As teenagers we read Eduardo Galeano's book "The open veins of Latin America" and since then I have been pondering about the destiny of this peculiar city in the mountains. Already the Incas gathered silver here in a gentle ecological way. The efficient Spanish conquerers, thorough Europeans, made it better: Thousands, many thousands of Indios were dragged into the holes of the Cerro Rico, in order to perforate it like a sponge. Working conditions were devastating, the life time expectancy of a minero after starting his work amounted to just six months. After that he usually remained within the mountain, since the transportation of the many corpses proved to be too laborious in the long run. More than a million workers were devoured by the mountain (Galeano estimates even 8 million).
The scraped out silver made Potosí for a short time the worlds richest city. For the upper class colonialists it must have been an unbelievable Dolce Vita: Russian caviar, waggons of whores from Paris, Greek wine, champagne: An inaccessible Bolivian village in the dry, infertile mountains close to the desert becomes the center of the world and with 200,000 inhabitants bigger than London or Paris at that time. 70,000 tons of silver continued to flow within 400 years to Spain and from there into the bags of the Fugger family in Augsburg, which a few years before had benevolently financed the ascent of the emperor Charles the fifth.
And then suddenly stop, curfew hour. Mountain empty, the party is over, Spaniards go home and only a few coca-chewing tramps are left behind, scraping around in the dark holes, attempting with or without success to stay alive.
Nowadays it looks little better. Tourists walk around and with improved mining methods tin, some rare minerals and silver again can be gained. But it is still all hard manual labour under very bad conditions, not a modern industrial area. And still deep within the mountain, just as it used to be for hundreds of years, the Tio, a kind of devilish goblin watches over the fate of the miners.
Ascent over the back side of the mountain
Summit at 4760 m. A few antennas stick out on top connected to an impenetrable cable-jumble. Even a little house is built here. The antenna attendant lives here, greets friendly, a little absentminded, perhaps shaped by his lonely life...
Directly below the hut in the slope I build myself a launch. Delicate terrain, only a couple of steps to go, everything in the rubble. Since I want to minimize risk I spend a whole hour with placing the paraglider for its start. Each line is layed down individually and the sail is fastened along its edges with stone weights. The start works out rather perfect. The wind in air is stronger than expected and after a few rounds later I am gliding 100 m above the mountain.
Look back. An enormous termite hill with thousands of unordered veines and underneath it goes eight floors deeper down into the earth...
After the landing...
From the diary:
"The landing causes the largest welcome party of all my journey. Pushing and pulling on the soccer place, hundreds on the surrounding walls. The gringo that dropped down from heaven. Unfortunately they trample completely irreverently on the paraglider. This is somewhat strange in this new world, how nice they treat animals and how careless many things. This may be another reason for the fact that so many things do not work here...." Hundreds of little hands that have to touch the sail and the gringo that belongs to it, hundreds of questions, and beaming faces...."
"I am right away invited into a house to the All Souls Day celebrations. This is quite a big celebration here. All members of the family that died in the course of this year are bid farewell on this special day. In the house where I am invited to it is the grandmother."
"At the entrance into the inner court hangs a black ribbon above the door, indication for all passers by that you may visit and mourn here. A "grave", consisting of the picture of the deceased, decorated by innumerable flowers is placed in the center of the room. The main thing however is an unbelievable quantity of Chicha (maize beer), Cañazo (cane liquor), and other inspiring beverages. Naturally only for men. Besides that there are piles of Tanta Wawas = bread children, little human like figures made of dough.
"The principal occupation of the men is Rayuela, a kind boule game with coins. From six meters distance they throw coins on a goal. The losers have to kneel down and drink a glass of Cañazo at each meter. without using their hands. Since this is played all day long, it is not too surprising that nobody walks straight anymore in the streets, except for the women of course. I make a couple of throws as well, turn out to be quite a miserable shot, but the alcohol punishment doesn't apply to gringos, I am already tipsy by the welcome drinks..."