Saturday, December 12, 2009

Imaginary Buses and Underground Devils

I was in Sucre, Bolivia's capital, for about two weeks. I spent about equal amounts of time laid up sick in the hostel (turns out my immune system isn't invincible. darn), dodging through political marches for the December 6th presidential elections and watching various sporting events for the Boliviano games (an Olympic style competition between six latin american countries). Despite the delirious gauze of fever, I found the colonial flavor of Sucre to be a nice, relaxing change of pace from the hectic bustle and screech of La Paz. I certainly got used to the concept of a daily siesta from noon to four.

Before leaving Bolivia, I decided to make one more stop on the way to Argentina, in a small town called Tupiza. I had met a fun Irish girl called Roisin (sounds like Roa-sheen) in Sucre who was going the same way, so we arranged to take the bus together. Every tour agency I had asked the day before assured me that there was a 6:30 bus going to Tupiza every day. Upon arrival at the bus station, we were informed that no, there was no 6:30 bus. The last bus of the day had left already.
Exasperated but not overly surprised (this is Bolivia!), we decided to go somewhere that was en route, seeing as how we were already packed and ready to go. The only seats available on any bus were to Potosi, the highest city in the world.

Potosi is a desolate place; cold, rainy and the lack of oxygen can produce all sorts of fun symptoms, from feeling like you've run a marathon after walking a block to headaches to nausea. The locals constantly chew coca leaves and the toursits leave quickly.
The only thing to do there is tour the mines. Potosi used to be an incredibly wealthy city due to the veins of silver running through the mountains. They say the streets of Potosi were once paved with silver. Today, the wealth has trickled away. There isn't much silver left, although they still mine zinc and a couple other metals. Bolivia is a country rich in resources, but unfortunately the people don't see much of that wealth.

Walking into the mines is like disappearing into a black hole. Its cold and dark and eerily silent until you stumble across a miner, dirty and sweating with exertion, coca wad lodged firmly in his cheek. They don't eat while on shift - anywhere from six to twelve hours - so they chew coca leaves in order to stave off hunger and keep up energy levels. The first miners we saw were pushing a large cart which they would fill to the brim with rocks and then push back out. When they set off dynamite somewhere in the bowels of the mountain, it felt like being inside thunder. At the time of the usual 12:00 detonation, the tour group had climbed a series of ladders down a small hole. One guy in our group was asking the guide about a mineral he had found in the walls when the explosion went off and a storm of dirt and particles came rushing through the corridors. The guide yelled, "Forget the mineral-- RUN!"

Before we left, we visited a shrine to the devil. The mines are an absolutely miserable working environment. These men start working when they are just teenagers, 14 or 15 (official tour story, but I heard rumors of boys as young as 12 working in the mines)and they work basically until the mines kill them, either in an accident or from the inevitable health problems. The miners worship a devil called Tio, because there is no god in the mines.

The Tio sits in a small alcove, covered in offerings of coca leaves, 97% pure alcohol (what the miners drink) and cigarettes. He's painted a bright fire engine red and his head is adorned with a wild cascade of multicolored paper hair. He sits impishly in the corner and looks at you with wild eyes and a grotesque grin. On Fridays, the miners come here to give the Tio offerings and to drink and have a party. We paid our respects as well and - thankfully - climbed out of the mountain and back into daylight.

That night, Roisin and I managed to find a bus to Tupiza that actually existed and we left at nightfall for the sunny, old west style town.

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