Wednesday, June 9, 2010
A vivid country
The ironic thing about not writing recently is that I’ve been in the ideal place for writing. I’m staying in a fabulous little room with a twin bed on the top floor of an immaculate white house in Sucre, Bolivia. My room overlooks the white city and surrounding mountains, granting me a glimpse of the most romantic scenery that exists in South America. I imagine it’s what Paris was before it became a big noisy city full of tourists.
I walk past a square and a lovely white church after climbing a steep hill with a view many townspeople and tourists cherish then turn down a sweet narrow cobblestone street to the house. To say it’s charming or elegant or romantic or beautiful would be an understatement.
When I go to my Spanish classes in a cold dark classroom in the city center, I long for my room in this little house. I want nothing more than to sit on the sun deck and read or at my desk in front of my own splendid window and write a novel. I want to cook big meals with the fresh vegetables and pasta from the hectic market and drink wine with the other guests -- three couples.
I so often am thinking of home and missing it and getting ready to go back. I am ready. I have just a little more than two weeks left now. And I’m eager to start up my life there. I look forward to seeing my friends and my family and I’m making plans and even applying for jobs. But this little place.
I find myself wishing for more time here. If I could go back to the beginning of my trip, I might change it all so I could have a greater piece of time here.
It’s peaceful, comfortable and clean. There’s no Internet, which has been a struggle. I haven’t been in contact with my loved ones as much as I would like. But it’s also woken me up a bit. I’m drumming up more ideas and the creative juices are flowing. This place seems to have that effect. My friends Deborah and Lee are also at work on some grand business ideas born here in this magical place.
I imagine one day having a book to write and coming here for a couple months to do it. I told Tonya, the owner of this little guesthouse, that and she said there was a woman who came here once. She was going to stay three days and stayed a month instead, writing a novel in German.
This place, its quiet and peace, is particularly phenomenal when contrasted with the vibrancy of Bolivia.
Someone just gave me a copy of Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Robbins’ character describes South America as “vivid.” He illustrates what he means by describing a scene he witnessed: a naked parrot matching the weak steps of his hunched old lady owner.
I have also witnessed some vivid scenes here in Bolivia. It’s an amazing place full of sharp colors, memorable scenes and distinctive odors. There are always festivals or protests in Bolivia. I have run into a few big processions and celebrations in the streets of Bolivia and I’ve only been here two weeks. But when they aren’t celebrating, they’re protesting. The streets here are busy.
I went to the silver mine in Potosi the day Ronaldo left for Uyuni. I guess I should say it used to be a silver mine. Today, miners, about 4,000 of them struggle in the depths of this mountain to recover slivers of Zink, which have sunk in costs since the advent of lithium batteries, my guide told me.
He took me first to a store where I bought $30 bolivianos worth of coca leaves, coca leaf cigarettes, a small plastic bottle of 96 percent alcohol, a bag full of diesel-soaked pellets and a stick of plastic explosive. Gifts for the miners. The conversion of dollars to bolivianos is 7 to 1.
Then Daniel and I slithered into the mine, through an entry soaked in dried llama blood from a recent sacrifice, down a dark dusty hole to pay tribute to the Devil and his rather over-sized penis. The Devil is not, in fact, a devil or el Diablo. They call him Tio, which means uncle in Spanish. But these miners don’t all speak Spanish. Those who never went to school or didn’t finish probably never learned Spanish. They speak Quechua. When the Spanish came and explained god, or dios, to the people of Bolivia, the people had trouble pronouncing the “d” and called the diety instead Tio. The Spanish told the Bolivians that they had to work in the mine or the devil would kill them, the devil is the keeper of the underworld.
The religion evolved. And now the miners are permitted to believe what they want outside of the mine. Nearly all of them are catholic and attend mass regularly, praying to the Spanish god. But when they are in the mine, they worship the Tio. Every mine has a sculpture of a devil-like creature with red eyes and a large erect and flexible penis. The miners, upon entering the mine, offer the tio coca leaves, dropping them on his shoulders, head, at his feet and, of course, his engorged genitals. Then they offer the devil the alcohol and drink a bit themselves. They offer the tio a puff of their cigarette if not a whole one. And then they go into the darkness to work, hoping the tio will have mercy on them.
The mine is old. Bolivians began toiling here, extracting tons of silver for the Spanish, in the 16th century. It’s now 12 levels deep, reaching something around 150 degrees at the deepest level. The town of Potosi is almost 13,000 feet in elevation. Only recent years have they had air pumped into the mines. Before that a miner’s life expectancy was less than 10 years from the day he started working. That’s a pretty tough figure when you hear that most start at age 12 or 14. Only men, of course.
Life expectancies are still low. There’s a lot of dust, few mechanized operations, lots of accidents and collapses. And now they let little tourists like me go in and watch! Crazy, eh?
The mine was incredible but I was eager to get out of Potosi. I took a bus. I was the only tourist. The smell is strong on buses here. The strongest was my trip with Lee and Deborah to Tarabuco, a traditional village about an hour from Sucre. We were stuffed with 12 other passengers into a minivan meant to hold far fewer. I rode backwards, but sat next to the window. I could see the smells on Lee and Deborah’s faces. It was quite a ride.
In the village, we were greeted with an array of amazing colors. Tarabuco is known for its textiles. And the colors were indeed “vivid.” It was a lively marketplace full of women and some men selling the weavings they’d slaved over for months, begging tourists to buy them.
This is an incredible place, Bolivia and especially Chuquisaka, this province of the country.
I almost didn’t make it to Bolivia on this trip because US citizens now need visas thanks to strained international relations. Gracias a Ronaldo, I’m here. And I am so happy I’ve been able to see these places and visit this part of the world.
Next I’m heading to the north of Argentina and the Cafayate wine region before a last week of classes in Buenos Aires.