Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Silver Lining

After a heavenly week in Sucre, the mining town of Potosi knocked us back to reality. No, worse: Potosi gave us a taste of hell.

Despite its impressive altitude at 4,090m (13,400ft) and its title as “the highest city in the world,” Potosi is depressing. It really isn’t its own fault- it was at one time quite the place to be. Around 500 years ago that is.

In the 1500’s, Potosi was incredibly rich due to the silver mining that took place in the mountain that dominates the cityscape: the Cerro Rico, or “rich mountain.” Legend has it that when the Spanish arrived in the city, the streets were literally paved in silver and the population rivaled that of London or Paris at the time. Of course, the Spaniards were all over that and quickly began exploiting the silver mines with slave labor and stripping the city of its riches, sending the bounty back to Spain.

Today, the Cerro Rico has little silver left, but that doesn’t stop some 5,000 people, around 800 of them children, from working 12-20 hour days for $4 a day in increasingly dangerous and hellish conditions. Since the mines became known to the Spanish, it is said that over 8 million people have died in the mountain’s depths. What was once referred to as the rich mountain is now referred to as “La Montana que come los hombres vivos”- the mountain that eats men alive.

Potosi is extremely poor and its poverty is evident everywhere: in the dreary architecture, the run-down homes, the down-trodden people. The only locals who didn’t seem miserable were the kids, armed with water balloons in celebration of carnival and targeting tourists for sport. The main tourist attraction in the city is a visit to the mines to experience the tortuous conditions and meet (read, take pictures of) the miners who work there. There was something a little too voyeuristic about the tour, so we opted out and visited a museum instead. If I want to take pictures of beings living in misery, I’ll go to a zoo.

There was a bright side to our visit to Potosi, however small. First, the bus rides to and from the town were stunning. We passed rocky hills made of fool’s gold, sparkling in the morning sun. The landscape changed from fertile plateaus covered in vegetation, to high, red rock-strewn mountains, dotted with green scrubs, the land etched by canyons made from dry river beds. The hardened earth was punctured by eucalyptus trees, cypresses and cacti, a combination as visually arresting as it was unexpected. In the valleys between the mountains, llamas grazed on short, sparse grass, accompanied by sheep, donkeys and the occasional pig.
Our bus passed through the kinds of earth-colored, wind-swept villages that time seems to have forgotten, always with the ubiquitous old man sitting alone against a wall, watching the occasional vehicle pass by. In these lonely hamlets, the upper-class homes are evident by the presence of a tin roof weighed down by rocks, while the homes of the poor are roofed with straw. I actually saw two oxen pulling a plow through a field, as well as a young boy playing with a hoop and a stick. It was like stepping out of a time machine into the past.
The second positive experience we had during our stay was an incredible local dish called K’alaphurka: a delicious maiz stew, filled with fava beans, vegetables, hot chilies, potatoes, chunks of roasted pork, spicy chorizo and crunchy pork cracklings, all cooked with a red-hot volcanic rock that is dropped in the ceramic bowl right before the soup is served.

To sample the treat, we went to a restaurant that is known for the dish in a lost section of town, passing women selling whole, open sheep carcasses off the sidewalk on the way.
At 10:00am on a Thursday, the restaurant was packed with locals; we actually had to share a table with a Bolivian couple. The only beverages available were beer from Potosi or Coca Cola, so we did like the locals and ordered a liter of beer while we waited.

Our bowls arrived at our table sputtering and popping with boiling broth. As the soup cooled, we threw handfuls of fresh, starchy Peruvian corn into the mix, which added yet another layer of taste and texture. The result was out of this world: rich and hearty, yet full of bright, independent flavors. While every bite tasted different depending what was in my spoon, the whole dish was united by the earthy, mineral flavor of the volcanic rock. It was insanely good, which explains why the restaurant usually runs out of the dish by 11:00am.
Nothing left but my volcanic rock!
Despite the meal, we were ready to get out of Potosi after two days and took a bus from there to the town of Uyuni, on the frontier of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and the empty wilderness beyond. We had heard that the salt flats are unimaginably beautiful and we were excited to visit them. But more than that, we were simply happy to be leaving Potosi.

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