Went Outside 3: LO; Evo Morales

It actually scans much better than Oh, Jeremy Corbyn, just try it

This post features more pictures, enjoy.

Some things which I forgot from Peru. Quickly. Don’t worry, we’ll get to Bolivia.

1) they have a Diana Exhibition in Lima.

The People’s Peruvian

2) Every year in the off season the guides in Cusco run the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Tourists take four days to trek it but the record for the run is 3 hours and about 45 minutes. That’s much more similar to how the Inca would have handled it and shows 1) how useless tourists are and 2) how well connected a mountainous society can be without wheels and horses.


Back to Bolivia and what can I say? It is brilliant. What a country. All sorts of terrain, high altiplano, deep valleys, canyons, jungle, cloud forest, grim mines, beautiful colonial architecture and interesting pre-colombian ruins. And cheap as chips. I’ll tell you one thing about grinding, awful poverty, it makes travelling more affordable. So every cloud, eh?


Where does Simon Bolivar keep his Armies? At the top of his Andes.


While I was in Bolivia Evo Morales overturned the term limit law which would stop him from standing for President again. While I’m generally pro-Evo this is a bad thing.

First off, Evo-based scandals I heard about while in Bolivia. Evo has a secret son, although this is no longer a secret. The secret son is on its own not so terrible a scandal, it doesn’t reflect well on him, but there’s more. First Evo has been lying about the son existing, then about knowing the son, until footage emerged of them together. “Oh, that son! Yes, I know him and have met him, sorry.” Also, the son’s mother, not known for her bridge building ability, has won a government contract to build a bridge (may be some other infrastructure, this anecdote is now old in my memory). Not great stuff all round but relatively funny.

Secondly, there’s also massive ecological damage on the horizon. Evo has a plan to turn Bolivia into an dynamo for the region. Exporting goods from a landlocked country is difficult, but if you don’t have any coastline then you can export electricity in any direction. To this end Bolivia has been using its gas reserves and selling power to its neighbours. There is also a deal in the offing for Russia to build a nuclear power station in the country so it can sell its electricity abroad. I’m as pro-nuclear as the next man who loves giant infrastructure projects and precision engineering, but Rosatom building a nuclear power station in Bolivia near the Amazon doesn’t fill me with joy.

This is nowhere near the proposed site of the dam, but damn, is it a sight

There are also plans to dam canyons across tributaries to the Amazon, in the El Bala canyon, flood primary rainforest and sell this electricity abroad too. Bolivia is very poor, so flogging energy any way they can does have appeal, and there is part of me that thinks you can’t make an omelette without the extinction of a few species of birds. However, regardless of the merits of the plan it has certainly made Evo lots of enemies in the tourist industry and among indigenous communities near the proposed damn. Also combining cheap energy with cheap labour would solve more of Bolivia’s problems than selling cheap energy and letting the cheap labour deal with itself. Selling a capital intensive/labour light export like energy won’t be good news for other potential export industries. The plan makes me nervous.

However, the main reason Evo going on and on and on and on isn’t good news for Bolivia isn’t petty corruption or ecological vandalism, its that good governance is valuable, and Evo is ruining that. Peaceful transitions of power are followed by better economic growth. Hardly anything positively affects trend economic growth, so Evo deciding to hold onto power longer rather than take the George Washington approach is bad news. Unfortunately, like lots of South America lots of the potential governments, ministers and presidents in waiting look like the sort of awful crooks that have screwed Bolivia up through the years. However, you have to move forward and no matter how irreplaceable Evo thinks he is, he is not. Bolivia needs to move on to see what happens next.


Now for a musical interlude.


There are a lot of protests in Bolivia, over a lot of different topics. I’ve seen protests over water, sanitation, wages, job security, celebrations of new laws against violence against women. Political life in Bolivia is very public. When you’re a large indigenous community ruled by a white elite in a highly dysfunctional democracy making a nuisance of yourself is one of the few channels to get things done.

Water was a perennial topic for protest. Andean Bolivia is very dry with occasional heavy rains. This means that early in the year you can be flooded, but later before the rains restart you can lack water for most of the day, or need to visit a well or pump far away from home. Given Bolivia’s chronic poor governance and poverty good water infrastructure to store, treat and transport this water is lacking in lots of places. Protesting for more water when more water may not exist in accessible forms might seem like a waste of time, but with poor democratic accountability or commercial accountability, what would you do?

Water management, from the Inca and pre-Inca sites I’ve visited around here has been a major topic for Andean people for, essentially, forever. Nowhere is drainage more visible in places I have visited, either to channel water away from your homes when there’s too much, or to capture all you can when there isn’t. Still astonishing that this incredibly beautiful but hard landscape was where the Inca empire was built.


I can recommend a great hotel, if you’re heading this way

First place I came to in Bolivia, Copacabana, is a case in point of water management’s continuing importance.

It is a stunning lakeside town. Already famous on the traveller circuit as a beautiful stop off — loads of great Inca sites nearby, some great colonial architecture, lakeside activities, en route to/from Peru — but you can’t get reliable, clean water. You take for granted that a good idea for a hotel can find investment — here, this will make lots of money, you want in? — but in Bolivia it won’t make money, because you’d have to front a whole set of water and waste infrastructure first.


I noticed that Ed Sheeran got into trouble while I was away for poverty porn. First of all, effective fundraising is good, raising lots of money for charity is good, so I can see why people who are in charge of producing fundraising videos focus on that. But maaaaan, do these videos give people a distorted sense of what poverty is like.

Bolivia is incredibly poor, but rarely do you see scenes like those in these videos. The destitution which is so normal in these videos doesn’t reflect the reality of lots of people in poverty. They are busy people, doing not particularly worthwhile or value adding work, but almost always trying to work out what to do next to earn some more money or put a roof over their heads or food on the table. The self-reliance which is normal for people in real poverty is too easily erased by lots of the aid industry’s depiction of poverty. Until I was easily old enough to know better, I thought the world was England, nice, France, nice but foriegn, US, nice and like us and places which were poor, covered in flies, always having a famine somehow. But poverty is nothing like that.


I was in an village on Lake Titikaka, inhabited since pre-Colombian times. It was littered with litter which was incredibly sad, but also comforting that people are useless and terrible in the same way no matter where you go.


Moving on to La Paz: a good way to judge how wealthy a place is would be to do a crane count. Sadly throughout Bolivia I didn’t see all that many cranes. What you do notice is the private transport. In La Paz private transport is limited, most of the traffic on the streets are small buses plying different routes. And the streets are utterly congested with them. Santa Cruz is different.

Santa Cruz is the heart of the Bolivian Oil and Gas Industry and also the main transit route and business hub for the Bolivian Cocaine industry into Brazil and beyond. Here private cates predominate and the disparity in wealth is easy to see. I think the private car count is deficient to the crane count, cars are capital investments, but much smaller ones, but its plain to see the difference in life from La Paz to Santa Cruz. Crime pays.


Speaking of local cars, a huge proportion of cars in Bolivia run on LNG, liquified natural gas. This is less powerful than petrol (I’ve been in taxi rides aborted due to a steep hill, which is strange in a country largely made up of hills) but it doesn’t need importing and Bolivia has lots of gas. Having a big LNG fleet in Bolivia means can build up its own liquifying gas business, save foreign exchange leaving to buy petrol and insulate its population from some fluxuations in oil and gas prices.


Bolivian roads are in terrible condition. The intercity routes were traditionally either not travelled, if you were poor, or flown, if you were rich. Even between major cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz sections of road remain unpaved, and between Santa Cruz and Sucre it is tortuous. Of course, Bolivia has Jungle OR Mountain, which are about two of the least forgiving terrains to build road through, so of course the road construction is expensive and hard. But expensive things are often also worth a lot. Bolivians I met wanted me to believe that it was simply because road building was hard that their country lacked good roads, but Bolivia’s governments have just let Bolivians down for generations.


Obviously this is still a Pro-Train blog, so a word on Bolivia’s railway system. Bad. It was founded in the mid/late 19th century so relatives of the President’s family could more easily export raw materials. Bolivia really does have that sort of history and politics. However, up until the 1990s Bolivia did have an intercity rail service which was quite nice, if expensive for most Bolivians. It was privatised in the 2000s (by the President who is currently wanted for a massacre and some corruption but is hiding out in the US. Bolivia really does have that sort of history and politics.) and the Chilean company which took it over gutted the services and basically you can’t get passenger trains places now. There’s still some freight, but not lots, and services are now slower than the buses. The buses which don’t have proper roads. Yep, this is not a railway lovers country, which is a pity, because the landscape would look stunning from a train.


In Sucre, I saw a pacific island-themed restaurant called Hawai, so not Hawaiian, but Hawaiiy.


Always good to see James C Scott in the wild. This time it is bus station designers versus the people who work in them. Can you spot the metis in the photo fighting back against the stupid but sensible design?

James C Scott is firmly in my “good to think” with file. Its not a complete view of how the world works, but Seeing Like a State gives you useful questions to ask, which is all you can ask of a good book really.


The stray animals in South America are very well cared for. In Sucre it is illegal to kill strays. It was once common for people to poison them but the sight of dead dogs on the street was too much for people and they banned the practice. Even outside of legal protection, across Bolivia, one of the poorest countries I have ever visited, the dogs and cats seem in rude health. Obviously in more rural areas the sack and brick is still used as a pet postceptive, but the fatness of many dogs cannot be ignored.

This is hugely to the credit of the Bolivians (and Peruvians and Colombians) feeding these animals (indeed, it is similar writing this from Argentina too). They just need to get round to neutering them (never seen so many dogs’ bollocks in all my life) and animal welfare would improve even further. I’d always assumed, perhaps patronisingly, in my trips to The Philippines or Vietnam or Thailand that poor countries just couldn’t stretch to take care of their stray animals. Having spent some time in South America I think maybe that is wrong. The relative health of the animal life is much to South America’s credit and Southeast Asia’s discredit.


Continuing adventures in health and safety: overtaking petroleum tankers in fog on mountain roads. With less than 10 meters visibility, with a sheer drop down one side of the road and a sheer cliff-face on the other, why would anyone overtake a lorry? It can’t be because they’re in a rush because I’ve met few people in a rush in Bolivia and none of them so far seem to have worked in public transport (other than when and only when it might kill them).


Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, handing President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America” in 2009. CreditMatthew Cavanaugh/European Pressphoto Agency

I have wanted to visit Potosi since reading Open Veins of Latin America (free online). If you’ve not read it I recommend it. I hate to say it is a searing account, but it is a searing account of the exploitation, murder and suffering in Latin America since they got the shitty side of the Colombian exchange. It isn’t that I agree with the analysis (seems even Eduardo doesn’t any more), it is too World Systems Theory for me, but it is a phenomenal read.

Anyway, the section which has stuck with me most vividly is the description of Cerro Rico. The rich mountain which was full of silver. The last 500 years of mining have seen the mountain shrink from 5,200 meters to 4,800. This is the home of the silver which sextupled the price level in Europe over the 150 years of the price revolution and the mine is still operating today. You can visit it. I visited it.

Welcome to hell, also the major local employer and lynchpin of the regional supply chain

20 or so miners died last year. Mostly not from mining collapse but from lung disease. The dangers of working without masks are known, but so is the discomfort, so many miners don’t use them. I met minor miners illegally working in the mine with their parents and my tour guide entered the mines at 8 years old. The nationalised mine company left in the 1980s and the main seams of silver were exhausted centuries ago. Now there are decent seams of tin, silver, lead, but nothing remotely like the riches which used to be there. If there were, ordinary Bolivians wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it.

Before talking about the conditions which made the mine infamous you’ll be interested to hear about how the mines operate today. They are run by several (I think 32) mining cooperatives. To become a socio in one of the cooperatives you have to serve a three year apprenticeship and then be judged of good character by the existing socios. In the first year you work for one existing socio and earn around £300 a month. In the second year you get your own vein of minerals to work on, you keep around 50% of what you mine, but your master gets the rest. In the third year you keep 85%. After three years you apply to the cooperative and if you pass (say you haven’t drunkenly fought someone, or been accused of stealing minerals, or misusing equipment) you become a full socio and the seam of minerals you used to work becomes yours.

However, these are not true cooperatives. They share an entrance and above ground facilities but below ground it is everyman for himself. If you have a wide, rich seam of minerals you earn good money and can even become a Bolivian millionaire (upwards of £100,000, which ain’t too bad at all in Bolivia). With a good seam you can install railroad tracks and carts for transport, you can rent pneumatic drills, you can take on apprentices. With a poor seam you can’t afford equipment beyond mallets, shovels and wheelbarrows. You’ll work hard for very little. And once your seam runs out you have to restart an apprenticeship. Cooperatives these ain’t, life in Bolivia is hard.

96% alchohol is a bit strong even for me, but is popular with the miners

This passage stayed with me from Eduardo Galeano on the exploitation of the mines by the Spanish:

In three centuries Potosi’s Cerro Rico consumed 8 million lives. The Indians, including women and children, were torn from their agricultural communities and driven to the Cerro. Of every ten who went up into the freezing wilderness, seven never returned. Luis Capoche, an owner of mines and mills, wrote that “the roads were so covered with people that the whole kingdom seemed on the move.” In their communities the Indians saw “many afflicted women returning without husbands and with many orphaned children” and they knew that “a thousand deaths and disasters” awaited them in the mines. The Spaniards scoured the countryside for hundreds of miles for labor.
Many died on the way, before reaching Potosi, but it was the terrible work conditions in the mine that killed the most people. Soon after the mine began operating, in 1550, the Dominican monk Domingo de Santo Tomas told the Council of the Indies that Potosi was a “mouth of hell” which swallowed Indians by the thousands every year, and that rapacious mine owners treated them “like stray animals.” Later Fray Rodrigo de Loaysa said: “These poor Indians are like sardines in the sea. Just as other fish pursue the sardines to seize and devour them, so everyone in these lands pursues the wretched Indians.” Chiefs of Indian communities had to replace the constantly dying mitayos with new men between eighteen and fifty years old. The huge stone -walled corral where Indians were assigned to mine and mill owners is now used by workers as a football ground. The mitayos ‘jail — a shapeless mass of ruins — can still be seen at the entrance to Potosi.

How rich Potosi was is hard to imagine:

They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi, The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens; it prompted tragedies and fiestas, led to the spilling of blood and wine, fired avarice, and unleashed extravagance and adventure.
The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and plunder of Latin America, and captains and ascetics, knights and evangelists, soldiers and monks came together in Potosi to help themselves to its silver. Molded into cones and ingots, the viscera of the Cerro Rico — the rich hill — substantially fed the development of Europe. “Worth a Peru” was the highest possible praise of a person or a thing after Pizarro took Cuzco, but once the Cerro had been discovered Don Quixote de la Mancha changed the words: “Worth a Potosi,” he says to Sancho.This jugular vein of the viceroyalty, America’s fountain of silver, had 120,000 inhabitants by the census of 1573. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same population as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris. A new census in 1650 gave Potosi a population of 160,000. It was one of the world’s biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston — at a time when New York had not even begun to call itself by that name.

A salt sea

My final stop in Bolivia were its salt flats: Salar de Uyuni. Absolutely bloody enormous they are. Highly recommend visiting them.

I wondered how all that salt got there and the answer is both obvious and amazing. Before the South American plate hit the Nazca plate the South America plate’s leading edge was underwater. As the Nazca plate slipped under the Andes were pushed up and so some sea was trapped. This is why there are river dolphins in the Amazon, they are very lost. So the water evaporated leaving behind vast seas of salt. Just an astonishing country all round really.

Mountains, geysers, lagoons, hot springs, volcanoes, salt, FLAMINGOS!

Next stop Argentina.