Exit Bolivia: What good comes from evil?
With my girlfriend still visiting and by my side we found our way to Potosi. Some say the highest city in the world. If so, then it must be "high" on coca leaves :)
Potosi is at a great altitude. You find yourself exhausted just from walking...sometimes. It lies on a hill and the town center is spectacular. Bolivia was once the richest country in South America and Potosi was by far the richest city! But things change...
"The mountain that eats men" behind the lower part of Potosi.
Potosi got extraordinary rich from its silver mines. Today the mountain towers over the city as a grim reminder of the more than 8 million lives that have been lost to the mines. Let's just write that out: 8,000,000 lives! I guess Tio wasn't in favor of them? Tio is uncle. You see, inside the mines no one worships God. The silver belongs to the devil and he is worshipped in the dark miserable tunnels that could easily be mistaken for the way to hell. And in many cases it is. You will not find anyone in Potosi that calls the devil for anything else than Tio. Perhaps out of respect for the Catholic Church. But it is truly a double life for those who enter the dark, crooked, unsafe tunnels that seem to go on for ever. It's dusty, moist, terrible, smelly and by any account it must be regarded as tomb. But the work goes on for about 16,000 people everyday of which around 800 are children.
Tio (the devil) is found in EVERY mine and it's scary enough when you are that deep into the tunnels. Offerings and prayers are brought everyday.
"The mountain that eats men" it is known as. An old man may be lucky to live until the age of 40 before his lungs collapse. Of course the real danger for many is the dynamite. By the way, you can buy that stuff on the street in Potosi without any license. I have never been anywhere like that before. So, imagine that you rig 5 explosives to go off but you only count 4 explosions. What do you do? One did not go off!! Well, you will not make any money if you do not continue working. So you enter the mine...
Tourist casually buying coca leaves, dynamite, cigarettes and soft drinks for the miners.
There is a definite erie feeling about walking those tunnels and the smell of sulphur worsens it. There are more than 500 mines today and the mountain resembles a Swiss cheese. Often mines collapse or 2 groups are following the same silver ore in opposite directions and finally meet...perhaps with a stick of dynamite? So how old do you need to be? Well officially 16 years. But nobody works in these mines because they want to so some families send their 10 year old sons into the mines out of sheer necessity. In there the children are brought up to learn the traditions that first started when the Spaniards opened the mine in 1651. Since then more than 46,000 tons of silver have been extracted...at the cost of 8 million lives. The tunnels reach more than 160 kilometers and the mine we entered, "Rosario" has 17 layers which means it goes down 480 meters were temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius.
Entering the underworld.
So! They must make good money? It is my belief that absolutely no one works in the mines because it was their first option. Lawyers, doctors, engineers and other unfortunate people end up in the mine doing hard labour. 12 hour shifts for around $25/day. And that's on a good day. Nothing is automated so the heavy mining carts are pushed by the miners which adds another risk of being crushed by a fast moving cart in the narrow dark tunnels.
Miners slaving away in the dust filled darkness.
You enter inside and your job is to extract copper, silver or iron. Preferably silver but over the last 350 years most of it has been removed so the perilous, hard, low paid work often is for a low quality product that doesn't pay well. All of this naturally is shipped to Europe where it is processed all while the doomed workers kneel in front of the devil and wonder if they will die at 30, 35 or 40 years of age.
The mining carts are hand pushed though they easily weigh over a ton!
In order to work these long hours the miners start their day with a large meal and then bring a bag of coca leaves with them into the darkness. Chewing coca leaves has the property of leaving you in a state where you do not get hungry, you do not get thirsty and you do not get tired...so these men can stand a 12 hour working day...day after day after day...unless they have been offered a double shift. I believe I have seen hell.
You can imagine the mines at Potosi have made a great impact on me. But let's clean the air and venture on to Uyuni. Uyuni is a very small desert city that is the entry point for most adventures into the Uyuni salt flats. You may have seen them before or you may even have been there. It's a very touristy area but at the same time it is proof of the world's magnificent beauty and diversity so it is no wonder that every jeep that goes that way is full.
The wonderful "content" of our jeep crossing the desert - "I believe I can fly"
By some sweet coincidence we ended up in a jeep together with a young engineer from Ecuador and a family of 4 from Spain. Everyone spoke English. The engineer specialized in renewable energy which both fascinates and interests me. But what's more; the family is known as the "Makuteros" and is a traveling family. For this adventure they have spent 6 months "on the road" and they document their travels by blog and video which is aired on television. Their 2 children of 8 and 10 years are perfectly curious, polite and never shy to investigate life or share chocolate. I couldn't help but look at this family and observe them in perfect harmony. Alive and happy. Most of their stuff is in Spanish but check them out anyway: http://familyrun-makuteros.blogspot.com.es They post amazing pictures on Facebook.
A place on earth forgotten by nature?
The salt desert is one of those areas that seem so vast and empty that you may contemplate that it has simply been forgotten by nature. And that great white surface that expands from one horizon to the other under a perfect blue sky may just be what you need in your busy everyday life. Because there are no trees there is no real depth perception in the many photos that are shot every day. And there is no limit to people's creativity like when they pose as if they are holding their friend in one hand while the friend is really standing in the background or when someone lies down at the exact right distance so that it looks like the person closest to the camera is smoking his friend. It's all pretty fun although I'm sure the desert has already seen everything.
Creating the latest video spot for Once Upon a Saga
This time the desert got to see me and my girlfriend creating a promotional video for 'Once Upon a Saga' as I cannot help to feel that this project deserves much more attention. And perhaps only my girlfriend knows how much time I spend thinking about it. I am definitely happy to see how many people we already have on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and the blog. But what if we were more? Could we make a longer lasting impact on people's perception of the world? Do we need to fear visiting Mexico, Honduras and Colombia? No! Of course not. And people need to see how wonderful every country is.
Teaser from the upcoming video spot.
That brings me back to Bolivia. Bolivia may very well be the one country in South America with the lowest income per capita. But does that make it the poorest country? It is certainly rich in culture and history. Besides, what I have seen from the beautiful lake Titicaca to Torotoro's obscure but amazing open flats and the Altiplanos staggering beauty is hardly comparable to poverty. The nature's beauty presents a richness in itself. And naturally no one can eat beauty but in spite of a low average income I found a proud, helpful, happy, curious population wherever I went and that makes me wonder about the old chestnut: "does money buy you happiness?"
Who says nature is green?
I have seen extraordinary beautiful lakes at high altitude which were dotted by pink flamingos. I have seen 50 shades of brown as the volcanic mountains spill their colors down their gentle slopes in a rare rainbow. I have seen an ostrich run above 4,000 meters altitude and a fox stare at me with its eyes of mountain wisdom. I have seen hot steam stream out of the ground as if it was rush hour. And all of this and more I have observed within the short 1,200 kilometer drive from Bolivia's Uyuni to Chile's San Pedro de Atacama. Bolivia is proof that you can be rich and poor at the same time. If you for one second think that a poor country equals poverty then I stand here to challenge you ;)
The jeep were we met the Makuteros and the engineer.
And if you ever think to yourself that you have seen and heard anything then you need to reinvent yourself :)
My girlfriend and I at the train cemetary at Uyuni.
Today we reached Chile making that my 56th country in 11 months as well as the first border crossing together with my girlfriend. We have another 6 days together before her flight leaves from Santiago, Chile. So let's see what Chile has to offer! :)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - delivering what I can where I can :)