Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sitting Down With El Tio

I'm so happy to bring to you an incredible husband and wife couple - Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans.  Together they share with us a wonderful, real-life story of an incredible geologic find and how a challenge led them to spend so much of their lives in the tiny Bolivian village of San Cristobal.  That experience continues to live on in their hearts today.

So please join me in welcoming the authors of "The Gift of El Tio".

DAB:  Larry, what was it about geology that led you into the field?

LARRY:  I found a form of liberation in geology.  My memory as a kid growing up in the coalfields of western Pennsylvania is of grimy brick buildings, black snow, soot covered fields, ashes, cinders, drunkenness, ignorance, and universal povery.  I knew deep inside, somewhere there had to be a better world.  At age 11, I left an abusive family behind and moved to the Mojave Desert of California.  For the first time I saw color in my life:  blue sky, orange and red cliffs among the butte and mesas, olive-green sage poking out of the yellow sands, vast expanses where I could walk a hundred miles and never come across a fence.  I saw romance in the ruins of ghost towns and wondered over the azure-and malachite-green stained rocks around the abandoned mines, explored entire petrified forests turned to swirls of agate and chalcedony.  Even the name, Mojave, conjured up an image of mysterious peoples of long ago.  I found freedom there, a peaceful solitude broken only by the rocks, snakes, and scorpions.  I decided then at that early age to become a geologist, to make a living in such a place, to get paid to hike the hills and valleys.

DAB:  Larry, describe for us what it was like first coming across the village of San Cristobal and the incredible silver deposits out in the open for all to see.

LARRY:  When I first saw the adobe village with its grass-thatch roofs among the cobble stone streets, I was struck by the lack of people.  Other than a little girl peering at me through some cracks in a rock wall, the streets were deserted, not a soul in sight, everyone hiding from the stranger hiking along their streets.  I knew a hundred pairs of eyes were staring at me from the dark cracks in their doors and windows.  I felt this village must be the poorest I had seen, and I had seen a lot.  Then I inspected the rocks in the walls, the cobbles in the streets, the cliffs surrounding the houses.  All were laced with thin veins and masses of silver minerals:  argentite, galena, limonite, all of no particular note to the layman, but to a trained geologist, ineluctable proof of the presence of silver.  Their homes, their streets, their walls were made of silver; the village of San Cristobal lay right on top of one of the world's largest silver deposits.  I had to tell my boss but in those pre-cell phone days, I had to drive 12 hours across dry lakebeds and up and down rocky canyons to get to the first functioning phone.  My voice broke, I shook with excitement, and told him to be ready to spend tens of millions of dollars to see if I was right or not.  To his credit, he jumped at the chance.

DAB:  Karen, what was your initial reaction to this discovery?  Were you immediately aware of how this would impact the villagers or did realizations occur gradually?

KAREN:  I was appalled.  I adored - and still do - my husband, but at that time, we saw the world from very different perspectives; he, being conservative, was convinced that this mine would bring jobs and eradicate poverty; I, being the liberal, could not tolerate the loss of culture and identity that inevitably would face the people.  Locked in our polarized views as so many are today, we were each convinced our positions were correct.  Neither of us could have known the outcome of Larry's discovery in the beginning.  As a matter of fact, now, fourteen years since the town was moved, we know some outcomes, but we're aware there are even more to come.  Thus, new realizations have occurred over time and continue to occur, enabling us to re-examine our viewpoints; I, accepting the advantages of developing a mine and Larry, recognizing the value of culture.

DAB:  Where did the challenge to go live in San Cristobal originate and why?

KAREN:  The challenge to go live in San Cristobal sprang from our polarized viewpoints.  I didn't know how I could justify living with a man who supported the destruction of an indigenous village nor did I trust what the mining company would do.  I had to see for myself.  This prompted me to demand that Larry and I follow the people to see the impact of the changes.  Fortunately, my husband agreed!

LARRY:  Actually, Karen didn't leave me much choice.  Either go there and live with her, or risk losing her entirely.  I figured she would last maybe two weeks and then beg to go home.  Who would have thought that 10 years later....

DAB:  Tell us what it was like when you first arrived in country, knowing you were going to spend so much of your lives there.

KAREN:  First of all, it's important to note that Larry and I were always aware that we could escape and return to the comforts of our home in Ashland, Oregon, and we did this from time to time.  If we hadn't, I fear we might not be able to write this blog today.  San Cristobal was hidden away in a remote canyon in the high desert of Bolivia.  At 14,000 feet above sea level, I initially experienced altitude sickness - headaches, nausea, weakness.  Even though we adapted somewhat to the altitude, lack of oxygen forced us to move slowly, extreme dryness parched our lips and cracked our skin on our fingers, and "el viento" (the wind) filled our lungs with dust.  These elements either robbed us of sleep or triggered nightmares.  At the same time, the uniqueness of the village excited me and I loved each new experience; well, maybe not "loved", but welcomed the adventure.

LARRY:  To tell the truth, it was quite easy as I had to be on site anyway to do my geological studies of the property.  Thus, living in the village allowed me to work with fewer interruptions.  And having Karen there to come home to at night was just wonderful.  We were, and still are, on our honeymoon.

DAB:  Was the trek to the village difficult?

KAREN:  My first trip from the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, where we'd fly in, to San Cristobal was a challenge.  I curled up in the back seat, fighting altitude sickness, but at the same time, I didn't want to miss anything.  In 1998, what Bolivians called a road was not my idea of a road.  Our Toyota bounced across endless desert for 12 hours with nothing in sight but some distant mountains - brown, no trees, no lakes, barren like the moon - and the smell of dust filling our nostrils.  Remember, I'm from the damp, green Northwest.  Larry is the desert rat.

LARRY:  Naw, not a problem.  I am used to 12 to 15 hour rides across the desert.  'Twas a bit bumpy, though, and seeing how green Karen was in the back seat did concern me a bit.  But I figured she'd survive, somehow.

DAB:  Karen, tell us about what you first noticed when seeing San Cristobal for the first time.

KAREN:  I loved the village the moment I saw it.  The old town was nestled amidst rocky hills, the browns and yellows matching the surroundings as if they had sprung up from the earth.  The adobe houses with grass-thatched roofs lined the three streets, all meeting in a central plaza where a single pipe from a distant spring delivered the town's water through a faucet.  The quaintness charmed me.  I love children and volunteered to teach English at the little school.  The teachers and students welcomed me with curiosity and delight.

DAB:  Do you have some special memories of your years in San Cristobal you'd care to share with the audience?

LARRY:  One experience stands out strongly:  my crawling three times around the cemetery with the village chief at midnight, begging the souls and spirits to forgive us for disturbing their peace, all the while stoned on coca leaf and beer.  I didn't realize it at the time, but it was a religious experience of the first order, one that set me on a course to look deeper into the Quechua ceremonies.

KAREN:  A young adolescent, whom we call Soledad in The Gift of El Tio, befriended me early on.  One day while hiking the hills, Soledad suddenly dashed away, leaping across thola brush like a swift deer, and then ever so slowly returning, her hands cupped.  When she approached us, she opened her hands to reveal a baby ostrich.  Soledad's ability to live in harmony with her surroundings as well as her resourcefulness of how to survive in this barren land amazed me.  I felt safe and cared for in her presence.

Other positive memories include moments with students in the classroom.  They received every song, every picture book (there were no books in the school), every game with enthusiasm.  We danced the hokey pokey and we played bingo endlessly.  For the first time in their lives, they received letters and photos from penpals at my school in Ashland, Oregon.  I experienced such joy from my contact with these children.  And then years later, to witness them as young adults taking advantage of educational opportunities and training that the mine brought, well, I don't want to give away what happens in our story...

DAB:  What prompted you to write "The Gift of El Tio" to chronicle the experience?

KAREN:  For me, moral obligation.  I felt that if I were married to the man who found the deposit that required a village be destroyed, I needed to know the outcome for the villagers.  Larry is an exploration geologist.  His job is to discover ore and then move on to look in other places.  I demanded that he not abandon these people, and that we not only live among the people, but also document the changes.

LARRY:  We had such unique experiences, involving blind witches, zombies, shaman, animal (and human?) sacrifices, crawling around cemeteries in the middle of the night, chewing coca till green goo slobbered down our chins, rocks that came alive to kill and maim, long evenings huddled against evil spirits and sprites and walking, living devils...well, how could you not write about such experiences?

DAB:  How have your lives changed since discovering the deposit and then living among the Quechua culture?

KAREN:  I truly feel I am a different person having lived among the people of San Cristobal.  I no longer cling to my way of seeing the world.  I've not changed my liberal values, but I can listen to my conservative husband and respect his viewpoint, sometimes I even agree with him.  I no longer sit in the comforts of our coffee house, sipping my latte and expounding on the evils of mining and development in far-off places of the world.  I recognize how complicated the issues are and how individual is each situation.

LARRY:  As I wrote in the epilogue of The Gift of El Tio, "Karen and I started out at opposite poles, two points of view looking at the world from different angles, acute against obtuse.  Karen saw injustice where I saw opportunity.  She imagined a healthy, vibrant culture, and I, only dysfunction and despair.  Our images of the world were focused by prisms cut concave and convex:  hers, I thought, rose-colored; mine, she thought, as opaque as coal.  It's funny how a shared experience can prove that neither of us was right."

DAB:  What do you miss most after leaving San Cristobal?

KAREN:  I miss the friends we made and being in San Cristobal to witness the changes that continue to affect their lives.

LARRY:  Huddled by a fire while the shaman and the village chief relate stories long into the night, listening to the cold wind whistle around the cracks and the sharp corners of the rocks.  "Are there spirits out there?" they ask with their eyes, "and are they friendly or...?"

DAB:  Do you have plans to go back to Bolivia and visit San Cristobal again?

LARRY:  Are you kidding?  You bet, any time.  There is still so much to experience.

KAREN:  Yes, we will return to San Cristobal.  Our connection has lived on through a young man, Cornelio Gonzales, who came to live with us five years ago in order to learn English.  After achieving a sufficient level of English and with the help of Larry's generous boss, Cornelio studied at our local university - quite a feat for a young man who grew up without a single book - and graduated this past June.  He will attend East Anglia University in England next year where he plans to acquire a Masters in International Development and Education.  His hopes?  To improve education in developing countries.  We hope to visit him in Bolivia when he is Minister of Education!

Once again, I want to thank Larry and Karen for visiting the blog and allowing us to be a part of their lives - even if only for a moment.  As a youngster, I'd always loved geology and archaeology - dirt and dead things, I used to say.  So when the opportunity arose to interview this fascinating couple, I jumped at the chance.  I never expected the depth of the story I found in "The Gift of El Tio" and can highly recommend this touching and heartfelt encounter they shared.  I laughed at Larry's journey on his knees around the cemetery in the icy, freezing wind.  I cried along with Karen at the heartbreaking loss of the village children (even newborn twins).  Soledad was truly an inspiration!  But you'll have to read the book to find out why. :-)  Then you can also find out the gift not only that El Tio gave to the village of San Cristobal but also the gift that Larry gave back to El Tio.

The Gift of El Tio Summary:
Larry, a world-renowned geologist, discovers an enormous deposit of silver beneath a remote Quechua village in Bolivia and unwittingly fulfills a 400-year-old prophecy that promised a life of wealth for the villagers. Karen, a specialist in child development, is deeply disturbed by the prospect of displacing the people in order to open a mine. She challenges Larry to leave the comforts of home and move to the village in order to bear witness to the massive change his discovery will spark. Thus begins the couple's life-changing, ten-year journey into the Quechua community, their evolution from outsiders to trusted friends. Then part two of the ancient prophecy is disclosed to them, and they are shocked by the truth of its predictions: alienation, despair, even cannibalism.

Author Bios:
Larry Buchanan earned his PhD in Economic Geology in 1979 and taught university-level geology for several years, but his love of the field led him to gold and silver prospecting in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In 2006, he won the coveted Thayer Lindsley Award for the San Cristobal silver discovery. Dr. Buchanan has published a dozen scientific works and is a sought-after speaker at international conferences and college campuses.

Karen Gans earned her Master s degree in Early Childhood Development and has thirty-five years of experience as an educator, counselor, and consultant. She taught English in the Quechua village while the couple lived in Bolivia. Ms. Gans and her husband have four children and two grandchildren and reside in Ashland, Oregon.

You can read more about it on their website at or to follow their Tribute Books blog tour

Price: $19.95 paperback, $5.99 ebook
Pages: 254
ISBN: 9781450739146
Publisher: Fuze Publishing
Release: December 2010

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  1. This memoir sounds fascinating. Great work on the interview! Very interesting. I'll check it out.

    1. It WAS fascinating. A wonderful read and kept me engrossed the entire time (and for full disclosure, I was so intrigued by the premise that I bought and paid for the book myself). If you have any interest in the geological experience and the human experience, this book is a definite addition to your "to be read" list. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Gordon!

  2. D A, thanks for such a in-depth interview with this fascinating couple. Well done all around :)

    1. It was thoroughly my pleasure! They are welcome anytime to visit and update the blog on their continuing adventures with El Tio. The book was so enjoyable, I didn't want it to end.