Image for Travels without a Donkey: Bolivia (3) (Potosí)

IT´S DIFFICULT to describe the city of Potosí, and impossible for a little donkey to do it justice. It´s also impossible not to speak of Potosí´s story, once it´s touched you. As such, I will dabble with failure in an attempt offer a tiny impression of this incredible city.

Potosí, located in the south-east corner of Bolivia, has given the world more riches than any other city, yet has itself, for over 460 years, been defined more by poverty than riches. The conical hill behind the city was rich in minerals like no other. In 1545 the Spanish discovered the ´´inexhaustible mountain of silver´´ that was Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), thanks to a llama herder who saw a vein of pure silver flickering by the light of the fire he lit to keep warm after having to spend the night on the mountain.

So began the genocide through labour servitude of the Andean Indian, brought from all over the region to slave in the mines. In 300 years, 8 million Indians died in the ´mountain that eats men alive´ that the Spanish renamed Cerro Rico. Thousands of slaves were brought from Africa too, but they weren´t as useful as they were too big for many of the tunnels, and those who survived the journey generally perished very quickly due to the altitude and cold.

It was quite a feeling finally arriving in a place that I´d read and thought so much about, especially after the whole city being blocked and on strike for three weeks. The Cerro is such a part of the city; physically in a similar way that Mount Wellington is for Hobart, but in many other ways too, as the entire history of the city flows from the Hill.

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Cerro Rico from the city

We arrived mid afternoon having just endured two back to back bus trips totaling around 17 hours. After showers and coca tea we wandered about the city to get our bearings and attempted to re-humanise ourselves after the sapping journey, before meeting the first of the contacts we had lined up through Bobby Z HERE:.

It´s quickly apparent there is a high indigenous population, particularly as you wander further away from the grand colonial centre. People are generally short and dark skinned, and ninety per cent of the women we pass are dressed in the traditional manner of long woven skirts with poncho and have the two ubiquitous long plaits of shiny black hair. Potosí is the most indigenous department of Bolivia, making it one of the most indigenous parts of the Americas.

We headed back to our hostel Carlos Quinto (Charles V) to meet the owner Ramiro and sample (several times) his new homebrew beer. Ramiro lived for a few years in the United States, but succumbed to the pull back to his home town. We also met Toño, a young law student, who worked nights at the hostel and was being introduced to the finer art of tequila shots with lemon and salt (a bit too much salt in my opinion), when we arrived. 

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Metal workers near the miners´ market

The next day we met Jorge, tour guide and now good friend, who took us through the miners´ part of the city, up to the Cerro and down into La Poderosa (the Powerful Mine). Jorge began working in the mines at age eleven, because his father died in a mining accident. He managed to shift to healthier and safer work at age 22, when he and his brother Johnny set up Potosi Specialists, taking tourists into mines and showing them significant parts of Potosí. A tour with Jorge leaves you with as complete a picture as you could get on a tour, due to his history in the mines, his deep ongoing friendship with the miners and his love for the people of Cerro Rico.

On our last night in Potosí Jorge invited us for dinner with his lovely wife and two of their three children. At dinner we tasted four types of potato that were completely different to any we had tried before.

We started our tour by visiting the miners´ market and buying coca leaves and dynamite sticks for the miners to save them a few bucks. A few days later we realized we still had a couple of dynamite sticks in our backpack. They look just like a giant Cuban cigar, but though tempted I didn´t smoke one.

After absorbing the sculpture that Bobby Z made with the help of local miners that stands above one of the main early morning meeting points for the miners as a proud tribute to the Cerro´s dead and living, we were moved by its relationship to local indigenous woven art, a connection we had not made until we came to Bolivia.

On the way up to the mine we met a family who live on the hill guarding one of the mines. We gave each of the five children notebooks and pencils for school (see a future donkey for an interview with the family). They were extremely grateful for our humble gifts. A small walk up the hill and we were at the entrance of La Poderosa mine, which was a small vertical hole in the side of the hill, at about 4,350m above sea level. The old wooden beams supporting the entrance were dark with the dried blood of llamas that are sacrificed every year outside the entrance of all the mines as a ch´alla (offering) to the god-like creature of the underworld El Tio.

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Saturnino, Jose, Julio, Sylvia, Modesta (mum) and Cesar

The first section of the mine was an old wooden ladder down a vertical section and then we were into the domain of El Tio. There were tunnels of varying sizes going off in all directions. The average height of the tunnels would have been about 150cm, but they were often much lower. There were seemingly bottomless holes in the ground, some of which had to be crossed by a bendy wooden plank accustomed to men of 60 – 70 kilograms (not 95 like me). It was quite cold, and every surface was covered by the extremely fine dust of the mountain´s rock.

Until we met Andres and his brother Florentino, who were drilling holes for dynamite, the most technologically advanced equipment down there were old shovels, picks and rusty wheel barrows, and old metal trolleys for carrying the rock along wooden rails.  The god of technology has not been kind to Bolivia.

The pneumatic drills are not a happy story either. They are designed to be used with water, but as there is no water supply for the mine they are used without it. The result is a thick cloud of the most appalling dust and fumes that takes years of the user´s life. Silicosis caused by the inhalation of dust in the mines kills two people a week in Potosí and drilling is the quickest way to get it.

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El Tio as seen by a miner by headlamp

This mine began in the 17th Century as a silver mine, but today it is mostly the tin and zinc that the Spanish left behind being taken from it. From every 3000 tonnes extracted, around 100 tonnes is valuable metal.

In their belief systems, the indigenous of the 16th Century felt they were violating the underworld, a place they did not belong, and that it was the domain of a different god to their Catholic one in the Heavens. Once in the mines, they had a life span of four to six years, before dying due to the dreadful conditions, to fund the development of capitalism in Europe (today the average life span of the miners is 38 years). Fortunately, the millions did not die in vain, the silver they extracted was used to make hand bags, cigarette holders, adornments for the Catholic Church, silver service and even bed pans for Europe´s parasites.

There were 70 million Indians in Latin America when Columbus anchored off the coast. A century and a half later there were just 3.5 million.

As Eduardo Galeano points out, ´´the sword and the cross marched together´´ in the pillage of Latin America. Simple, yet large churches (such as Iglesia San Benito) were built in Potosí, both to convert the indigenous slaves to Catholicism, and to collect a tribute paid to the Spanish Crown by the indigenous, of which the Church received a healthy share. The Church even altered its own decrees of right and wrong to support the enslavement of the Indians in the mines, and had a series of official stances that merely represented the reverse of what they practiced.

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Inside the powerful mine

Potosí rapidly grew to become the most important city in the world. By 1573 the census showed that Potosí had 120,000 inhabitants, making it as big as London and bigger than Madrid, Paris and Rome. The obscene wealth Potosí´s riches created can only be outweighed by the incomprehensible misery it has caused. Natural resources are a curse to people under the brutal control of a colonial master.

By the mid seventeenth century silver constituted 99 per cent of mineral exports from Spanish America. Latin America was a huge mine, with Potosí at its chief centre. Fifty per cent of all silver from Latin America came from Potosí. Early coins from the Potosí mint were a stable global currency, like today´s US Dollar or Euro, as they were 93% silver 7% copper, the value was not simply the coin, but the silver itself.

We left the mine shocked at the labyrinth of dangerous tunnels the miners work in, saddened by meeting young men whose lives will likely be less than half as long as ours and disturbed by the images of the past and present of these mines, flashing through our minds. I arranged with Jorge to go back two days later and do a day´s work with the third (lowest) class miners, about which, I was already nervous. See the next donkey…

That night Toño and his nephew, who was almost his age, took us to see the local football team, Real Potosí, play. They are having a good run in the Bolivian first division and there was a great atmosphere as they won 4 -0. The flares and fireworks/fires in the stadium and the highly necessary requirement of a tunnel, made from riot police holding their shields up, to escort the opposition and the referees into the change rooms, was of particular amusement.

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Coming out of the Powerful Mine, the dark patches are llama blood

The next day we went to the Royal Mint, which is a huge complex that takes up two entire central blocks of the city. This is where the silver was rolled and pressed, and made into coins or ingots. It was at one point the biggest mint in the world, producing the currency of many countries. Today, Bolivia has no working mint and its money is made by other countries. The huge mechanical presses, which were powered by mules and take up the space of a basketball court, were impressive.

As the occasional sports car or luxury four-wheel-drive passes by in today´s Potosí I am again reminded that Colonialism didn´t die with the eventual independence of Latin America in the early 19th Century. The wealth of countries such as Bolivia still tends to flow toward economic superiors in Europe and the United States, but this colonialism from afar also gave birth to an internal colonialism, based primarily on race, which is alive and well today. In Bolivia the generalization that those of European decent are the wealthiest, followed by mestizos, followed (often a long way behind) by the indigenous, is usually correct.

The indigenous have long been excluded from official Bolivia, and have merely provided its labour force. There is some hope that the presidency of Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government have begun the gradual erosion of this gross inequality. There is a long way to go, but the growth in indigenous pride and hugely increased involvement of indigenous in decision making processes will hopefully be impossible to reverse, even if the US and Bolivia´s far right oligarchy manage to topple the MAS government, or should the government lose its way.

We explored the city some more then wandered back to the hostel to cook a decent meal and for me to mentally prepare for a day working in an underworld where, like the indigenous dragged from their lives of subsistence agriculture hundreds of years ago, I did not feel comfortable.