The Spinning City

Trip Start Apr 23, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting off the bus in Potosi, the highest city in the world, I was pleasantly surprised by how warm it was: I was told it would be sub zero, and here's me walking about in a t-shirt... must be cos I'm from Scotland, eh? I shared a taxi to the hostel with a French guy called Seb, having already agreed to meet Katie there later. Checking in after some difficulty, ie the woman at reception was a bitch, I went out in search of a desperately needed egg roll.

It never ceases to surprise me when my Spanish is good enough to ask for things and I found myself asking strangers "Donde esta el restaurante para solo huevo con pan?" and them being able to understand and give me directions. Nevertheless, it still took a good hour to find the place: an underground market, full of locals. It's always a bit daunting eating alone in these places, seriously the locals look at you like you're some sort of alien, but if the budget calls for it...

Katie arrived later that evening and after sorting her out with an egg roll we proceeded to become hermits - turns out Potosi is that cold. Unable to move in bed for fear of getting a draft, bundled up in all our clothes we tried to get some sleep for the next day when we'd be doing a tour of the mines.

Lonely Planet's advice to travelers visiting the mines: DO SO AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Alongside that, our guide seemed like she couldn't stress enough how "scary, dark and noisy" the  mines were... Comforting. In colonial times Potosi had the largest deposits of silver in the world, that was until the Spanish took it all - there's a saying that if the Spanish laid out all the silver they had mined, they would be able to build a bridge back to Spain and still have spare. After getting kitted out in the miners gear we had to buy presents for the miners: 96% alcohol; dynamite; and cigarettes. Would'nae want to get the dynamite and fags mixed up in the dark...

At the entrance of the mine - a tiny hole in the side of the mountain - our guide explained to us that every year on the birthday of Pachamama (mother earth) the miners sacrifice llamas and that was what the black stains were on the wooden panels supporting the entrance: blood. All the while she was talking there were miners practically running down the entrance, when it came our turn we were faced by a vertical slope with an iffy looking ladder perched against it to help us down into the darkness. About half an hour into the tour I was on the verge of tears: we had been scrambling around on our hands and knees, breathing in the most foul tasting dust, hearing explosions and going from boiling hot to freezing cold in a matter of seconds. These men had to work up to twelve hour shifts six days a week in these horrendous conditions and I wanted out after a few minutes! They say that after you start working in the mines, most men starting at age sixteen, your life expectancy is only another fifteen - that's how bad it is.

On one of the lower levels in the mines we were shown a statue of Tio, another god the miners worship and the husband of Pachamama. Everyday the miners come to this special place to give offerings of coca leave, cigarette and alcohol to him to bring good fortune with their finds. He was a funny looking guy: bright red, horned and a massive penis. Apparently the penis was so he could impregnate Pachamama with minerals and rocks for the miners to find and make money from.

When I saw the light at the end of the tour I ran up that ladder: it was amazing to be breathing fresh air again and I was so thankful that neither me nor any of my family were in a position that forced us to work in such a horrendous place.

After the mines me and Katie went hunting for some cheap scran, we always seemed to be ten times more hungry when we sat down to our food, probably because we would spend at least an hour trailing around looking for somewhere budget appropriate. Then we found it. This amazing little restaurant that offered a four course menu for fifteen Bolivianos, one pound fifty. Of course we didn't expect much in the taste department but were shocked when the food turned out to be delicious. I might even say it was the nicest food I have eaten in South America: a salad to start, followed by a soup and then a choice of mains - I opted for the vegetable tortilla - and Jelly for pudding. Stuffed does not even cover it...

Trying to get back to the hostel was a nightmare: every time we looked at the map we seemed to have been transported magically to a completely different corner. It was like the city was spinning as you walked through it! After about two hours of trying to find it we eventually gave up and hailed a taxi to take us back, still not recognizing anything.

The next day we went to the market so I could buy a pair of gloves to stop my fingers falling off in the night and after returning to our restaurant we tried to find our way back again to no avail... This time it took us an hour and a half to find the bloody hostel that was only supposed to be five blocks away from where we were. That night Katie left to go to Tupiza, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed - her favourite movie and a dream of hers to horse ride through the movie scene, I stayed in Potosi for another night, freezing my ass off, before heading to Uyuni for the salt flats.
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