Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Potosi: Silver Linings.

Devil's Miner
photo taken from a still of a Devil's Miner
I only have one picture from our time in Potosi. Mainly because the main draw to this hilly city is the mining in the mountain that looms high over the town below, and partially because I used our time there to catch up on all of the early mornings of the Salt Tour.

This used to be one of the richest cities in South America as the mountain was filled with silver, but when the conquistadors showed up, it turned into an affluent city built on exploitation. They forced the indiginous people to work down in the mine for months at a time, and even invented a scary looking god with horns, called Tio. The indiginous were told that if they didn't do as they were told then Tio would curse them.

Today, the silver has almost completely dried up, but still the miners are down there, looking for anything that can bring them a little money. The city offers tours down the mines, where you can see the conditions that the miners work in. Ramshackle passage ways are held up with anything they can find, it's stiflingly hot and dusty. Not the nicest place to be, so I decided not to go down, but Nick went with our friend Simon. He came back, completely black from head to toe and said that it was something he won't forget.

When you go on the tours, you're asked to bring the miners a present, of either dynamite, coca leaves or alcohol. The miners have to go it alone, and work in small groups, or cooperatives. When, or if, they do actually find anything, they share the money amongst their group. Taking dynamite saves them money on having to buy their own explosives, chewing coca leaves alleviates the altitude sickness, and alcohol obviously helps them through the day. It was scary to see how much the powder clung to Nick after just opne day, and how it affected his breathing in the night, just after a few hours down there. Some of the boys he saw there were only 14 and had already been walking there for a few years.

It seemed that everyone in the town was somehow attached to the mines above. Our hostel owner's father had been killed there, and his mum had to work extra hard as she didn't want her sons to face the same, dark fate.

We were lucky enough to catch a showing of the documentary, The Devil's Miner, which follows two young brothers who work in the mine after their father is killed there. It was eerie to see the Tio, as each cooperative has their own version, which has lasted through the centuries and still hangs over the heads of the miners. The younger brother in the documentary is terrified to look at their Tio, so his brother has to take him and explain the importance of the mining god and their safety. Their scary, stone idol has offerings scattered around his feet from the miners who hope that they survive the few years they have left of their incredibly short life expectancy.

I'm not a religious person, but I can see in this town why the miners and their families all prey to the big man in the sky before they have to venture into the hellish underground conditions of Tio's mountain.

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