Mining for Silver

Trip Start Nov 02, 2011
Trip End May 31, 2012

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, February 24, 2012

After searching long and hard for a day bus North, we settled on a 9pm night bus with Expreso Diamante, due to arrive in Potosi around 6am! We waited duly but no bus arrived so we went to the counter and found our bus only had 8 passengers so we'd been "sold" to TransDelNorte leaving at 10pm – score as they’re nice buses (or so we thought)! Then the oldest bus in the World pulls up and the girl indicates to us this is our ride. Humph! We’d been sub’d to another company again! After figuring out the terminal tax, then finding our seats were double-booked, we sat anywhere and just hoped we wouldn’t need to stand. The ride was okay-ish, however in true Bolivian style we arrived 2 hours early- ouch! So we got to know the inside of Potosi bus terminal REALLY well. We spent 4 hours there J Lina and Christoffer got a 6am bus to Sucre, however we’d decided to wait and get our out-going tickets for 2 days later – weren’t we clever? Nope! The booth opened at 7am to a crowd of angry Bolivians with a cancelled bus, so another hour wait to clear them, only to be told “same-day tickets only”.

Considering the start to Potosi it should be clear how very redeeming the city is, to make up for all that hassle. So we got to Hostal del Vicuna at 9am and bless them, they let us have breakfast, a hot shower and straight into our room. We then slept for 4 hours and after went for a stroll around the city. What a beautiful place – it’s not a UNESCO WH site for nothing! The buildings in the Plaza 9 de Noviembre are amazing, the central market is the ONLY market in the World where I didn’t get bored in 2 minutes, and they had really nice Danish-like pastries (minus the fruit filling) covered in sugar and hot from the fryer. That evening we ate at Cafe 4.064, which was the closest to a night out in Bristol we’d found. Good wine, lovely food, and only 15 for us both.

Next morning I awoke with fear and trepidation as I’d signed up for the mine tour with Antonio, an ex-miner who now guides tours after his Grandfather and Father both died under 35yrs of age – that is the average for a miner, and the worst thing for them is that no-one wants to marry a miner because of this. Our group got kitted out in hardhats and willies and got in the minibus to climb to over 4,500 metres, stopping on route to pick up some mining supplies. So the miners’ shopping list: dynamite, fuses, coca leaves (for that lidocaine effect), cigarettes (to filter out the silica dust and asbestos, and also with some cannabis in to relieve the discomfort), and potable 96% alcohol as offering for the Devil and to help improve the experience. So first Antonio demonstrated that TNT can’t be ignited with a match, then we all tried coca the “correct” way, then we smoked some of a cigarette, and then blessed Pachamama with the alcohol and each drank a bit – wowzers!

Next, armed with our kits as gifts for the miners we would meet underground, we headed for a 60 yr old opening to the mine. The scariest ladder I’ve seen ever, then a mudslide on your bum and we were on level 1. All in all we went down 3 levels and up 3 levels, blessed three devil icons (for safe passage through the mine), and blew up one third of a stick of dynamite (having been shown the correct way to set it up) whilst we sat 4 mins away, that was interesting!

As crazy as all that sounds to a Westerner, the main feeling on leaving the mine was total shock that these standards are allowed, the only rulings to help the miners were a minimum age of 14 yrs, and a maximum working day of 8 hours (in two shifts of four). They have no face protection, no gloves against the asbestos, and rely solely on the Devil to keep them safe. It is said that when the Spanish came in the 1500s, until the revolution over 200 yrs later, they extracted enough silver from Potosi to build a bridge all the way back to Spain. Of course they used locals as the workforce and threatened them with the Devil if they didn’t, forcing them to stay underground and even sleep there. In the end the locals started building icons to the Devil so that they could override this threat.

- Liz
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Sarah on

Lovely place though the miners story puts you in the mind of child chimney sweeps. Hard to think that sort of thing still happens :(

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