Monday, February 24, 2014

The mountain that eats men

The "mountain that eats men" is a common nickname given to Cerro Rico by the locals of Potosi, Bolivia.

Potosi, the historic mining town of Bolivia, South America, and the world, sits at around four kilometres above sea level in between Sucre and the famous salt flats of Uyuni. Potosi saw a boom in growth, wealth, and prosperity during the 16th century when Silver (among other minerals) was discovered in the mountain looming over the town's edge. Upon this discovery, the Spanish throne ordered the immediate and complete exploitation of this mountain for every last silver coin that it may hold. The mining is still going to this day in Potosi, although to a much lesser extent and with nationalized coops running the operations.

It is said that upon the boom era of the 1540's, Potosi grew to one of the largest and richest cities in the world, with a population topping 200,000 (fairly large for that day in age). Unfortunately, the boom that placed the city on the map did not leave much behind except some beautiful architecture and a sizable scar on the lives of local Potosinos. It is estimated that since the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico and the beginning of its extraction, some 8 million Bolivians have died (in addition to numerous African slaves shipped over to help fuel the efforts).

Today there are several tours offered that take you inside the mines and teach you about the history and the refining process of silver. Our tour guide was quite the show, and he had a lot of enthusiasm to keep us on our toes as well. In addition to poking constant jokes and keeping us engaged the entire four hours of the tour, he went as far as passing real sticks of dynamite around for us to fondle, explaining how fuses and nitroglycerin work. He then lodged a dynamite stick in the German girls' shirt, holding the match to the fuse to show that it will only ignite in certain spots.... Aha!, I love tours in Bolivia - there's a reason why the souvenir shirt always reads: "I survived ____in ____, Bolivia"

After we had gotten out of the dynamite house with some gifts of: dynamite(of course), bottled water, and coca leaves for the miners (and our lives), we were shown where they processed the silver in a facility located right in Potosi. This part was interesting, but the real highlight of the tour was saved for last: one and a half hours navigating the dark and winding mine shafts of Cerro Rico. To be quite honest, this scared me a bit more than the death road tour outside of La Paz did. Although the biking implied the chance of plummeting a kilometre down a steep cliff to your unpredictable demise, in the mines we had: absolutely no control of our fate, had no idea where we were going, could barely see anything, were pressed into tight tunnels - at times nearly crawling as the ceiling came down to a mere three feet of passage, and this all while struggling to steal our gasps of oxygen through the gaseous fumes of the minerals and their extraction. We had bandanas covering our nose to help with the heavy airborne particles, but this didn't help much to fend off the fumes we could not entirely escape. There is no ventilation system or assisted breathing mechanisms and the only safety measure that has finally come into effect in the mines is the wearing of helmets (and only recently to my understanding).

Additional risk factors leading to the high death toll in the mines of Potosi are tied to culture. The culture to drink heavily means that many workers come to work either drunk or hungover in the morning, and then head into the mines for 8 hours with nothing more than some coca leaves and possibly some more hard alcohol. It is also custom to bring offerings of alcohol and coca leaves to gift to El Tio (the uncle), a devilish looking relic/idol sitting inside one of the mine shafts. The beliefs state that he will keep the miners safe and protect their silver if they leave offerings for him. To me this sounds like a deal with the devil, yet unfortunately this was a last resort to many, with a highly superstitious culture and no other options for employment.

The tour was a very moving experience and shed light on yet another heavy topic of the trials and tribulations that the indigenous people of South America have suffered throughout history. What is sad is that the mining continues to this very day, as the economy has literally placed all of its eggs in one basket. This means there are few other career options for local Potosinos to enter unless they manage to educate themselves and flee to the surrounding regions of Bolivia. Furthermore, the limited safety measures and culture to drink on the job have not changed. It is at least this point that could be addressed in my opinion, maybe reducing the steady death toll that the mountain that eats men continues to claim.

Mines of Potosi - The Video

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tierra Padillense (the land of Padilla)

First Impressions

Where on earth do I start;

located four hours from Sucre by bus, I feel that my complete appreciation for Sucre only became fully apparent after visiting something smaller and more rustic to put my perspectives in check. This is not to say that there is a void of beauty and unique characteristics to Padilla (it truly is a marvel on its own), this is simply stating that: the size and level of development within any city must be held in complete relative terms; the discomforts and unfamiliarity experienced in one place are always subject to subconscious comparison alongside another place that you either have or have not been to. Although a fairly brief visit, my experience of Padilla was an enriching one, one that taught me many things: things not only about the rural areas and municipalities that I am working with, but also about myself, and how comfort-zones can be broken and reformed within relatively short time lapses.

My journey began at seemingly random bus station in Sucre (not the main bus terminal). Small micro-bus companies are scattered around the neighborhood and basically each have their own small 'office' where people come and wait for the bus to arrive.

We left on time and the bus itself was not as full as I was expecting it to be, I was lucky and had legroom. the road out of Sucre set the tone for the following four hours, winding mountain highways, rising up above the valleys, and then dipping down into the very same valleys with shadows of the looming mountains overhead. Something I noticed almost immediately was the constant glimpses I was catching of old train tracks along the way. They were often half buried or overgrown with soil and plant life, yet still remaining quite visible throughout the first half of the journey. (I was later told by fellow passenger on my trip back to Sucre that the tracks were abandoned approximately 20 years ago, when the government either ran dry of funding, or simply lost interest on the project; a phenomenon that seems quite prevalent in the country).
Upon my arrival I was greeted by my friend and co-worker, Nicholas, and he proceeded to show me around the town, greeting and introducing me to every single person we passed as if he had become friends with all of the supposed 2,000 inhabitants. Now I have read somewhere that there are 2,000 (approx.) within the built-up area of Padilla, though for myself this was hard to believe. It is always interesting to see how our minds perceive places and sizes, and my mind perceived Padilla to be very small (although in comparison to other surrounding towns, it is actually quite large). We passed by the houses of his friends, other co-workers, and other acquaintances from who knows where, all greeting him as the sole white person in town (this may not be entirely true, as there is rumour of another white person in the midst of Padilla, a German woman; however, I did not encounter her during my two days there, so I will wait to hear back from Nicholas to see if she surfaces).

One particular co-worker of Nicholas that we encountered was the official driver for the Municipality of Padilla, one who drives the Mayor around and is in charge of moving the 'officials' to and from the town. It was 6 pm on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and we approached him from the opposite side of the vehicle he was attempting to enter, attempting to surprise him. Nicholas sneaked up behind the SUV and began to rock the vehicle back and forth, to evoke a reaction out of him. After a good 5-10 seconds of doing so (and rocking the vehicle quite hard), we came around to see that he was extremely inebriated, so much that he was unable to open the door to the SUV or notice the entire vehicle rocking back and forth (very noticeable for a sober person). Once we presented ourselves in plain sight, we attempted to chat with him for a while with the attempt proving quite futile, as there was barely any coherent words escaping his mouth in this moment. We continued to explore a bit more of the town before grabbing some dinner and heading back to Nicholas' house for the rest of the night.

-As substance abuse is seen all over the world, it was sad to see someone in this state on a Sunday afternoon. And although not quite to this extreme, Nicholas says that it is very common to find people in a similar state, on all days of the week. It begs to ask the question as to why this culture has become so engrained in Bolivia (along with other countries); is it a sign of sheer boredom, lack of motivation stemming from little opportunity? It could come from many things and this is as significant a problem as any when it comes to development work -

As many bloggers may do, at some point or another there needs to be some commentary on the cuisine or unique food experiences had. In the case of Padilla, there is a very basic set lunch menu that will put you back under two dollars for: a soup (broth, grains, a few vegetables, and either a bone or some meat), along with a main plate consisting of some type of meat with a mountain of rice and baked potatoes. As this comes at a good price and gives the people the energy they need, there is definitely a lacking of variation and nutritional value in terms of vitamins. My culinary highlight of my stay when I was strolling over to one of the few stands in front of a someone's house, displaying a few assorted baked goods. I selected a small slice of cake and an alfajore(tasty dulce de leche-filled cookie), both at one Boliviano each. (7 Bs to 1 USD). I asked the lady what flavor the cake was, as it embodied a slight tinge of the colour orange. She responded: "Fanta"... The cake was Fanta cake, I suppose this means they pour some refined carbonated soda product into a cake mix and voila! Fanta cake.

Tourism Promotion for Padilla

The town of Padilla has some marvelous sights that are fairly nearby. The purpose of my visit was to meet with Nicholas and a few other team members in Padilla to select which attractions we would choose to promote and further develop, in an attempt to attract more external tourism dollars into Padilla. There is already a very popular Carnaval event that happens once a year, yet this is short-lived, and there needs to be a stronger promotion of year-round activities for tourists. From a morning meeting with our new project team, we arrived at the following two promotional themes: History (Incan ruins and the nearby "El Corte"), and Nature (flora and fauna). Our first field visit came the following morning and left me in awe of the beauty that lied at mere 5 km from Padilla.

El Corte

We took a couple motorbikes for the 4 km dirt road that lead to a barbed-wire fence. Here we parked the bikes and began our final one km walk in. The trail descended past eroded mounds of dried out soils, leading down into troughs where flash floods had passed. We entered a short segment of the trail that was tree covered, and then almost immediately reappeared on the other side of the trees to serene beauty that I had no idea existed so close to the town.

It is said that hundreds of years back, the valley in which Padilla lies used to be a gigantic lagoon filled with water. The settlers of the time (colonizers from Spain was my interpretation), decided to drain the area to created highly fertile 'pampas' that would yield healthy and plentiful crops. In order to do this they needed to carve out an area of rock to allow the water to drain out of the lagoon. This is why they call this spot "el corte" (literally, "the cut"). The ecosystem thriving within el corte was just as beautiful as the location itself. In our short one hour visit we spotted a baby coral snake, a beautiful little frog, and were told that pumas roamed the areas as well, but were lucky to not see any that morning...
Although the town of Padilla may have never came to be if the rock had never been cut and the lagoon drained, there is a constant lack of water now, with the rainy season the only time of year when one can somewhat rely on running water in the town. In addition to this, the town experiences frequent electricity cuts, with people losing power within their homes. As the climate is host to neither extreme heat nor extreme cold, the electricity cuts mostly affect people's refrigerators, along with the restaurants need to keep their meat products from going bad as most everyone eats lunch at these local spots. As Nicholas mentioned to me many times, there has been way too much of the town's money placed into grandiose construction projects, when there has been a major lack of attention on the basic needs: water, power, etc. Some food for thought. (but make sure that the meat in the food has been properly refrigerated, and the vegetables washed with clean water...)

Please leave comments and share any thoughts of Padilla, I'm sure Nicholas (and I) will appreciate :)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sorojchi - La Paz

What better way to start this post off than to share with everyone how my arrival in La Paz was one of my most dramatic arrivals in a foreign country for me yet!

I have been to La Paz in the past, which sits at more than 4,000 meters above sea level. I have also been to another high-standing capital: Quito, Ecuador at a far less 2,800 meters, with neither of them giving me any serious problem regarding altitude sickness. That being said, my previous trip through La Paz was arriving by land from Cuzco, Peru, which already sits at around 3,400 meters, having allowed me some time to acclimatize prior to reaching the daunting 4,000 meter mark.

Arriving this time was a little bit of a learning experience as to how important these midway altitude stopovers are in working your way towards a goal. It makes a big difference when you allow your body to adapt little by little, and not take off in Miami one night and land in La Paz the next morning at 5:30 am, only to walk out the plane doors and to be kicked in the face with the infamous Sorojchi - aka: Soroche, MAM (mal de montana), mal de altura, etc. I think you get the picture. The initial minutes clambering off the plane with little sleep from the cramped and brief flight down from MIA did not leave me much time to grasp the reality of what was about to come next. I stumbled down that little portable hallway that brings you into the terminal where every crams together and waits to forfeit their little declaration cards and receive their immigration stamps. Even coming down the hallway these first few steps was quite the experience, as I was not totally sure if it was my vision swaying or the people walking ahead of me. I waited for Nicholas to gather his things and catch up with me, as we began our crawl towards the little boxed people who collect cards and stamp passports.

Some nifty little anti-altitude sickness pills
that are supposed to help...
Every step I took I realized things were definitely not improving. I continually felt the need to bend down and put my hands on my knees as if I had just finished a marathon; I was not catching my breathe and the symptoms proceeded. To make matters more interesting, my feeling of heat and strange sweats had taken a timely reversal to a very cold feeling that run across my face. Now we were up to the front and Nicholas was called up next, moving to one of the immigration booths.... It was at this exact point in time that I define as my low-light to my first day in Bolivia: As I waited to see someone wave me over, I suddenly realized that I was no longer able to see anyone wave, or anyone at all for that matter, or the floor... I struggled to maintain consciousness as I knew what was happening, I was on the verge of blacking out and I was not going to let that happen. I concentrated as hard as I could while gasping for the thin, fleeting O2 molecules that floated around me. I managed to make out a women working with the immigration process next to me and explained my not so pleasant situation; she ever so kindly led me to a chair a mere ten feet away and helped me sit down.

I spent another good fifteen minutes here as my vision came back and a slightly better grasp on coping with my new environment in which I would not escape for at least another week. I then took note of the sharp taste of blood coming from somewhere within my... mouth? It could have been some veins at the back of my sinuses for all I know but it never got to the point of escaping to the outside thankfully. Nicholas had turned back and asked if all was okay, and then grinned and exclaimed: "I thought you were looking a little whiter than normal in the face before". It was after I was back on my feet that we noticed an oxygen supply bar only another 20-30 feet away. Much to my dismay it was still closed as our arrival was too early...

The oxygen bar we spotted after the fact :(

All said and done, we made it out of the airport, suitcases and bags in hand and found our taxi driver waiting patiently to guide us on our descent down the crater into La Paz and the South of the city where we would be staying (almost an entire kilometer drop in altitude from "El Alto" where the airport is situated). The sun was out and the air was fresh, the perfect mix to help me feel a little better, along with taking a few photos while I did so.

We arrived at our hotel, which was beautiful, and opted for a much needed short nap before some brunch and a little exploring of the city. However, this nap and the previous night were not quite enough so I will be heading in a little early tonight to prepare for our orientation tomorrow with the Cuso team here in La Paz.

View looking out over our garden
View from our stairwell

I wish you all goodnight as I drift off into a slumber of red blood-cell building. Wish me luck!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Abuela Grillo - Water privatization in Bolivia

A short film shedding light on the water privatization issues in Bolivia.

An animated short-film produced in The Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark. The Animation Workshop included: Nicobis, Escorzo, and the entire Community of Bolivians Animators and is supported by the Danish Government. Animation work by eight Bolivians, French-directed, music by the Bolivian ambassador in France, and, composed by another French collaborator.

The film contains the odd word in Spanish but maintains a silent film approach as to interpret the metaphors being presented.

The original video can be found on Vimeo here, with another highly relevant theatrical production from Spain called Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain), one that I personally enjoyed and would recommend. The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Babel) for those of you familiar with this actor.

Feel free to share any other media productions or resources touching on the issues of water privatization in Bolivia in the comments section below.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Saludos a todos / Greetings to all
Firstly I would like to introduce myself. My name is Adrien Friesen and I am going to be moving to Sucre, Bolivia this mid November of 2013, working alongside the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) on placement with Cuso International, within the position of Local Economic Development Adviser.
Backing up a little I can provide a brief insight as to what led me this opportunity. During the latter half of my life I have placed great importance on seeing as much of the world as was possible given the resources I had. Interspersed between my undergrad courses at the University of Waterloo I took every opportune moment to embark on another life-changing journey through whichever corner of the world would take me at that point in time.
Ever since my first taste of the adventure lifestyle in 2006 - when I went to Southeast Asia in search of something new and exciting - I have not been able to shake this fundamental component of my life. The feeling of the wheels touching the tarmac of yet another runway in another foreign land, with millions of local (yet foreign to me) people, all curious as to whom I might be and where I come from. This feeling of complete and utter adventure only seems to further catalyze one's sense of curiosity and exploration, and it is still through these means that I manage to continually satiate my hunger for the unknown by embarking on as many journeys as possible.
My most recent adventure was an opportunity I found through MEDA in Nicaragua, where I worked with local farmers and small to medium-sized enterprises to increase their market linkages and improve their agricultural technologies. Since this time I have been back in Toronto working towards, well, finding work. Sometime in September I was received a pleasant phone call from Cuso International, thus commencing the interview and training process for the position of Economic Development Adviser in Sucre, Bolivia. This brings me up until today, as I frantically tie up any loose ends and prepare myself for life on the other side.
As the complete details of my work are also still fairly unknown, I am told I am working with the local government association of AMDECH (Asociacion de Municipios de Chuquisaca / Association of the Municipalities of the department of Chuquisaca). The FCM in Canada provides human resources to AMDECH in Bolivia to further their economic development objectives. I will be working in and around the city of Sucre, aiming to strengthen institutional capacity and work towards more effective leadership and governance structures, leading to sustainable and equitable economic development.
Living and working overseas is a life changing experience, one where you often learn just as much about yourself as you do of the place you are living in. The new language, people, cuisine, and cultural mannerisms are all of equal excitement and bring about constant learning. I have made many close friends while traveling, working, and living overseas, and I am eager to continue doing so in Bolivia.
I will be trying to post as frequently as possible, although I know that the realities of a new place, job, and culture can sometimes make this difficult. At the least, I will try to share some of photos and stories as they occur until a proper post/update of my placement is deemed possible. Feel free to leave comments and suggestions on my blog as well, as I would love to hear everyone's thoughts.
All the best and God bless,