Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Old West, Bolivian style

Tupiza another quaint, friendly town like Rurrenabaque, with wide streets and good food. It's nestled in some of most beautiful scenery I saw in Bolivia. The low mountains are a dark, rust red. The murky river is full of the smoky sediment, and it snakes leisurely through the gorge. The red is set off by the surrounding emerald green fields and the bright, cobalt blue sky.

After a gorgeous but funny walk inducing two day horse back riding trip, Roisin and I, along with a couple other gringos we picked up along the way, hired a tour agency to take us up to the small mining town of San Vicente to see where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were a couple of cowboy outlaws from Utah. Butch (who Roisin swears is the spitting image of Manchester United footballer, Wayne Rooney) was from a nice Mormon family. The pair were part of a gang of outlaws eventually called The Wild Bunch, who robbed banks and trains in the early 1900s. When the heat from the police got to be too much, Butch and Sundance, along with Sundance's wife Etta (whom the documentary reports was either a school teacher or a prostitute) relocated to a ranch in Argentina. They were soon in trouble with police again - not being able to help themselves from stealing. Etta left for San Francisco and was never heard from again. The boys rode into Bolivia to hide out where they passed through Tupiza and somehow found the tiny village of San Vicente high up in the mountains. The Bolivian policia, like bloodhounds, found them and surrounded the two outlaws in a tiny adobe hut. Instead of being killed by the police or being dragged to a horrid Bolivian jail, Butch shot his friend in the head and then turned it on himself.

San Vicente is a four hour jeep ride into the middle of nowhere; eight days on a horse, if you are so inclined. The mountainside between Tupiza and San Vicente is unpopulated save for large herdes of llamas. It's a tiny Canadian owned mining town, populated only by miners and their families. We visited the hut where the men died, which hasn't changed in a hundred years, but we weren't allowed to go inside on account of a family lives there. We also paid our respects to the cemetery where their bodies were thrown into - they did not get proper caskets and their remains have never actually be found.

Finally, we went to look through the tiny museum dedicated to the two Banditos de los Estados Unidos. While waiting for someone to bring the key, we were very formally greeted by a few of the townspeople and photographed for some sort of Bolivian tourism magazine. It seems as though not many tourists make the trek up there. Once inside the museum, they continued to photograph us looking at all the artifacts and the man who appeared to be in charge gave a long explanation of whose bones were in the casket in the center of the room. I had asked, because the story was that the remains were never found. Evidently, when they were trying to exhume the bodies, they came across remains that were of European bone structure and possibly could have been Butch Cassidy. Upon examination it was determined that no, it was not Butch. It was a German miner who was buried on top of the outlaws. For whatever reason they keep the German miner's remains in the museum.

When we returned to Tupiza we watched the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Perfect ending to a great day.

The following morning, Roisin and I said goodbye to Tupiza and shortly afterwards, goodbye to Bolivia. Bolivia's farewell to us was another imaginary bus. On the Bolivian side of the border we were sold tickets to a bus heading to Salta, Argentina. Upon reaching the Argentine side and consulting the bus company we were informed that a)they weren't real tickets and b)that bus didnt exist. Thankfully before our heads exploded in frustration, the ticket man just shook his head and snorted, "Bolivia!" and then printed us out tickets for an actual bus, at no extra charge.

Thus concluded my one and a half month stint in Bolivia. I really did not expect to stay as long as I did, but as they say, life happens while you're making plans. And I'm so happy my plans were tossed out -- Bolivia was amazing.

And now onto the land of wine and steak; gauchos and Peronistas: Argentina!

Imaginary Buses and Underground Devils

I was in Sucre, Bolivia's capital, for about two weeks. I spent about equal amounts of time laid up sick in the hostel (turns out my immune system isn't invincible. darn), dodging through political marches for the December 6th presidential elections and watching various sporting events for the Boliviano games (an Olympic style competition between six latin american countries). Despite the delirious gauze of fever, I found the colonial flavor of Sucre to be a nice, relaxing change of pace from the hectic bustle and screech of La Paz. I certainly got used to the concept of a daily siesta from noon to four.

Before leaving Bolivia, I decided to make one more stop on the way to Argentina, in a small town called Tupiza. I had met a fun Irish girl called Roisin (sounds like Roa-sheen) in Sucre who was going the same way, so we arranged to take the bus together. Every tour agency I had asked the day before assured me that there was a 6:30 bus going to Tupiza every day. Upon arrival at the bus station, we were informed that no, there was no 6:30 bus. The last bus of the day had left already.
Exasperated but not overly surprised (this is Bolivia!), we decided to go somewhere that was en route, seeing as how we were already packed and ready to go. The only seats available on any bus were to Potosi, the highest city in the world.

Potosi is a desolate place; cold, rainy and the lack of oxygen can produce all sorts of fun symptoms, from feeling like you've run a marathon after walking a block to headaches to nausea. The locals constantly chew coca leaves and the toursits leave quickly.
The only thing to do there is tour the mines. Potosi used to be an incredibly wealthy city due to the veins of silver running through the mountains. They say the streets of Potosi were once paved with silver. Today, the wealth has trickled away. There isn't much silver left, although they still mine zinc and a couple other metals. Bolivia is a country rich in resources, but unfortunately the people don't see much of that wealth.

Walking into the mines is like disappearing into a black hole. Its cold and dark and eerily silent until you stumble across a miner, dirty and sweating with exertion, coca wad lodged firmly in his cheek. They don't eat while on shift - anywhere from six to twelve hours - so they chew coca leaves in order to stave off hunger and keep up energy levels. The first miners we saw were pushing a large cart which they would fill to the brim with rocks and then push back out. When they set off dynamite somewhere in the bowels of the mountain, it felt like being inside thunder. At the time of the usual 12:00 detonation, the tour group had climbed a series of ladders down a small hole. One guy in our group was asking the guide about a mineral he had found in the walls when the explosion went off and a storm of dirt and particles came rushing through the corridors. The guide yelled, "Forget the mineral-- RUN!"

Before we left, we visited a shrine to the devil. The mines are an absolutely miserable working environment. These men start working when they are just teenagers, 14 or 15 (official tour story, but I heard rumors of boys as young as 12 working in the mines)and they work basically until the mines kill them, either in an accident or from the inevitable health problems. The miners worship a devil called Tio, because there is no god in the mines.

The Tio sits in a small alcove, covered in offerings of coca leaves, 97% pure alcohol (what the miners drink) and cigarettes. He's painted a bright fire engine red and his head is adorned with a wild cascade of multicolored paper hair. He sits impishly in the corner and looks at you with wild eyes and a grotesque grin. On Fridays, the miners come here to give the Tio offerings and to drink and have a party. We paid our respects as well and - thankfully - climbed out of the mountain and back into daylight.

That night, Roisin and I managed to find a bus to Tupiza that actually existed and we left at nightfall for the sunny, old west style town.