23rd-30th November 2018
Coming to Cochabamba felt like my travelling had come full circle because it is possibly because of this place that I am in Bolivia now. Years ago, I watched a documentary called The Corporation which covered the story of how the people of this city rioted in against the rise in their water rates shortly after their supply was privatised in 1999. It escalated over the course of several months and the army had to be called in. There were several injuries and even a death but the people never backed down and eventually won. To this day, Bolivia remains one of the few countries in the world to retain a publically-owned water supply.
I remember feeling inspired because I saw a nation whose people had something that my own country lacks and I wanted to go there one day.
And now here I am. Although, I admittedly didn’t do much during my time in this city. The cold I had been suffering from over the last couple of weeks had gone to my chest and I wanted to rest to make sure I was well enough for the ayahuasca ceremony coming up.
I did go up to see the Cristo de la Concordia one afternoon though. It is the second largest statue of Jesus in the world and it is set within a park overlooking the city. The cable car to reach it was near to my guesthouse so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
Eventually, the night of the ceremony came. I still had not got over my cold but decided to go ahead with it anyway. It was in a house on the outskirts of the city and there were about a dozen other people there, most of them locals from Cochabamba.
The shaman was a man called Miguel Kavlin, and he has been a practising scared medicine for several decades. He spoke to us for a while about some of the experiences we were likely to have before the ceremony began and then commenced with a long period of meditation and prayer. We were each called up to imbibe some of the liquid.
What happened over the hours which followed I will not go into too much detail, as it was very personal. Almost everyone who drinks ayahuasca will experience contact with spirits and entities. They will also relive moments from their past – some of which they thought they had forgotten – which helped shape the person they are, and they will do so in a way which helps gain a sense of clarity. It is an emotional rollercoaster, but most people come out of it feeling a sense of catharsis.
I cannot compare Miguel to other shamans because this was my only experience with ayahuasca but I can say that I was very happy with the way he worked. When I arrived I was nervous and he said some things to me which put me at ease. He has a very comforting presence about him and he worked hard all night to create a great energy in the room. While I was fading in and out of awareness, between all the visions I experienced that night, he was playing drums and other instruments and their rhythms helped ground me.
I didn’t sleep at all the night of the ayahuasca ceremony and then the following night I caught a bus, so I was very tired by the time I reached Sucre. It was a great place to kick back and rest, having well-maintained colonial streets, a laid-back atmosphere and lots of great restaurants.
After resting, I spent a couple of days touring around Sucre’s museums. The Cathedral and the Museo de Charcas had great collections of colonial religious art, and I also particularly enjoyed the Museo de Arte Indigena which had old lots of old tapestries which were excellently crafted. There are some outdoor activities one can embark upon from Sucre, including day trips to mountains and waterfalls, but I was quite happy to spend my days there languidly. My mind was still contemplating a lot of the things that I saw during the night of the ceremony and it was going to take me a while to feel ‘normal’ again.
After a couple of days in Sucre, I moved on to Potosi, one of the highest altitude cities in the world. It is a historic place, nestled beneath Cerro Rico, the world’s largest known silver deposit which people have been mining for over four hundred years.
I spent my first couple of days in Potosi still pursuing light activities. I had to acclimatise again as I was at 4100 meters. I wandered through its UNESCO awarded streets and I visited its Convento de Santa Teresa, which has been home to Carmelite nuns from affluent families for centuries and is now also a museum.
A visit to Potosi isn’t complete without going down the mines though. It is not one of those things you do for enjoyment but it is illuminating and part of the experience of Bolivia. There are some dangers involved, as the mines still largely operate the same as they did hundreds of years ago, so you are at a slight risk of cave-ins and breathing in noxious gases.
First, we all needed to be kitted up in red over-garments, rubber boots, and helmets. We even had to wrap our feet in plastic bags for some reason. Our guide then took us to the market so that we could buy snacks, drinks, dynamite and coca leaves as gifts for the miners. It was surreal seeing how easy it is to buy dynamite in Potosi. It only costs $3 a stick and you can buy them alongside groceries.
In the first few minutes descending into the caverns, a couple of the people in the tour turned back. Apparently, that is normal, and I could understand why. The initial tunnels were quite narrow which forced us to climb and crawl, and the air was dusty. All the silica in the air combined with the altitude makes it difficult to breathe.
Despite this being one of the most gruelling work environments in the world, the miners seem quite proud of their job and fairly happy considering that their life expectancy is so short. Most of them don’t die from accidents but from a condition known as silicosis, where the lungs fill up with the silica dust. They say that once you start working down there you have twenty years before the disease either kills you or forces you into retirement. At one point we met a man who was on his twenty-fifth year, currently the oldest miner.
One of the most interesting things we saw were the effigies for El Tio, a local deity whom the miners leave offerings and pray to daily. I have videos of our guide explaining this tradition to us here.
It is true that there is a slightly voyeuristic element to first-world people paying to be taken on a tour down these mines, but I also feel that if you enjoy some of the trappings of the modern world – such as a smartphone – you owe it to these people to see the price of obtaining the necessary materials. It is sad that these people live such gruelling and short lives but, having lived many of my years in Wales, I know that simply closing these industries down without giving people other means of income is not the answer. I have seen what happens to such communities. I am not going to pretend I am smart or knowledgeable enough to know what the answer is though.
For now, I do think that tourists going for trips down these mines are mostly a good thing. The gifts that they give to the miners help supplement their income and the more people who are aware of the poor conditions, the more likely things are to change. Most of the guides are former miners who have now found a source of income which doesn’t require them to spend as much time down in the caverns so it has probably prolonged their life spans.
For more photos from Cochabamba, Sucre and Potosi, click here. This album also includes much more videos from down in the mines.
If you are interested in taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony with Miguel then you can contact him via email (email@example.com) or WhatsApp (+91 82642 44598).