Mines, Markets and Muerte.

12 02 2009

Arriving in Sucre in desperate need of a shower and a fresh set of clothes, we headed out to catch a taxi to our hostel. This proved harder than it should have been due to Sucre’s taxi drivers being the first in South America to refuse to barter in any way. Furthermore they must be the only taxi’s in the world who are more expensive, the more people you have in the car – I assume this only applies to Gringos, but they all were in cahoots and stated that they charge per person…eventually we succumbed to our own body odour and begrudgingly paid for a taxi to La Dolce Vita hostel.

The hostel is perfectly situated in town, close to the market and main plaza. Whilst slightly more expensive than other hostels, it has a very homely feel and the owners, a lovely Swiss French couple, made sure we had all the information we needed on the local area. We paid a little extra and had a private room with ensuite and balcony; it’s definitely nice to have your own space every now and then, to spread your things out and not worry about other people.

Founded in the mid fifteenth century, Sucre’s official title was Villa de la Plata (City of Silver) due to the large amounts of silver found nearby. The first half of the seventeenth century was the city’s golden age, as wealth produced from the mines from nearby Potosi saw the construction of lavish palaces, extravagant churches and stately administrative buildings. After independence, La Plata was made the official capital of the newly founded republic, and renamed what we know it as today – Sucre. However the city’s economic importance slowly began to decline and the Civil war in 1899 between La Paz and Sucre, which resulted in the seat of both congress and the presidency being moved to La Paz, only served to confirm the long established reality that Sucre had had its time in the spotlight. Nonetheless it was still allowed to retain the title of official, or constitutional capital, and today remains a tour de force of immaculately preserved colonial architecture, and is widely considered the most beautiful and sophisticated city in Bolivia, particularly by locals.

Sucre is home to some of Bolivia’s finest museums. We decided to first pay a visit to the Casa de la Libertad. Situated of the northwest side of the Plaza 25 de Mayo, it it where the Bolivian act of Independence was signed on August 6th 1825: it now houses a small but very informative museum dedicated to the birth of the republic. On display is the original signed document proclaiming Bolivia a sovereign and independent state, as well as a gallery of portraits of almost all of Bolivia’s presidents; there certainly have been a lot of them!

Sucre also serves as the administrative and market centre for the Quechua speaking indigenous communities that live in the mountainous hinterland, who are particularly renowned for their beautiful weavings. The next museum we visited pays homage to their traditions and the importance of their needlepoint to their society. The captivating Museo de Arte Indigena is dedicated to the disitinctive weavings of two local indigenous communities, the Jalq’a and the Tarabuquenos. The museum was set up as a large project that aimed to bring about a revival of indigenous art and turn their weaving craft into a source of income for hundreds of desperately poor campesino families. As a result of cheap imitations and also a decline in interest, the skills that had been passed down for generations, were in danger of being forgotten, as both men and women left their rural towns in search of work in the city.

The museum is well laid out and displays a collection of tools, photos and maps that explain the weaving techniques, the method used to the make the natural dyes, as well as explaining the weavings themselves and their relevance. Each weaving tells its own story and its style is distinct to the group it was produced by. There is also the opportunity to watch first hand some of the weavings being produced; it was fascinating to witness these women produce an intricate work of art, out of what was originally appeared to be two rolls of coloured string wrapped around a frame. Their tiny weathered hands delicately picking at the strings in an instinctive manner, as they slowly wove their story into life. I was so impressed, and felt so fervently that these skills should not be forgotten that I purchased a distinctive Tarabuqueno piece for myself from the shop that is on site.

The historic city centre was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991, and strict building codes means most of it has been preserved as it was over a hundred years ago. Neon signs are banned, and regulations require all buildings to be whitewashed once a year mainlining another of Sucre’s ostentatious titles: “La Ciudad Blanca de Las Americas” – the White city of the Americas.

There is not better place to view the ‘White city’ than from the mirador (viewpoint) at Plaza Pedro de Anzures that affords brilliant scenic views across the terracotta orange roofs and steep cobbled streets, and further onto the sloping highlands that surround the city. There is also a great café that serves fantastic tea and cake, and pasta dishes which you can eat whilst playing chess and taking in the sunset over the city.

We also ventured to the food market to buy dinner for one evening. The market is just off the main square and is a rich cornucopia of smells and colours. Herbs and spices of every variety, bloody slabs of meat of every description, five storey blamanches and every fruit and vegetable under the sun makes the trip to the market an un-missable experience, not only for the sensory attack, but also the fact that a three course meal costs the same as dodgy kebab back home.

After we cooked our delicious (and cheap) dinner we went for a drink at the Joy Ride Café, a typical backpacker bar, but it has a nice atmosphere with both locals and travellers socialising together and enjoying the good music and wide selection of beers. On our trip home though, as we were crossing the square, there was a definite party atmosphere. The square was packed with people, all carrying…. water guns and water balloons. Before we could even say ‘anorak’, like vampires to fresh blood, the word gringo was alive in the air. The H2O civil war was halted and the forces united on a full gunned assault on their foreign counterparts. Young and old took great glee in launching water balloons from less than a metre way straight at our heads. It was great fun though, fruitlessly trying to dodge the attack, and as we were quickly soaked through, we just took up arms and joined in, even if we were slightly outnumbered!

One of the most popular trips from Sucre is to the small rural town of Tarabuco, famed for its Sunday Market, where the local indigenous communities come to sell their wares. Whilst it’s beginning to become a bit of tourist trap, there is still plenty of scope to grab a bargain, or two! I took the opportunity to purchase some presents for everybody back home and stock up some llama socks for the cold British weather. It’s also a good place to buy silver, which is straight from the infamous mines in nearby Potosi. A few minutes walk away from the main plaza takes you to stalls selling basic supplies such as agricultural tools, huge bundles of coca, huge steel drums of pure alcohol and sandals made from old tyres.

We decided to leave Sucre and head up to Potosi. Potosi is a city of tragic faded grandeur, its magnificent colonial architecture tainted by the blood that was shed to build it. Set on a desolate windswept plain, at almost 4100m above sea level, Potosi is the highest city in the world. It’s a wonder why it was ever built at all, until you see the huge conical peak of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) that rises imposingly over the town; which was, (and many believe still is…) the richest source of silver the world has ever seen.

The Silver rush was started in 1545 by a Llama Herder who was caught out after dark. In order to keep warm he lit a fire and was staggered to see a trickle of molten silver run out from the blaze. News of this discovery quickly spread to the Spanish, and the rush began. Over the next twenty years, Potosi flourished, its population expanding rapidly to over 100,000, making it easily the largest metropolis in the Americas.

By 1600, Potosi was home to over 160,000 and boasted a large number of impressive colonial churches, theatres, dancehalls, gambling dens and brothels. As with any boom, quality of life was fantastic for a select number. However for the indigenous workers and African slaves who were conscripted to make their masters their fortunes, the conditions were beyond appalling. Over three centuries of mining beneath Cerro Rico has seen the sad demise of over nine million lives.

Like all booms, it had to cool eventually. By 1650, Silver production entered a century long decline that saw the population drop to around 30,000. Bolivia gaining its independence saw more and more people moving away to chase new opportunities, and the population dropped further to around 9,000. Mining moved towards that of tin, yet the 1980 crash of the tin market, marked the end for Potosi, that in reality has never recovered from the decline of Silver production 300 years previously.

We decided to pay a visit to the mines. It was an ethical dilemma whether to visit them at all: on one side many question the ethics of making a tourist attraction out of something where the state of affairs is so catastrophic. For those that work in the mines it is a question of earning a living, it is the only job they have ever known, and the only work available for miles around. Why would I be willing to put myself at risk unnecessarily, to witness people working in such appalling conditions?

Conversely, I was perfectly happy to purchase the cheap silver as gifts for those at home, and happily use my laptop and car, of which some components have been made from materials mined here in Potosi. Suffice to say the money never makes its way back to those that risked their lives producing it. Based on this we decided to take a tour: we booked our tours with the hostel where we were staying. Koala Tours are run by experienced ex miner multilingual guides, with 15 percents of each mine tour sold going toward improving health-care facilities for the miners.

Before we drove up to the mines themselves, we stopped off at the Miners Market to purchase some gifts for the miners. You can buy coca leaves, cigarettes, fizzy drinks, pure cane alcohol, and dynamite! Our guide informed us that all would be appreciated and told us all about the dynamite used and where it is produced. We even sampled the pure cane alcohol; a drop on the tongue was enough to warm your insides and make your eyes water profusely.

Next stop was to get kitted up; we were provided with overalls, safety helmets and flashlights and also a dust mask. We also had to sign a disclaimer: safety precautions in the mine are predominantly left to fate. There was every chance we might be hit by falling rocks or a speeding mine trolley. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little anxious, but it was something I had decided I wanted to do.

As we headed up the slopes of Cerro Rico, you could see the signs of centuries of mining – scree was everywhere, in an array of hues of reds and yellows. The sides of the mountain were blemished where thousands of tunnels had been dug in the hope of striking lucky. There is no map or enforced regulations as to where you can dig, even today. The mountain is maze of interlocking and overlapping tunnels, all metres underground.

With our lights on and masks firmly in place, it was finally time to enter the tunnel. For the first 50 metres we were able to stand up straight; occasionally having to duck under the support rafters. We followed the train tracks deeper into the mountain. At the end of 50 metres there was a museum, in a small lit room, built into the side of the tunnel. It detailed the history of the mines and also the statistics, from how much silver has been mined to the fatalities and causes. Our guide then answered any questions we had.

Sandro, our guide, told us how he used to work down the mines; as did his father and his father before him. He went on to tell us emotional account of his father’s final years before he died. Due to years spent underground, like most miners his lungs were destroyed. If a tunnel collapse doesn’t get you, then the chances are you well fall victim to lung disease, more often than not Silicosis, caused by inhaling the silicon dust. The miners work 6 days a week and usually for 10 hours straight. Whilst the legal age limit is 16, many start as young as 13. The average life expectancy is around 15 years.

Sandro’s father lived much longer than most, but he could barely speak in his last final years. Sandro recalls that he was a changed man once he could not longer work. He could barely string a sentence together without breaking out in a long and appalling coughing fit. At nights he hardly slept as he struggled to breathe. Medical treatment was out to the question, it was both too expensive and too late in the day. When Sandro’s father final passed away; his brother and he decided that they would try to escape the mines.

They were fortunate enough to get jobs as guides. Whilst they still have to enter the mines each day; it is only for a couple of hours. On top of this Sandro told us that he was training to teach English at the University in La Paz. The guides gave him a chance to perfect his English. There is so much bureaucracy in Bolivia that the process could take up to a year; Sandro was further hindered by the fact that he was born in the highlands. There is serious class rift in Bolivia, and the prejudices that are held by those in power make it sometimes impossible for people like Sandro to ever escape their circumstances.

We carried on down the mine, the passageway get increasingly narrow, with tunnels regularly jutting off to both sides. We headed down ladders and crawled through crevices; due to a mixture of the altitude, the heat and the difficultly in breathing, some of the group decided that enough was enough and headed back to surface. I kept on going, the sweat by now readily dripping of me, due to exertion and the heat. The heat is caused by the oxidisation of the arsenic and other chemicals such as asbestos that coat the tunnel surfaces. Its no wonder that life expectancy is so low in these tunnels.

The miners work in families of around 10, each taking it in turns to dig, fill the cart and transport the load, which ways normally around ½ ton, back up to the surface. We greeted the miners as we passed and gave them our gifts. The group that remained followed Sandro down to the fourth level, sometimes having to crawl on our hands and knees, our helmet scraping the roof of the tunnel, and the muddy water soaking our overalls. We had to keep checking the time as we were close to the end of the working day; this was a serious matter as the end of the day is when the dynamite is brought out to blow open new tunnels. We did not want to be underground when this began.

Once back in the fresh air, feeling the sunshine once again on our skin, it was time for a little bit of fun. A few of us had bought some extra dynamite for ourselves, which Sandro promised us we could use afterwards to blow a few things up, namely piles of dirt and scree. He showed us how mix it, and to light the charge, but insisted on being the one to run and lay the explosive. It was typical boys and their toys; once lit we had around 5 minutes; plenty time to pose for a few quick photos brandishing out dynamite, much to the horror of our better halves. Once they had been planted, we waited with anticipation, our cameras at the ready hoping to capture the explosive moment. A countdown commenced… concluded by an almighty bang that resounded across the valley and dirt and mud rained from the sky.

That evening we all went out for dinner together; it was a great restaurant just 3 blocks up from the hostel, and incredibly cheap. It was a chance to reflect on the unforgettable experience we had all just had, and to appreciate how fortunate we all were. After dinner we headed down into town to La Casona where we consumed a quite a few alcoholic beverages, followed by an impromptu karaoke session at a lock in a nearby bar. The locals looked somewhat bemused at 5 semi inebriated gringos bellowing down the mikes, but by the end we had them all singing along to the karaoke classic ‘Hey Jude’.

At breakfast the next day, all feeling a little worse for wear; we met 5 lads who had cycled up from Patagonia: now that is a journey and a half! For now though we decided stuck to buses, and despite not wanting to leave to soon, we had a bus to catch to Santa Cruz. As a result of there being a dengue epidemic in Santa Cruz, something we didn’t know until we were on the bus there, I was forced to cover up every inch of skin, not very pleasant in the 35 degree heat! However we didn’t plan to spend longer than a day here, as we were due to catch the train to Brazil. El Tren de la Muerte to be exact – The Death Train!

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