ADVENTURE IN BOLIVIA
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
leeping at 15,000 feet will never cure insomnia.
Matt Underwood understands this well. Underwood is one of four Eastern Oregon University students who discovered this last summer during a two-month trip to Bolivia.
Underwood and classmates Tara Murchison, Jenna Hare and Reid Kelly traveled in Bolivia as part of an EOU class led by retired geography professor Ralph Lewis.
The group spent much of their trip at altitudes as high as 15,000 feet in the mountainous South American country. Breathing, even for the young and healthy, can be labored and difficult at such elevations.
"Sometimes I would wake up and be breathing hard,'' Underwood said.
Hare had a similar experience.
"I had to walk slowly or I would be out of breath,'' she said.
The air is thin at high altitude, but the experiences the students had there were rich.
For starters there was the opportunity to see the Salar de Vyuni salt flat, which may be the largest in the world. Much of the salt flat stretches across a body of water.
"It was like an iced-over lake,'' Underwood said.
The salt layers are thick enough that the EOU group took a ride out on them in a vehicle driven by a guide. However, not all portions of the salt flat are safe for vehicles.
"We were lucky to have a guide. People have died out there (after falling through the salt flat) because they did not take the right route,'' Underwood said.
The salt flat reflects sunlight like snow. Symptoms of snow blindness arise for people who are on the salt flats too long.
"It's like white, blinding snow,'' Underwood said.
The salt flat is expansive, unlike the one-lane mountain road that runs for about 20 miles east of La Paz, Bolivia's capital. The road is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world because it is narrow and runs along the edge of a steep drop off for about 20 miles.
Sometimes vehicle drivers have to back up at least 100 yards, when there is oncoming traffic, to find a place where they can pull over.
Many of the vehicles on the road and throughout Bolivia emit smoke.
"Smoke was coming out of almost every car,'' Underwood said. "There was quite a bit of pollution. They definitely needed a DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality).''
The EOU group was in Bolivia several months after its rainy season. Few people drive there during the rainy season because the rain makes Bolivia's roads, few of which are paved, difficult to drive.
"In the rainy season the only way to get around is to fly,'' Kelly said.
Few Bolivians can afford to fly, though, because poverty is rampant.
Kelly has poignant memories of the poverty he witnessed in Bolivia. For example, in some towns, children can be seen playing in sewage running down the streets. Scenes of poverty tugged at the hearts of the students each morning when they had coffee and bread for breakfast.
"If you didn't finish all of your bread, you had no trouble giving it away (to hungry children)," Kelly said.
Bolivia's economy, one of the weakest in South America, is dependent on the extraction of minerals such as tin, lead and tungsten. One of the most exciting parts of the trip for Hare was a visit to the Cerro Rico Mine in Potosi.
During visits to the mine, tourists bring coca leaves, tobacco, cigarettes and rubbing alcohol as gifts to what is known in Bolivia as the Mine God. Tourists also bring sticks of dynamite purchased at a nearby shop. The dynamite is lit and detonated in the mine to demonstrate how rocks are broken up.
Hare witnessed one of the explosions in the mine.
"It was crazy but a lot of fun. It was a great experience, one of my favorite parts of the trip,'' Hare said.
Bolivia's weak, mineral-based economy is a contributing factor to continuing political unrest, something the EOU party saw plenty of during their trip. The students witnessed a number of riots but never were hurt.
Another unpleasant part of the trip was the anti-American sentiment the group encountered. For example, the EOU students once spotted a van with a mural that celebrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and saluted Osama Bin Laden as a hero.
On another occasion, a member of the EOU party was spit upon, apparently as a sign of anti-American feeling.
Despite experiencing such things, Underwood said that he emerged from the trip with a greater love of his country. He has more appreciation of the freedom, security and standard of living that America offers.
"It made me proud to be an American,'' Underwood said.