Our tour of the salt flats leads us in to Bolivia – and as soon as you step over the border, you know you are in a different country.
The ‘chulitos’ (traditional women) wear layers and layers of skirts, aprons, cardigans and shawls, giving the impression of being much larger than they are. They also wear bowler hats balanced on their heads and their long hair braided into two platts, which are tied together at the end with an array of baubles and ribbons.
The men look a little less traditional but also wear hats and many wear suits.
Our next stop is Potosi, the world’s highest city and a mining centre. The touristy thing to do is a tour of the silver mines which were once the bread and butter of Bolivia. Many years ago, African slaves were brought to Potosi to mine silver under appalling conditions. But they would collect about 700kg of silver out of every tonne of rubble.
Centuries later and the conditions are still appalling but the miners collect about 50g (yes – grams) of silver out of every tonne.
I have my reservations about going. I feel like I’m going to the zoo but all the tourists come back saying how amazing it is. So I follow the sheep and go along. And yes it is amazing but also sad. We don hard hats and head lamps, and squirrel our way through tunnels watching the miners at work. We bring them gifts which they gratefully accept because these men work for less than $1 per day. They only get paid if they find something and with the mine having been drained of most of its treasures, they hardly earn a penny.
One miner stops to talk to us. Come and see where I work, he says. So we squirrel further into the mine, up a shaft in stifling conditions and he points to a hose that is pumping fresh air into the area. It is being pumped in just for the tourists. I dread to think what the conditions are like minus the tourists. The miner tells us that the pressure in his drill is not high enough for him to work so he is begging the boss to turn up the pressure.
Through a translator we have a laugh and he lets us take pictures of him at work (Bolivians are generally camera shy). His face is thick with dirt, his eyes are bright red and he is 35 but looks 55. We shake hands and wish each other well.
On our way out of the mine, a miner casually walks past us and says to our guide that they are letting off dynamite nearby. I nearly shit myself – and judging by the sideways glances of our group, so does everyone else. We then hear two distant booms that I feel in my chest. Our guide cheerfully says, OK let’s go and we’re thankfully back out in the open. He then gives us a dynamite demonstration from afar.
Later that day we catch a taxi to another small city, Sucre. It costs five of us $5 each for a three hour taxi ride!
Sucre is a lovely colonial town with a great square for Bolivian people watching. We spend the morning wandering through a food market where I attempt conversations in Spanish with the chulitos manning the stalls. It is absolutely delightful. We try to buy something small from as many stalls as possible because everyone is interested in us.
We come across a stall that sells piles and piles of cheese. We’ve bought a tonne of vegetables to make pasta and think the cheese will make a great topping. Having no clue what each cheese is, I start pointing and making animal noises to determine which animal it’s from. “Baaaaa!” Yes, the chulito says... Yes! But then she points to Geezer’s beard. Ahhhh!! Goat!! Frantic nodding and much laughing from everyone.
We then enter the meat area where I spot a chopping block, an axe and a lot of blood. I have a bit of a turn, head outside for some air, just in time to see a tourist have his backpack nicked and a mob of police chasing the offender. We high-tail it out of there.
We eventually reach the main square of Sucre and rest on a park bench watching the people go by. A young street kid approaches us to see if we want our shoes shined. All three of us – Lou, Geezer and me – are wearing thongs. Ummm... no thanks, we say. But he persists and Lou asks him if he has any red nail polish because her toe nails could do with a touch up. He laughs and says no. We start chatting to him in basic Spanish and after a few minutes a curious young girl also approaches us. Your sister? I ask. Yes, my sister he says. We all introduce ourselves. They are Edmundo and Maria.
Edmundo tells us that he is nine and Maria is seven. They have two more brothers at home. It is the middle of a weekday and I my guess is that they are too poor to be at school, sent out by their parents to work. They are wearing ragged clothes and dirty hair but they are lovely and so interested in our lives – as we are in theirs. Where’s your mama? I ask. Edmundo points off in the distance and says that she is at work.
Throughout the entire conversation Edmundo asks to shine our shoes. So we ask if he has any pink nail polish for Geezer’s toes. He laughs. Nooooo, he says.
An ice-cream vendor walks past and the children’s eyes follow it the whole way past. Geezer stops the vendor and buys them an ice-cream. Their eyes light up. I notice Maria looking from her ice-cream to a shady spot nearby. She then darts off and sits and eats her ice-cream in the shade, wanting to make it last as long as possible but also not wanting to miss out on the conversation.
Maria eventually rejoins us and Edmundo asks us how old we are. Geezer and I say our ages and then pointing at Lou, Geezer says that Lou is a hundred years old. When they realise he is joking they are nearly crying with laughter. We chat with them some more and Edmundo asks us for some water. We give him our large bottle of water and tell him to keep it. He can’t believe his luck.
So after perhaps an hour of chatting to our lovely little friends we bid them farewell. They call out our names and wave to us until we are out of sight – all five of us smiling.