Up in the sky, wind is chasing huge storm clouds around; sometimes, a few drops fall down drumming like a spray of pearls on the bus windows. A piece of an azure sky flashes through the cloud cover, and the inside of the bus floods with light, light so bright and radiant it makes us squint.
I look out of the window. The asphalt road is quickly passing under the wheels of the bus, that follows the shore of a vast, dry riverbed.
When we climb into dizzying heights, the sputtering engine slows down so much – despite the driver’s frenetic attempts to grind it into first gear – that I fear we’ll go sliding right back down and over the unprotected edge of the road into a gaping ravine.
I stretch my legs as much as the tight space of the wooden bench I’m sitting on allows; actually, that local roads are in such a poor condition has a big plus – bad roads, at least, don’t allow drivers to exceed speed limits (5,000 mi/h in Bolivia).
Something touches my leg – I look down and discover it’s a sleeping head of an indigenous woman, one of the hijackers of our bus, resting peacefully on my knee. I don’t dare move hoping, the loud shifting, bumpy riding and sharp leaning of the bus into curves won’t let her sleep for long.
This group of Aymara farmers, I look around the bus full to the top; not being able to get a ride home back from La Paz, they took ours, stuck in a road jam caused by a trillion of small camionetas and pick-ups. When we refused to take them in, they regrouped and blocked the space before our bus with their bodies. What could we do? We opened the door and the farmers poured in, with stools ready in their hands, getting comfortable in the aisle and falling asleep.
A few minutes later, wafting from the layered skirts, sweaters and hats is the unmistakable odor of the Andean rural life, filling the tight space of the bus. Larry’s wife has to take a couple of motion-sickness pills to “knock herself out,” as she puts it, or else she passes out.
The Aymara resourcefulness is admirable, though – who brings their own seat for road trips?
And what’s up with those bowler hats?
Sitting on top of the head ready to fall off at any minute, they come in all sizes and shapes, styles and colors, from black and brown to white and beige, decorated with ribbons, rims, brooches or embroidered with beads. Besides looking bizarre and unfitting, questionable is also their purpose in local weather conditions – bowlers don’t protect from cold, rain and sun, debatable is also their wind stability.
Apparently, in 1920’s, a shipment of bowler hats was sent to the European railway engineers working in Bolivia, and when they turned out too small for the British melons, they were peddled to local people.
Cholas, the indigenous women of the Andean Cordilleras, took an immediate liking to them.
Believing they bring fertility (?), they made the bombín an integral part of their traditional costume, and a symbol of their status – a bowler worn slanted in the middle of the head conveys the chola is married, moved to the side she’s single or widowed.
The time that must save when hooking up!
Good thing people here didn’t take a liking to top hats!
Today, we’re climbing from pleasant, subtropical 6,500 feet where Sucre, one of the two Bolivia’s capital cities, is situated, to over 13,000 feet of Potosí, a famous silver mining town.
Sucre – I evoke a pretty plaza, classical colonial buildings and a clean, white color – is such a pleasant city I didn’t want to leave it. Everything here worked out nice, no glitches, no setbacks; even the local tourist attractions were no letdown and proved as bizarre as anything else in this country!
For example – Sucre holds the largest deposit of dinosaurs’ footprints in the world located – surprise! – not on the ground but on a vertical limestone wall.
Yeah, Bolivian dinosaurs could walk on the walls.
Potosí is at extremely high elevations, at 13,400 feet, which is even higher than La Paz or Uyuni.
The only person in our group excited about these elevations and what that might entail is Larry, a fighter pilot, interested in what effects extreme climatic conditions might have on him.
“Probably none,” he concludes, given his excellent heart condition and optimal health.
Not that he’d underestimate high elevations, never, but his organism, regularly exposed to gravitational overloads, can certainly handle a drop or two in atmospheric pressure.
Plus, his training in tactical air-combat maneuvers, such as horizontal twists, barrel rolls, high yo-yos or flat scissors, have physically prepared him for far more demanding conditions.
“I didn’t cost the Canadian government $15,000,000 for nothing!” He kept shouting at a bar in Sucre where I took the group to forget the humiliating experience of my first independent walking tour (no Carlos this time).
Right now, Larry’s taking a nap because “as we fighter pilots say – don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down and don’t stay up when you can sleep.”
The road is getting increasingly busy, and before long, a cone of a reddish mountain appears on the horizon, towering over a city spread out on slopes of rusty-colored hills.
Potosí. In its era, one of the richest cities in the world, with the largest reserves of silver on earth. It lies at the foot of Cerro Rico, Rich Mountain, that for several centuries financed the global expansion of the Spanish Empire. In the 16th century, Potosí had the same population as London – at that time, it was one of the biggest cities in the world.
The price for that were millions of lives of Native American serfs that perished in Cerro Rico’s interior.
The mountain that eats men.
The rooms in our hotel are – hallelujah! – equipped with functional heaters and hot water.
On the way down to the main plaza to see the famous Spanish Mint, we’re hopping over the heads of indigenous women sitting on the sidewalk and selling cheeses wrapped in straw; others are selling bright red- and blue-fruit jellies under the plaza’s tall eucalyptus trees.
With a statue of Neptune in the middle, the square brims with colonial baroque palaces, churches and monasteries boasting monumental gates, ornamental metal lattices and wooden balconies, all reflecting the city’s former “fairytale wealth.” An old dude in a baseball cap is hanging out on the church stairs, happily whistling some local tune.
The Mint where Spanish coins were minted is an opulent Baroque palace, whose grandeur matched the wealth inside Cerro Rico.
It takes about two hours to cruise its numerous courtyards and rooms, filled with original mule-driven wooden cogs, silver-processing tools, steam-powered machines, samples of coins minted here and a collection of Baroque religious paintings.
“Due to its astronomical construction costs exceeding 10 million dollars in today’s currency, the Spanish court thought the Mint must have been built from pure silver,” says Braulio. “Even the horseshoes of the mules transporting the silver bars over the Andean peaks to the Peruvian coast are said to have been forged from it.”
Back out in the sun again, while we’re getting instructions from Braulio about the tour to the silver mines he’s taking us to tomorrow (he worked there for 10 years before he changed his profession to local guide), Larry sends his wife to get them some fruit jellies.
But they come in many colors, and she can’t decide. When she finally takes her purse out, the old dude, until then happily whistling on the stairs of the church, runs briskly down and joins her. And before Larry’s wife knows what’s hit her, the guy’s already in tears, lamenting, sobbing and complaining until she caves in and gives him the rest of her money.
Larry and everybody else are laughing their heads off.
So I am, until I notice the color of her face. She’s as pale as a ghost.
When I get back to the hotel, I stop by their room to check on her.
Larry’s just in the middle of his “11-minute no equipment workout program for fighter pilots,” exploding up from noisy push-ups and clapping his hands above his head (level 6).
The room is stuffy and has a sour smell to it. Larry’s wife is in bed with her eyes closed.
“She felt a bit queasy and decided to lie down for a bit,” Larry informs me.
“I gave her a Tylenol and some coca tea. It’s probably nothing.”
“It started back on the bus and got worse now,” she says, when I ask her if she’s all right. “I have this splitting headache, can’t keep any food down and have bad stomach cramps.”
I help her to the bathroom. Coming out are retching sounds.
Altitude sickness, 110%, and well advanced, too, I decide, and run to call a doctor. Her dehydrated and weakened body needs something of a much higher caliber than a pathetic Tylenol and coca tea! I could talk!
The local doctor, an older man dressed in a pullover and a pair of woolen slacks, takes her blood pressure, hears her heart, and asks her about the color of her stool and phlegm.
Directly into her vein, he applies drugs that stop vomiting and diarrhea, on her face, he puts an oxygen mask. Larry is dispatched to get special vitamin drinks from a pharmacy.
“When she gets better, she should try and have some tea and plain rice. The doctor will come back tomorrow morning to check on her. The silver mine tour is, of course, out of question for her,” I translate for Larry.
The next morning, Larry’s wife’s condition seems no better. She does get down a few sips of unsweetened tea, but that’s about as much progress as she makes. The doctor is called in again, more medicine is applied intravenously to her. She’s is so exhausted she can’t even get up from bed.
Larry offers to stay with her, but his wife turns him down. “You go, you’ve been looking forward to doing this for a long time, and you’d be no good here, anyways.”
I can tell he’s relieved.
Larry’s wife smiles faintly and closes her eyes with dark circles under them.
The trip to the silver mines, still in operation and providing livelihood to about 10,000 miners, is what draws most visitors to town.
To get to the entrance to the Mountain, we have to walk through a colony of tin-roofed houses covering the surrounding hillslopes. Strewn all around are piles of excavated rubble and rusty mining machinery; it’s hard to imagine that once a river of silver flowed out of this declining place for several centuries.
So far, the Mountain has delivered over 60,000 tons of silver, which equals to – Larry does a quick math in his head – the weight of four F-22s!
“Vámonos,” Braulio commands, and we follow, moving through the miner’s colony towards the entry into the underground. With our yellow wellies and jackets on, we look on the dusty road like a flock of shiny canaries.
Once through the dark, gaping entrance, framed with blocks of fused stones, a stuffy darkness closes in on us. Dripping down the walls is water, sticking out of them are pieces of rocks; a cloud of dust is floating in the air. We put on our gloves, turn on our helmet headlights and head down a rough, narrow track. We wade through water and churned mud, holding onto the walls not to lose balance. From the depths of the mines come sounds of regular knocking and dark rumbling.
When the main corridor branches out into multiple side tunnels – more round holes in insufficiently propped rock than solid mine passages – Larry wipes sweat off his forehead. “They don’t seem to know ventilation shafts here.”
He hardly finishes when a voice shouts “there’s somebody here!” A body right in front of him stops so suddenly in its tracks that Larry bumps into it. And me into him since I’m walking at the end of the group.
Beams of light are flying all over the wall now. Squishing through the mud, Braulio comes back, and runs his headlight up and down a man with big horns and blazing eyes. A man, holding between his hands a gigantic, erect penis.
“This is El Tío, the Uncle,” Braulio laughs, keeping the beam right on the sitting deity, grinning provocatively right into our faces with his legs spread out wide.
This embodiment of the Devil, we learn, is believed to own all the wealth of the Silver Mountain. Worshipped by the miners, the red-clay statue of El Tío is covered with coca leaves, tobacco and bottles of local liquor (the Uncle can’t suffer from hunger or thirst, can he?). It’s him, after all, who protects or harms the mortals inside this labyrinth of hell.
Penetrating deeper down into the underground, the water get so high in some places, it reaches to the rim of our wellies. The timber that props up the corridors is nailed so sloppily together that, collapsed here and there, are parts of the ceiling.
Standing up on our tiptoes and pressing hard with our backs against the wall, we hold our breath in as heavy, screeching carts fully loaded with rock are passing by, moving dangerously close to the tips of our boots.
The 10-hour shift has just ended, and the extracted rock has to be brought to the surface – shining from blackened faces tightened with strain are white teeth and the whites of eyes.
This is what hell looks like.
Further down the mines, the miners are hanging on ropes digging shallow pits in the rock with hammers and thin metal rods for the dynamite to put in. There’s a small boy with them helping his father take away rubble.
Larry leans against a wall. He’s trying to listen to Braulio’s words, to follow Braulio’s arm tracing a thick, glittering line – a real silver vein, man! – but he can’t focus. He feels dizzy.
And as if the miners could read his mind, they decide they should take a break. With their cheeks comically bulging out with rolls of coca leaves, they thanks us for the gifts we got for them at the Miner’s Market earlier that day – coca leaves, tobacco, bottles of 95% alcohol.
And dynamite – a whole stick for only $0.80!
“It feels like a damn sauna down here,” Larry takes his helmet off. The bandanna that protects his mouth and nose from flying particles of dust is feeling like the Alien monster – pressing and clinging to his mouth, it’s choking him. He closes his eyes and stays like that, oblivious that the voices of the group are fading out.
You have to be kidding me, says Larry’s face minutes later, when we reach the flimsy ladders that are supposed to get us down to lower levels.
As we climb down, the spokes are creaking, moaning and bending under the weight of our bodies. In the tight space, Larry hits his shoulder against a protruding rock and as he flinches with pain, his foot slips. He grabs the ladder at the last minute, and is now hanging off of it like a monkey. Cursing and swearing, he gets his legs down to the ground.
I look at him, at his face covered with sweat, and can tell his breathing trouble is getting worse.
Must be the accumulated carbon dioxide, he says, sits down and puts his head between his knees, trying to bring under control his soaring blood pressure. “Seriously,” he says and attempts a crooked smile, “this is the first time I wouldn’t say no to a pressure suit.”
We move on but the tight space only allows for very slow progress. The corridor gets so narrow we have to turn sideways and continue in a permanent crouch.
“It’s like a mouse hole in here,” says Larry loudly while edging forward like a crab. “Like Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon.”
“We need to hurry up a bit if we wanna catch up with the rest of the group,” I say and point the headlight on my helmet straight ahead to see how much longer we have left to go.
The beam doesn’t reach very far – all I can see is a tiny, narrowing tunnel with poodles of black water on the floor.
He was right – a mouse hole.
“It’s crawling on all fours from now on,” I say and get down on my knees.
Larry swallows. Desperately, he looks behind him as if searching for a miracle, but all he can see is me looking back at him, and glints of black walls covered with dripping water.
“This is the only way out,” I say, motioning for him to move. “We don’t wanna get stuck here forever, do we?” I press on as I can’t hear the group anymore.
“It’s just a tunnel,” I reassure him and remind him of the strenuous physical training he underwent as a Top Gun rookie. “Compared to that, this is a breeze!”
Larry snorts, and adjusting his headlight for the umpteenth time, he kneels down and starts crawling forward.
Then it happens.
“My breathing tube is tightening like the tunnel!” he shrieks in panic, shooting forward. “I can’t breathe!”
I try to slow him down but he’s not listening. With his mouth open and gasping for air, he’s not aware that his gloves came off, doesn’t feel the sharp rock scraping the skin on his knees. All he can feel are the walls of the tunnel, shrinking around him.
“Get me out of here!” he shrieks before he collapses, unable to hold up anymore.
Curled up in a pool of black water, he looks up at me.
Sneering back at him is the face of El Tío.
He blacks out.
When he comes around, he doesn’t remember what happened, how we got out.
He has no memory of the last 30 minutes it took me to bring him back from his panic attack.
Smoking a cigarette from black, crude tobacco I got for him from a shirtless, 15-year old miner who helped me drag him out, Larry looks like he’s tasted nothing better in his entire life.
With the last puff out, he takes a deep breath of the sharp Andean air and runs his eyes over the unappealing, dusty colony. He reaches into his pocket and stuffs into the boy’s hand a hundred-dollar bill.
Braulio and the rest of the group are having a blast of a time nearby, detonating dynamite.
We join them as if nothing happened.
And nothing did happen, right, Larry? I look at him.
Fighter pilots do not get claustrophobic.
The next day greets us with a dazzling blue sky and a dazzling cold wind. The local bus station is a beaten, dusty place with a couple of battered buses. I have to ask the smoking drivers where I can find ours; we’re early to make sure we get seats.
Larry’s wife takes the window seat behind the driver (“not exactly on top of the world,” is her sole answer).
The rest of the group spreads out at the back, on the left hand-side of the bus as per my recommendation. Why, they’ll understand soon enough – steep ravines on Bolivian roads are usually gaping on the right-hand side.
“This bus is as old as the Sucre dinosaurs,” someone shouts and everybody bursts out laughing. Larry laughs the loudest.
We hardly have time to get comfortable when quick steps run up the stairs. A few local kids barge in and strike up a deafening racket, beating small drums and blowing wooden pipes, outshouting them all with loud singing.
Before we know what’s just happened, the show is over. The kids walk up and down the aisle with their hands stretched out and leave. Incredulous, we look at each other and laugh. Larry laughs the most.
Twenty minutes after the official departure time, locals get on.
After making himself comfortable in his seat upholstered in red velvet, the driver rearranges the statues of saints on his dashboard, crosses himself and starts the engine.
At that moment, the kids fly in for a second round. Since all the windows are shut tight because of the cold outside, there’s no escape from the ear-splitting pandemonium.
“Get out!” Larry suddenly jumps out of his seat and screams hysterically at the kids. “Get out of here right now! Ooout!” His strong voice fills the bus, and the scared kids run out.
In the silence that sets in, Larry sits down and starts sobbing.
The door closes with a hissing sound.