Friday, December 18, 2009

that's mine, that's yours

At 13,420 feet, Potosi is the highest city in the world and, although we didn’t spend more than an hour there, it’s one of the most fascinating places we’ve been to so far. If you get a chance to read a little on about it, it’s worth your time. With a bloody, unjust history and boasting what used to be the biggest (and arguably most important) city in the New World with 200,000 inhabitants, Potosi was run ragged by the Spanish colonizers, who capitalized on the health, labor and natural wealth of the city to take back boatloads of silver and leave behind a trail of black lungs and poor campesinos.

Today, the average miner doesn’t live past 40. As we drove by one of the city’s biggest mines, I couldn’t decide whether to smirk or cry at the name: “Mina Cristo Redentor.” Christ the Redeemer Mine. Thanks, Spaniards! Drop off your strict Catholicism, get rich off the slave labor of your converts, and peace out once everyone who can afford it has bought titles of nobility. Awesome foreign policy; love what you’ve done with the place.

If you want to spend a few dollars, you can see the mines yourself. For a few bolivianos and gifts of coca for the miners, you too can crawl into someone’s hellish workplace to see what it’s like. There is a thriving tourist business (granted, “thriving” is relative. It’s not a beach or a resort town by any stretch of the imagination) in Potosi that allows you to don a hard hat and climb a rickety ladder into the earth.

Personally, the whole concept of mine tourism makes me feel queasy. I don’t think observing a place that is both employment and a death trap is something to be added to the list of “Must-Do in Bolivia,” and I was more than happy to skip straight through the town. Being fully aware that tourism provides jobs and also that exploitation happens in far more industries than just mining, I still feel totally uncomfortable with the idea that people come to Potosi and are “excited” to “do” the mines. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. I’m all for travel that is outside the norm, challenging, and that expands our awareness of the wide stratum of life stories being played out in the world, but this just seems like an eerie, voyeuristic extension of the original Spanish attitude.

Based on conversations with fellow travelers, my opinion is the minority. What do you think? Am I totally off-base with this one?

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