Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Written by Lynn

Bolivia is an amazing country. I am pretty sure God was taking an acid trip when he created it, but in the end he did a pretty good job..........

Unfortunately, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, second only to Haiti in terms of amount of people who live in poverty. In terms of history, the people of this country have pretty much got the short end of the stick. There have been a staggering 192 military coups in Bolivia in the 156 years they have "enjoyed" independance, averaging one every 10 months. Since the 1980's there has been relative political stability, though economically most Bolivians are still struggling to survive. The vast majority of people here are indigenous and most of the women are still dressed traditionally in knee length skirts poofed out with petticoats, hand knit sweaters and tiny little bowler caps perched precariously on top of thier braided hair. If the braids are tied together it means the woman is married.

We only spent a few more days in Peru after our Machu Picchu trek before heading off to Bolivia. We did manage to meet up with Chip and Drew, our new American friends, for dinner a few times. They, however, put us in their debt by paying for our dinner not just once but twice, curse them! We promise to track them down when we get back to North America (oh, and actually get jobs so we have money) and make sure to pay them back.

We were in a bit of a rush as the holiday season was fast approaching and we wanted to stay at a nice place for Christmas. So we by passed Lake Titicaca and went straight to La Paz, Bolivia's capital city which holds the honour of being the highest city in the world with an altitude of about 12,ooo feet. Even after Machu Picchu, the altitude is noticeable when you are tramping around. Just going out for lunch feels like you're running a race! It is an unfortunate truth that La Paz has a bad reputation along the gringo trail because of a series of tourist kidnappings. Apparently there are several unauthorized taxi cab drivers who will pick up unsuspecting people and then hold them for several days while emptying their bank accounts after forcing them to give up their ATM pin numbers. The problem is serious enough that all the hotels have posted signs in their rooms warning their guests about this scam. Ourselves, we didn't have any problems, though we did get a police officer to point out a licenced cab company to us upon our arrival at the bus station.

Once in La Paz we spent a day wandering around the various markets and getting a feel of the city. The most interesting was the witch doctor's market which we discovered, after the fact, was just down the hill from our hotel. The most striking thing found here is mummified llama fetuses that are used as offerings to PachaMamma (the Mother Earth). People bury them at the 4 corners of their house foundation to ensure a blessing on their home. Being that it was less than a week before Christmas the booths were all decorated for the season with tinsel hanging off of the feti (which, by the way, makes the whole block adopt a distinct and peculiar smell). You could also pick up carved fetishes, various unknown dried herbs, and stuffed frogs with red glass eyes and glitter covered bodies.

From La Paz I took a bus out to Coroico to spend a couple of nights at a great hotel called Hotel Esmeralda. It had a pool and sauna, and my room had a balcony overlooking the mountain canyons. Gilles met me here the next day after doing a mountain bike trip on the "World's Most Dangerous Road" (I'm going to leave it to him to describe that trip; since I´ve never mountain biked it seemed like a bad time to start). We spent another night in Coroico, then went back to La Paz to get bus tickets out of the city before Christmas.

Christmas itself we spent in the small town of Potosi. It is best known as the highest city in the world of this size (at 14,000ft) and for it's silver mines that the Spanish excavated for years after conquering the Inca empire. The mines themselves were first discovered in the 1500's and have been exploited ever since. It is said that you could build a bridge from Potosi to Madrid with the silver that was extracted from "Cerro Ricco" (ie. Rich Hill, the spanish name for the red hill that acts as a backdrop to the city), but that you could construct a road there and back with the bones of the slaves that died obtaining it. Since 1545, when the mines opened, it is estimated that 9 million people (mostly Incan and African slaves) have perished inside the hill. In it's hey day in the 1670's Potosi held the honour of being the largest city in the world, supporting 150,000 people (this likely doesn't include slaves), more than the cities Paris, Rome or even London, at this time.

These days the mines are still operating, but are pretty much empty of silver. The town has a population of about 120,000 and there are presently about 200 mines in operation. There are about 4,000 men and boys who work daily in these mines, and the rest of the town is pretty much supported by mine related industries.

While in Potosi we stayed at a nice hostel called the Koala Den, where we shared a Christmas dinner with a group of about 12 other traveller's, from Australia, Holland, Costa Rica, USA and France. Unable to find turkey we settled for roasted chicken (bought at the local Chinese restaurant, the only one open on the 25th) and made our own roasted and mashed potatoes, salads and even an apple crisp for dinner. Not exactly home, but better than a hotel room all on our own.

The Koala Den also arranges tours of the mines, so we made sure to take the opportunity to see them. Our guide, Efra, once worked in the mines himself, just like his brothers, father and grandfather did before him. He had the foresight to teach himself English by talking to the foreigners who were touring the mines, creating a better life for himself and his family. In low season and on occasional weekends, however, he will return to the mine. He says that, at times, he misses the comradery that he had when employed there.

All the mines are "co-operatives", owned by the miners themselves. They pay 20% of what they make to the government in the form of taxes. The miners get paid based on production, which means that many of them work 7 days a week. They work in groups of anywhere between 6 to 25 men and split the proceeds evenly. Though the government officially monitors for human right abuses in the area, many boys will start working in the mines at as young as 13. Given the average lifespan of a miner is only 45 (most die of lung disease), many will leave behind young families with an average of 4 children, forcing the oldest ones to drop out of school and to start earning money the only way they know how.

The mine we were visiting, called the Candelabra Mine, was actually producing quite well at the time. This combined with the fact that mineral prices in the world market are quite high now means that the miners we were talking to were being paid quite well by Bolivian standards. They made on average 1000 to 1200 Bolivianos a month (a take home pay of about $125US). Others make a lot less. Some travellers we met from France had gone up to the mines on their own and had found an 11 year old girl who offered to show them around. Her mother worked as a security guard at the mines, making 200 Bolivianos a month, only a quarter of what "her miners" were taking home. Her father had died several years ago, and the family (which included 3 brothers, 1 of whom was already mining) was struggling to survive.

The miners often work 12 to 15 hour days in the dark pits. Before going into the mines they will stop at the local market to pick up their lamp batteries (they pay 1 boliviano to have them charged overnight), pop, coca leaves and dynamite as well as to eat an enormous breakfast of soup and rice (the one I had was llama based and very filling, if not particularly tasty). After this the miners won't eat again until night, as eating will often cause vomiting and diarrhea from the combination of exertion and altitude. Instead the miners will consume upwards of 30 grams of coca leaves a day to suppress their appetite and help give them energy. Most miners have a large cheek bulge and green teeth when they smile because of this habit. The miners will also bring in offerings to "Tio" (Spanish for uncle), aka the Devil, who they actually view as a benevolent figure who protects those who dwell in his realm.

Once they descend into the mine, the various groups split up and head to the levels they are working on (there were 4 in the mine we visited). There they will start to collect the ore they dynamited out of the rock face the day before. The ore itself is called "completo" and is 70% useless, the other 30% being composed of minute quantities of silver, along with lead and zinc. The minerals are extracted at another location using chemicals such as cyanide and copper sulfate. After this, the waste water created is dumped in the local river, contaminating it. Just recently they have started to take steps to clean up, or at least limit, the pollution of the water table, though many feel it is too little too late.

The miners will push enormous carts full of ore weighing approximately 2 tons along tracks and through tunnels that were built in colonial times. The ore is dragged up manually from the lowest levels to the first level, then loaded into trucks using shovels and rubber containers. Once all the ore is cleared the miners will begin drilling holes to place dynamite in at the end of the day so that the whole process can begin again in the morning. At 5pm everyone lights the fuses for the dynamite sticks (made up of nitroglycerine, ammonium nitrate and a gunpowder fuse) and run from the mine.

The work is dirty, depressing, monotonous, back breaking and dangerous. About 35 miners a year die in cave ins, many more succumb to lung disease. When we were in the mines our group wore surgical face masks, but I still found it impossible to breath at some points, and for a day afterwards you find yourself spitting up gobs of dusty phlegm. By the lowest level, which you reach by crawling on your hands and knees through tunnels and climbing down rickety wooden ladders, the tempurature reaches upwards of 30 degrees. Climbing up from one level to the next requires 10 to 15 minutes of rest to catch your breath, the effects of altitude being exacerbated by your inability to draw a deep draft of oxygen through all the dust. After a mere 2 hours in the mines it was a huge relief to see the sun again. All in all, my overall impression is that I am glad to have not been born as a miner's son, and I suddenly miss my job back home (wait a sec, I don´t have a job). The entire tour was a bit sobering, especially considering the time of year, but an unmissable experience.

While in Potosi we were also lucky enough to meet a Bolivian family, the Ortiz´s. Alex and Shirley along with their son, Juan Fernando went way out of their way to make us feel at home. Alex had spent a year in the United States when younger, and now teaches English at a private school in Potisi that he runs. He was kind enough to strike up a conversation with us when he heard us talking on the street. In the true spirit of Christmas the Ortiz´s not only invited us to their home for dinner, they also took us to the local hot springs and made sure we had a chance to try a local Bolivian dish of spicy beef that is traditionally served at Christmas. We want to extend our warmest gratitude to them for helping make our Christmas a little more like it would have been at home.

After a restful 5 days in Potosi we headed off to Uyuni, the jumping off point for the largest salt flats in the world and a great example of the biodiversity Bolivia possesses............


Lady said...

Happy new year guys! (a little belated)

Sounds like you had good holidays! I tell ya just reading your post about the miners and the mines... sounds like hard depressing work! Keep those updates coming!


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