Highest City on Earth

Trip Start Nov 13, 2010
Trip End Jul 20, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hostal Carlos V

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Potosi - highest city on earth ( around 14,500 feet), was once the richest city in the universe all because of one mountain - a mountain of silver.  To learn all about it,  try and download or find the German documentary called the Devil's Mine.  It is the story, made 5 years ago, of 14 year old Basilla and his 10 year old brother who live on the mountain at the mine.  Basilla has worked in the mine for 4 years and his little brother is just starting.  Their mother is a widow and the kids must work to support the family - they live at the opening of one of the shafts and the mom works as a security person, guarding the tools of the miners at night.

Potosi is pretty poor now and has been for a couple of centuries - the Spanish built a railroad from Potosi to Cuzco to transport the millions of tons of silver to build the churches in Peru.  The cathedral in Cuzco,  with its solid silver alters,  is thanks to some of the 8 million - yes  8 million who have died on the mountain and in Potosi since the 1600's. Many in mining disasters and many from the poisons used to leech the silver from the stone.  They still have the old mills in the town where the water and the mercury used to wash over the silver and then seap into the groundwater.  I am sure the place is still contaminated throughout the region. 

I only had a full day and a half in this town as I was booked for a onward adventure.......I loved the place - it is scrappy, energetic and really easy to just be.  I took the afternoon mine tour......wow - this is Bolivia where safety and regulations have not yet emerged and my three other mining friends - one from the Slovak, one Swede and one Irish joined Helen, our guide and into the mine we went.   Ahhhh.....it was not my first mine tour but.......OMG.......there are still 15,000 people working in over 300 cooperatives on this mountain, including many many children.  Since the documentary, five years ago - which won world wide acclaim at film fests world wide, the government is trying to dissuade child labor.  But, this is Bolivia and it is one of the poorest countries in the world and everybody has to work......even if you are only 10 because - no uniform, no school.  Even the richer kids only get 4 hours of public education per day.....parents must pay for private school for any more hours.....life is hard here - very hard.

Anyhow, we donned our gear and I fully expected a tour, tour.  Nope - Helen made us buy some gifts for the miners - Orange Fanta and coca leaves and we thought that was kind of a ripoff as we had paid for the tour.....but......into the shaft - really cold for about half kilometer through the exact same tunnels built in the 1600's ( by African slaves)....nothing has changed except for some air tubes.....same tunnels, same rails, same carts and right away we figured out why the gifts - this is a fully working cooperative - meaning the workers own the mine and share the profits....ya sure.... we travel led along the rail route and basically were in the way and had to continually jump out of the way...mere inches as the multi ton carts were being pushed - yup pushed and pulled with ropes by 4 to 6 guys.    No mechanical help here, no safety for them or us - just barreling fast carts - if there was an incline to grunting and pulling carts as they hauled the tonnage of rock outside to pits for the rocks to be sorted by the 500 women who work there.  Brutal - we were in there, sometimes having to crawl where it was low and Helen would scream and we would have to press ourselves against the rock so our toes were not cut off on the rails.  We slogged through the wet and the cold until we hit the heat and then continued through the dark and wet and damp.  They said they were not dynamiting until we heard the explosions and an old guy passed us running out calling - 'Explosion"  ' Explosion"  The four of us had had enough - the gifts were basically for the guys to put up with the added hassle and danger to them of having even more people in the shaft.  And they were all over us for the gifts - nice but demanding - they mix the fanta with 98 per cent proof alcohol and down it - when the quarts of alcohol were opened,  it was just like paint thinner hitting you - these guys stay drunk down in the mine and chew the coca for energy and to stave off hunger.  The gifts encourage them to let Helen do her tours.  Win - win. (I think)

The silver is mostly gone so the quality of the minerals they are extracting is low but still many people want these jobs - average lifespan is 50 or 40 for the severe alcoholics......and the back breaking work......ahhhh.....so horrible.

I had seen the movie the day before in Sucre and Helen told me she was in the same tourism class with Basilla - he is in college now, he is 20, not working the mines - the film was not allowed for the first few years in Bolivia but a letter writing campaign by the world to the president influenced the management about the use of children and people in Potosi found out about Basilla and his family and that they were film stars.  Helen said Basilla's wrists are destroyed from pushing the tonnage every day before his bones had fully developed.  The mines, all 300 of them operate 24 hours a day - miners have to buy their own equipment - no rules and we saw dumping of full carts on the toes of guys - just rubber boots - lots of water in the shafts.  They do not use animals or machines because everybody needs the jobs and it would decrease the number of workers.   

The mines were owned by the previous government - corrupt president and he took all the profits and when they were basically bereft - he turned them back to the workers after a bit of a revolution.  Bolivia is historical for revolutions - problem is they have lost most of everything over the years to bigger and more powerful neighbors of Chile and Peru and Paraguay. 

The mine experience was profound - there is very little fairness around the world. Some scrape out a life hour by hour. As I am everyday - I am grateful for the luck of being born into an incredible country - one universally envied. 

 Bolivia is so cheap - a meal - menu of the day, with appetizer, soup, entree (usually alpaca steak or chops), dessert and drink - $2.....my hotel - basic room, right downtown with wifi and full breakfast - $6.00 rack rate - before discount!!!! 

Potosi may not be pretty but it certainly had charm.
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