An audience with the Devil

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
Trip End Jul 19, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, April 28, 2006

Country and stamp number 3 on the mainland was just hours away. I had just taken the longest journey yet (22 hours non stop) from Sao Paolo to Corumbá. With so much information around I wasn't sure what day the train would be leaving and hoped it wouldn't be after my visa expired. As it turned out, there was a train leaving the very same day I arrived. You would think I would be used to having no sleep by now!

Maybe it was exactly because of that that I found the journey on the Death Train to be so awful! It is so called because of the number of people that died while laying the line. I'm sure that's just a story they give to the tourists as I have my own opinion that it's called that because it's such a bumpy ride and you get the feeling it could derail at any moment! Thankfully it's not in the Andes and on completely flat land so you're not likely to plunge down some deep abyss to never see life again. Twice I got the feeling our carriage had derailed but it had 'only' disconnected from the carriage in front. Surprisingly, the train automatically stops in such an event. I had pictures of us being left behind, sitting around for hours until the driver realised he had left half of the train behind!! Show this line to any rail inspector from the UK and they would have a heart attack. Not only would they suspend all service, they'd have the line lifted and completely redone!

Luckily I had met some people who decided to subject themselves to the same torture and so the journey wasn't as bad as it could have been. Riccardo was on the same bus from Sao Paolo and I met Mooli in the office where we bought tickets for the train. After we arrived in Santa Cruz with very achy bodies (I found out what it was like to be tall again!) we decided to head for the Parque Nacional Amboró for a few days. This park is definitely something butterfly enthusiasts should head for. It has to have every species imaginable. Within the first 5 minutes of entering I saw at least 20 different types! Unfortunately it also has the most number of biting insects I have ever seen aswell and I came away with hundreds of bites although Mooli did fare worse than me while Riccardo seemed to have the right level of charm factor and came away with practically none!

As for the two guys, well each was more loco than the other and they were both madder than a Mad Hatter! Having just spent four days with them, checking the situation and looking for all things that are naturaleza, it was time to head for Guayaramerín where I would catch the boat to Porto Velho and then onwards to Manaus. Armed with lots of dosh (a huge sum of GBP10!!!), I headed for the bus station to get my ticket. Disaster (or fate) intervened and my trip to Manaus was not to be. Hardly any of the buses were running to the border as it was still wet season. It would have been better to go by boat from Trinidad but this would take four days. Calculating all the time it would take me to get to Coca by boat I discovered it would amount to a whole three weeks. This was not what I had planned and I definitely had lots more things to see in this time. Unfortunately though it did mean I would miss seeing Eddie (my slave from Venezuela) which was also something I had not planned.

My plans were in total chaos now so while deciding what to do I headed west to Sucre to check the situation with the two lads. The 14 hour journey cost all of 50 Bolivianos (current exchange rate, 9B : 1 Euro or 14B : 1GBP) which was definitely welcome after spending so much on transport in Brazil! Sucre is home to the 'longest single track of dinosaur footprints in the world', at Cal Orka. Strangely I seemed to have a feeling of deja-vu here. I'm sure I heard the same somewhere else, ah yes, Sousa in Brazil! Nevertheless I still wanted to see the footprints so we headed off to the square and caught the 'Dino Truck'. Never did I feel more like a tourist than I did then.

Cal Orka is the world´s largest paleontological site of dinosaur tracks! The National Cement Factory can also be found here which has it's good and bad points. A few years ago, workers here uncovered a nearly vertical rock face covered with almost 5,000 dinosaur footprints from over 320 different dinosaurs. As it goes, this wall was the shorline of a massive lake millions of years ago where dinosaurs would come to the shore to drink water, and leave their footprints in the mud. With some geological action afterwards the shore changed from being flat to being almost vertical.

It is rather fragile and constantly changing. With every blast made to extract more rock for cement a part of the wall crumbles. Occasionally, this can reveal more footprints on the layer below however they are uncertain as to the extent of the footprints and so have decided to cover them with a silicon based material some time in the future. The date is as yet uncertain as they have yet to find the funds for the project. While this will stop any more being uncovered it will at least preserve the ones that are there now. We were rather lucky to go when we did and get to see the tracks from close up. Within the next few months an interpretive centre is opening from where visitors will view the tracks from a distance.

By this time I had decided that the only way to get to Ecuador without taking three weeks was to fly. So I booked myself a ticket from La Paz to Quito, breaking another of my golden rules on travel (ie to do it all by land). Unfortunately though I hadn't realised exactly how BBBIIIGGG South America is when I was planning my trip and Brazil brought it home quickly to me! I could have bussed it, but that would have meant 5 days sitting cramped with people snoring and babies crying and I certainly wasn't having that! On the plus side, I did get to fly from the world's highest airport, having just spent a few days in Potosí, the world's highest city at 4070m (13,353 ft)!

Three 'world's best' all within a week? Everything is going to be such a let down after this!!! Anyway, Mooli had found a place to volunteer himself in Sucre so Riccardo and I headed on to Potosí, the city where mining is still done by hand and carts full of rock are pushed by hand in a way that can only remind you of the Wild West. You encounter different temperatures based on the level you are on and the minerals present around you. Unfortunately for the miners, life expectancy is rather short due to the chemicals they breath in (including asbestos) and a woman can be widowed at least five times if not more. Cerro Rico is the source of wealth for some but the source of death for many.

News must have spread of my illegal wanderings in the mine in Ouro Preto, Brazil for at the entrance of this mine I found myself face to face with...the Devil! Quite a friendly chap though as we did get on to first name terms, his name is Tío. He was covered with coca leaves and cigarettes and here and there you could see stains from the 98% alcohol sprinkled over him. Offerings were made by the miners as they entered asking him to protect them and give them success in their days work. Having seen 2 levels and offered coca leaves to the miners, the light at the end of the tunnel was soon visible and we exited to daylight to replenish the lungs with fresh air.

All in all I had spent only ten days in Bolivia and was now heading off to my fourth country, Ecuador. I had known some very handsome Ecuadorians from my university days in Madrid and was looking forward to meeting many more with lovely long black hair. Mmmmmm.

Hasta Luego Bolivia.

Things I learned

The infamous Coca leaf

2500 - 800 BC : traces of the coca leaf were found in mummies of Huanca Prieto (Peru).
1200 - 1475 : Incas extract essential oil of the plant for trepanation to remove tumours.
1551 : The Ecclesiastical Council in Lima condemned the coca leaf as "diabolical" but reversed it's decree when it was observed that it increased the output of the indigenous people.
1573 : In the mines of Potosí (which at the time was as big as Paris or New York) the workers consumed an annual amount of coca leaves equivalent to the price of 450kg of gold.
1863 : This was the beginning of the legal cocaine boom. Mariani Coca Wine was launched by Angelo Mariani in Paris.
1884 : Sigmund Freud was the first cocaine consumer in history. Later he developed nasal cancer.
1886 : Dr John Pemberton launched a new drink in the USA on the basis of coca - Coca Cola.
1976 : In terms of nutritions, scientific research reveals that the leaf is comparable to quinoa, peanuts and wheat from a scientific point of view.

The coca plant has many branches whose leaves are simple, alternating, oval or elliptical and coloured bright green. The odour is aromatic and the taste is bitter. The flower is small and produces an oval red fruit. There are over 200 species of coca, the majority of which are found in the Americas. Others can be found in parts of Africa, Madagascar, India, tropical Asia and Oceania. The leaves are only chewed in the Americas.

The coca leaf dates back to prehistoric Andean times before the conquest of the Incas which confirms it was used by South American indigenous groups over 4500 years ago. The most ancient references are found in the mummies of Huanca Prieto. Cocaine was the world's first local anaesthetic. The Incas were well aware of the properties of coca and used it in brain surgery.

Coca became so important in the mining community that it's worth effectively superceded that of gold or silver for the miners. Chewing leaves, with their nutritional and energy-providing attributes, was the only way the Andeans could work the long hours they were made to work (up to 48 hours without breaks or food) and survive the conditions of slave labour.

90% of the coca leaf's contents may be extracted when mixed with an alkaline substance. It is chewed two or three times per day, after meals or while working, much like coffee in the western world. The liquid produced from chewing produces an anaesthetic effect in the mouth, a light euphoria, sensation of increased awareness and corporal energy.

Coca contains three alkaloids - cocaine, cis-cinamilcocaine and transcinamilcocaine. Traditional consumption of coca by mastication (chewing) results in the following:

a) it provides increased tolerance for work (no better reason to chew it!!)
b) it stimulates the respiratory centres (increases oxygenation)
c) it inhibits the build up of platelets
d) it regulates the metabolism of glucose
e) it does not inhibit the normal daily consumption of nutrients

The capacity to work is not necessarily increased but the tolerance for hard work is which allows the user to work longer hours before exhaustion shows.

The capacity of the lungs is not increased it the bronchiales are dilated which helps in absorbing more oxygen.

The relationship between coca and miners is a long one and includes a time when the price of coca depended on the amount of mining taking place (more miners being exploited meant a higher demand for coca). It was used as a method of payment and at one point it was used instead of gold or silver by some people. One study showed that a miner can consume up to 380g of coca per week while another showed that the cost of the coca consumed equated to approximately 12% of the miner's salary. Before entering the mine the miner would make an offering, such as cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol, to Tío. The miners believe that El Tio (the devil) lives underground and controls the mine and its economic value.

In 1863, a well known commercial application of the coca leaf was used in Mariani wine and it achieved worldwide success due to it's stimulating effects. Many imitations were launched but the most successful was Coca Cola which used extracts of the Ghanian cola nut, a high concentration of caffeine (higher than that present in coffee) and coca. With the onset of prohibition, when all alcoholic beverages were banned, there existed a need for a product with the same stimulating effects as Mariani wine and this was the beginning for the world's most recognised product. In 1985, Coca Cola purchased 204 tonnes of coca leaves from Bolivia and it continues to buy to this day. In 1894, Coca Cola still contained cocaine. This was removed after a campaign by Harvey Wily in 1914 when cocaine was prohibited completely. While the product no longer contains cocaine the leaf is used to add flavour.

Asa Candler, a pharmacist who landed in Atlanta with only $1.75 in his pocket, purchased the rights to Coca Cola in 1888. The first bottle was sold for 5 cents. The classic design used by Coca Cola which we see today was created in 1916..
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