¨The Mouth of Hell¨

Trip Start Nov 07, 2008
Trip End Mar 03, 2009

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, December 8, 2008

  Following another successful survival of a nightbus, I arrived in what the is being touted as the highest city in the world. Having been demoted from the position of richest city in the world, I suppose they have to cling to something. Potosi is a very nice little colonial city with plenty of old churches and colonial buildings and the usual jazz. It is also the location of Cerro Rico (literally ´Rich Hill´) from which deposits of silver have been extracted in the mines for centuries and it was one of the main reasons for me coming here. Having spent a day wandering around and visiting things such as the old mint where they used to forge Bolivia´s currency, I had exhausted everything to do but had to wait an extra day until monday so that I could see the mines when people were working in it. So, much of the last few days have been spent in front of the tv, something which I seem to be doing a bit too much of lately.

  So this morning I got up bright and early to go on the mine tour with what seemed to be the whole of my hostel in tow. Not a bad thing as it meant I had met most people who were going. We got kitted up in our overalls and hard hat with head-lamp and set off up the road looking rather stupid to the amusement of all the locals. Our guide had worked in the mines for 5 years before becoming a guide and as such was extremely interesting to listen to and to hear all the customs and history of the mine. The mine is a collective mine, meaning that it is owned by the miners themselves. As such they must pay a form of tax to maintain it and they do not receive salaries - their income depends solely on the quantity and quality of the minerals that they are able to extract. A few have become very rich by finding good quality deposits, but as our guide described it, it is like the lottery, and the vast majority of miners make about 5-10 pounds a week. Since its inception, it is thought that over 8 million people have died in or as a result of the mine. While respiratory diseases are common, the most common cause of death is a cave-in; a fact that didn't inspire much confidence within the group. Within just one mountain, there are over 400 mines in total, most of which link in to one another and the mine goes down 11 levels from the top. We started by going to the miners' market where you can buy all sorts of things from coca leaves (which the miners effectively survive on as it supresses hunger and tiredness) to dynamite, both of which we did buy, some as gifts for the miners and some for enjoyment later on. We were then taken to see the refining plant where all the minerals are separated from the surrounding rock and worthless ones.

  Having seen all of that, we headed for the mine itself. We were visiting one of the larger ones towards the base of the mountain. At first the tunnel was quite cool in temperature and you could stand. But very quickly it became necessary to crouch and even crawl along the tunnels. We went down about 3 levels where it became very hot and there was a lot of dust in the air. At 4000m and in that confined space with the heat all around and continually breathing in dust and what were probably noxious gases, the going became quite tough. At a couple of points further in we were actually crawling on our fronts to get through the shafts and equally there were some very steep climbs whilst crawling to get back up again. It was very easy to see why so many people die in the mines from things such as silicosis and asbestosis. The average life expectancy for the drillmasters who are at the end of the mine making new tunnels is around 5 years due to the sheer volume of dust and the exposure to gases that their drilling produces. Pretty harrowing stuff. Because of the constant danger they all hold very strong superstitions. In every mine is at least one ´Tio´which is an Andean devil who supposedly owns all of the minerals in the mine. All of the miners make sacrifices of alcohol, coca and cigarettes on these statues to give themselves protection and good fortune. This sacrifice also takes the form of a binge like no other at the end of every week when the miners sit around the statue after work and consume 96% alcohol (some of which we were offered at the start but at 9 in the morning I wasn't in the mood...) to give thanks to the Tio. Our guide said that when they have had a good week, they consume even more to give thanks, and if they have a bad week they have to consume even more to ensure they have a good haul the next time. That seemed rather convenient to me.

  Having finally left the mines, to everyone's relief, we then went to blow up some dynamite which was good fun. It was quite an experience not only going to see the mine itself but a completely different way of life and the hardships and dangers that the miners face day in day out. They also estimate that around 800 children, some as young as 10, are currently working in the mines. But having seen that, I seem to have exhausted Potosi and i'm now heading further south to a town called Tupiza surrounded by desert canyons and gorges which sounds like good fun.

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