CAST A WARM EYE

March 10, 2008, 10:22 pm : Potosi Perspective

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Feeling the fatigue of working in hell on a Saturday morning Major Miner Fatigue (Rosaria Mine, Potosi, Bolivia, 2008)

I spent four hours inside Rosaria - one of the most physically demanding mines amongst the 300 still in existence in Potosi. The miners here are in collectivos i.e. they work for themselves - sometimes in teams and sometimes alone. They then sell the minerals they’ve extracted, mostly zinc, to distributors. Silver and Tin are also present. There’s a severe cost to pay….

There were Inca mines here already when the Spanish took the city in 1536. For the first 20 years all the mining was above ground - the silver was visible and easy to extract. Potosi became the world’s richest city and bankrolled the Spanish empire for generations.

….Soledad, the 1st female guide ever to work in Potosi’s mines, explained that her brother died of pneumonia brought on by silicosis at the age of 25 and that the average lifespan of a miner working in a collectivo was 35 to 40 years. Her father also died in the mines. She describes her husband as a ‘Mama’s boy’ because he refuses to work - presumably the mines are the only avenue open to him. This tough, ground breaking woman has been the main breadwinner for the last 15 years. The jibes from her male colleagues have long since subsided. After about ten minutes walking, crawling and ducking into the mine, the smell of arsenic kicks in. It smells a bit like sulphur fumes, but much more damaging of course. Just moving in the mines is difficult - especially when you’re over 20 cms taller than the average miner and nursing your expensive camera like a baby and carrying a backpack. I’m of average European height, but the miners are very short (they have to be) and quite skinny too. Yet they do everything manually - apart from using dynamite. As sweat pours off them, they groan as they pull and push heavy carriages laden with valuable rocks and as they dig and dig and, surely, dream of finding a life changing rich vein of silver. I’ve never seen men and boys work so physically hard in such horrendously uncomfortable and dangerous conditions. One boy was just 10 years old. And the older men are not very strong. I helped a little bit with a couple of tasks - and it was obvious I was far stronger. But they work to the maximum of their own physical limitations and are immensely resilient. I would not survive 3 years in these mines. Either my back would break or my asthma would kill me before that. Asthmatics are not permitted to enter the mines, but I had to see this living hell. Even in the 4 hours I was inside the mine, I could see the danger. I hit my head off the walls about 50 times, almost knocking myself out once. I was only 10 metres away from a dynamite induced explosion. There was no warning sign or sound. The guy, whose been working the mines for 35 years, didn’t feel the need to say sorry. He’s 48 years old, but he’s far less exposed to the dust than the less specialised miners. Its no wonder they have ‘Tio Jorge’ - a statue of their protective devil to protect them in their hellish workplace. They give him cigarettes and beer. They wet his eyes to ask him to protect their own from the constant irritation of silicate dust. He has a large erect penis - symbolising their desire to see this hell yield up as many valuable minerals as possible. This was the most powerful experience I’ve had in South America thus far. I felt honoured to be amongst these incredibly hard working people. Most of them joked with me and shook my hand in between photographing them. Of course we thanked them with gifts of fizzy drinks and coca leaves.

*I took this tour with 2 Polish women and another French couple visited an ‘easier’ mine. None of them enjoyed the tour. However, for me, it was the most satisfying and useful experience I’ve had thus far in South America.


March 10, 2008, 8:22 pm : Bariloche Dreaming on a Summer´s Evening

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Painted Sky over Fitzroy Painted Sky (Fitzroy, El Chalten, Argentina, 2008)

A white X lying in the cool, slightly damp, dark green grass in the centre of Bariloche. I blissfully drifted in and out of consciousness. I imagined or dreamt myself fading into the ground beneath me. Falling. Like when you fade in and out of sleep on the bus on the way to school. After catching myself a few times I suddenly started to plummet effortlessly into the depths of cool earth. I could feel my body growing and the world shrinking. As I approached the end of the earth, I decelerated and gently drifted through the other side. I felt my stretched X posture close around the shrunken world - like a flower at night or a beggar’s hand closing on a freshly baked baguette. But now the earth was warm. I woke up, a near naked X, with the intensifying warmth of the sun heating my palms, my arms, my face, my legs…there was nobody there. The centre of Bariloche deserted. I alone enjoying this feast of hedonistic heat in the land of ENBOI…exercising nothing but one’s imagination. Then I really woke up. Around me were locals sitting beneath the protection of trees or slowly walking up the shady side of the street - about their business. Then I…the smiling stretched white X…closed my eyes and drifted once again to the edge. Knowing I really was the sun’s only true lover, I fell once again into a rapturous sleep and willingly embraced the other side of the world.


March 10, 2008, 8:17 pm : Patagonian Ranting: a trilogy dedicated to Nick Davis

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Death and Life in a wildflower meadowThe Earth Strikes Back (Torres Del Paine, Chile, 2008)

Patagonian Ranting Trilogy

I recently got an encouraging comment from one of my best friends, Nick Davis. This guy saved me from death by boredom in the Institute of Technology, Kevin Street. We dodged classes together, scribbled thoughts on notebooks together, avoided our more serious colleagues together, read everything that wasn’t on the syllabus together, hung around the canteens of colleges we weren’t in together, partied together, planned all night study end of year campaigns together etc . He said I’ve fallen silent and he’d like to read my next “rant”. Thanks Nick. I’d like to believe only some of the articles count as rants, but I really really like the word. So I’ve decided to rant about a couple of things in Patagonia - where I’ve been walking up and down breath-taking mountains, beautiful icebergs and ugly under construction tourist shanty towns. These are dedicated to you Nick - you’re a friend I love very much indeed. Please see the next 3 articles for details…


March 10, 2008, 8:15 pm : Patagonian Rant #1: Smelly Black Sheep

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Urban Sunflower Girl from Montevideo...aawwwwwUrban Sunflower Girl (Montevideo, Uruguay, 2008)

There was an ad for a free night in a publication called ‘Black Sheep’ in the Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile : ‘If you can speak 5 languages, we’ll give you a free night!’ So they had to cough up when I told them I more than fulfilled the requirement. They put these weird offers in the magazine to build on the ‘whacky’ and ‘we’re not really in it for the money’ backpackers but not businessmen image. Apparently they have had this running a couple of months - ever since someone did 150 push ups in their reception area. So now they have to exercise their ‘off the wall’ business….I mean backpacker…imaginations. Actually the place is run by 2 smart, hard-working US citizens. I feel they bring something to the town because they up the efficiency stakes by introducing much needed competition for the local establishments - most of which are below par. They run an efficient, clean hostel with a friendly atmosphere. So we got a double bed for 12 USD. Believe me that’s really cheap. The next night we got it for the same price (although we had to share with 3 women) because I did a deal with German woman who had ‘bought the room’ for a few nights. I get a kick out of negotiating but we don’t go over the top on budgeting - the extra cash is swiftly digested with fine wine. There’s no point in travelling around the world to live like a beggar and look like something even the cat wouldn’t bring in - and there’s loads of them about, proclaiming how little money they have but how happy they are anyway. I’m happy for them too. I did the ‘travel on nothing’ gig many times but never looked scruffy and refrained from claiming a state of poverty. A state of bankruptcy can be useful - but poverty’s a futile drag. I don’t have a lot of time for people who perpetually smell and don’t realise it because their nose is constantly between the pages of their Lonely Planet - where they spend half their days dreaming of how much they’re going to ’save’ by hitching to the next town and staying in a free campsite for 7 days - where they’re inevitably too delicate to use the cold showers. Yep - one sniff and the cat was away like a blip on a 70s TV screen. At least it keeps the Pumas off the main trails.


March 10, 2008, 8:12 pm : Patagonian Rant #2: Cat Town

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Los Torres - towards the end of the 4 day, 82 KM hikeLas Torres (Torres Del Paine, Chile, 2008)

Rant number 2: Patagonian Cat Town

Up and down the streets of Patagonia’s booming wind weathered under construction money guzzling ghost towns run wild dogs, semi wild dogs and tame dogs - night and day. Cats too - they make less of a racket but are more dangerous to play with as they haven’t learn to put their boxing gloves on. Now I’ve always considered cats to mirror man’s misplaced understanding of intelligence - they’re extremely self sufficient and selfish. And to us they appear intelligent. Think about that. Actually cats are pretty stupid - like most primarily pre-programmed beasts. Have you ever heard someone say to you ‘My cat knows exactly what I’m thinking’. I hope you had an urgent matter to attend to and blocked their number on your mobile. Ok cats are way less stupid than a croc and infinitely more intelligent than a shark. Killing machines are always stupid and, if you see them first, predictable. But when someone mentions a shark to you, do you think ‘extremely stupid’? There’s a reason these animals don’t fetch or jump over fences or round up sheep (or Tuna) - and its not because they’re too smart to volunteer for it. I’m prepared to believe that the domestication of cats is leading to a snail pace increase in intelligence over generations. The other day I found a cat desperately trying to extract itself from a hole in the ground grown over by a thorn bush. Every time he leaped, the poor thing cried - probably cursing the worthless bird in the bush in cat language. I approached him carefully. He continued to cry but basically stepped back and all but roared me on as I cut myself removing the thorns. For about 10 seconds he purred and allowed me to pet him, before remembering he didn’t have a name tag and I had to quickly dodge his warning jab. Anyone who hangs around these towns during the day has a shark-sized brain or is completely insane. They exist as bases from which one can explore the beautiful parks. They’re fine to come home to and drink beers in as you put your feet up and laugh about how you just made it home before dark. The vast majority make it home hours before dark, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion they dive into their hostels and wash the caked dirt off in windowless showers until the bells from the local shanty church chime enough times to indicate that the sun is off illuminating another, less *cat, part of the world. Just to balance this rant up, these places are fantastic fun - just make sure you get up early and spend your day in the wild and not in the tourist focussed town beside it.

* I dislike explanatory notes (they’re hassle) but I guess I should explain that the word ‘cat’ became a popular slang adjective in Dublin in the 70s and 80s. If something was ‘cat’, it was basically crap. However it died an early and definitive death in its first life. A well deserved death it was too.


March 10, 2008, 8:11 pm : Patagonian Rant #3: Spacemen swimwalking in their own sweat

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Apparently OmnipresentApparently Omnipresent (Colonia Del Sacramento, Uruguay, 2008)

Rant number 3: Patagonian Spacemen taking a dip in their own sweat

Hike in a T-shirt! What’s wrong with people? Marketing victims. Nobody needs to wear a spacesuit when hiking at a temperature of say 7 degrees C with intermittent rain and winds. OK - these conditions are not the most pleasant to sunbathe in…. but if you are hiking 20 to 30 KMs up and down mountains and over rocky terrain with a pack and tent, do you really want to march all day inside 4 or 5 layers of super-expensive ‘breathable’ material? Breathable my ass. My skin is much more breathable and technologically far more advanced. Skin looks pretty cool on most people too - cooler on some than others but always in fashion I’d say. These people walk around with their 30KG packs carrying loads of food to fuel the journey. They half walk, half swim - the former with the help of ski poles and the latter in their own sweat. We did the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine in 4 days and I never marched in more than a t-shirt and shorts. If it rained, my thin synthetic quick dry t-shirt lived up to its billing a few minutes after the last drop. Alicia rarely wore more. Perhaps walking briskly and being cold is a special talent that we lack. Maybe we should buy a few layers of goretex so we can feel the authentic experience of swimming in layers of cooling sweat and arriving at a campsite with no dry clothes to change into. Of course the absolute worst time to put several layers on is when its raining. Then its a race between the rain and your sweat to see which one can penetrate deeper and contribute more to your long term discomfort - and ultimately leave you shivering. The Yamana tribe in the extreme end of southern Patagonia generally wore nothing but a layer of oil extracted from sea-lions (their stable diet) - even in the harsh winters. This is because the extremely damp weather would have soaked their clothes and the accompanying cold winds would have caused them illness and death. Unfortunately these hardy people, after over 10,000 years of peaceful co-existence with an apparently harsh environment, were coldly poisoned and shot to extinction by savage Europeans making room for grazing sheep and warm woolly jumpers. This happened only a century ago - the last great human cull in the Americas. This is incredibly sad to me. I wonder when the changing environment or another country or something else will wipe out Ireland. I wonder how the last few standing will feel. How many people actually accept that their country, religion and culture identity (if they have all of these) are impermanent? Wrapping our bodies up in spiritual and physical cotton wool is not what we evolved to do. We should embrace and enjoy the very elements we wish to experience. Accept the beautiful uncertainty of our existence. We get to wake up every morning knowing we can be happy and interested - and not knowing when we’ll travel the unknown country nor what this trip will bring. That’s my definition of heaven. How boring would it be to write our own soap opera and then get up every morning to live safely within it? Unless you’re walking in a snow storm or other really extreme conditions, the end of the trek is the only time you need to put on a few layers of dry warm clothes.

*To those of my friends who are strongly linked to a popular religion, you know I respect your beliefs and accept that time may prove me wrong.


February 8, 2008, 7:24 pm : Silhouette of 2 Birds in a Tree

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Silhouette of 2 Birds in a TreeSilhouette of 2 Birds in a Tree (Iguazu, Argentina, 2008)


February 1, 2008, 7:14 pm : Butterfly Laying Eggs

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Butterfly Laying EggsButterfly Laying Eggs (Iguazu, Argentina, 2008)

This beautiful creature was squirting eggs. As I approached, its partner started to perform a merry dance around it at an almost constant distance of about ½ a metre. The closer I came the crazier his dance - more frequent hops and ever increasing wing movement when not flying. My guess is that this reaction has is self sacrificial, designed to ensure he is attacked first and as many of the eggs as possible are released before the female is consumed. Although this interpretation makes perfect species survival sense, I haven’t a clue if its correct. I’ve never observed this event before. Once upon a time I was a biologist, but at a molecular level - biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology etc. If the lab had been this much fun and if creative people were not so thin on the ground in the so called scientific world, I‘d have remained in that profession for longer.“la máxima especialización equivale a la máxima incultura“ (José Ortega y Gasset) This is a quote from an essay I read 25 years ago, long before I had any notion of any language other than English. As far as I am aware, it influenced me more than any other short piece of writing and it certainly set the seeds for me leaving science long before I even entered third level. He states that the maximum specialisation equals the maximum lack of culture. He basically predicted that the science would attract less and less creative people as it provided an ever narrower outlet for creativity. As the mass and depth of scientific theory and data grew, the individuals seeking to push the envelope of so called ‘knowledge’ would have to work within ever narrowing fields. This did not have to happen, but Ortega y Gasset understood human nature and predicted the future well. He said this nearly 80 years ago. Today science is populated almost exclusively by technicians - many of them with PhDs. A scientist is creative and inventive (above all else), capable of abstract thought and of approaching a problem in a structured manner. My first ‘career’ job was as a research assistant in genetics in the Neurology in London, the world leader in neurological research. I was incredibly unimpressed. It wasn’t the lack of intellect (although that was definitely nothing to write home about), but the sheer inability to see the wood from the trees and the flawed logic of having to work like a dog with a pipette for years before you’d get ‘your own team’ and be able to ‘direct’ your own research. With some possible exceptions, like theoretical physics, I suspect the percentage of real scientists within the so called ‘scientific community’ is a single figure. BTW Ortega y Gasset is well worth reading.


February 1, 2008, 7:11 pm : The Butterfly Tamer

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The Butterfly TamerThe Butterfly Tamer (Iguazu Falls, Brazil, 2008)

This looks like an advert for the Canon G9 - Alicia’s wonderful compact. The butterfly was a little camera shy so he went to the only place where Alicia couldn’t photograph him - only for me to ambush him from the rear. Guy de Maupassant used to take lunch under the then new and shiny Tour Eiffel, because it was the only place in late 19th century Paris from where you could not see what was, to him, a monstrosity. Fortunately he never lived to see Tour Montparnasse. - his life was tragic enough. If you like short stories he’s a master. I’ve only read one of his novels but I found it to be formulaic and moralistic - the scourge of all art. I can’t even remember its name. If I remember correctly, I read poor old Guy shot himself in a fit of syphilis-induced madness. At least he probably had a lot of fun before his tragic end.


February 1, 2008, 7:09 pm : The Abyss

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The AbyssThe Abyss (Iguazu Falls, Argentina, 2008)


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