A Wild Ride With The Bolivian Mails

FOR the past three days I have been riding over the high plateau of Bolivia and am now in the middle of it, away up over the Coast Range of the Andes, in the mining town of Oruro. The Bolivian plateau is one of the wonderful tablelands of the globe; it is situated between the two ranges of the Andes, at from 11,000 to 13,000 feet above the sea. The plateau, which runs from north-west to south-east, is five hundred miles long, about eighty miles wide, and has an area as great as the State of Ohio.

The plateau has a soil, a vegetation, and a climate of its own. Its skies seem different from any which hang over the United States. Its people are like none we have on our bontinent, and my surroundings altogether are such that I seem to be in another world. It is the world of the heights, the highest land of the earth upon which numerous cities and villages exist, a very land of the sky.

The geological history of the Bolivian plateau is largely conjecture. There are evidences that there once lay between these two Andean ranges a vast inland sea, hundreds of miles long, and in places over sixty miles wide, of which the Bolivian plateau is a part. Its waters reached to Lake Titicaca, and thence flowed on through the plateau of Peru. From here they extended southward to the highlands of the Argentine Republic. Where I crossed the plateau from Lake Titicaca to La Paz the ground was as flat as a boarded floor. It is almost level also from La Paz to Oruro, and everywhere there are signs that the whole country was once covered with water. I rode for miles over beds of pebbles and boulders and passed over wide stretches of what seemed like sea-sand. Sea-shells are often found here, and there are other evidences that the land, as I have said, was once covered with water.

Professor Agassiz believed that the water once rose some four hundred feet above the present level of the Bolivian plateau. To-day the only large bodies of water upon it are Lake Titicaca and Lake Pampa-Aullagas, or Lake Poopó, the two being connected by the Desaguadero river. Lake Poopó is very near Oruro. It is about as large as Rhode Island, and is a brackish lake deep enough for steamers. It is now proposed to put steamers on it, and should this be done, we may look for a line of ships sailing from Oruro across Lake Poopó and through the Desaguadero river to Lake Titicaca.

My journey from La Paz to Oruro was over this dried-up sea-basin. The distance is 165 miles, most of the road being as smooth and as hard as any in Central Park, New York. There is a stage line which carries mails and passengers twice a week from La Paz to Oruro. The stage-coach has six seats inside and one outside with the driver. In planning my tour I coveted the driver’s seat, but on going to the stage office I found that not only it but the whole coach had been reserved. There was no better chance for the next stage, three days later, and for a time it seemed that I should have to go on the back of a mule. At this moment my guide and adviser in ways Bolivian, Mr. Sam Klotz, of La Paz, suggested that I get a seat on the mail coach, where there is always room for one passenger. I jumped at the chance, and readily paid twenty dollars, the price of the ticket. This was several days before leaving. The day previous to starting I sent my baggage to the station, my three trunks going on the backs of three Indians from the hotel to the stage office. When they arrived a second dilemma arose : only 200 pounds of baggage, I found, were allowed to each passenger. My trunks weighed 370 pounds, and it was only by paying $21 for extra baggage that they were allowed to go with me.

I confess to a feeling of pride when I told my friends at La Paz that I was going to travel on the mail coach. They smiled rather pityingly as I did so, and at the time I attributed their pity to envy; but I know better now. I know that the Bolivian mail coach is not a gorgeous red vehicle, with postman in livery and magnificent steeds. I had my first sight of it at daybreak on the morning of my starting. It is merely the bag-gage waggon of the stage, a skeleton waggon on springs. The floor of the vehicle is so high that you can almost walk under it without stooping, and when it was loaded with trunks and mail-bags it looked more like a hay waggon coming to the barn in harvest time than the Royal Bolivian Mail. The baggage was tied on with rawhide ropes and was covered with canvas to keep out the rain. There was only one seat and this was occupied by the driver, his assistant, and myself. The seat was at least eight feet above the ground: it had no cushion until I improvised one out of my own coat and blankets. As there was no canopy over the seat, I suffered when it rained and snowed, as it did at intervals on the journey.

Our drivers were Bolivian Cholos, whom I found so cruel to the mules that I again and again protested. Even when first hitched up the beasts were raw and sore ; their harness was twisted out of all shape, and their collars did not fit, the ragged rough leather pressing in upon the raw flesh. Every mule had sores on its back, and the legs of some had been almost cut to pieces by the whip. T remember one little yellow mule who had lost two patches of skin, each as large as the palm of one’s hand, from the front of his shoulders. When he was harnessed I objected to taking him, as there were better mules in the corral. My protestations were however of no avail; he was hitched up next to the waggon, right under the driver, and we started off on a gallop. The little mule soon began to lag. The driver cut at him with a whip, which brought blood at almost every spot it touched, and the helper, who ran along with the coach and whipped up the lazy mules, picked out the little yellow fellow for his special attention. We had not gone five miles before the backs of the mule’s legs were bleeding in half a dozen different places, and I could see that his collar was smeared with blood from sores on his neck. From time to time I noticed that the driver, when he found that his whipping and whistling failed to stir up the mules, took a heavy trace, with an iron chain and ring at the end of it, and rattled it. This never failed to frighten the team into increased speed. As the little yellow fellow again fell behind, I found the secret of the inspiring sound of the trace and chain. The driver swung the trace about his head and brought it down with a terrible thud upon the little mule’s back. It was a wonder it did not break the bones, for the heavy iron chain hit him on the spine, and the pain must have been intense. The blow in this case did not break the skin, though I saw subsequent ones given to other mules which made bloody gashes in their backs. We changed mules every fifteen or twenty miles, and we rarely had a team that was not deeply scarred and bloody when we reached a stopping-place.

On this journey I had a taste of the country hotels of Bolivia. They are more like stables than taverns. The stalls for the mules and the one-story huts which contain the rooms for the human guests are built together, so that one can hear the don-keys bray and the hogs grunt as one goes to sleep. None of the rooms have windows; the floors are of mud and stone, and the beds are mere ledges of sun-dried bricks, upon which mat-tresses are laid. Most of the rooms have several beds in them, so I seldom slept without room-mates. Before retiring the land-lady always came in and collected a ” Bolivian,” equal to 33 cents of our money, for the use of the bed. She did not give me a light, so I had to use a candle I brought with me, a spot of melted grease on a table or chair serving as the candlestick.

We left the hotels at five o’clock every morning. We usually were up before daybreak and at half-past four a cup of tea and a biscuit were served. This is the first breakfast of all hotels in Bolivia, and it had to suffice for our first twenty miles. At eleven o’clock we generally reached a station for breakfast. This usually consisted of a vegetable soup, followed by dishes of stewed meats swimming in grease. ‘Dinner was served at the close of the day’s journey. It was about the same character as the noon breakfast. Luckily I had had a lunch put up for me on leaving La Paz: this cost me ten dollars; but it seemed cheap when I found that it gave me the only food I could eat on the way. And this was upon one of the most travelled roads of Bolivia, where the accommodations are considered extraordinarily good. The fare on the mule trails is far worse, and those who go into the less travelled parts often suffer severely. Their only sleeping-places are in the huts of the Indians, who do not like ‘strangers and will not entertain them if they can possibly help it. The fact that you offer them money makes no difference; often indeed the only way to get a night’s shelter is to enter by force and take possession of the best part of the hut. If there is anything eatable at hand you had better take it and afterwards give the owner some money in payment. If you offer to buy he will refuse; and even when he has plenty will tell you he has nothing. When you leave in the morning you pay him for the night’s lodging, and he then thanks you for what he has granted only by force. The Bolivian Indians are great cowards and they will submit even to much abuse without fighting.

I saw the Indians all along the plateau from La Paz to Oruro. Nearly all were working, toiling hard for a bare living. The climate is such that only potatoes, barley, and quinua will grow, and the soil is so poor that it is only here and there that a patch can be farmed. Indeed the effort to get cultivable land is a serious drawback to industry: in many places the soil is too stony to cultivate; in others cultivation is only possible when the stones have been picked off to make place for the crops. We passed long stretches of country dotted with piles of stones, and I often saw Indian women going along bent double, gathering stones into the held-up skirts of their dresses, and carrying them to the piles.

Parts of the plateau are covered with a scanty growth of grass, upon which herds of sheep and llamas feed. Each herd is watched by an Indian shepherdess, who uses a sling to keep the animals from straying, and with unerring aim sends the stone straight at the llama or sheep that strays to a neighbour’s fields. There are no fences in this part of Bolivia. The cattle in the fields are, as a rule, staked or hobbled by tying a rope about their front legs just above the ankles. One often sees a drove of donkeys so fastened.

The farming is all done after the crudest methods. I saw no manure anywhere used, although there were great piles of it lying at each stable where we got a new relay of mules. I am told that the natives know nothing of fertilizers, and that they recuperate the land by letting it lie fallow, or by a rotation of crops.

Most of the farming tools are of native manufacture, the only American tools being Hartford axes. Potatoes are dug by the women, who use short strips of iron, shaped something like an arrow, with a wide flat stem. This is grasped in the middle with the hand, and the woman, bending double, thus scoops the potatoes out of the hills. Barley is cut with small sickles with saw teeth, and such rude hoes as are used have handles so short that the workers have to bend over toward the ground to use them. The ploughing is all done by oxen with rude wooden ploughs, to which a point made of a flat iron bar about two inches wide is fastened. A long tongue or beam extends from the plough to the yoke, which is tied to the horns of the oxen, the weight of pulling the plough being done with the head, and not with the shoulders as with us.

The ways through the Bolivian mountains are mule trails, some of which have been cut out of the sides of precipices so that you crawl along within an inch of destruction. Now and then a pack mule drops three thousand feet or more, and is usually left to lie where it falls. One often has to dismount to help the mules, and it sometimes takes hours to advance a few miles. The total length of the Bolivian stage lines is less than the distance between New York and Cleveland. Freight is carried from one part of the country to another on the backs of women and men or on donkeys, mules, or llamas. On the way I passed many droves of donkeys and llamas coming to Oruro. Some were loaded with bundles of cacao, while others carried bags of silver ore. Each train was managed by a party of men and women who walked with the animals, never riding them.

Owing to the poor methods of transportation it is questionable whether Bolivia can offer much to Americans in the way of a market. Such goods as are sold must be put up in boxes or bales, of about one hundred pounds each, so that two packages will just form a load for a mule; otherwise the chief centres of trade cannot be reached. The character of the Bolivian people is such that they can never be large consumers. The Indians who form the majority have few wants which the country does not supply. The naked savages of the eastern slopes require nothing. The semi-civilized Indians of the plateau, as I have al-ready said, weave their own clothes of llama wool. They make their cooking utensils of clay and raise their own food.

At present the bulk of the foreign trade is in the hands of the Germans, who are established in all the large towns and who deal not only in German, but in English and American goods. I saw many American sewing machines in La Paz, and also Connecticut hardware and firearms. The imports of Bolivia, as estimated by one of our Ministers, are about $12,000,000 a year, and the exports amount to about $20,000,000, the latter consisting of the products of the mines and forests. From the mines come vast quantities of copper, silver, and tin, and a small amount of gold, and from the forests are taken rubber and Peruvian bark.