Bolivia: A lack of oxygen to the brain
From Uyuni, Laurie and I headed NE to the city of Potosi. At 4070 meters, it is known as the “highest city of its size” in the world. It also has the fame of having been the richest city in South America for many decades. This is due to the mining industry that dominates the economy, even today. The mines are the main tourist reason to visit Potosם and that`s why we came. But before we could get to the mines we had to figure out how to breath in this town. Apparently oxygen is scare in Bolivia. I got winded just brushing my teeth and trying to chew my food.
We signed up to tour the silver mine on Saturday morning. We toured the Candelaria Mine, one of 420 in the Cerro Rico that towers above the city. We were warned by both fellow tourists and the guide book that it was a disturbing tour, and they weren`t kidding. It was an intense, horrifying, depressing, and educational day. I have never witnessed such extreme and harsh manual labor, except perhaps in movies set in ancient times. The men had to physically pull/push 2 ton carts by hand. We saw men who were crammed up into the smallest of crevices where they spent their entire day with a chisel and mallet loosening up pockets of silver. We had to climb on our hands and knees for meters and meters to get from one place to another. This was just on a tour, but I couldn`t imagine if it were my daily commute. An OSHA inspector would have fainted within a mile of this place. We only went down 3 levels but in deeper levels temperatures can reach 60 degrees Celsius because the mountain has a volcanic core. Children as young as 9 years old are put to work in the mines. For the men who bore the holes to stick in the dynamite, their lungs are completely ruined within 2 years and they die within 10. There is a complete disrespect of worker rights and the typical miner only earns 800-1000 Bolivianos per month ($100-$112). The miners do chose to work in the mines, because in comparison to other jobs in the area, they actually make decent money, but a recent poll among them said that only 2-3% actually like the work, the rest do it because of a lack of alternatives. It just seemed really hard to understand why this, and all the mines in the areas haven`t been updated. I realize that mining is typically hard, dirty and dangerous work, but other than a couple of carts, we saw nothing mechanical being used. There are ways and machines to make this job easier and safer. Then there is all the environmental damage to the land and the water in the area that is completely being ignored. Anyway, it took a few hours of thinking after finishing the tour to swallow it all and I can only hope that this is one of the few mines left in the world that operates this way!
In other news, it seems that the transport of animal carcasses by public transportation is quite ok here. Our first experience with this was on the micro from Uyuni to Potosם. This woman who was a squatter in the aisle was sitting on a large bundle that turned out to be part of some animal, and it stunk to high heaven and had several of the passengers up front nauseous. The next morning as we were going on our tour, we saw the undercarriage of a bus being loaded with dead goats, or maybe they were sheep. In walking through the main market Friday night, we ran smack into a wheel-barrow filled with blubbering cow entrails and then as we rounded the corner in an attempt to get away from the wheel-barrow, came upon a semi-trailer full of cow heads. This was a lot to take for a 24 hour period of time and for a brief (very brief) moment, made me think of becoming a vegetarian.
From there it was on a bus to Sucre. Sucre is one of Bolivia`s 2 official capitols. The Supreme Court and a few other governmental departments are housed in Sucre and the rest are in La Paz. It´s a really beautiful city and is known as the “white city” as many of the old colonial buildings have retained their bright white color. It also wins the award for skinniest sidewalks. I could feel the bus side mirrors grazing my head as they flew by.
On Sunday we traveled to the town of Tarabuco for their famous market. It was about an hour out of town and a really cute town that thrives from the weekly market. My main task was purchasing some gifts and souvenirs as I was putting together a box to send home. In addition to finding some great deals, Tarabuco was perfect for people watching. There were some really unique hats worn by the locals. Apparently each surrounding community has their own hats that they wear. Some looked like Shriner hats and were worn by young, single women. There were felt hats, bowler hats, sun hats with different sashes and others that looked like old fashioned army hats. We had to wait forever for our lunch, but this gave us the opportunity to watch all of these unique styles of dress go by and I was able to ask around to see what was worn by whom.
As travelers, we get duped on a regular basis, but the biggest Sucre dupe was at lunch a few days ago when I took a huge gulp of what I thought to be pineapple juice and it turned out to be corn juice…or maybe it was quinoa juice….regardless, disgusting.
Many of you keep asking how we can afford to be gone so long. Let me give you a run down of my expenses from yesterday to help you understand:
breakfast, a huge bowl of freshly cut fruit with yogurt and granola: $.43
lunch, with salad, bowl of soup, main dish, fruit cup and beverage: $1.00
an hour of internet: $.32
a glass of fresh squeezed OJ in the park: $.25
a movie, nachos and a pitcher of beer: $3.75
our hostel, per person, per night: $3.10
a bus ride: $.15
Granted, Bolivia is the cheapest country yet, but still….it`s easy to travel really cheaply down here!