Fri Oct 25, 2002 2:46 pm
Mining is the main industry in Potosí. During the colonial era, the
silver mined from Potosi made Spain quite rich and the city itself was quite
wealthy. The conditions in the mines were and remain quite terrible -- most
miners die within 10-12 years of entering the mines when their lungs give
in to silicosis. Silica, though, is only one of the major dangers in the
mines. The others are asbestos, toxic gases, potential cave-ins, and explosions.
Back in the day, literally millions of African and native slaves died working
in the mines. The slaves worked for four months at a time in the dark caves.
When they emerged, it is said that they were blindfolded to protect their
eyes from the bright sun that they had not seen for so long.
Now, spending 3 or 4 hours in the dark, dusty, dangerous conditions of the
mines didn´t really appeal to Patty or me. Patty´s claustrophobic
tendencies probably would have got the best of her, and when I learned that
I would have spent most of the tour hunched over because of the low height
of the tunnels, I was glad I didn´t go. My back would have absolutely
BUT our good friends Monnine and Marcel, who had been with us since Tupiza,
filled us in on the details. First, you go buy supplies for the miners --
namely coca leaves and tobacco. Then you gear up with a jacket, helmet,
pants and boots. After that, it´s off to the mines. Monnine and Marcel
got a ride with some local miners and their guide. The best part of the
tour, to me, would have been the devil statue at the middle of the mountain.
CULTURE INFO: Ok, so these miners place little statuettes of saints or the
Virgin Mary or Jesus at the entrance to their caves to protect them and
give them good luck. Once underground,however, the miners believe they are
in the land of the devil, which they never refer to as the devil, but as
El Tío or Supay in Quechua. Supay is the god of the underworld, Pachamama
is the goddess of the earth -- keep this in mind -- it pops up again later!
The miners make offerings to the devilish statue, which is apparently life-size,
in the middle of the mountain. The guide pours some alcohol, lights it on
fire, and gives the statue some coca leaves to boot. Pretty creepy in the
dark, I bet. Especially after hearing the stories about how some miners
have actually met the devil in there when they were alone. The guide our
friends went with claims to know someone who met him, in fact. What happened,
more or less was this:
One day, a miner was going about his job when he was approached by a man
he had never met before. This man told the miner that he knew where a large
vein of tin was (tin being more valuable at the time than silver), but that
he would have to exchange his soul for the information. The miner thought
it over, discussed it with his wife, and decided that to feed his wife and
many children, he would ask the stranger where the vein was. Within a couple
months, the miner became ridiculously rich, had a nice new car, house, etc.
The good fortune did not last long however. Soon after, the miner died,
bad things started happening to his family, and when a relative tried to
go in and continue mining the vein, he found it had dried up. Just goes
to show you that you really shouldn´t make pacts with the devil, I
On to the tours we actually did take :)
La Casa De La Moneda
Potosí was the center for silver mining AND the place where many
European coins were minted. La Casa De La Moneda once served as slave quarters
and a jail, and today holds machines and artifacts from the mint, paintings,
indian artifacts and more. My favorite exhibit were the baby mummies that
were found in the walls of the building in the 1980s. Very creepy. It was
also interesting to see the GIGANTIC machinery used to flatten out the silver
before they were pressed into coin shapes. Interestingly, a lot of the more
modern minting equipment had been shipped in from our mint in Philadelphia.
Outside of La Casa is a garish face of Bacchus which has become an icon
of Potosí. A bit strange, as the face was put there on a whim and
doesn´t really have anything to do with local culture. See http://www.spanish4.com/potosi.jpg
to see what I mean
For 5 bolivianos, you can climb up an old bell tower -- one of the darkest
and narrowest you will find, for a view of Potosí. We got suckered
in, but got some good photos at the top.
Convento Santa Teresa
The tour of this convent was one of the best tours we have had so far this
trip. You learn a lot about the daily life of colonial nuns. Pretty darn
restricted. If you were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be the second
daughter of a wealthy Spanish family, you were expected to enter the church
as a nun and devote your life to god. It was supposed to be a great honor.
Perhaps it was, but after learning how the nuns spent their lives, I doubt
I would have wanted to be one.
Nuns entered the convent at age 13. As soon as they said goodbye to their
parents at the front gates, they never again had direct contact with the
outside world. When family came to visit, the nuns sat on one side of a
screen, while the parents sat on the other. The parents were prevented from
reaching through the screen and touching their daughters by a bunch of nasty
spikes sticking out of the screen. All the while, the conversation was monitored
by another nun on the daughter´s side of the screen.
Not even priests were allowed to see the nuns. The nuns got up at 4:30 in
the morning to prepare for the morning´s mass. If they happened to
forget something, the priest would have to ask for it through a lazy susan
located in the sacristy. A similar lazy susan was also used when the nuns
sold their sweets to the public. They put the candy in once side and turned
the dumbwaiter around to receive the money. The nuns attended mass in a
screened off area above the altar at the back of the church, and received
the host through a slot in the wall that allowed the priests to see only
the nuns lips.
Think all of this is extreme?
The nuns were awake from about 4:30 am to 8:00 pm, during which they were
granted ONE hour of recreation. That is, ONE hour where they could speak.
Even during this time, they had to keep busy with knitting or some other
task. Idle hands invited the devil, you know. The nuns slept on beds without
mattresses, ate only what they needed to survive, AND ASKED PERMISSION to
torture themselves with bindings and scratchy chains as pennance. Apparently,
in those days you had to suffer in order to get closer to god.
Iglesia San Franciso
The main attraction here is an image of Jesus made out of cactus wood that
purportedly grows hair and a beard. This Jesus arrived at the Franciscan´s
doorstep in a cross-shaped coffin with it´s head detached. Try as
they might, the village artisans could not put him back together. The Franciscan
priests were getting quite nervous when a couple of young men showed up
and asked to be given a week alone with the statue to try to fix it. The
statue and the two young men were locked away in a room. After a week, the
door was opened, and the statue was fixed, but the two young men had mysteriously
disappeared. The locals believe that the two young men must have been angels,
and because of this the statue is considered very holy, can grow hair, and
performs miracles such as stopping flooding rains when brought out into
the streets for a procession.
After our tour of Potosí ended, we had to endure a 4 hour journey
in a hot smelly bus to Sucre. Sucre is a lovely town -- much more modern
than anywhere else we´ve been in Bolivia so far, with lots of restaurants
and hotels to choose from.
(Continued in Sucre . . .)