Thursday, 29 July 2010

Going Down To Devil Town

Potosi, Bolivia

I went down a private mine in Potosi yesterday. The mine was once government owned but it has now been privately owned since the 1990's. It was quite a nerve-racking experience, especially after I discovered on the way there that there are approximately 200 cave-ins somewhere in the mountain each year.

Reassuringly, the guide told me 'it's like a big piece of edam cheese in there, and there's a lot of pressure from locals for miners to stop working there'

Fortunately, the most dangerous parts of the mine are at the very top levels, and we were at the base of the mountain where the rock is not as wet and the predominant mineral is zinc. At the top though, there is more valuable silver, and miners regularly risk their lives to obtain it.

We put on overalls, boots, a hard hat and headlamp and ventured in to the mines. It was exactly how you'd imagine an old mine out of some western film; iron rails on the ground for trolleys to whizz along on, with wooden rafters supporting the roof and a line of bare light bulbs disappearing around the corner.

The air got hotter and dustier the further we walked, and my breathing got heavier as I struggled to get oxygen. Suddenly, a distant rumble prompted the guide to shout,

'Trolley! Quickly, get to the side! Come on!'

Like a herd of panicked antelope we all started rushing around to try and find a cove to squeeze into at the side. I must admit I was genuinely scared for my life as the approaching rumble got louder and I still hadn't got to safety. To my relief I squeezed into a spot, then as I saw the trolley approach, pulled by miners, travelling slowly at about 4 miles per hour I felt a bit stupid. Then again, everyone was the same - in the dark, unfamiliar environment we were all paranoid.

The guide pointed to a tunnel of the side of the main track, just big enough to crawl through, and on our hands and knees we followed behind. The tunnel climbed up and down, and at one point we had to crawl on our bellies to get through a tiny dark gap. We reached an opening and some miners, with sacks of rocks on their back, scuttled past. Our guide gave them some water and cocoa leaves we had brought as presents.

The guide congratulated us on getting past the hardest part 'many tourists turn back at that point' he said. For me, however, the most dangerous part was still to come. As we descended a ladder to get back on to another rail track, there came a call from above and the guide shouted for me to stay where a was. A few seconds later and a huge wooden support rafter fell from above, right between me and the rest of the group ahead. 'Quickly' the guide shouted and the rest of us ran past the beam to catch up with the rest of the group.

We stopped for a while with a resting miner, and the guide gave him some more of our gifts. His job was to shovel the contents of each 2 ton trolley into a pile where it would be winched up the following day. He had to move 40 tons of rubble before leaving. I helped him shovel for a bit, and after 5 minutes I was absolutely knackered. I'd done my fair share of shoveling saving up for this trip, but down there with no oxygen, in the hot dusty environment I could hardly breath. It was an eye opening experience, these miners have to be really tough to cope with the conditions. When you think there are kids as young as 15 down there helping their dads, its like going back to the 1900's.

The guide told us that this guy has it easier than most. To extract the minerals the miners have to make holes in the side of the rock, then, place dynamite in there, run and then shovel the rubble created into the trolleys to be to sent of for processing. These holes can me made in one of two ways; either by hand - a process which produces less dust but is slower, or with pneumatic machinery - fast, but very, very dusty. A miner using machinery can make 400 Bolivianos a day (£40), which is a lot of money for a Bolivian. However, these miners have a life expectancy of 10 years before developing the fatal 'black lung'. Our guide's uncle died of cancer at 37.

This isn't a 'nice' tour if you're thinking of doing it, but it was definitely a big shock to see the conditions that some people work in every day. The organization is structured in such a way that it takes 3 years of working in the mines to become a 'member'. Then, after working there longer, you can work your way up to the position of leader. You can pass you're leadership position on to your son when you die or are no longer able to work, and so - because of the time and effort invested by fathers in the mines - you have situations where families work and die for generations in these mines. Our guides father worked as a leader, and he explained the pressure he faced from his family to continue in his father's footsteps.

We saw a shrine to the Devil, the tradition of offering him presents; llama sacrifices, cocoa leaves, cigarettes etc can be traced back to the Spanish, who tried to use the devil to instill fear in the Indians taking silver from the mines. The symbol had an opposite effect, as the workers didn't see him as a 'bad' God. Rather, one to appease with presents in exchange for less accidents and the discovery of better mineral deposits. Even today, you'd never hear a miner exclaim for God - this is strictly the devils domain.

Before heading off, we witnessed the heart juddering demonstration of a dynamite explosion. I know I wouldn't want to be in a mine when one went off.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Desert Driving

From the dusty desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, a group of us booked a 3 day tour through the Atacama desert and the salt flats to Uyuni, Southwest Bolivia. Absolutely the best experience of the trip so far and definitely worth the cold, showerless nights!

The first thing we saw were the brilliant coloured lagoons. Although it was difficult to understand our guide, I think he said, addressing us in formal spanish, that this was because of oxidized copper minerals in the water. We then went to some thermal springs where the water was 30 degrees, lovely to get into but not so nice getting back out into the freezing wind! It was pretty funny, we saw about 3 people stack it on the slippery algae on their frantic entry into the pool, which was met each time with great applause.

It's hard to do the scenery justice in these photographs but it was like being on another planet driving through the desert. Since we went during the month of July, the sky was a crisp dark blue and the contrast of this against the reds and oranges of the surrounding landscape was fascinating.

We stopped at some huge volcanic boulders to see the surreal effects of the wind and heat erosion (onion skin erosion if my year 9 geography is correct). This also released the inner rock climber in me.

On the second night we stayed in an awesome salt hotel, and Javier gave us the option of getting up at half 4 so we could see the sunrise over Salar Uyuni, the highest and largest salt flat in the world, formed through the evaporation of the sea water that was cut off like a giant rock pool by the surrounding mountains and volcanoes.

So rising early, we raced against the sun to a coral island called Isla Incahuasi, covered in cacti, in the middle of the salt flats. I climbed to the highest point of the Island which absolutely knackered me out because of the altitude. As I waited up there for the sun to slowly rise, illuminating the brilliant white crust and for the moon to disappear from the purple sky behind me, it was all worth it.

We took a load of photos that mess around with perspective on the salt flats which was awesome, some of the best ones are on my mates camera but here are a couple anyway. Apparently the salt crust is around 80m deep in the centre of the flats.

Finally we stopped off at the locomotive graveyard in Pulacayo which contains the rusty remains of the train stolen by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

For those interested we used the tour company 'Cordillera' and our driver Javier was sound, not a fingerless, one eyed, drunk driver as the hype surrounding these desert tours would have you believe. So I'd definitely recommend booking with them. Also, beginning the tour from Chile meant ascending from 3,665m at San Pedro de Atacama, to around 4,900m within an hour or so (the ascent is more gradual if you start in Bolivia) , I'd heard loads of stories of people suffering really badly from altitude sickness but honestly everyone on our tour (2 4x4s with 11 people altogether) was absolutely fine, apart from a few headaches in the night which a few pills can easily calm. It does get pretty cold though so layers + a sleeping bag (can be hired) are essential.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Salta, peñas, and fluoride in the water

It was about 8pm as Graham and I walked towards the edge of Salta, Argentina along the Caseros street. As the shops gradually turned into houses and the traffic lessened we walked past horses, un-tethered, casually grazing at the side of the road outside somebody’s house. I guess horses are always pretty casual though. We saw big congregations leaving evening mass at two different churches, beautiful murals painted on the street walls and despite the freezing cold we were both enjoying the strange sights on this 20 block walk out of town.

When we got to the end of the road, there was a great yellow colonial building called La Casona del Molino, and here we spent the next 11 hours and had the best experience in my time in Argentina.

All the gates were locked so we went round the back and a chef came out and said a lot of Spanish words in a short period of time, I assumed the gist of this was ‘piss off’ so went off round the corner, but on the way I had a look through the window, thinking maybe we’d come back later when they open.

Next thing I hear from behind, in quite a broad Lancashire accent, “ ‘ola you al’ite there lads?”

I couldn’t help but laugh as this stout old man called Sam, dressed in full gaucho gear – leather boots and a big poncho over his shoulders, address us in such an unexpected accent, his wrinkled leathery face beaming from under his hat as he said

“..come on in lads you must be bloody freezin’ ”

As he showed us to a table he said ‘now you’re a bit early but sit down over here and I’ll get you a beer when I get a second’ He had come to Salta 14 years ago and had worked there ever since. He spoke Spanish to the other barmen in the same Northern accent and lived above the pena.

The staff were rushing around lighting candles and arranging the tables while Sam went off with a reservation sheet, ticking away. Within the hour the place was packed. Pubs in Argentina aren’t like England, you are given a table and if you want a beer you ask a waitress to bring one over. So we were sat there, the only English in this huge pena that had 6 different rooms arranged in a big horseshoe shape around a central patio where Sam poured drinks for the waitresses and chefs rushed around a big fiery stove.

Its hard to describe the character that this place had, art hung on the colourful walls, it was absolutely crammed and people were playing guitars and drums, which were passed around from table to table. Open, wooden-framed archways allowed the sound from next door to float in. People were singing along to the Argentinean music and applauding after each song. I wished there were places like this in England, but I wonder what would happen if you turned up with a guitar in Weatherspoons – I imagine some assistant manager would inform you they don’t have the correct license, or you’d get a load of abuse from some skinhead with a skinfull.

We ordered food; locro, tamales and empanadas which were really amazing. empanadas are like little pasties, and you can get them in all kinds of different flavours with cheese, beef or chicken. I loved the locro, a typical Argentinean stew -real hearty food - and we sat there drinking more beer and tearing off chunks of bread to dip into the sauce.

We were a bit conscious of the strange looks we were receiving form many of the locals, especially when I tried to cut and eat the maize container that the tamale came in. The lady on the table laughed and explained that you have to untie the package and eat the contents only.

As the night went on we got chatting to the table opposite us, half of whom could speak English and eventually we joined them. I was really feeling the need to work on my Spanish though at this point because it’s still terrible. They talked about their own travels to Bolivia and shared their cocoa leaves with us.

The cocoa tastes pretty bad, but you kind of get used to the taste as you leave big bundles of the leaves in you’re cheek for hours, adding to it every now and again, along with little dabs of baking soda to draw out the juice. It’s meant tohave similar effect to coffee and the locals use it to stay alert and chatty. Apparently it’s also great for altitude sickness, and poorer people from the countryside apparently use it frequently as it also reduces your appetite. I must admit I didn’t really notice much of an effect, although that could be attributed to the stronger effect derived from the accumulating empty cerveca bottles sat on the table.

Later on when Sam finished work he joined us and told us the history of the Falkland Islands, which was really interesting but as the night wore on his conversation took off on more and more crazy tangents. He started ‘uncovering the truth’ about increasingly contentious topics that I think were all inspired by Audeus Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. Did you know fluoride in the drinking the water has no scientific proof in curing tooth decay and is being used to control us?

“Have you never heard of Baxter lads, you’ve got to know the truth about the flu jab! Wake up!”

“Did you know the media is controlled by 13 companies… and you can whittle that down to 3! Look on infowars! All these things, the big brother society in England…”

“Global warming, the hockey graph, load of bullshit! Humans only account for 0.0025% of C02!”

I left armed with his crazy array of scrawled citations. Thanks to this impressive conversationalist I learnt about; Maurice Strong – the Father of global warming, James Delingpole, Lord Monkton, Alex Jones…

Paranoid maniac, enlightened mystic or deluded former-northerner? I’d be interested to know your views…

Friday, 9 July 2010

B.A. - City of the dead

Buenos Aires is anything but dead, but in the district of Recoleta there is the famous walled cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Now I havn't even seen Evita, so that wasn't my reason for going, although I did see her grave by following the line of Japanese tourists.

What can I say, it was a pretty nice grave. Unfortunately a lot of the excitement was a bit lost on me - I felt most ignorant when I 'overheard' an American women saying 'Oh my God, I just want to say I've touched it'...

You do get a kind of morbid fascination wandering around the place though, and I must admit I felt compelled to get involved in some grave-touching myself. What's most eerie about it is that many of the tombs have windows which look in on the coffin, not buried or anything, just there decaying. The other weird thing is that I havn't seen any cats in Buenos Aires yet, but there were loads in the cemetery. Not sure what all that's about but pretty spooky!

Friday, 2 July 2010

You call that a waterfall?

So after doing the waterfall tour last week in Brazil, I thought I'd go and see some that you can't jump into - the Iguazu falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. We were all reduced to silence when we got to the 'Devils Throat' point at the end of the day. There's something quite mesmerizing about watching the thick panes of yellow/green water dissipate into a swirling white mist. It feels like your watching in slow motion if you try to track the exact point this happens, the powerful jets becoming a weightless white cloud as you follow their fall.