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How To Integrate

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Bolivia, do Karaoke.

In one of those quirks that you never read about nor seize upon until a rough two a.m. on a Friday evening, I realized that Bolivians are crazy for karaoke. They absolutely love it, and karaoke bars are far more common than night-clubs in most towns. Most bars close early, but karaoke runs through the night, heavily-accented Celine Dion permeating the cool Bolivian skies.

While in Potosi, the world's highest city, in an effort to not be ethnocentric, and aided by copious quantities of Chicha (a local brew made from a healthy mix of pulped maize and women's spit), I went with a Dutch friend, Jan, and decided to give karaoke a shot. We entered the bar, the only foreigners there. I got the feeling that we were the first unaccompanied whites to ever grace the presence of this dingy little den that had bad music and worse couches. There were about twenty Bolivians in there, crooning away, so Jan and I got up and decided to try our hand at a couple of songs. In retrospect, I think trying our hands would have been far more successful than trying our voices; we were terrible. First, we belted out ";Mrs. Robinson", before doing a truly touching Dutch-Canadian rendition of "Born in the USA". After singing, the karaoke machine gives you a score out of 100, based on keeping time and staying in key. We scored zero. Both times. We had contemplated trying to redeem ourselves with a third tune until we remembered that armed guards patrol the streets in Bolivia at all hours.

At the bar, Jan and I got cornered by a talkative young Bolivian guy named Phillips (don´t ask me) who fell in love with Jan for his being Dutch. Phillips is so enamoured with everything Dutch, he claims that his most prized possesion is a photo of Rotterdam airport (once again, don't ask me). He was so happy, he promptly bought us most awful beer in the world. It has nothing to do with the brewing company, but due to the altitude it is well-nigh impossible to get a beer that doesn't turn into two-thirds foam once opened. Badly bloated, we left half an hour later and went to bed.

I woke up early this morning and headed to the local mines. Potosi used to be one of the richest cities in the world 500 years ago due to it's silver mines, which have now been depleted of virtually every valuable mineral, yet are still mined by over 7000 people. The catch of the mines is that the miners work in near inhuman conditions, which makes me wonder how they feel, seeing thousands of strangers showing up annually, just to see how terrible their lives are.

The mines are less than two feet high at points, the conditions are dangerous and the average life expectancy of the miners is less than fifty. At one point, walking through the mines, the walls started to glisten everywhere with a shiny white substance that lined them top to bottom

"Is it salt?" Jan asked.

"Why, are you hungry" our guide laughed. "No, it's not salt," he said with a chuckle, "It's asbestos."

Before entering the mines you buy gifts for the miners, so that they can work longer, such as cigarettes or coca leaves, which reduce the feeling of hunger. Some people bought the leaves, cold drinks, or cookies. I bought dynamite and condensed milk. We were then given hard-hats and, for light, flaming lanterns lit by sodium bicarbonate. As we wedged our way through the tougher parts of the mines I realised that I was jamming myself in as tight a space as I could feasibly fit through, with a live flame in one hand and two sticks of dynamite in the other. I got rid of the explosives relatively quickly after that. The condensed milk wasn't as dangerous.

The tour was three hours through the mines, and that was more than enough. They were hot and claustrophobic, and it is amazing to think that some of the workers spend over 80 hours a week down there, in the conditions that they do. My hard-hat is off to them.

August 1st is a big holiday in Potosi, and being the last Saturday previous, I spent all day trying to figure out how to get to a llama sacrifice that was being performed on a nearby mountaintop. There was much confusion amongst the locals about the ceremony, though - you know how llama sacrifices are - and I ended up missing it. I was offered a ride up to take a photo of the disembowelled llama, but I figured that was pushing it a little bit. One can only do so much as the Romans, or Bolivians, do.