The mountain that eats men

One of the towns I visited during my cross-country tour of Bolivia was Potosi. Potosi is a mining town (originally was mostly silver, but now is primarily zinc and tin.) I looked at my itinerary and it read "Tour of Silver Mines in Potosi." A smarter traveller would have read up on this expedition in order to know what to expect, but clearly I didn't - until I had already gone to the torturous mines. 

Some brief history of the mines. It all started in 1545, when an Indian shepherd, who was spending the night at the mountain, started a fire and saw pure silver where he was. For centuries, the mountain enriched the Spanish monarchy. For close to 200 years, over 40,000 MT of pure silver were taken from the mountain, of which close to a quarter directly went to the Spanish monarchy. Native laborers were used to work on its mines through the traditional Incan system of mandatory public service but the Spanish manipulated this system to essentially use forced-labour. Many of the miners died due to the harsh working conditions in the mines. It is estimated that over the next three centuries, over 33 million Indians worked in the mines and close to 10 million of them died as a direct result of the work.  To compensate for the diminishing labor force, the Spaniards started importing 2000 African slaves per year. An estimated 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosi during the colonial era. African slaves were also forced to work as human mules. Four mules were replaced with twenty African slaves. Given the high number of deaths that took place in the mines each year, the miners named it "The mountain that eats men."

Centuries later, working conditions in the mines are still not much better than they were before. The mines have no lighting, no safety regulations or inspectors, no modern rail cars and no pumped-in oxygen, leaving miners to inhale a fine deadly dust. The average life expectancy of the miners is 40 years with most of them succumbing to lung conditions. The mountain itself is also at the risk of collapse given how much has been mined from it and given the fact that the mining is unregulated resulting in shafts throughout the mountain. 

So we were to leave the hostel at 7am for the mine tour. The lady who was to give us the tour arrived around 7:15am and took us to a room with lots of dusty clothes, boots, headlamps etc for us to wear/carry. I later realized that our guide was the widow of a miner who had died in the mines a few years back, and she had to take on this risky job to feed her two children. We hopped into a van and left for the mountain. She said that we would stop by some shops and buy gifts for the miners (alcohol and coca leaves.) I was a bit surprised about the choice of gifts, but just went with the flow. The alcohol was quite scary looking - no brand, no label, no nothing. It looked like something you would use to sterilize surgical instruments, pour on a snake bite or something along those lines. Coca leaves are legal in Bolivia. It's the only country in the world where the sale and consumption of coca leaves is legal. It is even protected under some UN regulation because of its "cultural significance to the indeginous population." 

We got to the mountain around 9am, and the van left us at a point 4300M (~14,000 feet) above sea level. This would be the point we would enter the mountain from. I started feeling a bit nervous when we got out of the van and I realized just how cold it was and also how thin the air was. It was not easy to breathe. The next 3 hours in the mines were what I would describe as some form of outer body experience. We got into the mines and I realized that I would have to stoop most of the time and in some parts crawl. I was not the tallest in our group. There were four really tall Dutch girls. I felt bad for them. It was dark, it was damp, there was very little air. There were points when everyone was coughing or gasping for air. I was encouraged to chew some of the coca leaves we had brought as gifts for the miners. I think that's the only reason I didn't pass out. Coca leaves help with altitude issues. Most of the tunnels were so low that you had to go in hunched over and there were a few points you had to crawl. We blew up some dynamite in the caves and I can still feel the BOOM in my heart. Terrifying. I started having crazy thoughts. I can't tell if it was because of the coca leaves, the altitude or both. I started thinking about the Chilean miners. I started getting scared I would lose the group and forever be lost in the mountain/die in the  mountain.

We got to a place in the mine where I got to see how the miners thought of mortality when in the mines. The average Bolivian is very Catholic, but there is quite a bit of syncretism too - where elements of Catholicism are combined with elements of traditional indeginous religions. Deep in the mine we found a terrifying statue of the devil that was adorned with flowers, cigarette butts and libations of alcohol had been offered to this "protector of the miners." Our guide explained that the miners were Catholic when out of the mines and they believed God was protecting them outside, but once inside the mines they believed this was the devil's domain and therefore they prayed to the devil and offered sacrifices to the devil to "protect them from cave ins, prevent any injuries, restore them to good health etc." I can kind of understand how one would want to cover all their bases - pray to God to keep you safe, but also pray to the devil not to do you any harm.....

I left the mines with such deep respect for miners who have such a terrible job, risking their lives daily to feed their families. It is sad to know that many the world over have to pick between life and your next meal. 

After this I went out for lunch with some of my fellow comrades (from the tour.) We all bonded over just how terrifying that was. I remember being so happy when I saw sunlight as we approached the exit of the mine. For a while there, I was really beginning to believe we would not get out. We went to the local market and had lots and lots of food for less than USD 2/person. After that I went with a few people to have a drink in the park and almost missed my night bus to Uyuni. I remember having to run around like a mad woman with my huge backpack looking for a taxi when the one the hostel had called decided not to show up. I made it to my bus just in time. It was such a local bus - lots of hawkers ON the bus, people playing loud music from their own little radios and lots of noise. 

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Traversing the Bolivian desert and salt flats day 3

The third morning of the trip was tough. Though we had gone to bed around 9pm to be ready for 3:30am breakfast and our 4am departure, the cold had kept me up all night. I barely slept a wink - I can't sleep if I am cold. It was freezing! We had a quick breakfast at 3:30 and left the hostel around 4am. The ride was dark and cold. I tried to sleep in the car, but again it was too cold to sleep. After driving for close to an hour, we stopped at the amazing steam geysers at "Sol de Manana (morning sun)." It was so cold outside, but I could not miss a chance to see them up close. I got out and the first thing that hit me was the overpowering stench of sulphur. It really smelled like some giant monster had farted - really badly. The view was amazing though.

We then hopped back into the car and continued to "Laguna verde" - The Green Lagoon. The lagoon gets its remarkable color fom the high levels of lead, sulphur and calcium carbonate....in short...don't try swimming or drinking water from this pretty lagoon. The best part of the trip was when we finally got to the natural hot baths. In the middle of the freezing desert, there were nice jacuzzis:-) All natural. It was the best feeling getting into that hot water. Everyone sighed with relief once they were in. At first we were the only people there given it was so early. 20 or so minutes later, lots of other tourists descended on us. This didn't change the magic of the moment though. I was sitting in this hot water looking all around me and I could see volcanic mountains in the desert and miles and miles of nothingness blurred by the steam rising out of the hot water. It was surreal. After half an hour in the hot baths, the driver said we needed to leave. Those of us who were going on to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile needed to catch our 10am bus. 

Leaving Bolivia was dramatic. We got to the bus at the border around 9am and thought we had lots of time. For some reason, the driver of the bus to San Pedro was hurrying us. None of us was amused. Such panic mode is what results in luggage being left behind....and we had a full hour. We never understood what the rush was about. At the border, we had to go to the Bolivian customs and get our documents stamped. The driver was still following us speaking in rapid Spanish. As I was waiting in line, an American couple approached me and asked if I could give them some Bolivianos for them to pay their entry into Bolivia, in exchange for dollars. I was a bit suspicious - wondering why they didn't change money before until they told me about the earthquake in Chile. I had no idea there had been an earthquake in Chile, when we were in the desert. He told me that they had left under such hurried circumstances and couldn't find any travel bureaus. I changed some money for him. The driver came again with his rapid fire Spanish and panic mode tendencies and I was really getting irritated. He was also harrasing one of the other girls I had been in the desert with. She had a traditional Bolivian mask and it had a bit of animal fur, and he was insisting she leaves it behind as she wouldn't be allowed to get through Chilean customs with it. She stood her ground and said she would keep it and declare it on entry into Chile.

In an hour we finally got to Chilean customs. It was a very serious process - thorough scrutiny of passports, all suitcases offloaded and scanned etc. When the customs official saw my passport, he called his colleague over to look at it. They said it was the first Kenyan passport they had seen. A few people in our bus had some bags of coca leaves and the rest of us had coca tea. We were allowed to declare and get into the country with our coca tea, but not the coca leaves. The girl with the mask was also allowed to get in with her mask. Five minutes after clearing with customs we were dropped off somewhere in the middle of the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. I had directions to my hostel from the main bus terminal, but had no idea where we had been dropped off. It was definitely not a bus terminal. 

I was eventually able to walk around with my backpack, find the main bus terminal, book my ticket out of San Pedro to Santiago that was depart in two days, and get to my hostel.I got to my hostel and it was a desert oasis. The name was Hostal Mamatierra, and it was just perfect! Beautiful, clean, had hot water 24 hours a day, wifi, really friendly staff, friendly travelers etc. My first course of action was to take a really really really long hot shower. It felt so good after not having been clean for a while. The next thing was to find out where I could do laundry. I took my laundry into a place in town - the town center was 10 minutes walk away. I am very liberal in my use of the word "town". It was a few streets with shops and restaurants, but after the desert this felt like New York. I then went to a restaurant that had a decent offer for a 3 course meal. I had salmon. I was quite pleased with it. Chile's strong economy has been credited a lot to its export of salmon, wine and berries. That salmon was amazing! I had my lunch with a really great beer from Patagonia that tasted like chocolate. 

The one thing I had done before leaving the hostel was to get on wifi and upload around 20-30 pictures from the salt flats and desert. That was my saving grace. As I was having my lunch, my phone crashed. It is a touch screen and the keypad stopped working. I couldn't unlock the screen. Within minutes, the phone started pressing its own buttons. This went on for half an hour then it went on VOK/KBC mode - those rainbow colored lines across the screen reminiscent of Kenyan TV circa 1980s. Then the screen went completely white - repeat. I think it has something to do with that dodgy solar connection from the desert. Thankfully I have a camera with me and a samsung tab (that I was able to hack whatsapp on....so life continues.)

I got back to the hostel and met my roommates. They were two friendly Californians who were in town for a friend's wedding. They invited me to join them and their friends for dinner/drinks. It was nice. We got back to the room, and were getting ready for bed when another earthquake happened. I had no idea what was going on.The room was shaking like a boat. I thought I had drank too much at dinner. Thankfully my roommates knew what to do. We all got out of the room and joined the other people in the hostel courtyard. After a few minutes, the world stopped rocking. I slept really well that night in my warm room with all the comforts I could ask for. 

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Traversing the Bolivian desert and salt flats day 2

On the second day, we woke up at 8am. We were informed that we were now done with the salt flats and would be off to the Siloli desert. The desert is part of the Atacama desert, and is characterized by rock formations produced by strong winds in the region. There was a bit of morning drama as one of the people in our group wanted to go see some llamas that were in a church compound, and we were  running really late. Everyone else said that they would rather leave, but the offending party insisted on going. By the time she came back to the car, tensions were high. I read my kindle. I don't like drama, and didn't want to get involved in any. Thankfully by later in the day things had cooled off, but there were definitely three camps in the car 1. The "we were meant to leave here at 8:15 and it's 8:17am. I am going to fume and sulk" camp, that had one occupant. 2. The next camp was the "Wow. Who cares about time. I am going to do a bit of yoga and meditation at every place we stop....and only start looking for the loo at the exact time we are meant to be on our way" camp. This camp had one occupant. The rest of us were in the "I'm not too bothered as long as we get to see everything" camp. It was not a trip without drama. 

The day was amazing! Among other great sites, we got to see amazing volcanic rock formations in the Siloli desert. The most beautiful rock formations were the "Arbol del Piedra" and the "Desierto Dali." I had the most amazing pictures, but unfortunately my phone crashed within hours of leaving the desert, and I was only able to salvage a few pictures...which I am sharing here. I hope to upload the rest in future when I hopefully get my phone fixed in Nairobi. We passed amazing volcanic mountains on our way with the most stunning being Volcan Uturuncu that stands at over 6000 above sea level and also Volcan Licancabur that stands at around 5900M above sea level. We passed many beautiful lagoons in the desert with some having quite a few pink flamingos. It was great to see wildlife given that none can survive in the salt flats where we were the previous day. We also passed some really cute animals that look like gazelles. 

In the evening we got to our accommodation for the night. This place was by Laguna Colorado and was REAL...like really REAL...no real electricity, no showers, no meat for dinner. It really dawned on me that we were in the middle of the desert. At this place all 6 of us were kept in one dorm room. I was actually happy to have so many people in the room because I thought it meant we would be warm....wrong......That was the coldest I have ever been since leaving Boston in 2009. We ate dinner - spaghetti and onion stew....The next day we were to begin our journey at 4am...breakfast at 3:30am. We went to sleep by 9pm to be up in time. I saw everyone get into their beds with sleeping bags. I really wished I had a sleeping bag. I slept in all my warm clothes...which wasn't much. There was a guy who had a silk sleeping bag. Definitely buying one next time. It's really light weight, and silk is an amazing material - warm when you are cold, and cold when you are hot. 

Before I slept, I took my phone to the kitchen to beg for them to charge it for a few hours so that I could use it the next day for pictures. Big mistake. The power was only going to be on in the kitchen for 2 hours and the connection seemed dodgy...wires hanging out, loose sockets etc....and they said the power was solar. The next morning when I picked my phone, it had not charged at all....and the next day is when it lost its damn mind. I think the connection in the Siloli desert did my phone in - more on that drama in my next post.

All in all, the salt flats and the Siloli desert was the most beautiful place I have ever been to in my life. The colors, the vastness of the desert, the tranquility. Bolivia really does have the most stunning landscape. At so many points, one felt like they were on the moon. I have never seen anything like it. 

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Traversing the Bolivian salt flats and desert - day 1

I got into the town of Uyuni around 11pm on a Sunday evening, and was off for a desert expedition early the next morning. I left my hostel around 9:45am and walked to the place where we would be departing from. We were to leave at 10:30am but by 11:30am there was still no progress. In La Paz, I had been told that the trip would be in a 4*4 and that we would be 6 in total (excluding the driver.) I eventually met the other travelers as we waited for our transportation to arrive. There were 2 German girls (one who was more Australian than German given she had a really strong Aussie accent, and had lived there a long time), one German guy, one Uruguayan guy, one French girl, the Bolivian driver and myself. By the time we departed, there was a long line of jeeps leaving the town for the salt flats and the desert. I am a tourist, but I must confess that I feel a bit upset when I realize that I am not unique.....all a thousand plus of us heading off to see the same sites:-) Our driver was really great so pretty soon we were able to lose the long lines of jeep.....vroooooooom.....Eat our dust:-)

Our first stop was the train cemetery. Construction of the rail was completed in 1892, and the trains were mostly used by mining companies. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed and many trains were abandoned here.  It was such a beautiful sight. All these abandoned trains in the desolate space. It looked like something from an old Western film. It was beautiful. After this we drove for hours and all we could see around us was salt. We passed some little salt hills in the beginning, but after that the landscape was all flat. It was amazing - as far as your eyes could see, the ground was all white. I have never seen anything like this - except for snow - and even with snow, there was always buildings or cars to break the landscape. In the car, one of the other travelers began talking about all the really creative pictures one can take given the never-changing background. I was about to eat a banana I had in my bag when she mentioned that it would be a great prop for pictures. It is the fascinating little beat up specimen you will see in pictures below. When we got out at the spot where people mostly take such pictures, I was amazed. The ground was solid salt and we were told that it extends even more than 9m deep into the ground. It was solidified salt. We had a fun time taking crazy pictures here before sitting down to enjoy our lunch - a little picnic on our salt carpet. Brilliant! During lunch hour the Uruguayan guy and I ironed out some differences.....Suarez is the devil for what he did to our Ghanaian brother - Asamoah Gyan, but I don't blame all your countrymen.... just him.... and malipo ni hapa duniani (payback is on earth:-)

The Uyuni Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni) is the world's largest salt flat at over 10,000 square km, and an elevation of more than 3600m (~12,000 feet above sea level.) It was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. The salt is extremely rich in lithium. 50-70% of the world's lithium reserves are found at Salar de Uyuni. 

After this we drove for half an hour and arrived at the Incahuasi Island that was full of giant cacti. This was where I learnt for the first time that I had been doing it all wrong in South America. For a while I had wondered why in many washrooms, water pressure was too low to flush toilet paper. Many times I had waited for cisterns to fill 2-3 times before finally being able to get rid of all toilet paper. In the loo in the island, there was a sign that read, "Do not flush your toilet paper. Put it in the waste basket." I asked one of my fellow travelers about it, and she said, "Yeah, you should never flush toilet paper down the loo in most places in Central and South America." I was clearly confused, but I have taken it as it is......though I must say a latrine would be a much better option than having a pretend toilet that doesn't flush toilet paper.....who wants to have a bucket of crap in a loo......literally...

Enough about random crap. That island was amazing! Just imagine being in the middle of hundreds of miles of salt flats, and suddenly seeing an island with giant cacti in the horizon. I think Uyuni salt flats and the desert are an amazing site for sci-fi movies. I have never ever seen anything like it. The island was a hill, and in the beginning I had no intentions of going all the way to the top, but I somehow climbed up the whole hill. Every few meters I went up, I would look down and see the most stunning views of the island and the salt flats - I just had to keep going till I reached the summit. I sat at the top for a few minutes and marveled about nature. When one finds such beauty, you just want to save those images in your mind (and in your camera) forever!

Other amazing sites we saw were Devil's cave - a pre-Incan cemetery from about 500 - 800 AD. 

Again we drove for hundreds more miles in this amazing landscape and finally got to the Salt Hotel around 7pm. True to it's name, most of the hotel was made of salt. Our beds, were pillars of salt. The ground was granules of salt. The benches were pillars of salt. Something had been bothering me for the better part of the day. Within minutes of leaving Uyuni (around noon), my phone network had gone off, and had not come back since. I had enquired about it and someone told me "duh. We are in the middle of nowhere.....of course there is no phone network." I panicked and wondered "Oh gosh. Does this mean we also won't have wifi where we are staying?"  She added "In fact we probably won't have any electricity for the next few days." Now, I really panicked. I had been using my phone as my camera,and the battery was almost done by the time we got to the Salt Hotel. There were no sockets in the room. Thankfully a kind lady in the kitchen agreed to charge my phone for me for a few hours. 

I slept moderately well that night as the salt in the room made the temperatures bearable. 

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