Monday, October 5, 2009
Penitent in Potosi
Our time in Sucre was over just as we were really beginning to like the city. We could have stayed but with the clock ticking on our visa, we decided to move on to our next destination Potosi. If we spent 2 days there we’d get to our final destination Uyuni with just enough time to do a 3-day salt flat tour. A Canadian-Aussie couple staying at the Sucre hostel tried to make us feel better by assuring us that Potosi was a nice town too. I wasn’t so sure. Potosi was the world’s highest city and in the middle of the dry mountains. It had a rich history but that history was based on the mining that had gone on in those mountains for the last 400 years and mines aren’t really known to be picturesque. However, visiting the still-operational mines was high on the gringo to do list so we were off.
Our plan was to take a shared taxi however our taxi let us off at the bus station instead of the shared taxi stand down the road. But as we were getting out of the taxi, a ticket seller approached us to let us know that there was a Potosi bus leaving in 2 minutes. It would take longer but the price was cheaper and we weren’t in a hurry. Potosi was only 5 hours away which after our journey from Samaipata was nothing. So we hurried to get on. The bus took us up and up through the bare hills. Rocks and sand and more rocks. The view so far was mesmerizing for its nothingness but didn’t make me hopeful for Potosi. And when we got to the outskirts, my low expectations were met. The town was another ugly cement Bolivian town of low shacks and dusty roads. Looming over the town were the mines adding to (or should that be subtracting from) the view.
The bus left us off on one of those dusty roads and we grabbed a taxi to take us into the centre where our hostel was. It was described as an old colonial building which I assumed would be easy to find. But once the taxi turned down into the heart of the city, I wasn’t so sure. While the vast suburbs had been ugly, the centre was nothing but pretty and old (really old) colonial buildings. The taxi driver most also have been a little confused as he let us off in front of the wrong colonial hostel far away from ours. Actually it probably wasn’t that far but since we were back at altitude after a week down in Sucre we were out of practice and we were carrying our heavy packs. Not the best conditions for our first walking tour but Potosi still made a good impression on us. It was like a miniature and older version of Sucre.
The hostel was nice and since we weren’t planning on spending too much time here we weren’t too bothered about the weak wifi signal. Although Adrian did insist on upgrading to the room with the tv so that he could watch Monday night football. But he surprised me by not turning the tv on and instead insisting that we go out to visit a convent – “there’s a display on flagellation” he said with sick glee, hoping for a display of whips and other torturous objects.
Walking through the square past more pretty buildings and churches, we arrived at the convent just after 4pm joining the last tour group of the day in progress. The guide took us around the convent for a lengthy 2-hour tour that explained the history of the cloistered order and took us through all the rooms and how they lived. Adrian got impatient about an hour in but remained hopeful that we’d soon see the gruesome objects. However, somewhere between the museum and and the crypt, he began to lose hope. We shouldn’t have been surprised, the order was still active and our guide was a nun herself; I couldn’t imagine her showing and explaining the tools of self-flagellation. I tried to prepare Adrian for this but he held on to the Lonely Planet description he’d read as The Word. I finally took a peek at it and realized he’d misinterpreted it. The writer had meant the tour was for those who wanted to torture themselves not a tour of instruments of torture. In the end both descriptions were wrong since the tour was a good albeit thorough one even if it wasn’t what we expected nor about what we were interested in.
So what did we learn about the convent instead? Well, cloistered nuns take their segregation seriously. They weren’t allowed contact with anyone from the outside world. Family visits were held behind screens. Priests were separated by confessional-like windows. Supplies and food were delivered to special drawers. And it wasn’t like the nuns were living it up on the inside either. They sleep on wooden boards, knelt on stone floors. And wore itchy wool tunics. Prayed to gruesome figures of Christ on the cross. Yet despite all this, families encouraged their daughters to join the order (photo above) and these daughters considered it a privilege. Yikes. Perhaps the torture the guide book had been referring to, had been their strict disciplined lifestyle. Whatever the reason, it definitely wasn’t for us and as soon as the tour was over we took off.
On our way back to the hostel we stopped in at a funky café for a tasty pasta dinner. Then it was back to the hostel so Adrian could watch his Monday night football. While searching for ESPN, we came across Much Music and it was playing actual music videos – something that the Canadian version hasn’t done in many, many years. Unfortunately, one of the artists they played was Daddy Yankee, and his song Gasolina which we had heard on every bus ride in every country, and at every restaurant, bar and café. It was torture. If the order of nuns at the convent ever decide to practice self-flagellation, I think non-stop Daddy Yankee would be the modern version of whips and chains.