Women bearing big strong calves and carrying heavy bags are considered highly attractive in Bolivian culture. This preference may have something to do with the fact that Bolivia demands a certain level of hardiness from it’s residents.
The main cities sit inexplicably at an altitude. Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, is at 3,640m, winning it the title of the highest capital in the world. I don’t foresee any rivals for this position considering that being so high makes fresh food harder to obtain and walking around town more exhausting.
Bolivia hurls challenges at you from all directions. The roads are bumpy and the bus journeys tumultuous. I preferred hitting the road in the daytime. Travelling through the night when your drooping eyelids are knocked continually open because your bottom keeps being dislodged into a steady progression towards the edge of your inconveniently leather seat can be testing.
The twelve hour bus journeys will include breaks in rural areas dotted enroute. Most of the time the break will be offered at roughly halfway, and you will happily welcome the chance to stretch your legs. Or the driver might decide to position it at his favourite local sandwich place which is frustratingly only another twenty minutes drive from your destination.
These rural stops can be a shock to the system. You will see a dusty roadside restaurant indicated solely by an arrangement of plastic chairs, surrounded by virtually nothing. A few propped up houses and an abandoned decrepit building across the street.
Back home people can access a array of things things from pianos to danish side tables for their affluent lives. A life here is so distant from danish side tables. It made me embarrassingly aware of all the time I dedicate to dreaming about how best to express myself through the act of purchasing.
I love considering how to embellish my outfits and my future home. In many ways I have an identity that is built upon stuff. Far too much stuff: our sheer access to, and choice of it, provides me with a worrying percentage of the daily dose of excitement which one requires to prevent themselves from boredom. From sushi to scented candles.
People here must get their daily dose of excitement from something else. Curiosity beyond wondering what it will taste like if you order the turmeric latte with coconut milk. Creativity that requires more patience than assembling mood boards about kitchens on Pinterest. It’s not just stronger calf muscles and extra red blood cells, also psychologically, Bolivians seem to have something I don’t.
We caught a glimpse of the challenges posed by Mother Nature when we visited Bolivia’s rainforests but, more than anything, it was in the town of Potosi where we really wished that we could have swallowed every complaint that we had ever made.
The streets of Potosi portray a place that was once thriving with affluence but now facing harder times. The beautiful imperial buildings look weathered, they are lined with tangled telephone wires. The cobbled roads clouded by the exhaust fumes being coughed out of old fashioned buses as they struggle their way uphill.
In Potosi there is a volcano called Cerro de Rico, which means ‘mountain of riches’ in Spanish. It has been burrowed into by miners since the 16th century. It was the closest thing to El Dorado ‘the city of gold’ that the Spanish colonialists ever found. Potosi is the city of silver. This silver once fuelled the world economy for centuries. Most of the silver coins exchanged throughout Europe used to come from these mines.
The rich Spanish masters of the town prospered for many years by exploiting the locals who mined the mountain. However in the 1600’s the silver supply grew scarcer. Those with money soon abandoned Potosi for Sucre, a warmer town nearby, with a more agreeable altitude of 2,800m.
Today the mines have been denounced as structurally unsafe with many warning that the entire mountain is at risk of caving in. It’s hard to believe the articles you can find online, quoting a total death toll of roughly eight million in these mines when you can see locals venturing in every day, with little equipment, exploding new tunnels using dynamite and old fashioned techniques. No one will stop them. The businesses are now owned by cooperatives and the government has little to do with it.
The altitude, humidity and dust inside these narrow holes makes breathing a challenge and the trolleys which the miners have to push aren’t light. The air itself is so damaging that they have a life expectancy of 40. Many die of silicosis, a type of lung disease caused by inhaling dust.
Mining remains the most popular job here because the pay is much better than any other available work. However the treasures of Cerro de Rico are drying up and it isn’t clear what the residents of Potosi will turn to. For now the attitude seems to be to knock back a strong beverage, chew on a cocoa leaf (to fight the exhaustion) and carry on.
There were two things that stood out to me about Bolivians: The first was how well they seemed to deal with everything, be it the horrors of Potosi’s mines or more simply the altitude in the cities and mosquitos in the rainforest; our guide was the only one of us that wasn’t scratching from head to toe during our late night canoe journeys. When we asked him for his secret he merely joked about having a contract with the mosquitoes. This wasn’t helpful.
The second thing was how much they seemed to celebrate their monsters. In Bolivia the devil is ever present from the witches’ market in La Paz, where you can find llama foetuses hanging above your head, or at a show about folklore in Sucre called called “Origenes Bolivianos”, where dancing devils skipped through the audience as the explanation for past famines.
When things are tough the celebration of dark effigies increases. The cemetery in La Paz holds far more graffitied images of demons and grim reapers than it does angels and Potosi’s dangerous mines are decorated with shrines to ‘Tio’ the God of the underworld. Even though Tio’s red horned face is the last image I’d want to be trapped in a hole with.
Why do they do this? Maybe because celebrating your monsters is the opposite of denial. There were moments, when I watched the dancing devil’s mask with it’s clownish grin, or after I heard an old tail that Potosi’s silver is the devil’s ejaculation from having had sex with Mother Earth, where I wondered whether the Bolivians had a very specific sense of humour. We Brits are not alien to the concept of using dry wit to deal with our problems. It helps us to acknowledge them, and the more you acknowledge a difficult thought the more you grow numb to it.
Or perhaps it’s just nothing to them. A devils head couldn’t even make a Bolivian flinch because they’ve faced far scarier things thank you very much.