Every now and then travel throws up a relatively out of the ordinary experience or situation. When we were in Thailand in 2010, we’d experience the political ‘Red Shirt’ riots – something bigger than tourism to a country. This trip, to date, had gone relatively smoothly and hadn’t thrown up any un-hittable curveballs. Let me introduce you to the mining city of Potosi, Bolivia.
Potosi Mining Protests
The life of a miner in Potosi is pretty tough. You only need to watch the award winning film ‘The Devils Miner’ about a 14 yo kid that has to work in the mines because his father passes away, to understand what tough life is all about. The life expectancy of a Potosi miner is around 40, due to the daily exposure to many poisonous gases – without safety equipment. The mines are a co-operative, the miners earn what they can extract from the mountain (Cerro Rico – see pic above). There is no limit to how long they can work each day, the more they work the more minerals they can extract ad the more money they get. There are plenty of tourist operators offering tours of the mines, we passed on this option after watching the film. We didn’t think we needed to see too much more of what goes on in the mine.
As luck would have it, the miners decided it was time for a strike while we were there. You’d expect a strike to take the course of: don’t work for the day, have a little march somewhere in town and sit down for negotiations. Not in Potosi. The miners set up road blocks in and out of the town – when I say road block I don’t mean one you have to slow down to pass through, I mean one you cannot get through at all. Ridiculous! So there we were, in Potosi with no buses there to run us out of town. A 2 day stop-over turned into a 4-day stay. Potosi has its charms, but there isn’t a great number of things to do there, a few churches etc. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but there wasn’t much we could do so we mainly sat in the sun, read books, ate and slept for a couple of days!
Dynamite. Normally reserved for controlled explosions in mines, on mountains and perhaps in quarries? Once again Potosi defies the rules. Yep, the miners, with their logical road blockades, use the dynamite while protesting. We were standing in the main square of the city on our final day just taking it all in, when the miners started to march around the square. This would have been fine but they had to take it another step by lighting dynamite and exploding it in the middle of the road. The first couple of explosions made us widdle ourselves! In all they must have set off about 20 sticks of the stuff, with not a single policeman trying to take action to stop it – they just blew it up like it was an everyday occurrence (which I guess it is in the mines). Crazy stuff, all part of the Potosi experience I guess!
Bleeding Jesus and Oompa-Lumpas
As mentioned earlier, we didn’t do a great deal in Potosi, the strikes de-motivated us! We did get out and see a few sites through. La Casa de Moneda was a good stop off. It used to be the minting house – where they made all the coins for Bolivia from the silver that came out of Cerro Rico. Now it’s a museum, showing the labour-some process that used to be used to make the coins as well as exhibiting paintings, minerals and other things. Luckily for you, the reader, we weren’t allowed to take photos, so you don’t have to bear hideously boring photos of coins!
San Fransico Monestario was another cultural serving from Potosi. The complex is home to serving monks, a huge church and a rooftop that you can climb onto the top of. We took a tour with a young guy who was practising his English through taking tours. The most interesting piece of the tour was a story about the figure of Jesus that sits on their head altar. It’s one of only two brown coloured Jesus’ in South America and it simply turned up on the doorstep of the church one-day, they have no idea where it came from. The other interesting bit is that the figure of Jesus is said to have bled 4 times in its lifetime in the church. Each time it has had significance to what is going on at the time in the city. One instance was that the figure bled a day before a reservoir above the city burst its banks and flooded the city. Many people had taken the bleeding as a sign and had left their homes, meaning they were safe when the reservoir burst its walls. Interesting stuff.
In between trips out to the bus terminal to get the latest on the blockade situation, we spent a bit of time wandering through the streets of the city. Something was kicking off while we were there as we saw a number of groups practicing their marching on the roads. We were even lucky enough to see a bunch of junior Oompa-Lumpa’s strutting their stuff. Bar 4,060 served up some great chocolate caliente’s (hot chocolate) and was the place I sampled the local brew Potosini (a litre of the stuff at that). The locals at our hostel took us out for a night to a local bar. This place was very local, not a white guy in sight and prices were rock bottom. We put away a few of their favourite drinks – hot lemonade (fresh lemonade) topped up with pure alcohol. They were actually pretty tasty and for $0.50 a pop we couldn’t complain at all!
We finally got the news that the miners were releasing their stranglehold on the roads, so we raced to the terminal to book our tickets out – we weren’t taking any chances! That evening we were on our way to Tupiza, hopeful for some more great weather but a few less miners.