I have a strong memory of leaving a pizza bar in the palindrome town of Oruro. The word Oruro sounds like aurora to me though I don’t think there’s any etymological link. Oruro is a mining town some 3700 m above sea level in the southern altiplano of Bolivia. Mining had been going on 400 years when I arrived and curiously, 9 of every 10 people were still of direct Aymara and Quechua descent. Think Inca when the Spanish arrived in The Andes but they were the Tiahuanaco for millennia before that. Which had a great benefit for me since Oruro is the hub of Bolivia’s folk traditions. The boisterous singing and dancing is particularly enjoyable with the local ‘brandy’ Singani and a beer that made for the most terrible hangover headaches.
The night in question was a very clear night and rather than walking back to our hotel, I climbed to one of the higher points in the town. There, in the western midnight sky, was one of the most magnificent views I’ve seen of the Milky Way. It was quite the counterpoint to my tipping the shoe shine man who sat on the box outside the restaurant most nights. I say sat. Does a guy with no legs sit? How do you polish shoes when you have just one hand? Not very well is one answer. Another answer to the question in your head is ‘mining accident’. And another answer you might like to know is that he used a skateboard to commute each evening.
The Milky Way is a thing of alluring majesty for those of us who have grown up in temperate or urban settings. A wonderful gift we rarely see and one that is less often seen in Oruro now than in the time of the Early Horizon Chavíns.
I’ve only had the experience of three or four spectacular views of the Milky Way in my life time so far (and how I aim to change that will feature one day soon). Another viewing was during a power failure in Rangoon when I felt is if I could’ve plucked stars like fireflies from the sky above me. The celestial bodies appeared to me as if they were a chandelier in our Yangon ceiling. Another viewing was from the southern Atlantic, about 100 km from the coast of Tierra del Fuego, and east of the mouth of the Straights of Magellan. This was less intense because of the lights on the ship. It made me wonder how clear the skies must have been for me to have had the view I did from the heli-deck at the stern of the ship.
I’ve travelled extensively for work and a feature of the places I’ve visited has always been security. That generally means security lights and lockdowns at night. While I regret not spending more time looking at the sky at night, I realise that it wasn’t really a choice I could make because we’d mostly be in cities, camps in deserts or jungles or on ships at sea. The three months in Oruro was markedly different.
Oruro was not usually a great place from which to see the stars because of the wind. I hope it’s cleaned up in the 25 years since I was there for the austral spring, la primavera, and the wind was the prevailing feature. It carried one-time-use plastic bags and salty dust everywhere. That might sound depressing but in reality, it was much more than depressing; it was horrific. The dust was like a constant fog, a fog whose intensity varied from day to day but was rarely absent.
Oruro is on the railway from Cochabamba and we often saw the trains arrive because the line ran down the middle of a very wide road around which was an informal market place. The locals would be alongside selling food and coca-leaf tea in plastic bags to both arriving and departing passengers. Black was a common colour for the bags. Blue was rarer but the more dominant colour in the swirling winds that blew them down the urban roads and streets. There was a tall wire fence east of town that secured the town dump from everything except wind. The fence was solid with blasted plastic. The air was alive with the bags lofted like the seagulls you’d see elsewhere. The bags were dumped in more bags from collection points in the city to which the wind returned them in insane mimicry of seasonal bird migration.
Oruro should have been idyllically wealthy not hideously backward. I took an excursion down an old silver mine within the town, meeting with the horned and caged devil at the entrance to whom we had to offer a cigarette in exchange for our safety. I repeat that there’s a four hundred year history of wealth creation from mining yet not much seems to remain. We visited the Museo Patiño where the wealthiest man in the world once lived before he took off to the UK. Símon Patiño was the tin magnate that Malcolm Gladwell reminded us about in Outliers. USD 80 billion in 2008 dollars in case you forget. No wonder the mines were nationalised except … they waited until everything was spent, mines and money both.
Oruro is where I had a shocking experience in a room in a cheap hotel. We stayed there for a few days before we got a more suitable location sorted. I remember the gaps between the window panes that invited in the salty dust on whorls of freezing wind. It was gritty getting into bed and it was downright freezing in the morning. The morning shower was rejuvenating. The shower was simply a showerhead hung centrally from the bathroom ceiling over a scalloped drain that collected most of the water that rained and splashed during the extended period of relative luxury. The water was hot and flowed freely, not quite as well as the rain-type shower heads. It turned out that water heater was in the shower head. I found this out when the pressure dropped and so did I. I had reached up to adjust the temperature but the head was live and I hit the floor from the shock. It was gravity that saved me.
I was telling this story to a couple of Bolivian brothers that night in the pizza bar. One of the brothers asked me if I’d been to St James’s Gate in Dublin. It turned out that the two of them had worked in many parts of the world and loved travel. I was surprised that we were having a chat about Irish politics in Oruro; they wanted me to know how important de Valera was to them. It turns out the real appeal was that he had been sentenced to death but not executed. These two brothers were the life and soul of the bar that night. Extraordinary people, I thought. I struck up a conversation with a young doctor who joined our group and though she was normally based in Havana, she was from Oruro knew everyone in the bar. She alleged that these two brothers were legendary local smugglers. Wooden coffins smuggled up from Chile was a big line into a place where there are no trees. Her boyfriend told me that the authorities turned a blind eye to their business which freed them to bring other stuff down to Chile. There are still those in Oruro who consider the coastal strip of the Atacama Desert that is Antofagasta Province to be Bolivian. It still wrankles that the Chilean-built railway is all that guarantees Bolivian commercial outlets in the Pacific. Bolivia waged and lost too many wars with their neighbours and overall is about 40% smaller because of it.
We met the doctor again a few days later in another pizza restaurant where she took great offence at one of my colleagues who had brought a female prostitute to dinner. It turns out that the doctor came from a family of doctors and I presumed that the woman was one of their patients. My Brazilian colleague later admitted to me that he was paying for the company of the girl we had all presumed was his new girlfriend. The conversation in the restaurant continued after the piped radio music facilitated a change in the atmosphere. The radio station had played three Irish songs in row and I joked that a fourth was inevitable on account of my presence. Sure enough, The Lady in Red came fourth. My status was elevated from Irish to prophet. My colleague and his friend moved across to another table, the doctor sat with the rest of us and we chatted about what smugglers might smuggle. It was alarming.
Oruro is at the head of Lago Pòopo which is a world famous ecological disaster site. And my trip there is a story for a third instalment.