Monday, August 31, 2009

Bright Places Make Smiling Faces

"Qué estás haciendo?!?" demanded the little voice behind me, sounding more like a distressed complaint than a question. I turned around to face my interrogator and found a little lad of about 7 years with his hair neatly combed to the side, button-up t-shirt tucked in his gray trousers, and his face hopelessly contorted with concern as he watched my paint roller pass over the school's recently completed mural.

"I'm putting a sealant onto this beautiful mural to protect it," I replied after a slight chuckle.

"Ahhh, para protegerlo," he repeated, his demeanor instantly changing as my reply met his approval. He nodded and scurried off to his classroom.

I smiled and turned back to the wall with a renewed since of purpose for my simple task.

While I had not participated in creating the mural, I was content that I could contribute to something that the school and its students were obviously very proud of. A group of volunteers through the organization called Otra Cosa, had worked for two weeks to complete the mural, which transformed a dull cement-surrounded courtyard into a bright and colorful place where the youngest of the children at the school play during recess.

One of the final tasks to finish up the wall was to put hand prints of all the children along the bottom border of the mural. Working in assembly-line fashion, three of us volunteers finished over 250 hand prints in two days time and sealed up the final product. The result is maravilloso!!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Out On A Limb

The morning after Machu Picchu started out easy enough: check out of the hostel in Aguas Calientes, grab a fresh fruit juice at the market, and dodge trains for three hours while following the tracks to Hidroeléctrica where my Maltese travel buddy Rob and I caught a taxi to Santa Teresa for 5 Sol (the best US$1.66 I've ever spent). We had already walked the two hours along the dusty road from Santa Teresa two days before on our way to Aguas Calientes and agreed it wasn't worth the trek back, especially since my boots had wreaked havoc on my tender gringo heels opening up impressive, painful blisters on both feet.

In Santa Teresa we opted out of the simple 35 Sol (under US$12) direct van to Cusco thinking we could save maybe 12 Sol (a negligible US$4.00) by sticking with the original plan and catching a taxi to Santa María and then a bus to Cusco. I clung to the door handle of the Toyota Corolla wagon, a slightly newer model than my '88 back in the States, and tried to pull my attention away from the monstrous drop to the riverbed hundreds of feet below. The car drifted within inches of becoming a temporary airplane at each of the endless curves on the single-lane dirt road. An hour later I was still alive in Santa María at the bottom of the valley.

To our dismay, all the minivans heading to Cusco were full, and all the bus companies were telling us the same for every bus in the afternoon. Our next option was a three hour wait to catch the 4:00pm bus putting us in Cusco around 10:00pm, but we wanted to get to Cusco at a more reasonable hour. We sat by the only through-road in town waiting for the 1:30pm bus to see if we could sit on the floor when a giant truck came thundering into town and pulled up just shy of our roadside roost.

"Vas a Cusco?" I asked.

"" he replied as he unlocked the back hatch revealing the chasmal truck bed that was to be our roomy passage to Cusco.

Three brave French girls, Rob and myself ascended the step ladder into the truck, spread out in spacious luxury that is simply not available in traditional public transportation, and before long we were happily bouncing along towards our destination.

An hour into our bumpy ride, the truck slowed, paused and finally cut the engine. We heard some rustling and a few seconds later a round face popped up over the wooden walls of the truck with a quick but complex question, "Están apurados?" Are we in a hurry? Five confused foreign faces looked around at each other hoping to find a united answer. Naturally we wanted the truck to keep chugging along until we were in Cusco, but the best response we could come up with was, "Por qué?" Why?

Apparently there was a stack of firewood that they wanted to pick up, and we were in no position to demand that the truck continue. We silently acquiesced, and the truck roared to life, veered from the main route, and descended deep into the valley. I began to doubt my hour-old decision to enter this potential death trap as giant leaves from low-hanging banana trees whipped the top of the truck signaling our arrival to the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Sacred Valley of Peru. I quietly pondered what sort of ransom 3 French girls, 1 dread-locked Maltese and a gruff and grungy guy from the U.S. would pull in these parts.

Suddenly the truck stopped and began to reverse, pulling the tail end towards the inclined hill to our right. They were apparently attempting to turn this beast of a machine around.

"But we're on the edge of a cliff with the river below us, right?" I thought out loud.

At that point two things happened: 1) The back end ran out of back-up room and began crushing the limbs of a tree, and 2) I nearly panicked and grabbed my daypack, food sack and sleeping bag with the intention of leaping over the side wall of the truck to the safety of solid ground while this madman finished his maneuvering.

One and a half harrowing minutes and a twelve-point turn later, the truck engine coughed to an uneasy halt. The back doors swung open revealing solid ground on both sides of the dirt road with a long pile of firewood stacked along one side; at least this guy was not as crazy as it first appeared.

Our chauffeur said that loading all the wood would take at most two hours and left us to walk to the river, explore the surrounding bush, or sit around and stare at each other. Once the shock of my near death experience faded and my heart rate returned to readable levels, I looked from my travel companions lounging on the ground to the enormous pile of wood being loaded and saw an opportunity. Without a word I began grabbing logs and tossing them up to the truck bed, trying to keep pace with the crew of Peruvians that were all half my size.

Slowly a dialogue developed, and before long I was laughing and joking with our driver, Luigi, and his crew of roughneck Peruvian truckers. I asked them what they transport when their truck isn't full of firewood and gringos. It turns out they run a semi-regular route delivering food between Cusco and several towns throughout the Sacred Valley. They were on their way to Cusco to pick up another shipment, but could not pass up the opportunity to make some side cash on an unusual mix of cargo. I was thankful that the additional cargo was not livestock nor any product derived from their natural processes. I nodded my approval and continued loading at their vigorous pace.

We packed the entire pile of firewood into the truck in an hour, filling the prior spacious travel compartment nearly to the top. The truck's crew, my foreign travel companions and I once again climbed aboard and sputtered away climbing the valley road while dodging the giant banana leaves that were now whipping our torsos. From our panoramic perch, we had the most spectacular view of the sun setting in the valley as we ascended high into the Andes mountains.

We unloaded in 25 minutes or less in a small village near Ollantaytambo hurling sticks and heavy logs over the side of the truck into darkness. Our eyes battled wind-blown wood shavings for the final two and a half hours to Cusco.

Our nine-hour exploit ended around 10:00pm in the outskirts of Cusco. Luigi charged 10 Sol for his service of safe delivery, just 5 Sol less than the six-hour bus that arrived at the unreasonable hour of 10:00pm. As Rob and the French girls reached in their pockets to pay their tariff, Luigi added, "pero nada para mi amigo," signaling in my direction with a slight nod and brazen grin. A little extra effort had paid my way and earned me the friendship of an unlikely ally. We waved goodbye to Luigi and crew as their truck awkwardly lurched forward down the narrow Cusco street, and I was glad our penny pinching ways had forced us out on a limb.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

I was told that visiting the cooperative mines of Potosí, Bolivia is an experience that should not be missed. I would agree, but it is more of an intense humbling experience than a fun tour. Describing the conditions in which the miners work is difficult, but it is the closest to hell as I can imagine.

Upon entering the mine, large chunks of ice hang from the ceiling inches above your head, but as you move deeper into the mine the temperature rises, the spaces get smaller, and thick humidity makes movement extremely uncomfortable. Naturally light is at a minimum and is almost exclusively provided by headlamps, though electric cables coated in thick layers of minerals do stretch deep into the mines. In many places, crawling on hands and knees is necessary to reach the areas where mining actually takes place. Water and minerals leak down from the ceiling often creating large pools of murky water on the narrow foot path. Our guide told us that toxic materials like arsenic, sulfuric acid, and asbestos occur naturally inside the mines. She even pointed out arsenic minerals growing on the walls. Holes for dynamite are dug manually and explosions shake the mountain every few minutes. There are a large number of mines within the mountain, and all operate independently meaning that no one knows when an explosion in another part of the mountain is going to occur. With structural supports like the one in the picture below, collapsing tunnels is something that seems imminent.

The work that miners do is strenuous and equipment is basic. Pneumatic hammers are the only power equipment used, everything else is done by hand including hauling the large bins full of minerals to the mine entrance.

Four men work together to haul minerals out of the mine

I gave them that soda, but the present seemed a bit weak considering the situation

Miners working to replace a popped tire on their wheelbarrow

Due to the conditions in the mine, especially constant exposure to toxic materials, the average life expectancy of miners is around 45 years. The next time I start to complain about going to work at a comfortable, non-physically demanding, slightly boring job, or get stressed about commuting to work in traffic in my car listening to music with the A/C or heat on, I'm going to remember these guys and the hell they go through every day for a monthly wage that many people in developed countries make in a day.

Where I Am and Where I've Been