Saturday, March 23, 2013

Potosi - traveling with new friends

On my final day in Sucre, my Spanish teacher and friend Andrea was meeting up with two couch surfers who were in town for the night and invited me along since I was continually keen on meeting people. We met up and shortly went to dinner at a churrascuria which used to be more of a locals place but had heaps of tourists eating there. The food was delicious even if I was a bit hesitant to eat too much of my chicken which seemed pretty much undercooked. But more importantly, the company was great. Andrea was teaching a bunch that week and headed home, but Daniel, Vale and I headed to a bar to socialize and drink overly sweet drinks during happy hour. As sometimes happens with travelers who are on their own, the two of them met through Couchsurfing in Santa Cruz and were traveling to Sucre, Potosi and Uyuni together. As I am traveling on my own and was planning to depart Sucre the next day for Potosi and Uyuni as well, I joined up with Daniel from Ecuador and Vale from Argentina the next day at the bus terminal.

And to Potosi we headed. After about four hours in a crowded bus, we arrived and did the customary seeking out of hostels. Vale and I found a place for 20 bolivianos a person, and although the room was a bit dim, the communal bathroom suspect and of course there was no shower at all, for the price we were satisfied. The difference in budgetary restrictions between a person from Europe, Australia and the USA is sometimes interesting because for me $1 difference in a room is not too important, but for others it truly is. Then again, I will be traveling for a long time and need to be budget conscious whenever possible so I'm often keen on finding low priced food, transportation, activities and of course, rooms.

After securing the room, it was time to feed our bellies and Vale and I headed to a vegetarian place for a delicious bowl of quinoa soup.

The main two things in the city in terms of tourism are the casa de moneda, a museum about the "plata" or money in Bolivia, and the mines, which are still active. The city is rich with history as well and walking around this is evident and on the first night we went to view the entry way which separated the Spanish from the original inhabitants of the city.

Vale had previously been to Potosi and headed out on her own while Daniel and I trekked up the hill to the mines. Taking a tour was an option, but the price overly high. The route up to the mines was arduous because of the steepness, heat and worst of all, the lofty elevation of Potosi in general. I was fairly convinced I was not going to make it because of how little air I was pulling into my lungs and imagining making that trek to work in the mines added to my understanding of the mine experience. The miners we met in their chamber getting ready to enter were surprisingly friendly and when offered some money and coca in exchange for giving us a tour, we were given boots and helmets with lamps to enter the mine. And as we trekked in, the damp, dark, closed in feeling that is part of their daily workday was immediately apparent. We had to crouch down and walk at an extremely brisk pace to keep out of the way of the other teams who were busy working. The miners continually suck on coca during their shifts to help with the elevation and exhaustion and we took part as well, but I still found myself feeling lightheaded at one point as we sat and talked about the mining existence, with me primarily listening. When it was time to depart I was more than ready. As we left, at one point they shouted something and one team of miners had throw over their empty cart to make room for a full cart being pushed down the path at full speed. The fact that we were in the way and that working in the mines is arduous and dangerous was very clear as the empty cart was rather close to our feet and on running out we were hurried to make way for more activity. The miners earn a fairly good wage compared to the cost of living in Bolivia and I was surprised to learn one of the two miners who brought us in was a history teacher but chose to work in the mines for the time being because of the comparatively high wage. As working in mines is extremely dangerous and detrimental to health, in addition to being grueling work, this miner was going to quit within ten years maximum in order to maintain some health.

For the walk back to town after the mines, we took the long and easy route and paused to eat bread, super salty cheese (like all of the cheese in Bolivia), tomatoes and banana (food which is very much a staple during days out and about away from cities.

That early evening we went to the money museum and although there were a few things of interest there, like my previous experience with Bolivian museums, I found the place to be rather lacking in information. Additionally, the drastic price difference for admission for a Bolivian verses someone from farther away always rubs me the wrong way and our tickets were four times the price of the other tickets. The building itself impressed me far more than the content of the museum, and the tour guide who spoke in monotony and hurried the group through some of the rooms.

In a search to find Internet in the evening, the three of us found Potosi to be a ghost town by the early hour of 10 pm with hardly a place open in the city center, let alone a place which offered wifi. That night we decided that we would head to Uyuni the next day to visit the Salar.

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