A Shocking Mining Experience
Trip Start Oct 04, 2009
70Trip End Nov 20, 2010
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Potosi is a shocking look at Bolivia, by far the most powerful experience we've had in this country.
We traveled by public bus to Potosi with our French pals during daylight hours as it is touted as the most beautiful ride in Bolivia - the scenery definitely gets pretty rustic. At a bus stop, I had to pee in someone's back yard among chickens because it was more appealing than my other options. The journey was dirt roads for all but 1 hour of the 6 hour ride, but when we weren't nervous about our bags getting stolen off the roof of the bus or annoyed by the constant honking to warn oncoming traffic of our impending whipping around cliffs, we really took in the strangely, colorful mountains. The mineral mountains were vibrant shades of purple, blue, neon green, and maroon and flanked by alpacas and cacti.
And then we reached the highest city in the world!! We were winded just walking up the hill towards the center to find a hostel, where we ran into Arnuad, a math teacher we had volunteered at SKIP with. We stayed at the same hostel, happy to take a recommendation and put down our bags - watching the USA fall to Ghana together. We were definitely the only people NOT cheering against the Americans.
We read up on Cerro Rico, meaning Rich Mountain, which made Potosi famous and one of the largest and richest cities in the world at the time. 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from the 1550s to 1780s by hundreds of thousands of Indian workers and African slaves.
The first Bolivian mint, which is now a museum, was developed in Potosi to hammer silver into coins before sending to Spain. It was strange to see that all the mint machinery was manufactured in the US of A. We happened to visit when there was also a music video filming in the main Mint square making it impossible to hear our tour guide, but making it possible to record a gnarly dance video of our own.
After 1800, the mines were exhausted of silver and the focus switched to tin and lead. The town is now anything but rich, but evidence of its luxurious past is still apparent in the architecture. Still, the mountain continues to be mined.
Co-operative mine tours are the must-do experience in Potosi. Waiting until a weekday to view a working silver mine, we hesitantly signed up for a tour, after signing the following (errors included) liability waiver:
"During the tour you will be visiting working mines. The mines are a dangerous place not only to work, but also to visit. The Koala Tours guides are experienced miners and will ensure your safety to the best of their ability. The guides are always aware of how many people are working in the mines, where and when explosions are taking place, and where the noxious gases are. They will do everything possible to assure your safety as a visitor to the mines. We ask that you are always aware of what is going on around you and listen carefully to any time, you must talk directly with the guide."
"Even taking all precautions, there is a chance that accident can occur in the mines. There are some dangers beyond the control of your guide. 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 miner die from cave-ins than any other cause of death)"
At that, we voluntarily declared that we alone were responsible for accidents, injury, or death occurring during the excursion to the mine. Bring on the fun.
The night before the tour, we watched the powerful 2005 documentary The Devil's Miner (El Minero del Diablo) about a fatherless, heroic 14 year old miner who worships the Devil for protection in the mine while struggling to support his family. The movie highlighted a very tragic situation and calculated 800 children to be working in the mines, but by the end, I really admired the work of the miner, especially this young Bolivian boy. I highly recommend this film for a little insight into Bolivian life. Incredibly moving and educational.
We found out the following day that not much had changed in the mines - it was exactly how the movie had depicted, except so much harder to breathe. Miners chew coca leaves to dull hunger, cold, and fatigue during their 12 hour shifts, workers don´t wear masks and rely on coca leaves to filter the air, dynamite holes are gruelingly dug by hand every 2 hours, and daily offerings are made to ¨Tio¨ (the devil) to protect the Miners from accidents and lead them towards a plentiful mineral vein. The Miners are very religious, but believe that God can't reach them in the mine so they "pray" and make offerings to the devil, referred to as Tio. Due to the dust and lack of protective equipment, the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them contracting silicosis and dying between 35 - 40 years of age.
It is strenuous, dangerous work that robs decades off your lifetime, but there is always work and the miners are not skilled for another alternative. The work hours are long , but if mineral isn't found, the miners receive no wage.
Before entering the mine, tourists get suited up and visit the Miner's market. Miners start their day eating here and then do not exit the mine until their 12 hour shift is over. Almost like paying for a ticket, tourists bring coca leaves, alcohol, black tobacco cigarettes, or dynamite as ¨gifts¨ to the miners in exchange for our entrance, but by no means does that make you feel welcome there. More like tolerated. After all, the miners are working....it's not a museum. We didn´t find our guide to be very respectful either - offering us stones out of the bags the miners had axed out of the cavern walls by hand as souvenirs and personally handing out the miner gifts to his favorites.
Tourists have the opportunity to try all the gifts at the Miner's market before purchasing. The alcohol was the grossest vodka taste I´ve ever stooped to purchase. The dynamite demo shook your bones - it was truly terrifying (watch the video).
I spent less than 2 hours underground in the mines and spoke with a raspy voice for the rest of the day my throat was so irritated. It looked like it was snowing in our helmet lights since the dust was so thick. The mention of cave-ins on the liability form had me incredibly aware of the rotting wood supporting the tunnels, especially when I kept banging my head on them. When you heard a brake-less mine cart coming, you had about 6 seconds to push against the narrow mine wall out of the way. Other tourists were having near panic attacks as the air seemed scarce, dust made it difficult to avoid coughing, eyes were watery, and the mine became increasingly hot as we were crawled and climbed deeper and deeper in the ash-like dirt.
The tour was exhausting physically and emotionally. We felt extremely uncomfortable, obnoxious even, dressed the part of miners and touring & photographing their workplace in awe while they lived this harsh reality. Our entire tour group agreed that we were glad we did it, and experienced it, but that we would never want to do it again. You literally feel sick afterward. The mine tour puts you in a bit of a funk - digesting what you just saw in a sort of sad silence and trying to imagine having to do that every day.