Tuesday, December 23, 2003

In the footsteps of the Incas

We know it has been a while but we have been moving around so much lately.

We are finally getting the time to write in our journals and get some postings out. We are currently taking a vacation from our vacation and just hanging out in a small beach town south of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Hope everyone has a great holiday season.

The city of Cusco, Peru was the center of the Inca empire. Its original layout was in the shape of a puma with its head being the fortress on the mountainside above and its body the town below. Cusco is city that is easy to lose time in. We called it gringolandia. It has everything a gringo can want and then some all centered around a beautiful main square. Restaurants and shops are everywhere and even small movie theaters. The foundations of most of the buildings near the square are the remains of the Inca buildings and temples. The stonework is incredibly intricate with the huge blocks fitting so tightly together that no mortar was needed. It is still impossible to slip even a sheet of paper in between their joints. The task seems even more impossible when you realize that the Incas did not have metal tools or chisels.

We spent our first few days exploring the town and lining up a guide service to take us on the Inca Trail. On some streets, you can’t walk more than 5 feet without seeing a guide agency. They all offer basically the same package but at an amazingly varied range of prices. We have been burned a few times by agencies not providing what we were promised and so we were trying to be very picky about it. We made sure we got everything in writing and have found that in South America, if it is written down on the receipt, you might get it, but if it is not, tough luck.

Inca footpaths are all over Peru but the section from Cusco to Machu Picchu is the one most commonly referred to as the "Inca Trail". Once on the trail, the real Inca trail does not start until after you have crested the highest pass on the second day. It is on average 4 or 5 feet wide and lined with thick interlocking blocks of stone. It was designed for use by people and llamas and it would be impossible to use a wagon on it as it can be very steep with large steps. They were OK for me but hard on Cindy’s shorter legs. The Incas also seemed to have no concept of switchbacks and the trail often climbs at quite a steep slope.

Unlike our previous hiking experience, this one was supposed to be easier. We would have a guide and porters. We had originally thought that we would do it self supported but found out that this was no longer allowed. We would still have to carry our clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and any other personal item we thought we might need. I left the nose hair trimmer in the hotel. The porters would carry the food, tents and cooking equipment. The hike options are for 4 days - 3 nights, 2 days - one night, or "forget that pain, I am taking the train". True to our newfound masochistic tendencies, we chose the first option. The reward at the end of the journey is the ruins of Machu Picchu. It was rediscovered in 1911 and theories abound as to why it was never found by the Spaniards after their "conquest" of the Incas in the 1560s. It remains the most perfect surviving example of Inca architecture and planning because it was never looted and destroyed. The more plausible theory is that it had been abandoned even before the time of the conquest and was therefore forgotten about.

In recent years the government has finally imposed weight restrictions on how much the porter could carry and there were actually a few weight check stations along the trail. I think the limit was something like 20 kilos. In the past the conditions for the porters were horrible and unchecked. They could often be required to carry double that amount. As the conditions have improved the number of porters has increased from a few thousand to over 5000 employed in any given season. The guide agencies have then used this as an excuse to dramatically increase the price of the trip while still paying the porters a substandard wage. The government has also decided to increase the price of the park entrance itself. In 1999 the park entrance fee was $17 and today it is $50.

Three days later we were on the train heading toward mile marker 88, the jumping off point for the trail. It takes a few days for the agencies to get the trail permits and we spent them exploring the many ruins around Cusco. Most of the first day was spent in transit and it was an easy 1/2 days hike after that. The porters would hurry on ahead of us and set up camp before we got there. I was surprised to find out that the campsites were not rustic at all. Most were areas of land set around a few houses and an outhouse. We were obviously going to living in style on this trip. The cook woke us up early with a cup of hot tea and then a leisurely breakfast of boiled starch. Of course it was on the second day that the real hell of the trail began. There are 3 passes on the train over 3700 meters or 12000 feet, with the largest being over 13000 feet. Cusco is quite high but we had lost much of that altitude on our way to the trail start. I figured that the passes would be a piece of cake after what we had been through the week before. Say the word with me now. "Stupid"... Yes the climb really sucked. 5 hours of suck to be exact. It was beautiful scenery but much of the time was spent just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Amazingly we were constantly being passed by porters from one group or another as they raced to get ahead of us to set the evenings camp. Even though we were traveling at the end of high season, there were plenty of people on the trail and at times you got into a traffic jam of puffing, red faced gringos all wondering just what the hell they were thinking when they signed up for this.

On the third day, I got sick. I’m pretty sure it was from something that I had eaten the day before. The food they cooked was not that bad but the hygiene of the porters and cook was not great. I found out later that many people from many other groups also got sick on the trail. Seems to be a regular occurrence. We only had one pass that day and it should have been easier than it was to climb it but all I could do was just put my head down and keep walking. For Cindy and most of the others I talked to, it was the best day, with beautiful views all around of the Andes. I just endured it as best as I could. Dinner was not an option that night and I missed out on the wine the porters had brought. Needless to say, the thought of missing out on booze still has me distraught.

The next day was short with a few hours of walking to a spot called the sun gate, where you can watch the sun rise on Machu Picchu. We were late and missed it. And then it was just another hour down to the ruins which even seen the second time for me were great. All in all I would say that the hike is not worth it though. Machu Picchu is easily accessible by train and if anyone is considering a visit, my advice is to take that option and spend more time exploring the wonderful ruins all around Cusco and accessible by bus.

Dynamite, Amonium Nitrate and Detonation Caps in Potosí

Wow it has been over a month since we have posted anything on this site. Truth is that travel is as exhausting as it is fascinating. Geoff and I became a little run down during the later part of South America and just never found the motivation to site down and write. But after relaxing by the beach in Mar Azual, Argentina, we are ready to hit the road to New Zealand.

I doubt we will get around to writing much about our recent travels. Sooo much happened, but we will probably get some pictures out.

This is what happened to us during a trip into a silver mine Potosí, Bolivia. Definitely an adrenaline peak for Bolivia (I will never be able to explain what it was like to be in the mine when the dynamite went off), and a caricature of just how poor and sad life can be here.

Feliz Navidad,


After some time and a half-a-mile walk, Edwine succeeds in finding us transportation: a small white panel van that has seen better days. I count enough seats for 17 passengers, but the van is really only big enough for 10. This has become our usual mode of transportation in South America, and we are thankful that there are only 5 of us riding to the silver mine. Geoff, if he contorts himself a little, will be able to find some leg room.

A bus would have picked us up at the tour office, but, like any other day in Bolivia, there is a protest today. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, any drivers at all had blockaded the main streets of Potosí with their hodgepodge of vehicles to demand relief on the price of gas. As I had walked passed the destitute Quechua woman begging for food, noticed the filthy 8 year old boy running barefoot in the street, and squeezed between two towering buses participating in the blockade, I tried to imagine what life was like 450 years ago when the richest city in the world celebrated Corpus Christy by paving the street with ingots of silver drawn from Cerro Rico: the largest silver deposit the world has ever known. The Spaniards made rich by the mine are long since gone. The cold, rough, fatalistic atmosphere of the city is created by the descendants of the laborers who were forced to work and die in the mines, and who remained after the Spaniards left with their fortunes.

Our first stop is the gear house. Here we receive out safety equipment for touring the mine: a yellow hard hat, an yellow oversized light-cotton zip-up jacket, an yellow oversized light-cotton elastic-waistband pair of pants, a pair of white rubber boots, and headlamp with a 5lb battery pack on a 2″ leather belt. All geared up I looked very yellow and very puffy. Awkward and hot in my new outfit, I bang my hardhat against the door jam as I enter the van, my headlamp falls, I step on the cord that attaches the headlamp to the battery pack, which tugs firmly on my waistband and I almost face plant onto the floor. (Note to self: don’t be such a klutz in the mine).

Back into the van we are off to the Miner’s Market. The entrance into the mine, paid to the miners cooperative, is 3 Bolivians ($0.38USD) per extranjero; hardly enough to gain the cooperation of the miners working today. The goods we buy here will grease the wheel when we get into the mine.

At the market, which turns out to be just one shop, a 40 year old, 200lbs Andean women sit on a stoop in the front of the shop. She’s wearing the same highland fashion that I have seen from Ecuador, throughout Peru, and now in Bolivia. Her hair is jet black, despite her age, and hangs in two long, thin braids down her back. She wears a man’s brown felt bowler hat. Her white cotton shirt blouses at the ornately embroidered sleeves. Despite the heat, she wears several layers of dark knee-length skirts made of heavy, hand woven wool gabardine; gathered at the waist they fluff out like a 1950’s poodle skirt. On her feet are cheap clear plastic sandals that have turned yellow with age. Her toes and toenails bare the mangled, dirt-encrusted signs of never having been protected by anything more. Her hard, heavily wrinkled face shows the signs of a difficult life spent in the arid, cold highland.

Pouring out from the shop door and encroaching on the street are piles of white, foot-long dynamite sticks, boxes of detonator caps, 2ft tall wooden spools of fuses, white plastic buckets of ammonium nitrate to amplify the explosive power of the dynamite, and an assortment soft drinks, pure black tobacco and 98 proof cane alcohol. Sitting directly in front of the old women is a giant 2ft tall, 2ft wide bag of dried coca leaves. She dips into it and weighs out a pound on a hand-held scale for a customer. The small sticks of limestone sitting by the coca leaf bag are chewed as a catalyst with the coca to extract its maximum benefit.

Not knowing what to buy, Geoff and I give Edwine 20 Bolivianos ($2.50 USD) which he spends on 3 one pound bags of coca leaves, 1 pair of gloves, and 1 two litre bottle of orange soft drink.

It’s only a ten minute drive to the base of Cerro Rico. The almost perfect cone shape of the mountain starts at 4000m (13,000ft) and peaks at 4600m(15,100ft). It can be seen from almost anywhere in Potosí. Four-hundred-and-fifty years have stripped the surface of any life. It stands barren. Alone. The surface covered in red, yellow and brown swirls of mining waste. It looks the perfect setting for a science fiction movie.

As we walk towards on of the hundreds of entrances to the mine’s thousands of shafts we pass several men. Dirty, dripping with sweet, they handle the mound in front of them one stone at the time to separate the useless rock from the saleable ore that has been brought out of the mine. Each man’s cheek bulges with a wad of coca leaves, like a baseball player chewing tobacco. A miner will start chewing his wad of coca about an hour before he goes to work, and we will chew coca continuously until his shift is over. His shift can be as long as 12 hours and he will work 6 days a week. During his shift he will not surface, not even to eat. No one takes food into the mine. He will stop only to smoke pure black tobacco, swig straight cane alcohol, drink syrupy warm soft drinks or make offerings of the same to the statues of El Tío--the god of the underworld that is the miner’s lucky charm. The miners are tired and spiritless. They know Edwine, but even as they make idle chit-chat with him, they never smile. They keep their heads down and continue to work, stopping only to walk over listlessly and take to new gloves that Edwine has offered. The miner thanks him without taking his eyes off the ground.

The mouth of the mine is a jagged 6ft tall, 4ft wide opening into total darkness. As I cross the threshold there is a sweet, rancid smell. The walls are covered in the thick, sticky, dried, brown blood of the llamas that have been sacrificed to satisfy El Tío’s desire for blood.

The light from the entrance fades until all that is left is the 2ft circles of light cast by our headlamp and total darkness. My field of vision is very limited so it’s hard to watch for of the obstacles that come from below, above and on both sides: don’t trip on the trolley ties on the ground, don’t slip in the mud puddles, duck for low ceilings, beams and cables, watch for the rock chutes that jut out of the walls. I’m paying very close attention to getting proper footing in a puddle when I soundly bump my head on the ceiling which chose this exact point to become abruptly much lower. I’m grateful for my hardhat, and I am sure it will come in handy a few more times before the tour is over.

The air is already very thin at 4000m (13,000ft) and the powerful mixture of fumes makes it hard to breath. I noticed it almost immediately when we entered and it’s getting worst the further we move into the mountain. I read that ¼ of all visitors have to leave the tour early, but I’m still surprised by how fast this is hitting me. I resolve to take deep, slow breaths—a strategy I take up only half-heartedly because each deep breath is filled with the acrid smell of silicon dust.

Edwine stops abruptly and motions for silence. We stand in the 2″ puddle of water between the narrow trolley tracks and wait. Far off in the distance there is a rumble. This is not a tourist attraction, it is a working mine in the third-world where safety is generally the responsibly of the supernatural. Just for a second my paranoia indulges the idea of a cave-in, but Edwine explains that we need to get off the track. An ore cart is coming. We quickly dodge rocks, tracks, and pipes to make our way into a large nook in the wall.

I’m starting to feel light-headed and I’m damned hot. The further we move into the mountain the hotter it gets. I welcome the break. My shirt sticks uncomfortably to my back and I pull my clinging shirt off my chest as though that will make it easier to breath. My imaginary rock slide slowly rumbles closer. For the first time I am stopped, and I can divert my attention to something other that avoiding injury. The rough, unbraced, slate grey walls are covered with white, slightly shimmery ‘stuff’. At first I only notice it on the wall across from me, and it looks like chips of mica. I see some on the wall next to me, too fibrous for mica. I lean into the wall to get my face up close for a better look when it dawns on me that it’s asbestos particles. I jerk my face away quickly. The trolley has almost arrived and my imaginary cave-in is so loud that I have to yell at Geoff as I point and say, “ASBESTOS FIBERS”. We look around and it’s everywhere. The walls glint with it as far as I can see in both directions of the shaft. Finally the trolley arrives, and I understand why it has taken so long. The ½ ton cart, overflowing with rock, is being pushed up to the surface by two skinny, sweaty, panting miners; cheeks budging with coca leaves. They seize the opportunity for a break and start a conversion with Edwine—no doubt in the hopes that they will get some of the goods we bought at the miner’s store. Eventually Edwine hands over a bag of coca leaves, which they accept with the same flatness and exhaustion that has marked the entire conversation. They reach for the edge of the trolley, strain hard and grunt to coax the trolley slowly underway again.

As we continue to walk I ask Edwine if what I’ve noticed on the walls is asbestos because I am in a bit of denial that these men work here without any protection. “Yes. Naturally occurring asbestos” is the response. “Oh! Naturally occurring asbestos. Nothing to worry about then” I think sarcastically to myself.

Edwine has been chewing coca since before we entered the mine. He must have noticed I was short of breath because he offers me a handful. What the hell. It can’t hurt to try. I’m given instruction to suck on the leaf—don’t chew. It will be to bitter. I pluck the stem off a few leaves and stick them in the side of my cheek.

We go left or right at a few forks in the shaft, and I am quite certain that under absolutely no circumstance could I find my way out of the mine.

There is a new thundering at the end of the shaft, but Edwine does not stop this time. Having passed a few trolleys by now, this sound seems different to me also. This is no rolling rumble. This is a short rapid pounding that reverberates down the claustrophobic, pitch passage against the walls. We stop a little further on and Edwine asks us if we have any toilette paper to put in out ears to block out the noise—not exactly OSHA approved, but better than nothing. We comply and he rips off two pieces from his green plastic coca leaf bag and stuffs them into his ears.

I’ve been sucking on my coca leaves for about 10 minutes now, and I am surprise to notice that the shortness of breath is almost gone. The miners claim that the coca can make you feel stronger and more alert, but I don’t feel any of that. I feel no intoxication either. It’s just much easier to breath. Maybe after centuries of mining they have learned a trick or two. Or maybe it’s just psychological. Truth is it worked either way and I’m happy about that.

Edwine motions for us to wait for him and he walks on in to the cave until the light from his headlamp vanishes. We are close now. It’s so loud that I can feel noise as much as I can hear it. It’s impossible to speak, so I stand there in the narrow darkness with Geoff as the vibration from the pounding resonates through my arms and chest. Abruptly the sound stops and the shaft falls into total silence. Somehow the cave seems to get darker without the distraction of the sound. My ears are ringing. The sound resumes and no more than a minute later Edwine’s light reappears. He has successfully negotiated permission for us to take a closer look. He motions and we follow him to the blunt dead-end of the shaft. Two men are using a 5ft long, 4ft tall drill to make blast holes in the rock-face. Our orange soft drink bottle and bag of coca sit on the side, payment no doubt. Nearby sits a white plastic pail of ammonium nitrate on top of which sits 12 sticks of dynamite that had been cut down to 6″, 12 one-foot lengths of fuse, and 12 detonator caps. The miners wear yellow hardhats and are dripping in the muddy water that splashes from the water cooled drill bit. Rock chips and mud fly by as one man guides the 3ft long drill bit with his bare hands. The other man shakes from hardhat to boots as he fights to control the twisting, pounding motion of the drill. The air is so thick with dust that I have a muddy past in my mouth. The miners wear no foam ear plugs, no safety glasses. A filthy, muds soaked square of jersey knit cloth covers the mouth of the drill operator. Like Edwine, they have stuffed pieces from coca leave bags into their ears. There life expectancy is 50 years. They will almost all die gasping for air and coughing up blood from the various diseases caused by silicoses, but not until they have lived at poverty levels with their families. They earn at most 1800 to 900 Bolivianos per month ($225 - $112 USD).

It takes 20 minutes before the massive drill is moved to a nearby alcove, and we all move up for a closer look. Completely disinterested and unwilling to engage in conversation, one of the miners goes about pushing the fuses and detonator caps into the sticks of dynamite. The sticks are then placed deep into blast holes which are then packed with ammonium nitrate. Without speaking, without making eye contact, without fanfare of any kind, a match is struck and the first fuse is light. The fuse crackles and spit sparks like a Fourth of July ‘sparkler’. “What the hell am I doing here” crosses my mind, and the three of us turn in unison towards our guide and state quite firmly! vamos! And with that we followed Edwine back the way we came. There are twelve sticks of dynamite embedded in ammonium nitrate about to explode behind me. My instinct is to run down the shaft, or at least walk real damned fast, but I look around and Edwine and all the other miners are slowly sauntering away. Quite positive that they have no death wish, I make myself do the same. So we walk for two minutes at the most—we haven’t gotten very far—when it happens. I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared. First a light breeze blows by, then a concussion of air hits. Bang! The sound of the blast is unimpressive compared to sensation of the concussion of air hitting compressing my body from all directions. Suddenly I am not thinking of anything else, I'm just waiting for the next explosion to hit. Consecutively eleven other concussions come with the same exhilarating effect. In between each blast Geoff and I laugh and carry on about what an incredible sensation this is. In sharp contrast are the nearby miners for whom this is very much an everyday experience.

For us what could possibly top that? We made our way back to the surface with only a short stop to make an offering to El Tío as thanks for safe passage. We broke into the sunshine still talking excitedly about our experience with exclamation of “That was much more than I expected” and “That was worth the price of admission”.