The journey from Sucre to Potosi was uneventful once we'd left the street our hotel was on. Drives used the bus to bring down overhead cables. I'm writing this on the bus out of Potosi and this bus has just done the same thing. At this rate there'll be no power or communications left in Bolivia. Potosi was a rather pleasant town, although at first glance our accomodation looked a touch basic,
unfinished even. I think it was the best room we've had; the boys getting the short straw has been a running joke, but we had a sofa, big TV and a shower so hot you needed to use the cold tap too.
At over 4,000m Potosi is the highest city on earth. It's here because of the silver mines we'll visit-silver was found in 1545. I could write a lot about the mines, but I think these 3 facts will speak for themselves.
The silver at Potosi was sufficient to build a silver bridge between here and Madrid.
Today, you have to be 14 to work in the mines; this restriction is widely flouted.
8 million people have died in Potosi's mines.
Before we got in the mine it was quite a palaver. Bus to place where we were suited and booted (red for the ladies, yellow the men); bus to goody bag shop-we took the miners drinks (not the 96% mind rot they party with on Fridays), biscuits, fags, dynamite, detonators, accelerant and the coca they chew to fuel their 24 hour shifts
Then the bus to the mine-the bus broke down 3 or 4 times; drives was sucking on the fuel pipe and at one point he had to retrieve a spark plug that had fallen out of the engine onto the road. Ideal with 7 sticks of dynamite onboard.
We also got facemasks.
The miners don't get these. In the deepest parts life expectancy is 10 years-guys plan to do 2 or 3 years, but the money's good and they get sucked into one more year. And then another. It's a little like a city banking job that fucks your lungs up. We may have had some gimmicky touches-letting off dynamite and winching up bags of rocks, but the mine was a dangerous, fear inspiring and horrible place.
At this altitude we're often struggling just walking outside. Crouching, crawling and climbing through tunnels lit only by our head torches we're a mess. I keep smashing my helmet against the walls and ceiling-my lamp falls off 3 times. Meanwhile miners carrying sacks of rock and shoving wheelbarrows are racing past us. They are phenomenonal.
Although I'm sure the mine has far worse places, this is no tourist sanitised stroll. There are several sections that are difficult to negotiate, especially when carrying a miner's goody bag (every time we meet a miner, everyone tries to make sure the miner gets their goodies). We passed a number of holes that I didn't think you'd come back from if you plunged down it. The sharp sulphites on the walls cut your hands. In different places it can be extremely hot or cold; breathing difficulties come from both the altitude and the dust. Beyond a few bits of wood to hold up the ceiling, there seemed no safety measures. For us this was 2 hours underground, for many this is their place of work.
We set off dynamite both inside and outside the mine. Here I am with what is essentially a bomb.
I have a couple of dynamite videos, which I hope I can insert here.
VIDEO 7298 7309 Doesn´t work, will try facebook
They're a bit long as you don't know how long the fuse will last, but let's face it, these are all about the bang.
The mine was far more appalling than I had feared.
Would I buy silver after this?
People now work here through choice; the money is good; the industry is an important part of the economy of the continent's poorest country; conditions in the mines are dreadful; children are working there; people are giving their lives for a precious, essentially luxury metal.
Would I buy silver after this?
I don't know. It's very complicated and demonstrates how difficult even informed consumer decisions are. I know I wouldn't want to be a miner.
After buying lunch for tomorrow's bus journey, we went to the Casa de la Moneida, the former mint billed as Bolivia's best museum. In all honesty, it wasn't anything too special until the end when you get to make your own coin. Basically, you put a metal blank between 2 stamps and then belt it with a sledgehammer.
Mine got an approving 'bueno' from the mint employee. Possible new career.
At this altitude you really need your drinking boots on; so even Brett's constitution was tested by a trip to 4060 (allegedly the world's highest bar), followed by Ring of Fire, played with Catherine's birthday vodka and some local firewater. The miners would have approved.
Even by my standards this has been a crazy mix of the silly, self-indulgent, the serious and life or death. I don't want to be flippant, but reflect the absurdities travelling often presents. Perhaps the contrasts hint at life's inherent contradictions. Perhaps I'm a molly coddled westerner unable to relate decently to what's around him. I know the mine horrified me; I know my helmet hair and Laura screaming at the dynamite made me laugh. I'm not sure what that makes me.
Our next stop is the salt flats, which I've been looking forward to since seeing Amy's photos of unearthly landscapes last October. The Salt Flats
The salt flats are 12,000km2 and are 8m deep in salt-Brett and I worked out that's 96 billion cubic metres of salt. That's plenty of salt. The flats used to be an inland sea, which was driven up from the ocean by tectonic movement. The sea dried up, salt flats arose. Bingo.
On the way out we visited a train graveyard.
As you do.
The landscape of the salt flats is an unrelenting white, broken by the occasional island and salt mound the miners are drying out. Apparently it's OK to stand on them, take photos and jump
The strange visual effects of the white means you marvel for a while, get dazzled and then take as many freaky photos as you can.
Keeping with the slightly gimmicky feel, when we were driving 4 abreast our driver kept up his bandit image by driving out of the window. A minute or so of fiddling jammed the acelerator with a screwdriver, he then opened the door, got out (Land Cruiser's have a running board), shut the door and steered through the open window. Roman, for that was his name, was that kind of guy. If we weren't ahead of the other 3 cars, he wouldn't take the main path, he'd be off anywhere to try and get an advantage. Sometimes I reckon he willfully went a more awkward way-even in town he drove on the wrong side of the road if he could. To complete a gimmicky day we stayed in a salt hotel that had been open 5 days. The beds were mattresses on salt bricks, the same bricks formed the key construction and the floor was loose salt several inches deep-it was like sand, but less annoying. The stars was the best I'd seen in South America and it was nowhere near as cold as expected-I slept in a t-shirt and didn't use the sleeping bag I'd hired. The Desert
We crossed the salt flats on the first day and spent the second day in the lagoons and rock formations of the desert.
were somewhat overshadowed by Lorna running, then slipping and finally falling in the sulphorous mud
In between photos I did help her out of the mud.
I think the so called Stone Tree was the oddest of all the rocks
The best way to describe our last day in Bolivia/first day in Chile is massif. Up at 5, we visited geysers and lagoons, crossed the border, walked across death valley, visited Chile's Valle de la Luna and watched the sun set. And after all that, it was Saturday night.
We left a little late as Brett had chosen today to forget where he'd put his passport, which he was going to need really soon. We made the geysers for sunrise
and wandered round for a while, but it was properly cold so we were soon back in the truck and on our way to the hot pool. I nearly persuaded Brett to get in with the old 'everyone's getting in' line, but he rumbled me. The idea of stripping off to your bathers to then sit in an outdoor pool of naturally heated water put everyone off, but my feet were freezing so I got in alone (apart from the posse of Germans already there). It was surprisingly pleasant and even getting dry and changed afterwards wasn't the shocker I'd feared. I might never have got in had I known how cold it was: I hung my shorts on the front of the Land Cruiser so they'd dry while I had breakfast. In the direct sunlight they dried quite well, but the cord you tie round your waist wasn't in the sun. It froze solid.
As we headed out of Bolivia the scenery stayed as stunning as the temperature was low. San Pedro, Chile
Entering Chile Christian the Chilean became quite smug-Chile is a lot wealthier and within 5 mins we were on a paved road after 3 days of dirt track, salt and sand in Bolivia. On producing 15 Bolivianos crossing the border was quick and easy, though Chilean customs had a good feel of our bags in case we had fruit or seeds-it wasn't quite as thorough as Oz.
We had an hour to have our first shower in 3 days (plus bonuss shave for me), find some clothes not covered in dust, get Chilean pesos (1,000 to the pound) and buy some lunch and wine. This was so we could get back on the bus for some more mental landscapes at Death Valley and the Valle de la Luna outside San Pedro. La Paz's Valle de la Luna loses out in terms of scale, drama and realism-they test mars landing modules here.
We walked in t-shirts for a couple of hours through tunnels and prime ambush territory; it was a poignant contrast to a few hours earlier when we'd been on the other side of this volcano
freezing our butts off in another country.
We dropped a lot of altitude today-the geysers were around 4,900m, while San Pedro is 2,440. Chicken feed to us these days. Christian had an empty water bottle from the geysers-in San Pedro it was about half the size as the pressure crushed it. Good science demo.
We found that 2,440m is still pretty high over the course of a very messy and emotional night. We'd had a few glasses of the excellent (and very inexpensive) red as we watched the sun set over the Valle de la Luna. After a few more glasses during dinner we ended up in a bar with a large hole in the roof, which allowed a massive fire to burn in the middle. From time to time the bar staff poured some sugar on it, resulting in a flash and a nice smell of caramel. Superstrength drinks, altitude and tiredness made for a heady mix and I made 2 girls cry (in a good way). I'm still finding the bruises from Lorna's little fall as I helped her home. It all sounds a bit like Swiss Toni at Lord Bargain's stag night. I think we need to get back to sea level.
So Sunday is proving to be a day of rest, yesterday's frantic pace means there's not much left to see in San Pedro and frankly I need the rest. Sadly I can't find the US Open on a telly and Wap (back on the phone in Chile) won't tell me whether Roger Federer won his semi and is about to create some more history. I quite wanted to watch it as then Wimbledon would have been the only grand slam final I'd have missed, which struck me as kinda freaky. I did eventually discover that the king of Switzerland broke more records and very soon will be removing what remains of Simian Sampras' records.
In the evening I did something I've been wanting to do since I set off-have someone knowledgable talk to me about the Southern sky. San Pedro is prime star watching apparently, so I parted with 12 grand (Chilean) as I felt this was my last chance. I was surprised when our host turned out to be French and all the telescopes were outside in the cold. However he was so good and so funny, I didn't even think about mentioning Argentina beating France in the RWC. I hope I can remember what I was told about the movement of the stars, finding the centre of rotation 4 and a half Southern Crosses from the Southern Cross (equivalent to the North Star), stars changing their position by 4 minutes a day and that it'll take 4 years for his coo laser to reach 'nearby' Alpha Centauri, which was 2 stars overlapping when I looked at it in the telescope. We also learnt that the Zodiac is the band around which the planets move and had many constellations laser pointed out to us. Well worth it.
I kept looking longingly at the Southern Cross-I'm going to miss it as it's the one thing I can consistently find and you can't see it in the North. It's a reminder that apart from June's wedding mission and a few moments north of Quito, I've the year in the Southern hemisphere. Being stat obsessed I want to work what percentage of Southern hemisphere countries I've visited. I think it's over half.
Being in Chile means we are close to Santiago, where 7 of the 15 of us are scheduled to leave. Thus far no one has actually left, despite a couple of threats! Lorna was always due to get off in Santiago to fly onto Asia (hopefully she'll have the time to cut my hair before she goes), but Brett's decided not to go onto Buenos as he's got too much to do before starting his masters course, so he's booked himself a flight out of Santiago. I'm wondering a little about Laura, who's due to go to Rio, but is missing Oz a bit. On and off the four of us have been quite tight, so it's going to make a big difference to the dynamic. I have less than 5 weeks to go.......first for all of us is a 17 hour bus ride to La Serena. The Tenant of Wildfell hall and a bag of snacks awaits once I've finished blogging.
Bus update: someone's dropping half hourly farts so rancid they must be rotting from the inside out. We've narrowed it to 5 suspects.