Just as plans were moving forward on this month’s issue of the Bolivian Express magazine, I left La Paz, a decent Internet connection, and relative comfort with a few of the other interns to see some of Bolivia’s sites before they leave for Christmas.
Following “The World’s Most Dangerous Road,” we quickly organized a last minute 10-hour bus to Sucre, the country’s constitutional capital named after one of Bolivia’s founding fathers Antonio José de Sucre.
Most of the travel done in Bolivia from city to city appears to be overnight where if you are lucky, you can spend a little more for a cama bus and get fold out beds in the bus. It’s still not great, but it gets you from one place to another without losing a day.
Sucré is a vibrant and old Spanish-inspired city. The white walls of the buildings gleam in the light and there is noticeably more green space. It reminds me of the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, but there is definitely nothing like that here.
Sucré is also noticeably more touristy. At this point, I had spent most of my time with the Bolivian Express interns and some Bolivians, but not many internationals. Here, however, upon arriving in the hostel (one of the first hostels I’ve stayed at in my life actually), there were tons of friendly backpackers from Australia, Spain, Denmark and more Englishmen.
The main topic of conversation among everyone was the national census happening on Wednesday. People were pillaging the markets for food and water to survive the next day. We figured we’d be able to get something (big mistake), so didn’t really buy much except a lot of booze. For a detailed account and explanation of my experience during the census and what it means for Bolivia see my post on Forget the Box.
That night as we drank in the courtyard with the other internationals and the extremely hospitable and charismatic hostel staff I felt really relaxed, relieved and drunk. We were offered that horrible Fernet drink along with out Singani – the two most vilest liquors I’ve ever tasted after tequila.
Speaking Spanglish, we attempted to play Kings Cup or what the English call Ring of Fire and united through the particular and controversial card game. I was surprised that most of the rules were the same for the British and Danish as I played in Montreal, but with slight variances. When 4 (whores) came up and the local girls who worked at the hostel were told they had to drink they adamantly refused! Back home, girls wouldn’t object to being called a whore for the sake of the game, but these girls called us out on it. I got a good laugh outta that.
The next night we sneaked out to the main square only to find it populated by tourists, young locals and a group of “dog flutes” (hippies.) The Spanish guy from our hostel said that they call hippies dog flutes, because there were always dogs and flutes. It was 100% true in this case!
The next morning we caught another bus, but this time it was semi-cama, so smaller seats and a more limited recline. We reached Potosi in about three hours.
Potosi has been mined for nearly 500 years and at one point during the Spanish Empire it was one of the most populated cities on the planet.
The city isn’t that great. Pretty small and dirty, but we had an amazing brunch at this café. It came with a cheese crepe, a soup (I got peanut), grilled llama, fries, yogurt and fruit all for 35 bs. ($5). Food here is really hit or miss, but this time it was really good.
After that we started our tour of the mines with a company called Big Deal Tours, which is the only company run completely by ex-miners. They were hospitable, organized and fun! For the journey we got to dress up in dirty jumpers/hardhats and boots and enter into the mines and surrounding area for 4 hours.
First up, we stopped at a small shop to buy the essentials: soft drinks, coca leaves and dynamite. Yup, dynamite! You are able to buy some and then set it off later, which was awesome!
After that we entered the extraction plant, but not for long because the chemicals used are extremely bad for you.
The mines were just as expected, dirty, small, uncomfortable and fascinating. Since our tour guide Pedro was a miner, he knew everyone inside and was able to shoot the shit with them and ask questions.
Pedro was a miner for 5.5 years from the age of 10-15, and then again a few years later. He maintained that being a miner is not as bad as you think. He told stories of some miners who struck silver and came out with millions. Others simply make a modest amount and aren’t starving. Well, maybe that’s a figure of speech because during their 12+ hour shifts the miners don’t eat, just chew lots and lots of coca and drink 96 proof alcohol.
Those lonely days chipping away for minerals are soothed by the presence of El Tio – the imaginary miner represented in this statue.
Pedro said that El Tio is not a god, but rather an amigo who is a Bolivian miner embodied after a typical Bolivian.
There is no administation for working in the mine. If you want to work, you can start that day if you want to. Different sectors are claimed by some people or small groups and generally that is respected according to Pedro. It’s also not as dangerous as people say according to him. It is not true that people die within 10-15 years due to the gasses or else people wouldn’t do it, he said. Also, more people die in car accidents and other day-to-day activities than in the mine. However, either he didn’t understand or couldn’t adequately answer my question about the likelihood of areas of the mine collapsing sometime soon.
After the mine, we headed off on another long semi-cama bus ride to Tarija, a southern town in Bolivia.
A guy from the Bolivian Express had a friend living in Tarija, so he met up with us and took us out.
The restaurant we went to was incredible. The family owned place and it’s owner/hostess/server/photographer matriarch hugged and kissed us on the cheek as soon as we arrived. Over the next couple hours we drank, drank, drank and ate a lot!
3 Large Pizzas
6 Double Fernet and Coke
2 Double Singanis
12 Litres of Beer
1 glass of wine
Our friend then came around and strapped a wristband on our wrists so we could get into this next party.
Ok let me paint a picture for you. During my stay in Bolivia I have seen like one hot girl. Most people on the street are wrinkly, old and look like they are in their 70’s or are babies. Middle aged people just don’t seem to be around. Well, I found them.
As we stepped out of the taxi and past a very friendly bouncer I looked upon one of the most beautiful group of people I’d ever seen. In the backyard of this massive house over a hundred people bobbed and danced to the Latin music and Gangnam-style (which is played everywhere like every 30 minutes). The girls at this party were absolutely, insanely, ridiculously gorgeous. I can’t remember seeing so many hot girls in one place and to add to this the party was OPEN BAR! Obviously, that nasty Fernet crap, but I had to do what I had to do.
Unfortunately, my charm wasn’t as effective on the lovely ladies without speaking their language, but it was fun anyway. Later on in the night, when the bars in Ottawa are closed and people are eating shawarmas and poutine, people hopped in cars and taxis to head to the next party – a super club in the centre of Tarija.
While my mind is blown when I see a ridiculously different culture, it never ceases to explode when I go to a super-club. Hundreds of inebriated loud peacocks doing the mating dance. A dance that is more than questionable on a street corner in public. And then, of course, there are those creepy dudes that surround the club looking to scoop up the often-not-willing chiquitas. It’s pretty much the same wherever I have been. I’m not against it. I think to be against the club scene is to forfeit on one of the craziest experiences young people can feel. It is undeniable that clubs are where the most amount of young people go, and if you are looking for a random hookup the club is the way to go. Don’t expect to find a significant other though. Do I really enjoy them? No. But when I learn to I think I will be happy.
After a hangover day in our hostel we went to a wine tour in Tarija – the original reason we went to this southern town. This wine tour was unlike what you would expect. Well, maybe if you are 12 and just learned about alcohol then it would be what you expect. At the three wineries we attended we got absolutely tanked. And we had to drink fast to get off to the next one. The wines weren’t great. We met a couple from Canada who was staying at the nicest winery and they thought that one of the others made up their wine from grapes, water and alcohol without proper fermentation. Still gets you drunk though.
Warning for all vegetarians out there! The first winery we went to used cow blood in their wine. I’m not going to tell you which one, but just so you know you may have been sipping blood out of that chalice all your life without knowing.
I am about to depart for La Paz on a 20-hour bus. Better not be stuck by someone smelly or have a broken seat. Wish me luck!