Mines and Blockades!!

Trip Start May 12, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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koala den
la casona

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, June 16, 2008

We arrived in Potosi in the middle of the night still freezing after Uyuni and it was no warmer here!  Our hostel was freezing too but we only planned on spending one or two nights which turned into 4 not including the night we arrived  due to the miners.

The miners were blockading the city in protest as the president of Bolivia was after doubling their tax and they obviously did not agree (who would!). 

We spent our first day just roaming around the city, which was not very big and watching all the miners lazing about in the square instead of going to work.  We had planned to go on the mine tour on Tuesday (next day) but Steph unfortunately got an eye infection so we postponed it for another day so the dust would not irritate it and make it worse with the intention of getting out on the same day (not that it happened).

We went on a tour of the mint museum on our second day.  The museum is in the original building where all the coins for the Spanish colonies and Spain were made up to the end of the 1800īs (I think).  The mint only stopped making the coins for Bolivia at the start of this century and they now import them.  There was loads of the original machines and tools in the same place as they had been when the mint was working, mainly because some of them were huge and they couldnīt move them.  It was our first museum visit in South America and it was interesting.  They also had mummies of children that had been found in a Spanish colony cemetry in the city which was well freaky, sent a shiver down your spine.  They were just sitting in glass cases on display.  They also had deformed skulls on show from years ago when it was considered an important thing to deform your skull so it was more oval and pointy than round.  Who knows what people were thinking back then?!

On Wednesday we went on our trip to the mine and what an eye opener.  We got protective clothes, wellies and bandanas to wear over our nose and mouths to try reduce the amount of dust we inhaled.  Asbestos exists naturally in the mountain and you can see it in some places just hanging there.  Our first stop on the tour was at the miners market to buy presents for the miners like dynamite, coca leaves, fizzy drinks and fruit.  We then headed to the mine and our first port of call was in a mini museum thing where they had an 'El Tio' who is the devil that the miners all worship to protect them and help them find stuff.  They also had a Francis Drake one who seemingly in South America is known as one of the most famous pirates even though he is considered a Sir in England.  Our guide Juan also showed us some of the minerals in their natural form and the form they take when they are exported.  The mountain, Cerro Rico, which translates as Rich Mountain, has mineral deposits of silver, zinc, lead and tin.  It has been mined since the mid 1500s and is still going strong with over 15,000 men and boys working in a few hundred different mines in the mountain. The mine we visited was the Calenderia mine with 200 working in it, the youngest being 13, but we were told that the youngest miner in the mountain is only 10.  Most of the miners have a life expectancy of 40 due to the dust and asbestos and other nasties floating around down there. Our guide had worked there for 3 years until he fell while carrying a load of minerals on his back and hurt it.  His wife would not let him go back to work there as both their fathers were miners and both were coughing up their lungs so he luckily got a job as a guide, so he still spends a bit of time in the mines but not as much. 

The mine we were in was opened in Colonial times and you could see the stone work at the entrance and on the first level where the corridor was arched and not that low.  We then shimmied down on our bums in places to the second level which was just like a cave with various caves off it.  It was a drop of about 23 meters from the first to the second level.  We stopped here for a breather and I was contemplating not going any further if the next level was the same as the air was quite thin and the path was very dodgy, but Juan informed us that there was air pumped into the third level and it was only another 10 or 12 meters so we were happy to go on to the higher roof and oxegen.  We went down one of the dodgiest looking ladders on the way with wobbly steps and everything but it was firmly implanted in the rock so it held up. 

On the third level there were tracks for the carts that the miners use to move the minerals from where they explode them or lift them up from the lower levels (this mine only has 4 but some have up to 20) to go to the place where the bucket comes down to hoist them up to the surface.  Juan brought us to the room where the track for one group ends and their hoist is situated.  There were 2 men slogging away there shoveling the rocks (well minerals but looked like rocks) and a cart arrived in while we were there.  It was pulled by two men (like mules with ropes over their backs) and pushed by another two.  It weighs about 2 tons when it is full of the minerals.  The guys moving the cart have to drag it nearly a kilometre each way and they spend their whole day doing this. 

After this he went in to where one of the miners was working placing dynamite in the mountain to be exploded later in the day, we didnīt go in as you had to like nearly lie on your belly to crawl on stones into the chamber where he was, so we passed!!! We saw the other girl in our groups picture though which was enough!  We then made our way back up to the first level and oh my god was it tough.  Way harder than coming down.  Very hard to breath aswell and I kept having to take mini siestas on my way back up!  But we made it and the finale of the tour was Juan making up some dynamite we had bought in the miners market and blowing it up.  He lit it when it was in my hand - well scary - then took my camera and took a photo and passed the dynamite to Leen (the other girl), took a photo and then to Steph and I took the photo very quickly as it had been lighting for a while now! He then ran off and placed it a few hundred metres away and ran back and BOOM! very cool!

We stayed till the Friday we were going to stay till Saturday hoping they would drop the blockades like the weekend before but when we got up and went for a ramble Friday we learned that their protest had escalated.  They had set a fire in the square, we could see the black smoke rising and they had gone from lighting fire crackers to lighting dynamite.  The ground was almost shaking every time the blew some up.  We were also told that they were throwing dynamite into the government offices on the square and ransacking other ones.  We didnt go for a look, just believed what we heard and decided we had to get out in case it got any worse. 

The tour operator that we had done our mine tour with told us the best way to go would be to head for Sucre so thats what we did.  We got a taxi to near the first blockade, then walked through that past all the miners who were actually quite friendly, which surprised us.  They did lie though and say it was 5km to the next blockade, and we luckily got a lift in a jeep about a km in after talking to a policeman who told us it was 26km roughly. So we were very lucky to get the jeep as a girl with us told us THEN that she had walked it when she arrived! Nutter going doing it again.  Anyways, the jeep driver dropped us about 500m around the corner before the blockade as he had to be careful as they were letting the air out of tyres that came to close. This one was bigger, more miners, bit more intimidating even though they all responded to our hellos (the back of one truck was full of miners who all stood up and had a good look at us when we said hello to the ones we could see).  After the blockade there was a big line of trucks and stuff waiting to get into the city just parked up with the whole family inside!  We walked passed all these and a taxi appeared and we got a lift to Sucre.  Actually worked out fine for once, normally stuff goes wrong for us here so it was a nice change! and we got out of Potosi which we never thought would happen!
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