Bolivia Explorer (Part 1)

I thought that the 175km trip from Uyuni to Potosi would be short (100 miles), but who knew it could take 7 hours! The bus was hot, so very hot, and I was wearing the wrong stuff: terrycloth shirt, socks, pants… the Marine I & II played way too loudly, and I got way too hot to continue conversation with little miss round-the-world in 9 months… feeling icky. As we meandered through the dry landscape on dirt roads, tracing the contours of canyons on our way up to the highest city in the world (4060m), the weather changed: doomsday clouds formed. Rain? No way! Droplets and a strong breeze prompted our captain to close the roof hatch. In the distance was a nasty-looking tornado.

The bus stopped. We watched as it whirled closer, with a huge base – probably 20 meters across – vacuuming up earth through its funnel, twisting like a furious dirt snake into the black clouds above. Coming over the hill, cutting across the street in front of us, and on through the village in the valley below us, we watched it rip that place apart. Like a flock of Brooklyn pidgeons, sheet metal roofing spiraled up into the sky, and all we could do was watch in disbelief. (I was scanning for flying llamas, but no luck.)

As quickly as it started we were on our way again (what else to do?), and we arrive in Potosi. I’m off my skull from the ride, and as soon as I disembark the bus, people are talking to me, handing me maps (I got 4) and fliers for mining tours, wanting to load me and my bike into a cab to go to a hostel (lol).. and it was hard to think, or speak spanish, let alone be polite; I was out of it.

After the dust had settled, and the bus was gone with all the other tourists and touts, I was still standing there, gathering my wits and slowly putting my bags on my bike. Two local girls who had been shyly standing there since I arrived, notebooks in hand, asked me where I was going. I had no idea, nor was I in a rush to find accommodation, so we spoke for a while (me apologizing for my broken spanish but unable to ignore them, as I wasn’t going anywhere.) Somehow I understood that they might be able to lead me ultimately to a home-stay, or some sort of cultural exchange, which was music to my ears, and I followed them to their office. Breathing heavily as I pushed my bike up the insane hills of this city, I asked their names: Ingrid and Carmen.

We arrived at the modest office on a busy corner in the heart of the old city. Above the doorway a carved wooden sign hung – Bolivia Explorer. They helped me stash my bike in the courtyard out back, and we sat down and spoke as if we were at an interview. Others showed-up, including a very congenial Alex, and I busted out my thermos of máte de coca, the local tea, to share. Within fifteen minutes I met the whole posse, nine of them ages 23-30, and they invited me to an outing in the country, via a slow, inexpensive, and very scenic train departing 6:30am the next morning. I didn’t know what our mission was or where we’d end up, but I liked these guys and happily accepted.

Explorers: Carlito, me, Luis, Ingrid, Carmen, Alex, Roberto

Alex was psyched on my iPhone, and when I mentioned that I haven’t been on Wifi for 2 weeks, he whisked me away to his college, the Faculta Técnica, where I got to finally sync some of my blog drafts into the cloud. Hopping from classroom to classroom, meeting and having nice sit-downs with many friends and even teachers, it was weird and awesome. The phone was also center of attention. On the roof we enjoyed a sick sunset view of the tremendous and spooky Cerro Rico, home of the silver mines that make this town (in)famous.

As soon as I got here, head-spinning, I loved it and could sense its odd, evil energy instantly. A huge city with more hills than San Francisco, and obscenely steep, narrow cobblestone streets, it’s no friendly place for cyclists. I knew I’d have to stay here longer than anticipated when I saw that mountain and walked through the Prague-like streets, bathed in a magical evening light. And since we’re skipping town for the weekend and I won’t hit the mines until at least Tuesday, I’ll have to hang around if I’m to know this place at all.

From what little I know about it, I’ve been more excited to come here than anywhere in Bolivia. Its weird, ominous reputation and fascinating story, past and present, is the stuff of fairy tales. After the discovery of silver within that terrible mountain during the 15th century, Potosi grew to become Latin America’s largest and wealthiest city for over 200 years, built on the blood of countless indigenous people and imported African slaves. Millions of people have died in appalling conditions within this mountain, and over 10,000 men and children still mine it for minerals. And word on the streets is that the miners worship a devil called Tío for protection. I’ve seen his creepy smiling face around town and I’m haunted.

Lost in town tonight, I wandered into a church. Every inch of the walls were covered with very old, beautiful and huge paintings – one portrait right next to me was dated 650AD. The young priest, dressed in a simple white robe (and white tennis sneakers), was delivering a sermon to only 15 people with such startling intensity that it gave me the willies. He wasn’t whooping like a preacher; it was his message about forgiving people, and how much he believed in our power to forgive others, over and over. There’s something about this place. So many layers of good and bad rolled into one.

It’s hard to believe this stuff is real sometimes.

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