Shortly after our last post, Tyler and I split up. He stayed in La Paz for another week while I, Jeff, took the bus to Cochabamba.

Written by Tyler Depke

This was the most non-touristy part of my journey in South America as I spent a week going around offices in La Paz distributing the documentary that I had completed the year before. The most exciting part about this was remeeting the same people who were excited to see the documentary that had been sitting within the city itself the entire year, but needed me to talk to them about everything that I had done.

Upon my first remeeting with my public relations contact for the water management company, I arrived 45 minutes later than I had expected, and was welcomed by a surprise lunch (trout with rice and salad) with my contact, another PR lady, and the CEO, who I had waited a week and a half for an interview the previous year. We watched my documentary while the CEO was interrupted every 5 minutes by a phone call or someone knocking at the door. After watching the documentary, they helped me organize a presentation for ABIS the Association of Sanitary Engineers as well as anyone I wanted to invite.

After hanging around La Paz with, Dan, his roommate Travis, and some of the new friends (for some reason when Jeff left I met all these girls…) I made, I gave the presentation, got some decent feedback, and headed on my way to Cochabamba, almost missing the bus and running in the rain to catch it.

Written by Jeffrey Vredenburg

I was put up by some friends who work as missionaries in the area, and helped out when I could.  To accommodate the groups that travel to help out the mission, they own a hacienda on the northern hills overlooking the city. That is where I hung my hat for two weeks, and besides the time that I was helping out with the mission, I made fruit smoothies in the fully stocked kitchen, hung in the hammock, rode mountain bikes, and read novels from their stocked library.

Tough Guys 2

Tyler, Ted, and Jeff with Cochabamba in the background.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda where we lived in Cochabamba.

Cochabamba is the city that Tyler studied abroad in last year, so he was keen on spending some time with his friends that he madelast time he was here.  When he arrived we met up with his family for lunch and played frontón for an afternoon.

Frontonis what the Bolivians call a version of racquetball played on an outdoor court with three walls, the highest being 50 feet. We played doubles, each team placing one player on the front half of the court and one in the backcourt. Each player´s task is vastly different, the front guys needed agility and to be cunning, as they could often tap the ball (same blue balls as in racquetball) to win on an angle, while the backcourt players wailed on the ball to set up the points or tried to hit winners down the lines (which could have been as far as 100 feet.)

After a few weeks of resting up in the Hacienda, we were ready for more adventures.

We set out for Potosí but had to make a pit stop Oruro because all the overnight buses to Potosí were full. We arrived at two in the morning and went on a wild goose chase to find a hostel in a town that is only known for the second most exciting carnival in South America.  The fourth hostel that we stopped at also seemed to be a screaming dud. The teenager that answered the door squintilyclaimed the rooms to be filled. Already frustrated by our unfruitful search that was getting more expensive by each taxi jaunt, I interrogated him, “But why are there no rooms anywhere in the city? It’s not high season, this is not a tourist town, and we are not at the main hostels.” He looked at me sheepishly and grudgingly allowed, “OK, we do have a room, you can come in.” Dumbfounded, Tyler and I walked in and promptly went to bed.

The next day we left after breakfast of an omeletteserved on a bed of rice (Seemingly, a meal without rice is no meal at all) and a five-hour high-altitude bus ride through the Altiplano left us in the highest city in the world and on the doorstep of Hell. Potosí is a mining town that used to be one of the richest cities in the world. In the 15th century, silver was found on the mountain ”CerroRico,” the town was built and the Spanish Monarchy was quick to jump on the mining/stealing bandwagon. The town grew to more than 200,000 people during the Spanish Colonial rule and exported thousands of tonnes of silver back to the motherland to fill Spanish coffers. Since the price of silver has dropped in the last decades the town has slipped into disparity, and the still gruelling task of mining the mountain has shifted gears from only concentration on silver to silver and other minerals such as Zinc, Magnesium, Tin, and Borax. Some silver remains, mostly in impure form that needs refinement. Everyone in the town has connections to mining, and it’s a vicious cycle withan average life expectancy of 40 years for the miners whose deathleaves their kids fatherless and needing to go work in the mines to provide for their family. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Over the course of the life of the mines, more than 5 million people have died from terrible working conditions and overwork. A real Hell on earth.

Of course, we wanted to see what all the media was about, so we signed up for a tour of a working silver mine. Thirteen dollars got us all that follows:

To prepare for the mines, first we had to gear up in full mining equipment: pants, jackets, helmets, headlamps, and most importantly, scarves to filter the dusty air.

Tough Guys 1

Enuff Said.

Our next stop was the miner’s market. There our guide gave us an intro to the life of the miners. They haveno set hours, just quotas that they need to fill. Usually they work fivedays a week and take off the weekend. Sounds normal right?   Depending on how lucky they are during the week, they make up for the missed days by working up to triple shifts on Friday (and put up withit by drinking pure cane alcohol all day). That’s right, to alleviate the monotony and horrible conditions of the mines, the miners chew coca to kill fatigue and hunger, and drink 96 percent cane alcohol to pass the time.  Then they go and operate heavy machinery and blow things up.  We bought these products to take down into the mines as an offering to the miners.  Most shocking was the readily available dynamite. Our guidewas more than willing to prove how harmless it was by taking it out of its wrapper (it had the consistency of Playdough) stomping on it, mashing it, and asking for a light to prove that it could not be set off by mere flame. This would not have been very useful to the miners, so we also bought a fuse (three minutes, madein Bolivia. They also sold Peruvian fuses but they burned too fast and were of shoddy quality) and a catalyst.  Ready for the mines, we had one more stop at a refinery where raw chemicals were hooked up to seemingly perpetual motion machines that spun, cranked, and whirred to purify the ore every step of the way. This process produced pure silver dust ready for transport. Chemists that had never attended school overlooked their chemicals with hawk-like concern; if something went wrong they would have to pay for the ruined silver.
Potosi from near the mine entrances with Cerro Rico in the background.
Potosi Mine Entrance
Mine Entrance.
Finally, we drove up to the mountain and entered the mines, walking deeper and deeper along mining-car tracks withan ever present worry that one would come around the corner before we could get out the way and the 1 tonne cart would careen into us with its precious cargo. That never happened, and the discomforts we faced were low ceilings, never-ending dust and ever increasing temperature (It can get as high as 131 degrees Fahrenheit.). We went down three levels, almost 250 feet and saw a few crews working on extracting new veins, pulling carts, and loading an elevator that would take the ore to the surface. We also learned about the culture in the mines. We learned how the miners believe that God does not exist under the ground and thus worship the devil. Each mining cooperation has their own “Tio de la mina” (Uncle of the mine) which is represented by a statue of the devil adorned with offerings of alcohol, coca, cigarettes, and even llama fetuses all for protection under the ground.  Ironically, the word “Tio” comes from when the Spanish called it a “Dios” or God. The Miners could not pronounce the D and used a T instead, giving the word uncle instead of God. Week 4

El Tio

As sobering as the experience was, it was a great opportunity to see what the lives of the people of Potosi consisted of and was  educational.  We were happy to leavethe mines, to breathfresh air, and to see the sun. Our guides had one last surprise for us, and we prepared the dynamite that we had bought earlier, lit it, and even posed for pictures withit before running it over to a side of the mountain to watch it blow four foot craters where large rocks had been moments before. As they say here, “In Bolivia, everything is possible, and nothing is safe.”

We were planning on going to the Salar de Uyuni after tour, but when travelling, you must be flexible.  Sunday, the sixth of December, Bolivia had its national election. Everything in the entire country shuts down so people can go back to their home villages to vote. There are no cars on the streets unless they have been given permission by the government and havea special permit. There are also no public gatherings besides the voting locations, and things such as church are strictly forbidden. No transportation leaves or arrives in the cities, and all businesses are closed except a few restaurants. Withnothing to do, we stayed in our hostel which thankfully had a theatre room and watched 5 full length films. Livin´ the dream…

PS. Evo won

Written by Tyler

So after leaving Potosi, we continued on the geologist playground to Uyuni, the largest Salt Flat in the world. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon, the Salar de Uyuni was one of the only places on the Earth that they did not recognize.  Now is most widely known for its lithium deposits.

We walked into our guide book’s recommended agency, and the lady who was in there greeted us and before saying anything else she told us, “There are four beautiful girls going on a three-day tour leaving tomorrow morning.” We looked at each other and smiled and as she continued whispering, “They aren’t Israelis!”

So basically Israelis have developed a bad stereotype around other travelers in South America because they often travel in large groups, they are loud, sometimes rude, do not speak very much Spanish, and exclusively speak Hebrew among themselves which no one else really speaks so other travelers have a very low patience for them. We have had the privilege to run into some that fully fulfill this stereotype, and others who are just about the nicest and funniest guys you ever wanted to meet (that would be the non-Bolivians, non Tyler, Jeff, or Dans, in the group jungle pic from the last post).

All in all, after the three day tour we spent most of the time in the car driving the some of the most remote places I’ve ever been, but probably would have been better to only do one day. The first day was the only day we went to the Salt Flat, got some pics, went to an island in the middle, and droveout of it. We stayed at a cool salt hotel with one of the nicest bathrooms in South America, and managed to throw a frisbee around for a little bit, before the salt flats wind engulfed any skillz we thought we had.

Salt Hotel

Salt Hotel, Salt Beds, Salt floor, Salt Light Fixtures. At least we had real pillows.

Isla de Pescado

Cactus at Isla del Pescado with the Salt Flat in the background.

The group!

Group of new friends

Nice Reflection!

Reggaetonero Glasses…Check.       Sweet Reflection…Check.
Don´t go closer!

Jeff says STOP so you should STOP!

Don´t climb this Rock.

The Guide Book says “YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO CLIMB IT”, so what does Jeff do…yeah, he’s a rebel alright.
Nice Rocks

Jeff with pile of rocks that he made.

Geologists ROCK!

So “geologicos” translates to either geologists or geologic figures. Literally it would translate as attractive geologists, but it’s actually geologic attractions.

Tough Guys 3

You should see the OTHER pictures.

Jeff in Salar de Uyuni

Oh Yeah! (Nice roots!)

The next two days consisted of driving around (NOT in the salt flat) in a mountainous region looking at colored lagoons, with flamingos scattered about. The lagoons were quite low, flamingos aren’t that exciting, and most of the time was spent in a jeep. The final day we say some “geysers”, which for anyone who has been to Yellowstone, or looked into a good geology book, were something that could have been easily blinked over. I was unimpressed, Jeff was “indifferently curious” as we continued to a hot springs, which was not as good as Baños, Ecuador. The rest of the day we basically drove back to Uyuni for 9 hours. The fact that our guidewas not enthusiastic, spoke the usual poor English, didn’t explain in nearly enough detail anywhere that we went, and the cook we had said maybe 5 words that Jeff had prod out of her. Besides that, we got some great pics, met some awesome people from our tour, a Danish couple and two Australian girls, who we are now traveling withto Argentina with another Australian guy and a New Zealander.

For those of you who have not traveled, here is a little breakdown of group dynamics. Many times, people who are traveling solo, or small groups will unite, and travel together for a while, leave on a different path, and everyone goes their own way in the end. Jeff and I have yet to “travel with” another group or anyone for any extended period of time, until now. We didn’t come on this trip to make friends with other tourists, but to immerse as much as possible into the Latin American culture to get the most out of that particular culture. Although playing some of the best cards I’ve played in a long time, having ridiculous discussions about Australian, New Zealand, Irish, and American accents, and overall having a fun time, Jeff and I have done a good job improving our Spanish, and really trying to get away from the gringo tourist stereotype.

We have to be in Buenos Aires for a flight the 17th of December at 11PM and we are nearly to Argentina.  We will cross over tomorrow afternoon and make our way to Buenos Aires.

Llama, Llama, Duck

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Author: tdepke

One Response to “Week 13-16:La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi, Uyuni”

  1. Nice blog. I just bookmarked you on my bloglines.
    Sent from my iPad 4G

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