Hello from what will be my last blog update for 4-5 days. In a couple of days we set off on a 3 day 4 by 4 tour of the world's largest salt flats and the world's driest desert, and they'll certainly be no internet there! We've also been told it will get really really cold at night, but the Salar de Uyuni is one of the things I've most been looking forward to the whole trip.
At the moment I'm in Potosi, which at 13,500ft (4100m) is the highest city in the world of its size (population 130,000). It was just a short 3 hour drive here past many dry river beds and lavender trees in a nice private bus. We spent the late afternoon wandering round but there is not an awful lot here other than a few narrow alleys and the customary central plaza. The main draw for tourists is to take a tour of the mines located just up the mountainside from the city centre, which is exactly what we did this morning. Potosi is Bolivia's mining centre, producing silver, zinc and lead from a total of 5,000 mines in the near vicinity. The government run the mines but the conditions are appalling with an accident every day and 3 fatalities every month. Children as young as 12 are commonplace working as runners down the mines, though we didn't see any on our tourist route.
Having been fully kitted out in mine proof clothing and wellies the group voted to go down the bigger mine of the 2 we were offered. The smaller mine offered abseiling ropes and dynamite explosions but was also incredibly dusty and low roofed, and we didn't fancy that with many people still suffering from colds! It was a wise decision I feel since I could still only fully stand up on about 50% of our 1km 1.5 hour tour route, and it was plenty dusty enough anyway. The mine was very narrow and very wet and we kept having to move out of the way for passing wagon trucks. The men working there all looked old beyond their years and many had lung and skin ailments. They work 12-16 hours a day, 6 days a week. Its a truly horrific job. We had a clamber up a makeshift ladder, and a small scramble through a narrow passage to see some miners at work, maunually chiselling a spot for dynamite in the rock. It was going to take this bloke 2-3 hours as he couldn't afford the $20 per hour hire of an electric drill. I had a go and it was really hard work, particuarly as there was so little oxygen down there.
We had a group photo by the devil statue near the entrance on the way out. The miners touch its penis on the way in as they believe it brings good luck! They have all kinds of weird superstitutions involving drinking disgusting pure alcohol (I tried a shot of the 96% stuff) and other stuff which they believe appeases pacha mama or mother earth. All the people round this area share similar superstitions. Having exited the mine we were driven a bit further up the hill for a dynamite demonstration, which wasn't as spectacular as it sounds. They simply blew one stick up some way away from us but I managed to get a fairly decent photo despite being made to jump when it went off. Incidentally in a previous blog (La Paz) I mentioned a loud explosion shaking the buildings across the city. I have since found out it was protesting miners from Potosi detonating a shedload of dynamite in the street as part of a protest to the government.
After the mine tour we were dropped off for lunch at the worst restaurant we've visited yet. My steak looked like road kill that had been savaged by a hawk and whats worse it took 1.5 hours to come. So that and a visit to a milkshake shop have wasted away my afternoon. Uyuni tomorrow, my next update will be from Chile!