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Bus Ride to the 17th Century

The white bread box of a bus rolled into Creel at 6 a.m. and the two of us got on. He wore sandals, a black ski jacket, white loin cloth and a head band. It was about 35 degrees F., and I shivered in my wool sweater, hiking pants and boots. I carried a pack, he was carrying rope tied bundles and a radio.

I was going to the last stop, a scheduled eight hours that turned into twelve, down into the bottom of the canyon where it would be 40 degrees warmer. He was going home to his warm cave in the mountains.

We never spoke and I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to. We had nothing in common except a love for the mountains. He sat sullen in the back of the bus, the rumble seat being the warmest. He was a Tarahumara Indian, living in the mountains at the top end of Barranca de la Cobre or Copper Canyon. About two hours into the bus ride he made a grunting sound and the bus driver stopped. There was no town, or small homes, just a little pull off. He walked off the bus disappearing on a path that looked like a game trail, but has been part of the Tara highway for centuries.

Mountains of Hope

It wasn’t their first choice, but to survive, threatened peoples have often relocated to the mountains. Cold and road-less conditions keep their oppressors out, allowing them the chance to survive by adapting to conditions that those chasing them couldn’t. In some cases they flourished in the mountains.

The Tarahumara, the Apache and the Kogis all fled to the mountains and their ancestors today can tell you why. The age of exploration and imperialism drove native people from the flatland’s into the hinterlands. The Taras of Mexico and the Kogis of Colombia were being enslaved by the Spanish in the 16th century and had nowhere to go but up. The Kogi were living on the Caribbean Sea but made the startling transition to the 18,700 foot high Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountains. Today the approximate 30,000 Tairona culture descendants remain deeply spiritual regarding their mountains as the “heart of the world, where all its origins exist.” Resisting all development they have become stewards of the mountains. They live on government designated reserves and refer to their Spanish oppressors as “the younger brother.”

The Apache were being pursued by Uncle Sam’s 19th century Army and used the still rugged Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona to squeeze another decade of freedom out of a shrinking landscape.

More recently the Yazadis of Iraq fled to the Sinjar Mountains of northern Iraq to escape ISIS, but those low lying mountains could not protect them. Uncle Sam’s drones did. The Dali Lama and his Buddhist minions had to flee Tibet and ended up in India’s Ladakhi Himalaya to escape China’s incursion. They have made significant environmental contributions to the region, through their Pad Yatra eco-pilgrimages through mountain villages.

Political movements as well as religious sects have been cradled by the mountains. Castro and his 50 ragtag revolutionaries had to escape to the Sierra Maestra and regroup after failed battles in Havana and Santiago. Castro and Che Guevara strategized adopting guerrilla tactics, and the mountain peasants who joined the brigade re-energized the movement. Batista sent his poorly trained army into the mountains to get Castro and those losses would embolden Castro’s forces leading to their successful, albeit controversial revolution.

And then there are today’s economic refugees. La Rinconada is the world’s highest city at over 17,000 feet. Located at the foot of a glacier in the Peruvian Andes, it has grown 200 percent in the last decade to over 50,000 desperate souls. The rising price of gold has driven this insane, uncontrolled growth. The miners work in an unregulated system called Cachorreo where they work 30 days without pay, but on the 31st they are paid in as much ore as they can carry. Much of it is worthless, but it may contain some gold. It contains hope – and that is what the mountains have always been about.

Petra the Cavewoman

The Tarahumara are known for their running ability. They win marathons and can run down and kill deer, but perhaps their most astonishing achievement is living well in caves. Petra is a 68-year-old woman living in a cave two miles outside Creel, the train/bus stop town where tourists mostly go.

She has raised seven kids in her 150 square foot space and wouldn’t change it. The Mexican government built her a wood frame house recently and she said no thanks, the cave is my home, according to Matt Karsten writing for Expert She heats it with a wood stove made out of half a steel drum and eats well from her garden and the free range chickens roaming outside her stone walled cave entrance.

Most Taras during the 20th century opted for small stone or wood homes. About five percent still live in caves and rock outcroppings at the higher reaches of the canyon between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. They have survived the drug gangs that grow marijuana in the canyons, the wood poachers, the church that tries to steal their souls and the Mexican government that tries to civilize them. The mountains are their savior and they know it.

Mountain Lotto

Life in a Tara cave is almost soft compared to the everyday routine in La Rinconada. Its life or death every time you go to work in the mines where cave-ins and mercury poisoning are occupational hazards. The thin air, the moving glacier, the burning garbage in the unpoliced streets makes it among the most dangerous places on the planet, but still they come. Gold fever, the original lust driving the Spaniards to the new world still drives them to the top of the Andes.

Aaron Ko was drawn to La Rinconada’s drama. He spent three weeks working in the mines at the lowest rung. The Korean-American hairstyling adrenalin-junky from Texas fell in love with its naked humanity, the strength and tenacity of its people. He came with no money, but started teaching English and giving free haircuts and won the locals over. He found a Peruvian girlfriend by convincing her if they had a child it would be the first Korean-Peruvian kid in the Andes. Peruvians are fatalistic but they also have a sense of humor.

Ko more than pulled his weight in the mines blowing up caves with dynamite and fixing tunnel roofs with rocks as big as his chest. He fell in love with the struggling people although he couldn’t take a shower for 22 days and his life was on the line every day.

“Rinconada is a dream purgatory. Everyone here has dreams and that’s beautiful but there isn’t enough luck, and sadly many men will die working for their dreams. This is the dark gamble of La Rinconada, it’s all about the gold,” Ko writes in his blog.

Rinconada is the ultimate lottery game; when you lose, you lose big. But the mountain represents hope, and for millions down through the centuries, the dangerous height was their ticket to another – and sometimes better life.

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