Down the mines in Potosi for Christmas... well, almost!
We have arrived in Potosi, to undertake the latest in the "gringo trek" of South America - the famous silver mine tour! Potosi, has at turns, been blessed and cursed by its renowned silver deposits. The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of silver in Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain, on the hill overlooking the town. These veins were so profitable that Potosi, at the staggering altitude of 4,070m, the worlds highest city (now dont confuse this with La Paz, which is the worlds highest capital!- keep up people please!) soon became the worlds wealthiest city. Millions of indigenous people and African slaves were conscripted to work the mines, and millions also died working in appalling conditions (which we saw for ourselves, more later on that!). Since the early 19th century, when silver production began to drop, the city began to have big economic problems. Nowadays the mines are still worked for silver and ore, with over 90% of the male population working in the mines because there are very few other jobs available. Miners are also very proud and sometimes it is a generational job, with fathers and sons working together, with the sons delighted to work side by side with their fathers.We were picked up for our tour at 8am by Oscar and Pedro, with Pedro being our key guide for the day! Both are ex-miners and very good at their jobs! Pedro is hilarious... first stop was to get outfitted for the tour, see for yourself, very fashion forward right! Then off to the miners market to buy gifts for the miners themselves, ranging from 96% proof alcohol and cigarettes, to coca leaves (isnt the lady lovely that i bought my coca leaves from!) and lots of soft drinks, to dynamite, yes, 100% real dynamite which anyone can buy quite easily in Potosi. You can find it in many shops, from Argentinian (the best) to Bolivian (ok) and Peruvian (absolute rubbish) apparantly, according to Pedro!
We drove up to the Candelaria mine and were taken through the "mineral cleaning" section first, where the rocks that are brought up from the mines, are crushed and flushed through a number of different machines and systems to sift out the silver and ore minerals that will make or break the miners, depending on how much or little comes out. Then it was into the mine itself. I was a little nervous, not sure quite what to expect. It wasnt the claustrophibic nature that bothered me, just the deep darkness that these men had to work in for 8-10 hrs a day in blistering heat. They dont eat anything during their shifts, just chew on the coca leaves, to get them through the day, and drink soft drinks... its incredible to think when you see how hard they work! Essentially, as part of the tour, you crawl around and up and down 3 different levels of mine shafts, where over 200 miners were currently working.. as the flyer says "this is not a touristy or modern mine" yes, that was very true!
The miners themselves were amazing, so incredibly grateful for the soft drinks and coca leaves we had brought, it was humbling as they rushed past us, pushing 2 ton trolleys of hand hammered rock to the easy job where those miners who had done their time and were a bit older, e.g. 40 yrs old, would shovel the rocks into large bags which were then lifted up and out of the mine on a mechanical hook. This was one of the few pieces of "technology" found in the mines. We as tourists, were asked if we would help out the miners by shoveling for a minute, which of course we all did willingly. I`m telling you, 5 mins doing this and you are breathing really hard, and your throat and lungs hurt.. it is such hard work, and these men bang through over 250 giant bags of rocks in a day! It is incredible. Everything feels so antiquated and old fashioned, everything is done by hand and as the guide book says " a visit to the cooperative mines is demanding, shocking, and memorable".
There is a museum within the mine itself, that explains some of the history of mining in Bolivia, the life the miners have, the fact that whenever they have tried to band together as unions for better wages or conditions, they have been shot (yes shot and killed!) even up to the 1980`s this was happening! There is also a statue to the god, Tio, who the miners give thanks and gifts to, in the hope he will keep them safe in the mines. One quite telling comment was about whether Cerro Rico had been a blessing or a curse for Potosi, as the people of the city have never been the ones to benefit from the amazing riches of the mountain; legend has it that if you laid out all the silver brought out of the mines to date, it would be enought to build a bridge of silver from Potosi to Spain and back again. A more chilling note is that legend also says you could build two bridges of bones from the 8 million people who have died over the centuries working in the mines in Bolivia, and especially in Potosi!
Post mine tour, and after Simon, one of the boys on the tour, got to blow up his own bit of dynamite (quite a bang, i have to say!), please check out Pedro being an idiot, showing us gringos how to put the fuse part into the dynamite.. it was back to the hostel for a badly needed shower (we were so filthy!), and then out for a walk about.
That night, we went to the plaza to meet up with Pedro and Orlando (well, i cant remember his name unfortunately so i think that was it!). They had asked the group if we all wanted to go out that night but everyone was leaving Potosi that afternoon except us, so of course we said, sure, why not! We met the boys at 8pm and they duly explained they had been invited to a party and would we like to come! Now i know all the guide books say be very careful about situations like this, but a) we were both together and b) we had spent the day with these guys and they were quite lovely so felt safe.. So we jump in a taxi and arrive at the party... only to find that it hadnt even opened yet and was still padlocked up .. hmmn good start to the evening!!
So we potter around trying to find a bar, which we do duly come across.. hmnn it was a strange place, that looked like it hadnt been touched for about 50 years, but we sat and chatted for a while and downed the local Potosi cerveza!! Then it was off to the party, which turned out to be Oscar`s (another miner guide from earlier in the day!) graduation party from the local tourism school (alot of the miners work all day in the mines, then go to night school to try and learn alternate trades, tourism being a big one!) When we arrived and walked in, it was a bit like that scene from American Werewolf where everyone turns round and stares at you....you could feel everyone thinking "why are these gringos here"??? All the chairs were against the walls, the people attending sitting in their little family groups. Think school disco with older people! And lots and lots of Sprite bottles on the tables. Now as there was no bar, we thought this might be a non-alcoholic party, but no, the soft drinks were actually 96% alcohol with a little Sprite mixed in! So we popped out and picked up a few bottles of cerveza ourselves and then the party really started!
An interesting fact about Bolivian "bailar" (dancing). They for some reason, all dance in one line, men on one side, women on the other. When we asked the guys why this was, they just said, "thats just the way we do things". So Dominique and I decided we couldnt handle the line, and broke out of it with our respective partners, crazy right! There was a moment or two of "hmmmmn what are these gringos up to" then we managed to persuade a few others to join us in non-line dancing, from two lovely ladies in traditional dress to a few of Oscar`s graduating class mates and their partners! After that, we were the darlings of the evening, with boys vying to dance with us, ladies shouting "muy bailar, muy bailar", and giggling when we dragged them up to join in, it was amazing. We shared our beer, they shared their shots of god knows what proof alcohol but it would def put hairs on your chest... then we all danced in a circle, with everyone taking a shot in the middle. The indigenous ladies were shy at first then they were going at it full blast, making everyone put their felt hats on, when it was their turn to dance... one strange thing, there are a number of traditional dances in Bolivia. The most trad. would be the "cumbya" which i would call the shuffle. It is officially the most boring dance on earth, and i dont know why people bother dancing to it cos they seem so bored. Then there is the folk dancing, similar to that of Chile, called the "cueca" where you fling a hanky around as you dance with your partner (I kept being silly and pretending to blow my nose with mine,,, yes i know very classy!). We finished the evening off around 5am! What a great night, we were all exhausted as we had danced non-stop, but had made a bunch of new friends, met some of our miner friends families and made men who never dance, dance with us, and basically had yet another great experience with the warm and friendly folks of Bolivia! A brilliant night!
Christmas itself was a low key affair.. we had a great night out on Christmas Eve with two new friends, Anna from Sweden and Anna from Switzerland. I had llama for the first time and it was QUITE delicious i have to say! But Christmas Day was like any other day in Potosi it seemed, the shops and stalls were all open, people were going about their usual business, the only thing different i noticed were people everywhere carrying these big cakes all over the city.. must be a traditional thing! We had gone to the Red Cross Christmas morning (Anna from Sweden works for them in Sweden!) to help give out food to the poor, there were many people there, mainly the indigenous folks who originally had lived in the countryside... it was organized by the Red Cross youth, so quite impressive of them....
So onwards to Salar de Uyuni and the biggest salt flats in the world for our next exciting adventure! Feliz Navidad!