Silver Veins of South America

Trip Start Nov 22, 2007
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Friday, February 8, 2008

Valer un Potosí, "to be worth a potosí" aka a fortune -Cervantes Don Quixote

I arrived in Potosi in a round about way as every bus company informed me there was no way to get there for three days. There was no way I was spending any more time in Uyuni so I bought a ticket northwest to the city of Sucre. Looking at the map I couldn't see anyway of getting there without going through Potosi but despite my reservations all questions aimed at bus employees and passengers assured me we would be going nowhere near Potosi. I was only half surprised when I saw the Cerro Rico (rich hill) rise above the horizon and I jumped off the bus, bailing on the more expensive ticket to Sucre. Cheeky Monkeys those Bolivian Bus drivers. Potosi was a very interesting city for a multitude of reasons. It has a fascinating history dominated by the hill that towers over the city like a demanding patriarch the Cerro Rico. My visit to the silver mines themselves was also a great experience. It was scary, humbling and enjoyable all at the same time.

The narrow streets, terracotta roofs and thirty plus churches all help to reveal the age of this city. Potosi was once the richest city in the Americas and larger than Paris or London in its heyday and the silver mines largely underwrote the treasury of the Spanish crown until the days of Franco. The silver has all but dried up though tin became the new cash crop until prices fell out in the 1980´s. Now a mix of tin, silver, gold and cooper are the main minerals mined in Potosi. The mine is a Cooperative so all the miners work together to sell their stones to the refineries all over town, mainly Canadian companies who in Potosi have a much worse reputation (their companies and their citizens) then the Estadaunidenses (from the US) who normally take the brunt of blame. The cooperative makes their existence in the mines much more bearable than in the past, but still miserable even though at the moment they enjoy a rather high standard of Bolivian living for their minerals are trading very well in London at the moment. This may however be short lived as one senora told me the mountain has about three or four productive years left and with its death will most likely come the death of Potosi. For at over 4000 meters it is the most inhospitable city of notable size on earth and needs an economic reason to continue its existence. The city currently seems in good shape, however only time can tell.
 
An interesting intertwined relationship that exists in Potosi is that of the mine and the coca leaf. Back in the day the miners were forced to work thirty to forty hour shifts with no light, no food and no sleep. Only the coca leaf. The Catholic church had banned it as a substance of the devil, but when it was discovered the natives could work longer and faster with the leaves it was granted the blessing of the church as a wonder drug (a wonder drug leading to many synthetic pain killers and ubiquitous the world over: Coca Cola. Though Coke no longer contains cocaine it still uses the coca leaf for flavoring and imports coca leafs to the US along with the pharmaceutical giants). One macerates coca for 30 minutes before the effect comes through. It numbs the mouth, kills hunger pains/headaches, helps with altitude sickness and increases tolerance to work/pain. For maximum effect an alkaloid that normally takes the shape of dog feces is added (tastes a bit as it looks). The coca leaf is such a pillar of Andean society that there is no way it will ever leave their society. Eradication methods by the United States only seem to create animosity with the Andean nations, as coca is by no means cocaine. To get the effect of synthetic cocaine one needs kilos of leaves that would equal multiple trash bags crammed into ones jowls and despite the droopy cheeks of some of the locals this is just not possible (side note: my knowledge was derived from a visit to a coca museum). The miners expect gifts of coca leaves for visits into their mines and I was able to pick up some at the local miners market along with a few sticks of TNT and bag of nitroglycerine for around two US dollars. I can see many problems with anyone purchasing TNT off the street for a few Boliviano´s, with a three-minute fuse included, but when in Rome. We created and set off about five of these bombs we packed ourselves, with alarming ease, and blew up the edge of the famed Cerro Rico itself as noted by a photo of myself and a miner holding two lit bombs. The subsequent explosions must have sounded like the current shelling of N'djamena and it looked the part as well. In conclusion it was however awesome to blow up TNT and Nitro.

When I actually descended into the one of 700 shafts (how the mountain has not collapsed, though the shafts sometimes do, I do not know) I spent an hour and a half snaking my way through dark, grimy crawlspaces in the hot thin air as arsenic and asbestos dust swirled around me and into my lungs. All over one sees statues of the devil carved into the rock (tio) as the miners say that this is his domain so they must pay homage to him. I must agree it felt like hell and I wasn't even the one hand chiseling this mountain for eight hours straight. There was one point where the guide informed me it was time for a challenge. I though it had been challenging enough, but I was not about to back down. He said to go down a distant tunnel alone and to come out a different way. He gave me a series of convoluted verbal directions and soon enough I was in pure darkness, alone in the belly of the beast. It was pretty cool, but I cannot imagine any spelunking expedition in North America that for insurance purposes would have allowed this kind of behavior. By the end I was all too ready to reemerge from the deathly womb of the Cerro and into the cool rarefied air and the bombs outside that waited, needed to be detonated.
Potosi also had a great museum located in the former mint that created all the Spanish coins for the once formidable Spanish Empire. I learned all about the process and the old ways of minting in one amazing colonial building. I also learned that Bolivia no longer produces any of its on currency, ordering it all from Spain save the five Boliviano coin that comes from Canada.  Another interesting tidbit is that the sign from the Potosi mint PTSI superimposed on each other is said to be the origin of the dollar sign ($).
 
I hopped an incredible looking night bus that must have been on its maiden voyage due to the streamers everywhere or perhaps more of the never-ending Carnaval celebrations as I zoomed over a nearly entirely paved road to the de facto capitol of La Paz.

The following is a very brief history on Potosi provided by Wikipedia:

45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. Of this total, 7,000 tons went to the Spanish monarchy. Indian labour, forced through the traditional Incan mita institution of contributed labor, came to die by the thousands, not simply from exposure and brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning in the patio process the silver-ore, having been crushed to powder by hydraulic machinery, was cold-mixed with mercury and trodden to an amalgam by the native workers with their bare feet. The mercury was then driven off by heating, producing deadly vapors. To compensate for the diminishing indigenous labor force, the colonists made a request in 1608 to the Crown in Madrid to begin allowing for the importation of 1500 to 2000 African slaves per year. An estimated total of 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí throughout the colonial era. African slaves were also forced to work in the Casa de la Moneda as acémilas humanas (human mules). Since mules would die after couple of months pushing the mills, the colonists replaced the four mules with twenty African slaves.  After 1800 the silver mines became depleted, making tin the main product. This eventually led to a slow economic decline. Still, the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions (lack of protective equipment from the constant inhalation of dust), the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis and dying around 40 years of age. It is estimated that, in the past years of indigenous labour, roughly 8 million Indians died, "eaten" by the Rich Hill.


 
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