lørdag 10. september 2011

Potosí: To travel or not to travel


Gonzalo Marino is 18 years and have worked four years in Cerro Rico.

Few places will test your coinscience like Potosí. The mining town on the Bolivian altoplano is part of "the gringo trail" in Bolivia. At the same time, these mines are among the worst working places of South America - and the world.

And these very mines are the tourist attraction.

Thus, in Potosí you go sightseeing in this world's darkest corners. As a tourist you put on helmet, boots and protective clothing, and poke around in a tour group among the poor miners who have to work there.

The tourists do it because they can. The miners because they must. And while the tourists are more than satisfied when they leave the mine three hours later, the miners must go there every day, in long shifts, until their lungs cannot stand it anymore. Most miners get silicosis and die, at young age, the majority after 25-35 years in the mines (other sources give lower numbers, some as low as 10-15 years).

Is this OK? Can you, as a tourist, defend morally that poor people are turned into a "tourist attraction"?

The blogger Aracely of 2Backpackers is in doubt, but finally concludes with a hesitating yes.

My yes is firmer. Yes, there are many problems both with the Potosí tours and with guided tours into slums and favelas. But on the other side: Wouldn't it be even worse if tourists only kept to their privileged rich man's bubble, with air-con, longdrinks and high fences to keep reality out?

As a 12 year old Julio Vera was child worker in the mines. Now he is a guide,
showing among other things how the miners make offerings to the devil, El Tio.

Shouldn't travellers try to learn a little about how life is for the people they visit? That kind of informed tourism is what the human rights organisations wanted when I asked them about travelling in suppressive regimes this spring (sorry, link is in Norwegian).

The harsh reality exists anyway.

If you choose to see it, respectfully, you can - if nothing more - show solidarity with the people whose destiny was sealed when they were born in Bolivia, Botswana or Burkina Faso instead of in Boston or Bournemouth.

Another thing is that the tourist industry gives people more options, also in Potosí. My guide, Julio Vera, had been a miner himself, starting when he was 12. Now he is a tourist guide.

That's social mobilty in practice!

I am not so sure that the miners mind the onlookers so much either. From this photo it doesn't look like 71 year old Don Panco bear any grudges - as he has just started his 24 hours shift.

More of my photos from Potosí can be found here (again, text in Norwegian).

PS! For the best preperations before a tour in the mines, I recommend the documentary The Devil's Miner about child workers in Potosí's silver mountain Cerro Rico.

tirsdag 6. september 2011

Coober Pedy: Six Feet Under


Don't run, don't walk backwards, don't walk outside of roads
after dark, look after your kids! Velcome to Coober Pedy.
Coober Pedy must be one of the ugliest towns in the world. The nature is grim; just harsh, red stone desert that looks poisonous. There's no coincidence that films like «Mad Max Thunderdome», «Priscilla, queen of the desert» and «Pitch Black» used the place as location.

The climate is hostile too. So merciless is the heat that half the town's population of 1.900 live underground to escape it.

Maybe that's also why the town looks as it does: The town center spreads in all directions, laid off machinery and car-wrecks are everywhere, and the buildings look like tired warehouses in a harbour that ships no longer use.

Ouside of town things are even worse. There, the flat gravel surface is broken by between one and two million unmarked mines and as many gravel piles.
All this holes make it dangerous to wander freely around Coober Pedy. You've got the danger of falling, the danger of explotions, of being overrun by machinery, and the danger of being hit when a «blower» empties the loose dirt from a mine.

Warning signs on all entry points inform the tourists. That most of the signs are also perforated by bullets, only makes the point stronger: Coober is a harsh place.

But the mines are the whole point. 80 per cent of the world's opals are dug in South Australia. That fact has attracted hardy adventurers from 40 nations.

Now tourists have started following in their 4WD trailmarks. In «White man in a hole», which is what Coober Pedy means translated from aboriginal, they can experience something alltogheter different.

Almost a mile outside of town is Tom's Working Mine where the guide Charlie Skrenya took me deep into the deeps of a modern mine. On the way he explained why the ground around here is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

– No one can predict where we will find opals. They can be anywhere. All you can do is to drill and see what you find. It's nothing but a gamble. That's also the reason why no big companies bother with opals, only small companies of one or two people, Charlie explained. And admitted that he spent almost 20 years trying to find his own fortunes underground before he turned to more the predictable tourist industry.

The prospecting rules makes the surface even more perforated: For 45 australian dollars anyone can buy a permit for opal searching. The only requirement is that you deliver the application in person. And you cannot claim an area of more than 200 by 200 meters. You must register your claim within the next day, but don't have to pay anything the first two weeks.

In other words: The rules make it cheaper to drill a new hole every day.

Even more fascinating are the people of Coober Pedy. Many of them are just as extreme as the place itself.

For most of them, the rich opal mine was never more than a dream. Still they have stayed, to give it one more chance, and one more, and one more...

– I came here in 1986. Because I was stupid, said Charlie, who is born Hungary.

In Catacomb Church, one of the town's three dugout churches, I met Brandon, who came in 1975.

– My wife and I were gonna give it two years. When they had passed we hadn't found anything. We found it too embarrasing to go back. Everyone in Melbourne had predicted that we would be broke here. Therefore we couldn't go back empty-handed. It was a matter of pride, he said smiling.

The history of Coober Pedy is also full of women. Strong women. Like Faye Nayler. She came here as a cook in the 60s, and after loosing her job because she refused to serve bad meet, she started her own café.

Today you can visit her home, dug out using picks and shovels by her and two other women. Today's owners Colin og June Maclean welcome visitors six days a week.

Colin Maclean in his kitchen.
– I would hate to live in a house above ground here. Down here the temperature is always between 23 and 25 degrees, said Colin. And there is yet another big advantage of «dugouts»:

– If the furniture don't fit in, you can dig more space for them.

If you're lucky you might even find an opal.