Three Words That Should Never Be Strung Together Consecutively:

                                                                                                                          May 19th, 2006: Salta, Argentina

    Bolivian - Cooperative - Mines.

      Having now spent the past three weeks in this ludicrously laid back country, the idea of Bolivians working in a mine,
    let alone controlling it, seems so preposterous that it simply has to be true. These are the same mines in the Cerro Rico
    that have produced more silver than any other place on earth, and the same mines that, since they began operating in
    the 16th century, have taken the lives of more than 8 million workers. But of course, this is Bolivia, so today, for $10
    you can strap on your headlamp and coveralls and crawl around on your hands and knees in those same mines (after
    buying dynamite and bags of deisel-doused-fertilizer of the Oklahoma City ilk on the streets, of course), breathing in
    arsenic, acetylene, asbestos, and the lung-eroding silica dust while dodging those rusted out rail cars as they fly past in
    the style of Indiana Jones, sipping on Puro, a 96% (not proof, but percent) sugar cane alcohol that the workers ritually
    suck back on Fridays; and most importantly, blowing shit up.

        It was one of the craziest things I`ve ever done (Sandra wisely chose to sit this one out), running around and
    hanging out with those workers hundreds of meters inside a mountain with absolutely no safety precautiouns
    whatsoever while my glazed-over guide (vividly nicknamed Llama Fucker) munched his way through a shopping bag
    full of coca leaves, and seeing what it´s like to earn a living literally at the expense of your own life (the average miner
    dies of sillicosis after about 10 years) was one of those things that you simply don`t forget. And although I don´t think
    I´d ever set foot in that claustrophobic hell again (the workers offer gifts to the devil, because, living underground, they
    believe they´re robbing him of his minerals), I can at the very least now scratch Bolivian Silver Miner off my list of
    ¨Potential Career Options¨.

       But that was yesterday. And to bring you up to date on everything we´ve lived and done here in Bolivia, a country
    that has easily been the most amazing place we´ve been (as my good friend Bernie Lomax said one drunken night in
    Mancora: ¨Bolivia - that´s South America, man¨) would take a novel´s worth of space, but because of the infinite
    wonders of the www, that´s basically what I have at my disposal. I apologize in advance.

       At last check, we left you in La Paz, where Sandra and I had signed up for some survival level Spanish lessons.
    With classes getting underway everyday at 8am, we were left with little room to sample the variety of Bolivian
    nightlife, but somehow managed to take matters into our own hands one wonderful Thursday night where Sandra, a
    right propper Englishman named Ed from our hostel who liked nothing more than to knock back spirits and recount the
    story of how Big Ron was summarily dismissed from his post as English futbal colour commentator (look it up if
    you´re a fan of Ron Burgundy), and myself ventured out to what has to be the only Jazz bar in Bolivia, a tiny little
    candlelit basement place called Thelonius, reminiscent of NYC´s now defunct Small´s. But Easy Ed, fond as he was of
    the spirits, and being an Englishman in his own right, decided that rather than order the customary rounds of Huari or
    Bock beer, that we would present ourselves as big shots, and have the waitress bring us an entire bottle of vodka.
    Expecting  the waitress to bring us a 26er, we were shocked and somewhat appalled when she delivered a 1 liter bottle
    of Stoli, along with a pitcher of tonic and two shots of fresh lime juice. But what were three foreigners to do? Certainly
    not allow any of those perfectly good spirits go to waste. And despite the fact that the jazz quartet´s drummer failed to
    report for duty thereby rendering them a less-than-capable trio; and despite the fact that I had to take a cab (that I had
    to help push - third time this trip) back to the hostel to fetch my Backwoods Black cigars that remained unconsumed
    for the duration of the evening due to the fact that I forget to grab the room key from Sandra on my way out of the
    club (the hostel, class joint, didn´t have an extra); and despite the fact that the bastard cabbie slipped us a fake $20 on
    our debaucherous ride home, we somehow managed to have ourselves a good enough time for one of us to puke all
    over our room´s garbage can, and still miraculously drag ourselves out of bed to attend a Spanish class of which I
    remember not a word. That´s La Paz, baby.

        Needless to say, we loved Bolivia´s capital city, and ended up spending 10 days there. But even though I found La
    Paz to be a place I could see myself living (for a short period of time, at least), there were a few things I don´t think
    I´d ever be able to get over.

       The first was my attempt to find the Suns-Lakers Game 7 on South American TV. After scouring every cable TV
    bar in the city, the only sporting events I managed to come up with were 4 pre-recorded English Premiership soccer
    games. TNT, the channel that was broadcasting the game at home, was showing a Lawrence Fishburn movie dubbed
    over in Spanish. If someone had offered to put a drill bit through my right temple, I would have gladly accepted.

       The second thing that is hard for me to accept is the sense of anti-Americanism that is almost palpable down here. I
    mean, forget the anti-TLC riots and transportation strikes; that kind of thing can happen anywhere. But when you´re
    walking through the Sunday market and come across an innocent enough looking craft table where the lady has for
    sale only two varieties of wood carvings: one in the likeness of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, and the other,
    standing directly beside it as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have the two of them linked in
    adfinitum, in the likeness of Osama Bin Laden; that my friends, is when you get the inkling that there might be a slight
    discrepancy in the existing value systems.

       But perhaps even more disturbing than the Christ/Bin Laden correlation is the lack of Springsteen music down here.
    I mean, let´s be honest: we´re talking about one of the great American Balladers of all time, and the only song I´ve
    heard while in South America is the Courtney Cox inspired Dancing in the Dark, and that was on back-to-back nights
    on the pre-recorded setlist station playing in the Peruvian jungle. Mention the name Springsteen, and you might as well
    be wiping your ass with a copy of Che Guevara`s Motorcycle Diaries. To give you an example of how the Boss and
    his music are looked upon down here, in La Paz, the streets are littered with capitalists selling the most obviously
    computer-burned-bootleg CDs, the practice being so common that the vendors don´t even try to disguise their thieving,
    the covers little more than black-and-white photocopies and the titles on the actual CDs written in black felt marker.
    Needless to say, the original artist isn´t exactly collecting any royalties, which is to say nothing of the Bolivian tax man.
    So it´s not as if these people are made up of any kind of staunch moral fibre. Yet when I had the audacity to ask one
    such peddler if she had a copy of Springsteen´s latest album (the beautifully hard hitting and questioning of the
    American value system, We Shall Overcome:The Seeger Sessions)  and in my newly honed Espanöl no less, she looked
    at me as if I´d just urinated on her infant child who had been previously been playing innocently in the gutter beside
    her. She then immediately dismissed what she presumed to be my Star-Spangled ass, and moved on to the next local
    perusing for a CD single copy of Money for Nothing.

       But these two cultural differences can´t even begin to compare to the difference in what passes for hygiene around
    here. Sandra and I, with a newfound addiction to the fresh black olives you can get down here, were walking through
    one of the markets in La Paz; the kind that has gloveless ¨butchers¨ (and I use the term extremely liberally) carving up
    fly-swarmed pieces of chicken and goat´s heads exposed to the midday sun; and came across a suitably enough
    looking stand with some such olives in a quasi-sanitary looking container (most vendors have the olives sitting in dirty,
    fly-swarmed buckets). When I asked for 7 Bolivianos worth, I was thoroughly impressed when she took out an actual
    ladle and began scooping them into a plastic bag. Handing her the money, she took out some kind of a medieval
    looking scale, placed the bag of olives on one platform, and a rock, presumably weighing half a pound or whatever 7
    Bolivianos buys, on the other. Thinking the transaction complete, I went to reach for my olives, but this lady, noticing
    that the olives actually weighed a little more than her scientifically measured rock, thought the deal unfair, and before I
    could reach into my pocket to pull out another Boliviano to compensate, this lady decided to shove her filthy,
    disgusting, slimy hand into the bag, making sure to grope and stab each and every last one of the olives with her
    grubby, dirty fingernails, before removing 3 of them in order to balance the bag with her rock, completely rendering
    the earlier facade of her using the ladle irrelevant. I couldn´t even say anything, deciding the best course of action to be
    just standing there in utter disbelief. I still can´t get over it. Probably never will.

       But these are the kinds of things you almost get used to down here, and the people and the otheworldly places more
    than compensate for these cultural differences. With a couple of rented mountain bikes, Sandra and I, along with Easy
    Ed and a couple of English girls from our hostel, decided to tackle the World´s Most Dangerous Road, a rocky gravel
    road (again, using the term liberally) that takes you from an elevation of 4800m down to the town of Coroico, at about
    1100m, along only 66km of road, and on which approximately 100 people a year die. It was absolutely pissing rain for
    most of the trip, and because of the fog we couldn´t really appreciate the various 1000m drops along the guardrail-less
    sides (you have to cycle on the left hand side because of right-of-way regulations; of course, the left hand side is the
    side with the broad cliffside drop). It was absolutely insane, and we were going waaaaay faster than I thought we
    would, and with the mud kicking up in your eyes for most of the trip, it was easily the most dangerous thing I´ve ever
    done. We went with the safest company (they are the safest because they have never had a customer die), and learned
    once we reached the bottom that a Canadian on their trip two days earlier had gone over the side, only to be saved by
    landing in a tree! Only in Bolivia could this road even be allowed to exist in the first place, let alone be allowed to exist
    for tourists with absolutely no mountain biking experience to fly down on the wrong side of the road into oncoming
    traffic turning blindly around hairpin corners a rainy Tuesday afternoon. I fucking love that place.

       But this collision course with death was totally worth it, and we stayed in the town at the bottom that night,
    celbrating our survival by Easy Ed and I going on a shopping spree (where else can you buy a bottle of Rum, a bottle
    of Singani [Bolivian grape liquor], a bottle of coke, a bottle of sprite, 16 cheese buns and a box of cookies for $6?), the
    two of us walking back to the hostel through the cobblestone streets of Coroico like a couple of Steinbeck´s Paisanos
    before drinking and smoking ourselves stupid in an all-night Euchre tournament while listening to Exile on Main Street
    and Blur´s Think Tank on Easy Ed´s Ipod (greatest invention of the 21st Century thus far).

       A few days later we bid farewell to La Paz and jumped on a train (full of wealthy high school kids on a class trip,
    the high school kids constantly walking back and forth to the ¨dining¨ car, where they became increasingly shitfaced to
    the point where they couldn´t even walk or read the ¨No Smoking¨ signs they were smoking beneath, the teacher doing
    his best to pretend not to notice; salutary neglect in its purest form)  for the town of Uyuni and a tour of the world´s
    biggest Salt Flats. We scored a sweet last second deal on a tour and set out 20 minutes later, flying across the dried up
    lake (stretching for 80 kms), 12 Billion Tonnes of hexagonal salt rolling beneath us. It was totally surreal, especially in
    the places where there was an inch or two of water on the top, creating perfectly mirrored images of the volcanoes in
    the background. Just wait for the pictures, I guess.

       That night we stayed in a salt hotel (a hotel made completely out of salt), where our roomate, and totally cool
    Austrian dude, did his best to explain how him and his fellow countrymen have been dealing with the stigma attached
    to being known as the bad guys during the Second World War. Hey, if you can´t laugh about that... The next morning
    we awoke early and set off to see pink flamingoes standing in red lagunas (I had no idea there were flamingoes in the
    Andes, let alone red lakes on this planet, but sure enough, there they were), and our driver, a last minute addition to our
    tour, relentlessly insisted on driving through the desert in our jeep (leaking gasoline the entire time) at a ridiculous
    speed, particularly considering that the roads we were travelling on weren´t as much roads as they were suggestions,
    and aside from my taking about 8 headers off the ceiling, yer man almost rolled the entire production when we went up
    onto two wheels during one particularly adventurous lane change. Good times. Exasperating things was the fact that
    our Jeep was equiped with nothing more than a tape deck, and our driver equiped with nothing more than a single
    cassette. I shit you not, we must have listened to that same tape 16 times in a row.

       Now, I´m not sure if you´re familiar with Bolivian music at all, but the genre can be best described as a guy going to
    town on one of those synthesizer/keyboard deals, with the electronic drumbeat setting the pace, usually to the tune of a
    horribly veiled rip off of Simon and Garfunkel´s The Sound of Silence or the classic Pop Goes the Weasel melody, with
    a drunk guy in the background periodically screaming ¨BOLIVIA!!!!¨  Definitely not the kind of thing you´d want to
    listen to for 12 consecutive hours. That night we stayed in an earthen hovel at 4800m, and it was Mother´s Day, but
    seeing how you had to get a pitcher of water from the rain-collecting barrel and dump it down the back of the toilet in
    order for it to flush, I guess hoping for a working telephone was asking a little much, thereby granting me the ¨Bad
    Son of the Year¨award. Sorry, Mom. The temperature that night got down to -25, but our guide managed to keep
    himself warm by getting completely shit bombed, inadvertantly waking us up at 4:30 in the morning with his drunken
    revelry. Needless to say, we didn´t exactly get going at 5am as planned, and instead set off through the desert
    somewhere around 8, our driver still completely legless.

       Again, in one of those Only in Bolivia deals, our first stop was the volcanic geisers of the Bolivian southwest. Now,
    I´ve never been to Yellowstone National Park before, but I imagine there to be some kind of an obstruction (a fence,
    maybe?) keeping the visitors at a safe distance from flaming hot sulferic steam rising from the earth´s inner core. In
    Bolivia? Not a chance. There wasn´t even a warning sign written in Spanish, let alone a park official within thirty miles
    of the place. Instead, we were free to walk amongst the thunderous, screaming hiss of the earth´s surface release
    valves, and if you´re dumb enough to fall into the boiling, bubbling ooze, than I guess that´s just Natural Selection
    taking care of business. It´s amazing just how insignificant you can feel when exposed first hand to the earth´s raw
    power, and a totally surreal feeling to be reminded how we´re little more than parasites on this living and breathing
    thing we call a planet. Probably the best thing I´ve experienced on this trip so far. Twenty minutes later, we were
    sipping Schneider brand beer in our underwear while lazing in the 35 degree temperatures of the thermal hot springs,
    the steam rising beautifully into the nip of the brisk morning air. There couldn´t have been a better way to end the tour.

       Which pretty much brings us to now. We hopped on a bus two nights ago, and now find ourselves in Argentina, the
    home of luxurious modern busses, more steak than you can shake a stick at, and Manu Ginobli. From here, we´re
    taking a serious improvisational turn, heading waaaaay East to check out Iguazu Falls (the biggest waterfall in the
    world) and Buenos Aires, which are both apparently too good to pass up. I can´t say I´m looking forward to the 25
    hour bus ride tomorrow, but what the hell are you gonna do?

       Flats, sign me up for The Night of the Oooomph, and make sure you all have a Happy May Two-Four, eh? Talk to
    you later,
seanmccallum.com
Travelling Man