Summerized Blog

Sucre

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Driving to Sucre was much easier than from Uyuni to Potosi. We rode with our new friend Kirsten, and spent two hours watching stunning scenery from a small car, traveling mostly downhill. Slate mountains shimmered in the sun.

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Sucre is truly charming. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Sucre has a very large colonial center area, with many fine buildings. It’s very walkable. We enjoyed relaxing at a great colonial hotel, and eating at some of the local restaurants. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t very adventurous with food in Sucre, and insisted on eating at a Dutch tourist restaurant several times. I was hooked on their anti-bacterial salad wash; the recent bout of food poisoning being my excuse. We also enjoyed the chocolate made in Sucre; one of the local specialties.

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It was interesting to note the relative wealth of the city, compared to the other parts of Bolivia we’ve visited. Even in old times, many wealthy citizens preferred to live in the (relatively) comfortable lower altitude of Sucre, while their businesses were in Potosi. In addition to colonial estates, we noticed many large new homes. But, unfortunately, there are also children busking in the streets.

Sucre and La Paz are dually the capitals of Bolivia. We visited several museums housed in beautiful old official buildings. In one, the guide told us that the native women’s style of puffy, layered, pleated skirts was derived from the dress of colonial Spanish women. If true, this is fascinating. At the same museum, we saw paintings in tribute to Juana Azurduy, a female hero of the revolution.

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And we learned about the main revolutionary heroes of Bolivia. There was a wealth of Spanish religious art at these institutions as well.

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Sucre has a beautiful colonial cathedral. There is a shrine to the virgin bedecked in precious gems and gold, said to be worth enough to pay off Bolivia’s national debt.

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At a university’s museum, we saw some contemporary art, including this lament about miner’s health.

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Our favorite museum was El Museo de Art Indigena ASUR, a textile museum devoted to local Native American works, and to preserving their textile traditions. Our of the traditional methods was Jalq’a, red and black weavings with wonderful and strange patterns of imaginary animals, khurus. They represents a kind of dream world where men do not dominate. At the museum, weavers demonstrated their techniques.

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We bought a beautiful Jalq’a, created by a local artist. It is more detailed than this one.

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Something strange we’ve noticed in Bolivia is the presence of nudie posters in unexpected places. Bolivia’s Catholic conservatism apparently doesn’t preclude there from being a topless beer poster in a copy shop where school kids are xeroxing English homework. Or a travel agency, restaurant, or whatever. And they’re almost all blonde women, in a nation of predominantly Native American and Mestizo (mixed race) people.

Another thing we noticed was the after school, mostly male gaming crowd at the internet cafe. This is apparently a worldwide phenomenon, as we’ve seen them in every country except maybe Singapore.

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I’d never have known it without visiting Bolivia, but Sucre has the world’s largest paleontological site. We felt dwarfed standing next to what looks like (and is) a mountain cut in half. A mining company, blasting away at a mountain for ingredients for cement, discovered them. Hence the sliced mountain. Digging through layers and layers of sediment, they came upon a layer with large tracks. The cut forms a giant wall, maybe eight stories high, and you can see many kinds of dino tracks crossing it. You can even see where a T-rex is running, or where two dinosaurs had a skirmish.

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The wall and tracks are vertical because of the way the earth buckled from seismic activity. Unfortunately, the mining company is still dynamiting the site everyday, and causing lots of damage. Administrators are waiting  for World Heritage status, so they can preserve the footprints. We may be some of the last people to actually touch the tracks.

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Afterward, we climbed to a restaurant high on the hillside, and had lunch with some new friends. And this guy came along to show us some local song and dance. His costume impressed us more.

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We visited Sucre’s market on our last day. It reminded us some of Asian markets. And we patronized this fine establishment.

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Hi Ho

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Ever interested in dynamite and coca, we took a mine tour in Potosi. While silver was what made Potosi rich at one time, it isn’t so common anymore. But miners do find some, as well as zinc, tin and other minerals. The mountain is riddled with mines, and thousands of miners still work.

The inexplicably named Koala Tours put us into an ancient bus, which heaved up the hill to a building where we "suited up." We donned plastic pants and jackets, rubber boots and hardhats. Looking clever, we walked down the street past giggling kids to buy gifts for the miners.

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Gifts being soda pop, "completos" (a stick of dynamite, bag of ammonium nitrate, fuse and detonator), and coca leaves. Our fun guide Pedro demonstrated that Argentinian and Chilean dynamite are inferior to Bolivian. Then some Aussies showed us how to properly chew coca leaves.

With a bulge in our cheeks, and dynamite in our pockets, we were off. We chugged up the mountain and to the entrance to the mines. Pedro, an ex-miner, and his assistant installed our headlamps. I am holding my dynamite.

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Pedro attached a fuse to a bag of ammonium nitrate, lit it, and handed it to several people to pose for photos.

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They lit a few more, and after a minute or so, grabbed the bags, ran, and deposited them some distance away from the group. Resounding bangs, tremors and smoke followed. That was our dynamite (or, rather, fertilizer) demonstration.

Walking into a cave blasted into bare mountainside, we entered the mountain. Stooping through the passage, our first stop was a guy raising rocks from below with a mechanized pulley. A giant basket made of old tires, carrying 400 pounds of rocks jerked out of a shaft and almost landed on my feet. The guy somehow turned it on its side and poured the rocks into another shaft. I haven’t got the whole process figured out really.

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From there, we went to see the "socio," the head of this group of miners. Chino had a huge wad of coca in his cheek.

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The job had aged him; these poor guys don’t live long. He was grateful for the soda, as miners don’t eat in the mine; they only drink sugary soda and chew coca to sustain themselves.

Weird, moldy-looking formations on the ceiling were  arsenic, copper, and some other things. We were told not to touch them.

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At one point we met a lone miner; a guy working without a group. He had only a pickaxe; most things aren’t mechanized down there. He was happy for the gift of completos, as he dynamites every evening, and comes back in the morning after the fumes are gone.

We descended from the first to the third level of the mine. The tunnel is not engineered in any way; it is essentially a big rabbit hole, and we were sliding and falling through claustrophobically small and irregular spaces, for eighty meters, supposedly. During the descent, as well as other times in the tour, we slid past deep shafts that would have been fatal to fall into. As Jason said, this mine was not OSHA compliant. Apparently, there are fatalities every month.

On the third level, we saw where the rubber tire baskets of rocks were being winched from. Guys were taking dynamited piles of rocks and shoveling the good ones into baskets to go back up. It was pretty dusty down there.

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There were also little rail-cars of rocks, like you think of the Seven Dwarves having. They weren’t mechanized; guys were pulling the backbreakingly heavy loads down the tracks. Conditions were essentially medieval.

When it was time to go up, we clambered back up the rabbit hole. It was exhausting work in the stuffy cave, being hot under the suit, with dust in the air.

The mine’s museum was back on level one; it was also stuffy and claustrophobic. Idols, or guardian saints of the mines, took the form of devils and old white Spaniards.

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We finally climbed toward the light, and were glad to be out of the mine. If there was ever a question of me being a miner, this has answered it. Filthy, we boarded the bus.

Pedro took us to some crude mineral processing plants, and we saw how silver and zinc are partially extracted from the rocks. It’s interesting to think the zinc supplement you take might originate in a place like this. Or the silver in your jewelry. The plant was not OSHA compliant either. Ironically, Bolivia must ship the crude minerals to other countries to be converted to usable product, and buys the refined product back at a premium.

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After taking a night to recover from the mines, we went to the mint museum to see the next step in the process. The mint was a fine old Spanish building. The leering head of Poseidon was apparently added when Bolivia gained independence and the Spanish left — a final goodbye.

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Julio, our excellent yet sarcastic guide, explained how the Spaniards created the purest silver coins of their era, the pieces of eight. During the period of Spanish domination, these coins from Potosi were used all over the world. It was interesting to see how mule teams would walk in circles to power machines to flatten silver bars. This life-size silver armadillo was on display as one of the works created with Potosi silver.

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High Altitude

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Potosi is the highest city in the world of its size, at 4,070 meters. And it once was the largest and richest in all the Americas. In the go-go days, starting in 1545, silver mining created local fortunes, and the grand colonial city was built.

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Perched on the side of Cerro Rico, the mountain that yielded these riches, Potosi was one of the most important Spanish possessions. The city was one of the world’s biggest consumers of luxury goods from Europe, Asia and the Americas.

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All food had to be imported from elsewhere in South America, as not much grows at Potosi’s altitude.

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We really enjoyed seeing the fine Spanish buildings, and stayed in a converted villa. Many homes had Moorish balconies, like those in Salta.

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The local cathedral is old and grand. It has a Christ made of cactus.

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And a picture of Saint Jaime of the Birthmark.

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And you can climb onto the roof for a great view.

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A marching band came through town to celebrate independence.

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Locals lounged in the square.

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Jason bought a new coat, hat and scarf at the local outdoor market.

One night we had dinner at a well designed restaurant that I suspect was Dutch-owned. The decor was so sophisticated you could have been in New York; there was nothing else like it in town. Decor included these interesting wall cutaways boxes with dried flowers and grain.

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Sometimes I wonder what kind of inspiration strikes… we see so many expats in the most unexpected places… ¨I´m tired of Amsterdam. Hmmm… maybe Tokyo? Or the South of France… Wait, I know — Potosi, Bolivia, the highest city of its size! And there are llamas¨

Unfortunately, my stay in Potosi ended with a minor bout of food poisoning, but not from the Dutch place.

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Bolivia Jitney

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We boarded a stale old bus bound for Potosi, and an older woman in bowler hat and skirts promptly sat on my shoulder. We felt a dilemma we’ve often had in South American buses — you have the instinct to give your seat to the elderly. Yet on these buses, one must pay for a seat, and those standing have paid much less. Do you give your seat away? We didn’t have to ponder too long; the bus chugged pathetically up steep tan mountains, and the woman disembarked at a small adobe settlement, the same color as the hills.

As the bus strained up and down mountains (but mostly up), adobe villages came and went, and we marveled at the impossibility of their locations. Stopping in a little town, everyone went in search of "nature’s toilet." Returning to the bus, "technicians" were pouring water through vents in the dashboard, and it splattered from behind the bumper, all over the dusty road. Not a good sign.

We chatted with fellow passengers — Argentinians, Britons, Germans — in the middle of the road. We made a new friend, Kirsten, who we’d see again in Potosi. Our gawky white presence seemed to amuse grannies sitting at road’s edge.

The bus wheezed and started, and we rode for another couple hours. Local people occasionally got on and off.

Passing another bus, which had broken down, we were glad it wasn’t us. Then ours broke down. We stood roadside amongst shallow pools and llamas, well within sight of the other bus and its marooned passengers (see above photo). The bus people poured water through the dash and tinkered. Small boys from a nearby settlement rode bikes over to watch the tourists. After twenty minutes, we began to worry, but the engine sputtered back to life.

We continued on to Potosi without further incident. It was interesting to enter this town built entirely on nude hillsides.

At the station, Jason realized his down coat, hat and scarf had been nicked on the bus. This wasn’t our favorite journey.

Uyuni

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Uyuni, a town of several thousand, smelled like a cocktail of minerals. Though more populous than than the five hundred-some kilometers of Altiplano we’d just traversed, it still felt isolated. The town square had a few nice old colonial buildings, and we had some good, if slow, pizza on the pretty square.

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Nearby was a graveyard of old and unusual trains. And a strange sculpture of a woman made from scrap metal.

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Buildings like this one remind me of some of the new construction in Vietnam or Cambodia. The style is familiar yet strange… kind of modernist or art deco. But they may be making it up as they go along.

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A military band marched through town playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." Apparently it was one of Bolivia’s independence days. Cimg0002_5

Our hotel had kind of quaint decor, with antique sewing machines, baroque mirrors from times gone by, and rusty farm implements. We were incredibly happy to have a portable heater and hot shower.

Walking around that evening, there was lots of loud local music and dancing behind closed doors. Rural Bolivia seems much livelier than rural Turkey, for instance. We dined at an incongruously hip French restaurant, with warehousey decor themed on railroads, and a nice big fire in the middle. My asparagus soup was good except  for the submerged chunk of drywall.

The next day, we did some planning on the sunny square.

Women in traditional dress lounged on benches. Since arriving in Bolivia, we’ve been amazed at the number of women wearing traditional dress — long braids under a bowler hat, many layers of knee-length skirts so their bottom half looks larger than it is, flesh-colored thick stockings, and maryjane-like shoes (see top photo). I walked through the town’s market, and found the stall where the women get those bowler hats.

At the pizza resto, we ate pasta the consistency of ramen, and after finding several hairs in mine, I lost my appetite. Dinner at the French restaurant was an improvement.