We're back in Oruro now, where we went to Carnaval a couple of weeks ago. We're leaving on a bus to Iquique, Chile in an hour, about a ten hour ride to the coastline that Bolivia lost to the Chileans in the late 1800's.
Our last couple of weeks have been spent in southern Bolivia in the towns of Sucre and Potosí, the majority in Sucre.Sucre is a nice old colonial town with all the old Spanish architecture and white stucco buildings. As I mentioned the judicial capital for Bolivia and they continue to lobby for becoming the main capital for the country. I can't see why as it really is just a small town, relaxed and beautiful, however lacking the resources of La Paz. Cuenca in Ecuador would have more of a chance wresting power than Sucre does from the much larger and busier La Paz.
Our time in Sucre was much enjoyed with a week full of sunshine and relaxation at a laid back hostal owned by a Swiss-French couple. Having a kitchen to cook in was a welcomed amenity for we were quite sick of eating out. We cooked for a week straight taking turns with the other guests there.We didn't do much in Sucre other than lounge around the Hostal and read, cook, and I went on one mountain biking excursion. As I menitoned we were blessed with plentiful sunshine which was a nice respite from our prior weeks of rain.
We left Sucre behind three days ago to the mining town of Potosí. Upon pulling into town the existence of the place makes itself immediately apparent. The denuded mountain of Cerro Rico bares itself, looming over the town, with it's multi-colored strata from being raped of it's minerals for over 450 years. The color scheme was remenicent of the colors in the Grand Canyon on the naked slopes of the "Rich Mountain".We were in Potosí for one reason and that mountain was it.
It was a difficult decision to make on whether we wanted to take a tour of the mines or not. Being a tourist is mostly a voyeristic experience, however there are some choices you can make to not be as intrusive. In the end we decided to go based on other travellers reports of the tour. I also felt that it might help the memories of this trip keep from fading too quickly as I'm sure they will with enough time back at life in the "first world".
I was definitely right about the memories not fading too quickly...I don't beleive I'll forget the mine for eternity.It is quite a clown show when 24 tourists get together to go on such a tour, all dressed up in their "protective" clothing and helmets. First stopping by some of the supply shops to purchase "gifts" for the miners on your visit. "The miners like to have tourists visit, they like sharing the job they have pride in and getting gifts...", we were told.
No matter what they said, in the end, it is quite obviously a bribe to make our intrusion to their dark world more tolerable. That said, I never really felt all out resentment of our presence.Within 15 minutes of entering the mine, my lungs burned like someone set them on fire. My bandana did very little to keep the airborne minerals and dust from cutting away at them and stealing space for precious oxygen. Throughout the entire time down in the depths of the mountain coughing and sneezing was a regular occurance.
We first started with a "museum" that had literature on some history of the mines and also housed the miners shrine of "Tio". Tio, which means uncle in Spanish, is the miners god to pray to when inside the mountain. Many are polytheistic here in Bolivia including the miners.They believe that when entering the mines they are going closer to the "Devil" and should be asking for his help not "Gods" as they are fooling around in his realm at that point. They never say the word "Devil" so they use the euphamism of "Tio". Every Friday they give offerings to him for good luck and prosperity, offering such things as Coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. After the day is done every Friday and the offerings have been made they take their "potable alcohol" (96%) and get completely smashed, which concludes their week. However, it is common to work 6 day weeks, about 8-10 and sometimes 12 hour days.
The mines are now cooperatively owned so shifts are shared in different parts of the mines as well as schedule decided on their own. Obviously, the less you work the less you earn though.When wages were discussed with us they were mentioned as if the opportunity was one of luck.The wages are similar for everyone except the "bosses", whom earn that title only after working 25-30 years in the mines.The common attainable wage for the common miner is about 40-50 Bolivianos a day (somewhere around $6.50 US).
Again, that was touted as a great opportunity over some of the street kids that can only earn about 15-20 Bolivianos a day.This is why you can find some as young as 10 working in the mines. Although that is technically illegal, there are no controls to see against it.There were 8 total levels in the mine we entered and we only went to the 3rd. Temperatures can range from below freezing to nearly 45 degrees Celcius.
Upon crawling down to the third levels I could feel this temperature flux and breathing became clostraphobic. The air is already thin at Potosí's 4060m elevation, let alone going deep into a mountain where you compete with the dust for oxygen. Although some miners have nicer masks, many where nothing.A nice mask costs around 200 Bs., so when you also need to buy your own dynamite and supplies (remember the mines are cooperatively owned) a mask may be lower on the priority list.
All and all the experience was unforgettable to say the least, but only in the worst way possible. By the end we were ready to get the hell out of that mountian. Was never so glad to get fresh air in my life. This lifestyle isn't a necessity, only a choice...for the opportunity for more money. Most of the miners are really farmers by trade and only do it for the money.
The exploitation of this mountians silver has lasted over 450 years and claimed an estimated 8 million lives in it's cruel history, mostly African slaves and Indigenous Bolivians. All this so that Spaincould enrich it's empire until the global markets of our time got ahold of the riches. An estimated 18 million tons of silver has been extracted, enough to supposedly build a bridge to Spain. Also, supposedly there can be another one built to match with the bones of the dead.
All that continues with supposed "improved conditions" so that we can wear our silver bands and have contacts on our circuit boards in the very computer that I'm typing on. The riches still aren't held by the Bolivians and now are reaped by international corporations as Bolivia doesn't have the money to have smelting factories. So the raw materials are mainly sent over seas to China and Europe.