Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lagoons of all colors

 Saturday we set off relatively early because we had a lot of driving to do. I think we drove for about five or six hours straight at one point. If the previous day's theme had been salt, this day it was all about lagoons. Well, to get to the lagoons we had to drive through deserts. Deserts, upon deserts, upon deserts. Laguna Colorada was the highlight of the day, possibly the highlight of the trip for me. This is what I was most looking forward to, and it exceeded all my expectations. It is this huge lagoon, with red water– there were also hues of purple. The lake is red from the algae and plankton– and it is also very shallow, only 20 inches deep at the greatest depth, I think this plays a huge role in the color.

Before reaching Laguna Colorada we went to three or four others– none of them quite as amazing but still beautiful. In the summer these lagoons are home to thousands of flamingos, but all but a few brave souls have migrate to Chile for the winter. We ate a very late lunch at one of the lagoons, and because it was around 2:00 there were no other tourists in sight so we had the whole lagoon and about a hundred flamingos to ourselves. But to be honest, it was so cold and windy that we all sat in the jeep and waited until lunch was ready.

We spent the second night in another small, unheated, salt hotel. Dinner that night was spaghetti with a bottle of wine to celebrate our last night together. Or I am assuming that is why Garcia gave us wine. Oh, I can't believe I didn't mention this in my last post: dinner the first night of the tour was llama! None of us knew what we were eating– we were all very confused about the chewy, white t-bone that we had been served. The next day I asked Garcia what it was, and he said llama. It was pretty good, just very tough meat!


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No, I didn't go to Antarctica

Pure salt. Not snow.
Salar de Uyuni is a massive salt flat in Southeast Bolivia. In fact, it is the largest salt flat in the world, at a whopping 12,603 square kilometers (4,000 plus square miles). And of course, it wouldn't be Bolivian unless I mentioned the altitude– the salt flat sits at 3653 meters. In Bolivia, everything is high. It is hard to believe that the salt flats were once underwater considering the high altitude, but it is the truth. 25,000-40,000 years ago this area was called Lake Minchin, but  it evaporated and voila– the salt flats! Actually, there were another couple lakes a few thousand years later and then they also evaporated and now we have the Salar de Uyuni leaving tons, literally tons, of salt deposits. An estimated 18,000-25,000 tons of salt is harvested every year– and the flats contain approximately 10 billion tons of salt! Beneath this salt crust is half the world's supply of lithium. 
The salt is piled like this so the water drains out, then it is
I went on a three day tour of the salt flats and the surrounding views– including a national park and it was absolutely incredible. I am now really aware and self conscious of the words I use to describe sights and attractions since there were two Germans on my tour that loved to mimic Americans. I couldn't say a place was beautiful without the two of them saying– "ohmygod, I love it! I have to call my mom!" Even though they would laugh right now if they read this and saw me using the word incredible to describe it, there is no other way to put it. The salt flats and the surrounding attractions are truly a masterpiece of nature.

So how this tour worked: I had a jeep, a driver, and five other tourists with me. I was so lucky to be in such a fun and energetic group. I think they actually made the experience so much better, regardless of who I was with the sights still would have been unbelievable, but I wouldn't necessarily have had as much fun as I did. We drove 1000 kilometers in three days– across the salt flats and deserts. Somehow, I got shotty the whole time so I had the best views. At night, we slept in frigid temperatures in get this.... salt hotels. Yes, hotels made of salt. Big blocks of salt. Our beds, made of salt (not the mattresses obviously). The tables, made of salt. Benches, made of salt. The floor, made of salt. The toilet... not made of salt. Somehow I failed to take a photo. Probably because my hands were too numb to hold a camera. It was so cold, supposedly it gets to -15 degrees Celcius at night but I don't think it was that cold. Luckily, our beds had three heavy wool blankets, plus a duvet, and our tour agency gave us sleeping bags. With my spandex, three sweaters, hat, gloves, and scarf I was set for the night. There is no heat, or electricity for that matter. The power only comes on for two hours from 7 to 9 during dinner.
I told you, giant cacti.

The first day we drove across the salt flats, stopping at Isla Incahauasi for lunch. This island is covered in giant cacti and coral (remnants from the salt-water lake). The island is surrounded by the salt flats– seeing the giant cacti in contrast with their blinding white surroundings was surreal. They just looked so out of place! When we were eating lunch we all agreed that the quinoa was lacking salt, so one of the Germans just wandered out to what appeared to be a clean and untouched patch of salt and brought some back to the table.

The salt flats are amazing places to take photos because they are so vast and endless– cameras lose all sense of depth. We took some funny group photos– but unfortunately they aren't on my camera. Hopefully at some point they will get emailed to me or I will get them off of facebook. I wish we had taken more photos, but our driver, Garcia, was always in a rush to get going to the next place. I guess that was the only disappointing part of my tour. Garcia wasn't a bad tour guide, he just wasn't good. He simply did his job. I feel like he almost viewed the tour as a race, he was trying to beat the other drivers to our final destination. He wasn't driving too fast– I always felt safe. But he definitely did not like to stop, and because of this I have way less photos than I would like. Well, guess I need to go to the salt flats again, but next time during the rainy season when there is a thin layer of water on the salt, producing a giant natural mirror. Bolivia in November, anyone?
There were also llamas roaming around. They kept getting in
the way of all our photo shoots.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Juan y los frijoles mágicos

Today I started my project with the first, second, and third graders. I found Jack and the Beanstalk translated into Spanish and printed out the story in the form of a book and gave each student a page to illustrate. Next week I will bind all these pages together so their drawings become a real book that will be in the library. Then, comes part two of the project: students are all going to be growing their own bean plants in small containers. They all seem excited about the idea and I am too. For the older children we are going to be starting a school garden– this is a little harder to organize than a bean plant in a container. We are in the process of getting this all together, but it should be great. I also want to do some nutrition activities with them, teach them about the food pyramid, etc. Lots of ideas, not a lot of time!

Tomorrow night I am off for a long weekend trip– it is a holiday on Friday so there is no work on Thursday and Friday... I can live with that! So, until Sunday or Monday!


Ojo del Inca

As cool as Saturday was, Sunday was absolutely incredible, probably my favorite day in Bolivia
Laundry hanging up to dry, and in the
background people washing their clothes.
thus far. I went to Ojo del Inca, this amazing naturally heated lagoon on top of these beautiful hills. I had a lot of fun getting there. I went to a tour agency and asked how much it cost and they told me 80 Bolivianos, which I thought was way too much. So I found my own way by taking the local bus, which only cost 4 Bolivianos. I told the driver where I wanted to go, and after about thirty minutes he pulled over on the highway, pointed at me, and said Ojo del Inca. So, there I was, stranded on this Bolivian highway all by myself. I quickly saw that on the other side of the river there were a lot of people. So I wandered on over to find out that it wasn't Ojo del Inca, it was just a hot spring where people were doing their laundry– it was a Sunday after all. Laundry day!

I asked someone where Ojo del Inca was and he told me to walk uphill for a kilometer. I think he was lying, it was way more than a kilometer. Either that or I am just really out of shape. I walked up this dusty road surrounded by the most beautiful mountains. On second thought, maybe the reason why it took me so long to get there is because I stopped so many times to take photos and just appreciate the beauty around me. When I finally arrived at Ojo del Inca I was the only tourist there– awesome! This nice man named Freddy came over and explained the lagoon to me, and told me I should go swimming. Well, I had my bathing suit with me anyway so I thought, why not. Once I had changed he told me to dive in. Dive in from the shore. I said, I won't hit my head? He said no. So I took a leap of faith, or a dive a faith, and went head first into the water. I can't even explain that feeling of being suspended in the air for that split second before entering this amazing lagoon. It was incredible, I just felt so at peace. When I did hit the water I was shocked to feel how warm it was–86 degrees! And, I didn't hit the bottom. Diving from the shore into this lake, well it was quite amazing. I just swam around and relaxed taking in the amazing view around me. I was so happy at that moment. Sometimes, I just can't believe how beautiful this world is and how lucky I am to see and experience these amazing places. Besides the view, swimming in a naturally heated, almost perfectly circular lagoon was also incredible. It was so strange to swim in the warm water because the air around me was so cold. Whenever I lifted my arm out of the water I got goosebumps. Eventually, I made my way out, dried off, and continued to explore the area. There were a few more pools that were actually boiling hot. Literally.
A beautiful view
I started the slow, dusty descent back to the road where I waited until a bus going to Potosi rounded the corned and I waved it down. I left Potosi feeling very happy– all in all it was a great trip.

I read somewhere, or maybe someone told me, that in Bolivia the lower the elevation the nicer the people because they don't have to deal with the harsh conditions of a high altitude. In the case of Potosi, I can't think of anything more untrue. I found the locals so incredibly friendly and helpful. For example, when I got into Potosi at 8:30 at night (stupid to arrive in a strange city when it is completely dark out) someone from my bus helped me find my hotel. I had asked the woman sitting next to me if we were near the street where my hostel was and the man sitting in front overheard and said he lived nearby. This was one of those situations where I was like, okay should I trust this complete stranger. I made him show me exactly where we were on the map and then payed close attention to every turn we took, and eventually we wound up right at my hostel's front step. Mom, don't worry: it was well lit and there were people around me the whole time. If he led me down some dark alleyway I obviously wouldn't have followed. I find that one of the most difficult things about traveling: when to trust people and when to know when someone doesn't have the best intentions. This man clearly was just a very helpful person. He was so nice, we chatted the whole way. Then, when I was leaving Potosi I asked this couple walking down the street what letter micro goes to the bus station. They told me, and then waited at the bus stop with me until the micro came and I was onboard. Isn't that just so nice?! Gosh, I love Bolivians.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Casa de la Moneda

Casa de la Moneda from the outside. It is a beautiful building!
So after my exciting morning, I returned to my hostel (which was the best hostel I have ever stayed in. If anyone ever goes to Potosi.. the Koala Den is where it's at) and took a nice hot long shower and was very happy to do so. Potosi is really cold because the altitude. Then, I made myself go to this museum that my Lonely Planet just raves about. It is the called Casa de la Moneda, the mint museum. Back when Potosi was a booming city, money was coined right in this huge, beautiful building. Okay, so maybe it was because I had such high expectations thanks to LP, or maybe I was just really tired, or maybe it was because this was basically the coldest museum in the world and I wore my gloves, hat, scarf, and jacket the whole time, but it was not what I had expected it to be. It was interesting, but I was grumpy because we had to have a tour guide and my guide in particular really liked to just speed through all the rooms. I had no time to look at things on my own. Also, it was sort of expensive on Bolivian standards, 40 Bolivanos for a ticket, so about $6 and you couldn't take pictures unless you paid an additional 20 Bolivanos. But, Hannah, I snuck this photo just for you:
So. Many. Minerals.
The museum was just an amazing building.
No, I am being a bit bitter. It was a very interesting museum and I am glad that I went.  Something that I found really interesting is that the US dollar sign comes from Potosi. Because the mint stamp was a PTSI, all layered on top of each other so part of it looked liked this $. Also, Bolivanos and dollars use to be equivalent. Thank goodness that isn't the case anymore because otherwise I would have long ago exhausted my Global Citizen Funds.
There was one really cheesy part in the museum. They had this exhibition with these stuffed mules displaying how the machines that flattened the coins were powered It was cool: there were these huge machines on the second floor with three or four large wooden gears. This machine extended down to the first floor, where it was powered by mules. So the cheesy part was when our tour guide said, it was very loud and noisy with all the mules working, then she flipped on this switch and this really soft background noise started: just mules breathing basically. The tour lasted for a little over an hour and then we were all rushed out of the museum, so I didn't even have time to go back and look at some galleries that I wanted to check out again. But, I wasn't that upset because at that point I had lost all feeling in my fingers and toes. I am glad I went because I learned a lot about the minting process, something that I knew near to nothing, but I wish I had gone earlier in the day when the temperatures were a wee bit higher.
random photo of Potosi
And another random photo of Potosi with Cerro Rico in
the background. Wherever you are in the city, you can
always see Cerro Rico.

Las minas de Potosi

Cerro Rico.
Friday night I made my way to the worlds' tallest city. Altitude: 4090 meters, or 13,420 feet. Potosi, is quite an interesting city. Legend has it that a man was herding his llamas when one of them wandered off up a mountain. The man followed the llama, but it quickly became dark so he decided to camp out on the mountain. He started a campfire and to his surprise the ground began bubbling beneath him, and a shiny silver liquid oozed out, for the mountain he was camping on was full of silver. Potosi is called Potosi because the silver made a poto-shiiii sound when it was bubbling (the Spaniards couldn't pronounce this properly, which is why it is now pronounced Poto-see). Spaniards quickly found out about this mountain of silver and Potosi was founded in 1545, and was once the richest city in South America. In fact, it was said to be even wealthier than major cities in Spain and France, all because the amount of silver extracted from Cerro Rico, "rich hill." No one knows exactly how much silver was extracted from Cerro Rico, but it has been estimated to be approximately 137 million pounds. The legend on the 16th century Potosi coat of arms read, "I am rich Potosi, Treasure of the world. The king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings."
The city of Potosi.
Although Cerro Rico was the introduction to wealth for the city of Potosi, it was also a death sentence for those working in the mines. In three centuries, an estimated eight million people died in the mines. Eight million! Because of this, Cerro Rico is also known as, "The mountain that eats men." Many of the workers were indigenous Bolivians and African slaves who were brought to South America specifically to work in Cerro Rico's mines. Rotation systems were set up where miners would work for twelve hours at a time, but in their twelve "free" hours they would never leave the mine. The slaves would spend four straight months in the mine, never seeing sunlight. The life expectancy for these miners after working nonstop in such harsh conditions was only six more months to a year. The main cause of death was mercury poisoning and lung disease, mainly silicosis. Of course, there were also mining accidents.

By the 1800s Cerro Rico, wasn't too rico anymore, the silver was almost completely depleted so miners turned to zinc and tin. Today, the thousands of miners who still work in the mines are hoping to get lucky and strike a vein of silver. It is a rough, rough life to be a miner– I don't think I could ever do it. Most people who work in the mines don't live over 45– again, the main cause of this is silicosis. When miners have 50% silicosis of the lungs they can retire and collect miner's pension. But at that point, they really will only have a few years, or months, to live. Before going to Potosi I watched a film called The Devil's Miner. It is a documentary following the life of a 14 year-old boy as he works in the mines to support his family. He started working when he was 10; he had no choice but to turn to the mines when his father passed away and he became the sole provider for his family. It is a very moving and well done film and I highly recommend it to anyone.

So, after all this information about the mines and how dangerous they are... can you believe that I donned long pants, a long shirt, rubber boots, and a helmet equipped with a headlight and went into the mines for a full two hours? Yup, I did. This tour is definitely not for the claustrophobic as we were squeezing through small, dark, dirty spaces. When going down to the second level I actually had to get on my stomach and army crawl down this rock shaft. I kept a bandana over my mouth the whole time because I was nervous about breathing in all the dust and chemicals. The air was so thick, heavy,and just dirty feeling. And it was hot– on the third level it got to be 104º Farenheit. There are four levels, we went to the first three, the fourth is where the miners are still working so it is off-limit to tourists, for a good reason I would say! Even though we didn't descend to the working level, we did pass a few miners. There were two times where we had to stop and find a wide enough place where we could press our backs against the wall as a cart full of minerals zoomed by on the tracks. When we passed miners they would say, "buenas noches" which means goodnight (in a hello sense, not goodbye). It was explained that miners never say good morning or good afternoon because it is always dark in the mines; it is always night. What a depressing outlook. We also met a miner along the way who was taking a break– sitting on the floor, back against the rocks, with a big wad of coca leaves packed in his cheek. Miners chew coca leaves to combat fatigue, hunger, and  pain. Coca leaves also help with the high altitude, although at this point of his life, he must be acclimated. This man had been working for 24 hours straight– and the crazy thing is, that isn't uncommon. Miners will often take double shifts. We left him with a bottle of coca cola– he is the guy in the photo on the left side.
It was difficult to take photos while in the mine! But the blurry
effect is sort of cool.
We didn't only visit the mines but the miner's market and the refining plant. At the miner's market we bought gifts to bring to the miners– water, coca leaves, and soda. Someone on my tour even bought dynamite, because yup, they just casually have it sitting out at the market. Anyone can buy a stick of
In the refining plant.
dynamite for the equivalent of 2 dollars (I think– however much it was, it was cheap!) I didn't really want to walk around with a stick of dynamite in my pocket so I opted not to buy any. Then we went to the refining plant, where we saw the equipment that they use to separate the minerals, etc. This was the one part of the tour that I didn't really follow– the tour was in Spanish and I just didn't know all the words for the chemicals and the machinery. But I did gather that it is very dangerous, and back in the old days they used mercury to help with refining... hence the mercury poisoning that I mentioned earlier. So I guess in comparison it is now safe... you know, since they aren't breathing in mercury anymore. Oh, here is a fun fact: Before entering the mines, I took a shot of alcohol. 96% alcohol. Ewwwww ewww ewww. When I say shot, I mean a capful. And when I say alcohol, I mean it was literally a bottle of rubbing alcohol that back in the states is used for medical purposes. Our tour guide took the first capful, but before tipping it back he said, "Para Pachamama, para el Tio, para protección para todos, y protección para mi." When he said for Pachamama and for el Tio he dumped some of the alcohol on the ground. So when it was my turn, I made sure that Pachamama and el Tio got more than their fair share of my capful of rubbing alcohol. I just wanted to give them a worthy offering (aka I wanted to drink as little of the rubbing alcohol as possible) SO GROSS.
El Tio
You may be confused about Pachamama and el Tio. Pachamama is mother earth, or the good mother. El Tio, is the devil that is worshiped by the miners. The Spaniards invented el Tio to scare the indigenous into working. The Spaniard didn't call Tio, Tio, they actually had said Dio, God. However, the indigenous couldn't pronounce Dio, because there is no D in Quechua (one of Bolivia's indigenous languages). So they said Tio. Each of Cerro Rico's 44 mines has a Tio, and everyday when miners first enter the mine they offer Tio coca leaves or some other offering.
Making our way through.
My day in the mines was an interesting experience. I am glad I did it, but I would never do it again. I was so incredibly happy when I caught my first glimpse of sunlight. Being in the mines was just
I don't know how I possibly look this happy. This is me
crawling through that rock shaft, so I really
wasn't smiling like this... I guess I am a good
terrible. It is so dark, and wet, and hot, and scary, and just awful. It is terrifying to know that at any second something could go wrong and the whole entire place could cave in– it is a working mine... just think about what happened in Chile a couple years ago. It is strange to be a tourist paying to go into the mines when miners are there working, just trying to scrape by. It is almost like they are being exploited, but at the same time tourism is keeping this city afloat. I guess I am a mixed bag of emotions/thoughts when it comes to this tour. It is like riding an elephant, you really don't want to do it because it is almost like animal abuse– but when else are you going to ride an elephant? Does this make any sense? Probably not. At the end of the day, I am just happy I am not a miner and I wish all the miners will find a vein of silver that will give them a lifetime of wealth so they never have to enter those mines again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Profe Emma

Do you like my drawings on the whiteboard behind them? This
was a game to quiz them on body parts!
Yesterday I was back in Pampa Aceituno. The Bolivian school system seems a bit strange– I still haven't quite figured it out. The right term for it may be laid back– or at least in the rural school of Pampa Aceituno. For example, yesterday when we arrived at 8:30, thirty minutes after school is supposed to start, the children were all milling around on the huge concrete slab that serves as a playground. There were no teachers to be seen. In fact, there were no teachers anywhere. Lise and I were the only "adults" (I don't like calling myself an adult) on sight. After playing with the kids for ten of fifteen minutes, a group of older students asked me if I would teach them English until their teacher arrived. So, that is what I did. When the teacher did walk into the classroom around 9:00 (I never found out why they were all late) she let me keep teaching English for the next hour. These kids know basically no English. I was teaching them phrases like, "Hello, what is your name?" And words like girl, boy, cat, dog. It was a high school flashback as I was using the teaching method of my foreign language teachers, meaning I was mainly using gestures but also making the kids get up and move around to act out the words. ¡Gracias, Señor Parrett!
One of the classrooms. As you can, it is very simple.
At first, it was very shocking that these students have such a limited knowledge of English, but when I think about it, it makes sense. All the countries surrounding Bolivia are Spanish speaking and most of the tourists that come to Bolivia are proficient in Spanish. There is almost no reason to learn English. Even outside the school system, no one speaks English to me. In tourist information booths, restaurants and even the airport it is all Spanish. This was a shock, coming from Southeast Asia where everybody and their mother was trying to learn English and was beyond eager to practice with any foreigner they met. Or saw. Really, I was often approached by strangers and would have ten or twenty minute long conversations. So to only be spoken to in Spanish, was (is?) a difficult transition. But it is good for me, because it means I am basically completely immersed in Spanish.  Southeast Asia flashback: over. Back to Bolivia and Pampa Aceituno: at 10:00 the kids have recess so my English class was dismissed. I went back to the library and helped do inventory and label books. But this didn't last for long since one of the students in an upper grade approached me and requested that I go teach the 7th graders' English. So, I got to play profe again. This time I taught body parts– again making the kids move around– I tried to make it as interactive and fun as possible. I hope that everyday I go to Pampa Aceituno I get to teach English because I really enjoyed it and felt so useful!

Oh, I never finished my explanation of why the Bolivian school system confuses me. I don't think
Students walking back home... hoping some sort of truck will
drive by so they can get a free ride instead of walking for an
hour plus.
there is really a zoning plan for the schools. There are kids that live in Sucre who go to Pampa Aceituno for school, even though there are plenty of public schools right in the city. I asked Lise why these children travel twenty-five minutes everyday to go to this small and isolated school way up in the mountains. She told me the reason is because Pampa Aceituno is cheaper. I still don't fully understand, but I guess that the schools in the city require students to have more supplies than rural schools, such as Pampa Aceituno, do. It is hard to believe that families have to send their children to a school much further away because they require less books and pencils. I don't know for sure, but it seems like the public schools in Sucre are more organized and may offer a better education than the rural schools do, but again: I have no idea if this is actually true. In Bolivia, public school's tuition may be free, but supplies aren't– and this can be the limiting factor to a child's education. It is a terrible realization but unfortunately, it is the truth; that is just how impoverished some families are.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pampa Aceituno

¡Bienvenido a la biblioteca!
Yesterday I had my first experience in one of BiblioWorks’ libraries. I traveled to Pampa Aceituno, which is about 25 minutes outside of Sucre. To get there we took a micro, which is what the local bus system is called, as far as we could, then we waited on the side of the road with a dozen children or so until a truck was going to Pampa Aceituno, and we all clambered into the back of the truck. It was a fun ride, being surrounded by all these school children as we drove up the twisting dirt road. I was with Lise, one of BiblioWorks’ staff members who is still in University, and another volunteer, named Charlotte. This particular library is a school library, so it is right in the school, which is great for me because it means that I get to observe the Bolivian school system.  Pampa Aceituno’s library only opened a few weeks ago, it is BiblioWorks’ 9th library. Therefore, it is really getting its feet off the ground so to speak. Charlotte and I have a ton of ideas for activities to get the kids really excited about the library and wanting to use it more. Charlotte is a different sort of volunteer than I am, she was originally working with street children but heard about BiblioWorks so now is doing a pen pal program between the street children in Sucre and these children in Pampa Aceituno. So that was the main activity that we did yesterday. My main focus is going to be nutrition, and hopefully we will be able to start a school/library garden as well as doing some container gardening right in the library. The school has approved the garden idea, so now it is a matter of getting all the supplies and putting in the work. I have a lot of other ideas beside the garden and I just hope that I will have the time to make these ideas into reality.

School runs from 8:00-12:15ish. We finished the pen pal letters around 11, so for the rest of the school day we participated in the kindergartner’s gym class, which was just dancing. It was so much fun. Then we had lunch with the kids, rice and sardines. Every day a different mother, or two mothers, will cook lunch for all the kids. There are about 100 students– yeah, it was a lot of food! It was fun to eat lunch with them, but unfortunately I don’t think my stomach agreed with the sardines as later that afternoon I ended up back in my room really sick. All night long. But, I am feeling much better this morning. Tomorrow I am back to Pampa Aceituno.
dancing with the students.

 the "lunch ladies" of the day

This was the daughter of one of the mothers working
in the kitchen. She was so cute!