21 October 2007

Cerro Rico Suave

I doubt anyone but me has counted the city of Potosí as a must-see-before-death attraction. Let me explain. This city was once, in the 16th century, the largest and wealthiest city in the world, more so than both London and Paris. And it's in the middle of nowhere, politically speaking, and also at a height of over 4000 meters, making it both the highest city in the world and rather inhospitable. What's interesting about it is the Cerro Rico, the rich mountain (in Spanish), the beautiful mountain (in Quechua), that stands pyramidically above it, that once contained the largest deposits of silver ever found anywhere in the world. This mountain of silver is arguably the most important mountain in the history of the modern world. The Spanish built their strength upon it, depended on it, and drained it rapidly of its immense wealth. This wealth streamed into Europe and made Europe the power that it became. What the world is today--its power relations and power imbalances--is owed almost entirely to this mountain, Cerro Rico. Eight million indigenous miners died in the process, generally due to the mercury amalgamation process of silver extraction, generally in 1-3 years. Cerro Rico is the source of everything that we are, everything wonderful and everything terrible. So I wanted to see it.

Enough history. We left early and went to the miners' market, where we bought soft drinks, coca leaves, and explosives as gifts to give to the miners. From there, we went to a smelter to witness the aforementioned amalgamation process, now performed with the less lethal cyanide (it kills the workers in about 30 years instead of three). Then, the fun part: we entered the mines of Potosí and went three levels deep. I'm not sure how deep we were, exactly, but it was an admittedly benign experience, being designed for tourists and all. Still, I crawed through low tunnels, backed against craggy walls as miners zipped past in minecars (Temple of Doom!), and reached up to touch the powdery arsenic that coats the ceilings, asking dumbly, "What's this?" Afterward, they even set off some dynamite for our amusement. I met a few Australians in Cuzco who asked their guide to blow up a pig's head they bought at a market. So I think you can go there and blow up pretty much anything (the miners are competitive and sometimes blow up each other, too, like at Coober Pedy, Australia).

In the evening, Katie and I met a nice couple from Buenos Aires, actually an American and an Australian who were teaching English there. They were watching Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part One", which I haven't seen in probably 20 years. Forgive the profanity, but I will end this post by sharing with you one of the best movie dialogues ever, between two Roman soldiers, high on marijuana:

Soldier 1: So, do you care if it falls?

Soldier 2: What?

Soldier 1: The Roman Empire.

Solider 2: Fuck it.

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