Bolivia is….raw. For all of the charm, beauty, history, and culture that being in a country like Bolivia provides, it comes at a price. We are slowly getting used to the sight of public urination, sickly dogs, very dirty streets, and hundreds of street vendors, but it is taking a bit of patience and humility. Overall, we really like it here, and feel privileged to have a couple months to explore this unique country. Uyuni was our introduction to Bolivia, and our first impressions included delicious and cheap, if not a little tummy-rumbling, ¨broaster¨ chicken, torrential rainstorms, and many kind, soft-spoken locals. Broaster chicken is one of the most popular food options here, and consists of a plate of ridiculously greasy, delicious chicken, served with rice or noodles and french fries, all for less than $2 USD. Don is hooked and has already made a plan to try broaster chicken in as many different establishments as possible. It rained each of the 3 days we spent in Uyuni, but the downpour on the evening of the 2nd day was truly impressive. When one tiny, wet, cold dog snuck into our hotel´s lobby and hid in the corner shaking, we couldn´t help but find a blanket, wrap him up, and cuddle with him for the next 2 hours. I´m still not sure who enjoyed the exchange more, us or the dog. We left Uyuni after two nights, eager to check out the town of Potosi, a 16th century mining town that was once the largest and wealthiest place in all of Latin America. When the Spanish discovered silver in the huge mountain that the town is built beside, they enslaved thousands of indigenous people and brought over thousands more from Africa, working them to their deaths in the pursuit of wealth. The ¨mountain that eats men alive¨ funded the entire country of Spain for two decades! Eventually, however, the silver began to run dry and the town fell into poverty. Today there are still thousands of people working in the mines, over 800 of them children, attempting to excavate every last ounce of the precious metal. It is incredibly dangerous and filthy work, and most miners would not choose to be there if they felt they had a choice. Don and I were both enamored and perplexed by the town of Potosi, and stayed there for a total of 4 nights before making our way to Sucre, Bolivia´s ¨most beautiful town¨…a distinction that requires perspective and a taste for crowded streets and old buildings.
The town of Potosi sits at the breath-taking height of 4,090 meters (13,420 feet), making it one of the highest cities in the world, and man, could we feel it. A simple flight of stairs zapped energy, and walking uphill over a mile from the bus stop to the town center with fully-loaded packs was not the simple task we were used to. In hindsight, the 50 cent taxi ride might have been worth it, but we were feeling strong when we arrived. We ended up spending most of our time in Potosi walking around the marketplaces, weaving through micros (smog-spitting buses shaped like vans) and Bolivian women dressed in colorful, traditional clothing, eating way too much street food, and eventually laying in bed for two days because of said street food. Our first night in town we were welcomed with one of the most impressive Christmas displays we have ever seen. The city´s entire plaza was covered in lights, decorations, ice cream vendors, and hundreds of happy families. We´re still unclear why Christmas had continued well into January, but we were certainly not going to complain. We feasted on street vendor pizzas and hamburgers, treated ourselves to chocolate covered fruit-on-a-stick for desert, and washed it all down with pisco sours in one of the town´s oldest buildings…it was a magical evening. The next day we visited some hot springs on the outskirts of town and then saw the movie ¨Insidious 2¨ at the local movie theatre (a monthly tradition is forming…). Among all of the attractions in that thin-aired town, one experience truly stands out. In Potosi, tourists are given the unique opportunity to visit the working mines, crawl through the tunnels, and meet some of the miners themselves. This is not a tour for the wary or weak, and Don and I did plenty of research before signing up. But after watching the documentary ¨The Devil`s Miner¨ at a hostel in town, and staring at that famous mountain for a couple days, we felt ready to see the infamous working conditions with our own eyes.
We were fortunate to find an especially thorough and informative tour company, and we were even led by an ex-miner himself. The tour began with an introduction to Bolivia´s obsession with the coca leaf. Miners are especially addicted to chewing coca leaves, and you´d be hard-pressed to find a miner without a golf-ball sized wad of leaves in his cheek. This is the same leaf that cocaine is made from, and is in fact illegal in most other countries including the U.S., but in Bolivia`s new consitution, the President declared coca an ¨intrinsic part of Bolivia´s heritage and Andean culture.¨ (Lonely Planet – Bolivia) The war wages on throughout the world, but Bolivian miners swear the coca leaf helps them with altitude, fatigue, and hunger, and it is all they ¨eat¨ while in the mine, sometimes for 24 hours at a time. They even claim it is a natural filter for all the dust they breathe in. The dust is what eventually claims the life of most miners, who rarely live past the age of 50 or 55. After being given our fair share of coca leaves to chew we were brought to the ¨miner´s market¨ to buy gifts for the miners, such as dynamite (which we carried on the bus with us up to the mountain), 96% alcohol (these miners are not messing around), and of course, more coca leaves. We learned how to pour out a bit of alcohol for ¨Pachamama¨ (mother earth) and then we all went around and tried a sip of the sugarcane-derived fire water. Now that we had been throughly prepared, we dressed in full protective garb, stopped by a refinery plant to see how the various minerals were haphazardly seperated out, and headed up the dirt road to one of the ¨safe¨ mines. There are over 700 different cooperative mines in the mountain, and 7 of them have been declared safe enough for tourists to visit. We spent the next 2 hours crawling throughout a labyrinth of poorly ventilated, low-ceilinged tunnels, delving deeper and deeper into a mountain. Within minutes our lungs and throats hurt from the dust and chemicals in the air, and the deeper we got, the hotter and muggier the air became. Our first stop was at ¨Tio¨, the devil that the miners believe rules the mountain. Built out of stone, and originally created by the Spaniards to scare the indigenous people into working, he was cloaked in gifts and offerings that the miners still pour out at the end of every month. In the ¨3rd level¨ down, after shimmying our way through a few holes, we met a solitary miner who was manually driving a stake into the rock, creating a hole for dynamite. If he was lucky, he might excavate enough silver that week to feed his family. We gave him our gifts, wished him luck, and retreated to safety. Once out of the mountain, we had a chance to reflect on the tragic work conditions that existed within. It was a truly eye-opening experience, and something that we won´t soon forget. Interestingly, many locals believe the silver will run out completely with 5 to 15 years, and most think the town of Potosi will quickly become a ghost-town, as thousands migrate to places with more job opportunities. Unfortunately, our day did not end there.
After the tour I thought it would be a fun idea to walk around town, buying all the street food snacks that we had passed by over the past couple days, and tasting them for myself. A few hours later Don and I (but mostly I) had tried an assortment of nuts, beans, popped corn, sweet bread, sorbet, and more. We went back to our hostel for a nap, and by the time I woke up I was as sick as a dog. I´ll spare the rest of the unsavory details, but suffice it to say that the next day I felt good enough to get out of bed, but only for about 15 minutes at a time. Don took incredibly good care of me, and after a full day of bedrest, we were finally ready to leave for Sucre the following morning. It wouldn´t be fair to leave Potosi without mentioning the wonderful breakfast experience that we had multiple days in a row. On the upstairs level of the central market (the cornerstone of every South American city), there is a cafeteria filled with old women making breakfast. You simply choose your bench, order anything from scrambled eggs with ham to egg sanwiches to pieces of ¨cake¨, choose coffee, chocolate, or tea to drink, and walk out paying less than $2 USD for your entire meal. It was a real find, and even in spite of my sickness, it was our last stop in Potosi. Unfortunately, our ¨travel day¨, which consisted of a beautiful, but winding 3 hour bus ride, a lack of food, and a stressful afternoon of hostel-hunting in a big city, also left me ill, so it wasn´t until this morning that I finally got my sea-legs back. We are now in Sucre, and like a timid street dog with a friendly human, we are slowly warming up to this new city.
Sucre is a university town, and is the constitutional capital of Bolivia. It is a proud, bustling city, and it does have a huge assortment of cafes, restaurants, plazas, and churches. For a city, it is not a bad place to spend some time. The trouble for Don and I are the beautiful green mountains in the distance that you can see from almost every city block. We want to be out there, hiking, biking, and camping! But alas, this city offers the best opportunities to learn Spanish, and right now, that is our priority. We found ourselves a very cheap, very rundown hostel that we will call home for the next 2 weeks, and after today´s research, we each signed up for 20 hours of private lessons per week for 2 weeks through Sucre Spanish School. We are giddy with excitement and anticipation over starting school tomorrow morning. We were even happy to hear that we get homework every night! The school we chose is in a beautiful building in a nice part of town, seems to have mature, educated teachers, and is well-connected with the community. We really don´t know what to expect, but both Don and I are excited to take our Spanish to the next level. Who knows, maybe my blogs will have to be in Spanish from here on out!