Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day 4: The Day I Finally Went to Potosí

This morning we woke up, packed, ate breakfast, and headed to Potosí with Cesar.  Along the way, we stopped for a newspaper, to take some pictures, and to feed some dogs.  We stopped about an hour outside of Sucre where this incredible bridge was built around 1870.  It’s about a 1.5 lane bridge, with architectural structures on either ends of the bridge that are magnificent.  The bridge stopped being used around 1970, as there is now a paved, two lane road that people use for the route between Sucre and Potosí.  We also went up this hill, where dogs sit mostly evenly spaced apart, waiting for travelers to throw things out the windows for them.  Luckily, Susan was prepared and brought along a loaf of bread (I was the only newbie at this game).  Apparently, the dogs have homes but they come out during the day for food from passing cars, then return home in the evening.

Along the way we passed incredible mountains and a lot of agricultural land.  People were growing mostly wheat and potatoes, staples here in Bolivia.  After 2.5 hours of enjoying the scenery, Nick woke me from my nap to say, “Look out the front window!”  And there I was face-to-face with the Cerro Rico.  Impressive is the only word I can use to describe the size of the Cerro Rico, and depressing to describe the way it looks and the history that has come with it.  As you will see from the pictures, Cerro Rico is rough around the edges.  There is nothing (at least not that a human eye can see) growing on it and it wears its mining history directly on the face of the mountain.  It stands tall over Potosí, and can be seen from kilometers away, and is just phenomenal.

Once we arrived in Potosí, we unloaded our luggage at Cesar’s house, and set out on the tasks that lay before us.  First up: fix the Jerome (recall from yesterday’s blog the chaos Susan had to deal with).  Ah, except, that didn’t happen first.  So…we stopped for some salteñas, which are like empanadas, but are stuffed with beef and chicken and are typically only served in the morning (Susan and I ate tuna, from a pouch and a can, respectively).  Then, we decided to sample our transect.  We sampled at five locations along a transect we had sampled before, this time getting more than enough dirt to do soil characteristics and other metal analyses.  It wasn’t too difficult, and only took about 2 hours.  We picked up some basics at the grocery store, and then, it was really time to fix the Jerome.

So, the Jerome (the mercury analyzer we use in the field) had a little problem yesterday.  Little is an understatement, because it really was a crisis situation, and we could have lost a lot of our research.  The battery died.  As in, it would not hold a charge after we unplugged it from the wall.  Big problem.  Solution Number 1: Susan talked with the technical support folks and decided we needed a new battery overnighted from Arizona to Sucre.  That was extremely unlikely, as even FedEx overnight could take up to a week, and that’s if it isn’t held up in customs.

Over dinner last night, Nick came up with a great idea.  Since the Jerome worked when it was plugged into the wall, let’s hook it up to one of those adapters with a plug that goes into the cigarette lighter of a car.  Hmmm…pure genius…except…we were going to be on foot for all of our sampling, and not able to take a car to every house.  But wait – Nick had another great idea!  Let’s buy a cigarette adaptor for a car, some alligator clips, and 12V battery – that’s portable!  So we stopped at a market in Potosí and bought the cigarette lighter from one guy.  Then we bought the alligator clips from another guy.  Then we bought wire to run between the cigarette lighter and the alligator clips from a third guy.  Then we had another guy solder the wires onto the alligator clips.  Result: a Jerome that can be used in the field!  Ta da!

After all of our sampling and errand running in Potosí, we ventured about 30 minutes outside of town and to about 11,000 feet altitude to Hacienda Cayara.  It’s a beautiful old building that’s been here forever and is on a dairy farm.  The rooms are nice, a little cold, but there’s a wood burning stove, so that seems to keep me warm (plus my 3 layers of long johns and clothes).  The best part of it all is the artifacts in the home.  It’s also a museum of sorts, and the husband and wife who own it have really made this place amazing.  I cannot possibly go into all of the detail, but it was very, very similar to El Museo Charcas that I wrote about yesterday.  It’s seriously a history of Potosí.  From the paintings to the furniture to the books to the original tools and weapons, it’s just amazing.  Arturo has made a salon in the upstairs part of the main building, with lighted, glass front insets in the walls with all of the weapons, fashions, tools throughout the history of Potosí.  There are original shovels that the miners used in the Cerro Rico mine, and the first telephone that was used by his grandfather in Potosí.  It was just amazing.

The highlight for me, though, was seeing the pina mold.  There wasn’t even one at any of the museums I had visited.  The silver-mercury amalgam was placed inside the pina mold once it had set.  The amalgam would be pressed down to release any excess liquid mercury through small holes in the bottom of the mold.  The resulting molded amalgam, called a pina, would be smelted to remove the mercury and produce pure silver.

Well, I’m off to bed.  Tomorrow we begin our residential sampling, and I need to be well rested.

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