One of the Bolivian prisons…
Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
81Trip End Sep 27, 2011
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As per challenge #10, we have to visit a Bolivian prison. Since we are not crazy enough to visit San Pedro in La Paz (this would be very stupid. If you are interested, read Marching Powder by Rusty Young), we decide to visit another one: the silver mine of Potosí.
Potosí is a little beautiful colonial town in the south-west of Bolivia. In the 17th century it used to be the richest city in South America, as black and indigenous slaves were spewing blood to extract silver from a little hill on its side.
They say black slaves lasted a couple of weeks due to problems with the altitude, but they were a cheap commodity, so who cared
Accounts from that time say that more than 41,000 tonnes of silver were extracted by the slaves. Indigenous were probably not slaves in the full sense of the term, but they were so underpaid and they died so quickly that doesn't make much difference.
Now, why are we claiming challenge #10? Because that mine is still in operation today!!!
Campesinos from rural areas come to Potosí in search for work, don’t find it because they don’t speak Spanish* and have no education, so they end up working in the mines. The good reserves of silver have vanished, and the fact that there are no big mining company that operate there shows how hard it is to find minerals of value. These guys work in the mines stupid hours in terrible conditions, only chewing coca in order to find the energy and survive the dust, and most of them die within 10 years due to silicosis or accidents.
The tour is actually well done: after making you sign a full disclaimer, you first get in you "working clothes", then go to the miners’ markets, where they explain to you how to blast some rock. First, they make you try the ceibo = 96% ethylene = pure alcohol. Disgusting, but it’s an offer to Pachamama (or a way to get drunk?)
When they give me a roll of dynamite, a fuse and a bag full of some other deadly chemicals they use to increase explosiveness, I start feeling uneasy
We buy the customary “gifts” (dynamite, cigarettes, or a drink: we opt for the drink), and off we go.
We then visit the refining plant: a haphazard building where toxic fumes are overwhelming and the term OH&S has got no meaning (not even for tourists).
After “painting” a ring on our fingers with the silver dust, we finally get to the entrance of the mine.
We proceed for a few minutes into these tunnels, while the air becomes heavier and heavier, the tunnel smaller and smaller, and the floor wetter and wetter. Then they tell us to keep out of the rails because a cart is coming. And this is when a tonne heavy cart full of rocks comes out and brushes us at incredible speed with two men hanging from it (see movie). Too scary. We are outtahere. Our visit to this Bolivian “prison” ends here.
*Bolvia’s official language is Spanish, although many people speak Quechua, Aymara or Guaraní.