Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Potosi and the chain gang

After a few days in Uyuni where we enjoyed the delights of Minuteman Pizza on more times than I care to mention, we decided to head towards Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4100m. A&K had somehow booked a train to take their bike to Orruro rather than take the road to Potosi as basically, it had been relentlessly raining gatos and perros for several days now. So it was with some trepidation that we set off on the by now very muddy road to Potosi. And we got a mile away before Michelle´s chain decided to cause a few problems. It was making clanking and grinding noises so it was back to check in to the hostal again. It turned out the chain is reaching the end of its life and had a bit of a tight spot and we´d adjusted it on the loose section. We set it up the best we could without it falling off and prepared for leaving the following morning.

We eventually managed to get away about 11 the following morning, but not before another quick visit to Minuteman (did I say Minuteman does great breakfasts too?) and got onto the stretch of mud that is the road to Potosi. After a bit of slipping and sliding on the first section, the road seemed to dry up on the hill and apart from a few more muddy sections and a couple of easy river crossings, the road was actually very enjoyable all the way to Potosi. We started feeling a little ´Che´ driving through the beautiful landscape, though some kids who shouted ´gringo´and kicked a football at our bikes when we went through a village soon put paid to that.

Yet another ´hardcore´river crossing

The ´road´ to Potosi

We eventually made it to Potosi about 6.30pm and found the hotel with parking we´d been told about, Victoria Maria. The ´parking´ meant getting the bikes into a lobby and down a few external steps to a yard at the rear where they were building an extension- well, at least it was secure.

"The gas you that are smelling is arsenic" said our guide, as we covered our mouths with our clothing and tried not to gag. Today, we have decided to visit the famous mine at Cero Rico, deep within the conical shaped mountain that dominates the towns skyline. The mine started as a result of a silver-rush in the 1500´s, apparently a llama herder watched in wonder as silver ran out from beneath his fire when he was caught out on the mountian one night- or so the story goes. Anyway, that event started a rush and the town was born around the mine which became the richest silver producer in the world at that time and the spanish took over during the colonal times.

Over three centuries, it is estimated that around 8 or 9 million (depending on your source) people died working in this mine. Then came a slump in the production as the silver supply dried up and the town went into a decline. The mine is still operational though and produces tin and zinc amongst several other minerals although a slump in the tin price in the mid 1980s meant that the mine was to be closed. The miners to this day run the mine as a co-operative and effectively own the mine themselves. There are apparently around 14000 miners working in Cero Rico where a miner can start at the ripe old age of about 14, pushing 1 tonne trolleys around for around 50 Bolivianos a day (about 3 GBPs a day if you´re interested) and after say 5 years of that, you can become an co-owner, but for that you need quite a bit of cash to help buy equipment as the government doesn´t provide any. There are no lights in the tunnels either other than the weak yellow beams coming from the miners helmets. Air is pumped in under compression, however at this altitude, its still very hard to breathe.

As a stupid tourist, we can help by coming on these tours as they are led by people who have family connections in the mine (our guide´s father died in it 11 years ago) and a percentage of the money from the tours goes to support the miners. Before entering the mine, we are also taken to the miners market where you are requested to buy gifts for the miners such as coco leaves, fizzy drinks and obviously, dynamite and 95% proof alcohol. You are then take to get your miners outfit. If, like me and you have size 12 feet, you might be out of luck. I found a largish pair of wellies to complement my yellow waterproof jacket and trousers but found out later that they had holes in the soles, nice for walking around in deep mud puddles then. You are also given a miners helmet and light with a heavy battery pack tied to your waist with what looked like a bicycle inner tube.

Guess who´s been to the dynamite shop!

The guide then leads you into the mine, where the first section is very wet and muddy (great) though it starts to dry up the deeper you go. We pass through tunnels that are supported by wooded beams, the majority of which seems to be broked in half. While we are in the tunnels, you will often hear the shout of ´rapido´coming from around the corner. At this point, you as a stupid tourist, will have about 3 seconds to get off the track, leap out the way and secure yourself to the wall while about 4 miners race past you with a trolly weighing nearly a tonne. If they slow down, its because its time to either hand over your ´gift´like coca leaves, or have them grabbed off you as they go past.

A REAL job!

Crawling through the tunnels is actually pretty hard work for a tourist(though not a patch on what the miners have to do) especially if you´re tall. We´re only in here for a couple of hours, but in the good old days, the colonial slaves would be in here for at least a week at a time. We were also taken to meet the Devil, an effigy where the miners leave offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and that 95% proof stuff as I doubt anyone else would (or could) drink it without going blind.

A rather ´excited´ little Devil

The average life span of a miner is around 45 years old, and its not surprising given the main cause of death is silicosis (you can see the fibres sticking out from the stone) while arsenic gas can´t be too great for them either. All in all, it was an incredibly humbling experience but we were relieved to be out of there. I take my helmet off to these guys as they have such a hard life down there and I promise I will never moan about having a tough day at the office again!

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