Workin’ in the Silver Mine

Tuesday, July 16

On Monday we had heard from our guide that there was a blockade between Uyuni and Potosí, our next destination.  Rather than drive almost twice as far to avoid it, we proceeded up the road with the hopes that negotiation might let us through.  Sure enough, within an hour of driving we encountered two buses sideways blocking the road.  We sat there during an hour of negotiations between our driver and police and strikers and various truckers and their next higher-ups. The activists who had blocked the road became amenable to turning the action from agitprop to fundraising.  So rather than run the blockade, it became a “fill the boot” drive, such as is held by the Sky Londa Fire Station.  The only thing missing was trays of lasagne and plastic forks.  And Jerry Lewis, of course.

They moved one of the buses and we continued.  This sort of thing is apparently very common in Bolivia and Peru, and has been for years.

Potosí is a city built to serve a very old silver mine.  It is surrounded by mountains and is very beautiful in the way that a million dead slaves can make an old town beautiful.  We had lunch next to the hotel at an Authentic Bolivian Restaurant.  They had nonstop videos playing Korean pop music.  You expect them to listen to Bob Marley still?  The food was similarly international.  Potosí is a university town.  Students are a large part of the crowd, even outnumbering tourists when you get a couple of blocks from the main square.

We were taken to the Mint House for a tour.  The silver from the mine was used in the mid-1500s to make coins that were used all over New Spain.  They were all hand-stamped, and there were no punches so they were never perfectly round.  There is one functional silver working machine on the premises.  If you were to hitch up four mules to it in the basement, you could press silver like pasta, just as was done centuries ago.  

After the tour, we had dinner on our own at a nearby restaurant, eating Bolivian traditional dishes.  One of them was pretty much meat and potatoes, all covered by a sauce that was almost entirely paprika.  We encountered paprika in a lot of Bolivian dishes.  Did it come from here, to Hungary, or was it returned from Hungary?  Chili Peppers are a New World genus, but they have gone everywhere in the world.

The Sopa Andina was better than the last Lipton’s Cup-a-Quinoa I had.  Not every place makes real soup stock.

We stayed in a pretty hotel, Hostel Colonial, with two courtyards, but the bathroom in room 116 smells bad, as if a turd or small animal had died there.  I’ve smelled this in bathrooms before.  Never chose to pursue the analysis scientifically.  Null hypothesis is that they have mistaken the P trap for a ventilator fan.

Wednesday, July 17

In the morning we headed up to the silver mine for a tour.  On the way we stopped in a shopping district for miners, where they buy shovels, pickaxes, protective clothing. The miners in Potosí are expected to purchase, either out of their own paychecks or through their co-operatives, everything they need to do their jobs.  Coca leaves, foremost.  Working class men in Bolivia generally have rodent cheeks bulging with coca and the various flavoring agents that you can chew with it, without which extended work at high altitudes is impossible.  The main single-point mutation that Tibetans exhibit, increasing the efficiency of hemoglobin at high altitudes, has not occurred in the Andes.  Other advantageous mutations have been identified.  African slaves could not work here and were sent to the lowlands, after brief experiments in the colonial period. But mostly it’s coca.

The result is that there are old ladies running tiny shops on the streets leading up to the mine, where dynamite, fuses, blasting caps, boots, shovels, ammonium nitrate, hard hats, coca leaves, anise flavored paste, and the like, sit next to each other on the shelves with Fanta and toilet paper and cigarettes.

And ethanol.  There is a native God, El Tío (Dios, but the Aymara language didn’t distinguish “d” and “t”) who protects the miners (not doing a great job: millions have died since the 16th century, and even today the life expectancy of a miner at Cerro Rico is 40 years) and He expects the miners to garland him with Carneval paper streamers, coca, cigarettes, and a few drops of 96% ethanol on His head, hands, feet, eyes, and enormous red penis, every time they get the chance.  Pachamama, the Earth Mother, also wants you to pour one out for the homies.

On special days, llama blood and the head of the sacrificed llama, as well.

At the mine, we were issued a rubber jacket, pants, and boots, which we put on over most everything else we were wearing.  A headlamp was attached to our hard hats, and we proceeded into the mine.  The mine shafts have electricity and oxygen pipes running everywhere, and it was actually quite breathable.  But one is constantly ducking under overhanging beams, pipes, and rock ceilings.  We stopped to see the devil effigy, and then continued to a side shaft where a 17-year-old worker was moving a pile of ore, one wheelbarrow at a time, from where it had been broken up, to the spot where we were standing, next to the trolley tracks in the shaft where we had entered.  I continued on a bit farther, but the height was such that I was walking pretty constantly bent over, and we decided that we had gotten the idea and headed back out into the daylight.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, and walked to a little church where we took the tour of the cathedral, the roof, and the paintings in the courtyard of the convent.  It was all in Spanish, but one of the workers typed as much as he could into Google Translate, and showed us the results in English.  It was very sweet of him.  The observation platform at the top of the roof had a great view of the city.  The tiles, similar to the ones in California, are called “musleras”, Spanish for “thigh”, because they were originally formed around the roofer’s thigh.

We met the guide for dinner at another traditional Bolivian restaurant.  The food included llullucha soup and pique macho.  Llullucha is a bacterium that grows in little green spheres in lakes.  Very nice, hard to describe except in terms of spherized this-and-that which you might have found in very trendy restaurants a decade ago.  As with many human inventions, nature got there first.  Pique Macho is Bolivian for way too much food; also tasty and picante.