It’s Felix’s birthday today – feliz cumpleano! But before we can tell you how we’re spending the day (okay, okay, we’re in Potosi, but we’re NOT touring any mines!! Too sketchy!) we need to get you caught up with what’s been happening over the past week. We haven’t had internet since last Friday and we probably won’t after today until next weekend, so I’m very quickly going to throw together as much of a post as I can, and catch up later with the rest (after the salar trip, which starts tomorrow!)
Feb 26 – Bye bye Cochabamba, Hello Sucre!
One overnight bus ride and whoosh! We felt like we’d been transported to Europe. Sucre is such a different city – and such a beautiful one. Known as the White City of the Americas for all its whitewashed colonial-era buildings, it is surely the oldest and most well-restored city in Bolivia. Indeed it was in Sucre that the country was born in 1825. It is more than a little ironic, given all this colonial architecture, that Sucre stands as a symbol of liberation and independence.
Those uneducated in South American history could easily think that the city owed its name to the production of sugar, but sucre=sugar only in French, not in Spanish. In Spanish the word for sugar is ‘azucar’. In fact, Sucre was so named after General Antonio Jose de Sucre who led the final battle – the Aug 6, 1824 Battle of Ayacucho – for the liberation of “Alto Peru” (Bolivia was part of Peru at the time). Bolivia declared independence from Peru exactly one year later. Sucre remains the “constitutional capital” (as opposed to the administrative or legislative capital).
We are staying right in the heart of town, in a glassy modern upstairs apartment belonging to a woman named Liz and her 13-year-old daughter, Martina. (In her beauty, manner, voice, storytelling, jokes, and kindness, Liz reminds me totally of Allison Girvan!) They have two large dogs named Tobias and Sally – that’s a “check!” on the kids’ wish lists. Liz spent a year in Australia when she was a teenager and speaks excellent English, so whenever we’re in doubt about our understanding of something, we can just revert to English. All and all we’re feeling very comfortable here – life is easy.
It looks like a lot of the tourism we’ll be doing while in Sucre is of the more genteel kind: museums, palaces etc. Europe indeed. Today we toured an old church and convent (San Felipe) which houses, in its basement mausoleum, the mortal remains of some of the earliest conquistadors. From up on the tiled and strangely undulating roof (see photo), we had a brilliant view of the city. We later hiked up one of the two hills that form Sucre’s backdrop (Erik calls them the “boobies”) for an even higher view, though mostly it was because we needed the exercise. (Photo shows the eucalyptus trees which cover those hills.)
Feb 27 – Some days are like that
Felix was sick today so the rest of us took turns exploring the centre of the city, finding it to be very compact, genteel, and tourist-oriented. We also entertained ourselves by going to the movies. Watching films with English audio that are subtitled in Spanish is actually a pretty good way to work on your language skills if you (like me) are the type whose eyes are compulsively drawn to words.
Feb 28 – Life: Bigger than life
Went to the Parque Cretacico today, a dinosaur museum and outdoor exhibit (with life-sized replicas) situated on the site of the greatest find of dinosaur footprints in all of South America. It was discovered by workers who were excavating the area in order to build a cement factory. The prints – some 5,000 of them, by at least 8 different species of dinosaur – are on a limestone wall that was once horizontal but was pushed forcefully upward by tectonic forces. Photos: 1) the limestone wall; 2) Felix standing under a life-sized Titanosaurus, 36 metres in length; 3) our tour bus (which featured parts of upholstered desk chairs welded onto steel frames)
In the afternoon, while Erik worked at writing a chapter for a book on community forestry, Jennie and the boys took a side-trip to a castle (sort of) just outside town – El Castillo de la Glorieta. Built at the turn of the 20th century by a couple of eccentric philanthropists, it combines Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Mudejar, and Neoclassical styles and features three towers: one Russian-looking, one Arabian, and one a replica of Big Ben (pretty weird!). The owners used the place to house Bolivian orphans, and the Pope of the time later gave them the title of prince and princess on account of their benevolence.
Anthropology: Not for the faint of heart (and not to be shared with children)
Today we visited the museum of contemporary art and the museum of anthropology, the latter being fascinating and, at times, revolting. First, the fascinating: besides the ancient lithic (stone) tools and weapons, the museum has a simulated cave wall with replicas of the exact same paintings that are found in a few caves several hours from Sucre.
They also showcase (using dolls) some of the many many different styles of dress that typify different regions of the country. See this guy? Take a good look at him, especially at his hat. I’ll explain later.
Now the revolting: 1) the shelves full of skulls, some of which were purposely misshapen by certain cultural groups using banding and/or boards positioned in a vice-like grip on the back of the skull; and 2) the mummies in glass cases, several of which were real mommies, holding their little ones, dead in their arms. If these on their own aren’t enough to take your breath away, a closer look at their open chest cavities will reveal how they died: as human sacrifices whose hearts were ripped out while they were still alive. According to anthropologists, the practice of human sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient cultures, especially when bad things happened that the people could not explain. Typically, it would be those who were different who were chosen to be sacrificed. The mummified child in this exhibit was very small, yet had mature adult teeth, suggesting that he or she probably had some atypical condition or developmental problem. Yet one more reminder of our good fortune to have been born in the time and place and circumstances that we were.
March 2 – Turning Sheep into Hats
Today we visited a hat factory and witnessed step-by-step how the wool of a sheep becomes a fedora – or bowler, or felt cowboy hat. Felix may yet write up a separate post and go into detail about the process, so in order not to steal his thunder, I will only say that some of the jobs in the factory looked positively Dickensian! In the end, the hats sell for a pittance really – 50-55 Bs (about $8 Cdn). We bought a few.
In the interests of trying to retain readers (who we fear we may have scared off with some of the longer posts), we are going to try to keep this and future posts shorter. Stay tuned for “Misadventure in Candelaria” and “Scavenger Hunt at the Tarabuco Market”…
Oh yes, readers in Nelson will appreciate this last image from Sucre: