Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remembering in Potosi

Potosi is a city replete with legends, superstitions and nostalgia. Once the Villa Imperial and richest city in the world it is now forgotten by it's own president who, like so many who have passed through, promised but never delivered. Where is our international airport? No nos han dado nada an ex-miner complained to me.

Everything was closed for the feriado of Dia de Los Muertos so I spent Saturday afternoon watching Potosinos replace old flowers with new ones at the cemetery. Families sang songs, cried, made jokes and burnt tiny fires in front of the little windows donned with candles, photographs and inscriptions - 'Viviras eternamente en la memoria de tu esposa y hijos'. 

Remembrance and forgetfulness seemed to hold hands here and stroll along every worn out facade. The street signs bear the names of both the new streets and the names of the calles antiguas. The cerro rico is the same mountain sucked dry by the Spanish conquistadores, the same place where eight million indigenous bolivians died, where countless slaves were bought and brought over from Africa to have their lives taken for colonial wealth. It is the same place where still today thirty five tonnes of minerals are produced every month, where bolivians continue to work and live and mine.

My first impression of Potosi was a few months ago along a trip to Salar de Uyuni. We were just passing through but I remembering thinking no hay nada. Igual, I knew I had to come back, if only to see during the daylight what I missed that early morning in July. It was at dusk on the micro to the bus terminal yesterday night that I saw, and one could say believed, how this city was once one of the most celebrated in the world. The sky cast only shadows of the towers, arches, churches and the leaning hills. My mind conjured up parades, parties, corridas and all of the magic that wealth brings. The wealth just like magic disappeared in a click, a puff of smoke leaving the audience dumbfounded, unaware. Potosi is really two cities - one before the magician waves his hand and one after the swish of the cloak. Now you see it, now you don't.

And it was there that I remembered what it was that I had forgotten. That when you visit places you don't just see what is there now, you travel through time and through lives. Your imagination doesn't hold a candle to what is the story of the past. And I remembered, in Potosi, that the past is never really over - we are tourists not only of the where but also of the when. 

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought of travel as not just "where" but also "when". That's why traditions are so important. As great as multicultural societies and metropolises are, customs are often lost to modernisation and homegenisation.
    I love the tribespeople with digital facepaint in the movie 'Cloud Atlas'. Its a reminder that even in the future there are civilisations lost in time.