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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 21 April 2011

April 21st: Potosi

On March 21st 1976 I was in Potosi in the highlands of Bolivia.  Potosi is the site of the silver mine, the Cerro Rico, which provided the financial muscle for the Spanish colonies in South America.  Local people still work as miners there in desperate conditions.  A miner, I learned, was paid 22 to 24 pesos a day when I was there in 1976, a little over US$1.

Potosi is a high, cold city, over 4000 metres up.  The colonial buildings in the centre soon give way to the rough streets of brightly painted adobe houses which was where the poorer people lived.  Later in the day I found I needed to keep walking with the paseo in the centre or in these higher areas to keep warm. In the middle of the day it was sometimes warm enough to sit and observe what was happening in the middle of town.
Sitting in my favourite spot in Potosi, the Plaza Isabel la Catolica by the country part of the market, backed by a church in Byzantine style.  Some sellers of fruit and vegetables, selling them sitting on the ground out of the big woven bags or from canastas or direct from trucks in the road.  A queue of people buying kerosene, wooden stalls with tin roofs, many empty, some selling strange block sweets and condiments.  A row of furniture stalls at the back, tables and chairs and cabinets, doing no business.  Lettuce and onions and carrots and potatoes, little pears and grapes.

I think there are two groups of country people here.  One wear trapezoidal hats, the women in dark grey, black skirts, sometimes with embroidery at the edge and black mantas with fine pins.  Others wear triangular hats in light brown and similar black skirts but the mantas are brown weavings.  The women often wear thick woollen stockings and shoes, some wear sandals like the men.  Their hair plaits go into fancy black woollen tassels sometimes tied together.  A man wears rough trousers 3/4 down calf with a key pattern trim and a shirt covered by singlet tied at the front.  A felt tight hat.  A small manta tied round his waist, a coca pouch, woven, on his back, sandals.  Some women seem to have skirt and jacket in black and embroidery in one piece, fancy cuffs and collars.  I cannot see any clues to division by villages.  Some men wear ponchos, small and light coloured.  Many men and women carry brown, striped mantas.  Now I notice other male ponchos, woven, reds and browns with stripes, worn sideways and lengthwise, some woven coca pouches.  The waistcoats are sometimes velvet with silver and designs like the women's skirts.

In other stalls they sell cabbages and cauliflowers and beans and peas and chillies in many forms, bananas and oranges.  They sell chuños and oats and flour and several kinds of lentils, with sugar and pasta, some sugar-cane, also squashes and pumpkins.  Man selling pens, 2 for 10 pesos and 5 regalitos (little gifts, probably sweets), selling all he can.  Beggars with silver crosses.  Meat from unskinned animals in the market.
When I left Potosi I took a truck to Sucre to the east.  This turned out very well, as I recorded in my journal that evening:
Very fine ride in a truck.  Went pretty fast with only 5 or 6 passengers until the reasonably sized town of Betanzos where a couple of Indians persuaded the driver to go to their village.  This worked well as I saw the village and we had a better load on the truck afterwards.  The village was in a valley right up at the end, valley beautiful with steep rocky sides and well-cultivated centre.  Two or three communities, simple villages with donkeys in the pens.  Nearly all wearing costume, like old man leading donkeys or woman who came with us, Quechua-speaking.  Onion sets in terraces, peach trees and flowers.  Villagers happy, fit, well-fed.  A co-operative, harvest of wheat and so on coming in.  Leader very interested in the whole thing, spoke Castellano as well as Quechua.  It all seemed very successful.  Then we went through a plateau, all Indian, wheat mainly, some other sorts of grain.  Then into a river area with a grand descent, more barren.  Lunch of choclos (corn on the cob), corn humintas and chicha at Miralles.  Then over the Pilcomayo near a strange bridge and into the green-hilled Sucre province.  Climbed a bit, past a fine house painted red, and large barracks with a bizarre church, over a hill and into colonial, smart Sucre.  I had three white companions on the journey, all bilingual in Quechua and Castellano; a woman who was descended from English family called Reynolds; a man returning from Argentina to his small farm; a man taking wool and skins to Sucre.

Cerro Rico and Potosi (2006):  Picture by Christophe Meneboeuf, CC

Potosi in 2007:  Picture by Joachim Pietsch,  CC

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