It has been an exciting week, but one without internet and frequently without electricity. We are all fine and finally enjoying some good weather.
The story of our week starts out a little slow, but in a city with a tragic past. Oh, I should add that the new seats came out great…not perfect, but really nice.
The drive to Potosi was fairly easy – pavement the whole way – and the city claims to be the highest in the world (at around 4,070 meters) so there was quite a bit of climbing. Aside from the fact that there is nowhere to camp here, it’s damn cold. We got a room.
Silver was discovered in Cerro Rico, the mountain near Potosi around 1545 by a shepherd. He was looking for a lost llama and built a fire to keep warm, the fire grew so hot it melted the earth and silver liquid came out. Within a year, the Spaniards took control and began excavation. The mountain was very lucrative and Potosi became the wealthiest city in the Americas. Over 80 churches were built and the city grew to one of largest in the world. Problem was, the work was abysmal, and the Spaniards had already gone through most of their enslaved locals. They began importing African slaves and 1572 instituted the Ley de Mita to increase productivity. All indigenous and African slaves over 18 were required to work in 12 hour shifts. They lived underground for 4 months at a time and when they came up from their work had to wear bandages over their eyes to protect them from the sunlight.
In under 300 years, between 8 and 9 million people died from the conditions. All because the Spaniards liked shiny metal.
“Potosi was raised in the pandemonium of greed at the foot of riches discovered by accident.”
Eventually production began to decline, looting occurred and silver prices fell. Nowadays, the miners are no longer slaves, but work in co-ops keeping what they dig. The problem is that the mountain is like Swiss cheese and the conditions are still just as dangerous… but with barely enough silver to keep them fed.
Now, the main attraction in town is to go on a guided mine tour, to “provoke disbelief in just how appalling the job is.” Gringos pay about $20 USD for the tour, which stops at a miner’s market. You buy the miners gifts including dynamite (!), coca leaves and 85% alcohol. Gifts are expected. Then you go to the mines for a 4 hour tour – the altitude is over 4200 meters, the temperature goes from below freezing to 115 degrees Fahrenheit and you are exposed to noxious gases. I’ve heard from several people that it was one of the most interesting things they did while in Bolivia, but we decided against it. Although the miners are quite proud of their work, there just seemed to be something wrong with taking our kid into a dangerous mine just to gawk at these worker’s toil.
Instead, we walked around town. Potosi is nice enough. Plazas, churches, etc. It just wasn’t as nice as Sucre and the cold and altitude left us a little drained.
Bode bought a couple of pieces of silver from a kid younger than him on the street. 5 Bolivianos each. I told him to see if he could get a deal for 2. “Dos para diez?” he asked the kid. I guess we should teach him some bargaining skills.
In the end, our room turned out to be one of our highlights of our visit. It had 2 bedrooms and a small living room with a TV. We were excited about the space, but after two nights of sitting on the couch watching episodes of Friends and Two and Half Men (what the powers that be have decided those in Latin America would like to watch), Jason turned to me and said, “Maybe this is what we’d be doing tonight if we were back home.”
Time to go.