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Potosi

sunny 8 °C

After leaving Sucre, we arrived in Potosi, the highest city in the world! It was apparently once the richest city in the world as well, because of a big mountain across the road that was and still is full of silver. The main reason people come here is to visit the mines which contain this silver, which are no co-operative mines. This means that any old Bolivian can pick up a spade and crawl up into the mine and try and get lucky, without any safety precautions.

We took a tour with a man called Willy, who used to work in the mines from the age of 12. The conditions are pretty shocking for workers, cramped spaces, noxious gasses (not where we went though) and alcoholism means that the average life span of a miner is mid-30s. It really highlights the poverty situation in Bolivia- this is actually the best paid work (they dont recieve wages, but sell any silver they find) around, and when the price of silver is high they can expect to make around 100 bolivianos (a tenner) a day. At the moment, the price isnt high, so they´re making much less.

So our tour started with a trip to the miners market, where you go to buy coca leaves and drinks for the miners as a sort of present to say ´cheers for letting us come and watch you work yourself to death´. On the way, Willy told us that the town used to be split into two zones, one for the Spaniards (the richest part), and another for the indiginous slaves who were made to work the mines. There were also a lot of African slaves made to work the mines, but they were kept in a jail on the other side of the mountain to keep them from escaping (the indiginous slaves couldnt escape because they forced to bring their families and small children to Potosi). Apparently something appauling like 3 million slaves died in or because of these mines in the colonial period.

After buying some presents (and some dynamite), we donned our mining costume and miners hat and headed down a tunnel into the mine. Willy showed us a devil (or Tio) carved out of the rock, to which the miners leave coca leaves, cigarretes and alcohol so that he will allow them safe passage in his mine.

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After some scrambling up and squeezing through some tight gaps, we met Willys friend Pablo, who had worked in the mine for 30 years and had had a chat to him about the conditions. Pablo had 10 children (apparently they had no TV), thus making it incredibly difficult for his wage to support them- meaning that his teenage sons come in the mine to help make more money. Its kind of like a vicious circle.

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We also met another man, who was about to start a 24 hour shift with no breaks and no food. The miners just chew shitloads of coca leaves (the base plant of cocaine) to stave off their appetite. We tried this as well, but aside from a tingly face and slighlty stimulating sensation, all it really does is leave you with a disgusting looking mouth.

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After a few hours of scrambling round, watching people working and seeing different parts of the mine, Willy took us outside again and, to our childish delight, blew up some dynamite we had bought earlier.

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Posted by St Martins 12:44 Archived in Bolivia

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