Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bolivia, end

April 3, 2008

Bolivia is a very interesting country geographically, from the Atacama desert, the endless salt flats, Lake Titicaca and finally La Paz, built in an old volcano crater. It has been raped by its powerful neighbors and outside invasions for centuries and has lost more than a third of its land. Today, completely landlocked except for a small corridor to the sea available only on loan from Chile, is dependent on tourists and the income from the illegal drug trade. Rich in natural gas, for some reason, it has refused to sell it internationally. We watched as a long line of Bolivians waited to fill their propane tanks. Propane gas sells for about 75 cents a gallon in Bolivia but a few miles north, in Peru it sells for 15 dollars a gallon so much of the gas is siphoned off to the black market, leaving less for the Bolivians.

The Bolivian air force has planes left over from the Korean War era and if Bolivia should want to purchase a new plane, Chile would take that as an “act of aggression” and line the borders with military personnel. Same for Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. Coca, the main income producing crop in South America, due to the pressures of the US war on drugs, has been moved into an area that is guarded by well armed guerrillas from Venezuela and Colombia, and large swatches of the population are slowly being armed with guns being smuggled in from Venezuela.

Most of the rural population, and those without skills who have moved to the cities, have not progressed in education or sophistication for hundreds of years. Still paying homage to the ancient gods, fearful of cameras and without modern convienieces, they live much as they have for hundreds of years. Throughout the country, there are very few TV antennas. Whole villages are cut off from the modern world.

Those that have moved to the city and found employment are dissatisfied and in La Paz, at least once a day, sometimes three times in a day, the city is brought to a standstill as protestors block main streets with parades or sit down demonstrations called “manifestaciones”. The government has no history of stability with 175 presidents in 175 years and a reputation of corruption, and seems to be unable to make any changes that affect the people positively.

We talked to an older, educated man who lived in Europe for many years, and he is convinced that there will be a civil war within a couple of months and is prepared to defend his home and family with a gun. As I watched the hundreds of tourists climb the hills and shop in the thousands of handicraft shops, I tried to imagine gun fighting, death and destruction in the streets. I couldn’t! That way of life may be real to the people of Iraq or Pakistan, but not to modern Westerners. He also is convinced that the U.S. will send an army down at the first sign of trouble. I’m not so sure. Bolivia is a Christian country and a democracy, so we can’t bring either “the true God” or democratic deliverance to them. As a god-fearing, drug using nation, I don’t think that many Americans would be in favor of another war in a hopeless situation.

To Cusco:

So, with all this on our minds, we left Bolivia, the most interesting country in South America and the cheapest place so far on this continent, and headed into Peru by bus. At the border, everyone disembarked from the bus, walked into the Bolivian immigration office for an exit stamp, walked a few meters more to the Peruvian immigration office and were issued a 90 day visa in about three minutes. The streets of Desaguadero, the border crossing town, were filled with bicycle driven carts, a sort of tuk-tuk as in Asia and India, transporting all manner of items, as well as passengers, around town. In front of the Peruvian immigration office sat a row of money changers busy changing Bolivianos for Soleis, Peruvian money.

As we drove through the country side for the next nine hours, we noticed that most of the village and farm houses had metal roofs, unlike the thatch roofs of Bolivia. Except for that, the houses looked the same. Large farms cut up the valleys and climb the hills, with thousands of grazing sheep and cattle. As we approached Cusco, the landscape changed from the flat plateau to steep, green and lush mountains with the glaciers of the Andes rising behind. Picturesque villages and farms in the valleys with workers in the fields or herding sheep or cows along the side of the road, made for a lovely sight.

However, the roads so far in Peru were dotted with potholes and in need of repair. All along the roads in Bolivia and in Peru, the houses are little cube like structures of raw brick with all the top floors unfinished. Even in La Paz, the houses climbing up the hills were built the same way. Finally reaching Cusco after a 12 hour bus ride we found it to be a modern city with many single family homes, beautiful flower filled yards, pastel stucco with tile roofs and very few rural ladies or street stalls. There are numerous market streets leading off the main boulevard but the boulevard itself is strangely free from tourist shops.

We had contacted a hotel on the internet and they sent someone to the bus terminal to pick us up. Good thing as the hotel isn’t really a hotel, rather a private home on the second floor with five rooms on ground floor, each with private bath, a small heater, a common area with a mini kitchen and two tables with chairs. There is no sign outside and we would never have found it on our own. There is no reception and the owners upstairs were there to greet us. Because we were so tired, they ordered a delivered Pizza. The next day we discovered that many of the restaurants are closed during the day making it difficult to buy lunch. Early in the morning two men from a tour company showed up, giving us information on the available tours. I had marked 9 different ruins that we might be interested in. We signed up for three tours that would take us to each place, including a day trip to Machu Pichu by train. At one time there was a cheap local train to Machu Pichu but that has been discontinued. Today the “backpackers” train costs $99.00 each and the luxury “Vista Dome” costs $148.00 roundtrip. There is an even more luxurious train, the “Hiram Bingham” named for the discoverer of Mach Pichu, which is made up of nothing but dining cars. It also features live music, hot towels when you board, and any kind of gourmet food you’d care to order, prepared by internationally trained chefs. All this for a mere $625. Not bad for a round trip of 8 hours! Also, the entrance fee to the ruins is $50.00 each. Our total cost for three tours: $540.00, still less than the “Hiram Bingham” and that included several meals, bus transfers, and all the entrance fees. The tour man also arranged for our flight tickets from Cusco to Lima. The three tours did include all the ruins and valleys in the area so we were able to see all that we wanted.

First about tourists in Cusco. Over a million tourists visit Cusco every year. The industry is run very efficiently. Someone from the “Visitor’s Information” office is at the bus station or airport to greet arrivals, help with luggage and go with the visitors to their hotel. After seeing them to their rooms, they set up an appointment with the tour companies. Early the next morning, the tour company makes arrangements for visiting each of the ruins and the city tour. The tours could be done without the tour companies but are more difficult and take more time. The tourist busses line up and leave from the Plaza de Armas every few minutes, each full with their load of passengers and a local guide. When the tour is long, meals are included at very nice restaurants. Finally, the tour company sends a taxi for departure from Cusco and the person who greeted the tourist at the bus station is there to see him off at either the bus station or the airport. Everything is arranged to insure that the visitor is comfortable, sees everything and has had ample opportunity to spend lots of money in the local community.

Climbing the surrounding hills, the city itself is very pretty, clean and charming with cobblestone streets, walls made of old Inca stones, lots of eye catching merchandise, friendly people and every class of restaurant possible, lovely gardens with well kept flower plots, fountains sparkling in the sun, impressive old churches and a history complete with greed, power, rape and ravishment. What more could a visitor want, besides, at 12,000 ft., more oxygen!

There are four classes of visitors. First the “do it themselves” backpackers who go on local buses and arrange lodging on the fly. Most of them end up on the arranged tours anyway. Second are those, like us, who stay in budget hotels and take the Backpackers train and all the tours. Third are those with more cash who take the Vistadome train, and finally those with gobs of money who stay in the 5 star hotels and take the “Hiram Bingham Train” at $625 a day, per person.

The Inca Ruins.

The Incas themselves were late comers in the New World, lasting only a hundred years before the Spanish arrived. Compared with the Aztecs and the Mayans, they were less advanced. They didn’t develop writing or as fine an architecture but had gold and silver in abundance. They had developed a good army and controlled a huge area from Ecuador to Chile, always having to defend themselves from the fierce Indians of the Amazon Basin.

As far as archeologists can determine, they had a religion full of myths, mysticisms and miracles, not too unlike the religion brought over by the Spaniards with a belief in the afterlife. Indian tribes that had been conquered by the Incas were more than willing to join the Spanish and overthrow the hated rulers. But like the Indians to the north, they knew excellent real estate. The locations of the cities are some of the most beautiful in the world, from large food producing plateaus to tropical rainforest valleys to breathtaking heights. A vast network of paths and troops of runners insured fresh fish from the sea and rivers, produce from many different locations, and gold aplenty to decorate themselves and their houses. All these places had been inhabited for centuries by different Indian farming tribes who hadn’t developed armies capable of defending themselves from the Incas. Only the fierce, head hunting Indians in the jungles could or did resist.

The Inca rulers lived in Cusco, in a large valley surrounded by vast growing areas. Since they imported so much, a network of relay stations was developed, each about 6 miles apart, the distance a runner could make easily where another runner would take over. Llamas did most of the transport but unlike donkeys, would not carry heavy loads so necessitated many animals. Llamas also provided food and warm clothing.

The buildings of un-mortared stones, some weighing over 50 tons each, had to be quarried and transported by human effort. These huge stones made up the bases of the walls. The higher up the wall construction went, the smaller the stones and these were worked into more or less square shapes without the use of metal tools. The magnificent walls with huge rocks were built in the valleys taking advantage of natural outcroppings and caves. Most of the defensive walls were built in the Cusco valley, some with three sets of walls as high as 50 feet. The better, square cut stones, were later pillaged and used by the Spanish to construct the churches and homes they built in Cusco and other towns. One marvels at the incredible workmanship which fit the stones together so closely that mortar was not needed; which was a good thing since they never invented it.

What they did invent, though, was a system of building which canted the walls at a 15 degree angle to each other, perfect for preventing collapse during the frequently violent earthquakes which pummel the region regularly. In many places, you can see where the stones have separated, often leaving large gaps between, yet the walls have remained standing.

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