A tale of coca, crawling and colonization

Feeling fully refreshed after our hippy hide-away, we braved the infamously bad Bolivian mountain roads and caught 12 hour night bus to the city of Sucre. The white-washed, colonial buildings of this bustling city provided a stark contrast to the dry, desolate, ´wild west´ backdrop of the surrounding mountains, with their condors flying passively overhead. The barren landscape surprised me initially, but it did explain why Bolivia is South America’s poorest country because it was clear that no crops could grow here, and even the hardiest of grazers would struggle to survive. From Sucre, we took a trip out to the Tarabuco market, which provided a tantalizing glimpse into indigenous life outside of the big cities in Bolivia. As well as indulging in the local street food and each buying a pair of the patterned hippy-style trousers the locals wear, Anna and I tried coca leaves for the first time. Indigenous South Americans have chewed coca leaves for millennia, and rather than giving the high of their infamous by-product, they successfully stave off hunger, thirst and tiredness. What the locals failed to mention was the taste, they were absolutely disgusting and we soon spat them out! We headed further south from Sucre, to the highest city in the world, Potosi, which resides at 4000 meters above sea level. As well as being the highest city, Potosi was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to the rich veins of silver running through the surrounding mountains. According to recent statistics, there are 120 active mines around Potosi in which 15,000 miners try to find their fortune. The Spanish first started forcing indigenous Indians to work in the mines in 1545, and Potosi is a classic example of the exciting opportunities and long-term local devastation caused by colonization. A book called ´Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent´ by Eduardo Galeano provides a fascinating and realistic account of the European (and later US) exploitation of Latin America. It is thought that 8 million indigenous lives have been lost since the Spanish began mining in Potosi, and several Bolivian writers claim that the Spanish extracted enough silver to build a bridge to the tip of Spain! Staying in Potosi, we felt we had to visit one of the mines, and, having grown up in the health and safety cage that is the United Kingdom, we were shocked at what we encountered. The tunnels were tiny, the shafts were incredibly treacherous, and the dust was so thick you could cut it with a knife! We spent 2 hours crawling, sprawling and falling through the pitch black mine, encountering numerous miners hard at work in these fatal conditions. The altitude and throat-destroying conditions ensured that we spent all of this time coughing and spluttering, and provided enough evidence as to why the life-expectancy of a miner is only 40 – 45 years. This was certainly a very eye-opening experience, and although it wasn’t a pleasant experience, we were all pleased we´d had an accurate picture of the horrendous conditions in which modern-day Bolivians still risk their lives.

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