Living a miner's life


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Published: December 10th 2012
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In the morning on Wednesday I got my very first tattoo. It hurt a bit, but it wasn't anywhere as bad as I had expected and I'm happy with the end result. Also this week was the first time I went to the movies here in Bolivia. First we met at one cinema and then it turned out my friend had checked the times wrong and they weren't showing James Bond until really late. We then decided to go to the other big cinema in town and got a better time. This one is located inside a mall, so there were a bunch of people around. While I was standing outside with a friend, a little girl came up to us and we started talking. It was around 9pm, she was 10 years old and was watching the cars in the parking lot for 0.50 Bs per car, which is some 0.08€. She then told us she had to walk home alone at 10 o'clock when her shift ends. My friend and I were both shocked and so she decided to give the girl at least the candy she had with her. Our movie finally started and we were able to enjoy a movie in English. Afterwards we were trying to get out of there and everything was closed, since it was close to 12am and the mall had closed already. So we had to go all the way down to the parking lot and then walk through half of it before being out on the street. It was very strange.

Another interesting experience this week was my visit to a local orphanage Carlein works with. She showed us (me and Mikkel, my co-worker) around and then we hung out with the kids for a while. At first they were a little shy, but then they got comfortable around us and played with us. Especially Mikkel was very popular as there are few boys/men at the orphanage and the kids miss a father-figure. Everyone loved his beard, but it also makes him look so old I guess one of the boys asked if he was my dad. FYI: He's a few months younger than me... One thing was very strange though. While I was playing with a boy he asked me if I had money in my purse. I said yes and he asked me if he could see it. I denied and he asked me why, he just wants to take a look. I didn't really know what to do, so I tried to distract him from this thought and do something different. Luckily he didn't insist anymore and continued playing. Another funny thing was when the kids managed to catch a bird outside. We came by and Carlein asked "Awww, what's its name?". The boy looked at her as if she was crazy and answered dead serious: "Bird. What else?!".

On the weekend it was travel-time once again and Carlein and I decided to go to Potosí, the highest city in the world, on her last weekend in Bolivia. We took the night bus as usual to save time and this time travelled 2 hours longer than last time we went there to go to Uyuni. Turned out it wasn't bad though, cause we didn't know what to do there at 5 in the morning anyways. So arriving there we got a taxi to get us to the "Koala Den", a hostel I had found in my Lonely Planet. Since the bus terminal is quite far away from the city centre the taxi driver took two more people with him who were going the same way. This way we met two older Potosí residents, Alfredo and his nameless "Primo" (Cousin), who were living close to our hostel. We were chatting in our cab and the three men were really nice and wished us a nice stay. Arriving at the Koala Den we were told the main building was full, but just around the corner there was the second koala Den with three rooms. We walked a bit too far though and ended up in one of Potosí's "attractions": El Pasaje de Siete Vueltas (Passage of the Seven Turns). It is said the people built this street this way to keep the freezing wind from dashing through the street, but it was a huge disappointment. All we saw was a sad street filled with dog poop...

When we finally found the hostel and got to our room, there was a woman sleeping there, so we decided to just leave our stuff there and get going. We found a tour operator offering mine tours, so we booked one for 9am and went to get breakfast. I got some delicious "Api", the reddish-brown drink made of maize, and some pastry and back at the office where we were meeting for our tour, we met Julio, a Colombian living in Buenos Aires who was travelling in Bolivia. Later on a Tunisian and two French girls joined the group and we were shown to a room were we could change into the miner's outfits. We looked pretty funny and our pants were hanging so low we could only walk like man.

Before going to the actual mine we went to the miner's market to buy some gifts for the miners. Our tour guide, a small women with a green line around her mouth from all the coca she chew, showed us the different things we could purchase. She showed us miner's cigarrettes which we shouldn't get for the miners, because they already inhale so many gases, so we got some for ourselves as she said they contain, eucalyptus, anis and some other stuff, but no tobacco.For the miners we each got a bag of coca leaves and a 2l bottle of some soft drink. Our guide also showed us the miners alcohol which contains 96% pure alcohol and we were all allowed to try it. Luckily I had some Coke with me to wash its disgusting taste down and after drinking and smoking before noon we were ready to enter the mine.

The tour guide apologized to us and said we wouldn't see too many miners at work that day, because they all got wasted the day before and were now hungover. After some searching and climbing through the narrow corridors we finally found (a pretty drunk) miner who wanted to sell us some silver. We said no, thank you and left a bottle of softdrink with him before going to the "Tío". The Tío is the God of the miners, although he really is the devil and oddly "tío" means uncle in Spanish.

The story behind it is the following: When the Spanish found out about the silver in the mountain Cerro Rico, they started sending slaves into the mines. To make the miners work even harder they created a new "God". They told the slaves that since they are underground, God cannot reach them and it is the devil who rules over them. That's how they started worshipping the devil and making him offerings. The name originates from the Spanish word for God, "Dios". In Quechua, however, which was spoken by the people in those times, the consonant "D" doesn't exist and so Bolivians couldn't pronounce Dios and instead said "Tío" which happens to mean uncle in Spanish.

When we got to the Tio our guide asked us for cigarrettes to offer to him and then sprinkled some of the alcohol on the Tio's head and his penis. The alcohol on the head asks for good look during work, to stay safe from explosions and find a good silver vein. The alcohol on the penis means fertility and strength. After this our guide took a sip of the alcohol and offered it to us again, but we all chose not to drink it. Other offerings were coca leaves and the previously mentioned cigarrettes and the area around the statue actually looked like a big trash can with cigarrette butts, coca leaves and alcohol bottles all over the place.

Next we walked to a different place where miners worked. A 20-year-old guy who has worked in the mines since 5 years answered all our questions and explained that families work in one area of the mine together, so it was him, his older brother, his dad and his uncle who all worked together for some 8 hours daily. He later demonstarted how he drills holes for the dynamite in the walls and how he was following a silver vein. We left some of our coca leaves and soft drinks with him and his relatives before going back. All I could think about was what I read in my guide book before: The miners usually die 10-15 years after entering the mine because of all the gases they breath in. In Iban's case (that was the guy's name) it meant he would probably live until he is 40 if he's lucky...

After this experience the whole group was in shock and we tried to talk about different things and divert from what we just saw. Our tour guide told us about a nice place to get lunch and we ended up at a very Bolivian place with no tourists but many Bolivian families where we enjoyed a 3-course-meal for 18 Bs (ca. 2,50€). Afterwards we visited "Casa de la Moneda", supposedly one of the best museums in Bolivia. During the silver rush silver coins were produced here, so there was a huge exhibition of coins and other things made out of silver. There were also mummies of little children (which were very creepy), paintings (which aren't really special compared to European art) and a collection of carriages a.s.o. My hostuncle later told me that this museum is said to be haunted as many people and animals died there. The Indigenous and African slaves died from the hard work and gases they had to inhale while making coins and the mules used to get the big silver pressing machine going also died after some 2-3 months from the hard labor.

After this visit, Carlein and I decided we had deserved an Apfelstrudel and so we went to a place nearby (of course, also recommended in my Lonely Planet). Since we didn't have any other plans for that day and were tired from the nightly bus ride and all the impressions we decided to go back to our hostel and chill there. We found a TV-room with a DVD collection and saw this as a perfect way to end our day. Unfortunatelly all the movies were pirated (as usual) and of a crappy quality, so after seeing 20 minutes of "X-Men" we had to turn to cable and watch something different. We got to bed early and slept so deeply we didn't even hear our roommate coming in.

My guidebook had mentioned that through the earlier wealth of Potosí there are many beautiful churches in town and we thought Sunday would be the perfect day to see them as they must be open. OH NO! Why would a church be open on Sunday? It's not like it's the day of the Lord or something... so out of 6 churches we visited, 2 were open and we could take a look inside. We then went to the market which was rather pathetic compared to what we have in Cochabamba, but again there were many nice people talking to us. We ended our trip through the city and couldn't decide what to do next. Since it was raining anyways and we have walked to all the places worth seeing, we decided to go to the cinema, since it was 3pm and our bus wouldn't leave before 7pm. The only movie in English was "Paranormal activity" and since Carlein and I both are against horror movies, we saw "Ese es mi hijo" (That's my boy) in Spanish. We didn't understand too much, but it was funny anyways.

After this we started looking for a restaurant to eat dinner before returning to Cochabamba. As we were sitting on some steps looking through the options the Lonely Planet gives, a guy came by and said we should eat at "Potocci". It is recommended in the book as well and he just saw happens to be the manager. The building of the restaurant, however, had collapsed and they were rebuilding it, so the restaurant had been relocated to a different place. The food was delicious though! Since there weren't any alternatives, we went there and ended up being the only ones there which meant we got to enjoy the chefs full attention. He even spoke some German and Dutch and chatted with us for a bit. Carlein ate her last llama steak in Bolivia and I decided on a tomato soup as I didn't want to eat too much before the 8-10 hour bus ride. When we were leaving he gave us his card and told us to recommend him to our friends.

In the evening, while waiting for our taxi on the street another guy came up to us and started talking. He told us how happy he was we spoke some Spanish and could talk to him as most tourists inly speak English. We chatted with him for some 10 minutes before our taxi came and even some random guy offered us to take us to the bus terminal in his car (but as nice as people are there, I'm not getting in some random dude's car). At the bus terminal we got some of the last seats available on a bus to Cochabamba and while waiting to board we met Julio, the Colombian guy, who also decided to go to Cochabamba that night. The ride was rather unspectacular and after helping Julio with finding a hostel in town, I was happy to lie in my own bed again at 7am.


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