Down the mines

Trip Start Sep 20, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Where I stayed
Koala Den Hostel

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Malvernites among you may well remember that the one place I´ve never wanted to visit is the pyramids in Egypt due to a totally irrational fear of being buried alive if the roof of a tunnel collapsed. Anyway, today i had to face that fear in a rather direct way as I went 40m underground in a Bolivian mine. Before going in I had to sign a disclainer as follows:

"Even taking all precautions, there is a chance that an accident can occur in the mines.... For example, in the case of a cave-in in the mine, you will be in as much danger as the workers in the mine (more miners die from cave-ins than any other cause of death)" that scared the living daylights out of me. Still, I had been assured that it was a good experience, and one of the "must-do"s here. Oh, and the lonely planet recommends that claustrophobes and asthmatics dont try it. If I was sensible I probably would have run at that point, but I guess that doesn´t apply ;o)

The town of Potosí where I am currently was first founded 450 years ago when silver was discovered in the nearby hill (Cerro Rico). Since then its had its ups and downs but is still one of the most prosperous places in Bolivia. Its also the highest city in the world. There are now 600 mines in the hill, 450 still active, and they extract silver, zinc, tin and lead. The miners work in horrific conditions, for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, with no breaks. The average life expectancy for a miner is only 40 years old, and it is expected that within 10 years of starting work in the mines the majority will have developed lung cancer or other respiratory problems. The reason they do it is because they can earn on average 3000 bolivianos a month (around 200 GBP), compared to a taxi driver who may earn 600 bolivianos. The mining is all done by cooperatives of 3-60ish men, and each cooperative splits equally the profit made from the ore they mine, so the harder they work, the more they earn. However the future of the mine is uncertain - 11 years ago a group of americains surveyed the hill and predicted it would collapse from the number of mines in it within 7 years. Well its still going, but the miners are in danger every day of the whole thing caving in. At most they think it has another 5 years left, and once it goes Potosí will become a ghost town as there are no other jobs here. I´m not sure if I think thats a good thing or not, currently it is giving jobs to 15,000 miners plus all the tourist amenities in potosí, but the conditions are horrific... Something to think about.

Anyway, after all that background I´ll tell you about my day. Actually I should mention yesterday, but it was pretty dull. Arrived in potosí at 5am, woke up the nice man at Koala Den (my hostel) and went to bed. Just wandered around town for a bit and went on t´internet. the only exciting thing that happened was two girls moved into the same room as us, also newly arrived from la Paz. they were really sweet so i went for lunch with them (Jenna had a cold so stayed at the hostel). We got chatting about uni etc and it turns out they both went to Oxford! Small world. So our dorm was 3 oxfordians and a filthy tab ;o)

Back to the present and today which was much more interesting. Firstly we all got in the bus and drove to a little storage room, where we got kitted up like miners. Actually better than the miners, they wear normal clothes :oS so we had waterproof overtrousers and jacket, black welly boots and hard hats with lights on. Very cool. Also bought an essential bandana to tie around my mouth and make breathing if not easy, at least possible. Next stop was the Miners market where we were told all about different types of dynamite (argentinian best, bolivian second, peruvian worst). Then we bought presents to take for the miners - fizzy drinks, coca leaves, and dynamite, plus some extra dynamite to blow up ourselves. We then went to a refinery, where they process all the ore and seperate out the different minerals within it. The equipment is fairly primative but it works, and the work there is much easier than in the mines. On the down side, they only get paid 1200 b a month and they have to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So finally there was nothing left to do but the mine itself. The mine we went to is worked by a group of around 200 miners, with 4 large cooperatives and several small ones sharing the same tunnels. When we arrived a large group of miners was sitting around drinking beer near the entrance, unusual for midweek. Our guide (an ex-miner) talked to them and discovered that they were celebrating/commiserating the death of a fellow miner that morning. Celebrating because they believe that as god inhabits the above-ground, the devil inhabits the under-ground, and that as a miner had died the devil was satisfied so they would be safe for the near future. It didnt reassure us, as im sure i dont have to say. He died whilst driving a jeep up to the mine - two vehicles tried to pass on the narrow road and his went too close to the edge and rolled down the hill. We could still see the jeep where it had come to rest against the wall of a building.

So we were rather sober as we approached the mine. The entrance looked like a train tunnel, and we all walked into the darkness one by one. thankfully our lights were very good, if it had been dark i may well have refused to go further. the ceiling was very uneven and we regularly had to duck or stoop right down to get under beams. in places the ceiling was so low that it looked like it had started collapsing and been hastily propped up. After 400m walking along level one we reached a small underground museum, where there were several devil shrines (keep him happy with coca and beer to stay safe). then we headed down to level two. The descent was horrific, just a steeply sloping tunnel,  ceiling so low that we had to crawl, on loose dust/rock surface. When we rested halfway i could hardly breathe due to the amount of dust kicked up and seriously considered turning back. Once we stopped moving it settled though and it got easier. Then we carried on down to level three, 40m below the entrance. Once we were down it wasnt so bad, the tunnel roof was higher as the miners had to push trucks along the tracks, and the air a little more breathable. we walked along the tracks, and regularly had to jump out for the way as trucks came through, some containing 2 tons of rock adn being pushed by 4 men. then we got to the room where the trucks were emptied and the rock shovelled into baskets to be winched up. Our guide explained that within each cooperative, men would switch jobs every two months so that they all spent time doing the best jobs (on the surface) and the worst (drilling holes for dynamite to be pushed in to blast more rock free). The electric winch to lift rock out is a relatively new addition - when our guide was a miner 11 years ago it was his job to carry rock, 45kg at a time, to the surface from level 3, by crawling through the horrible tunnels we had just descended through. That surely must be the most horrible job. We watched the men working for a while adn gave them coca and drinks, and then made our way back to the surface, via the same horrible tunnels. Going up was even worse as it was steep and slipy, so making me out of breath from exertion as well as from all the dust. When we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel (literally) i had never felt so relieved!

The final part of our tour was the dynamite demonstration (btw it costs 1 pound for dynamite, ammonium nitrate and detonator). Our guide squashed the dynamite into a ball, packed ammponium nitrate round the edge, inserted the detonator, lit it, adn then passed it around for photos. Its a 3 min fuse so we were ok! Still fairly frantic as we all wanted a go, and then he ran with it down the road and put it in the dirt. It was pretty loud when it went off! Doesnt make much of a hole in the open air though.

So I made it back, covered in dust and coughing, but alive :o) im glad i did it, an interesting experience, but dont think il be going back!

Once we got back Jenna left for Uyuni so im now on my own again. I´m off on the nightbus very shortly to Tupiza where im going horse riding :oD Unfortunately i arrive at 3.30am but iv been assured its a safe town!

Just before I go, Jen (who i met in thailand) emailled me earlier and told me about the tourists who died yesterday in a cave in thailand. It was in Khao Sok national park, one of my favourite places of the whole trip, and the cave in which they died sounds like it may be the same one i swam through only a couple of months ago. which is pretty scary. Im worried that our guide Kian may be one of the ones who died, so really hoping hes ok :oS

So, i have to go get on a bus, hope you are all well.

Take care, miss you lots xxxxx
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hayleymo on

Hey Laura,

Don't forget to wash your hands before you come back through security!

Love the idea of everyone quickly passing it around, that is a classic cartoon image if ever there was one. :)

Hayley xXx

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