Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Salt Lake and the mines of Potosi.

A must see in Bolivia is the great Salar of Uyuni. This is the largest salt lake in the world and apparently covers over 7000 Km2. The place was simply amazing as we drove for over an hour through the never ending plane white surface of the desert. I don’t quite know how this place was created but this is not snow you see but real salt! Some locals living close to the salar actually are still harvesting the salt. We left to the salar from the little village of Uyuni in a 4X4 truck for the tour. The funny thing is that the salar itself is very flat and any car would be able to drive through. The 4X4 was, in my mind, more to get out of Uyuni where the roads are so bad that they can even compete with the roads in Montreal!

Close to the other end of the Salar we stopped at one of the “islands” that sit just there in the middle of the salt. This one in particular is a national park where we could see those amazing cactuses, which some were over 1000 years old. From the top of the island we had a splendid view of the immensity of the salar.

Then we travelled to the town of Potosi well known for its mining activity. For centuries this was the largest silver reserve in the world and the Spanish took everything. Today, the self employed miners are only extracting zinc. The custom is for visitors of the mines to bring some gifts to the miners for a value of about 20.00 bols (1 bol = $0.14). The thing is to buy stuff they need for their day to day operations namely drinks, cigarettes, coca leafs with catalysts, alcohol or dynamite. Yes I said dynamite! You see, dynamite is sold freely on the streets of Potosi so for 15.00 bols ($2.14) we were able to buy one stick of dynamite, a detonator, a 4 seconds fuse and a bag of Ammonium Nitrate to increase the power of the blast. Hey, when in your life do you have the chance to buy dynamite??? We couldn’t pass that one. We also bought a large bottle of soft drink for 5.00 bols.

This is the entrance of the mine we visited and on the second picture you can see a miner pushing his wagon used to carry the mineral. When fully loaded this wagon will weigh about 1000Kg (2200lbs) and is pushed by 3 men. If you think you are a man and that the office environment is a harsh one, you need to talk to these guys you wimp! And this brings me to talk about the gift item I listed above as “coca leafs and catalysts” that you likely didn’t get completely. The coca leaf is widely grown in Peru and Bolivia and represents large revenues for the farmers. Of course you are thinking about the export of cocaine made out of the leaf, which is sure a good part of the revenues from the leaf but definitively not the main one. The coca leaf on itself is very harmless and when infused in hot water it basically has the pharmaceutical effect of the caffeine from tea or coffee and this is how the famous “mate de coca” is made. Just a simple tea made of coca leafs, which is pretty good by the way. To obtain cocaine apparently the leaf must be combined with a catalyst and an electrolyte, which are also freely sold in the streets of Potosi! The miners don’t really eat during their 12 hours working days but they always have a big chunk of coca leafs in one of their cheek and suck the juice out of them for a few hours. Mixed with the catalyst and their saliva playing the role of electrolyte they can go on without feeling pain, fatigue of hunger for the entire day!

When you spend your life in a shithole with no education you necessarily become very superstitious. Here is Tio (I hope the spelling is right) the god of the mines. Once a week the miners will gather in front of him for a special ceremonial. They offer Tio two cigarettes they put and lit in his mouth then coca leafs in his hands and on his head and finally some 96% alcohol on him and especially on his penis that you can see in erection between his legs. The rational here is very simple Tio has a wife; Patchamama who is the goddess of the earth and everything surrounding us. By putting pure alcohol on Tio’s stick the miners hope that when Tio go make love with Patchamama he will fertilize the earth with pure mineral. How come we nerve thought of something like that???

This miner here is presently digging the mineral out of the zinc vein he’s exploring. The day before he blasted this section of the gallery but the blast was not very good and he didn’t get much mineral out of it. He was actually very pleased when I gave him the dynamite stick, the detonator and the fuse because he had to blast again the next day. Knowing that a blast requires about 6 or 7 sticks of dynamite this means a blast cost roughly 100 bols ($14.00) but a miner makes about 50 bols ($7.00) per day and he has to pay for his own equipment! Again, you really think you have a miserable life? If we had known what we were going to see down there this is 10 sticks of dynamite we would have bought not one! Remember that the zinc those guys extract end up in our screws, our electrical wires and in the soldering use in every single electronic devices we use. With a life expectancy of 45 years these guys spend their lives in a hole so we can watch our TV, play our videogames and talk on our cell phones. You really think that the $2.00 dynamite stick we gave him was enough for what he does in return?