Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Mines in Potosi, Bolivia

We stopped at a little mining town called Potosi. It probably wouldn´t like me describing it that way since it was once one of the largest and weathliest cities in the world and still is the highest city in the world at 4090m. We went into the mines guided by a former miner. The conditions are dark, cramped and the air causes most miners to die of silicosis by age 40.

Tradition runs deep in the mines and most of the men that work there (women aren´t allowed, nor is salt, or odd numbers) have literally grown up in the mines. A few we spoke to while we were on our tour explained that they learned everything they know in the mines, especially how to drink. While you must technically be 18 years old to work in the mine, often the boys start as young as 12 because their fathers want them to work on their team.

The mine is run as a co-operative and every man works in a small group in business for themselves. They work six days a week and often do not come out of the mines for 12 hours at a time. All the miners chew coca leaves in order to be able to keep working without having to stop to eat. Chewing coca leaves, which the majority of Bolivians do, provides them with enough energy and vitamins to work long shifts without needing a proper meal. Its quite odd seeing elderly women chew coca as I´m used to mostly redneck toughguys chewing tobacco in the States. Below is a pic of the coca leaves, cigarettes and 98% alcohol that tour groups bring the miners as gifts.

They sell dynamite to anyone with 15Bob´s (about 2 dollars). We bought some and blew it up after the tour.

They pray to the Devil, El Tio, who they believe owns the mine. Here is a statue where they offer him coca leaves and pour alcohol onto him everytime they enter the mine to ask his permission to work there. A few times a year they also splatter blood from the llama they have sacrificed in his honor. The dark splatter above the statue below is the blood! It´s actually really funny to see the miners pour out part of their alcohol or energy drinks in honor of El Tio or PachaMama (mother earth). Its alot like pouring some out for your homies.

We had to climb down several shafts to go lower and lower into the mine where the workers were. It´s literally pitch black dark down there except for where your head torch shines. I asked one of the miners if he was ever scared when he first started mining 25 to 30 years ago. He told me that you have to be a little scared because the Devil plays tricks on you when you are new. He said you hear voices and feel rocks being thrown at you when no one is around and that this is the Devil´s way of testing you.

Here we are talking wih a small team of miners. The two next to Gemma in the first picture are father and son.

It was an amazing experience seeing the conditions these miners have been working in for hundreds of years and where nearly 30,000 slaves died from long hours in the horrible conditions. It was really humbling to see their way of life and how hard they work just to get by. I tried lifting one of the bags of rocks they carry up several "floors" to the mines entrance and honestly could barely lift it off the ground despite my massive biceps.

Our guide informed us that experts are predicticing the mine will run dry in about twenty years leaving the future of Potosi very much in quesiton.

And finally, on a lighter note, I got to see some miners carts. This is what I had envisioned I´d see full of silver and gold flying all over the tracks down in the mines like something out of the Goonies or Indiana Jones. Sadly they were empty and hardly in use.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Condors! - The Salt Flats, Bolivia

We took a couple days to recover back in Oruro before giving the train another shot. This time we made it all the way down to Uyuni where we booked a three day-two night tour of the Bolivian Salt Flats. Bolivia has 12,000 sq km´s of salt flats. We had my ipod on play in the one working speaker and set off on our 1,000km tour.

First stop was the old train graveyard were we climbed on and admired some old abandoned rusty trains once used to transport the salt.

We then drove out into the middle of the salt flats and took some funny perspective pictures near the Isla del Pescado.

The Isla de los Pescadores is an island in the middle of the flats covered in cacti. We hiked around it for a while and admired the neverending horizon.

Our Jeep headed towards the accomodation and stopped for us to watch the sunset. I´d never seen my shadow so long before.

The next day we drove out of the salt flats and further into southern Bolivia. We were surrounded by stunningly colorful mountains due to the minerals inside them. Reds, whites, greens and yellows flowed throughout them.

We arrived at the first of five beautiful and colorful lagoons. This one and several others were filled with flamingos. I certainly wasn´t expecting that in Bolivia. It was "bloody freezing" according to Gemma and I wondered if all the Florida Flamingos make fun of all the Bolivian Flamingos?
We drove on towards Laguna Colorada which is a deep rich red color and 25kms east of the Chilean border. Also filled with hundreds of Flamingos.

We stayed the night there with sleeping bags, sleep sacs, all our clothes and four blankets. We survived.
The next morning we woke up at 4:30am to go see a geyser go off. We held our hands over the steam to keep warm and took turns running through it while holding our breath to avoid the stench of rotting eggs. A few hundred yards away was a field of boiling mud pots that looked like the surface of another planet

We then headed to the nearby hotsprings, relaxed and warmed up for good in the 30/86 degree water at 6:30am. It was the first time in three days that we weren´t freezing.

Our last stop before driving back to Uyuni was the Laguna Verde which had the most amazing greenish-blueish water and was located at the base of a volcano.
One of the funniest moments of the trip came when the older Israeli guy who was more into photography than I shouted at the driver to stop the jeep immediately. He´d been doing this every now and then for the past three days but this time he was serious. He started shouting that there were two condors near the road! I got excited since we hadn´t gotten to see them at Cruz del Condor in Peru. I look out the window at what this man is feverishly taking pictures of and am like "Where?" He points at two ducks.
I swear to god I almost lost it. We all were like "uhh I think those are ducks." He was now on his 50th shot and said no no these were condors. "Why aren´t these condors?, he asked. I said because they are ducks. The driver confirmed this. It was a good laugh.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bolivian Healthcare - An investigation

We started our Bolivian adventure on a bus into La Paz, the worlds highest capital. We ate our first meal at a Thai restaurant that didn´t really have any Thai food, just ramen and sushi. We really noticed the altitude once we were walking uphill to our hostel after a few hours of drinks. Whew. Gemma noticed it when she accended one flight of stairs the next morning to the hostels balcony and started to get sick. Off to a rough start.

We left on bus for Ouruo where we would then take a train to Uyuni to see Bolivia´s great Salt Flats. We made the first leg of the journey just fine but upon arrival at the train station Gemma started feeling ill. After she passed out on the train and was layed down on the floor under the care of a couple on board doctors. It took the train two hours to reach the next town with a doctor. To my surprise we were greated by an ambulance from the 70´s. They provided Gemma with an oxygen nasal mask which really just dripped water into her nose. She thought they were just squirting her with water in her face because she was out of it. I was sitting in the back with her and upon arriving at the hospital we were greeted by a man who was cross eyed and I´m pretty sure had only one real eye. It wasn´t comforting.

At this point we were all pretty sure she was just experiencing altitude sickness because as we got further south we were reaching 4000m above sea level. The doctors, nurses and I struggled through our broken Spanish and English to try to discuss what had happened. They didn´t really seem to know what to do and told us we needed to decide between staying the night there (no thanks) or getting an ambulance back to town two hours away for 300 Bobs.

Then two guys, or should I say two dudes, walked in the room like they owned the place. One was wearing a fake Fox Racing denim jacket, demim shirt and sweet denim jeans. His hair was slicked back and he had a necklace on with a tiny skull hanging off of it. His name was Dr. Nicholas. His younger counterpart was sporting some fake DKNY shiny track suit bottoms and Nikes. This was Dr. Alain. Although they didn´t actually let us know this at the time. They spoke a little English.

After a confusing 10 minute examination we came to understand these two were doctors. They never said who they were and no introductions were made. Luckily Gemma had come around a bit and was starting to feel better. They concluded it was food poisoning from drinking bad water. We said we only drank bottled. Then they concluded it was from bad meat, but she´s a vegetarian. They finally asked what else she had eaten and we told her a fried egg sandwich for lunch and they were like "Ahhh, HA! Eggs!!! Salmonella poisoning!" They were proud.
As funny as they were they turned out to be fantastic. They were from Cuba and were in this tiny town they called "the ass of the world" providing free services to the towns poor and other unfortunate travelers. There was no charge for any of the medicine or ambulance ride.
Gemma would make a full recovery and is still with us today.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Empire State of Mind

I was still recovering from exhaustion after 8 out of 10 days of hiking and was holed up in bed all day when we realized the MTV Video Music Awards were on.

Jay Z and Alicia Keys performance of "Empire State of Mind¨ was amazing. It made me miss NYC.

It was one year to the day that I left NYC for London. Don´t worry New York, I´ll be back one day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Machu Picchu- The Inca Jungle Trek

We decided to go with a tour group after getting lost every single day in the Canyon. Our group was really fun with one Australian, 3 other Brits, 2 dutch, one Brazilian, one Irish and one Spanish/Swiss guy. Doing the original Inca trail is about three times more expensive than doing one of the other alternative treks so we picked the Inca Jungle Trek. We chose it from the others because the first day is 5 hours of downhill mountain biking which sounded like a nice change of pace.

The Australian guy crashed into our guide within the first 10 minutes and dislocated the guide´s shoulder and crushed his hand which left us sans leader for the entire trip. I naturally stepped in and led most the way down just because I wanted to go faster than most. (Guide is right behind me below.)
The first 3 hours or so were amazing as we glided down the mountain side on a perfectly paved road. Then we hit the worst road in Peru and were all miserable for about two hours. No one mentioned this awful part when they were selling it to us. I was riding down it as fast as possible just to get it over with but decided I should stop and wait for Gemma.
We started riding together and the second I went 3 seconds ahead of her I hear "ahhhh, oh, oh ahha, AHHHHHH". I immediately knew she was crashing but was just hoping it wouldn´t be a bad one. I screached my bike to a halt, turned around and see Gemma lying on her back in the middle of the road. She twisted her knee pretty badly but other than that was able to hobble away with just some scrapes on her arm, knees and hip. They also didn´t mention when they were selling us the package that there would be a 50% crash rate. We spent the night in Santa Maria and stayed up learning from the all knowledgeable Rob.
Gemma and one other girl had to skip the second day of hiking and took a cab to the next town. Which was really nice until it stopped and picked up five other locals along the way and nearly drove off a cliff edge. The rest of us hiked up a pretty steep mountain and then all the way down it to Santa Teresa.
The highlight of the day had to be this little guy below. Its part of the guinia pig family but much much larger, and cooler.

We ended our day of hiking with an amazing stop at really nice hot springs.
The third day the girls rejoined us for a hike to Agnes Calientes which is the town you have to arrive in the day before you hike to Machu Picchu. We walked along train tracks most of the way but crossed this bridge below which I thought was beautiful.

We were given the option to hike to the top of a mountian next to Machu Piccu which would be our first view of the ancient city but from the side. The first part of the climb is actually straight up four sets of handmade wooden ladders the longest of which is 100 feet high. After you ascend these ladders you are half way there and have to climb up rock steps to the top.
Wikipedia says the most defining feature of Mt. Putucusi is the hour and a half climp up these 1700 wooden and rock steps. I did it in 40 minutes. Gemma and the Aussie were only about 5 minutes behind me and then the rest of the group slowly made their way to the top. I was just so damn excited to finally catch a glimpse of Match Peach that I pretty much ran all the way up.
Here were our first views of Machu Picchu from the top of Putucusi!

The winding zig-zag road you see in the left of the pic below is the road the bus takes to the top. The path we climbed was actually straight up through the middle of this path.
Partially because we ran to the top of Putucusi and partially because this was our 8th day hiking out of 10, Gemma and I were absolutely dead last of our group to the top the next morning when we climbed an hour and a half to the gate. I´d like to blame this partially on our two wardrobe changes we had to do en route. We started at 4:30am and figured we´d be hiking so wouldn´t need warm clothes. Well when we could clearly see our breath for the first 10 minutes we decided to change into our longjohns and long sleave shirts. After 10 minutes of strenous hiking we stripped off for our shorts and short sleave again.

This is what we looked like half way up. Drenched in sweat, well at least I was.
But we made it.

And it was well worth the wait. Even though we were the last two of our group, we were still amoung the first 100 people in line and got to see the grounds with virtually no one there. After 11am the posers that take the train in that day and then the bus to the top arrive and crowd the place.

There are about 20 llamas that live at Machu Picchu and wander the grounds. Not a bad address huh?

Relaxing and clowning around on one of the many many terraces.

We spent from 6am until 2pm there. When we decided to leave we made our way to the exit and took one last look. That last look took about 25 minutes because it really is just so damn beautiful that it makes it hard to look or walk away from.

I took one last business call and then we hit the road back.