Mining, explosions & karaoke

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
Trip End Apr 03, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

After being touted as soon as we got off the bus in Potosi, we decided to do a tour of the Cerro Rico mine. This mine is a real working mine, which has been in use since at least 1546.The tour was operated by ex miners who had been doing the tours for at least 5 years and gave a percentage of the profits back to the miners.

 The first stop we had was getting into the protective clothing consisting of overalls, wellies and hard hat with head torch. We looked well cool as we rocked down to our second stop, the minors market. At the minors market we were to buy gifts for the minors as they often couldn't afford luxuries as soft drinks and dynamite in their working conditions. The list of things we were told to chose from were dynamite (Potosi is one of the only cities where you can buy dynamite over the counter with no paperwork), soft drinks, coca leaves with chalk like stone that they chew to take away the taste, cigarettes and 96% alcohol. We all tried the alcohol along with the coca leaves and by god it was strong! I had hiccups for about a minute after taking a little more than a sip. Walking around in the Miners Market with our matching overalls I felt a bit of a fraud and a douche of a tourist, but I had gone this far to see what the conditions of the mine were so obviously carried on.

Before we visited the mine we were taken to a mineral extraction plant where they used many chemicals to separate e.g. silver from the stones that had been broken down. We gave the guy's coca leaves to thank them for letting us into their plant and also it helps them in their day. The plant was by no means state of the art, and looked like an accident could easily happen at any time.The last part of our tour was to the Cerro Rico mine itself where we spent about 1hr and a half crawling through tunnels which were far to short to stand up straight and in some points we were on hands and knees to get through to other tunnels.We met minors as they went by with one at the age of 16 (the legal age is 18 however not enforced). He told us that he had been working down the mines for 3 years already – I just can't imagine that kind of life. Most of the minors that we met were in high spirits (we were told that you just had to be to working the mines). Although we didn't see anybody digging as we were too late for that, we did walk round in tunnels and see people haul mine-trains of rock out of the mines – here we had to run and find cover as these trains don't stop. Seeing the carts being hauled by 2 men in front and 2 men behind was a weird sight for 2010, and in the darkness just seeing their headlamps coming at you slowly with the sound of the wheels on the line growing in volume, and then fade to black as they went pass were weird moments.Although all we did was walk in the mine, the tunnels could go up to 50 degrees and as low as -10, and we really baked. With the mass of dust and potential asbestos in the air we had to wear neckerchiefs over our mouths which made it even harder to breathe.

 Near the end of the tour we stopped by a religious artifact for the minors where they give coca leaves and other things as presents to the underground god. Our guide poured alcohol over his fallace in pray for girls for the single boys, boys for the single girls, baby's for the girls who had boyfriends, and more tourists for him. He told us of the party's that the miners would have in February where they would drink for days and set explosions and fireworks off all across the land. 

I was glad to get out after the hour and a half that was spent down the mines. And when we did we had one stick of dynamite left. So our guide took it out of its wrapper to roll into a ball whilst he made the fuse, he then put the fuse in the dynamite and all into a bag full of something else to increase the explosion. After this he lit it and put it into his mouth. Then telling us that there is plenty of time asked if any of us wanted to hold it – hell yea!! so I held if for a bit. He then ran off into the distance and put the bomb on the floor. Did some press-ups over it and then ran away. About a minute later the thing went off with a bang – awesome fun. 

After we got back and had a much needed shower we went for some food in a restaurant that served the best food I'd had in ages, and this in a poor mining town in Bolivia where the food is meant to be terrible – talk about a diamond in the rough! Later in the night we went to a Karaoke bar which we wern't sure if it was a sex house at first, and then the appalling singing started and it was all OK, especially after the Ron and lemonade.In total – it was a great day, with some confused feeling about how I should feel about the minors and their short life expectancy and poor working conditions. I felt that I should feel bad, and I did – especially for the kid, but they seem to put a brave face on things and give the appearance of fun and happiness – this may come from the fact that they work for themselves down the mine and so work to their own rules and time,with anything they keep is theirs. Again the downside along with the conditions is the lack of inclusive health-care and the fact that if they don't find anything then they don't get paid – standard rules for working for yourself, however the consequences seem more severe here.Have pictures – will upload at a later date
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