The devil’s work

Potosi is the highest city in the world, at nearly 13,500 feet above sea level, and you feel the altitude the second you step off the bus. It’s hard to breathe, and you huff and puff just walking down the block… even if it’s a level street. The city is based completely around the mining community, which has been extracting silver and a variety of other minerals from the Cerro Rico mountain for over 500 years.

I’ve hemmed and hawed over the last few weeks, trying to decide if I was going to stop in Potosi and do a tour of the mines, a popular, and really, the only, tourist attraction in the city. Despite it’s popularity, it seemed unethical to pay to take a glimpse at the miserably horrific working conditions that these poor Bolivians are forced to work in.

Despite my initial hesitations, a few people told me positive things about both Potosi and the mine tour, so I decided to breeze through the city, spending less than 24 hours there. I’m really glad I did.

Potosi is a tiny, but charming, city. It’s streets are narrow and lined with cobblestones, the buildings are painted in beautiful bright colors with wrought iron balconies and nice wood detailing. Several churches with gorgeous steeples dot the skyline, and the main plaza is quaint, but beautiful.

We met for our mine tour at 8:30 AM, starting with a pit stop at the office to change into full gear: plasticy pants that looked like a set of scrubs, minus the elastic at the ankle, a long sleeve jacket that velcroed down the front, thick plastic boots, a hard helmet, a waist belt that held the battery for our headlamp, which was attached to our hat by a thick black cord, and finally, a bandana, tied around our neck so that we could semi-protect our lungs  from the harsh chemicals we’d be exposed to.

All geared up and posing with Potosi

After we were all geared up, we stopped at the miners market — a series of small shops selling bottles of water and soda, face masks, hard helmets, bottles of 96% pure alcohol (yes, for consumption), coca leaves, and, most importantly: dynamite. Dynamite is widely available, and anyone can simply walk into a shop, lay down 20 Bolivianos ($3) and get their hands on a stick, complete with a detonating rope and a bag of aluminum nitrate, which magnifies the explosion. The miners work for themselves, usually in small groups, and are therefore responsible for purchasing and maintaing all their equipment. They are often in the mines for ten or twelve hours at a time, and appreciate any small gifts from tourists.

The other thing that compelled me to take a tour was that most of the tour agencies give back: 15% of the proceeds of our tour went directly to the miners. For this reason, they are happy to see you down in the mines, and answer your questions or exchange a quick “hola.”

Once we’d purchased our gifts and some essential coca leaves for chewing ourselves, we piled back in the van toward the mountain. We stopped at the refinery plant to see the machines that extracted the minerals from the chunks of stone, and our guide even stuck a clump of pure silver on my hand.

Our tour started off on a silly note: our tour guide came out of the office in nothing but his hard hat and boxers, pulled up high enough that we could see most of his butt cheeks, to explain how hot it is in the mines, and our tour guides named the 3 groups horrifically offensive things, like Llama Fuckers.  However, the mood quickly sombered once we’d climbed the first 400 meters down into the first level of the mine and crawled our way to the statue of Tios, the Bolivian miners representation of the Devil.

Tios has the body of a man and the horns of a devil, and his statue is covered in confetti, coca leaves, cans of beer, and cigars. The miners offer these things to him in prayer — leaving with them hopes of rich mineral findings, longer life, protection in the tunnels, and even more tourists.

The tunnels are dark, narrow, and very low. One of the poor 6’4 Australian guys in our group could barely walk — I’m an entire 13 inches shorter and I still struggled. Steel tracks for mining cars line the path, and loose stones and rock fragments line the walls, coated in green clumps of sulfur, red iodine and other harsh chemicals brought into the tunnels as the miners work. Clumps of thick black tube carrying compressed oxygen, not for the workers to breathe, but to help run any tools brought down into the mines, run along the tunnel, often times sagging into your vision. Random pieces of wood, possibly placed for reinforcement hundreds of years ago, jut out and threaten to attack your hard hat if you aren’t careful.

One of the many narrow caverns we had to crawl through

You walk through the tunnels hunched over as best you can, at times army crawling on all fours, other times scooting along on your ass. In order to access the different levels of the mines, you have to maneuver your body through thin crevasses, down shaky ladders, and up giant sections of rock with barely any footholds.

On top of the struggle just to maneuver through the dark, the air is dense with chemicals, which hit you like a ton of bricks. As you enter the different levels and areas of the mountain, the air can change instantly, suddenly becoming 5 or 10 degrees hotter than where it was just fifteen feet behind you. With your bandana pulled around your mouth, it was hard to breathe in the thick, limited oxygen. But without it, your lungs and throat stung with the unfamiliar air, laced with chemicals I couldn’t even name.

As we traversed through the mines, our boots six inches deep in a sludge-like concoction of mud, chemicals and minerals, our guide introduced us to a myriad of miners. One man we met was 65 and had been working in the mines for 41 years. Another was 17, and had already spent 4 years underground. Another was just 24 — exactly my age — and had been working in the mines for 7 years. Hearing his age, I let out a gasp. The entire time I’d been living on the east coast, gaining my independence, a college degree, and all of my work experience, this young man had been breathing in toxic chemicals for 10 hours a day, rarely seeing daylight.

After meeting 5 or 6 groups of miners and getting ourselves down all the way to the fourth level of the mine, we made our way back up. All I could think for the last 20 minutes was get me out of here. My legs shook from the physical stress I’d put on them climbing amongst the various levels, my arms (now exposed because it was too hot to wear our jackets) were caked in mud, and my face was slick with sweat.

When we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel (sorry, I couldn’t help it) and climbed out into the light, our guide offered us each a high five.

“You made it!” he exclaimed with a grin.

Yes, I survived 2 hours in a mine shaft, and by the end I had to restrain myself from running to the exit. But these people work for dozens of years in these conditions. Granted they aren’t climbing and walking through all the paths, across all the levels, but they are sitting in that toxic air, not seeing light for days at a time. On top of that, the miners starve themselves because bringing food into the mines would be unproductive: it would get coated in dust or mud, and give the miners indigestion. Instead, they only chew coca leaves, which build up to look like a small egg inside their cheek, and help with the hunger, altitude and the rough air.

It certainly puts your life — and your commute — in perspective to go down there. I’m glad I took the time to stop and see it with my own eyes. And if anything, maybe it will teach me to think twice about my very painless subway commute.

‘You speak Spanish like Obi-wan-kanobe’

I think he probably meant Yoda, but I let the reference slide. In any event, I had a great opportunity to practice my Spanish when I went out with An (my friend from Montreal who I met in Cochabamba when we were stuck inside for Census Day) for happy hour in Sucre on Tuesday night.

An has been working for nearly six months in Sucre, and knows lots of co-workers and locals from her time there. She graciously invited me out to happy hour, where drinks are two for one. We ordered 4 mojitos, which I thought meant well, 4 mojitos, but apparently that means each person gets the two for one special. So the four of us ended up with 8 mojitos, which cost us a grand total of 72 Bolivianos — approximately $10. No, not each. Total. 

I laughed, thinking about what I would have been able to write in BostoNite for drinks that price. They weren’t weak either! We had a great time, and even though my new friend told me I speak like a Star Wars character (the flaw of thinking in English and speaking in Spanish) I was happy to have the opportunity to go out and socialize in a different language.

Other Sucre highlights?

I went to visit the Cal Orck’o, a ‘museum’ built around the longest sets of dinosaur tracks found on earth. Tourists have relatively visceral reactions to these prints when they find out the ‘wall’ with the sets of tracks (because of tectonic plate shifting millions of years ago, the prints appear on a wall which was once the floor of the earth) is quite far from the museum and they can’t actually go touch the prints, sit in them, or do other terrible tourist-like things. Regardless, I decided to fork over the very pricey $4 admission (hah) and check ’em out myself. Included in my $4 was a free guided tour, and I was the only person at that hour who needed an English tour. So, Juan Carlos met me and showed me around, explaining tons of interesting facts about dinosaurs and Bolivia and geology. I learned more in 20 minutes with him than I did in 2 days in ToroToroShocker. Anyways, Juan Carlos was clearly infatuated with me a little bit, and in between learning about dino prints, making me pose for many awkward photos, and practicing my Spanish, he managed to slip an awkward “want to go get a drink and talk about Bolivia?” question into our conversation. Earlier, we’d talked about where in the city I was staying, and since he was harmless enough, and when he offered to stop by the next night, I shrugged and said sure, I’d be happy to grab a beer.

Chillin’ with some (fake) tyrannosaurus rex bones.

Fast forward to 30 hours later, I’d finished making dinner and left the hostel to meet An and her friend at her apartment from some girl time with a bottle of wine. When I got back to my hostel around 10 PM, Mike, the owner, had a message for me. “Juan Carlos stopped by for you…” he said with a smirk on his face and a questioning sparkle in his eye. Shoot. I feel totally guilty and like a complete jerk. Even though I wasn’t interested in him romantically whatsoever, I would have loved to practice my Spanish with a local guy, and feel so badly for accidentally standing him up. Yikes! Even worse, I had no way of apologizing or being in touch.

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on a bench in the main plaza with my eReader when two little boys came trotting up to me, shoe-shining kits in hand. When I tried, in Spanish, to explain that my cloth mocassins cannot be shined, they showed me the magazine they were selling instead. Similar to the Spare Change newspaper made by and for the homeless population in Boston, the publication costs 3 Bolivianos, 1.50 of which goes directly to the child, and 1.50 of which goes to the non-profit helping the poverty-stricken children. I gladly bought a copy, especially when one of the boys proudly grinned and pointed to his picture in the magazine. After some more nagging, I let them use their brushes to ‘clean’ my moccasins, which, admittedly, were getting to be more brown than black. They each took a foot, working meticulously, and though most shoe shiners only charge about 3 Bolivianos, with wax, I handed each boy a 10 Boliviano note. Just seeing their little eyes light up and the grins spread across their faces was worth the $2.50 I’d just forked over. That money means so little to me and so much to them, and it was a very humbling reminder of what a poor country I’m traveling through.

Sure, Bolivian cities are hectic, disorganized and relatively dirty. But when you’re staying in a hostel with hot showers, full kitchen facilities and tons of other English-speaking tourists, it’s easy to forget the poverty around you. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country — as Westerners, we marvel at how cheap the produce and food are, but many families can barely afford those prices, as is. When you’re traveling from hostel to hostel, city to city, on the gringo trail it’s easy to forget the poor people in the countryside, the ones you aren’t interacting with, and the ones who have to shower once a week in the public shower facilities scattered through the city.

Mostly, I just spent the last 3 days doing lots of wandering, reading in the sun, drinking real-sugar Coca Cola’s, and cooking using a million fresh veggies I bought for just a few cents at the nearby mercado.

I was going to stay in Sucre through the end of the week and go on an all day hike to the siete cascadas today, but, to no surprise, the tour I was depending on to take me got cancelled. Surprisingly, not because of Bolivians — the couple I’d met who committed to go with me (and knew I couldn’t go without them because the agency needed 3 people for a tour) bailed on me last minute when we were supposed to go pay. So instead, I took an afternoon bus to Potosi, and tomorrow I’m seeing the two highlights of the town: the mines and the Casa de Moneda, before hopping on a night bus down to Tupiza.