Week of May 16, 2004
From Sucre we continued south on those oh-so-wonderful buses and landed in Potosi. Again, not much of a town but we were more interested in what was to see below ground rather than above ground. Potosi is a mining city and has no other real commerce. 7,000 people are directly supported by the mines, which produce silver, zinc, tin and lead.
Now, for those of you that have the occasion, frequent or seldom, to just hate your work or just do not want to go into work on a particular day, or are sitting at work right now wishing you were anywhere else, or you dread going to a customer's business/home or you wonder why on earth did you choose your profession...read on and feel damned lucky and quit your whining! :-)
The cooperative mines are raggedly built, claustrophobically tight tunnels that penetrate several levels in the mountain. All mining is done with hand tools and all hauling is done with ancient carts pulled and pushed up and out of the mountain by the miners. The life expectancy of a miner? From date of entry into the mines...about 10-15 years of toiling, back-breaking, suffocating, toxin-exposing work until they die a horrible death of silicosis or some other lung/major organ destroying disease. During our tour, we met only sons and fathers because there are NO grandfathers left alive. To put it simply, Gerson and I would be dead. Now, how does your despised work look now? Maybe, it ain't so bad after all.
If what I have explained is not enough to convince you, how about the underground temperatures that range from freezing to 115F degrees (55C). There is no electricity and the miners often work for 24 hours before emerging from the depths of their toil. All this to take home about $100US a month, if they are lucky. When asked why they work under such conditions while knowing of their significantly shortened lifespan, the miners respond "we have no where else to work".
The miners take their haul to a small separation plant where the valuable minerals are extracted through a series of liquid gravity tanks. The heavier minerals linger at the top of the chain of tanks and the lighter materials are filtered downward with the water. Eventually, the valuable minerals are deposited in their own tanks and collect in large pits outside. From there, they are shoveled out into piles and hauled off for smelting elsewhere.
The miners are paid based on a small sample that is crushed and grinded by hand. This sample is sent to a lab where its content quality is established and the miner is paid based on this rating for his entire haul.
Ok, so the dynamite was a fun part, but seeing as there are only two "dynamiters" in the mine, maybe that is not the best job (and seeing as we saw no less than four men without hands begging in town, maybe the dynamite is not that romantic after all).
So, after a full day of crawling, shivering, scrambling, sweating, slithering, climbing and panting in the mines, we were glad to get back to our clean and quiet hotel and pass out for a few hours before our night bus south to Tupiza.
Tupiza was not much of a town at all, but we were not there for what the town itself offered, but rather we were there to begin a four-day 4x4 trek around southwestern Bolivia and to cross the path of two very famous US bank robbers.
The 4x4 trek consists of four days and three nights of travel through some of the most inhospitable and truly remote land in the Americas. Often below freezing, the frozen volcanic plains or "Altiplano" resemble the Alaskan tundra or the Australian outback, yet it is definitely a landscape that has its own identity. Why would we even think to take such a journey knowing that for four days we would be dirty and freezing, be food and sleep deprived, be cramped and uncomfortable, be exhausted and useless afterwards..."Why", you ask?
To put it simply, the journey was spectacularly, breathtakingly awesome. That's why!
Our first stop was to venture to a little nothing mining town called San Vicente where two very famous US bank/train robbers were reported to have been killed in a shootout with the Bolivian military. Need a hint? Paul Newman and Robert Redford played them in the movie...that's right! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh). There is nothing there that would indicate their presence but for a interestingly worded/spelled sign and the alleged cemetery where they are buried. We will just keep up the myth and believe they are buried there in an unmarked grave (as the locals tell it).
Butch and Sundance fled to South America after the price on their heads in the United States became too attractive for the bounty hunters (they got away with over $2.5 million in today's money). They actually established themselves in Argentina for many years and ranched in the Cholila Valley, somewhat near Bariloche. Unfortunately, they could not resist their old ways and made the mistake of robbing the payroll that was for the miners around Tupiza, Bolivia. Worse than having a Marshall or the military on your tail, Butch and Sundance had each miner in the area searching every ravine, nook, cranny, cave, etc. and therefore, squeezed the two gringos toward San Vicente (about two hours northwest of Tupiza).
As luck would have it, a few soldiers and a police officer headed south from Uyuni upon hearing of the payroll robbery. These men took their rest near San Vicente and upon hearing of two "Yankee bandits" in town, they quietly entered the home wherein Butch and Sundance were hiding. A shootout erupted and one soldier was killed.
As the story goes, the small regiment waited many hours and after hearing shouts and more shots, they finally re-entered the home. Rather than the brave shootout assumed to have occurred at the end of the movie, Sundance was allegedly found with multiple gunshot wounds to his arm and a single bullet to his forehead and Butch was found with a gunshot wound in his arm and a single bullet to his temple. The bullet lodged in Sundance's brain was a match to Butch's Colt. It is storied that Butch shot Sundance to put him out of his misery and then realizing all was lost, he shot himself. Not quite Hollywood movie material, but interesting, nonetheless.
After our little fun history adventure, we traveled along roads scratched out of the rocky terrain and were shadowed by volcanoes and edged by lagunas. Each day brought different exceptional terrain and varying fantastic animals. Albeit the days were bitterly cold and the nights more numbingly so, we somehow kept enough warmth with the adrenaline flowing through our veins.
One particular adrenaline pumping incident was when we walked right into a National Geographic or Animal Planet scene. We were driving along a small salar (IE: salt flat) and we were lazily watching a small vicuna (llama family, but deer-like) herd walking on the salar. With the salt being so white, the dusky brown vicuna really stood out in contrast. Suddenly, Gerson and I see two vicuna break out from the right side of our vision and thunder past the small herd. Within feet of their panicked hooves, we see what looks like a small dog or fox in full stride chasing after the two vicuna.
With excited shouts we told our driver to "stop the car" and the six of us leaped out of the car and gave chase to get a better look. I was able to get one picture of this extremely rare scene and then I raced to the left to intercept the pursuit if it continued across our scope of vision. Just as I was closing in on the chase, the small herd of vicuna turned and made as though they were going to attack the Zorro Andina (as the fox-like, masked animal is called). This startled the Zorro Andina and caused him to falter slightly, thus losing his speed and consequently losing his dinner.
Apparently, the Zorro Andina bites the hamstring of the vicuna and disables
it, rendering it defenseless against the small Zorro Andina's killing bites.
Fortunately, the vicuna escaped and we got to witness a very rare occurrence of
not only the chase but just of the Zorro Andina in daytime.
Our last night we stayed in a little town called San Juan and even out there, Gerson found some ruins. Actually, these ruins were the burial pods in a cemetery used by a people referred to as Seniores de La Lipez around 800-1200 CE. The burial pods were lava bubbles in which the Lipez people placed their mummies. Several original mummies remain intact in the pods so it was quite a nice little ruin visit.
Our last day and the prominent reason for embarking on this journey was to see the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. The Salar covers approximately 12000 square km (~4600 square miles) and this frozen wasteland sits at 3650m (~11,500 ft). The Salar is a prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchin, and it used to cover most of southwestern Bolivia. And actually, the Lago Minchin still exists under this thick layer of frozen salt.
We broke our fast on the Isla de Pescado, a prehistoric island in the Lago Minchin and wandered around the extensively bleak and blinding landscape. We eventually left this island in the middle of the salt and made our way back to Uyuni. We negotiated a hotel room for eight hours so we could get warm and find sleep before catching our northward midnight train back toward La Paz and back home to Cindy.