Potosi: and a trip down the mines

Trip Start Jun 12, 2008
Trip End Nov 20, 2008

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Koala Den

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, August 25, 2008

We were really sad to leave La Paz as we had had such a great time there. When we got to the bus station it was packed as usual so we had lots of people watching before it was time for our bus. We were pleasantly surprised by our bus, the seats were really comfy and we both managed to get a fair bit of sleep on this journey. Weīre clearly used to these buses now! We arrived in Potosi at 5.30am when it was still dark and very cold. We hung around the bus station until it just started to get light (and used the worst loo to date!) and then went to our hostel. A very bleary eyed man to the door and we apologetically asked him if he had a room. Luckily he did and within 5 minutes we were off to sleep in cozy beds with the heating on. Just after 10am we were up again and went for a wander around Potosi.

Potosi is an interesting place, it was once the largest city in Latin America and was even bigger than London in itīs time. Now itīs a bit worn out and there are beautiful old colonial buildings that are falling into ruin but somehow that makes you like it even more. The town is dominated by the Cerro Rico (rich hill) mountain which contains the silver mines that made the town so famous. The Spanish mined that mountain like you wouldnīt believe killing 8 million Indians and slaves in the process. The silver was exported to Spain and a mint was built in Potosi that made coins that were used all over the world.

The good thing about the town now is that itīs not that touristy so we feel like weīve been spending time in a real Bolivian town (if that makes sense!?) and mixing with the locals a lot more. I have also never found such a high concentration of lawyers in one town! After wandering around we went to the cutest cafe, Cherryīs, run by a lovely friendly lady who often gets the giggles. You canīt help but be happy in there, she also makes delicious cakes, which we have sampled...just to support the local economy of course! After this we went off to book our trip down the mines for the next day. In the afternoon we wandered around the shops and relaxed at the hostel.

That night I kept waking up and wondering if this trip down the mines was such a good idea. We had to sign a disclaimer for the tour saying the company was not responsible for accidents or our death in the case of cave-ins. I asked about the probability of this and the answer was "they do happen, but you should be fine". Great! Donīt think the insurance would cover this sort of thing. Dom was also awake in the night, but unfortunately that was because he had a nasty case of South American belly (the Bolivian cases are the worst kind). In the morning he clearly wasnīt well enough for the mines so I had to venture out on my own.

At breakfast I met other people from the hostel who were also going down the mines so was able to get to know the others in the group. We set off at 8.30am and drove off to collect the equipment we would need/wear down the mines. You will see the photo of me in my lovely gear! Next we went to the miners market to buy presents for the miners we would meet. I was really pleased that our guide discouraged us from buying cigarettes and alcohol. I wanted to buy the miners something that would actually help them with their work, so settled on dynamite, a fuse and detonator! Amazing isnīt it, I bet thatīs what you all want for Christmas now! You can also buy a packet of  tiny yellow and pink balls which, when added to the dynamite, give it an extra bang. So I thought, what the hell, and bought that too. I actually went on a bit of a spree and also bought coca leaves and a big bottle of a disgusting looking fizzy drink, but apparently they love it. I also bought a dynamite set for myself as the guide said we could have some fun with it after the tour.    

Acutely aware I was holding enough explosives to blow myself to bits, we went to the buildings where they crush the minerals and then extract the silver using chemical reactions and a flotation system. That was interesting but unfortunately no-one was around as they are only allowed to work 3 days a week because it causes too much pollution over Potosi.

Then we drove to the mines themselves and got ready to go in. We were in a group of 5 and had a guide and an assistant guide who would be the one to take us out if it all got a bit too much. We had to wear bandanas over our mouths as it would be really dusty and there are noxious gases. At first it wasnīt too bad but then we had to start jumping over holes and watching our heads (even me!) and had to make sure not to touch the cables (which were all over the place) as some of them were electric. After a short distance there was a little museum about the mines and that is also where Tio is housed. Tio is spanish for Uncle and this is the figure that the miners believe holds power over life and death in the mines. Heīs actually the devil (because we are underground and in hell) but they donīt like to call him devil so they call him Tio. Miners leave cigarettes and coca leaves as an offering.

Then we really started to go down the mines. Very quickly it got narrow, it was very dusty and difficult to breathe and it got hotter. The mines are made up of different levels, 1 being ground level, and our aim was to get down to level 3. We had to make our way down these narrow passageways, trying not to touch this poisonous stuff that is all over the walls and trying not to slide too much as that will create more dust. It was pretty tough going! As we were going down I heard this rumbling, kind of like an underground train, coming towards us. It was really scary and then you could see through a hole that it was one of the wagons passing underneath us.

Once we got down to level 3 the passageways were much bigger and there was slightly more air being pumped in. However we could find any miners, so our guide shouted around for a bit and then realised that we would have to go down to level 4. This was terrifying. We had to lower ourselves into a hole and then find a ladder with our legs. There were a series of ladders, most of which had wobbly rungs, and the ladders werenīt connected in any way to you had to kind of jump from ladder to ladder. At the end of this we had to lower ourselves into another hole which was a tiny space for the 5 of us to get into. We met a miner down there who was making holes for the dynamite to go into; tap tap tap and then using a bit of water to try and loosen things. He would be in that hole for 10 hours that day and would make 3 holes. At the end of the day he would pack the holes with dynamite and light the fuse and then have one minute to get as far away as possible. Next day he would come back and see if he had unearthed any mineral containing silver. He does this 6 days a week and earns about 60 pounds a month, thatīs low even by Bolivian standards.

After meeting him and giving him a present we had to go all the way back up the ladders. This was even tougher than coming down. You forget you are still at altitude because you are underground, but Potosi is 4060meters and the mines are about 4500m. I was trying to get up these ladders, banging my head several times in the process, I couldnīt breathe because of all the dust but was really trying to because I was using energy at altitude. I could then feel myself starting to hyperventilate and was thinking I was going to faint on this ladder. I would have given anything to get out right there and then, but where could I go? The only way was the way I was going, so I composed myself and slowly got myself up there and was a horrible weezy, sweaty mess when I got back to level 3.

Next we found ourselves at a junction (thereīs tracks all along the floors for the wagons) and several wagons were coming past. We ran after one that was full, yes, ran, insane I know. And then watched the miners empty the 2 tonne wagon full of minerals. We then helped them to load it into baskets to be hauled up to level 2. That was hard work I can tell you and the minerals were really heavy. (Helen Calkin, the whole thing was a H&S nightmare! You would have had a fit at how some of the miners were picking these things up. No safe manual handling at all! You would have been proud of me though, I bent my knees and was very careful!)

Being the HR person that I am I was keen to understand what the recruitment procedures were! Basically there were none, the miners work in groups and if you want to work you have to find a group that will take you. There is no paperwork or procedure, everything is cash in hand when the miners sell the minerals. So no-one has any idea how many people are down the mines at any one time. There are about 15,000 people each day but they have no real clue, oh and kids as young as 12 work down there. Every year about 40 miners die in the mines due to cave-ins and accidents with explosions. Then there are all the miners who die of lung disease, their life expectancy is very short, if they start in their teens they will probably be dead by the time they are 40. Although we did meet one miner who had been there for 39 years; this is his last year, I hope it makes it.

We were down in the mines for 2 hours and it was gruelling and a real eye opener, probably my toughest and most upsetting experience in South America (I had a big case of travellers guilt afterwards about how lucky I am). Though in a strange way I am glad I did it, even if I did feel sick for the rest of the day and had a stonking headache from the fumes. After the mines we did have some fun with the dynamite, I got to make my own bomb and then hold it while it was lit. That was fun until I asked if anyone else wanted to hold it and they all said no and then suddenly I didnīt want it any longer! The guide took it and ran off down the hill with it, it made a hell of a bang, way more than I thought it would, and the whole ground shook!

Then it was back to see Dom who kindly told me that I stank and needed to shower immediately! The rest of our time here has been spent relaxing in the hostel trying to get Dom better. Itīs a lovely warm hostel with free internet and loads of DVDs to watch so weīve been taking advantage.

We also visited the mint museum which was interesting. It is set in a beautiful colonial building which is almost entirely original. It cost so much money to build that the King of Spain believed it was made entirely of silver!!! You have to have a tour and Dom and I were the only people so kept thinking of what we hoped were intelligent questions! We got to see lots of colonial art and then all the machines that were used to flatten the silver and make all the coins. There was a good display of all the coins and examples of some of the things made from silver in colonial times, including a silver handbag and a silver bed pan!

Next stop, Uyuni.
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