Cigarettes, alcohol, coca and dynamite

2013-03-27T01:37:00+00:00 March 27th, 2013|Bolivia, South America, Travel Diary|Comments Off on Cigarettes, alcohol, coca and dynamite
So I’m in Potosí.

I left you in Copacabana, where all was groovy, and now I shall explain the turn(s) of events that led to me being here, pretty much completely off on a tangent to my original or ideal plans.

We arrived to Copacabana at probably 12.45, and all I wanted to do was get a bus to La Paz in order to head for Uyuni, the starting point for the much acclaimed salt flats tour. HOWEVER. First things first, I was wrong in believing that the buses would be many and frequent – in fact, there was largely two departures a day, one at 1.30 and the other around 6. So instantly I had to jump into action and do the usual bus dance – enquiring at all the different companies as to price, only to eventually conclude that they’re all the same. This accomplished, I only had 20 or so minutes until departure (so much for the leisurely afternoon I’d hoped for), so I quickly grabbed some food and said a hurried goodbye to the others before being ushered towards the jetty to catch a boat.

But wait. A boat, to get to La Paz, when there’s a direct route there by road?

Well, yes. From what I was able to gather, there was some kind of blockade affecting pretty much everyone trying to get out of Copacabana – including in the other direction, towards Cusco – making it a massive pain in the arse (technical term) to get anywhere. To cut a long story short, a journey that should have taken 3 hours took about 6 and a half; a journey that should have been only by bus saw me taking a boat, minibus and then regular bus; a journey that should have simply taken me from one part of the country to another actually took me back across the Peru-Bolivia border twice more: I now have a total of 7 entry and exit stamps from both countries.

I sound bitter: I’m not. I actually think this kind of thing is part of the package of travelling – what’s life without a few curveballs? Especially in a place like South America, you have to accept delays and changes of plan as part of the fun – if you’re the kind of person that needs to stick rigidly to an itinerary, then just don’t come here. Plus, I find passport stamps really exciting.

And so it was that I found myself in the bus station in La Paz, realising that there were no more buses to Uyuni that night, having to think up an alternate plan. Lucky, really, that I’ve got past the stage in my trip where I felt the need to have everything booked: I didn’t lose out by having my plans changed. I decided to go to Potosí (in fact I largely had the decision made for me due to the fact that it was pretty much the only place that buses were still going).

So here I am in Potosí, after a hassle-free night bus (roughly ten hours), having spent an enjoyable day doing ordinary things such as handling dynamite and drinking 96% alcohol. Shall I explain?

I got to the town at about 7 in the morning, clueless as to where to go and where to stay, and luckily managed to find a lovely Uruguyan couple headed for a hostel, who I hopped in a taxi with. Having arrived and decided that I couldn’t be bothered to find out if there was a cheaper option, I booked into a dorm and then decided, why not do a tour of the mines that was leaving in half an hour? I was unshowered, all right, and yes I wasn’t yet checked into a room, but I cleaned my teeth and felt pretty much ready for it – the mines are what Potosí is famous for, and I had no particular desire to wait around another day to see them.

So half 8 came and I went with a group, all kitted out in wellies and protective clothing and a helmet with light attached, into a minibus to start the tour. The English and Spanish speaking tours were separated, so I was only with two others – Alex and Dominic – and we began with a trip to the miners market. That was where I held some dynamite for the first time (apparently not dangerous without the  nitroglycerin and ammonia nitrate) and also had my first, not entirely pleasant, taste of the miners alcohol: 96% and distilled from sugar cane juice (I believe). We were all obliged to buy ‘gifts’ for the miners – a bottle of alcohol, a bottle of juice (to mix), and a pair of gloves. Naturally this grated on my inherently stingy personality (at least where unnecessary expenditure is concerned), but I grinned and bore it, and was soon cheered up by the nearby market we were allowed to wander round for 16 minutes. Not sure why 16. I got some more coca leaves (which, I have been disappointed to discover, you can’t bring back to the UK – though I might try anyway) and had a delicious banana milkshake, made on the spot, to drink out of a bag.

Back on the bus we headed for the mines for the tour to start. We met some lovely miners (seemingly drunk) sitting in a shack just outside, one of whom I believe made some charming comments to me which I luckily couldn’t understand. Miners, eh.

Soon enough we went inside the tunnels themselves, and I have to say I’m glad I was only visiting. Rarely could you stand up straight, there was water and mud sloshing around on the path, and you could see all the dust that you were breathing in floating merrily in front of your face. We soon came across the first miner – down a 10 metre shaft – and our guide invited him up to chat with us, or essentially to drink with us.

Here we come to the title: the only things a miner needs to be strong and to do his job: cigarettes, alcohol, coca leaves and dynamite; and to be fair all of the miners we met were clearly in pretty good shape. They don’t eat anything down the mines, so they chew coca leaves instead, which are supposed to fend off hunger and tiredness (and it it a disgusting process to behold; chewing leaves into a gooey mass and storing it in their cheeks for hours on end, staining and getting stuck in their teeth). The alcohol helps keep them warm in the far reaches of the tunnels, and they also believe it brings them good luck – they pass a bottle round before they set off a big explosion, and they offer small amounts to the ground four separate times: once for el tió, the devil (there’s no god in the tunnels); once for pachamama, the Mother Earth; once for the friends they are drinking with, and once for themselves, to keep them safe. It’s a bit of a mental process, and all I could think about was how much alcohol was being wasted, pouring it on the ground like that – I reckon if you licked the floor you would be able to taste the countless offerings that had been made over the years. Not that you would want to lick the floor.

We were pretty much obliged to drink every time we met someone new or the bottle was passed around, else it would be bad luck, and its safe to say I was pretty unsteady on my feet by the end of the tour. Overall it was a really interesting experience though; definitely eye opening, and I don’t envy them in their jobs one bit. There were a couple of cave-ins (mild ones) while we were there, and in general it was a seriously claustrophobic place, even for someone like me who rarely has issues with things like that. And I have some fools gold stowed away in my camera bag as a reminder of the trip.

Once we got back I had a much needed shower (even with hot water! Ok so it only dribbled out of the shower head, meaning you had to stand flat against the wall if you wanted to actually wash, but it was pretty blissful nonetheless.) Its a bit freezing here so it’s been nice just to sit around inside, update the blog, read a bit, and make dinner for 20p (the rice bought in Baños is still going, and I bought some peas and carrots from the market for 20p, amazing).

Off to Uyuni for real tomorrow, apparently it’s only a four hour journey, so maybe fate was doing me a favour when it sent me here. Looking forward to tomorrow’s free breakfast, ad fingers crossed I can find a cheap but good tour company to do the salt flats with. Moving swiftly onwards!