Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Environmental Awareness

Rio Choqueyapu

Bolivia has just passed a very encouraging – and groundbreaking – law of protection for Mother Earth, or Pachamama, the earth goddess and creator of all in the indigenous Aymara tradition. Now lawsuits can be brought claiming damages to Pachamama. The awareness is there, but the budget is not sufficient to the task, and enforcement will be hard to obtain. For instance, there are no laws in Bolivia against dumping trash on land or water. Just below our home is a dirty river called Choqueyapu, which is officially dead. Apparently 200,000 gallons of urine are dumped into it annually, along with 160,000 tons of excrement and tons of toxic waste from factories. The stench is overwhelming as we walk to the bus stop beside its foamy chocolate-colored waters. There are no leash laws and dog excrement is a part of sidewalk life, which adds to the runoff. We saw some laughing girls leaving an automotive business with a huge bucket which they dumped into the rushing waters without a care.
There are few private cars in La Paz, but many private minibuses which traverse the city constantly. This reduces smog and traffic though the buses themselves create major traffic jams and their emission controls are minimal. Littering is ubiquitous.

Not Pachamama, but another indigenous masked figure

On the other hand, the carbon footprint of most Bolivianos is tiny. Imagine the impact of not using any heat between March and December, of course no air conditioning, no hot tap water and just a little electric heater for shower water. No clothes dryers, hardly any plane travel and few cars. Bolivians are acutely aware of the climate changes that have taken place in recent years, as they have lost 30% of their glaciers in the last 20 years, according to a Quaker environmental conference we attended.

So it appears that in most parts of the world the pollution is right under our feet, whereas in the so- called developed world, we create our pollution miles away from where we live, in our coal mines, our jet streams and our meat factories.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Traveling by bus from Cochabamba to La Paz

Bus travel through Bolivia means mountains. Not just the trip down from the Cordillera to Coroico, the so called “death road”, called the most dangerous road in the world. Every trip in western Bolivia where we are involves climbing impossible roads up through the mountains with breathtaking views. Right now we are on the well-traveled route from Cochabamba to La Paz. We are inching along behind a 16-wheeler. It is an 8-hour trip, and the second driver is sleeping down below in the sleeping berth, awaiting his turn to drive. We are upstairs, on the second story. The higher level adds to the drama and the views. Evan is sitting in the front seat, perched over the front of the bus. We pass tiny villages of sheep farmers, whose mud brick houses with thatched roofs hug the hillsides. Families are out carrying water and watching their herds. Some have put their laundry out to dry on the rocks: enormous pollera skirts making a huge smile, matching petticoats, and handwoven blankets with earth tones and geometric patterns. The mountain ranges stretch out to the horizon in all directions. When we pass a town, little kids offer us soft drinks from their families’ stands. As the sun sinks behind the mountains, the houses blend into the rocks and the doors to the houses are all closed against the cool night air.

Machu Picchu and Potosí

Machu Picchu from above

The fields and Wayna Picchu

Perfectly aligned door and window (trapezoidal shape most stable)

Recently we’ve taken two tourist tours, and they represent the absolute opposites of human existence. At the heights of Machu Picchu, we saw the architectural, scientific and aesthetic accomplishments of the Inca civilization, in 15th century Peru. On the very top of the most inaccessible mountains, Incan engineers erected huge stone dwellings, ceremonial spaces, and terraced fields. The city of Machu Picchu was perfectly located so as to maximize the northern sun. Part fortress, part city, access was controlled by the high mountain passes and intruders could be seen from far off. They had to walk the path in the hot sun, where their every movement would be observed by those in the city, and they had to pass through occasional guard houses where many soldiers could hide. The walkway is a good two meters wide, made of flat stones and steps that can be used to this day. Within the city, water channels brought clear running water underground into basins where jars could be filled, with benches for resting and observing the cool water. The channels run clear to this day.

Potosí, the largest mining city of Bolivia, was once the largest city in the Americas, with 800,000 inhabitants in 1574. When New York was still Dutch, the Spanish ruled Potosí and worked the Bolivian miners to death churning out silver, riches which are still on display in churches all over Spain but especially in Toledo and in the Escorial, the palace built by Phillip II as a monument to the Spanish monarchy.

Current day Potosí may be the saddest place I have ever visited. Worse even than the Lakota reservation in South Dakota, with its evil liquor stores just outside the reservation, run by non-Indians. Potosí is garbage-strewn streets, where stray dogs and people work at night in the cold wind to find a few items of value. Potosí is 16th century Spanish buildings gone derelict with graffiti on their facades, and children of miners hawking pretty stones in the central square.  While the settlers in North America simply killed the indigenous people living there, the Spanish settlers in Bolivia worked them to death mining minerals to bring back to Spain.
Reaching the mouth of the mine, the wagon went off its track
The mine is still the biggest employer in town, and a mine tour is offered to tourists as a way to experience a small part of the horrific conditions that still reign in the mines.  We entered the mountain through a muddy hole no more than five feet tall. As we were led into the depths of the mountain, we brushed against walls furry with asbestos, gleaming with bits of zinc and silver, dripping with brown and yellow liquids. Occasionally we needed to move aside as men came by us pushing wagons filled with stone, one ton each. Three men pushed and hauled each wagon along the track, uphill and down, to reach the mouth of the mine and dump it over the cliff into the slag heap below. No mules or trucks were used inside the mine: men are the beasts of burden. To get through their day, they drink grain alcohol and chew enormous mouthfuls of coca leaves. Having been drilled through for over four centuries, the mountain is in imminent danger of collapse. And yet men choose to enter the mines, in the hopes of gaining a living, and with the dream of finding a large vein and making a fortune.
Potosí was the raw grinding of poverty against idle wealth and oppression. The whole city appeared like a slag heap, with most items of value long since gone, where the citizens continue to work centuries later to find a few crumbs. Over the centuries of the Spanish occupation of Bolivia, it is estimated that nine million Bolivians died in the mines, though no memorial has ever been built. The sadness of the past hangs over the present like a dense fog.