Friday, February 25, 2011

Spanish Auschwitz in Bolivia! (20-23 February 2011, Days 72-75 of 127)

The cities of Potosi and Sucre in Bolivia are bitter-sweet!

Potosi has a dark and inhuman past as the "Auschwitz" of Bolivia perpetrated by the Spanish conquerers but Sucre is the city where the local hero Simon Bolivar signed a petition liberating, was is today six South American countries, from Spanish rule. More on this later.

It is official! The current Bolivian Consitution states "Sucre is the capital of Bolivia", even though the President and all government ministries are located in La Paz. If La Paz was the capital then it would have been the highest capital city in the world but sadly it is not. It is not even the highest city in the world as I advised previously owing to a technicality. La Paz is often called the highest city because it has a suburb that reaches 4,100m but its central plaza is at 3,660m making its average elevation at 3,800m. It is the "average" elevation that counts. Potosi (featured in this blog) is officially the highest city since its average elevation is 4,090m.

The journey from La Paz to Sucre took 12hrs on the bus and 14hrs hotel-to-hotel. Our Intrepid family also expanded from 4 to 10 with Michael from Melbourne (my new room mate for the next 17 nights to Santiago), Melaney/Joe/Clare from Sydney, Amanda from London and Megan from Joannesburg. My 83-day Intrepid journey from Quito (Dep 14JAN11) to Rio (9APR11) is actually five separate Intrepid tours strung back-to-back. Only Maureen and I are on all of them. In La Paz on 18FEB, we started tour number 3 of the 5 Intrepid tours - this is why we added another 5 people. Our guide also changed. We farewelled Ali-Jei and took on Carlos, born and bred in La Paz, Bolivia. Carlos is with us for tours number 3 and 4 through to Santiago then Buenos Aires.

Once we dumped our stuff at 8:30am in our hotel in Sucre (Pop 215,800. Elev 2,750m. Est 1538), we all walked to the town central plaza and had breakfast. After this I was off on my own to discover the city. First stop the mandatory cathedral and central plaza. The cathedral interior is mainly granite and gives off a pale olive colour when photographed. The central "Plaza 25 De Mayo" is adourned with many gardens and two fountains and a statue of General Jose De Sucre, the guy who lead the 15yr revolution that led to independence in 1825.

There is a musuem on the plaza that contains the location and document that Simon Bolivar signed with the Spanish, marking not only the independence of Bolivia, but also of Equador, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela - what a guy - no wonder his name is everywhere! Bolivar then ordered the city buildings to be "whitewashed" to symbolise the new republic and these remain to this day with Sucre known as the "White City". I then walked up a hill to Plaza Anzures overlooking the city and decided to go higher - up a mountain behind with a Madonna on the top. I stopped half-way up since the hill is covered in Eucalyptus trees which obscure the splendid view of the city. Next stop was the markets where I bought all my souvenirs for lower prices than in La Paz and all pure Alpaca - no nylon!

I then returned to the hotel, had a shower and relaxed in the TV room assembling and posting the post before this one. Sucre has the cleanest shoes of all - there are shoe-shine people everywhere - as well as internet cafes.

At 6pm, Michael and I decided to attend Catholic Mass at the central cathedral as a means of getting closer to the locals. Michael, a practicing Catholic, was also curious to see how the service compared to those in Oz. After our arrival at the church we discovered that there is no service at the central cathedral but there is one at San Francisco Church near the markest at 7pm. So we went off for a quiet glass of wine and chat in a cosy bar on the plaza. Turns out that Michael spent 20yrs organising Tennis sponsorships for Rado and then Rolex, part-time, as well as his full-time job in HR for the Vic Gov IT department.

The service at the Church of San Francisco was an incredible surprise for both of us. Instead of a choir was a teenage rock-band complete with lead and bass guitar, drums and singers. A huge sheet was suspended above the alter with the words of hymns projected on it. The priest looked late 20s, early 30s, clapping his hands and the congregation was mainly young people. What a surprise. According to Michael, the hymns and order of service are the same as in Oz but the melodies are different. After an extra long homily, Michael had communion (I already had mine at the hotel!!!) and we set off for Alexander Cafe, where our guide organised a special dinner. Intrepid sponsors projects all over South America to benefit locals. In this case, 11 teenage orphans were cooking and serving dinner. We had enchaladas and plenty of beer! Profits went to the orphanage. After dinner, I was too embarrased to declare my hunger to the kids so I raced off to the local supermarket for a top-up over a cable movie at the hotel. I didn't even remember falling asleep!

I awoke on the 21FEB in a trance but felt very rested. Enough to tackle a 10km run through the streets of the capital. This time the chasing dogs got a bit too close - I felt a lick and hot breath on my shin before the owner ran out and threw a pipe at the dog! All I could do was keep my track and pace, not make eye contact with the hound of hell and shout "Amigo"!!!

After a cool shower I was ready to tackle the dinosaur footprints, 10km from the city. It turns out that a concrete company found 5,000 footprints in 1985 when they mined an entire hill. The company stopped the mining at that hill and built the "Cretaceous Park" complex in 2007 on the opposite peak. A truck with wooden seats and a plastic rain cover took us out there from the Plaza at noon. On arrival, we were assigned a local English-speaking guide who took us through the complex. The prints were made by 4 groups of dinosaurs approx 60 million years ago. They estimate up to 400 different types of dinosaurs made these prints but it is hard to confirm since it is hard to differentiate tracks made within each of the four groups and no complete skeletons have been found. The complex also has life-size replicas of many dinosaurs suspected of making the tracks including a T-Rex, giant Brontosaurus and Tricerotops. You stand on a platform and view the tracks on the half-cut hill some 200m away and can pay more for the provided telescopes. You can see the tracks with the naked eye but it would have been better to walk to the base of the hill to get a closer view.

By 2:30pm I was back in the central plaza and hit the hotel to download a virus software for my laptop and start this post. Dinner tonight was at a local family run "hole in the wall", one of very many in Sucre and recommended by Carlos. Soups here were $AUD1.10 and mains only $AUD1.90. Ridiculous!

The 22FEB began with a second run in Sucre followed by a little more shopping including the replacement of USB07 which suffered a virus attack and would not store any MOV files. Finally I was able to load a light-weight virus software and get rid of the heavier software loaded in Puno by the guys who brought my little laptop back to life. Then it was off to Potosi by 4 taxis, leaving at 2pm. The total 162km trip took 3hrs.

Potosi (Pop 149,200. Elev 4,090m. Est 1545) is the highest city in the world and UNESCO protected because of its silver mining history and the attrocites that occurred here at the hands of the Spanish. Potosi also has the world's 7th highest airport.

The Spanish forced millions of indigenous peoples and slaves from Africa to work in the mines of Cerro Rico (Mt Rico) which overlooks the city. These poor souls were forced to work in the mines for up to 6mths without coming out, living on just coca leaves, rice and water. The temperature in these mines varied from 35-45C with humidity, little air, noxious sulphur fumes and worse of all, silica dust causing most to die of silicosis at age 45. It is estimated that up to 8 million people died under these conditions over a 300 year period. Ironically during this period, Potosi became one of the wealthiest cities in the world with silver lined pavements and all silver going back to Spain to fund their wars and conquests over this 300 year period. Tragically the mines of Potosi in Cerro Rico still exist and the whole town engages in this single activity but the yield is very low with some silver but mainly tin and lead. Potosi is now one of the world's poorest cities and is likely to become a ghost town when the mine runs out. The indigenous work the mines because they have no other options and most die of silicosis by age 45. The next day, 23FEB, we experienced these working mines, first hand, by taking one of many tours to the mine.

We left at 8:30am in a van and travelled close to the outskirts of Potosi where we changed into mining gear complete with hard hat and light. We then visited the local markets to buy the miners some presents such as drinks, smokes, coca leaves and even dynamite (for exploding inside the mine!). After we all got to hold the dynamite (but not light it) we travelled to the mine entrance itself, roughly one-third of the way up Mt Rico (at a height of approx 4,200m).

Nine of us then proceeded into the darkness of the mine with ex-miners at the front and rear. After two bouts of crawling and 30min of walking we came into the main section of level 1. We were coughing constantly because of the Sulphur and dust and we could barely breath the hot, humid air, what little there was of it. Seven of us, including me, decided to call it quits as our guides wanted to take us down to levels 2 and 3 to meet working miners. This was another 30min of crawling and whilst I was OK to do it, it was not enjoyable and I wanted to conserve my energy for my record breaking run in the world's highest city! Before we turned around, our miner guide explained the attrocities that had occurred in this very place we were sitting and the working conditions of miners today. He also explained the effigy of the Devil (Tio) in the chamber with us, adorned with offerings of coca leaves, beer and smokes so that he would not attack the miners and give them a good yield. We couldn't stand just 60min of being here.... imagine being down here for 6mths - it is simply incomprehensible and many respects, worse than the conditions even in Auschwitz! Refer POTOSI MINE FACTS below for more stats on this gruesome place. Indeed, the Spanish Auschwitz of Bolivia and in some respects even today.
On our way back from the mines a bunch of youths attacked our van (banging their fists on the windows) as we were coming down a narrow street close to the hotel. The driver locked us inside and proceeded outside to find out what was going on. It turns out that he was not allowed to drive a tourist van down that street. We never found out who the youths were but after letting out the air from our tyres, our driver brought us safely to the hotel! Our first real drama!

Johnny Cloudrunner does it again! At exactly 2:35pm on Wednesday 23 February 2011 after my return from the mines, I successfully completed a 10km run of Potosi in 55min breaking all previous altitude records (the last being Titicaca at 3,809m) by running at 4,090m (13,426ft) which is only 547ft under the oxygen line!!! It was the hardest run to date since Potosi is a hilly place and I copped a 4km hill, 5min of hail and the rest in rain at 13C. I was soaked, cold and buggered when I got back but did not stop and managed a 5.5min/km pace. I was elated.

I then met Maureen and Michael to tour the famous "Casa Nacional De Moneta" or "Mint Musuem". Our 90min English tour started and 4:30pm and chronicalled the complete history of Silver and coin-making in Potosi, including real equipment used and many samples of coins and silver treasures. Coins were made in Potosi for both Bolivia, South America and Spain from 1575 to 1951. Bolivia's current coins are made in Chile.

To celebrate my run, Maureen, Poonan and I cooked a big fat Vegetable Fettuccine with loads of garlic and chillie and tons of Bolivian white which we shared with 4 others! We all then watched a film called "The Miner's Devil" made in 2005 by a German director here in Potosi, telling the story of two 12 and 15 yr old brothers working in the mines. This film is acclaimed and won many European and American film awards (not an Oscar). The film was well shot and very confronting and the two boys it featured are now 19 and 21 and sadly still working in the mines!

NEXT BLOG: to cover the Uyuni Salt Flats and the exit from Bolvia due 1MAR.

POTOSI MINE FACTS: 1) 12,000 men and boys (youngest 13, eldest 65) currently work in the Potosi mine of Cerro Rico. 2) The miners are part of a co-operative and work for themselves. They can work as long or short as they want but must pay 15% of their income to the coop so that it can maintain the mine complex and provide compressed air for breathing and jack-hammers. 3) Collectively they mine 2,000 tons of raw material each month. From this a typical yield is just 500kg of silver worth 700-800B ($AUD100-120). Miners can get higher yields up to 3,000B ($AUD430) per month but the hours are long or they got lucky with purity. 4) Miners must pay private trucks to take their raw material to one of 37 privately owned processing plants in the area. Here, silver, lead or tin ore is extracted from the raw material and sold to other private companies in Chile and Argentina, who in turn sell the ore to Japan and China for smelting into the pure metal for use in manufacture. 5) Most of today's miners die of silicosis or cave-ins caused by bad dynamite detonations. There is no regulation or safety of mining activity here. In 2010, the death toll was 25 and in 2009 it was 40, considered low and normal, respectively. 6) Many children aged 13-17 continue to work in the mines. No women are allowed to work in the mines due to superstitious belief that they bring bad luck.

MORE BOLIVIA FACTS: 1) Bolivia and Peru cities are full of mini-vans carrying between 10-20 people. This is because public buses are too infrequent and slow and for the average person, taxis are too expensive. These vans are everywhere, produce noxious diesel fumes (since noone bothers maintaining them) and they pull over all the time to pickup/setdown people. They are the number one obstacle for me when I run in these cities. Average fare on these is $AUD0.30 versus $AUD0.10 on the bus and $AUD1.00 in the taxi.