The Rise and Fall of a Silver City
SHOPPING in markets is always cheaper and the stick of Bolivian dynamite and fuse I purchased in Potosi came at the reasonable price tag of 15 bolivianos - about one euro fifty.
Welcome to the miners' market, at the foothill of Cerro Rico, an enormous silver mine in the south west of Bolivia.
We were stocking up on provisions before entering the mine, our tour guide Willie recommending that we buy presents for the miners inside.
Standard staples for the miners include a large bag of coca leaves which they chew before entering the mines to give them enegy, suppress their need to eat as well as filtering a remarkable amount of toxic dust which fills the tunnels.
Our gifts bought, it was time to move to the mine, but not before I splashed out and bought two small bottles of pure alcohol (96 degrees) and 60 filterless fags which set me back a euro.
Religion, both native and Christian, as well as superstion are all part and parcel of life in the mines and on entering offerings must be given to the gods.
The most important is to the tio, a corruption of a native word meaning "friend". The friend in question is the devil, represented by a horned statue placed in a recess inside the mine.
This is his world after all. Lit cigarettes are placed in his mouth, coca leaves scattered on him and periodically fresh llama blood is splatered on the walls in his honour.
Permission is sought for us to enter, once in we are part of the mining family. This is not some claptrap or exagerated ritual for the gringos, they take this seriously; tempting faith and collapsing tunnels are linked in this world.
Days before I arrived a student from a Bolivian school broke one of the horns from the Tio. Willy told us that the coming weekend the miners using this section would gather to ask forgiveness and repair the horn in an elaborate ritual before inevitably getting toatlly wasted (Willy didn't use that term but the implication was there).
Offerings are also made to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, while elsewhere in the mine will be a statue of Jesus Christ, where miners can pray at both the high and low points of their lives underground.
Women do not work in the mines, they are considered bad fortune although with the onset of mass tourism women visitors are allowed. This seeming contradiction has been explained away in that it is only the wives and girlfriends of the miners who are not allowed - as the Pachamama would be jealous.
Don Adrian (55), who has worked some 35 years underground is one of the oldest miners around, and really should be dead by now.
The number one death is mines not accidents, although these happen all too often, but silicosis, a slow debilitating lung disease caused by continual inhalation of silica dust which normally kills after about 15 years.
Part of Don Adrian's secret is that he is old school - hammering holes in the rockface by hand, hours of work just to place one stick of dynamite. This way, there is less dust emitted than by machinery, which anyway costs a lot to hire.
The mine is divided up between workers who form part of various co-operatives and they can sub-contract parts to others who pay a percentage of what they find.
Down here no silver means no money, and with a slump in world prices these days earnings are scant.
While Don Adrian sub contracts part of his plot to other younger miners, after costs, he makes no more than US$70 a month.
Willie explained how the mines were nationalised in the 1950s but were closed in the mid 1980s during a world recession.
Instead, these co-operatives of workers started to run the mines, paying taxes to the government in turn. The socialistic nature of the mine ownership is in name only though, the terms "co-operatives of workers" is Soviet style double speak, in reality the top dogs are armong the richest men in the country.
Potosi, the city which has grown around the mine, has passed its sell by date by a couple of hundred years. Once it was the grandest of all cities on earth - bigger than London and Paris and certainly richer. It's worth a Potosi was the expression used then and still today to show how valuble something is.
The contribution to the Spanish was such that should a ship laden with silver be sunk or robbed a national crisis ensued and at one Corpus Christi celebration in the 1600s the streets were paved with silver bars.
Today, little of its former glory remains but for the colonial architechture at every corner, although it still has a certain charm, with steep winding roads laden with street vendors selling every snack conceivable.