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The Potosi Tower

After attending the big capture of vicuñas in Peru in November of '03 I traveled with Dag Aanby by car from Juliaca, near Lake Titicaca, to La Paz, Bolivia, and from there on to Sucre, Bolivia, by plane. Sucre is a beautiful little university town with a great climate and pleasant, handsome people. It was the site of the nearest air service to the city of Potosi, Bolivia, where the 3rd International Congress on Camelids was being held. This Congreso was the main reason I came to South America, and I was treated royally by the organizers.

There were problems, many problems, both with the travel arrangements and with the execution of the Congreso, but all in all, this was a great adventure.  My presentations in Potosi went OK, but there were some technical glitches that made them less than the triumph I was aiming for. My talk on embryo transfer in the South American camelids was the very first presentation of the Congreso, and something was lost in the translation. Actually, the organizers tried to arrange a simultaneous translation like they use at the United Nations. The idea was to provide little radios, each with an earphone, for everyone who needed a translation from the language being spoken from the podium. In this case, almost all of the people attending the conference needed a translation from English to Spanish, and there were not enough of these radios to go around. Also, the translator was not really up to speed yet and not familiar with many of the technical terms I needed to use to get this information across. About five minutes into my talk, the coordinator interrupted with an announcement that all those who needed a translation should go into an adjoining lecture hall where they could listen to a broadcast of the translation. At least half the audience got up and left. I learned later that they got only about one sentence in three and much of the sense of the talk was lost on them.

Luckily, I had written a very complete explanation of the embryo transfer process for the book of proceedings, which every attendee of the Congreso received. Many of these folks came up to me after my talk to express their appreciation that I came so far to give them this powerful breeding tool. I only regret that my Spanish was not really good enough for me to have done this whole thing in that language. A second presentation was scheduled for this topic, and it went much better because Dag Aanby did the translation to Spanish sentence by sentence through the main speakers for the audience.   I was very relieved to have that part of the trip behind me.

The Great Orator at Work

That same night there was a fashion show of garments made from llama and alpaca fiber, and I got dressed up for this and went out to have a good time. There was a new tower restaurant in Potosi, a kind of half-size version of the Space Needle in Seattle. This structure is about 300 feet high, with the circular restaurant at its top about 80 feet in diameter. It was only when the Aanby's and I arrived at the base of the mountain where this tower is that I began to realize that something was wrong.

The Potosi Tower

The affair had been promoted with glossy posters and brochures all over town, and hundreds of people had turned out. The dirt road to the base of the tower was a series of switchbacks up a very steep slope, and there was only space at the base of the tower for about ten vehicles to park. This meant that the organizers had to shuttle all these people up the dangerous road in mini-vans. Everyone was dressed up in their finest, and the evening began with them being crammed into these little shuttles like sardines. Still, there was good-natured acceptance of this and the trip took only about 5 or 6 minutes. When Dag and Sonia and I got out of the shuttle we were ushered to the front of a long line of local people trying to get into the base of the tower. The structure was brightly lit up with spotlights and someone was launching fireworks from the top. When we squeezed through the crowd and got inside the double glass doors at the base of the tower, we were told that the elevator was not working and we would have to hike up the spiral staircase to the restaurant. OK. We could do that. I had to take my time, because I was not really adjusted to the 14,000ft altitude yet.  The next day I learned that the elevator had been overloaded on its first lift of the evening and that blew a circuit breaker which nobody knew how to reset.

Check the Spiral Staircase

When we reached the top of the staircase we were still one floor below the restaurant and there was no way to get up that last bit except for the elevator. Well, almost no way. We were invited to climb up a rickety ladder to a small hole that had been broken through the concrete ceiling above. This hole was only about two feet square, barely large enough for some of the heftier guests to squeeze through. Nobody blinked, though. There was a crowd waiting at the base of the ladder and, one by one, they climbed up and disappeared through the little hole. There was really no way for me to know what was waiting above until my turn came. Just above the layer of concrete there was kind of a crawl space full of wires and pipes, and the ladder didn't reach high enough to get you all the way up to the floor of the restaurant above. It was necessary to kneel on the concrete and reach up to the outstretched hands of several men above who would pull you on up the rest of the way. Keep in mind that everyone was dressed in their finest and that there were old ladies in the mix of partygoers. A fat guy just ahead of me got stuck in the hole for a moment, and I felt a wave of relief that I might be able to avoid this party altogether, but pretty soon his feet disappeared through the ceiling and it was my turn to be hoisted up.

The Only Entrance to the Grand Ballroom, Minus the Ladder

Looking Straight Up

The scene above was just about as bizarre as you could imagine. The construction of the tower was far from finished, and this was the first public event that had ever been held here.  Outside the concrete hub of the tower there was a temporary plywood floor that jiggled anytime anyone in this big circular room took a step. All the people, a band and scantily clad models, and everyone who wanted to see what was going on, were congregated at one side of the restaurant. I was just starting to think about what might happen if everyone began to stomp their feet in rhythm with the music when a young woman shoved a microphone in my face and began to interview me about my first impressions of this marvelous tourist attraction. This interview was in Spanish, of course, and I was able to come up with a few comments like "fantastico" before I ran into a question I couldn't understand and had to say "no entiendo." That was the end of the interview, so I finally had time to look out at the view, which really was fantastic. The Aanbys and I were ushered over to the crowded side of the room and three people that had arrived ahead of us were asked to move so we could be seated at the head table.

By this time I was really having some doubts about the organization and thought that had gone into this event. I leaned over to Dag and said, "Imagine what the authorities would say if they knew this was going on." With that, Dag introduced me to the Mayor of Potosi, who was seated on his other side. The floor was bouncing around under my feet as the band picked up the beat a little. "What would happen if a fire broke out in here?" I asked, and Dag translated this question for the Mayor. He said, "I guess we should give some thought to that," and turned to greet someone else who had just been dragged up through the hole in the concrete hub of the tower.

I had given some thought to bringing my camera with me for this event, but decided it would just be extra baggage. Now I fervently wished I had some way to record this scene. If I could just take a photo, someone might find the camera in the rubble later on and recover the memory chip. A young Bolivian woman who spoke some English began to chat with me, and I told her I would give anything for a photo of me coming up through the hole in the floor. She found a man with a camera and the staged photo was taken. The photographer said he would drop the print by our hotel the next day, which didn't happen, but I will post it if I ever receive it.

We sat there for a while watching people being hoisted up into the room. I got to thinking about the big crowd below and wondered at what point the influx would be stopped. There were already over a hundred people in the room and they just kept on coming. Dag finally admitted that he was getting a little nervous about the fire hazard, considering the fireworks and the cooking, and that was all I needed to suggest that we make our way down as soon as possible. The real festivities had not even started yet. We were supposed to get a fine dinner and a fashion show, be we decided to cut the evening short in the hope of living to see another day. The guys who were doing the lifting seemed puzzled that we would think of going the other direction, but they shouted down below to stop the line for a moment and allowed the cowardly gringos to climb back down through the hole. We had a lot of difficulty going against the flow of partygoers, but finally made our way down the spiral staircase to the bottom and out through the doors. There was still quite a crowd waiting to get in. We began walking down the steep dirt road and eventually caught the shuttle on its way down the hill. I have to confess that I didn't really feel safe until we were far enough away to escape being crushed by debris if the tower came down. I didn't sleep very well last night. The tower was still standing when I looked this morning, so maybe I was just being overly cautious. Maybe the fact that I don't much like fashion shows had something to do with it.

The View from the Tower.  Potosi, Bolivia, the Highest City of Its Size
in the World.  More Than 150,000 Souls Live Here at the 14,000ft Level.

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