Friday, 28 November 2014

"The Devil's Miner", Potosi, Bolivia

City of Potosi

This post is dedicated to the 301 miners who lost their lives on the 13th of May 2014 in an explosion at a coal mine in Soma, Turkey.

Our next stop in Bolivia was Potosi, which is a small mining town with beautiful colonial architecture. It used to be one of the wealthiest cities in South America in the past due to the extraction of silver. The mines still operate today, however we were told the productivity is much lower, and the quality of life has dropped substantially. 

A unique experience in Potosi is the tour of the mines which are still in operation. There are many companies that offer similar tours that take tourists into the mines during the hours of operation where you can witness the tragic conditions of these brave people who risk their lives on daily basis to make a living for themselves and their families. Make sure to go a reputable company, as it can be a dangerous visit. I booked a tour from our hostel called Eucalyptus Hostel and it was a safe option.

Mines of Potosi
At the beginning of the tour, we received our overalls, boots, helmets and headlights. There were five of us, Jana and Jacob from Germany, Charlotte from Australia, George from New Zealand and myself. The tour started with a visit to a small miners shop where we bought gifts for the miners such as water, cold drinks and coca leaves. You can also buy dynamite or pure alcohol for them which we declined due to safety concerns. 

Our second stop was a plant where extracted precious metals are processed. We were told about the process of extraction and the operational guidelines. After an hour, we arrived at our final destination - the mine site. All of us were excited and anxious at the same time. 

We slowly followed our guide into one of the tunnels with extreme caution. After a couple of minutes, there was nothing but darkness. The further we went in, the warmer and dustier it got. We certainly needed a protective mask as the dust was unbearable. It became very hard to breath. Unfortunately, many miners die at a young age from silicosis because of the build up dust in their lungs. The life expectancy for the Potosi miners is between 40 to 55 years old. Safety measures in the tunnels didn't seem to be good. It was quite a shock to see the working conditions of more than 15,000 miners including 800 children.  It was a heart breaking experience and it is certainly one of the hardest jobs I could ever imagine.

Miners at work

After spending 2 hours inside the mine, I was very grateful to be able to see the sun and breathe in the fresh air. I was lucky because I didn’t need to return to the mines, but for many others this is not an option, as they need to look after their families.     

The tour of the mines was a bonding experience for the group and we decided to get together that night to watch the documentary “The Devil’s Miner” which is based on a true story of a child miner in Potosi. It is truly a tragic movie, especially after witnessing the terrible working conditions in those mines. After the movie and my visit to the mines, all I could think of was gratitude for my life, my work, and family. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes to see the hard work and suffering of others to put things in perspective. 

After an intense day in the mines, we decided to check out "El Ojo del Inca" the next morning, which is a hot spring lagoon, with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, surrounded by amazing mountains and beautiful colours. It is located at 25 kilometres outside of Potosi and is easily accessible by public buses. We spent a relaxing afternoon swimming in this surreal and warm lake. 

El Ojo del Inca

After 3 nights in Potosi, we took a 4 hour bus to Sucre which is the capital of Bolivia. It is a white colonial city with tranquil and relaxed vibes. We checked into Hostel Pachamama, which had a beautiful garden and was reasonably priced.

City of Sucre
Our peace got disturbed by some issues caused by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). Before we started our trip, Alex signed up for a travel money card with them, which sounded like a good idea, as they promised to charge low ATM fees for oversees withdrawals. What we didn’t know was that they would hit us with absurd exchange rates. We became aware of this when we converted a large sum of Australian dollars into US dollars. There was $600 difference between what we should have received and what was in our account. Their help desk created more problems than helping us solve the issue. We had to call them multiple times to get our money back. It was a hassle no one needs while on the road in a foreign country. I know that most banks can be manipulative in some ways but please NEVER sign up for the Travel Money Card with CBA. It was just a nightmare. After a week of arguments, they stated that they haven't done anything wrong but offered $300 compensation purely "out of their goodwill". Well, they haven't done anything wrong apart ripping off $300 from us. We accepted the money as we did not want to deal with them any longer and ruin our travels.

Cemetery of Sucre

Apart from the bank issues, we were happy to visit the beautiful city of Sucre. They have amazing churches and spectacular old colonial buildings. One of the most interesting sites we visited was the cemetery of Sucre which was one of the most peaceful burial grounds I have ever seen. It was well maintained with lots of flowers and trees. Definitely a must see in Sucre. 

The next episode will cover the incredible Salar de Uyuni tour, the biggest salt flats on Earth. Stay tuned! 

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