Potosi, Bolivia

Trip Start Feb 03, 2006
Trip End May 09, 2006

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Tuesday, April 4, 2006

April 3
Highest town in the world, 4070 meters, 13,350 feet.
First, the trip from Uyuni to Potosi. It was a 6 ride on a regional Bolivian bus, through the mountains, on a major roadway. Major roadway for Bolivia, which means unpaved, washboard bone-jarring, driving at full speed on winding hairpin turns, just wide enough for one vehicle, and fording several waterways. Going across one muddy wet gully, the bus stopped, and we were stuck for a while. A couple of helpers got out into the mud, and somehow they were able to rock the bus back and forth so that it could reverse and then start up again. Spinning tires, we made it to the other side. At another spot along the road the engine just stopped, and we began moving backwards down the steep road. A help hopped out, found some large rocks and through them behind the rear tires before we rolled down into the ravine. Turns out the parking brake did not work, oh, and the engine quit working because we ran out of gas. They had additional petrol in a tank on the roof, so they had to use that to get us moving again. In their defense, I did not see many gas stations along the road...in fact, I don't think I saw much of anything. A couple of small villages, lots of llamas, and mountains. We were grateful to get into Potosi about 4pm in the afternoon, when the group of us exchanged notes about the journey...

Apr 4
Woke up to beautiful blues skies, and then to news that all transportation workers in Bolivia were on strike. So our plans to going out into the country side today are cancelled. We were stranded in Potosi. I hope it is over tomorrow, because we are scheduled to go to Sucre for 3 nights, considered the most beautiful town in Bolivia.

Instead we basically just hung out in town today. This is a pretty small town, or at least the downtown area is. It is not the worst town I've been in, but it is far from the nicest. This was once a booming city, several hundred years ago, with huge deposits of silver found in the nearby hills. The town was formed for that reason. And for some time this location was one of the wealthiest in South America, but once all the easy deposits of silver were pulled out, so went the town's fortune. For about 300 years, the mint here made all the coins for Spain, but that ended some time ago as well. Now, Spain makes coins for Bolivia. Now the mint is just a museum, which is pretty good. The mine is still operating, and appears to be the biggest employer.

Apr 5 Potosi
The transportation strike is over, and we can now travel again. First off, a visit to the Potosi silver mine. The group of us were given helmets, lamps and vinyl pants and jackets (that will not be winning any fashion prizes). We also were to stop at a store at the mine to buy gifts for the miners we were going to meet. These gifts were dynamite, cigarettes, crackers and coco leaves. They have to buy their own dynamite in the mine, and they are paid so poorly, they often work without it, just breaking the rock with their hammers and picks. They chew on the coco leaves to help them with their breathing, it helps them to filter the dust and other particulates. The miners start their careers at age 12, as helpers for brothers or fathers. They just assist, they get no wages of their own. We met some 12 year olds in the mine, unbelievable. An old age for a mine worker is about late 30's early 40's. It is a dangerous job, and very hard on the body. We were allows into the mine, right along with the miners, and saw them at their work, and even had had dynamite going off around us. I got to use a sledge hammer and an iron rod, to make a shaft to place dynamite in. The miners were very grateful for the gifts we brought them. A very productive miner can make up to $400 a month in the mines, but the average is about $250, which is still a higher than average wage for a Bolivian. We spent a few hours in the mine, there was no light other than what we brought in. At times we could walk, at other times we could walk bent over, and sometimes we had to crawl on all fours. At one point, I was climbing up a shaft, the last in our group to come up. I grabbed on to what I thought was a rock for support. It turned out to be just mud, which broke off in my hand, and I fell down 3 or 4 meters to the bottom of the shaft. No harm, since the rocks broke my fall.... Seeing my limited abilities, a miner reached out his hand, and literally lifted me out of the shaft. He was smaller than I was, these guys are strong. I could not even lift the bag of rocks and minerals that they have to climb out with. Their wages are determined solely on what they deliver. This is a hard life, incredibly dangerous, with minimal if any safety measures that I could see.

About mid-day we made our way through mountains, about 3 hours to Sucre. These roads were paved, and the trip felt so much safer.
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