Rise and Fall of Potosi

I wrote this last night but wasn´t able to publish it, so here it is.

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So I took the 9 hour overnight bus last night to Potosi, Bolivia. The 9 hours passed like it was nothing, but leaving the bus and entering a brisk morning at the highest city in the world was a shock after a warm bus ride. The city sits at a cool 15,827 ft. The city was made famous by the silver found by the Spanish in the nearby mountain. The silver made Potosi one of the richest in the world at the time, rivaling Paris and Seville. They built up the city of 200,000 with over 30 churches while they reeled in the money. However, the silver soon ran pretty much dry. Now, there is still an industry for zinc, a little silver, and a few other minerals. But it´s not what is used to be, and the city is pretty poor. Strange to see with these extremely nice churches and cathedrals and colonial buildings making up the center of the city.

The big tourist attraction here is taking a tour of the mines. I found my hostel this morning and immediately signed up with the tour through the hostel. I had heard the tour was supposed to be eye-opening, and that was not a lie.
Tours start out by going to the local market to buy gifts for the miners. The typical gifts are coca leaves, a drink that is 96% alcohol to drink, gloves, and juice. Coca leaves are extremely important for the miners for their working conditions. They say it gives them energy (since it numbs the senses) and also acts as a filter against some of the dust and other things they´re breathing in. The 96% alcohol is just ridiculous. The guide has us try it, and it´s tastes like drinking ethanol.
So we all bought the gifts and went on our way with our mining gear (including the hardhat and headlamp). We got to the outside of the opening into the mine, and I was pretty nervous not knowing what to expect for the size of the tunnels and if I would get claustrophobic. After entering, we could quickly see how poor the working conditions are for the miners. The air they breathe, the lack of many machines, and the constant danger of working in the mines are just a few of the problems. I read somewhere that many of the men develop chronic problems after only 10 or 15 years of working in the mines caused by breathing the toxic gases. And talking to the men, they said that every day that go in like it´s their last day. Hundreds of men are killed every year working in the mines from collapses in the mines and breathing the toxic air over time. The thing about this is that, even with the huge risk, they are not paid much at all. The average worker earns 800 Bolivianos every month, or about $115 a month. They have to do this job to support their families. How lucky does that make us feel? Many of us can make that much every day or two, and sitting in a comfortable office with the only danger being carpel tunnel disease.
So we walked through the mines, and at times we would stop to talk to the workers. It´s amazing how drinking and eating coca leaves is a large part of their day. From our gifts, the guide would open up the bottle of the 96% alcohol and make a mixed drink with the juice. If you thought construction workers were full of machismo men, these men working in the mine were twice as worse. All they did was make dirty jokes. They even had a poster of a ¨model¨ in the mines.
At one point, the guide told us all to shut off our headlamps, and we waited for a few minutes as the men at a distance prepared dynamite. It was a surreal moment to be sitting in the complete darkness deep in a mine, and to feel and hear the explosion 3 different times of dynamite.
After 2 or 3 hours in the mine, I was ready to get out. I honestly can´t imagine being in there 5 days a week for 8 hours a day. I have a lot of respect for the guys who are doing that, but it is a sad sight because they are doing it just to survive.
To change gears, I wanted to also talk a bit about api, an absolutely delicious traditional drink in Bolivia. It´s made of the purple type of corn and is served very hot. The thickness and sweetness of it makes it a perfect winter drink. I had it 3 different times in La Paz, and I hope to be able to find it in the US!
That is all for now. Tomorrow I will be exploring Potosi more and then head to Sucre, a few hours away. Hope everyone is doing well.

About Trent

I started Frugal Purpose to share my love of personal finance to assist your pursuit of a more fulfilling life. I am a financial analyst by trade, traveler at heart, and want to share with you the beauty of this world.

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