Life is a series of moral contradictions and paradoxes and it is how we bridge these that make our moral being-
At the end of the salt flat trip we ended up in Uyuni. Having read that there is not much to do in Uyuni we had prepurchased bus tickets to Potosi that evening. Our tour operator had been good thus far and had gotten us tickets, all we had to do was wait until the bus left that night. Unfortunately the bus didn’t leave until late but it wasn’t that big of a deal because there were world cup games to watch, which allowed us to kill time. When it was finally time to go we grabbed our bags from the tour operator and headed out in search of a green bus has she had said. As we got closer to the bus terminal, if you can call it that since it is really just a street with bus companies, we saw a bright shiny new green coach bus. We high fived each other and though alright this isn’t going to be so bad. But just like out of an 80s comedy we were told that we didn’t have tickets on that bus, our bus was behind it. When we looked back I saw a bus that probably ran at the same time as the model T and probably the original driver of the bus too. As he climbed to the roof of the bus he started calling for luggage to be handed up to him so he could strap it to the top. After nearly throwing out my back throwing bags to him it was time to get on the bus. The bus’ interior looked like it was designed by the same people who designed lounge bars for Vegas in the 70s. Its red faux velvet was not really appealing but we thought oh well its a 6hr bus ride and we only paid 8 bucks we can’t complain too much.
We got in and got ready for the long hall, things did not start too well as we got to our seats and the man in front of Caitlin was already reclined, his chair must have been a dentist chair because his head was in Caitlin’s lap. He would eventually lean to his left and sleep on Amanda’s shoulder. The bus filled up quickly and yet people kept getting on, this did not come as a surprise as standing room is always fair game, but what did shock us is that all of a sudden people where flipping chairs out of the arm rests to sit in the aisle. This part was a new experience, but I figured if nothing else it enhanced the security on the bus because it meant that nobody could snatch something from overhead and run out of the bus because they would be tripping over about 20 people trying to get away. Now that the bus was full and ready to go we set off, all the while hoping that our bags did not get stolen or fall off the top of the bus.
As the bus took off we quickly discovered two things: guard rails are for wusses and paved roads are overrated. The bus ride was not only one of the most uncomfortable, but also one of the most nerve racking I’ve been on. My mom has always worried about road trips and going through mountains but until this one I had never understood why and I now also have a far different view on what is a bad road. For our fellow Central American readers, the roads in Central America look like the autobahn compared to the roads in Bolivia. After what turned into 8hrs of shear terror and prayer we made it to Potosi at 2am.
We got in a cab and headed to the hostel we had reserved. When we arrived at La Casona we were greeted with the fact that we did not have a reservation only to finally get two rooms that ended up costing us extra. The place ripped us off and put us in a bad mood about Potosi, which made it a little hard to want to stay. However we did not let that chase us away without seeing what we had come to see which were the mines, so the next day we changed hotels and set up a tour to go see the mines.
The mines in Potosi have been historically important since the time of the Spanish Colonization of South America. The mountains outside of Potosi were said to shine because they had so much silver in them. The Spanish quickly found out that there was a lot of silver and started mining it as quickly and cheaply as they could with indigenous labor. They used the mita system established by the Incas to exploit the labor force they had conquered. The Incas would have to send a certain number of people to work the mines for a couple of months but the Spanish quickly made sure they had to stay longer by causing them to go into debt because of exaggerated food prices, alcohol addiction and other circular forms of debt. The miners would be kept in the mines for 2 weeks at a time with nothing to eat besides Coca leaves to chew. The conditions were horrible and somewhere between 4 and 8 million people have died in the mines since the Spanish arrived. The slave labor and conditions were chronicled by many and shown to be wicked but that did not stop them. Not until recently have the mines become semi-humane. The conditions are still horrible, the only difference is that it is now a co-operative so miners can become wealthy if they hit a vein in the area of the mine that they have claimed. I say semi-humane because it is poverty in Bolivia that leads people to work in these horrible conditions and kids as young as 14 start working in the mines without proper face masks to filter the gases and dust that they breath in. The average career span of the miners is 10 years in Potosi and often there are health effects due to the work. They are currently mining for tin as it is being heavily used in the construction of cell phones.
All of this being said we decided to take a tour of the mine. As these mines are currently being used we first stopped at a store to purchase coca leaves and soda as gifts for the miners and dynamite to blow up. The tour took us into the working mine and we saw workers pushing heavy cart loads of ore out of the mine and saw miners hammering away at the walls. At times we had to crawl to get through and periodically we would stop and talk to the miners as they passed us pushing the carts out. It was not the most comfortable tour as one would expect as we were in a working mine and at times the air felt full of gas or other particles giving it a sweet taste at times and other times I felt a little like I was choking. As we got deeper in I realized I really had no desire for our tour guide to blow up the dynamite. Eventually she would but it was outside of the mine which I have to admit was a real relief.
On the ride back to town from the mine we all rode quietly in a pensive state thinking about all we saw. It is difficult to think that there is the possibility that the miners could become richer than they would working at a restaurant but at the cost of health problems starting at the age of 14. All of this so that affluent countries can have their brand new cellphones every two years for free. In addition to this it seems odd that there are tours to see the difficult conditions that they work in, a workplace that has seen as many deaths as a concentration camp. It made me realize that we are as responsible for this as the Spanish were in the past. I am still struggling with the role that I play in this process and what the solution is, if I stop using the materials then there is no job but if I continue I promote the system.
An artistic rendition of the mines.
Coca Leaves and the catalyst needed to activate the coca.
Pachamama the god of the earth who the miners leave gifts to for good luck.
The three of us in the mine.
Walking into the mine. The air hoses bring fresh air into the deepest part of the mines.
Our guide getting ready to blow up the dynamite.