Potosi and the Devil’s Miner

Please watch this documentary and help build awareness for the children who work the silver mines of Bolivia to support their families. The life expectancy for someone working in the mines is 40 years old as many die of respitory failure from lung disease silicosis: http://www.thedevilsminer.com/index_new.html


Day 1: July 24, 2010

We had made our way to Tupiza on July 23. Mario wanted to spent a day there and do some horse riding, while the rocky formation of the local quebrada (yet another one) didn’t appeal to me and I decided to head straight to Potosi. I spent a few hours in Tupiza and caught a 9.00pm night bus to Potosi. I feared the ride since I had heard many horrible bus stories about Bolivia but was pleasantly surprised to find a warm bus with comfortable seats. I chatted with a local man who sat next to me for a while but soon felt very sleepy and dozed off. At 5.00am my neighbor was shaking me, trying to wake me up since we had arrived. I had slept comfortably throughout the whole ride.
I got off the bus into the not-so-cold Potosi morning and walked into the bus terminal. I was surprised by how fancy it was although it wasn’t at all heated. For the highest city in the world (4060m) and in the middle of winter, Potosi was amazingly warm. I decided to wait at least an hour before I headed to town. There was no way the hostels would be open that early in the morning. I read until 6am, then got some breakfast and took a taxi to a central hostel. The taxi dropped me off quite a way from the hostel saying the streets were blocked and I believed him. It only took a couple of hundred meters to find out that this wasn’t true and there was a road taking you straight to the front door. Anyhow, once I’d walked there things didn’t get any better. It was fully booked. I didn’t not see that one coming. Two tall, blond, rather large girls were obviously in the same situation. One of them asked me a question that I didn’t quite understand since I was talking to the owner in Spanish. I looked at her and said ‘Huh?’. She took that as I sign that I didn’t speak English, waved her hand and gave me a dismissive look. I didn’t like that. ‘Do I speak English?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, I speak English’ I said when she looked at me. ‘Are you doing the mine tour?’ she asked. ‘We are doing the tour and we are only going to rest for a few hours here’ she added. I wondered whether I wanted to do the tour with them but I hadn’t like them too much and I decided against it. I am telling you this story because it is related to what happened later.
The owner of the hostel suggested another place to stay and I walked the deserted morning streets of Potosi in search of another hostal. I found one but they didn’t have any singles available. I went to another one but it just looked like a disturbing mental institution, a couple of other places were just way too expensive. In the end I found a decent place and dropped my bags. I took a shower and went to bed for a few hours. It was lunchtime when I woke up and I went out looking for a place to eat. I came across the market and accidentally saw an ad for a restaurant serving a 3-course lunch for $1.50. Too good to miss!
I went in and was pleasantly surprised to find a clean, airy, rather pleasant space. Two minutes later I was eating my cream corn soup. Then it was the main course – tongue in red, spicy sauce served with rice and potatoes. I also got some fresh salad from the buffet and a funky looking, rather disgusting drink that was delicious though. Very satisfying. I thought I had hit the jackpot with that lunch but soon after I left the market I saw ads for other restaurants, serving 4-course lunches and a drink for the same price. Damn it! I had been cheated :).
After lunch I wandered the colorful streets of Potosi, took some photos and drank an innumerable amount of freshly squeezed juices. I decided to go to the tourist info office and I ended up at this travel agency that doubled as the office I thought. I hadn’t realized that the actual office was a bit further up. I went in, asked for a map and information, asked about the mine tours and soon after I had entered the lady running the place decided to be all honest with me. ‘Hardly any of the money we charge for the tours actually goes to the miners. We help them very little.’ she explained. She also invited me to watch a documentary about the mines at 6.00pm on the following day, Sunday. She had told me there isn’t much going on on Sunday and I thought watching the movie would be a good idea. Once again I hadn’t read my guidebook properly and I had no idea that the documentary she was talking about was a highly looked after movie called the ‘Devil’s Miner’.
After the agency I walked further up the street to the ‘Casa de la Moneda’ – one of Bolivia’s best museums, dedicated to the minting history of Potosi. I paid my $3 entry fee and got on the tour. More than 1.5h later we had gone through the whole, rather impressive building and we had acquired a whole lot of information about the processes and the different machines making the silver coins throughout the centuries. We had seen a whole bunch of minerals not just from Potosi but also from all over the country. Frankly, most of them looked like regular stones. I thought of my mom and a bearded colleague of hers that would have been raving about the place having studied geology at university. I was most impressed with the mummies of babies and young children, the metal chests they used to transport the coins that had some elaborate secret locks as well as a huge amethyst rock that could only be found in Bolivia apparently. The building itself was very nice too.
After the tour I had a quick snack and I went to the movies. I was very surprised to bump into a cinema earlier that day and even more surprised to find out that they had a movie I hadn’t seen. As for the price of the ticket…$1.50. Just too good. I saw Ironman 2 and greatly enjoyed it. The final scenes almost got me shaking from excitement. I sat in my seat giggling from pleasure. A good one.
After that I walked back to the hostal and spent some time writing in bed since it was pretty early. At about 22.30pm I felt a bit hungry and I walked out to a nearby café to get some dinner. The lady running the hostel warned me it as dangerous but I assured her I was only going 50m away from the hostal. I got some not-so-good fried chicken with fries and watched a silly movie about two teenagers stuck on an island. It was bad yet I still sat there eyes glued to the screen. That’s very much like my dad who is a TV maniac. He watches everything and anything and completely switches off.
After dinner it was bed time. Mario was coming at 5am and I had to get up to open the door for him.
Day 2: July 25, 2010
At 6.15am I heard a knock on the gate, waited for a few seconds to see if the lady of the place would go out as is the custom but nothing happened. I put on a pair of trousers and went out in the dark, cold morning to open the gate and let Mario in. He dropped off his bags and got into bed. When he woke up we decided to change the hostal since the lady didn’t have any double rooms available. We went to a nearby place that I had previously researched and it turned out so much better than I thought it would be. A leafy, charming courtyard, free Internet and Wi-Fi, better bathrooms and the best of all the same price! We were so excited with our find.
Once we were settled we went out for lunch. We found another one of those cheap lunch places and had some cold meat with salad as a starter, a big plate of home cooked soup, spaghetti with mixed meat in red, spicy sauce, and a desert. We also ordered a liter of local beer to share that turned out to be more expensive than the 4-course lunch. We wouldn’t making that mistake again. In the few days we have spent in Potosi we have tried many different restaurants that offer set lunches. Still Mario’s favourite is the one described above.
After lunch we spent time walking around. At 6.00pm we went to the tour agency to see the documentary. This was our first meeting with Basilio who was soon to become the center of our days. We watched the ‘Devil’s Miner’, an American production that told the story of the life in the mines through children’s eyes. Basilio, then 14-years-old, and his younger brother were the main characters, along with his young sister and his widowed mother. After having lost his father at a young age, Basilio had to work to support his family. He started as an assistant, being paid Bs20 (less than $3) per day in a smaller (but safer) mine that was almost depleted of minerals. He later decided to look for another, better paid job in a bigger but more dangerous mine. He found it in Rosario, one of the oldest mines in Potosi. His daily salary increased to Bs30 completely out of proportion with the risks taken. Throughout the whole film, Basilio stuck to going to school despite the tough living conditions he was subjected to. He never gave up.
Towards the end of the movie both Mario and I were overwhelmed with the sadness of it all and sat on the couch trying hard to hold our tears back. All e could say when Helen, the owner, asked us what we thought was ‘It is very heavy…very heavy’.
While we watched the movie, an older lady that sat with us (Helen’s mother maybe?) told us that Basilio was their guide. Neither of us understood very well though, not until Helen confirmed it after we’ve watched the movie. She told us she had met Basilio in the mines during her continuous trips there as a guide. She had decided to help him out and asked him whether he would be interested in working as a guide for her. He had agreed and no takes Spanish speaking tourists into the mines. There was a trick though. Since Basilio didn’t have a tourism certification (5 years at university) he couldn’t work as a guide openly and most other agency turned him down. Helen’s workaround was the following: she would leave town with the tourists as the official façade of the company and then Basilio would do the actual mine tour.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much work for him since the company was newly opened and worse even Basilio couldn’t take English speaking tourist into the mines since he didn’t speak the language. There are well over 1000 children working in the mines. We couldn’t help all of them (at least not in the immediate future) but e could help Basilio. Mario and I had an idea.
– How much are the English lessons here? – I asked.
– It costs about Bs200 (less than $30) per month – Helen said. ‘Hmmm, interesting’ I thought.
We booked the mines tour for Tuesday (two days from now, since the biggest mining cooperative was having an election on Monday and the mine would be closed), thanked Helen for all the information and left. Mario and I exchanged impressions of the movie and a few hundred meters away from the agency I broke crying while tens of tens of locals were parading on the streets dressed in colorful costumes. I felt so bad for all these children working in the mines and not just them but also the men whose life expectancy was 50 at the most. I had to do something. We thought that maybe we could get Basilio some English lessons and help him develop his career as a guide.
Earlier that day I had told Mario about my cinema experience and he decided he wanted to watch the movie too. We were having a great time together and he asked whether I wanted to see it again. We had a quick dinner and went to the movies again. After that we went back home and slept.
Day 3: July 26, 2010
Today Mario had some work to do and while he was busy with that I walked around town looking for English schools. After a while I came across a private college offering classes and asked them whether they had anything available, how it was structured and at what cost. The man told me they had a yearlong course starting soon at the cost of Bs100 ($14) per month. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was and asked him to prepare a detailed outline of the course that I were to pick up a bit later. I walked back into the center and came across another school. They offered three month individual classes for Bs150 ($21) per month. The time of the classes was also negotiable.
I met Mario for lunch and told them all about the classes. He was really excited and amazed with how cheap they were. We decided to help Basilio.
We went for lunch and afterward we climbed to the top of a local church for the views it provided. It was pretty impressive. The way to the top went through a very narrow, dark, steep staircase that was rather claustrophobic after a while. From the top we saw Cerro Rico (the mountain where silver was found hundreds of years ago, and that is still exploited for minerals in the present day; a total of more than 450 years) and a smaller hill with what looked like a monument on top of it. Mario suggested we climbed to the top. We asked the guide how we could get there and she suggested the public bus that cost $0.15 as well as the taxi that cost $1. We opted for the taxi, although it ended up being a staggering $2! We thought we were paying $1 to the base of the hill, and $2 to the very top of it where the monument stood. We were a bit surprised when the driver asked for $2 at the base of the hill. We weren’t going to argue though. It is funny that we cared for his car though (considering the rough dirt road) and we asked him to drop us off before it got too hard thus not making the most of our $2. He-he.
We slowly climbed up the hill that revealed some sweet views of town as well as Cerro Rico, dotted with hundreds of entrances to various mines (a few hundred in total). Mario wandered off to the side while I chatted to what turned out to be an Ecuadorian traveler. He told me about this 12-year-old kid that had offered to take him on a tour in a small mine for $3.50 (the regular price agencies charge is between $10 -14). The traveler however didn’t carry cash with him to which the kid responded he would do it for as much money he had. In this case it was less than $1. They went a few hundred meters into the darkness of the mine, the kid told him about all the minerals, as well as the legends related to the mines. All in all he got a pretty decent vie of it all.
Once we were done with the hill we slowly made our way down. We saw some miners walking down, the houses of the families living at the entrances of mines guarding the equipment for a mere $20 per month, we saw kids playing football on the rocky, dusty ‘front yard’ of their adobe houses. We walked by several mine entrances, saw an indigenous woman sitting on the dirt, weaving. We took a photo of her and walked up to give her some money to which she gave us a toothless smile and thanked us politely in broken Spanish. One of only few words she probably knows. Most families working in the mines speak only Quechua. That same lady had two pig shed, little, short circles made of adobe – one was for a big, fat pig and the other for a bunch of little, baby ones.
We walked further down, passing by another house where a whole family was gathered in front. None of them spoke Spanish but we gathered from their gestures that the father as trying to sell (jokingly of course) his teenage daughter. Mario went along with the joke, asking ‘How much?’ to which the girl responded with violent punches on her father’s body.
Further down there was yet another mine entrance and yet another adobe house. There was an old lady sitting in the sand a few meters away from it that caught our eye. Mario stood a few meters away from her holding his camera on one hand asking whether he could take a photo of her in exchange of some coins. He didn’t understand a word of Spanish. Mario repeated it several times while also reaching into his pocket for some coins to show her. She must have gotten scared of us because she got us as quickly as an old woman can get up and tried to run away, while also shouting to someone in the house. By then Mario as already was trying to take a photo. We ran after her, trying to get her to stop and give her the money. When she saw the coins and finally understood what we were trying to do, she hissed ‘Gracias!’ through missing teeth that sounded too grateful for the couple of coins we had given her. We were amazed by ho grateful they were. We also noticed that none of them, regardless of their miserable living conditions and profound poverty actually came to us begging for money or even asking for any in exchange of photos. They all just humbly stood there, quietly minding their own business.
An interesting thing about that same old lady were her ultramodern pink glasses she had propped on her forehead. ‘I might be a 100 –year-old and my life might be shit but I am going to look at it through pink glasses! Literally.’ we joked. The spirit of this people is truly amazing.
A few hundred meters don the dirt road we stopped to take a few photos of what looked like an ancient mineral processing facility. It looked run down and out of business but I have a feeling it wasn’t. Knowing about the century old working methods in the mines I wouldn’t be surprised with that same century looking facility was actually still functioning.
We got on a small public bus that was to take us back to town. Once we got into town we got a bit stuck in a traffic jam that was due to a miners’ gathering in one of the cooperatives buildings. As I mentioned earlier the biggest cooperative was having elections and this is what we were seeing. Mario asked whether I wanted to get off the bus and mingle with the miners. He suggested we get a beer with them. I felt completely out of place there and by the time I had made up my mind we were a few hundred meters away from the gathering. When the bus finally stopped I urged Mario to get off and go back to the meeting (read drunken party). He couldn’t believe I actually wanted to do it but slowly got up and we got off. I thought it would be a good idea to chat with some miners (if we managed to do so of course). On the way there we got a burger each from a street stand (less than $1 and delicious) and walked up the street back to the miners. Oh boy! It was a jungle there. The road was covered in empty beer cans; it was smelly with alcohol and urine and sticky. The miners hung out in small groups, standing around towers of beer cans. We found a small shop hoping to get some beer thus ‘blending’ better with the crowd. They had run out of beer though. We stood around for a while slowly realizing that chatting to them would be impossible since they were talking only among themselves in groups. I felt completely out of place, not only being a foreigner invading something very much ‘theirs’ but also being the only woman there. We made our way into the building (seeing a man peeing on the back of a truck on the way) thinking we might find some beer and feel a bit more comfortable. Oh no! I haven’t felt so out of place in my whole life! As soon as we walked in all eyes were on us and on me in particular. A man standing in the corner of the stinky, dark, sticky hall to our right was grinning at me, gesturing me to go to him DESPITE Mario’s presence there. I threw a quick look to my left and although nobody was waving at me all eyes were thirstily locked on me. I urged Mario to get out of there as quickly as possible. On the way out of the crowd Mario had let go of my hand for a moment when a man smiled at me and said ‘I like you’ while another advised Mario to hold me tight if he were to keep me to himself. Mario did not let go of my hand again.
Although we didn’t talk to any miners our visit to the gathering was still a success. We had managed to see them in their natural environment when they were not putting a show for the tourists. It was a very harsh reality. Most didn’t speak Spanish, only Quechua, were drunken and generally disgusting. It was an experience alright.
We went back into the center in town, hoping to visit the cathedral that seems to be permanently closed for renovation. It was still open when we got there but they wanted to charge an entrance fee for the visit which we thought wasn’t worth it since we had already seen similar attractions. Instead we headed to a bookstore where we would get various items to give away to the children living on the mountain (as advised by Helen). We bought notebooks, pencils and pens, color pencils and markers, as well as some pencil sharpeners and erasers. Nothing fancy, just the basics. We then went to the local market and bought some fruit (green apples and tangerines) for the miners and some milk and yogurt for the children (milk reduced the risk of silicosis of the lungs; the number one disease in the mines).
We then dropped off the bags at the hostel and went out for dinner.
Day 4: July 27, 2010
We got up early, had a quick breakfast and went to the tour agency here our tour would begin. As we were walking down the road we recognized Basilio standing at the door. He greeted us and welcomed us inside. My first thought was ‘This guy doesn’t need any help…’ after seeing his rather fancy mobile phone and gelled up hair. We sat around for a bit, me keeping a close eye on Basilio. Mario and I had talked about getting him English lessons but decided to get to know him first before we say anything. My only concern was that he would turn out to be a piece of shit when we met him and that he would be absolutely undeserving of any help.
We got onto the van, Helen accompanying us and made our way to the miners’ market, which was our first stop. To our surprise it as the same place where the miners were gathered for their meeting the day before. We got off the truck and Helen told us about the importance of coca leaves to the miners, the use of 96% alcohol, the dynamite, and the cigarettes. The coca leaves and the cigarettes (special mix of coca, tobacco, etc.) were helping against the dangerous dust in the mines and the alcohol is used in rituals.
We bought coca leaves, big bottles of cheap soda, and some dynamite that we were to give to the miners working inside the mine. We were going to visit the same mine (Rosario) we had seen in the documentary and here Basilio had spent 6 years working. Our next stop was a small room packed with safety equipment. We got our pants, jackets, boots as well as the helmets and the lanterns. Once fully equipped we were back on the van that took us to the entrance of the mine. As we walked the path was lined with miners sitting on benches chewing coca leaves (they chew between 150 and 200 leaves before entering the mines), preparing to enter the mine. They were still feeling hung-over after the previous day’s party and were rather late for work. As soon as they saw us they attacked us, each wanting some fresh fruit. Basilio had offered to help me carry the bag and he now had control over it. He gave away a few apples, a few tangerines. But they wouldn’t leave us alone. They kept coming in hordes. Mario tried to stop them and so did Basilio. We walked away in direction of the mine.
Once inside we made our way through a narrow rather low tunnel. It was flooded with rain water and we carefully progressed ankle deep in mud. Basilio told us we would visit El Tio (the miners God) first instead of last thus giving the miners some time to get into the mine and start working. We took a very narrow, rather stuffy side tunnel and crept through it until we reached the opening into the gallery. There he was! El Tio! The Devil like statue Basilio had so feared when growing up. The statue was sat on a higher platform and two benches were carved in stone to the left and right of it. He was covered in colorful paper decorations remnants of past religious celebrations. His lap was full of coca leaves and cigarette fags hung from his mouth. Basilio sat next to him and invited us to sit on the benches. He lit a cigarette and respectfully put it in his mouth. He then spread some coca leaves onto his lap and urged us to do the same. He also kept a handful of leaves for himself to chew. We did the same. I had never tried it before. The next step of the offering was the pure 96% alcohol. He spilled some on El Tio and some on the ground before him for Pachamama (said to be his wife) and he also drank some. We had to do the same although Basilio advised us to only have a drop of the alcohol since it was so strong. I tried some and it didn’t really feel that bad. It was kind smooth and rather warming. We sat for a bit longer listening to stories about how El Tio became to life, how the silver was discovered, and legends of the mines such as the one about women not being allowed in the tunnels as well as stories about religious celebrations and offerings. The following section tells the stories in detail.
Legends and myths from the mines
 How Cerro Rico was discovered?
More than 450 years ago a Peruvian pastor was walking in this area with his llamas. He got lost however and decided to spend the night in the mountain since going back was too far away. He went into a cave and lit a fire. The light from the fire illuminated a silver vein and that’s how the exploitation of the mountain began. Funny enough the first thing the pastor did was report his findings to the Spanish conquistadors.
 How El Tio came to life and who he is?
When the Spanish started taking out the silver from the mountain they got millions of indios and African slaves to work in the mines. The conditions however were appalling and they refused to work. In an attempt to force them back to work the Spaniards created this horrible looking creature and told them it would kill them if they didn’t work. The creature was an evil God (Dios in Spanish) but since the consonant ‘D’ didn’t exist in Aymara they called him ‘Tios’ hence today’s name ‘El Tio’ which also means ‘The Uncle’.
Today El Tio is an essential part of the miners’ daily life. They pray to him to give them minerals and to protect them from danger. They believe that if they don’t make offerings to him he would kill them.
All the people working in the mines are very religious (mixed Catholicism and indigenous beliefs) and strongly believe in God outside of the mines. The saying is that God doesn’t reach deep into the mine thus leaving them to the mercy of the Devil. He is their only God under the ground.
Why women are not allowed in the mines?
It is believed that El Tio is married to Pachamama (mother Earth) and that she would get jealous if another woman entered the mines.
 Why only pure alcohol is used?
Only pure alcohol is used in the offerings to El Tio because it is believed that if it is mixed El Tio will give the miners mixed minerals (lower quality) instead of pure ones.
Why llama blood is used for religious celebrations?
Every year a few llamas are sacrificed to El Tio. Their blood is generously spread onto the entrance to the mine. It is believed that if El Tio doesn’t feed on the animals’ blood he would feed on the miners’ blood.
Once our offering to El Tio was completed we walked further into the tunnels. We could hear the miners moving about now. We walked through the tunnels distributing coca leafs, sodas, fruit and cigarettes. All the miners were extremely welcoming and grateful. We saw them oiling the wheels of the metal carts they used to transport the rocks (each held 200kg and was pushed by 4 men), we saw them pushing empty carts and each time they came our way we had to stand to the side of the tunnel and let them through. We met a ‘jefe’ (boss) who had worked in the mines for over 25 years. We met up with a ‘second hand’ miner which is a level below the boss and Mario helped him load one of two 200kg tubs that were to be pulled up and then taken out. By the time he was ready sweat had broken on his forehead and he said how hard it was. Basilio explained the hierarchy in the mines and also told us the average monthly earnings of a miner. The truth is they make an average of $500 per month which is a lot of money for Bolivian standards. I couldn’t help asking how come most of them live in extreme poverty then. Basilio explained that most do not know how to take advantage of their salaries and that a lot of it got wasted on booze. Some however bought land, build houses, started up small businesses, etc.
Once we had given all our goodies away we headed back to the exit. The tour wasn’t over though. Mario had bought some dynamite and Basilio was going to make a demonstration. We walked to a bare sand field away from the mine, Basilio prepared the dynamite, lit it (2 mins), we each took turns taking photos with the lit bomb and then Basilio run a few hundred meters away from us, placed it in a ditch and ran back before it exploded. It made a huge bang when it went off and there was all this smoke in the air. I didn’t expect it to be so noisy and I nearly dropped the camera when I heard it. I still managed to take a photo although it wasn’t very good. While we watched Basilio prepare the explosive he told us he started working with dynamite at the age of 6. He also explained why he would only place the bomb on the grounds surface instead of burring it into it. The impact of such an explosion underground could be devastating to the mines. It might move layers resulting in collapses in the mines. It wasn’t a good idea at all.
We were back on the truck and on our way to a locals’ gathering point. We had gifts for the children and this is where all the families from the mountain gathered. As soon as we stopped and opened the door to the van we were swarmed with young kids. They asked for notebooks and color pencils. Mario and I distributed the school materials and the yogurts as fairly as possible but still some kids left empty handed.
On the way to town we saw Vanessa, Basilio sister who also featured in the documentary and was then 6-years-old. He had no grown to a young teenager and was almost unrecognizable. We took her with us. We stopped to take our safety gear off and that’s when I realized I had forgotten the pens, the erasers and the pencil sharpeners in the pocket of my jacket I had left in the room. I told Basilio and asked him to give them away to kids he knew since he still lived on the mountain. He said I’d better give two pens to his sister. I gave it all to her and asked her to keep some to herself and share the rest with her friends. I was so nervous doing this. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and offend them in some way. I wanted her to feel good about herself. We dropped her off in the outskirts of town where her school was and carried on toward the agency.
I was growing more and more pensive wondering how to approach Basilio and ask him to get a coffee with us so we could talk about the English classes. In the beginning of the trip he had told us how he doesn’t like English (but ho he needs it) and prefers French instead. He thought the English pronunciation was difficult. During the trip I had asked them as many questions as I could, trying to learn more about him and his life, get to know him better. He had been an excellent guide, very professional, caring, and a wealth of information. He had proven a stable young man, who had persisted with school despite the hardships and who still looked after his family. I was convinced more than ever that he deserved a chance. I just didn’t know whether he wanted a chance in the form of English classes and that’s all we could offer.
We got back to the agency (Amigos de Bolivia) and were met by Helen who suggested we all went to lunch. I decided to talk to her about our idea hoping for a good advice. I explained what we wanted to do and I also shared my concern with her, that maybe Basilio is not interested and that we didn’t want to force anything onto him. She said she would talk to him and soon after we sat at the table Basilio had said yes. It took some convincing to get him to even come with us. He was embarrassed that he didn’t have any money but we asked him to let us treat him and thank him for the great tour. He smiled and agreed. We spoke a bit more about our proposal, and arranged to meet at the agency later and discuss it in detail. We then switched onto more general subjects.
A couple of hours later we met Basilio and his girlfriend Marta at the agency. I opened my mouth to talk but Helen took the word and almost lectured Basilio into agreeing. She told him hat a great opportunity this was and how she would give him more responsibility at the agency if he learned the language, etc. I told them about the two schools we had found and what they offered. They also suggested some schools and we agreed that the 3-month individual lessons offered at this one school were the best option to start him with. We then went there hoping to talk to a teacher but one wasn’t available until the next morning. Basilio got some more information from them and we headed to another school that was supposedly the best in town. Again there wasn’t a teacher available but Basilio talked to them about the classes available and the schedule. When we found out that the schedule of the group classes didn’t suit him the guy tried to offer him other study programs in a low voice so we didn’t hear.
It was late afternoon by the time we were done and Basilio and Marta had to go but we agreed to meet at 10.30am on the following day and go talk to one of the individual teachers (we had tried to speak to them on the phone that same afternoon but couldn’t get through to one and the other had refused to speak English to Mario saying we couldn’t judge her level on the phone). Basilio seemed happy and enthusiastic and we were excited.
We went back to the agency and reported our findings. We spent some time chatting to them and they had asked us to translate a brochure for them. We had started with just one brochure and had left with six :).We went for dinner and then went back to the hostel.
Day 5: July 28, 2010
We got up early, had a quick breakfast and head to the agency for our 10.30am meeting with Basilio. Before I continue with the story though let me tell you about this cute little girl that we met at the restaurant during breakfast.
We had attempted to have dinner there the night before but someone had ordered nine pizzas to go and it would take ay too long to get our food. We were hungry and we decided to go someplace else. But not before Mario had a funny thing happen to him in the bathroom. He was washing his hands when this snot of a person (he thought it was a boy but it turned out to be a girl; surprised he didn’t notice the sparkling golden earrings hanging from her ears) looked up at him boldly and told him in her broken, 2-year-old Spanish that her mom (a big indigenous lady working in the kitchen) didn’t want any people using the bathroom. Mario had seriously doubted her statement ( I am surprised he at all understood what she as saying), had grabbed her under the arms and attempted to carry her into the kitchen and confront her with her mom. The little devil she had been though, she wasn’t gonna surrender without a fight. She tried to get herself out of his grip by cleverly lifting her arms up in the air thus sliding out of his arms. Mario took her back to her mom and came back to tell me the story.
The little devil herself proudly walked through the dining hall a few minutes later focusing her attention on a French tourist who was waiting for her food. The little girl with the burnt cheeks mounted her leg and insisted they play horse riding. The lady tourist obliged for a while but soon got tired under the weight of the little bugger. She wouldn’t give up though. I tried to get her to come to us and give the French girl a break but she wouldn’t hear of it. She looked at us, didn’t like what she saw and turned around with a scared look on her face. We canceled our order and left the restaurant. We went back there for breakfast though. Again ‘little Miss Bossy’ welcomed us (that’s an overstatement) at the door and said e couldn’t go in because they were closed. She was very convincing and we almost didn’t doubt her. We still looked up at her sister who grabbed her and invited us in.
We each ordered a separate dish but the lady said she could only make two of a kind since they were cleaning at the back. We agreed and sat waiting. Before we knew it little missy was climbing up my legs, having completely forgotten her fears of the previous night. I wasn’t going to complain. She sat on my lap for a while looking for the printed image of an ice-cream covered in chocolate cream that she called just ‘chocolate’. Then we decided to have some fun. I grabbed her under the arms and threw her into the air a couple of times. She loved it and asked for more. With a huge smile on her face she would count to three with me before I threw her up. I got tired and asked for a break, but she wouldn’t have it, she wanted more and I pointed her to Mario. ‘If you ask Mario nicely he would play with you’ I told her. ‘Por favor’ she said looking up at him. He couldn’t say no. He grabbed her under the arms and threw her up a few times. After a while he got tired too. She was anything but skinny. A healthy little girl. We sat down again, looking for the chocolate while also showing her some other photos – salads, fries, soups, etc. Every time she came back to the chocolate though. Soon enough she asked to be thrown up in the air again. Mario and I took turns.
We were having so much fun that her elder sister who was quietly watching cartoons on TV came up to ask asking to be thrown up in the air. I told her I wasn’t strong enough for her but that maybe Mario could throw her a couple of times. She was a bit scared but had a blast.
Soon our breakfast came but the little, fat girl wouldn’t leave. Instead she arranged herself comfortably on my lap and aimed at my food. We were having omelets and orange juice and I ended up feeding her small pieces. She ate. I would cut a bigger piece for me and she would want it. I would tell her that it was too big for her and would cut a small one for her. We were running late for our meeting though and although we were having a lot of fun I had to put her down and quickly finish my breakfast.
The elderly sister kept coming up to us asking if we wanted to play Uno with her for a bit but we had to turn her down. Mario finished first and went to the office. I took a few more bites, paid the bills and followed him. But not before the older girl had come up to me asking where Mario had gone and whether I would play with her for a bit. It was endearing and I had a hard time saying no but I had to. As I was leaving the little girl looked up at me and said ‘Don’t go…!’. I told her that maybe e would come back later and play again. It was an excellent start to the day.
Back at the agency Basilio was running late. We waited for him but it wasn’t looking like he was coming and we left for our appointment with one of the English teachers. It was the lady Mario had spoken to on the phone and that hadn’t left the impression of being able to speak English. We were prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt though. Before signing up Basilio for classes we wanted to make sure that the teacher actually spoke English. We arrived at 11.00am as previously advised but the teacher was running late. Mario wasn’t happy and didn’t think it was a good sign. ‘She can’t speak English and she is late for her class!’ he said. We waited and asked the secretary whether she usually came in late but she assured is it was an exception. We decided I would talk to her, since I was more patient and gentle. We knew she would be nervous particularly after being late and we didn’t want to pressure her any further to the point of her forgetting her English. If there was anything to forget that is…
She administered an exam and finally made it to us half an hour later. I asked her if she minded speaking English to us and explained the situation. I spoke English to her and she responded in Spanish, clearly not having understood half of what I had said. I politely asked her to speak English is she asked us where we were from. I wondered whether to say that Mario was from the US or from Brazil. I didn’t want to intimidate her further by facing her with a native speaker. Mario didn’t say anything. He just counted the English words she had actually mumbled in the five minutes I spoke to her. 6. She had said six words in English. She clearly wasn’t the teacher for us. She saw our disappointment and pointed us to her colleague who supposedly had 4 years of experience. We told her that we will be coming back in the late afternoon to talk to her colleague. We thanked her and we left.
We decided to go to another school and see if we could talk to a teacher there. Pretty much the same thing went down although this time the lady said a few more words in English. ‘How long have you been working here?’ I would ask her slowly and clearly. And she would say ‘Yes.’ Thinking I was asking whether she worked here. I spoke so slowly and so clearly that Mario was having trouble holding back his laughter. It sounded almost retarded. This was also not our teacher.
We wondered what to do and we decided to hit an Internet café and look for some NGOs in the area that might be teaching English. We looked and looked and the nearest volunteers we found were in Cochabamba. I don’t even know where that is but I know is it not in Potosi. I spoke to a couple of British run agencies hoping they would help me with information about agencies working here. That was a waste of time. The lady at one of them was even bordering rude. ‘I don’t understand – you are looking for volunteers, you wanna volunteer, what is it that you are looking for is?’ she had asked. I apologized for not making myself clear and told her I was looking for volunteers. She couldn’t help me. I tried another organization, or should I say company that didn’t even pick up the phone. The research we did that afternoon led to some eye opening results. Did you know that the average person pays $1600 for two weeks of volunteering? That’s not the funniest part though. Let’s see what the ‘fee’ includes. ‘Essentials’ such as information pack, an orientation program, or our personal favourite an airport pick up! Of course, there is also a volunteer position that is carefully and diligently selected especially for you, to best suit your needs and personal traits. Now, let’s quickly do the math. If language classes in Bolivia cost an average of Bs600 or $85 per month, and an average of 4 months is needed to pick up the language at a conversational level, a $1600 can buy lessons for 5 people. I don’t know how much each volunteer helps people in those two weeks of work, but I do know that $1600 is a lot of money. Imagine the actual change you can make in the life of people with that money.
I still don’t understand why the above mention volunteer organizations charge that much money. What do they use the money for? Do they support the community the work with? Or it fills their own pockets? In any case, please think before you hand in a small fortune to the next volunteer organization that comes your way. Wanting to do good and make a positive change is a noble thing but be smart about it. Do you really want to help people or be able to say that you have volunteered with such and such organization? There are millions of way to make a difference, which leads me to the next topic – the only volunteer project that could be potentially useful. Mario came across a forum posting from an American girl who had come to Potosi some time ago and had setup an English teaching program for young adults. Now having had to go back to the US she had found a replacement who will be resuming the classes in August. No organization, no cost, just plain teaching. We decided to keep in touch with the girl and her successor and suggest the classes to Basilio as an addition to his paid classes. Afterall, it doesn’t get much better than that – a native speaker teaching you English for free. Even if the timing of the classes or the level do not suit him, it would be nice to have the contact.
We walked back to the agency hoping to find Basilio and to report the findings of the day. They hadn’t seen him and we went to a nearby café to kill some time. A bit later Mario had gone downstairs where the bar was and had seen Helen eating lunch. Later she had told Basilio where we were and on one of my trips to the bar I bumped into him and Marta. We ordered banana milkshakes for the three of us and a lemonade for Mario and spent the next couple of hours chatting. We couldn’t quite understand what had happened in the morning to make him miss his appointment but he was with us no (looking like he had looked for us) and that was enough. We told him about the disappointing results of the morning and then switched to lighter subjects. We spent a lot of time talking about movies, and found out he had watched many new movies well ahead of their premiere in the cinemas. We then switched to comparing living costs in Chicago, London and Bolivia, or Potosi to be exact. They were amazed by the high cost of living and so was I. You could rent a room for a month in Bolivia for the cost of a monthly website subscription in the UK. We chatted a lot, Basilio feeling relaxed with us, laughing, talking, just like any other young men while Marta sat quietly most of time. Later e found out most local omen felt shy around tourists. It was time to go to the school to meet the second teacher. We met her and were very disappointed with her. She didn’t say a word of English to us. ‘This is not looking good’ I thought. ‘Two schools, three teachers, and none of them speak any English’. I wondered what we were going to do.
Just then the young lady recommended a friend of hers who was also a guide and spoke perfect English having practiced with tourists for years. She turned around to grab a paper and there he was, the man himself. I immediately switched to English and he responded calmly and comfortably. He spoke English. ‘Finally, someone who speaks English!’ I exclaimed unable to contain my excitement. On top of that he was a teacher. ‘We might have just hit the jackpot’ I thought. Unfortunately he taught in Uyuni and only came back to Potosi on weekends. If Basilio was to learn anything he needed regular weekly classes at least three times a week. He recommended some of his friends though who also spoke and taught English. We were so excited that we forgot about Basilio. There we were, three strangers, speaking English, discussing him and his future and yet he couldn’t understand a thing. He moved away a couple of steps and sat on the stairs with Marta. It was either that or the fact that Mario had told the older guide who Basilio was i.e. the young boy from the documentary, still working in the mines. Through the film we found out that there is a lot of stigma towards the miners and Basilio himself had to go through a lot of verbal abuse because of his job. Miners were looked down upon. Very unfair, but a fact. Maybe Basilio didn’t want anybody to know what he did hoping to avoid trouble. He just wanted a normal life.
We got the information from the older guide, making sure he was available for lessons on weekends should we need him and made our way out. Basilio and Marta had to leave because Basilio had night classes starting at 7.00pm and it was 6.45pm. We told him we would speak to the recommended teachers and let him known through Helen. We hugged and kissed and took our goodbyes.
We quickly walked up to the private university and inquired about Licenciado Winston. We found out that he no longer worked there but we asked the secretary to get his phone for us. She also suggested they had other teachers who were just as good. We decided to check them out since we were already there. One of them, the best as we were told was coming in in just a few minutes and we waited. We were now looking at private lessons that would cost nearly seven times as much as the group lessons but it was the best option. It still was relatively cheap for us and divided between the two of us it was almost nothing.
The lady met up with us and Mario spoke (I had asked him to do so since I was feeling a bit tired from all the talking) to her in Spanish explaining what the situation was. ‘Why don’t you speak to her in English?’ I suggested and both of them smoothly switched into it. The teacher spoke excellent English. We were so happy. She was a true teacher, patient, calm, clear. She would be perfect. Unfortunately her afternoons were busy and this was pretty much the only time Basilio had available with work in the mornings and school in the evenings. She was also awaiting confirmation about some Spanish classes which made her pretty unavailable. Nothing to despair about though. The school had other teachers to offer.
We met up with another lady teacher called Teresa. She also spoke great English having spent a few months in Scotland. ‘So where is that Scottish accent?’ I joked and Mario joined in with a very successful accent imitation. ‘I didn’t get them at all’ she admitted. ‘That’s alright’ Mario assured her. ‘I don’t get them either’ he added. We laughed. She as very nice although she didn’t strike me as a very strict teacher compared to the first lady. It would have been very nice to have someone pushing Basilio. We weren’t really in a position to choose though.
There was also a male teacher and we decided to talk to him too thinking that maybe Basilio would feel more comfortable with a man. A pleasant surprise again. The gentleman spoke English although not as comfortably as the ladies. He too though wasn’t available in the afternoons and just in the mornings and weekends. He was happy to help us though should Basilio manages to work out something with his schedule.
We were so happy. After a whole day of disappointments we couldn’t believe our luck. Things have worked in our favour, everything had come into place. In 15mins we had found four teachers who spoke great English. We were beyond ourselves with excitement. We wanted to subscribe him as soon as possible but unfortunately the whole workers community would be on strike the following two days and then there was the weekend meaning Basilio could only talk to the teacher on late Monday afternoon. There was nothing we could do but wait.
We went back to the agency to relate the good news to Helen so she could inform Basilio. We let them know that we were going away to a another ton for the weekend since e had already spent almost a week in Potosi but that we would be back on Monday to accompany Basilio to the university and hopefully subscribe him. Helen told us how his mom had been to the office that day and that she had told her that Basilio had serious problems with his left arm, making it impossible to work in the mines any longer. When Helen had told her about the English classes she had broken into tears. I am glad we had managed the perfect timing. Helen also told us that the agency was moving they safety equipment to a bigger room thus emptying the smaller one for Basilio’s mom who is to open a shop there selling coca leaves, and other miners items to locals and tourists alike. Maybe, just maybe they were one of those families who will be able to break out of the vicious circle of the mines and make a better life for themselves. It is all very touching.
It was late, we were tired and hungry and we went for a quick bite before we headed back home.
Day 6&7: July 29&30, 2010
The lessons were sorted but there was nothing we could do until after the strike, which was Monday. The lady had told us to go back on Monday to talk about a suitable schedule but until then our hands were tied.
We had decided to leave town for a couple of days, visit a nearby town before we went back to subscribe Basilio but we couldn’t even do that until late Friday afternoon. We decided to wait until Saturday morning and catch an early bus to Sucre, spent the weekend there and come back for our 6.00pm meeting on Monday. It all sounded doable.
The next two days we spent working on photos and catching up on writing. We had seen most of town, and there wasn’t much else to do.
On our last night (for now!) we went to dinner to the restaurant with the little girl. We were having some pizza before bed. Little girl was asleep on the floor, hat half way down her face. Her sister was watching TV again. We ordered the pizza and soon enough the girl came to check on us. She had remembered us. ‘Oh, it’s you…’ she said. We said a few words and I went to the bathroom to wash my hands before dinner. When I came back Mario had his computer out on the table. Before we knew it the young girl was standing by the table asking if she could play games. Mario wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea, but still disconnected his external hard drives (in case she decided to press buttons blindly) and let her play. By the end of dinner she had won us over.
It turned out that she also had a computer and that she was a big fan of Solitaire. She knew exactly what she was doing although the same can’t exactly be said about us. Mario kept an eye on her progress as well as the machine and pretty soon he was into the game as much as she was. At first she complained about the mouse a bit, asking whether there was a regular mouse, but when we told her that those mini laptops only came with the build in mouse she shrugged and quickly got used to it. 5 mins later she had mastered the mouse and completely forgotten about the inconvenience of not having a regular one.
Mario was very impressed with her, saying that should he have a daughter one day he would like to be as smart as Dayana (girl’s name). How many 6-7 year olds do you know, who patiently sit in front of a computer, playing a relatively challenging game (at least for their age), saying ‘Let me think about this…’ instead of throwing it all out of the window and running away to comb their Barbie’s hair. She was a very smart, well-behaved girl. A real pleasure to have around. Mario’s battery died just before she managed to finish the game. Shame! That’s when her parents also started chatting to us, asking questions about Mario’s laptop. He told them where he had bought it from and how much he had paid for it and they asked whether he wasn’t interested in selling it to them. As we were chatting about computers I got mine out to show them a different, longer lasting battery and also had to decline a purchase offer. Dayana quickly grabbed it from me and switched it on. She found the game, but didn’t insist on playing it when I told her we had to go. She just switched it off and handed it back to me. It was very nice of her – there was no nagging, no drama. I said ‘No’ and she gave it back. Very nice little girl.
We talked to the lady of the house, who also seemed to be the matriarch. She referred to their second restaurant as ‘hers’ instead of ’theirs’. I thought that was funny. Both Mario and I wondered whether they really had the means to buy a laptop then and there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. I have noticed many Bolivians appear to be rather poor (dress wise) while driving around in the latest SUV. Before we said good night the lady offered we went back the following morning so she could warm up our leftover pizza for breakfast. Unfortunately we were leaving early so we would have to eat it cold.
That is all from Potosi for now. Let’s see when the strike is over so we could go back and finish what we’ve started.
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