Don't leave me high, don't leave me dry

Published: October 8th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

It was as cold as we had been yet in early morning Uyuni. We walked down to the bus station, or at least the area of the street the buses leave from. They had been threatening to build a terminal for a few years now and it remained just that – a threat.

A giant deep fried pancake bought on the street for about 20 cents brought peace to our complaining stomachs, and it was tasty too. Pretty simple – take a piece of light bread dough, not quite as runny as a pancake, roll into a ball then out flat, drop it into hot voila.

The bus to Potosí was mostly gringos. It cost a whole 25 Bs for the trip, all five hours of it. We bought the ticket off one of the ladies singing out “Po – to – siiiiiii!!” at the top of her lungs. Immediately followed by her adorable little girl doing a fair, but higher pitched, imitation.

There was another little girl on the bus – Erica. Everyone got to know her as she made it a point to talk to most of the passengers. She appeared to be the daughter of another ticket lady at the front. It was obviously bring your kid to work day. Which I think was every day.

Lunch was a quick stop in a village which wasn't much more than a wide bit in the road. By now, being a bit experienced in such matters, we went immediately inside, sat down at a table, and simply asked for the menu del dia. Seconds later our food came out – a steaming bowl of excellent quinoa soup – and we got stuck in. Some newer travellers hesitated, and didn't make it inside for a few minutes, and when they did they ummed and ahhed. A mistake – they had barely been served their food when a blast of the bus's horn signalled the end of lunch.

I went hunting for the toilet behind the shop. I can now say I've seen the worst toilet in the world – a tiny mud building in which the long drop had actually been filled up by use. I elected to take a leak on the side of the building, and I was far from the first to do so. The llama that nudged me on the ear while I was doing my business scared the piss out of me, pun intended. She was a friendly llama, just wandering about, checking things out, but no-one likes to be bothered in the middle of a wee.

The drive there was nothing short of incredible. The scenery again amazing. In Bolivia you really don't want to doze on the bus. If there's not something good going on inside the bus there's amazing scenery.

We found a place fairly quickly, a bit of a walk through the hills – the Residencial Felcar. It had heating and a bathroom, so we were sold.

But what to do in Potosí? I would imagine that not many people reading this have ever read 'The Open Veins of Latin America' by Eduard Galeano – a Uruguayan journalist. Written in 1973, it is a great book, although at times a little heavy. Well, okay, a lot heavy. We all, at different times, made attempts to read it. It was the sort of book you could manage for about 100 pages before you had to have a break and read a Louis L'amour or Marian Keyes. The first place really described in the book is the Bolivian city of Potosí.

For a time, when silver was discovered here, this was one of the biggest cities in the world. More silver was pulled out of the Cerro Rico than anywhere else. Life here back then, in the 1600s and later, would have been tough. It's high, and cold, and dry.

An incredible number of indigenous men and women died here, forced to work in the mines as virtual slaves by the Spanish latifundia system. The wealth plundered here helped to set up an economic system which ensured that Latin America would become, and remain, a poor and exploited region.

Nowadays, the silver has run out, and the few miners that still work the Cerro Rico scrabble in appalling conditions to eke out a living from other minerals, primarily tin. You could do a tour – in fact, it seemed to be the only tour you could do in Potosí. We gave it some thought – there are companies that purport to be run by the miners, or by miners' cooperatives and tell you the money goes to the miners, helps them with their lives, and so on. And it's not like we had a particular objection to looking at miserable lives. Often, when people have lived through bad times they want to share it, tell you about it – El Salvador and Nicaragua being two examples. But that's not the feeling we got here. It felt like voyeurism, plain and simple. We chose not to do it.

We went instead to the costume museum. Now, I know what you're thinking, mainly because I was thinking the same thing. First we had to find it. That wasn't too hard – it was pretty much down the street from our hotel. We found the door, with a tiny sign. It was supposed to be open, but it wasn't. Oh well, them's the breaks.

So we headed off down the street to see what we could see. A call made us turn around - “permiso!” it was a young kid. “La señora, alla!”. He pointed to the window above the door. An old lady was frantically waving at us to come back. She quickly ran downstairs and unlocked the door, inviting us in. It always makes you feel a bit special when someone opens up just for you, like you're some sort of visiting dignitary.

She rushed about the place, turning on exhibit lights and trying to find the right cd for the Andean music. The museum itself was tiny – basically two rooms. It was, however, excellent. The old lady had grabbed her daughter from upstairs and she was the boss. She took us slowly round the exhibits, showing typical costumes, both past and present, of all the areas of Bolivia, from the high Altiplano to the Amazon. She explained the reasons for them, the development, the history, the weaving methods – everything. All in Spanish, of course, but even dad got most of it. It was brilliant. The two room museum took almost an hour to go through. Afterwards we were able to buy some weaving from local women. An it was good stuff – none of the garish flouro colours and tourist pap. This was the real deal. Muted, natural tones, excellent workmanship. We each picked a couple of things, and she wrote down the little numbers form the tags in a register. I asked her what that was for and she explained.

It ensured that the women making the different good were fairly compensated for what they sold. She was essentially a broker for the stuff. This was more like it. Sure, it could have been a con, but I sincerely doubt it.

The Casa de la Moneda was next on our agenda. Cold inside, very cold, but interesting and worth the ticket. We had given this up after Mexico, visiting mints, that is – coins are pretty much coins wherever you go – but this one was more interesting than most. For a time the Potosí mint made most of the money in the world – almost all that was used in the Spanish empire. It had a lot of exhibit showing conditions in the past, and the building itself was great. Solid as a rock, with metre thick walls, had been used as many things over the years - a mint, barracks, residence. And, in one room, an exhibit of rocks and desiccated dead kids. Of course.

And, as we watched a marching band (they seem to have more of these in Bolivia than anywhere else on the planet) I saw my first actual pickpocket. As a well dressed older Bolivian man put his arms up in the standard 'old bloke taking a photo with a digital camera' pose, a slim brown hand slipped from behind into his coat pocket. The owner of the hand was a boy, not more than 12.

He retrieved his hand, empty – nothing in that pocket. He spotted me gawking and returned my stare with a stare ten times tougher than mine, as if daring me to say something. Then he spun and disappeared into the crowd.

Potosí was a great town. In most of the town you could see its former glory. A wealth of colonial buildings now in disrepair, the sound of tyres rumbling past on the cobbled streets, smell of broasting chicken, although none of us knew what the difference between broasting and roasting was.

Bolivia continued to impress.

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Once you've bled it from the peasants you don't want to lose it

8th October 2011

Thanks for the reminders. We\'d forgotten about Erica, and about that toilet. Potosi was also the town with the row of wedding dress shops - amazing confections.

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