Finding Nirmo: The Salt Flat of Uyuni

Photos by Ivan and Karla

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Text by Karla Gachet

A long time ago the mountains used to walk and they acted like humans do. One of these mountains, Tunupa, was a woman who lived with her husband and three children. One of her kids died, and the other one, who was still a baby, was taken away by her husband. He had cheated on her with another mountain. Tunupa cried a lot and her tears mixed with her breast milk. The valley flooded with salty milk and this is how the salt flat of Uyuni came to be. Tunupa is single to this day and her husband was dumped by his second wife.

Madaí Laime is fifteen and has been bagging salt from the age of six. Her job consists of filling plastic bags with a kilo of salt each, sealing them, and packing them in bigger bags of 50 kilos each. She needs to bag 2500 kilos per day and for this she earns $5. The first time her mother brought her to work she had no idea of how much salt existed. Madaí leaves her home in the morning before school and starts her job, comes back during recess time to continue and finishes after school. Her father abandoned them 9 years ago, he has another family in La Paz and is sick. Her favorite song is Kudai’s “There is nothing left” and her younger brother’s name is Bin Laden.

The musical band “Clouds of Love” was created in 1991 by the Chambi brothers: Leo, Nico, Erik and Nirmo. When they started out they played on tin cans. Eventually, they saved money and were able to buy all their musical instruments. They rehearse on their free time, depending on their mood. Nirmo wants to save up money to buy his own trailer and sell his salt outside of Colchani. Instead of making $143 a month he can make up to $1500. Erik hates working in the salt flats and wants to become a tourist guide. Nico can’t seem to fine tune his bass which is missing its last cord. Leo has a wife in the north of Argentina. They live in separate countries because she can’t stand the cold weather in Colchani. He can’t stand the heat where she lives either.

The hotel “Salty Moon” majestically sits on top of a hill. From its restaurant, surrounded by tinted glass windows, you get a 180 degree view of the salt flat. This peculiar construction was built with salt, and its targeted to international travelers who enjoy comfort, silence, gourmet food and walking on salty floors. To guarantee its optimal quality, the salt and most of the products used for cooking, are imported from Argentina. The prices of the rooms vary from $80 to $120 a night. The other hotel in Colchani, not quite as fancy, charges $3. Not too long ago, president Evo Morales stayed in the hotel. After praising its owners for such comfortable accommodations, he demanded they create a special price for Bolivians. They lowered it to $50 a night.

Angela, Marcelo, John and his dog Skycer are all neighbors and meet every evening to play in the salt mounts outside a salt-processing factory across the street. They don’t care about legends of walking mountains.They have never been into the salt flat itself, and could care less about the thousands of visitors who come to witness one of nature’s unique wonders. They’re not even interested in knowing if the factories processing salt in their town use enough iodine to make it safe for human use. Their only worry is their 7 p.m. curfew as they jump and free fall over the white mountains of their salty world.

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On the road Bolivia

Photos by Ivan and Karla

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Text by Karla Gachet

Email to family

Familia! Yesterday we finally crossed the border and got out of Bolivia. The last part was intense. We were over 15 thousand ft in altitude and the cold reached the bones no matter how many sweaters we wore. The landscapes in the south of Bolivia are amazing: snow-capped mountains, green, red and blue lakes, flamingos and llamas everywhere. The best part were the hot springs where we soaked after three days of no showers. You can imagine the joy.

It all started after the Uyuni Salt Flats. People told us the roads were in bad conditions and had no signs. The best thing to do was follow other tourist guides’ cars that were headed to the lakes, so we wouldn’™t get lost. One of the guides agreed to help us out. He suddenly started driving very fast. When the dust cloud he left behind settled, we realized we were alone. He had abandoned us in the middle of nowhere. There was not a soul to ask which way to go.

So we guessed. The bumpy road suddenly divided in three. Ini mini miny moe.. we followed our instinct and thanks to grandma’™s prayers in some parallel universe, we made it to the first rest stop in a town called San Juan. The thoughtful guide was already eating dinner when we got there. He freaked out when he saw us because he probably thought we would never make it. Since we had to buy gas from him we couldn’™t tell him what an ass we thought he was.

The problem is that in Bolivia no one knows how to give directions. A nicer guide told us we could follow him because the road really gets narly. More??!! Indeed. You wouldn’™t believe it. There were huge rocks that the car had to climb going up a steep mountain with a precipice to one side. I just closed my eyes as Ivan drove and aged three years in three minutes. No one , not tourists or their guides could believe we were doing this road on our own. At this point, we couldn’™t either.

We got to the famous red lake which has two hostels. One is really bad and the other one is worse. The bed sheets have never been changed, the roof was falling apart and some stoves rusted in the halls. Tourists looked for a corner where they could pee since not even the bravest risked setting foot on the bathroom which had stopped working a few days ago. To top it all, Ivan and I got into a fight. I think the stress of the day and tiredness made us snap. So we slept , frozen.

The third day the car couldn’t take it any more and started coughing. It would run for a bit and then stop. Once again, all the tourist guides passed our stalled car without even waving goodbye. We were alone with our great knowledge of car mechanics. We stopped to look at the engine which was as useful as opening a book written in Arabic. We begged the car (we named it Sancho) to please wait until Chile to break down, not here. We even promised a good wash and an oil change.

Sancho continued with baby steps until we made it to the hot springs were he was diagnosed by an expert: gas filter full of mud. And that same evening, yesterday, we crossed the border into the civilized San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. Prices were four times higher. It wais soooo expensive I didn’t see us spending much time there. We planned on resting and continuing on to Argentina.

So that’s that. We had a great time but Bolivia is for the brave. Sancho went to the dark side. He traveled roads that changed his soul and he will never be the same inocent jeep. And us… Well, we will miss the rawness and beauty of Bolivia, but it’s always good to experience the joy of having toilet seats.

I love you a lot! Write me!

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Sancho, Ivan and Karla

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The Mennonites of Bolivia

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

It was night.  I had cut my hair, shaved my beard, and was dressed in blue overalls, a long sleeve blue shirt, and a blue baseball hat.  I was one of them.  “Come, here”, Cornelius said.  He was sitting with his wife in the corner of their dinning room staring at me seriously with spooky eyes. “It has been really great to have you here.  It is a shame you have too leave so soon.  What do you think about coming to live here, in our community, forever?”

 

“Forever?”

 

I thought for a second.  What would it be like to become a Mennonite?  No cars.  No television.  NO MUSIC!  No way.  “It has been great staying with you”, I politely replied, “but I can’t, I just can’t.”

 

I was dressed like a Bolivian Mennonite because I was preparing to do the unthinkable.  I was getting ready to enter the Sunday church service in the Mennonite community of Santa Rita, Bolivia.  At 6:30 in the morning Abram cruised by the house in his carriage.  “Just don’t take any pictures”, he warned, as the horse trotted down the beautifully lit countryside on the way to the chapel.

 

We were late.  We sat on little wooden benches, the men on one side and the women on the other.  No one dared to say a word.  All of the sudden the entire room was filled with the thick sound of voices.  They sang like it was judgment day and their souls depended on it. The golden light poured through the cracks of the walls threatening to break them down.  The voices penetrated my body, from my forehead to the depths of my bowels.  Wow!  Maybe there is a God.

 

For the next two and a half hours I listened to a priest read from the Bible in German.  My back ached.  Sleep threatened.   The fear of being found out had worn off.  All of the sudden everyone jumped up, rushed out to their carriages, and rode off without saying a single word to each other.  Strange.

 

About a week ago, Cornelius had courageously agreed to let us stay in his house. We observed as the girls went out to milk the cows in the morning and the men endlessly worked in the cheese factory.  As the kids played in the evening light, it took me back to a story I did as an intern about a farm family in Iowa.

 

At night, the family of ten gathered around the dining room table as we showed them slide shows on our laptop.  Their eyes widened in disbelief as we opened magazines with double page spreads of underwater worlds.  Although these youngsters could cook a dinner for ten and make their own clothes from scratch, they hadn’t a clue about the outside world.  Their school curriculum consisted of the Bible, nothing else.  Basic knowledge of geography and history were totally absent. 

Why are these people so painfully separated from the outside world?

 

“The chip”, Cornelius explained.  “It is already happening in more advanced countries like Germany and the United States.” Cornelius went on to tell me how the bible clearly states that computer chips will slowly but surely be planted into the right hand or forehead of every human being on the planet.  Those who resist will be murdered.  “The chip is the 666”, he insisted. 

 

The Mennonites, who have moved from Europe, to Russia, to Canada, to Mexico, and now to Bolivia, have always been outcasts.  They have always searched for a simpler way of life in which they can practice their religion in peace.  They are scared of technology and it’s ability to distract them from the path of Christ.  Now, the ultimate enemy has arrived.  The apocalypse is near and the devil has come riding in on the back the digital revolution.  The Internet is the 666.

 

Back in Santa Cruz we indulged in wifi and frapachinos.   Sometimes it’s nice to be evil. 

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The Devils of Oruro

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Karla Gachet

“Jallalla maestritos!” “Jallalla,” they all respond.

In complete darkness, illuminated only with the lights on our helmets, I was chewing coca leaves with five miners and a devil-head figure, better known as Uncle Lucas.  In front of him, coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and llama fetuses had been left as offerings. One by one, the miners told horror stories of the apparitions of the Uncle of the mine while they passed around a small plastic bottle of alcohol, which was probably not meant for human consumption.

 At 1,115 ft underneath the Earth, not even rats survive.  A slight hammering could be heard from the dynamite detonating on the levels above.  Suddenly there was a landslide behind us and the miner stopped telling us his tale and looked into the darkness. He then accused the rest of us, “You are not drinking with faith, and the Uncle punishes us when you don’t drink before him with faith.” Ok. Jallala (this means cheers).

The miners say that many of them have run into the Uncle.  Sometimes it takes on the body of a regular miner, other times it looks and grunts  like a gorilla. This was better than any episode of the Twilight Zone, any Stephen King or Allan Poe book, or any psychological-terror movie. I thanked hell with all its incubi and succubi for granting me this unique opportunity. I silently prayed for an intra-terrestrial encounter with the Uncle, Huari, Hades, Satan, Big Foot, anyone, even a small glimpse of a shadow or a faint roar.  The coca leaves grinded inside my right cheek as each story or landslide behind me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. The morbid desire for pure terror filled my soul with incomparable joy.

February is the month dedicated to the Uncle in the mining town of Oruro. During these dates, the Uncle leaves the mine and dances, preferably on rooftops. Dancers, from all around the state, invade the streets of Oruro. Many have seen the Uncle in disguise, dressed like the other dancers but instead of boots you could see its claws. The “Diablada of Oruro” is much more than a popular celebration during carnival. It is a dance dedicated to the most misunderstood character in human history: our brother Satan, the Uncle, who lives in the guts of Pachamama or mother Earth.

The Tuesday of carnival all of Oruro and its surrounding areas get together within their families. In the Hacienda Cotochullpa, the Condarcos celebrate every year.  A llama is given alcohol and coca leaves. Then they ask the animal for permission before they slice its throat with a knife. The blood is then collected in small bowls and poured over cars, tractors, and houses for good luck. It is a type of bloody blessing, Friday the Thirteenth style. The heart is removed and placed along with the head and feet on a fire pit. All the meat must be consumed the same day. The bones are then burned and buried. Any similarity with witchcraft is pure coincidence.

 The Andean Oruro dances are an amazing parade of costumes full of color and imagination. When arriving to the Church of the Cavern, after a 3 km. dance, the devoted dancers collapse in front of the Virgin with fatigue and faith. They do the dance for the  “Virgencita” who grants them miracles every year. Some don’t even drink water as a sign of penance for the Virgin, who waits for her faithful children up on her decorated gold and silver altar, dressed in pristine robes.

In the mines, one week later, everything goes back to normal, and the men return to the entrails of Earth with their coca and alcohol. One of the men explains, “The Uncle is a familiar friend.  You cannot call a saint a fucker, but you can tell the Uncle, ‘You fucker, I bring you coca, I bring you cigarettes and you are not helping me find the metals, what is your problem you asshole?’ You can talk to him like that because he is someone much closer to us that lives in this place and protects us. It’s something you feel in your blood.” In the end, I think we have a lot more in common with a cigarette-smoking coca-chewing devil than with a virgin. 

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Surf Culture in Northern Peru

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

I slipped down the face of the head-high left on a sky-blue long board.   My dream had come true.  I was finally surfing Mancora, a famous surf spot in the north of Peru.  I rose up to the top of the wave and then glided back down and straightened my path in attempt to beat the close out.  Too late.  Suddenly, I was thrown from my board and sucked down to the depths of the ocean. Everything was dark.  After a few summersaults I began to kick, cutting my big toe on the rocky bottom. I was under for a bit to long, when I popped to the surface, the sweet air filled my lungs with life.  It was great to be surfing again. 

Many people believe, especially Peruvians, that the first surfers were from Peru.  It is said that 5000 years ago the fisherman of the pre-Incan empire of Chan Chan, were the first to ride waves in their “Caballos de Totora”, a long surfboard shaped boat made from a local plant.  Some historians believe that these ancient South American cultures had contact with the Polynesians, who later brought the idea to Hawaii.

 

Wherever surfing did originate, its modern form has come back to completely transform the life of your average boy from a fishing village, that happens to be located in front of a world-class surf break.  A group of young men in their early 20’s have dubbed themselves the Mancora Surf Club.  Just like most young men from these small pueblos gone international surf destinations, they have taken up two jobs: Surf Instructor/Super Stud.  They really have it figured out.  All they do is surf all day while women from Boston to Amsterdam drool over their perfectly sculpted bodies.  No, I’m not jealous.  The other occupational choice in Mancora is taximoto driver/weed salesman.  Everyone in Latin America has to have two jobs. 

 

I invited Carlos, a member of the surf club, out for a beer in attempt to better understand the local surf culture.  He explained to me that the local police had granted the surfers a certain amount of authority.  Puzzled, I asked him for an example.  He told me that if a drunk is urinating in public in front of kids, or a thief grabs the belongings of a tourist, they are expected to go kick his ass.  

 

Although Carlos may sound like a badass, his sensitive side comes out when he tells stories.  “ One time we taught a blind man to surf”, he told me.  “It was the most amazing thing.  He could hear where he was on the wave”.  Carlos seemed sincerely touched by this story.

 

As we sat in a surfer bar owned by a tall English surfer babe, a fiancé of one of Carlos’ best friends, we looked out at the myriad of bars that lined the streets of Mancora.  He told me that fifteen years ago none of this was here.  A long time ago Mancora was just a hacienda.  Then it became a popular port when a group of people started selling tuna to boats that came from all over the world.  When Carlos was a child, his dad used to tell him that these men got so rich off of tuna that they would wipe their asses with bills. 

 

 

Now Mancora has a new economy.  For better or for worse it has been changed into a surfer/ wanna-be-surfer Mecca.  Men who left for Lima to find employment are coming back to their small fishing village to work with tourists.  People like me come to rent long boards, eat ceviches, and get ridiculous sunburns.  Mancora is just one of the Pueblos that has undergone this metamorphosis.  Further south, in the town of Huanchaco, tourists come to surf and watch fishermen head to sea in Caballos de Totora, supposedly the world’s first surfboard.   It’s not clear if these pre-Incan civilizations were surfing for fun, or just trying to find the fastest way back to shore.  If the people of Chan Chan did invent surfing, they have certainly changed my life, and even more so, the life of Carlos.  

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On the road

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Text by Karla Gachet

It’s been almost a month since we left Guápulo and headed south. Leaving was the first battle won . After so many farewells, no one believed we were ever going to leave. We required the help of a grown up, Victorini, for tuning up the road-runner and making sure the trip would be in the Vitara and not hitch hiking. The gifts before departure were the most diverse and practical: the stamp of the virgin, speakers for the ipod, a hand-woven poncho, antibiotics for vomit and diarrhea, an Eskimo style hat, mints and pistachios.

 

We left with a triumphal optimism, ready to conquer the south. Three hours away, in Santo Domingo, our car broke down. Luckily, it was only a lose wheel.  In Santa Rosa, Machala, an albino man gave the car its first oil change and we were ready to cross the first border.

 

“Welcome to Peru.” We had crossed the border! And then we crossed it six more times. Each time we got to the other side we were missing one paper which we had to get, of course, on the Ecuadorian side.  Huaquillas, the land of confusion, where nobody knows or cares which side they belong to. The streets are full of vendors and policemen. After spending a few hours tiptoeing back and forth, our papers were finally in order and we continued south.

 

The beach of Máncora seemed like the ideal destination for our first stop. We encountered slender bodies, raw-fish ceviches and a million motorbike taxis. The sun, wind and warm water all spelled out paradise. Until we got robbed. The odyssey to find the robbers was worse than the theft itself. “The officer in charge of the investigation is Saavedra, he will help you find the thiefs.”

 

While Ivan posted notes of a juicy reward around town , I climbed on the back seat of a truck, behind Saavedra and another officer. “You do have to pay for gas you know, we wont help you for free,” of course.  After hours of worthless search and of listening to Saavedra sweet talk a girl on his cell phone, “I’m your black destiny babe… are you alone… what are you thinking about…,” I understood it was all a bad joke. They took the only suspect to a “torture room” and came out smiling to let me know, “Nope, not him.”

 

OK. We’re out. A friend gave as a contact of a person in Lima who would help us find equipment. The landscape from the north towards Lima is pure desert. After the first thousand dunes, you stop paying attention. The most popular Inca of the desert is Inca-Cola. We drank a thousand of those along with the tastiest fish in little restaurants along the way. Life was smiling back at us as we crossed the desert and enjoyed the beautiful sunsets.

 

And then we got pulled over, again and again and again. The

reason? You name it. “Your license plate is to light…” What?  A few bribes later we got to the jungle of Lima.  Miguel took us to the ¨polvos azules” or blue powders. Here you can find everything your heart ever desired, super, super cheap.  A hug to Miguel and his girlfriend, and we continued the journey south to make it in time for the Oruro Devils celebration in Bolivia. The Bolivian border was another nightmare, yet we arrived to Oruro right on time. After many hotels and motels we made it to our second destination. But Bolivia is a whole different story…

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