calculations:

"So I have been a little behind in reading your blog but I disagree with both your and Robert's estimates of the silver mine numbers.
So right now silver is selling for roughly $17 per Troy ounce. There are 12 troy ounces in a pound and all precious metals are measured in troy ounces. So 17 times 12 = $204 per pound times 2,000 pounds per ton = 408,000 times 60,000 (the upper end of what was removed) then you would have $24,480,000,000.

If you used a slightly higher silver price and 16 ounces instead of 12 then you would get roughly the 35.8 billion that Robert got. I hope that all is well with you and hopefully I am correct in my calculations."

That seems convincing to me. I had to look up what a Troy Ounce was, and that it really was 12 ounces to a pound, and that tidbit alone is enough to make me believe Michael's numbers. This is probably why he always beat me at flashcards in elementary school. Kudos! End of note.]

As mentioned in a previous post, I did a mine tour in a mine that was 475 years old, dug by African and Indian slaves. It is still producing minerals, although substantially less valuable ones than silver. Our guide made me his official helper, which just meant I, like him, got to wear a backpack filled with soft drinks and dynamite in the mines. The passages got so cramped at times that we had to slither like snakes. The backpack would get stuck and so would I. It was extremely scary. There are four levels in the mine, and we went down to the very bottom. The passage from the first to the third was the worst. I don't know how far we descended, but I know that it was 45 degrees, dusty, beyond cramped, hard to breathe, stifling, terrifying, everything. There were occasionally openings on the side into abandoned areas, shafts filled with decrepit pulley machinery, or caved in passageways. We stopped periodically to rest and felt kind of safe, even though you still couldn't breathe and had nowhere to run to get air, nowhere to stand up or straighten your legs. During one of these breaks, feeling kind of safe, trying to force air into our lungs, we head the deep "poom. poom." of dynamite blowing up somewhere deep below us. Very, very scary. It reminded you that you were far, far, far from safe, whatever you might have just been feeling. Kind of like standing in a big room facing the corner feeling cozy, and then realizing that the room behind you is full of hungry tigers but knowing that you can't turn around.

There are some pictures on Picasa, but it was hard to take pictures in the dark that conveyed the cramped scariness. It always feels like there is a lot of space on the the photographer's side of the camera, but there never was.

Seeing the light of day after climbing back up through the dusty passages was so, so sweet. Plus outside we got to blow up dynamite. Some of the pictures on Picasa of me and others holding plastic bags are actually plastic bags full of dynamite. In the latter cases, including when the guide is holding it in his teeth, it is lit. There is also a video I uploaded. After the first explosion the accelerometer in the camera went wonky and turned on its side. So I didn't fall over, but you will have to watch it with your head turned. It was pretty awesome.

From Potosi I went to La Paz, where I went on the bike ride I mentioned in the previous post. Still no pictures up yet, but I have them on a cd.

La Paz was a very dramatic city. It is in a canyon, and the buildings "spill" over the side (to quote Lonely Planet) and down to the mouth of the valley below. There is a lot of poverty. Street children would drop their pants and squat to urinate in the middle of crowded squares. There were a lot of homeless people. A lot of the street kids turn to shoe shiners when they hit adolescence, and hordes of them wander the streets wearing ski masks as a sort of protest/fashion statement. When they would walk by the police, who would stand out of certain buildings with automatic weapons and old shotguns, it made you really want to take a picture, but it would have likely ended badly.

I stayed in La Paz for several days. I liked the city. There are lots of things to see: a witches market, a "black market," great views, but I had to keep moving to get to Lima. There is always more to do in every country, every city.

My next city was Copacabana, on the Bolivian coast of Lake Titicaca. The morning that I was supposed to go to the Isla del Sol, it was raining. I ran to the beach to catch my boat. They made us stand on the beach in the rain for 15 minutes. Finally on the boat, drenched, nursing a cold, surrounded by people with the most irritating laughs I've ever heard, I sat fuming. People were crammed in and standing for the two hour ride. The capacity of the boat was 40, or so claimed the captain, and we were at at least 60 by my count. My ticket was only good for a ride to one part of the island, where I would have to day hike to the other end to catch my return boat. This seemed ludicrous. It was a thunderstorm, I had a terrible cold, I was dripping wet, was wearing soaking wet sandals. I waited in the boat for 40 minutes. We were the last one at the dock and people were still cramming in. I got up and left.

That afternoon I took a shorter trip to just one end of island. Again, we left late. The equivalent of the cabin boy said we had an hour on the island, and he wrote 3:50 on my ticket. On the island I walked around and went back to the dock. It was 3:40. There was my boat pulling away from the dock. Ran to catch them. Way too late. The agency was operated from Copacabana, so there was no one there on the island to complain to, no later boat. I ran to another boat unloading supplies and paid them 20 Bolivianos to give me a ride back to the shore. It was the very last of my Bolivian money, so I'm glad it was enough. My bus left in three hours and I'd already paid.

I made it to the bus in time. It was full of tourists and led by a guide name Jesus. The joke as we made our way across the Bolivian border and navigated bus changes was to ask each other "are you with Jesus?" Jesus arranged a hotel for us in Puno, Peru. The next day I had a tour with him to some other islands of Lake Titicaca. The hotel was called Tumi I. Right next door, like RIGHT next door, was the Tumi II. They had no association aside from the name, and they hated each other. The Tumi I had wifi, but the receptionist wouldn't give me the password because he thought I was a spy for the Tumi II, which didn't have wifi, and he didn't want the Tumi II to get it. He told me it was a secret. So the Tumi I technically did have wifi, but really only the receptionist could use it.

The next day a van picked me up to take me to the dock. I asked the girl in the van if she was with Jesus. "What?" "Jesus. The guide?" "Oh...yes." I laughed, she smiled and looked away. I realized later that day that Jesus in fact only sold tickets, and only some of the tickets, and I was the only one that had bought one from Jesus. So when I was asking everyone "are you with Jesus?" like it was a big joke, and they were smiling politely and laughing quietly with averted eyes, they in fact thought I was crazy.

We went to some floating islands made of reeds where people lived and sold handicrafts. Then for three hours to the island of Amantani or Amantanique or something along those lines, where we were to have homestays. I somehow ended up not in a group, but on my own. I was staying with a family all to myself, in a room with four beds and just me. The mother of the family had never left the island except to do shopping in the town I had stayed in the night before. The father had seen a little bit of southern Peru, but both had lived their whole lives on the island.

The first night we went on a walk to see some pre-Incan ruins. When we got back to where the families were waiting, it was almost dark. The father had been waiting, and we walked back towards his house. On the way back we fell into step with a native woman. When our paths diverged the father stopped to talk to her. It was too dark to see faces, and they were either speaking Quechua or Spanish I didn't understand, so I kind of stood there in the twilight, looking at the eucalyptus trees, wondering how they ever made themselves such a part of the culture on Lago Titicaca, listened to the sheep and burros in the dark, watched lightning on the far Bolivian shore, felt the cold air, was generally pretty pleased with the situation, and then I realized that the woman was crying. The father kept talking, in supportive tones. I stood trying to look politely away, trying to to give her more privacy than the language barrier already did. After several minutes we went our separate ways. The wind picked up and the father told me that she lived with her husband in the house of her father. They couldn't afford a house of their own, and her father was kicking them out, and they didn't know what they were going to do. I don't know how they make enough money selling handicrafts to buy even a modest house on the island. Such a terrible situation.

The family was very kind, and the next morning we went back to Puno, on the mainland Peru. I picked up my luggage at the hotel. Jesus was supposed to bring me my bus ticket to Lima, but it wasn't there. I went to a call center to phone him. I got ahold of him and tried in Spanish to explain the situation. When I came to the desk to pay the woman and mother were laughing so hard at me that they could barely speak. The girl was a teenager and she ran to the corner of the shop and laughed and twittered and giggled until I left. I don't know why, other than that maybe it sounded like a ridiculous conversation. In Spanish, Sudar means to sweat. So when I made the phone call I said "Is this Jesus? Jesus! This is Sweaty Sam. I gave you the money, where's my ticket?!" I hadn't showered in two days and definitely looked like Sweaty Sam, so maybe it was that it sounded like a mob phone call of some sort. I really don't know, but that's my best guess.

I waited at the hotel, still no ticket. Eventually I got the receptionist to try for me. He said Jesus's friend was bringing it, but went to the wrong hotel; he would bring it back shortly. Half an hour later Jesus's friend showed up, and it was obvious why he had gone to the wrong hotel. It was 5 p.m., but the guy absolutely reeked of booze. He proceeded to say that the ticket was more expensive than planned, and I had to give him 10 more dollars. I tried to delay, saying I didn't have the money, but this guy clearly had all the the time in the world, and my bus was leaving soon. So eventually I just gave in and paid him the money, even though I am sure he was cheating me. The price on the ticket was well below what I had already paid. But it was still reasonable for a night bus to Lima, so I thought, who cares that Jesus's drunken friend swindled me out of 10 dollars?

The next day, I cared, because the bus broke down in the desert. We waited there for 5 hours and then piled into 15 passenger vans that were so crowded people were forced to stand for the first two hours. Such a mess.

And that brings me to Lima. Metallica is playing tonight, and people all over town are pretty excited for that. Alix gets in at about midnight, and I am going to meet her at the airport. Until then, I have been bumming around town doing nothing in particular. Pretty good times.


  1. Hi Sam. You may not remember, but I was one of the past Bonderman fellows on the committee that interviewed you. Glad to see you're having a good trip! There's a possibility that I'll be in/around Lima this summer doing global health stuff, and if I am you'll have to give me some tips. =)

  2. Terrific reading Sam. Keep it coming :)