21.08.2010 - 24.08.2010 0 °C
Getting into Bolivia turned out to be quite an ordeal. Two buses and a sleep in a shit town later I arrived at the Chilean border with a bus-load of smelly old women and a dutch couple. I had no idea what was going on and neither did the dutch couple. We managed to get through this first stage with little trouble, however we were then dumped at the other side of the Chilean border at some makeshift market set up by Chileans and Bolivians wanting to do a bit of dodgy dealing. Two hours later a bus then took us to the Bolivian border where we had to cross over some railway and climb through a disused train to get to the office where they stamped my passport. Back on the bus we headed off averaging (I later worked out) about 20 mph. Supposed to be meeting Helen at 4pm in a town called Uyuni I eventually rolled up at half 7. Thankfully though my faithful girlfriend was there and we headed off to de-stress over pizza and beer.
The next day we headed off once again to a town further north called Potosi. This was a town built solely on the back of the enormous wealth of silver extracted from the enormous mountain (the cerro rico) that looms over the city. The Spanish, who put to work and essentially killed 8 million Bolivian and African slaves in the mines, left Potosi with numerous grand colonial buildings. Now rather decaying, the town, as well as the mining industry, seems rather down on its luck and in fact less than a week before we arrived there had been violent protests by locals over various political issues.
Up early on out second day in Potosi, me and Helen headed off on one of the legendary mine tours. These tours involving scrambling down the mines to discover the terrible conditions in which hundreds if not thousands of miners still work, but first we headed to the miners market. The custom here was to buy the miners gifts to supplement thier 20 Bolivianos (2 pounds) a day wage (not considered bad by bolivian standards). We bought them some fags, some Coca Cola, some dynamite and a bag of Coca leaves. Coca leaves are chewed all over south america and especially by the miners to fight against problems with altitude (Potosi is over 4000m above sea level) and to stave off hunger when working long shifts. Coca leaves are also the raw ingredient of cocaine.
After buying our gifts and getting all kitted out in the height of miner fashion we headed up to the mountain. The mines thenselves were extremely dusty, very tight in places and often looked like the were about to collapse. The workers were ridiculous; never seeming to tire they would steam past us while we dived out of the way of them pushing carts piled high with rocks. Some miners worked alone, some in groups, but all incessant and determined. They say in the worst parts of the mine after 15 years of work your lungs are all but useless. A strange custom in the mines is the worship of a devil named Tío. Above ground the miners worship God but below ground they believe they are in the devil´s territory and so make statues of and offer gifts to Tío to ask him to provide them with minerals and protect against injury.
The mine tour was pretty hard work with the lack of oxygen and dust everywhere but these guys work in that place almost every day sometimes doing over 24 hour shifts without seeing daylight. As we left we found out 2 dutch tourists had volunteered to work down there for 2 weeks to see what it was really like. Crazy dutch.