Thursday, March 29, 2012

I'm goofy

1. Find a good size sand dune. Hike up it for seven or eight minutes.


2. Admire the view.


3. If you can still wiggle your toes in your shoes, promptly remove your shoes and fill them both with sand the way you'd fill your face at a pie eating contest. Shove your feet into your shoes. It's ok if some sand overflows out.


4. Strap yourself into your snowboard and, one way or another, make it down to the bottom of the sand dune. Popular methods include rolling end over end, zooming straight down, and shimmying your weight forward a little at a time.


Congratulations. You have now sand boarded!


San Pedro de Atacama is in the heart of Chile's northern desert. As such, it is home to sandboarding. Fortunately, this has nothing to do with waterboarding but is the sandy cousin of snowboarding, except that there are no chairlifts, it doesn't hurt when you fall on your bum, and you don't want any hot cocoa at the end of the day.


I've been snowboarding and surfing just a couple of times but enough to know I'm goofy foot (left foot back) as opposed to natural or regular (right foot back). There are too many possible "goofy" jokes for me to choose one, so feel free to make up your own. Once we all got our boards, those of us who'd snowboarded before were sent up the dune. I'll admit, I was nervous! The way the dune sloped, it suddenly got quite steep and looked like a cliff! It was one of those moments when you know you won't actually get hurt, but it was still a little unnerving.


But I didn't truck up a massive sand mountain and collect half of it in my shoes just to chicken out, so off I went. It was fantastic! There's much more friction on the sand than with snow so I felt like I had much more control over my speed and direction. What's more, I managed to avoid rolling end over end. Phew!


It was terrific fun and the views were unreal: sand dunes surrounded by red rocky mountains with snow capped active volcanos in the background. The spot was known as Valle del Muerte (Death Valley) after a Frenchman told his Chilean colleagues he wanted to name the area Valle de Mardi (Mars Valley) due to its intense red color. Too bad for Frenchy, his thick French accent made Mardi sound like Muerte and the name stuck.


Afterwards we headed to Valle de la Luna to see sunset and to explore a cave. The cave deposited us in a gorgeous spot surrounded by nothing by rocks and stars.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Arica, Chile

I took an eight hour bus ride from La Paz to Arica, Chile, the driest city in the world in the driest desert in the world. Northern Chile is famous for its desert and understandably so. Looking out the window, I saw snow capped mountains in the background and practically nothing but sand in the foreground. As we passed small towns, it reminded me of the aerial shots of the flooded Nile from National Geographic: sudden greenery and buildings surrounded by desert, though with a significantly less impressive river.


During my one brief day in Arica, I hung out at the beach and checked out Iglesia San Marcos, designed by Gustav Eiffel in the late 1800s.


Thanks to its location on the earthquake zone known as the ring of fire, Arica is also vulnerable to tsunamis. Reminders are all over town.


Before going to the bus station, I caught a decent, though cloud obscured, sunset from El Moro, an imposing hill that looms over the city.


The view reminded me that Arica today exists largely as a busy port town.


Much of Bolivia's exports leave South America through Arica because it is the nearest port. This is something of a touchy subject for Bolivia as it wasn't always landlocked as it is today and even though Peru has agreed to give Bolivia a free port area, Bolivia really wants a slice of northern Chile. This BBC article from 2011 provides a good background: In the meantime, Bolivian trucks continue to queue at the Bolivian-Chilean border.


Death Road Mountain Biking

Bolivia fought its eastern neighbor, Paraguay, in the Chaco War of the 1930s. Paraguayan prisoners of war were put to work on construction projects, including building a road from La Paz to its Amazonian region. For decades, this narrow road made of mud and loose gravel was the only overland connection between the two. Annually, about two hundred people plunged over the cliffs to their brutal deaths on the road due to its narrowness, complete lack of guard rails, poor driving conditions, fog and extreme weather. Why am I telling you this? Because today I biked it.


Death Road, as it's most commonly known, is now a popular day trip with travelers. It can be somewhat daunting to pick a tour operator since there are so many, so I went with Overdose, an operator recommended by a friend. It took a little effort to find the company however, as googling "overdose la paz" did not exactly yield what I was looking for (yikes...!).


Overdose was great. They provided us with elbow pads, knee and shin pads, gloves, heavy duty pants and jackets, sturdy helmets and mountain bikes with good suspension. It was definitely unnerving to see other companies give their customers only neon orange vests and helmets for safety gear.


The first twenty four kilometers were paved. I barely peddled a dozen times as I zoomed downhill. Because there was still vehicle traffic on this portion of the road, we rode in single file with ten meters between each of us...which meant I was all I had a grand time singing at the top of my lungs to myself!


In 2006, a new, wider section of road was completed after twelve years of construction to replace a portion of Death Road. Cyclists can use thirty kilometers of the old Death Road without having to share it with cars. Seeing how sharp the hairpin bends were and how sheer the drop offs were, I can't imagine what it was like in the 1990s when cyclists first started to ride Death Road en mass alongside two way traffic!


Even though I'm fairly competent with my road bike in New York City, this was my first time mountain biking and it took some getting used to. A typical bike ride for me involves dodging city buses as I cycle to work or dodging slow moving tourists as I bike through Central Park. Loose gravel, cliffs, and waterfalls are beyond my experience. Since I've starred in a couple of noteworthy bike crashes during my life, I was aware that it would be in my best benefit to figure out how to stay upright. I had to find the right mental balance of both paying attention to what I was doing (hearing Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett providing commentary on my brilliant performance) and letting my mind wander (that is, singing).


I didn't take any photos while cycling as that really would have been stupidly dangerous. The company actually provided each of us with a free DVD of photos and videos from our trip to make sure we weren't tempted to snap our own photos and accidentally die in the process. We past a handfuls of monuments in Hebrew along the way and afterward our guide told us they were to mark where Israelis had died while biking. The last tourist to die was an guy from England several years ago. His family later visited Death Road and donated an ambulance.


The scenery, from what I could see, was lovely. Huge mountains, green hills, cascading waterfalls, and the occasional small village. Not a bad place to live, but I wouldn't want Death Road for my daily commute!


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cholitas Wrestling

Sunday afternoons in a catholic country are a gamble. Will anything be open? What is there to do? Fortunately, La Paz has the perfect solution: cholitas wrestling.


For fifty Bolivianos (US $8), you get a ringside seat, two tickets to use the tourist bathroom, a Dixie cup of Pepsi, some popcorn, a souvenir pack with a postcard, a sticker, and a quarter sized ceramic doll (action figure?), and three hours of first rate entertainment. And, to help you get into the atmosphere, vendors sold wrestling masks for fifteen Bolivianos.


The venue was a high school size gymnasium with 1980s style stick figure athletes painted on the walls and a wrestling ring in the center. Four rows of chairs had been set up around three sides of the ring for foreigners and locals, who pay just twenty five Bolivianos, packed the bleachers.


The first match was between Spiderman and a skeleton. Their choreographed match was a riot: bouncing off the ropes, body slamming each other, prancing around the ring mocking the opponent, dancing, momck kissing, over the top celebrations after a victory, the whole nine yards.


Each wrestler was a complete character with a relatively well rounded personality that they managed to communicate effectively to the crowd. Not to be left out, even the referee gets in on the action and helps beat up one of the wrestlers. It's not necessary to be in stellar shape to wrestle and the obviously homemade costumes only added to the charm.


Most matches followed a straight forward formula: opponent #1 comes out, does a lap of the arena to intimidate the audience, and enters the ring while opponent #2 comes out, does a lap of the arena to either intimidate or endear the audience, and enters the ring. Whichever wrestler dominates the first part of the match will surely lose. The variables included whether or not they'd use props like a chair to hit each other, whether or not the fight would spill over into the audience, whether or not a third wrestler would join the match, and to what degree the ref would participate.


Women's rights must be doing well in Bolivia as women also wrestled, both against each other and against men. It was all in good fun but there was one match in particular where the male wrestler and the ref were beating up on the female wrestler so badly, I felt as if I were witnessing domestic violence. Fortunately, the tide turned before long and she came back to defeat him soundly. The women wore traditional outfits but removed their hats before wrestling.


If you were ever a fan of the WWF as a kid or if you just enjoy ridiculous things, head to Bolivia and check out cholitas wrestling!


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hi ho, it's off to work we go

I usually write my blog posts nightly and then upload them when a wifi connection allows, but I needed a night off after Potosi to process what I'd seen.


I had passed through Potosi on my way to Uyuni and thought the town looked utterly depressing. Yet I was enormously intrigued by it. The town exists solely thanks to its silver mines and it's possible to go on a day tour to experience the mines.


There were about ten of us in my tour group and I was the only woman. Our guide works in the mines Monday to Friday and gives two tours daily on the weekends. We guessed his age to be around twenty five.

We first went to get suited up. We were provided with oversized pants and jackets along with rubber boots, helmets and headlamps. Everyone bought a bandana as we were told it'd help us breath. It's important to wear the latest fashions when mining.


Since we were going to be guests in a functioning mine, we went to the miner's market to buy gifts of coca leaves, soft drinks, gloves, breathing masks, and, to my discomfort, dynamite to give to the miners. It costs about US $3 to purchase a stick of dynamite and its necessary accessories. There are no restrictions on buying dynamite.


Then we went to see the silver refining process. I'll be honest, the machines were very loud and the guide had a bit of an accent that, when coupled together, made it hard to follow what he was saying. Regardless, it was clear that it is an extremely involved process, requiring plenty of spinning machines, lots of sludgy liquid, and surprisingly little manpower or supervision. There wasn't much in the way of safety precautions as far as I could see other than a couple of posters.


It took just a few minutes to drive to the mine. The mountain is approximately 4,700 meters above sea level (the town of Potosi itself is 4,070 meters and is the highest city in the world) and the mine extends down three levels inside the mountain a few hundred meters. Here they mine silver, zinc, aluminum, and tin.


Men work together in teams of about four to six, generally with specialized jobs. Jobs include detonation, chiseling away the rock, pushing/pulling the carts within the mines, and operating the pulley, among others.

The mines operate 24 hours. Since they are collectives, it's up to the workers when and how long they want to work. Ten hour days are standard, though it's not uncommon for a team to work additional hours if they feel they are close to a lucrative silver vein or if they believe a rival team may try to beat them to a suspected vein.

Women are considered bad luck to work in the mines. If a husband is killed in a mining accident, the wife has a few options. She may get a job watching over the mine entrance to make sure no one steals materials or tools, linger at the mine entrance to see if any valuable silver has been dropped or overlooked, or, rarely, she may work in the mine itself.


Officially, no one under the age of eighteen is supposed to work in the mines. However, if a father is killed in a mining accident, the surviving team members will often allow the oldest son to take his father's place on the team.


When the Spaniards arrived, they introduced their god, dios, to the indigenous Quechua speaking population. The Quechua speakers began to use Spanish but, because Quechua didn't have a /d/ sound, dios became tios (uncles) and finally just tio (uncle), as the god of miners is known today. This mine had a tio statue where miners could leave offerings of coca leaves, alcohol, or cigarettes.


The female counterpart to tio is pachamama, the mother earth. She gets jealous when women are in the mine and this, according to supersticion, is when accidents happen.


So far, this post is relatively academic. I haven't even described yet what it's like to be inside the mine. In a word: awful.


I walked forward into darkness, leaving behind a beautiful sunny day, my path only illuminated by my headlamp. The temperature immediately dropped several degrees and became comfortably cool. We walked single file as there wasn't room to walk two abreast. The walls were uneven, the ceilings low and supported with wooden beams. The ground was often covered in muddy water.


After walking for maybe nine or ten minutes, we reached a wider chamber and took a break. It wasn't hot yet, but the air was rancid. Sulfur made it thick and it tasted acidic. The oversized bandana covering my face couldn't stop this.


As we sat, our guide told us if anyone was uncomfortable and wanted to turn back, this was the last chance. Without hesitating, a young Israeli guy fresh out of his obligatory stint in the army said he wanted to leave the mine and the guide's assistant escorted him out. I certainly wasn't having any fun myself but I was keen to continue on.


Giving everyone a chance to rest, our guide started to tell us about the mine; how all of the tunnels are interconnected but it's easy to get lost; how the town will collapse if more thought isn't given to the future of mining and the lack of sustainable opportunities; how it's easy to accidentally kill someone; personal stories of racing other teams to win a silver vein.


Continuing on, we soon had to crawl on our hands and knees through narrow tunnels and climb down rickety ladders to descend deeper. Clearly, this was not Vietnam's famous Cu Chi tunnels, which have been enlargened to accommodate western tourists. The air continued to get thicker, the ceilings lower.


We encountered a couple of teams working on this Saturday morning, one of which included a seventeen year old who had been working in the mine for several months since his father died.


Another team we came across was preparing to detonate dynamite. They said we had two minutes until the blast, so the team hustled us abut fifteen paces away and pronounced us safe just before it detonated. I must have seen too many Hollywood movies because it wasn't at all what I had expected. It was just a fraction of a second and it made a quick, low thud sound, like someone firmly slamming a car trunk closed.


We stuck around for a little longer, chatting with the miners. Everyone was swimming in sweat. The miners took their lunch break and were happy to have our company. I realized the reason why they work ten hour days is that it takes about thirty minutes from first entering the mine to reach a mineable spot, plus an hour lunch break, and then another thirty minute commute to leave the mine leaves eight hours to work.


Even as I write this post, I feel like I'm rushing through it, like I'm intentionally leaving out vivid moments, like I just want it to be done already. That's how I felt for much of the tour. It was fascinating and I couldn't wait for it to be over. In all, I spent about two hours in the mine. I didn't have to push the heavy trolley carts, I didn't have to handle any explosives, I didn't have to wonder if I should stay longer at work to support my family. In short, I didn't have to be there.


I'm not interested in diamonds or jewelry, so I figured I can tell myself that I'm not guilty of perpetuating blood diamonds or resource conflicts. But that's not true. I had been thinking that I might get a new camera after this trip since my current one has some splotches on the lens which drive me crazy. A camera won't be made out of diamonds, but it will have all sorts of other resources like lithium that need to be mined from the earth. And now that I've seen mining conditions, how can I forget it? I don't mean to be overly dramatic and I realize that not all mines are the same, but it makes me uncomfortable to know that people are literally killing themselves working in mines (I haven't even mentioned alcoholism and its relationship with these miners) just so I can have a convenient iPad or take some cool photos.


If you haven't seen the documentary "The Devil's Miner," add it to your Netflix queue right away. I saw it several years ago and while I don't necessarily remember a great deal of the content, I vividly remember how it made me feel: absolutely sickened. It is a powerful and eye opening experience, as are the mines themselves.