Monday, 28 July 2014

Potosi - a silver lining?

After returning from the salt flats to Uyuni, we collect our bags from the tour operator (Betto is conveniently absent so avoids any confrontation), and we set about finding a hostel/hotel for the night.

The first choice option is full, but we find another that meets most of our requirements. And something of a rarity in Bolivia it seems - they assure us that they have wifi. The password is a closely guarded secret though, that needs to be typed in by only one member of the hotel staff, presumably to stop us sharing this precious wifi with any undesirables. The look he gives me when I have to return to the front desk later to get the password for my iPad is quite special, and I have to explain myself for having the audacity to want his precious password for a second time.

We manage to find a laundrette that will get our quite filthy clothes washed and dried in time for the morning's 10:30am bus to Potosi, and even manage a (fairly) hot shower back at our hotel! Last shower was back in Coroico so it's much needed, although the fact that having hot water is a selling point worth advertising for a hotel says a lot about the country we're currently visiting. Who needs to shower anyways?

We meet up with Jirrian (Dutch guy - death road, salt flats) and trade stories of our respective tours, and arrange to meet in Potosi tomorrow - he's on the nighttime bus but our need to sleep + the prospect of arriving in a new town sometime after midnight mean that we defer to the morning bus. I have to confess to being slightly in awe of Jirrians all round attitude and zest for life. On death road, he explained that he was coming to the end of his trip and was feeling "ready to go home" - if I'd heard that 3 months ago I would have considered him to be crazy, but the organised nature of our time so far in Bolivia combined with my exploding sinuses have left me feeling the same.

Not ready to pack my bags and jump on the first flight home, but if we skipped ahead to our final week in South America (which will be Machu Picchu) followed by the 2 weeks in California, and then heading home, I'd be pretty content with what we've done on this trip. CP is not sharing the same view, but does admit that this is travelling and not holidaying, and for those that know the difference, it's big!

I finally find a pharmacy that can give me something worthwhile for my sinuses, which results in the first decent nights sleep in a long time, and we're both relieved about that. Breakfast is some chicken, beef, rice concoction cooked up at the side of the road, plus a couple of salteƱas to set us up for the bus journey to Potosi, which could take anywhere between 3 and 6 hours depending on what you read.

Our bus (a little retro it has to be said), leaves right on time and we're on our way. 40 minutes later, the bus stops at the side of the road. CP thinks it's an impromptu toilet stop, but the driver digging around in the engine compartment suggests otherwise. 20 minutes later another bus comes past and stops, after some discussion we're told that we'll be getting in this 2nd bus so we all wait patiently at the side of the road.

Alas, negotiations between the 2 drivers flounder, and the other bus drives off. There's a lot of tinkering going on by the driver who spends most of the next hour under the bus, emerging only to make a couple of phone calls, and to test the results of his handiwork by revving the engine. At some stage he retrieves what looks like the remains of an old rubber inner tube for the trunk, and asks if anyone has a knife... he tries to MacGyver something special but that also fails. This sort of thing is probably to be expected when you're paying £3 for a bus that take you over 200km. See the rock under the front wheel? That's the handbrake. The leg sticking out behind the front wheel? That's our driver.

Finally, another much larger bus appears and pulls over. More negotiations, and yes! We will be getting on this one. There's just about enough seats for everyone, and we're on our way. CP wonders if this 1.5 hour delay is included in the 6 hour estimates, I'm guessing not, but either way we'll probably be missing some, if not all, of the World Cup final...

We make it to our hostel in time for extra time in the football, although when we check the sign-in book, there's no sign of Jirrian. We're in the right place though, so dump the bags in the room and sit down to watch the end of the game.

The receptionist delights in Germany beating Argentina (we thought it was only Chile that Bolivia wasn't friends with!) and now that we've spilt popcorn all over the sofa we head out to explore Potosi.

Potosi, also known as "Cerro Rico" (the rich hill) is a high altitude mining town famous for its silver although in contrast to what the guide book says, you could easily spend a few days here relaxing, as the city is quite picturesque, the locals are friendly, and there aren't that many tourists milling around - presumably all of them follow the LP recommendations of "get in, do the mines, get out".

We've picked our tour operator (not another tour!?) already and set off to find their offices that afternoon. Big Deal Tours is run by a group of ex and current miners, so we can be happy that our money is going in the right direction. When we find their office we're greeted by a guy that's so excitable I don't have time to say that we're here to reserve our places on tomorrow mornings tour before he launches in to a (slightly alternative) sales pitch.

Our guides name is something unpronounceable in Quechua, but is easily shortened to Efra. He explains the principles behind the company (part of the fee goes back to the miners cooperative), and the plan for the tour. To be clear, this isn't a museum, or a demonstration, we'll be visiting actual working silver mines, there will be people working there, and conditions may well be grim. The walls of the office are covered in positive comments from previous visitors, and Efra has an energy which is infectious, even for a tired and suffering couple of travellers like us - this is a no-brainer, and we sign up for the morning tour, before heading off to walk round the city at our leisure (yes!).

When it comes time to get some food, I'm really just thinking about getting to bed, so explain that "I'm not hungry so you choose where you want to go and I'll follow". We head for a particular stall and CP says "do you want [random food type]?". I repeat that "I'm not hungry so you choose where you want to go and I'll follow". CP spots a Chinese takeaway across the street, "do you want Chinese?" - seriously, I'm not hungry, just pick what you want... there's a man with an oven on the corner of the street cooking up pizzas to order, do you want...? SERIOUSLY, I'M NOT FU... actually, pizza?! Yeah!

The next day we pack up our bags and leave them in reception before heading out for an early breakfast. Efra has recommended the local markets as a good place to get some food before the tour, and for about £1 we get a couple of egg baps, a sweet pastry thing, coffee, and coca tea. How are you making a profit on this??

We arrive at the start of the tour and jump on the minibus. As well as Efra, there's a kid aged about 12 who will be the "arse man" for the group to ensure that no one gets left behind, quite important in the mines. CP quickly disgraces us by deciding that we should get a picture of George with the kid, my query of "is that a good idea?" is shot down. It's clearly not a good idea, as the kid thinks it's a present for him, so with the photo op complete, this huge smile gives way to a very sad face (although we manage to make up for this by giving him a set of toy cars at the end of the tour).

First stop is the miners markets - part of the deal is that we can buy gifts, snacks, and coca leaves for the miners that we will meet. This is "optional" but I can't imagine that anyone refuses. For 20 bolivianos (£2), you get the standard "gift pack" of a big bottle of juice, an enormous bag of coca leaves, and some books or colouring pencils for the miners children.

Next we get suited up...

...and head into the ore refinery where the material that has been mined is washed, and the junk removed. Back in the day this process was barely necessary - they were pulling silver bricks out of the mines, and exporting them as found. The glory days are long gone though, and 85% of what they pull out of the mines is nothing - just mud and dirt. The rest may be silver, zinc, or lead, but they can't export kilos of nothing so it all comes here first to be separated.

With the workings of the factory safely navigated, we head for the mines.

A special mention for this stuff that's splashed on the wall outside the entrance - as one tourist rubs it with a finger and takes a good sniff, Efra informs us that it's llama blood, spread on the wall as an offering.

LP has some stern warnings to those contemplating the tours: between that and the other things we've read we're prepared for the worst. There are suggestions that the "shelf life" of a miner is just 10 years, before they succumb to any number of debilitating illnesses as a result of the hard labour, or accidents in the mines.

"Working conditions are terrible: the dust contains silicon that leads to silicosis among the miners, most of whom will die in their forties. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls."

Efra confirms the asbestos, cyanide, and arsenic bits, but is quick to rebuff the silicosis and early mortality, and points out various examples of miners that will work for 40 years, and we meet a few who are in their fifties.

There's definitely something a little uneasy about seeing 15 year old boys sat outside the mines chewing coca leaves with their dad or uncle. Efra explains that it's school holidays so they come down to help their families, just like he had done when he was younger. Even so, when we're deep in the mines, and we stop a couple of workers for a chat, they explain that they are 22, and have been working in the mines for 9 years. The maths is not difficult, and does nothing to ease the uncomfortable realisation that there is something inherently voyeuristic about taking a tour to see the "awful conditions" that these guys will work in 6 days a week for probably the rest of their working lives.

The work is hard - each of the younger guys that we see is running at speed with a wheelbarrow full of rubble, weighing anything up to 100kilos. They are rewarded for taking time out to speak with our group, by a donation of a big bottle of juice, which is very gratefully received - it's hot, the work is hard manual labour, and there's not exactly an office canteen they can go and kick back in when they need a break.

In the heydays of silver mining here the mines were state run. When the good stuff ran out, they were closed down, only to be re-opended by cooperatives of miners. These will likely be family groups, who will have access rights to a particular tunnel or section in the mine. Everyday they bag up what they mine and wheel it out towards the entrance. This leads to a few complicated questions from our group like "how do the miners know whose bag is whose?" and "what if they family has an argument?".

Apparently these are very western questions to ask - Efra is surprised by the notion that a group of miners might take another groups product, as if dishonesty or deception don't exist here. And what do you mean the family has an argument - "these are my brothers, my cousins, my family - why would we argue?" - not entirely how it works back home!

All of these questions were asked while we sat around "El Tio", the underworld god that the miners will make offerings to in order to ask for their safety in the mines, and of course a successful days production. Offerings come in the form of cigarettes, lit and then placed in his mouth, cans of beer, and the 96% alcohol that they seem to love splashing around on Pacha Mama in Bolivia. Yes, Tidi is wearing wellington boots, he's in the mines. And yes, that is a massive erect penis that he's holding, it apparently suggests life and virility. Katrina, you'll be pleased to know that I told CP a George pic here would be inappropriate.

More juice, coca, and other gifts are handed out as we make our way through the tunnels - at times I feel like an old man, still unable to breathe properly and now hunched over as we hurry through the smaller tunnels.

We are lucky enough to find someone who is about to set off some dynamite, awesome! We crowd round as he packs it in - sadly not the Hollywood style bundle of red sticks, but something that looks like a large French banger, which is wedged down a pre-drilled hole (not really "drilled", more "dug with a metal poking stick", then packed in with some granules which will increase the force of the explosion and stop it from just coming straight back out the hole. He connects the fuse, and we all retreat to a safe distance and wait... our group contains an idiot who spends the next 30 seconds talking, trying to establish how long the fuse will take to burn, as she wants to record the sound of the explosion, and she doesn't want to miss it, so how much time does she have to set up her recor... and then there's the most muffled of pops, the miner appears with a big grin, and it's over. He will now head out of the mine to chew coca leaves for a while until the smoke and fumes have cleared, and we're on our way. No huge blast of rubble, the earth didn't shake, the mine didn't collapse - it's almost a let down, but more of a relief.

That pretty much concludes our tour, and at last we're heading for daylight. It's not exactly a comfortable experience but it's been far from the terrifying ordeal that the guide books will have you believe, although that's at least partly due to the very responsible way that Efra and his crew operate these tours - "we haven't lost a tourist, yet!" he says with a smile as we head back into town.

The plan for Bolivia that we'd thrashed out back in La Paz had us going from Potosi to Sucre, but having read up on the wine region in the south, we've decided that a trip to Tarija is most definitely a good idea. It's a little bit off the tourist trail, but that's a (very) good thing after our recent overdose on guided tours (note - I'm not including Death Road or the mines in that!) and it probably means that we will skip Santa Cruz, but after a bit more reading and chatting with others, we're pretty comfortable with that.

So our afternoon is spent strolling around Potosi, before we head back to our hostel to collect our bags and on to the bus station for another overnight bus...


  1. Surprised George made it out alive!

  2. And I'm thankful for the choice of godfather and your commitment to keeping our daughter's mind as pure as can be for as long as possible!