Thursday, October 18, 2012

In which I go to Potosi to get warm

I left Sucre after one day because I was cold. I arrived early to the bus station and bought a ticket for the first bus to Potosí, which left at noon. I checked my luggage and went downstairs to wait.
I was glad to have a daytime bus -- I’d have the chance to see the Bolivian countryside.
There are some things better left unseen. The roads (which are unpaved) go up and down the mountains and double back and forth in hairpin turns. Hewn from the sides of the mountains, they are only one lane wide and shoulderless -- just sheer, steep drop-off. There isn’t much room for error.
On one turn, the driver didn’t calculate correctly and the rear right wheel slipped off the edge of the road. (He might have been distracted by the screen that stretched across the windshield. It showed four buxom, bikini-clad women arching their backs and smiling invitingly.) I happened to be sitting on the right side of the bus and saw the whole thing. The wheel was spinning, trying to find purchase but doing nothing but spraying pebbles and dirt. The blood drained from my face and my skin turned cold and clammy. I gripped the armrests and noticed that my knuckles really did turn white. The man in the seat next to me noticed my panic and started to laugh. I glared at him and tried to remember the Hail Mary. There are no atheists on Bolivian roads.
We stopped at a dusty, middle-of-nowhere café for lunch. After inspecting the sanitary conditions -- a hand pump -- I decided I didn’t need to eat. I took out my camera and began to wander. A gaggle of dusty, pigtailed little girls approached me shyly. Their pink dresses were the only spots of color against the drab landscape. Would I give them money, they asked? I told them no. (I got tired of the begging. At least the shoeshine boys purported to offer a service. Some days I had my shoes shined two or three times.)
Then they wanted pens. Again, I told them no. But I did want to take their photo, so I tried to think of something I could give them in exchange. I had a lipstick that was almost empty. If I put lipstick on you, will you let me take your photo? They giggled and said yes. So I carefully drew color onto their chapped lips and then rubbed some hand lotion into their wind-dried, tanned cheeks. They tittered again when they looked at each other.
One of them -- she must have been eight or nine -- was toting an infant on her hip. “How many children do you have?” I asked her politely. (Once, when I said something to my mom about children who were too poor for dolls, she pointed out that they had real babies to play with.)
She laughed and said, “Ten!”
“Where do they sleep?” I asked.
“Oh, we all sleep together in a big bed,” she said airily as she gestured vaguely toward the adobe hut up the hill.
“You must stay  busy,” I said.
“Oh, yes!” she replied. “All day long, cooking and taking care of them.”

Potosí was warmer than Sucre, even though it was 2000 meters higher. I had reserved a room the day before. I found the hostel, dumped my luggage and set out to stretch my muscles after the tense five-hour bus ride. I found myself on a pedestrian mall, reading a movie ad. Behind me, I heard a friendly “Hola!” I didn’t turn because I knew I didn’t know anyone in this town. But I heard it again. Perhaps I did know someone here. I turned -- a bearded stranger was beaming at me and my leggings. He started to speak again and I turned away.
“¿Hablas portugues?” he asked. I ignored him.
“Speek eengleesh?” he persisted hopefully. I  stared at him blankly as he ran through his repertoire. He wasn’t getting the hint.
At my feet sat a shrunken old lady with a basket of bread in front of her. She spoke sharply: “Maybe she doesn’t speak to men she doesn’t know!” Still, he hovered hopefully until I  walked away in disgust. A few minutes later, I returned to talk to the old lady. “Que insolito!” she exclaimed in disgust. I agreed.
I’d been cautious about being out after dark, but was getting bored spending every evening in my room. Potosí was a well-lit, busy place -- enough activity on the sidewalks that I could walk safely after dark. I decided to go to a movie. It was a double feature, with Interview with a Vampire showing second. I was relieved: I’d tried to see that movie in Chile and had left after 15 minutes because the blood was making me sick.
I waited on the stoop of the movie house until they opened the doors. An odor of stale urine assailed my nostrils. The interior of the theater looked like the aftermath of a bomb: peeling wallpaper, entire rows of seats missing, blackened light bulbs and broken fans. A mangy dog wandered through the seats, stopping to eat to occasional bit of popcorn.
Two boys played on the stairway. The one at the top had a string tied around GI Joe’s ankle. He carefully untwisted the string, then threw Joe down to the boy at the bottom of the stairs. Bottom boy had a cardboard box into which GI Joe dove. Joe landed on his head, to the great delight of the boys. Bottom boy carefully untangled Joe’s bungee string from his body and gave top boy the signal to pull him up again, at which point Joe fearlessly took another dive.
I trod carefully over the sticky floor and found a seat. The movie started. The ticket seller had lied -- Interview with a Vampire was the first feature.  My friend Bob had raved about the movie, so I decided to try to stick it out. Forty minutes later, I knew I’d made a big mistake. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt had already slurped their way erotically through rats, a hooker, and a couple of pick-ups. I felt the blood spinning in my head and my skin growing cold and clammy. I dragged myself out to the stairs, where I sat, clutching the stairpost. Nausea overcame me and I quickly ducked my head between my knees. No more vampire movies for me.

I toured the museum in the old mint. Potosí was (and is) an important mining center in the New World. Silver, tin, antimony, mercury and other minerals were pulled from the mountains. To this day, the Spanish phrase “Es un potosí” means “it’s a great find.” As with many other Spanish discoveries, though, things didn’t work out so well for the indigenous people. As part of the minting process, the Spaniards needed to run giant geared systems to laminate the metal. These machines were originally powered by Argentine mules that would walk in endless circles, turning the giant post that in turn rotated the gears. The Spaniards soon discovered, though, that Argentine mules didn’t do well in the Potosí altitude. They dropped dead too quickly. That wasn’t such a horrible problem, but it took too long for the replacement mules to arrive from Argentina. They changed to human labor and had the native people harness themselves and walk around the circle. Today, deep grooves are etched into the stone floor, tracing the path the mules and the men walked.
The museum has a wonderful art display. It was the usual South American religious art with tortured, stigmatic, bloody Christs. The guide told us, “In those days, the punishments were harsh. So to convince the native people that Jesus had suffered more than they did, the artists had to make his suffering extreme.”
In the paintings of the Virgin Mary, clever native artists had managed to incorporate their own religion into the paintings and gave Mary the form of the mountain, or the Pacha Mama -- the earth mother. She stood on an inverted crescent moon, which was supposed to help her ascend to heaven. Her hair was long and flowing and sprinkled with flowers. Designs in gold leaf were stamped onto the painting.
The guide led us through room after room of paintings, then took us to the section where the old firearms were displayed and then to a collection of all the minerals to be found in the area. By now, the tour had lasted two hours. I was getting museumed out. There is only so much art a person can absorb in one day. I gave a token glance at the guns, lingered a little longer in front of the dehydrated corpses and returned to the courtyard. The guide hurried out, chasing after the reluctant tourists, and assured us we had more displays.
She ushered us to room filled with ancient engines and I started to wonder what all these things had to do with each other. I looked around furtively and saw that the guide was distracted. I put my hat on and slipped out the door. Almost free. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a couple slipping out. I wasn’t the only one who was tired. They edged away with their backs to the wall.
I dashed into the next courtyard. The ticket-seller saw me. “They’re going up there!” she said helpfully as she pointed up the staircase. I was not in the mood for stairs.
“Hey!” I said. “Isn’t that a tour bus?” She turned and I dashed out, free at last.
Well, it could have happened that way. What I really did was pretend I didn’t speak Spanish and just keep walking. Feigning ignorance got me out of a lot during my trip.
The Andean people chew coca leaves to alleviate hunger, fatigue, and altitude sickness. I decided I needed to try this custom.
To release the desired chemical in the coca leaf, you have to have a catalyst in your mouth at the same time. Sidewalk vendors sell the catalyst. They sit in their full skirts and white or black stovepipe hats with their baskets at their feet. A bit of the catalyst costs half a penny. I bought two pieces. Who knew? I might come to like coca. Each lump was the size of my thumb. Black and gritty, it had the feel of homemade play-dough. I picked a little piece off and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted like play-dough -- salty and bitter. I spit it out immediately and the ladies laughed.

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