Thursday, September 27, 2012

Potosi - Will We Ever Be Able to Leave??

Hello again from Potosi. Since we last communicated with the outside world, we have had quite the adventure. On Tuesday we were a bit tired and sore from our little walk the day before, so we decided to walk around town a little bit and check out the Casa de La Moneda. This is a musuem that was the original mint for Bolivia, it also houses some of the treasures and interesting machines that made there way to Potosi while this town was at its height of glory. Since silver was discovered in the sixteenth century, this city acquired great riches, much of which was taken back to Spain, but it still maintains a sense of its prior glory.

In the musuem there are some of the original machines used to flatten the silver and then pound the coins into their appropriate shape.

Originally the coins were not round, they were just whatever shape the silver happened to form into, and people started to cut off the edges of the coins to use the silver for other things. There are machines that were pulled by donkeys to make the silver flat enough to be used for coins, as well as various stencils used to mark the coins as the final step in the coin production process.

Also, the musuem has some interesting relics from the wars that Bolivia has lost.

There is also a large hall with a variety of ores, rocks, stones, minerals, etc from all around Bolivia and the world, literally thousands of samples.

They have a collection of mummies and some other items found around Potosi.

In all, it was interesting to see some of the original machines, the tour itself could use a little work, although that may have been our fault. Tours are offered in English, French and Spanish, depending on demand. We opted for an English tour, however it would appear that either the English speaking guide was much less informed than the Spanish guide, or she just didn´t want to put in the effort to give the entire explanation. If we were to do it again, we would opt for the Spanish tour.
Yesterday, we took our tour of the Cerro Rico mines. Not to worry, despite engineers saying it´s going to cave in, we were fine. The tour starts out with a trip to the miners market. Basically there is an area of Potosi with a bunch of little shops selling items miners would need, everything from beer to dynamite, headlamps to shovels. Additionally, there are no restrictions as far as who can buy what, so if a 10 year old wants to buy a stick of dynamite and a fuse, and can come up with about two dollars, expect some explosions.

Here we bought some gifts for the miners. Then we go to another small market where we buy coca leaves for the miners. Again, for less than a dollar, one can acquire a large back of coca leaves, no age restriction whatsoever. Our guide did not let us buy dinamite for us to set off as apparently there have been accidents involving tourists in the past and it is frowned upon by the authorities(who obviously regulate the the sale of dinamite...). Then we head up to the mine.

Keep in mind that Potosi is more than 4000 meters above sea level, so the air is pretty thin, as we enter the mine, it starts to get warm, and in many places there is no ventilation. The miners start at about nine or ten in the morning and often work for 10 hours or more each day. They work as a part of a cooperative, and have to pay a 15% levy to the cooperative, the cooperative is then responsible for paying government taxes, and provides some basic accomodations outside of the mines for the miners. We started on the first level of the mine, and as we descended into the bowels of Cerro Rico, it started to get really hot and humid. The temperature easily climbed above 100 degrees and it was so humid that pictures were coming out foggy from the moisture on the lense. I had quite a lot of trouble getting through the second and third level as the shafts were very narrow, at times I was on my hands and knees, and even slithering along on my belly just to make it through.

The shafts are held up with wooden supports, however many of these are broken, and often not replaced. Eventually we got to the fourth level, and chatted with some miners. These miners were working in much the same way that miners have worked for hundreds of years, hammers, chisels, and a giant ball of coca in their cheek. They don´t eat while they work because if they consume the dust in the air, it can cause illness. As it is, there is a great deal of sulfur dust in the air as well as other chemicals, including lead and cyanide. The dust did not make it any easier to breath, especially in combination with the altitude and heat. Some of the miners work in small teams, and we watched a team push a wagon with about two tons of ore in it. However, eventually all that ore will be carried out on their backs as the shafts get too small for the wagon to make it all the way. The life expectancy for miners is much lower than the average Bolivian, 45-55 years, mainly from inhaling the poisonous dust. However, because they can basically earn as much as they can mine, many of them earn much more than they would otherwise. The average Bolivian makes about 1000 Bolivianos a month ($145) and the miners can earn up to 5000 Bolivianos per month. Many of the miners we met started when they were teenagers to help support their family. In retrospect, this tour was extremely physically demanding, I am still quite sore the next day, and amazed that these miners can do this every day and carry out hundreds of pounds of ore on their backs over and over again.

Today we decided to rest up after our mine tour, and originally we planned to head down to the bus station so that we could buy tickets to Uyuni. As we were walking down to the station, we realized that we were walking in the middle of the street and there were no vehicles in sight. We realized that we have hit another protest of some sort. As we got closer to the bus station, we saw a lot of banners and talked to a shopkeeper only to find out that a workers´ union of sorts is protesting at least for today and tomorrow. She thought we might still be able to get bus tickets, but wasn´t sure, so we kept on walking. When we got to the station, it was definitely closed, no buses, no offices, we couldn´t even get into the gate since it was padlocked. Needless to say, it looks like we will be here a bit longer. In the meantime, we will probably watch a dubbed version of Finding Nemo in 3D. In other news, we discovered an awesome cheeseburger stand just down the street from our hotel. For a mere five Bolivianos one can get a cheeseburger with all the fixings as well as french fries. Hopefully the quesoburgero is not one of the striking workers!

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