We sunk into a cab and requested the Bolivian Consulate in Cusco, Peru, passports and print outs of recent bank transactions, in hand, I in my dress and Nathan in his collared shirt. We sought to apply for a visa in advance of arriving at the border between Puno, Peru and Copacabana, Bolivia. I hope the reader will permit me to explain, just this once, that at one time, Nathan and I were young and handsome. Lustrous of hair, bright of eye, and all that. But as we prepared our documents that morning, weary and self-conscious of how dark under the eyes and sallow about the cheeks we looked after nearly a month of travelers' diarrhea and then head and sinus colds—we had taken special care to dress in such a way that conveyed we were not bums who’d likely go broke and get stuck in the country, and thusly be denied a visa at the border. We had heard of this happening, and various other stories of shenanigans perpetrated by border officials. And though we had never before encountered corruption by a customs or immigration official, at $160 USD for American citizens, a Bolivian visa is expensive. It was a sum for which we had to search our souls as well as our wallets. Moreover, we had been warned by other travelers that Americans and certain other foreigners were not welcome in Bolivia, that the food was bad, that gas station attendants would often refuse to serve foreigners, and that when they didn't refuse, they charged three times the price. But when in our lives would we get another chance? we thought. So, onwards we went.
Upon poking our heads through the door of the consulate, a goateed diplomat regarded us from his desk. With a sigh, asked us to return in an hour, as he was already processing a large stack of Chinese applications. Though we braced ourselves nervously over that next hour, as it was to be our first and only attempt to apply for a visa throughout the entire trip, our experience at the consulate couldn't have been more contrary to our expectations. We chatted and joked throughout the interview, and received glowing recommendations of must-see sites. To my surprise, within the walls of the consulate I was welcomed as a latina amongst latinos, and I noted how my title in Peru as gringa, which I had never before considered offensive but had nevertheless never before been given, was wearing on me. I asked the diplomat if he liked his post. He sighed again and said, I’m a proud Bolivian. He waved his hand dissmissively. But I could never work in Bolivia.
He slid my passport back to me. Bienvenido a Bolivia. You may stay for 90 days over the next ten years. Or better yet, marry me and you can have a Green Card!
I looked at Nathan. In those days, even pretending to laugh felt like the best medicine.
Tell them to use more ink next time, the Bolivian immigration agent grumbled as he scrutinized the Peruvian exit stamp on Nathan’s passport. I can’t read that!
Nathan shrugged. Impulsively running my tongue over my teeth to check for fragments of coca leaves, I assured him, We’ll bring our own ink to Peru next time. The agent serving me giggled while the other harrumphed and smashed an excessively inky stamp on the page. We had arrived in Copacabana. Armed with a courtesy statement from Customs exempting us from carrying insurance for thirty days, in case any Bolivian police insisted on the requirement, we were soon solicited by a woman in a bowler hat and braids. She had astutely profiled us from the road and offered us secure parking, a cheap, clean, and spacious room, and kitchen access. As we pulled the screeching garage door shut behind Horace, the sun sinking behind Lake Titicaca, Nathan and I were quietly overjoyed. It had become such a luxury to have our needs recognized and understood. And though I was exhausted, struggling with yet another parasite and had barely eaten over the last several days, I was suddenly energized by our arrival and relieved to be somewhere new.
The next morning, I had the inaugural pleasure of cracking open what was to be the first of many rotten Bolivian eggs. In fact, it was the first rotten egg I had encountered in my thirty one years. The kitchen filled with the thick scent of putrefaction and I reeled with nausea. Where were the farm-fresh eggs of Colombia and Ecuador? Suffice to say, I would make up for lost time in Bolivia and become an expert in judging the freshness of eggs—namely, by buying double the amount I needed and eating the cost of the eggs that float.
We took to the streets for breakfast that morning, and found a nameless, adobe bodega serving empanadas salteñas from the doorway. Of course, I was too sick to properly enjoy them then, but I knew we had stumbled upon something special. Salteñas were supposedly introduced to Bolivia by two migrant Argentinans, but have since become a Bolivian national dish. Always served piping hot with a raw ají, or chile, to nibble on, each salteña is baked to a deep, golden brown and filled with rich stock, chicken or beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, boiled egg, and a single olive. As we strolled around the plaza de armas, street dogs trailing us meekly but never giving up hope for a dropped morsel, we mused over how often sweet fate presents herself as a rotten egg. Sunday Mass would begin soon, and church-goers hovered around umbrella carts, hurriedly spooning meringue topped with coca-cola or barley soda from tall soda fountain glasses. Street vendors whipped large tubs of egg whites and sugar, their hands disappearing in the flurry of glossy, white goo.
On the shore of Lake Titicaca, past the Bolivian naval base, we spotted fleets of paddle boats and row boats tied to rickety jetties. Screams of laughter floated towards us as siblings and couples frantically tried to remain standing within human-sized hamster balls as they careened across the clear waters. For as long as I could remember, Lake Titicaca had been filed away in my mind with imaginary places like Middle Earth and the Garden of Eden, partly for it’s silly-sounding name and partly because Bolivia had always seemed so remote as to be the stuff of fantasy. Yet, there we were, boots in the sand, while Peruvian and Bolivian families on summer vacation enjoyed carnival faire and boardwalk recreation. A paddle-boat shaped like a Tunnel-of-Love swan bobbed in the clear water becomingly. Can’t we take that one, I asked a boy as he pushed a plain fiberglass boat into the water for us.
No, he said. No. They’re all the same.
We left Copacabana; Horace and ourselves ferried across a narrow stretch of the lake on a wooden raft. On the other side, women also wearing jaunty bowler hats, two pompoms dangling from their brim, waved us, calling, Ispi! Ispi! They were seated beside large, cloth-covered baskets filled with small boiled potatoes, and portable fryers, where fresh ispi, tiny, whole fish from Titicaca, fizzled in hot oil. Nathan devoured a plate of them with spicy salsa de ají, while I gingerly munched on mote, the rather stale, slightly-sweet air-popped corn sold in plastic bags on every street corner. Our eyes wandered over the square. Here too, as we would see everywhere else in the country, the phrases Sí Evo! and Gracias Evo! were spray-painted in homage to the President and sole political candidate of the last fourteen years, Evo Morales, along with a stenciled caricature of his head—blurry, but nevertheless iconic for the semi-mushroom hairstyle and broad grin. Some of this “campaigning” was left untouched, while others were vandalized generically—the Sí crossed out and No! Corrupto scrawled above it. We had already encountered several murals featuring Evo in a glorious embrace with Fidel Castro and with Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, and with Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky, and with various other combinations of the aforementioned figures.
We moved on. Goat herders waved to us from the dusty altiplano, hoping that the roar of our engine didn't send their goats skipping in the opposite direction. Once, we saw a dark shape crouched at the edge of the highway, and slowed to a stop. What? It was rusty aluminum chair frame with a beat-up, unstrung electric guitar perched on the cushion-less seat. Field hands straightened and turned away from their tiny green shoots, watching us curiously.
Is everything okay? they asked.
Is this yours? I shouted back. They shook their heads, and Nathan seized it. Straddling the broken yellow line of the highway bisecting the high, flat plain, he threw back his helmeted head, struck out his strumming arm and channeled the Power Ballad gods.
By the time we arrived in Oruro, I was desperate for a real meal. We poked our heads into a bar and grill. The place was packed, with large families crowding the doorway and waiting along the walls and steaming up the windows. Servers rushed back and forth with platters of barbecued lamb. It had been a long while since we had seen people lining up for a dining experience. As soon as we snagged a small table, a server welcomed us.
Cabezitas o colas? Heads or tails? They were all that remained of the night’s roast. I looked at him helplessly. Tail is good. You’ll like it, the server assured us.
We’ll share one, please, I answered, though I was unconfident in the gamble. We were not disappointed, however. The server returned with a platter of succulent meat, reminiscent of carnitas, and two kinds of potatoes. Soon, the wait staff was greeting eager incoming guests with Buenas noches! Solo cabezitas! Though most exclaimed with regret and left, some resignedly took a seat. It was a heart-warming meal. We picked the vertebrae clean and on the way back to our hostel, we found the main street transformed into a bustling Christmas night market, with stalls covered over with a pink and white-striped tarp. A herd of little paper mâché llamas stood serenely among a table of nativity crèche animals. I laughed at the thought of llamas presiding over the birth of Christ, with their perpetual expressions of disdain. But upon reflection, I supposed that the not so distant-cousins of camels were no more unlikely than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Baby Jesus lain in the manger of my own childhood nativity.
How do you decide where to dig? I asked. How do you know the walls won’t collapse where you strike? Nathan and I were seated on patches of dry earth in an empty gallery of the Cerro Rico mine outside the colonial city of Potosí, in the company of other tourists dressed in coveralls, hardhats, headlamps, and galoshes. Cerro Rico had once been the most lucrative mine in the world, and has been exploited continuously over the last five hundred years for silver, and now, primarily, tin and lead. It was Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve, and the truck-full of miners who had just arrived after us had come to collect their Christmas bonuses. There would be no extraction today. No drilling, no picking, and no dynamite. Our guide was one of several miners who had long worked as part of a mining cooperative, but who now lead daily tours through mines to bring global awareness to their dangerous and ultimately-deadly working conditions.
The silver veins in this mountain only run from north to south. He indicated an imaginary line running parallel to the passage in which we were gathered, and passed around a bottle of peach juice mixed with a generous slug of Caiman, 100 proof “potable alcohol” made from sugar cane. I sniffed the bottle and took a “no thank you” sip of the sickly sweet cocktail. He leaned in, clasping his knees with his hands. But sometimes you have a feeling. Maybe you follow the same vein for five years and never find anything. Maybe you and your socios agree to move on. He shrugged. Or maybe you never lose that feeling and you find new socios to keep digging with you. He went on, adding that most cooperatives couldn’t afford such technology as pneumatic drills or vacuum lines for dust, which could save the miners from the dangers of dynamite and their lungs from developing deadly silicosis. In a softer voice, he continued, Better technology would also put most of us out of work anyway.
At first, it angered me to hear it. Wouldn’t that be better for everyone, in the end? How many more miners would need to die before reaching the age of forty-five, as most would, without ever climbing out of the poverty that drove them to Cerro Rico in the first place—which will, some day soon, run dry? Nathan and I agreed that it hadn’t been the most enlightening of tours, as it was light on concrete details and the answers to our questions seemed to point only to a kind of complacency toward the future.
However, I did eventually find some gratitude for the opportunity. We found that online, some tourists express the opinion that this kind of tour only provides an opportunity to gawk at poverty and suffering, and ultimately supports an unsustainable livelihood. But I couldn’t disagree more. I was able to inhabit a space I literally had never imagined, and with that, was empowered to ask questions that had never occurred to me to ask. Certainly, it’s important to behave respectfully as you look, but choosing not to look away is equally important. Where one can afford the risk, it’s important to walk the muddy halls you are invited into, to eat the strange food shared with you, and to listen to the stories that people are willing to tell. For instance, I had never truly considered the lives of coal miners in the US without a “progressive” bias, and with compassion. In an age where advocacy for sustainable, renewable energy seems the only ethical ground to stand on, the fact remains that our fellow humans who depend upon the extraction of non-renewable materials are often met with disdain and ridicule. They are cast as ignorant and as lost causes by the same people who declare to care for our planet. But does our care for a greater good outweigh ignorance about the real lives of our neighbors? Touring Cerro Rico made me question how much of our current political rhetoric in the US, whose intent is ostensibly to bring about positive change, relies on the denigration of an “other”. It has become the primary mode of communication on both ends of the political spectrum in our efforts to be remembered for standing on the correct side of history. But is it right to denounce those who would alter the face of our beautiful earth from the safety of a cell phone or computer powered by mined lithium and copper? Of course not. I was gravely reminded of how frequently I depend upon things I know nothing about, and how frequently the “dialogues” we overhear actually consist of one voice presuming to speak for another.
From the rocky dirt road, we could see three distinct cordilleras of different colors, one green, one maroon, and one an arid beige, rising behind the city of Tupiza. We had found ourselves within a life-size topographic map, it seemed. The mountains appeared as hazy and soft-edged from the distance we stood from them, as from our shared sense of nostalgia—of the ragged textbooks, dusty libraries and museum models from our childhoods they evoked. We felt like true explorers here. Downy, million-bristled torch cacti stood bleaching white in the sun; the land falling away from our ribbon of road into gently sloping, finger-like escarpments. In some places the road had been washed out with barely enough room for public transport trucks loaded with villagers standing in their flat beds to pass. Where were they coming from?
Upon reaching the banks of Rio Tupiza, we had descended into an entirely red world. We were now at the bottom of a ravine looking up. Our way carved before us by the river, and walled steeply by the warmest of all colors, it was as if the earth had shut its eyelids in too-bright sunlight. A line from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid filtered back into my mind.
After ten years in Boliva, you get colorful, one of the characters says, excusing his eccentricity.
Yes. One would, I thought. After all, the Spanish adjectives colorado and colorada don’t translate directly to colorful, but rather, to red. Red was simply a fact of the world, of this quebrada, or ravine. The verb form of the Spanish word quebrar meaning to smash, to break, to bend. The noun, la quebrada, taken for the deep, “back-breaking” bend of Argentinian Tango, which was once thought to be so illicit and improper that dancers performing the move were sometimes arrested. There did seem to be something sensual hanging around in the air here, at this long-time place union between water and earth; a kind of intimacy that comes from being washed over and over, swept away by another. Sandstone towers lined our path and loomed precariously overhead, sculpted as if the elements themselves had lain stakes and held their breath in the thrilling play of balance and gravitational pull.
Small, thatched-roofed houses stood far apart in thickets of small trees and tall grass. After a while, we came upon an empty plaza and an old adobe church, its wooden doors hanging crookedly on heavy iron hinges. Peering through the gap between them, I saw little saints in golden gowns, roughly hewn wood benches, and a beam of sunlight from the single window penetrating the dim purple of the interior. Somewhere in the greenery around us a donkey brayed. I stooped in the dirt to pick up a handmade slingshot fashioned from strips of old bicycle tires and a scrap of hide.
Hola! a little voice ventured from somewhere close by. I turned, in time to see a little leg and flip-flopped foot disappearing behind the nearest adobe house. Hola! I called back. Only a giggle in reply. I wanted to stay forever in the safe, red warmth of the earth, on the steps of the church in the bourbon-y light of the afternoon, to wait for nothing to happen and the sun to set. But Nathan and I carried on under full, antiqued cumulous clouds, toward the southeastern border. In another hour or so, we’d have reached Argentina. Maybe we’ll cross tomorrow, Nathan offered, unhurriedly.
We eventually chose to exit Bolivia via it’s most remote southwestern corner. We would ride four hundred miles over three days before encountering a gas station in the Atacama desert of San Pedro. As the first of three days’ rides came to a close, we chose a hillside covered in abstractly-wrought rock towers to make camp, el Valle de las Rocas. Over the course of our last days in the country, would crest over deeply washboarded dirt roads, seek shelter from the winds in an abandoned hut-cum-trash receptacle used by a salt and boron mining cooperative, and see fluorescent red and green lakes populated by bioluminescent algae and pink flamingoes, with llamas and alpacas lolling on the shores. Often, for hours at a time, the only other source of movement, besides ourselves, would be the clouds passing over the hills and mottling them with their shadows. But, for the moment, as that first night fell, our minds were on the leftover fireworks from New Years we still carried in our panniers. We couldn’t cross the border of Chile with them and we were giddy with the freedom of being the only humans for miles around. We were several hours from the hamlet of Alota and wouldn’t reach Villa Mar, Bolivia’s last town before the border of Chile, until the next afternoon. The poor Viscachas, I thought briefly, imagining the terror of the long-tailed, rabbit-like Bolivian chinchillas flitting around us from rock to faintly visible rock.
It’s Bolivia, Nathan said. I’m sure every animal in Latin America is used to fireworks. Our Whistling Moon Travelers and Big Tom Thumbs erupted into the quiet. We signed our names onto the pure dark, the acrid-scent of artificial stars fizzling on the tips of our sparklers.
We retired to our orange abode, with the foresight of leaving our cooking pots outside to be washed by the coming rains. And soon enough, unbothered by our proximity and chittering incautiously, several viscacha descended upon our campsite. But I had been right to be doubtful. The next morning, after picking up the colorful bits of paper and wire fuse remnants of our festivities, we discovered three tiny shits floating in the rainwater of our largest vessel. So. At least one had felt its peace disturbed.