The world's highest city.
We're high. Really high. 4060m is higher than Mt Cook and I am really feeling it. My chest feels heavy and at disappointing frequency I am uncontrollably out of breath. Walking up stairs triggers the 'doubled-over' response and the activity of eating and walking is near on impossible...at least for me in my current state of fitness (obviously poor). Postosí claims it's title as the world's highest city but the definition of 'city' is up for debate. Potosí also marks the beginning of our acclimatization period. For the next three weeks or so we won't see much under 2800m (I think).
Our hostel (Casa Blanca) in Potosí was grand. We had good wifi and friendly staff, a hearty free breakfast, an enormous bedroom with two spare beds, and a private ensuite with a powerful and hot shower (you have no idea how much we value this - Cat is trying to incorporate it as an individual item in hostel ratings. In fact, we've both come to value the morning shower report over the weather report - the worst no doubt being 'cold with a chance of electrocution' which is about as common as a rainy day in London). Take me back already! Also, Lennart (the Belgian from our road trip to Uyuni) is headed the same way and has joined us in our travels.
After seeing so much llama on our trip, we were all craving a big old Llama steak. That's not true. How can you crave a llama steak if you've never had one? We were more likely curious to taste the furry friend, so we found a nice restaurant, ordered the local beer (unoriginally named Potosina) and tucked into some delicious llama. On the meat scale, I'd say it lies somewhere between beef and venison in flavour and I can't comment on toughness because it was so damn tender it might well not have been llama. Compliments to the chef.
We occupied day one in Potosí with the usual wandering about. That of course was after a sleep in and finally finding a live stream of the America's Cup (go boys!). We passed the afternoon in the market, sampling creme de limon (similar to raw merengue), pasteles (deep fried batter with cheese), papas rellenas (deep fried mashed potato stuffed with egg and meat), api (hot corn milk) and of course empanadas. I could barely walk home. We also got some fresh veg for dinner before battling back up the steep and busy roads to the hostel. I had my highest non-commericial aircraft beer that night at 4066m (only walked about 66 of those metres but I'll claim the achievement!)
Potosí really only exists as a product of it's mining industry. Cerro Rico (rich hill) has for hundreds of years offered Potosí wealth in the form of mineral silver, zinc and lead. Miners as young as eight years old take to these hills in search of wealth at the cost of their health or their lives (amoungst other things). Cerro Rico is not only a monstrosity but a monster - it's known locally as the 'mountain that eats men'. Visually, you can't miss it and mentally, well, we couldn't hold back our curiosity.
So we booked a tour. Of a working mine. In Bolivia - the poorest country in South America. How dumb. (Sorry mums but we're still alive.) Big Deal Tours charged us 150 Bs ($30) for a half day tour. To be fair, we ummed and ahhed about this one for a long time and decided if we booked a reputable company it would be worth the risk (I realise that's a weak argument). But saftey aside, it was the ethical decision which was the hardest. Those who just read about the fiesta in the Altiplano will probably think that by taking this tour I'm a hypocrit for my 'monkey in a cage' comment, but hear me out.
Mining is life here. It's work, it's friendship, it's religion and it's social structure. And anybody can do it. (Actually, ladies aren't allowed to work inside the mines for superstitious reasons (pachamama gets jealous of other ladies) but that doesn't prevent them working around the mines). It requires no prequalification save for an able body and a willing soul. I won't go into detail of the hierarchy but it's exactly that. Cooperatives own small mines and miners who stay on the job long enough (three years) can buy their own seam to work as they please until it runs dry. Then the process starts over again, more or less every six to ten years, depending on the seam. Hourly wage gradually transitions to commission as they progress up the hierarchy. Once they own a seam, they reap the benefits of their hard work directly with minimal repayment to the cooperative. Overall it's a working structure very much rewards commitment.
Our tour guide was an ex-miner of fourty odd years and no longer working due to poor health - surprise surprise. He was happy to show off his life, his job and his numerous friends and family (seriously he knew or was related to everyone we passed). Our first stop was a market where we purchased gifts for the miners. Dynamite, fanta and coca leaves were the popular choice. The first two have obvious uses but don't be fooled by the coca leaves; they aren't for cocaine. These leaves are grown too high to be any good as a sniffable powder. Bolivians stuff their cheeks full of them and savour their medicinal properties. If you can call suppressing apetite and the effects of altitude 'medicinal'. That said, miners value them more than water and are known to have a cheek stuffed full of them for most of the day.
After donning our safety gear, we took a brief tour of the processing plant which was absurdly toxic so we had to put emphasis on brief and get out smartly. Not that the gases troubled Cat. She had blindfolded herself with her helmet and was doing her best not to make a scene whilst falling into unguarded holes and tripping over hoses. All of the raw minerals are sent to Chile for the final phase of processing 'cause Bolivia can't get it's act together and set up a refinery. Oh, and there's that small issue of having no access to the sea and it's ships (thanks to Chile). Apparently this land ownership is under review in the UN supreme court. Although Bolivians doubt they have a chance. Poor old Bolivia.
Bolivian mines are made for Bolivians, not gringos, who on average are at least a foot taller, if not more. After weaving around the llama skins and dodging the blood stained walls we began our awkward half-squatted waddle into the earth. Every now and again we could relieve our backs in chambers or when climbing up or down ladders to various seams. The miners work hard. All of them were drenched in sweat from carrying enormous quantities of rock to the surface on their backs or in barrows. I'm struggling to imagine tougher work than 8-10 hours of hunched-over uphill barrowing at 4300m above sea level fuelled by nothing but coca leaves, fanta, 96% alcohol and cigarettes (that's right - no lunch)! It's a wonder these guys don't have serious health issues. Well of course they do! But none of them are willing to admit it except our guide. There's no medical compensation and most of them can't afford a doctor so what's the use in complaining? The consider themselves lucky to have to chance to work in the mine (to be fair it's good paying work in Potosí) and none of them are willing to admit it's bad for them. A different world.
After visiting several miners and giving them our gifts, Wilson offered to set off his dynamite. I nearly shat my pants. Here we were borderline suffering from altitude sickness, battling off claustrophobia deep beneath the earth in the sketchiest mine in the poorest country in South America with not a hope in the world of a rescue and this guy wants to set off a bomb!? I was reluctant at first but with reassurance from the doctor lady who had been accompanying us and with refuge in appeared to be a safe place, Wilson set off the dynamite 200m down the shaft. Four minutes later the boom rocketed past with deafening force. It wasn't as powerful as I had expected (phew!) and we swiftly left the mine to emerge back into glorious daylight and fresh air. Never again.
I guess the question remains, was all this ethical tourism? Are we creating a 'monkey in a cage' scenario? In my opinion, no. In fact, we're helping them out. We're creating work and income outside of the mine; buying gifts in the market, giving gifts, and more importantly, giving Wilson and his team a source of income when he is physically unfit to work in the mine. Furthermore, me writing this and your reading it is raising awareness and there's no aid like awareness. To seal my opinion, when we were headed back to town our 'safety guide' boarded with her gorgeous two kids, both dressed in private school uniforms. Perhaps change is on it's way?Read more
Potosí, BoliviaJune 18 in Bolivia
The world's highest city.