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Friday, July 24, 2009

Potosi - Or, A return ticket to Hell....

Potosi was once the richest city in the world. It was from these mines than Spain built its empire, exploring the silver from Cerro Rico. But it was not only the mountain that the spanish explored. The Quetchua people, who inhabit the region,and many others were used and abused to explore the mines. The mountain, Cerro Rico, is today an intruiquite mixture of tunnels which are in risk of collapsing after over 500 years of exploration. But Potosi is not only mines. The money that came from the mines, was used to build a number of Churches around the city, that still shows a lot of colonial architecture. It is located at around 4600 m above sea level, making it impossible to walk fast... The setting around the city is amazing. But the mines was the main reason for my visit to Potosi...

I arrived in Potosi, mid afternoon and after wandering around the city trying to find a place to stay I arrived to a hostel at the same time as a german guy. We ended up sharing a room just to try and save some money. After dropping our backpacks we went to town, got a cup of coffee, and introduced each other :) The funny thing about backpacking is that names are not important. As long as people share the same objective, experiences can be shared and you'll just remember the person for what you shared with him or her and probably remember the nationality and not much more. After the coffee we decided to book our trip to the mines for the next day. We decided to do it with the most expensive agency, mostly because they had an extra guide in each group that helps anyone who feels bad to go back and get out of the mine. Knowing what I was about to face, I felt that it was good to invest two extra euros and feel that I was somewhat "safer"

The mines (short summary of the four pages I wrote in my diary after the visit...)

Small, hot, cold, unbreathable, dusty, tiny galleries, safety measures... a mirage... After hearing so much about the mines from Nicoles and other people I met on this trip I felt obliged to visit the mines in Potosi. I could have done as some people that, whether because they are claustrofobic, or because they just didn't feel they could stand watching this in loco just decided to watch the movie "The Devil's Miner", which tells the story of a 14-year old miner... Hearing about it or watching a movie about it is not enough for me... So I decided that I had to go there. And it was a terryfing experience... Many start working in the mines when they are only 12 years old. They work 10 hours per day, from dawn till dusk, crawling through small holes, breathing their own death. The particles in the air are responsible for lung silicosis, which gives these miners a life expectancy of 35! Watching those dark, wrinckled faces, carrying an empty look, that are capable of smiling only when we offer them some coca leaves, cigarrettes, drinks or dinamite, or sometimes, when we tell a joke, was depressing. I feel hopeless, there's nothing I can do appart from offering them those small things that keep them alive, and at the same time working and dying... We went down to the fourth level of the mine, over 50 m. On the way back I have to stop several times. I feel breathless, I'm sweatting a lot, I can hardly breath... I feel like running the hell out of there but, that's not possible. The climb is steap, too steap... I have to crawl for 15 min to reach the first level. I'm lucky I'm the first in the line, otherwise I would have to "eat" the others dust. I admire these men and women and I feel sad for them. They don't see any other opportunities in their lives and that's why they keep working in the mines, hoping the Tio will show them where to find the silver.

I did the tour with the spanish speaking group. After 1 month in South America I can understand most of what people say and I am starting to speak Spanish. My group is formed by some "older" people, that are as impressed as me. In the end we are given the opportunity to blast some dinamite. We prefer offering our dinamite to the miners. Some kids from the other groups are holding the litten dinamite bars while taking pictures... (later in the trip while speaking to other kids I realized that their main purpose in visiting the mines was having the chance to blast some dinamite...)

These men and women that I saw working should be offered the title of national heroes. No one should be allowed to work in such conditions in the 21st century. These working conditions are probably the same they had in 15th century when the Spanish arrived and enslaved the natives to work in the mines. Once they were slaves of the Spanish. Slavery was abolished, but now they are still slaves of the mountain. In a poor country like Bolivia is (stupidly poor, given the amount of natural resources they have) they make the economy work, extracting silver and other minerals from the mountains so that we can wear it around our necks or hang it from ears, belly buttons or just decorate our homes. And what do they gain from this? In most cases, a premature awful death, broken dreams... They organize themselves in groups of 10, most of the times they are brought together by family laces. So, if an accident happens... you know what i mean! They choose the place to dig based on their knowledge and on luck. They worship the devil - Tio - offering him everything, from cigarretes, coca leaves, alcool, condoms, to lama sacrifices. Many swear they have met the Tio in the mine before...

I only watched manual work in this visit. They use some machines to dig the mountain, but most of the work is made by hand, with their own sweat.

These are big men and woman. I feel small next to them. Sadly, this is one of the marking moments of my trip. I'll now come back to my pink world, eating in nice restaurants while they continue chewing coca leaves for breakfast, lunch and tea... Spending my afternoons in a terrace by the ocean while they have the darkness surrounding them. These are Quetchuas, exploited for centuries by different empires. These are heroes. What will be of them when the minerals are finished? I asked the guide. Emmigration, is his answer. I ask nothing else and just rush out of there.

I feel like I took a 2 hours return trip to hell. Potosi, once the richest city in the world, financed the rise of an empire, is still there, in the Andes, a mountain filled with holes that offer hope and death at the same time, a prison where many decide to encarcerate their lives.

The rest of Potosi

I spent the rest of my time in Potosi, wandering around the town, watching the beautiful façades from churches and enjoying my time with the Swiss and French that went to the mines with me. The dinner was really funny and wine just kept us talking and laughing until they asked us to leave the restaurant. A funny evening after an impressing experience. Back to my pink world, I guess...

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