We somehow made it to Potosi. True, we just got a bus ticket headed for there, but it’s never quite that easy. We were the only gringos on the bus, and the bus stopped often along the way. We were afraid we wouldn’t know when we reached Potosi. It turns out they let us know, but we were the only ones exiting there. Also there was a very cranky native woman behind me who wouldn’t allow me to enjoy the semi cama I had paid for. That’s just the seat going back a smidge so you can maybe sleep. Did I mention the bus also had no toilet? For an 11 hour ride? Our driver hauled ass though, and we arrived in Potosi at 4 in the morning. Uh…. we thankfully found a taxi driver to take us into the center of the city where more hostels were. Still, our option was limited to paying for a triple room. Most other places were full or expensive. Or not answering their doors at 4 a.m. We still don’t know if we are paying for a full second night, even though we only slept in the room 4 hours earlier. Whatever. We needed more sleep after the bus trip. Overnights are not always worth it. You know, saving the night’s room fee.
Today we did make it into the famous Potosi mines. The Spanish started mining here in the 16th century- back when the mines yielded almost pure silver. Now, the miners come out with a compound that would be more like 8% silver 5% zinc and 3% lead. The miners work in families, and entire families work in the dangerous mines. There is no other product in this region. They are too high up for agriculture, and their river is tainted by the waste of the mines.
About 5000 men and boys work in the mines around the city. They do not work as a cooperative but each own their own sections to mine. It is obligatory and expected to work in the mines. Our guide, who mines during off tourist season, was told by his father to not be a sissy. That his brothers were waiting for him in the mines. He started working there at age 13. This is when he learned to handle explosives, which you can buy off the street here. You know if you go to work in the mines and do not leave that you will be dead by 55 from lung maladies. Our 30 year old guide had already worked in the mines 17 years. Once there over 25 years, you know you will die. Another 40 or so miners die each year in accidents. Drinking is rampant and dangerous in the mines. Most of the men work 6 days a week from 12 to 18 hours a day. Some work 7 days a week, and since headlamps are the only light, some will push even longer. The more time in the mine, the more money. The amount of money makes all the difference. A bolivian working in a restaurant or internet place like I am in, might make 350 Bolivianos a month. There’s about 7 bolivianos to a $1. The miners might make up to 1200. Most boys only have three years of school or so. They all speak their first language, Quechua. Here most are bad Spanish speakers and few learn English. The miners have between 5 and 7 children and are stuck in the lifestyle. Our guide’s grandfather was one of 11. Many parents say their children will only work in the mines a year or two and then they will send them on. But it rarely happens. They stay, and then start families of their own.
We went into the mines today, but it is not a place for tourists. It is a working mine. Though the one we went into is 500 years old and surely safer than others. We were in full gear with overpants, jacket, heavy duty headlamp on our helmets, knee boots etc. I wore a mask for the dangerous dust, though our two hours in the mine is nothing to their 25 years. A tourist has never died in the mines. The Death Road in La Paz would be so much worse. Still, we were walking through mud, crawling on hands and knees at times, moving out of the way for mining cars, avoiding falling into shafts etc. Between the altitude and the mines, it was hard to breathe sometimes. On the 4th level down, it got very hot. They did have a crude ventilation system. Before going into the mines, we bought gifts for the miners: dynamite, soda, and coca leaves. The men chew coca to stave off hunger. Eating in the mines makes them ill. We were strongly discouraged from buying alcohol or cigarettes, both of which is awful for their already short lives. Our guide carried the gifts and each time we stopped to talked to the miners, he would offer them something. So we were able to talk to the miners through a translator and ask questions. It was pretty intense.
After we got out, our guides rigged up some dynamite for us, let us hold it and watch and then ran down the road to set it off for us. Crazy!
Tomorrow we hope to catch a day bus to Uyuni where we will see the infamous salt flats. Though 4-day tours are common, we will opt for a 1-day most likely so we can get on to Argentina. As usual, we will be in touch when we can.
Love to you all! I hope this email makes sense. It’s always hard to write so fast and furious in the small amounts of time we have.