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Bolivian metamorphoses (page 4)

K. Sapozhnikov (May 2008)
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On the way from La Paz to Oruro
On the way from La Paz to Oruro we, «mechanically» discussed the perspectives of preservation of power by president Evo till the end of the legal time and listened to the tapes with Bolivian carnival rhythms of 2008. Annual carnivals in the mining town Oruro are presented as an «alternative» to those that of Rio de Janeiro. Although in luxury and commercial «promotion» they yield to Brazilian ones. The Bolivians praise their festival, think that it is «more populous, spontaneous, versatile in folklore aspect».

The mining town Oruro is famous not by architectural of historical monuments but by its revolutionary traditions. Though the palace of «tin and silver king» of Bolivia Simon Patiño is a unique place, both in its integrity and in authenticity of numerous exhibits. In this museum you can't get rid of a feeling that the Patiños have left for a couple of hours for a walk, and you got the lucky chance to walk around the suite of the palace rooms and halls. I was especially struck by two things: rolled newspapers for February 1912, that have «just» been brought by a postman and yet not read by the owner, and his «music player» the size of a big wardrobe. The keeper of the museum switched on one of the «cylinders» with recording of a merry mazurka, having hinted to his wish to obtain a «certain remuneration» for so exotic a concert.

Naturally, in Oruro (and then in Potosi) we were surprised by monuments to militant miners, shaking the rifles. However, we could get convinced ourselves that miners can not only defend their rights with weapon in hands but work in the most inhuman conditions. In optimistic mood R. and driver Carlos set forth to the stooping trip along narrow drifts of the museum mine «Socavon». I could see them again in forty minutes – with sweaty faces, emaciated, breathless. Exhausted, they grabbed the rails of emergency exit to remain on feet.

- Well, guys, did you have to work with a miner's hack? - I suggested in a joke.

Not a single word in response, just dead silence. And this is after the excursion! And Bolivian miners work in such mines till now. Later, in Potosi on the mountain «Cerro Rico» we saw another shift of miners (vacant faces, ready for anything) «refresh themselves» with coca leaves before going to coal-face. It is only with the help of coca that they manage to stay in the infernal heat and thick dust, under deafening accompaniment of rock breakers noise. Many of miners, probably, would have preferred other job, but it is not available. And so every day they put at stake their life...

«Expreso del Sur»
Comfortable carriage of «Expreso del Sur» took us to the saline land Uyuni. For eight hours of travel we couldn't but admire the wonderful extraterrestrial landscapes of Bolivia. Poor villages, deserted structures of adobe, mirror like waters with flamingoes, stations with unusual names passed by the carriage window. I managed to read the name of one of them — Poopo! Could it be the same Poopo? Somewhere here, at the height of 3700 meters above the sea level, under the bed of sand there rests, according to some researchers, a legendary Atlantida. I wish I had enough time to «estimate at the country» its possible location. Suppose we were lucky, as the most sensational discoveries are made by chance, in excitable flash of inspiration.

Our train came to Uyuni station when it was pitch dark. Usual thing for local area: blackout. Something has caused a short circuit somewhere but they will start to look for the cause only tomorrow. So we had to reach the hotel almost by touch, under uneven light of passing vehicles. The receptionist was waiting for us at the entrance, giving signals with a torch light like a conspirator. He gave us candles and matches, towels and blankets and confidentially informed us:

- There is hot water in the shower, so you'll manage to take shower, before others forestalled you...

During the day time it became clear that without tourism the town Uyuni would lose the material basis of its existence. Salt mining — is a side business, the main one — servicing of large groups of tourists. The agency with attracting names like «Only for adventurers» can be seen at every step. There are a whole bunch of tours about the complete saline land, even up to the border with Chile.

Tourist dealers present Uyuni under the slogan: «Authentic still exists» (Lo autentico aun existe). That is the right move. So tourists from all over the world, but mainly from western countries come to the deserted saline land of hundreds square kilometers in area. Among them are not only brisk youth, but also people of age, who long for spending a couple of nights in tents at the salty plateau, have food from a common pot, enjoy in full lack of habitual conveniences, dream about the life full of dangers and adventures.

«Graveyard of steam engines»
That is why the demonstrative «anti-civilisation cult» is rather peculiar for Uyuni and adjacent territories. The indicative manifestation of this «anti» is a «Graveyard of abandoned steam engines». There are more than enough of such graveyards of rusty railway metal in the world, but at the backyards of Uyuni the steam engines that have served their time produce an impression of infernal symbol of the future of the human civilisation. Our new guide Sixto, naturally, contemplated these gloomy remains more than once, but even he, having a doomed look, stood still near us. However, I cannot guarantee sincerity of his reaction. It cannot be excluded that he was just making fun of us. Yes, the «Graveyard of steam engines» sounds sentimentally. But if we say a «Steam engines junkyard» all the charm of exotics will immediately disappear.

From the saline land in the jeep of laconic Sixto we started to the town Potosi, that is situated in 220 kilometers from Uyuni. During the times of Spanish crown Potosi became famous because of unbelievable amount of silver mined from the depths of Cerro Rico — Rich mountain! Exclamation of Don Quixote «It is worth Potosi! - is a direct prove of the then all-European fame of the town.1

Arco de Cobija con Cerro Rico al fondo
Present residents of Potosi think that their town lives by the past fame, though miners daily go down to the mines of Cerro Rico, taper shaped mountain. Silver in its stores has not completely grown scarce, and besides it, there is tin, other metals and minerals. In April 2007 the Bolivian authorities wanted to close down «the complex mine» Cerro Rico for «re-evaluation of resources», but 16 thousand miners of Potosi, united in cooperatives, block approaches to the mountain. In order not to extend the conflict, the government refused from their intention. Minerals and ore are extracted «as of old fashion», 5-6 thousand mines pierce the mountain that resembles a Swiss cheese now. According to specialists even the smallest earthquake will be sufficient for the taper of Cerro Rico go down in a huge stone «pie».

Premonition of catastrophe is hanging in the air. Town residents, with whom we spoke on this subject, agree that «it is high time Cerro Rico should be closed». But where will miners go?

This time, in our small expedition, there were no volunteers to join tourist groups that were preparing for descending to the mines. There are quite a number of such groups near the Miners Plaza (Plaza el Minero): festive flocks wearing canary colour tarpaulin overalls, rubber high boots, helmets – for safety. As recommended by the guides, tourist bought gift for miners: bottles of grape vodka Singani, queso de chancho (local brawn), salteñas (pies), plastic bags with coca leaves, packages with dynamite. These gifts are not only tradition, but also a hidden form of help to miners, whose wages are not very high.

We ascended Cerro Rico, wandered about its torn by excavation and mines slopes in the company of a boy, who works up as an «informal» guide. He took us to the places where usual tourists wouldn't go, we had to explain to security, prove that we are not culprits, and moreover, enemies of the cooperative property. After that incident we were convinced that the best view to the Rich mountain is opened from Mirador, observation tower specially built for this purpose.

The Mint (Casa de la Moneda), Potosi
The Mint (Casa de la Moneda) is a mandatory place for a visit in Potosi. Mysteriously smiling face-mask – mascaron – above the archway to the inner yard is its world known symbol. There are a lot of versions as for who this masks represents: God of wine Dionysus (Dioniso), some of the former directors of the Mint, an Indian Diego Huallpa, etc. They say that Indians from the villages close to Potosi, sometimes come to the mask to ask it for «financial assistance» in the form of good earning, large inheritance or stuffed with credit cards purse that is found in the street. I write it without humorous implication. Who knows, who knows... That is why, just in case, all of us - R., Sixto and I would take pictures under the mask for about an hour. It was a respect to national legends - but in no case a superstition...

Bolivian metamorphoses – political, ideological, social, educational and cultural are at full swing. President Evo put on his Indian shoulders of great endurance a huge, almost backbreaking load of responsibility. His enemies are serious, they act methodically and persistently, sometimes directly, and sometimes on the quiet. The information war, waged by «competent agencies» of the USA is going on every day and in offensive manner with such intensity that sometimes there is an opinion that the Bolivian officials do nothing but «justify themselves». But how can one fail to react to slanderous campaigns?2

At Sagarnaga street in La Paz, where tourists get stocks of souvenirs, it is difficult to find anything devoted to Evo. Neither memorable mugs, nor key chains, but only tee-shirts with his portraits, and a poor one – with a flavour of caricature. R. goes back to Moscow and hurriedly buys «typically Bolivian» for his friends. He already has bottles with Singani, as well as tin statues of Ekeko – Indian God of prosperity. What else? Maybe buy a box with bags of mate de coca?

When I offered to my companion, he was terrified:

«Some Russian students have been recently detained for transportation of drugs in Sheremetyevo airport. They were passengers from Bolivia»

«Can't it be for mate de coca?» - I was surprised.

«The girls paid for a harmless miner's little bag with coca leaves. No, no risky presents!»

R. left for Moscow without mate de coca. Thanks to him for warning me about Sheremetyevo. With a box of candies bought in duty-free shop in La Paz I would definitely get into trouble. They had too frightening name «Erytroxylum Coca» that in Latin means «cocaine bush». After all, who thought up of such a name to innocent candies relieving from an altitude disease! Then justify yourself at the native customs.

1. Silver ore in Cerro Rico was discovered by an Indian Diego Huallpa in 1544. One year after the town was founded close to it. From the middle of the XVII century Potosi became the richest and the most flourishing town in Latin America. In 1988 UNESCO listed Potosi among the objects of Worldwide humane heritage.
2. Recently Evo Morales had to reject the «reports» that Venezuelans set up military bases in Bolivia and started to hand over some Kalashnikov sub-machine guns — 103, procured from Russia, to the Bolivian armed forces. They also spread the fraud that the party of Morales — Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo) — maintains ties with Basque separatists ETA and Colombian guerillas. The subject of secret financing of «revolutionary projects» of Evo is very often brought to the light. If we believe them, he gets «extra nutrition» from Venezuela, Libya, Iran and other countries «attracted to the axis of evil».

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