Monday, December 6, 2010

On Photo Process

"I have long expressed concern at how a vast majority of Photojournalism is incapable of representing process; whether it be the process leading up to or underpinning the event being covered or the process of assimilation, appropriation and communication of the real by the photographer. Perhaps this has something to do with Photography or the single-frame’s inability to represent time. Perhaps because for journalists objective reality is not only attainable but can manifest itself through the veracity of the lens - the ‘incontrovertible’ photograph. Or perhaps because in process there is no real end product… just a set of propositions."
- Edgar Martins

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Nutcracker, Laramie Style

Ah, Christmas. The roommates have been glugging eggnog, the neighbors have put up their inflatable snow globe on the frosty lawn, and the snow won't stop coming down in Laramie. Too, I prayed to the ballet gods and they delivered: this year is the quadrennial performance of The Nutcracker. The local paper says "this year’s production would continue the resetting of the ballet in 1890s Laramie with new scenic drops and Western-style costumes." I was kind of thinking of act I of this episode of This American Life as I was eagerly rushing over to the theater.

Mostly it wasn't so bad. The backdrop of one act was an over-sized, macro Christmas tree with one ornament that was not immediately identifiable (it looked kind of like a mouse skull), the dancers had trouble landing their pirouettes, Mother Ginger was slinging whiskey atop her hoop skirt, and there was a strange lack of dancing throughout the first act. But in a way it was beautiful because it was clear that every hobby school in town got to participate - the gymnastics school, the ballet school, the choir. Everyone up on stage helping make this once-in-four-years extravaganza as amazing as it could possibly be.

I got to reminiscing about my own Nutcracker days. A. and I used to dance every dance there was. We had to set up our costumes backstage instead of in the actual changing room so we'd have more time to rearrange ourselves during breaks. I did cartwheels when I got nervous. My favorite dances were the Spanish and the Arabian. The Arabian costume resembled Disney's Jazmine's attire, a little bead strewn top, opaque purple underwear and transparent, billowing, chiffon pants. Once, in my changing frenzy, I forgot to put on the opaque underwear and danced the whole thing, to an audience of chuckling Jewish grandmothers and parents, in just my see-through pants.

Back in Laramie: during the Grand Pas de Deux, a ring went off that sounded like the loudest cell phone in the world. Before starting, the ballerinas had done a cute little intro that kindly told us to turn off our phones, so the interruption seemed extra obnoxious. Then more loud ringing. We finally figured that it was probably a fire alarm. People started shuffling out while the curtain drew closed. The ballerinas kept spinning un-assuredly until the curtain completely shut.

Outside, it took the firemen 10 minutes to arrive. Tutu'd girls pulled on leg warmers, the angels in nurse hats stood chatting in a circle, the matrons from act 1 held doors for the exiting audience. K. twirled on the patch of ice we claimed as the firemen finally strode into the non-burning building.

We decided to go home. At home things smelled a little smoky. Turns out C. forgot to turn the oven off.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Winter in Wyoming

Winter in Wyoming. It's to think about the elements and to marvel at them: I am in awe that you have the power to kill me. The mountains along two-lane highways sit quietly, they breathe softly, heaving. Signs along the road declare entry points to the Overland Trail. The Overland Trail was a stagecoach and wagon route that was an alternative to the Oregon Trail in the early 1800s. Those superhuman ancestors of the West, what do their strong children do now on these prairies that surge into peaks?

At night, in Saratoga, at the Hobo hot springs a man drank milk out of the carton in the steaming pool. He had a paunch and a blonde beard like a Viking. I dreamed his wild-haired progenitors on the flats, trudging stoically in the snowy sea. The next morning small flakes drifted into our room and back at the hot springs they floated into the steam coming off the water and melted mid air. Ice coated thin hairs on exposed body parts and the dusting of icicles on skin made us seem extra fragile, then.

In the woods there were animal tracks. Moose? I kept falling over in the snow shoes and felt my face slowly freeze. The river was frozen, too. L.'s hands froze and he writhed in pain, in the car, as they slowly defrosted. On the drive back to Laramie, everything turned purple.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Expired: Tryin' to be cool and patient

Cold mornings, days that drag, fickle nights. When the hypnic jerks start up, like full body hiccups, I am thankful. More and more I meet people at peace and am reminded of that possibility - ye of thin skin and hard heart, what is the purpose of the shield and devotion if it is wasted on barren trees and self defense? Instead, I'd like to ride away on elephants, wild horses with accessible manes, independent beasts that soothe with just their regality and perfectly muscled hearts.

Things that wake me (metaphorically): cars that won't start, hoarse laughter (ha!), creaking doors, fallen leaves, rustling of any sort, unsure stares, waiting, waiting, wheelbarrows and bathtubs, indecipherable compliments ("nice elbows, girl"), blunt objects, steely skies.

When I was a child I thought I was in love with a man who wore a gold eagle around his neck. He looked like an outlaw but he was just a hooligan. Sometimes I still feel that he is the original and best and glinting eagles catch my eye like mirrors across mountains. To distract myself (to look for him?) I commit petty crimes (would you say they are not petty?).

What I like about Julio Cortazar is that he writes about nothing and one always feels that he speaks directly to you (about nothing).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Me, My Car and Buffalo.

Mostly, my room. I've outfitted it with many patterned surface coverings and a buffalo missing three feet with a lighting bolt in his head. He came from Lander, where a Turkish man looked on solemnly as I put him in my car. So then sometimes, I leave. Clyde, my car, accelerates slowly up winding roads and rumbles on in the winds of the open plains where the setting sun looks like the buried tonsil of a throat enclosed by sky and land. When I drive here, fast, I mostly fantasize about things that will never be; the improbability of the openness, the dark shadows of clouds on scoured lands, the stripes of mineral that I squint at to verify, all lend themselves to wandering thoughts, to wandering eyes, to wandering. Sometimes I check my pulse - I think its always the same (under control?) but I forget to count. That's a good sign.

Friday, October 1, 2010

On Time in Bolivia. (Ha! Get it?)

One day, I met a retired miner sitting, sunning, in the warm splotches of a small plaza.

Where from, he asked. I told him and he wanted to know what time it was there. I told him there was no time difference and he was shocked that it was the same hour, though it's impossibly far away.

In France, he said, the time is different. Is France farther than your home?

Time, I ventured, is set by longitudes, and France is across an entire ocean.

And what time is it in Japan? he wanted to know.

I didn't know, but he kept pressing. And Germany? he asked.

I told him it took me 7 hours to get to Bolivia by plane and he looked astonished. And your family? he asked.

They are there.

He patted me on the shoulder with a knurled hand. Poor girl, you must be so alone.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Memories of Bolivia. i.e. Working on Some Writing.

I remember my friend screaming after me as I jumped off a moving bus and elegantly puked upon landing. "We will walk from here," he said. I dreamt that I was dying from thirst and when I woke up next afternoon, still wearing gloves, I found a plastic bag full of cooked llama ribs by my bedside. I had llama blood on my cheeks.

In the email, my Ma threatened to buy a ticket to Bolivia that instant if I didn't reappear on the interweb.

I was busy, Ma. I was working.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Jamaican Beef Patties and Large Photographs.

It sounds like an ongoing massacre beneath me, high pitched hoarse screeching being emitted by a tiny Dachshund named Odie. He screams from the moment his human leaves the house until the moment she returns. I find solace in his persistence, a strange hopefulness in the fact that he doesn't give up his terrible howl. I think about how if I were him, I wouldn't emit a squeak but rather sit in silent horror awaiting her return, digging an escape route, drinking toilet water.

I sit on my porch at night, silently. My grandmother's shawl has many holes in it and I wrap it around my legs like the Bolivian ladies do. I like to imagine how it will be when the roads close and a houseful of strangers cuddles up together by the fireplace and the wind tears holes through our shitty walls. Out here, there are many photos of women out in fields with infants at their teats and a faraway look. I think, sadly, that I would not have been one of them.

I think about home but the idea seems nebulous. When I tell stories I confuse listeners with the geography involved. I wonder if I should just make stuff up. I wonder if I should use less curse words. I wonder if I should open up a corner store where I could sell Jamaican beef patties and large photographs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lately and Not-So-Lately: Photos

There was Bolivia and now there's Wyoming. In between, there was a lot of eating, swimming, and, believe it or not, positivity. It's hard to convey the condition of physical bursting that I seemed to float in briefly - a vast revelry, a posi-as-fuck attitude of joie de vivre that I am now coming down from heavily, with all of the symptoms of withdrawal intact. Summer and L. and sushi and all of the luxuries of Western-living-after-Bolivia had everything to do with it and in Laramie they are all missing. But: watchu got Laramie? I'm open.

These are photos from the past: Brooklyn, Bolivia, New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York

Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy Aymara New Year!!

Right under the freshly installed, freshly painted, white cross sat the Association of Elders of Potosi. A boxy woman in full skirts sat at the head of the bonfire and ceremonially gifted a crate of beer to the attendees on behalf of the Association. Attendees - in ponchos, down jackets, hats with skull graphics - answered cell phones between cups. We were on top of a mountain overlooking a sprawling, orange-lit Potosi, celebrating the Aymara New Year - year 5518.

Earlier, I had sat through a slew of power point presentations regarding the new year and the traditions that surround it. Mostly I confirmed for myself that the Bolivian education system needs to re-evaluate itself hard. The tourism students, all in ponchos and knit hats, read off their slides then slipped into the back room to drink. Their professor, Jaguar, appeared intermittently, shhh-ed them, and made garrulous rounds taking shots from each cup within peripheral vision.

After they'd finished we made languid passes towards the mountain, via the liquor store; at each hilly corner we seemed to lose members of the crew and replace them with canines. Jaguar skipped around like a speeding fairy picking flowers and each time he talked he opened his mouth wide, smiling, and spit chewed coca bits at you excitedly. When the crew - many drunks, one blind man, and one man with a broken knee - finally reached summit, we found four bonfires and one boombox.

The only thing I'd been told about this night was that it'd be cold and that at sunrise the masses would raise their hands up high and twinkle their fingers at the sun. The latter did not seem to justify the former, especially with the increasingly intoxicated Crew, so I wandered off to the other bonfires and found something completely unexpected.

Quiet groups - some of them in hats identifying them as Aymara (vs. Quechua), others in clothes that identified them as from the countryside (vs. Potosi, the city), yet others in imported American gear from, perhaps, the '90s - sat around fires drinking coffee, chewing coca, and meticulously preparing offerings for the new year. Children wrapped in blankets dozed by the fire and women with bare legs sat regally and gazed into the flames.

Potosi is mostly Quechua, and though it's been dubbed the more generalized Andean New Year, I've been told it's return as a national holiday is the "whim of Evo," an Aymara and Bolivia's president. The fact that the Association of Elders set up shop under the cross and were blessing it that night further confused things - as far as I understood, the revalorization of this date was another anti-Colonial, and hence anti-Christian, poke by Evo. Further, while the new year on June 21st was made into a national holiday, San Juan, a Christian holiday which falls on June 23 and is traditionally celebrated with bonfires in Bolivia, was effectively banned when bonfires were made illegal due to "environmental hazards." Do you feel relieved to not have to celebrate San Juan or sad to lose the tradition? one man was asked. Relieved, he said, because it's a foreign holiday that's been forced on us. (He also told me that he's no longer a Catholic, but not because the Catholic church kind of sucks, but rather because he got kicked out for wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt to mass...which I guess is one of the things that makes it kind of suck.) Never mind that he's the umpteenth generation to celebrate San Juan of free will and, probably, secularly. In fact, the celebration of the New Year had a relatively small turn out and in addition to the Crew of tourism students I spotted some tourists (including the blondest man I've ever met, manning a huge Chacana (Andean) flag) and met a bunch of professors and intellectual types who probably know about the New Years traditions from studies and were helping the population remember this thing of their collective (or not, since Potosi is largely Quechua?) past.

My personal goal for the night was to not get wasted. This has been a goal I had repeatedly failed at since arriving in Potosi some months ago to work on a photo documentary about the mining industry, but one I continued to set for myself every time I ventured out of the house. What makes this incredibly difficult to succeed at is the fact that the drink of choice here is Ceibo, a 96% alcohol diluted with some water often, soda occasionally, and hot, sweet tea when you're expected to stay up all night, apparently. Also this: you are handed cup-fulls of this poison by friends and strangers alike and they watch, threateningly, for you to down it before grinning at you lopsidedly. These quiet groups seem promising! I thought. And these Elders are positively serene under the cross and the stars, sipping beer instead of rubbing alcohol!

By 3am one of the hillsides, dotted with patches of dry grass sprouting like mohawks on the bald mount, was aflame. Silhouettes wandered between the flames in a smoke screen; this incredibly bad idea was incredibly beautiful to look at, framed as it was by a star heavy sky and a twinkling sea of orange, below. By 4am the ever intrepid lady entrepreneurs of Potosi had made their way up and set up gas stoves with steamy venom, bulbous porridge and sweltering pots large enough to fit small children. Others unfolded tables full of cigarettes and candy. By 5am at least one member of the Crew was slumped against a rock wall, folded into himself like a hedgehog, and unconscious. Echoes of the first band approached from somewhere below and their sound climbed towards us, an invisible wave of drums and zampoñas lapping at the darkness unhurriedly until they emerged into the light of the multiplied campfires. By 5:30 buses brought the hoards.

The Elders, up at the cross and looking down on the growing swarm below, were starting to prepare their offering (and in a surprising turn of technology, using a level tool to do so.) They had slung a pretty bag of coca leaves around my neck, as a thank you card for visiting, and a beer in my hand. I think I mumbled, "I'll be back," before heading down but the clever Elders knew better.

The quiet groups were no more. They had invigorated, stood up, acquired bands, and were now stomping and dancing around their fires energetically. One man grabbed me and we went round and round the fire until he released me and another rewarded me with, of course, steamy Ceibo. Groups with chunky flutes and hirsute drums and matching, embroidered tops played while maintaining a circular, slow stepped procession around a smoky fire fed by aromatic branches. Another band was all zampoñas and sang in bass unison about Bolivia's natural wonders. A man and woman huddled over a spread of offerings dipping a carnation into a dark liquid and dabbing the spread hurriedly with it, as if time was running out. And time was running out! To me, the bands seemed to play faster, to walk around in their circles faster, to wave their flags more briskly as the horizon started to bleed light hues into the overwhelming canopy of cobalt. When the sun appeared above the horizon everyone did raise their hands and twinkled their fingers at the blinding disk but it wasn't at all cheesy and I couldn't help but grin stupidly at the gold lit fingers that undulated all around me. (The pessimist in me cowered [briefly] at the sight of the rays and was maybe going to disintegrate but found refuge in the dark annals of my most important organ.) And, I wasn't wasted!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Corpus Christi Gets My Vote

Corpus Christi in Potosi is the best day EVER. I went to the market that had materialized suddenly along the streets around the University and walked around grinning at the piles of fruit that sat on both sides of the street. I ate a delicious fish blackened by smoke, fresh off the grill, served with limon and camote, and this felt so good that I went along skipping. I bought grapefruit, oranges, kiwi, strawberries and peanuts. In my enthusiasm and excitement at seeing fruit in Potosi (!!!) I came home with probably 10 kilos of it. I also sampled tahu tahuas, which is a fried dough popular here, and got some sopapillas, which is a cookie made of two cookies glued together with a sweet, thin jam. I ran into J., who noted how happy I looked, and met a French man who actually did a double take when I passed by him and called after me to introduce himself; I think this, also, because oh how smiley I was. Who knew a delicious fish could be so life changing?! Oh yeah, I did.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mine is Fea: Meet Carlos and Carlos

Meet Carlos:

"You know," says Carlos, "I never used to work with clothes on." He's handsome, though downtrodden, and I could see why every tourist Wily brought down to where his group, The Sanchez, worked took home a picture of his shirtless torso glistening in the orange light of the work lamps. The Señoras palliris that we're sitting with squint against the sun and one of them asks, "What was it?"

"Gas," says Carlos, "I saw a ton of colors, all matter of colors, and then I don't remember."

He was dragged out of the depths of the mine by his legs about a year and a half ago, by another miner; dead, according to him, but I don't know if that means he was unconscious or really dead or...After recovering he got a post with the government, guarding the now-defunct COMIBOL processing plant, where he and two other men patrol the massive skeleton of what was Bolivia's mining glory during the short run of reform and nationalization from 1952 to 1985, when mineral prices crashed and the plant shut down permanently.

"We communicate with whistles," he says of the other two men. And later, walking in the sun dappled ruins of the various building he shows me parts that have been robbed and insists, with perhaps misinformed Bolivian optimism, that the plant could definitely work and still has up to date technology - American and Czech! - to process the low-grade mineral coming out of the mines now. The plant itself is not unlike sugar processing mills and gypsum factories I've snuck into - rubber transport belts running between corrugated sided building with missing wooden planks in the floors and stopped machinery, some with remnants of the last load that ever made its way through it, still present.

In the guards' office, he brings me samples of the minerals from the Cerro Rico and we talk about math under posters of callipygian white women. He scribbles a formula on an index card for me - 10√hxd - and draws an arc with twelve little crosses, indicating where the dynamite would go around a vein, to open it up. The accident made him more courageous, he says, but the new job is asegurado; he's salaried and he gets retirement pension. Too, he doesn't explain what long term damage the accident has had on him but says, meekly, "This job, pure laziness. Now, when my wife asks me to help her bring water 'I'm mal [bad]', I tell her."

Meet another Carlos:

Outside of church, Carlos Sanchez Flores' mother stood in the middle of an intersection directing service goers to the rented salon up the way. She wore all black, full knee-length skirts and slips blowing up to reveal that her stockings, too, ended at her knee, and the wind caught the length of thin fabric she had wrapped around her head and torso and floated it, a gracefully amorphous but threatening cape that enveloped and thrashed at each person that approached her. The sky was a soft, voluminous grey and the leaves in the courtyard of the church rustled irregularly. I watched, mesmerized, until Don Juan led me away by the elbow, whispering softly, "And, Señorita, how are you this morning? How cold! No? Did you know the friend?"

Carlos Sanchez Flores died a year ago, of gas in the mine, and there was going to be a big party. "It is because his soul has gone lightly, now," explains Marlene. In a turquoise, scrubbed room, we sat along the walls and received his mother and sisters, who walked around handing out cigarettes and distributing palm-fulls of coca leaves. A picture of Carlos along with all necessary libations plus candles stood at one end of the room and his mother sat by it, smoking, backlit by the engraved windows, and proclaimed definitively through the fog, "Drink!"

Don Juan, cat-like, exhaled at me, "Come back at 5. We will dance."

In the evening, the family had changed out of their black grieving clothing, which they had worn all year, and sat in a line against the wall with confetti in their hair, receiving guests. Guests came, kissed them on each cheek and pinned bills on the lapels and scarves of chosen members. Speakers as big as dog houses were piled up on both sides of the room and a live band recreated songs that would have sounded much better had they been played from a CD.

Drinks were first brought out on little fish trays; each tray contained a rum mixed drink, a sangani glass and two small shots of 96% alcohol mixed with something. Then waiters made their rounds with beer. Then more fish trays. Then large silver trays of just shots with another waiter trailing behind with a tray to deposit empties. Mother and sisters walked around restlessly, foreheads wrinkled with worry, waving both hands palms up, as if soliciting louder applause, and pleading, "Drink, drink!" Bottles appeared and their owners, too, made rounds distributing shots, waiting for you to take yours before ambling along. "I am sick," I tried to explain. "This is 96% alcohol. It will cure you," they insisted.

The dancing was getting sloppier and sloppier and I sat through a 15 minute "conversation" about Arnold Schwarzenegger; the only reason I knew it was still about Schwarzenegger was because the monologuer paused intermittently and slurred out, "Schwaaaaaaarzeneggerrrrr, you knoooow him?" as clearly as he could before continuing on with it. When I started getting aggravated, Johnny, ever helpful, leaned over and said, "Here, one must get along with everyone."

Carlos, I'm told, was rich and also powerful within the mine. The group of which he was the boss, The Sanchez, was the same one that the other Carlos worked in. Three other men, too, died last year from the same group and it disbanded, fearing the ominous (and carried out) deaths of fellow miners. The deaths, some say, were inevitable. With mineral prices at record highs in decades, the miners were working the veins 24-hours a day - day and night shifts - and drinking heavily (see above) in their off time. The mine never ventilated, allowing gas to accumulate, and their bodies never rested, lessening any chance of withstanding an onslaught of gas. Too, The Sanchez worked deep down, aggravating all of the above conditions until they fulfilled fatally, four times over.

There were no speeches and little mention of why we were there. There was a lot of drinking and dancing and then, again in our seats lining the turquoise walls, we ate pig and potatoes with our fingers from overloaded bowls while discussing sports.

"Asi es la mineria," Don Juan had said when he led me away that morning, which seemed melancholy, at best. But Johnny, drunk in a house discotheque later that night, explained: "I do not cry always (though his eyes were moist under the black lights), but here, it hurts very much," he said, pointing to his heart and making a movement with his hands as if his heart was vomiting. Then he grabbed me and we danced a strange stomping dance to a song from Oruro.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meet don Pablo

don Pablo looking at mineral with Pablito in the background.

Don Pablo, about 300-pounds heavy just up top with short skinny legs and tiny feet, seemed grotesque at first. When I met him he was sitting, his little legs splayed open to leave room for his three-tiered belly, and chewing coca. Leaves stuck to his lips and green saliva flew out whenever he opened his mouth to let out an enthusiastic chortle.

"Come," he said.

I followed him into the tunnel. He lumbered along unhurriedly and then turned off sharply and began to climb. His giant behind loomed as I followed him up a narrow and steep rabbit hole that squeezed around him as if he was carving it as he went. It ended in a wooden slatted door. Everything beyond the door seemed like a kingdom of sorts: dank, narrow corridors that opened up into high chambers, recently opened, small nooks with arched entryways, serpentine passages between levels and amongst galleries, glittering veins snaking through dull grey rock, piles of angled debris blocking passage, heaps of mineral awaiting transport, glittering with silver in the absolute darkness every time my circle of blue light landed on them.

Don Pablo led me through his Coliseum, as he called it, and pointed out all of the new veins; veins waiting to be opened and taken, veins of chocolate, and la negra, veins of pure silver that are handled manually and sold separately in small sacks, veins of complejo - silver and zinc - that are often signaled by the presence of pyrite. Some appear as thin rivulets meeting into wider streams in the damp rock, others like oxidized banners unfurling widely on the roofs of don Pablo's galleries. He throws a small bottle-cap-full of 96% booze on a new vein, to bless it, and admires it with a sort of ache in his voice, "Pucha, que linda es la plata." With him I stand and admire the brilliance of the vein, like the wing of a bird caught still by a gray mass. I think, for the first time, I understand the greed of a prospector, the avaricious eye that sparks at the glint of mineral and that which it promises. Pucha, que linda es la plata. And que fea, too.
Orphaned at age 10, don Pablo began working in the mines with an uncle the same year. Now 50, he has ten kids of his own, the "black sheep" of which, Pablito, 16, works alongside him.

don Pablo, left, and Pablito.

Yesterday, don Pablo went to the doctor.

"You're healthy," the doctor told him.

"Pucha," says done Pablo, "at this rate I'll never retire."

The sector he currently works was worked by COMIBOL, the Bolivian Mining Corporation, when the mines were nationalized, between 1952 and the 1980s. "People told me there's nothing left here," he says, "but I know there is." He perforates to the east and west with Chinese-made pneumatic drills, looking for the veins that run north-south. As we're standing on the top level of his cave, admiring veins, explosions start to go off, like heavy objects falling far away. He counts 16 detonations and then it goes quiet again.

"What if one doesn't go off?" I ask him.

"You come back in 24 hours."


He sort of half-shrugs and leads me to another vein. "What I need is peons," he says. "There's too much work." He needs money for explosives, too, so he can release the veins he keeps showing me.

When we're sitting, resting, he says: "What I really wanted to do was be a veterinarian."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Doing South America

In any bus along one of the prime backpacking routes of South America or at any [reputable] hostel it is possible to overhear the same conversation taking place between different people.

"Where are you from?"
"Have you done Machu Picchu yet?"
"Yes. Have you done the Salar de Uyuni."
"Oh yes, it was great. Next I will do Buenos Aires. And you?"
"Oh, I will do Sucre."

The places, of course, can be substituted, but the doing remains. This was something I noticed last time I was on the continent but it has become glaring now, as I live it up in a true-blood tourist hostel in Potosi, Bolivia. The syntax bothers me because in the context of said travel the varied incantations of to do are fully loaded. In the dictionary to do is defined as 1. to perform, 2. to execute, 3. to accomplish, but two additional uses come to mind: to do the things on a checklist, firstly, and to do, as in to fuck, secondly. By substituting said meanings, the conversations sound like this:

"Have you fucked Machu Picchu yet?"
"Yes. Have you fucked the Salar de Uyuni?"
"Oh yes, it was great. Next I will check off Buenos Aires from my list. And you?"
"Oh, I will check off Sucre."

As one moves along the Gringo Trail checking off ruins and charming towns from the list, having, in a sense, one-night stands with the dots on the map without investing so much as some devalued pesos, one really is doing South America. What makes this salient in South America is, of course, its unshakeable Colonial past, during which Europeans came and, for the first time, did America. They came and they fucked it: they fucked America's women, fucked up America's natural resources and, ultimately, fucked over a continent and its peoples, leaving this legacy to this day.

Now, gringos are coming back in hoards for more - and why not, there is much to see. But can we please, with history books at our disposal, not do America this time?

Friday, May 7, 2010

No Llores Por Mi Amor...Pichincha Por Siempre!!!

I was all depressed because it took me about 45 minutes to send an email with a couple of measly attachments and my Ma was chatting me up about food the whole time, too. Want to know what I ate today? Bread with instant coffee in the morning and in the afternoon a plate of pasta with pieces of bacon and a supposedly creamy sauce that tasted vaguely like chewing on wool blankets. A culinary delight, the altiplano! The whole time marching bands were parading past the front door, too, and explosives going off all around the city. As soon as the labored email went through I went out to see what was going on; cold, walking around a city crying fresh streams of piss down it slippery sidewalks, dynamite galore and accompanying car security alarms with each detonation, I assumed that it was a continuation of the morning marches.

Not so. It was the youths!

The plaza was completely packed with short, psyched students in various states of booziness and jumpiness. There were two marching bands at opposing sides of the plaza, one in full military uniform. At some point one band played "Happy Birthday," which was a little confusing, but then the military band took over and the plaza EXPLODED. At first the congealed mass of black heads bobbed up and down in agreed-upon but discordant enthusiasm but quickly the mass rearranged itself, kind of like a Transformer, into smaller circles. Pouring little cups while jumping and singing and waving t-shirts emblazoned with Pichincha, each circle would take turns doing a chant, something that rhymed Pichincha with Papa - you get the sentiment - and ending in a high whistle.

Some belated background: Pichincha is one of the oldest public schools in Potosi and one of the few public schools that's considered decent, on the level of private schools. It is its anniversary, and like an anniversary in South America, it is celebrated a full.

Last night was exciting - being 16 and psyched and a little tipsy is a universal daydream, or as C. calls it, the YouthFunBoat. It's the kind of thing oldheads like to attend; they make their way around the plaza slapping young men on their backs and congratulating them on being young. But then today, the streets washed down after last night's festivities and urine, the whole city has been lining up to see the parades - nonstop parading with nonstop marching bands.

Is it because Bolivia has such a military infused history? Nonstop, bombastically formalized parades on a big anniversary, fine. But to a lesser extent, marching bands and parades are ubiquitous always - the people breathe to the rhythm of the drumline.

Work, Collapse Or No Collapse

Bright and early up at the mine, I arrived at some arguments and then a swift exodus down the mount. Where to? I asked Felipe, running alongside him. A la marcha. Duh.

Some things I forgot about Bolivia:

1. There are marches always, for every reason and by every constituency.
2. The toilet paper is pink.
3. Marching bands are ubiquitous and appreciated always.

Yesterday, when I was at the mine, the heads of all of the co-ops were meeting. They must have decided about this march then, because when Felipe and I ran down to the miners market, where people were lining up, the city was already a little paralyzed and totally surprised but the mass of miners.

Today's march had to do with the [potential] closing of the Cerro Rico, the mountain that supports all of the co-ops in Potosi. Since 2008, the State has been attempting to carry out a geological study of the mountain to investigate its condition. 500 years of haphazard, unplanned and intense mining has left the perfectly conical hill collapsing into itself under the weight of its tailings. The profile of the mountain, cherished to the point of being illuminated every night by white lights dotting its mirrored slopes, is losing its perfect symmetry and smooth, unnatural looking silhouette. Even from when I was here about three years ago, the mountain looks different - sunken, ragged.

The problem, historically and to an extent even now, is that miners working inside the Cerro Rico did not plan or coordinate it exploitation. They simply followed the veins with their hammers, chiseling away supports and throwing dynamite at the rock without wondering who was doing the same below or above them. The result is a jumbled anthill of shafts, unmapped and unsustainable.

The study was terminated before completion due to lack of funds. Some insist that funds have nothing to do with it; Evo Morales, who in his second bid for President was supported by the wealthy miners of Potosi (and elsewhere), is just doing a favor to this constituency, they say. If the study is completed, it will almost inevitably show that the Cerro Rico mines are dangerous, in risk of collapsing, and should not be mined any further. This is not something the mine owners want to hear. Neither is it something the actual miners can hear, what with their limited options for work outside of the mine. So collapse or no collapse, work must go on.

The miners filled the narrow streets with bodies and posters. Being miners, they also brought dynamite and detonated it along with loud fireworks as the walked. The only warning I ever saw was the men putting their fingers to their ears, in anticipation of the explosion. I walked alongside, taking pictures. Every time I brought out my huge camera the miners would unfailingly yell, "Tiro a la choca!" which translates roughly as Throw some dynamite at the white girl! When two professional-looking types crossed the marching line, with shined, matching leather briefcases in hand, there was an uproar and a man chased them down the street with a stick of dynamite.

At the plaza, speeches and ice cream. I wrote in my proposal that the mine is close to its end and this may be the last generation to mine it, but I didn't really believe it. I mean, it's close, I thought, but not imminently so. But here, from day one, its doom is all over the place, hanging over the city and talked about constantly. For example, all of the miners I see are older - younger men don't go into the mines now because there is no future there. A mining museum has opened in a defunct shaft. The palliris, women who comb the tailings for any leftover mineral that the miners left behind, are few and those that remain are ancient. A processing center, opened in 2009, is processing the tailings, not even buying new ore. And on and on.

So the question is, will the government find funds and balls to finish the study? Will it then find means to make work for the 10,000 miners that currently work in the Cerro Rico?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I'm in Potosi, yo!

From the beginning?

5pm traffic in Lima is the worst. My cab driver, one pant leg rolled fastidiously up to his thigh, maneuvered slowly between cars, street-sellers (need an atlas, book on dinosaurs, cell phone charger, snacks? Shop while you're in traffic!) and teenagers to where all the separate bus terminals for each company are concentrated, in La Victoria. Lima-to-Cusco-hour had passed so he took me to a "secure hostel" nearby, "the only secure one in this neighborhood, which is not so good." Thanks, dude! I overpaid at the counter and spent all night and morning listening to people have sex while reclining against my own mirrored headboard, watching bad movies. The securest hostel in town provides condoms along with packets of shampoo and soap.

The Bus:
Few folks have cars so if you want to get somewhere you take a bus. Everyone takes the bus - the lady with the ton of bags and babies, the man with the large mustache, the tourists, the soldiers. Now the buses have stewardesses and security videos like the airplanes and class difference can now be recognized by how far the seat in your bus reclines. You cannot, however, take a poo on the bus. The stewardess on the PA system says, "Please, ladies and gentlemen, remember that the bus's hygiene equipments is only for urinating. If you have other needs please inform me and we will make other arrangements." Not that I do that or anything, because I'm a lady.

Firstly, it looks like this:

I dare you to criticize my love of it now.

All the hippies are always talking about "Cusco's magic," which I will not recognize here, but the city's got damn good light. It's all colonial building, with giant Inca-built walls, and clay roofs that are veritably luminescent in the morning and golden hours. At night, the plaza glows with orange light, reflecting off the grey, smoothed stones that line the plaza. Above the city, eucalyptus and pine grow, almost exclusively, so it smells good, too. C., who's an architect, says what makes it so beautiful is the fifth dimension. When we evaluate a building or buildings amassed together we judge by what we can see, which is usually, at its most basic, the four walls or sides of a structure and their intra-play with each other and interplay with their surroundings. Hilly places, like Valparaiso and Cusco, let a viewer see the fifth wall - the roof. And in Cusco, the roofs are like a rippling, orange sea of ceramic tile bobbing with the height of houses and hills.

It's a strange place. Traveling women are always bringing home husbands and babies from Cusco while local men who don't make it abroad seem to become drug addicts, booze hounds, hippies or a combination of the three. I'm not sure what happens to the women because my interaction with them has been limited to a boozy lady hippy and my Peruvian Ma, who defies all categories. Its mysticism also manifests itself in faux-shamanism; this I wrote about once and will post shortly. More than anything, though, Cusco is almost defined by its tourism. When Machu Picchu closed due to massive rainfall in January, the entire city shut down, forcing hundreds into unpaid "vacations," because it was so empty. Tourists often turn into denizens, about which I also wrote once, and maybe will post as well. While everyone kind of does their own thing during the day, at night the main plaza, orange and glowing, like I said, is ambushed by fun-seekers. If you are white or at least foreign-looking, young Peruvians will chase you around the plaza with flyers offering "free drink, meess, free drink" and asking "where you from, meess, Efrance?" The same electronic remixes will blare from intricately carved balcony windows around the plaza, young children will offer you cigarettes at 2am, a Peruvian will ask you for your email address after you refuse to dance with him, another Peruvian will deny you entrance into his club because you are trying to bring in a brown friend (i.e. Peruvian) rather than a white one, some ladies will inevitably dance on the bar for the first time in their lives (omg, travel is so crazy, guys!), and when the sun starts to rise there will be a drunk-burger exodus. Sometimes you'll get something stolen or get beaten by the cops or go to a metal bar or campfire but mostly this will repeat every night. I think I'm over that part of Cusco, but I did manage to drink it up amply regardless.

my Peru ma:

My First Bullfight:
It may be because there are not enough bulls to go around or because Peru retains an assiduous amateurishness when copying allochthonous cultures, but here, in Cusco, they do not kill the bulls during the running of the bulls. They do, however, send subtly effeminate macho men and shy macha girls into the ring with red and fuchsia capes to piss the bulls off and make them charge at the toreros with salivating menace. It is so exhilarating. I kept forgetting to breath and to drink my beer and to mind my manners. Too, for the first time, I experienced the thrill of machismo rather than being disgusted by it. A regality, of sorts, a presence unnervingly imperial, but innately so - the posture, stance, wide arc of arm movements, deep bows, terrifying yet fearless confrontations with the beasts. I kept staring down an Argentine torero so hard that C. made me go talk to him and G. bowed profoundly and kissed my hand upon introduction. Just like a torero, right?!

A 16-year-old torero:

After the bulls get tucked back into the truck, the people dance!

Hello, Bolivia:
I dreaded it. I mean, it's just such a mess. I took a bus from Cusco to La Paz - about 400 miles - and it took 13 hours. I peed behind a smelly adobe house mid-way with the stars hanging heavy and the exhaust, even out in the country, ripe. Immigration was a cement room with graffiti. "Immigration" was misspelled. At around 9am, dust creeping through the shut windows into the bus, we veered off the paved road and on to a dry, trash-strewn plain with oases of brown puddles. For the next two hours, approaching the largest city in the country, with a population of about 1 million, we, along with many other vehicles, maneuvered the plain at the alarming speed of about 15mph. It's like if one had to approach New York through the marshes. The bus would tip deeply at bumps and get stuck in puddles and have to back up at traffic jams (traffic on the plain!!). I was kind of hoping the bus, full of gringos, was just detouring to see what they could get out of us. Nope, that's just how you get to La Paz.

Aaaaand I'm here! Potosi:
I'm here to shoot photos of miners of the Cerro Rico, Rich Hill. Sitting in my room earlier, I kept hearing explosions and gun shots. It didn't seem odd until I became conscious of it and then it was like, "I'm hearing explosions and gun shots!"

"Oh, there's a march," says the Boliviana doing laundry. Of course.

May 1st just passed and the entirety of salaried Bolivia is currently on strike. The factory workers are 8 days deep into their hunger strike and some other workers are literally sewing their lips shut. The problem: the yearly salary increase this year, as mandated by Morales, is only 5%, which workers say does not make their unlivable wages any more livable.

I rushed out to see what was going on and found a bunch of hard hats amid smoke. Fuck! I'm here to shoot working miners and the miners are on strike. "We will not back down," said the man on the megaphone.

Turns out, though, Potosi is still in commission. The reason? Oh, because salary increases don't apply here - there are no salaries! (Here, miners either make commission or are given a day where they work for themselves rather than their boss or co-op.) The marching miners were from the Porco mine, which is Swiss (I think, might be Swedish) operated and does provide salaries. Good thing you're already screwed to the max, Potosi.