Into Hell

Trip Start Jan 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The city of Potosi; the highest city in the world, was born at the foot of Cerro Rico (rich mountain) over 400 years ago on the discovery of Silver. The story goes that one day a shepherd was out on the mountain tending to his flock and it became so cold that he built a large fire to keep warm. As the fire grew hotter, the ground beneath it began to bubble and out of the earth silver began to rise.
He kept the secret to himself for as long as possible but eventually had to confide in a friend to help him dig up the silver. In time of course an argument ensued as to who got the larger cut and eventually the word got out. In 1546 the mining town was founded and  swiftly grew to the largest American city.  The pure silver deposit ran out over time and all that was left was ore so the economy began to die.
Today the mountain is still mined as the main source of income for many of the local families, sadly however the conditions that the children(as young as 10) and men still work under today have changed very little from those back when the mine was in its prime and under the control of the Spanish. The lack of protective clothing and back breaking methods which see some of the smaller firms workers dragging out 40Kilo bags through little more than manhole width passages from the depths of the mountain and inhalation of highly toxic dust mean that most don't live for longer than 40 years before Silicosis tightens its deadly grip.
So we donned our protective layers and bandannas to help keep some of the dust from entering our lungs and drove to the miners market in search of supplies such as plastic explosives, soft drinks and Coca leaves to present the miners that we would be visiting with in return for their stories before setting off to the base of the mountain.
At this time of the year the miners sacrifice llamas as an offering to bring good luck and prosperity to those working deep in the mines. The blood is then smeared all over the entrance to the mine and the carcasses are then buried nearby.
So we began walking under the blood covered archway leading into the darkness occasionally avoiding the many empty and full barrows of ore moving backwards and forwards from the depths towards the light and back again we eventually came to the miners museum which lists the history of the mines and holds the first of many statues of El Tio(the uncle). These statues are in fact shrines to the devil as the workers of the mines who worship many different gods believe that if God created the earth above and looks after it then whoever created this "Hell" that they work in must be the Devil and before being able to remove his deposits of ore they must make offerings such as Coca leaves and cigarettes to him for their own safety. The roof of the museum was actually covered with growing white crystals of arsenic and gave me the first indication as to the the toxicity of life underground.
Our Guide Pedro had worked in the mines from the age of 10 to 15 before he was given the rare opportunity to become a tour leader and leave the daily life down below the surface but, many of his friends still toil underground for many of the different firms there. Some of the bigger companies use new methods of mining including pneumatic tools and winches to lift ore up to the surface but more often than not the men use slow and tedious manual labor to scratch out their livings and support their families.
The deeper into the mine we crawled the hotter and more pungent the air became, making it increasingly difficult to breath. I could literally taste the air I was breathing in when I reached the 4th level to observe men hand winching bags from the lower levels of the mine.
Every group or individual miner we encountered on the way was given gifts of either Dynamite or soft drinks or Coca purchased in town before our arrival. The miners never eat in the mine instead they simply chew Coca leaves which suppress the appetite and allow them to stay under ground for longer without spending any money while there... The coca leaves also help breathing in these awful conditions and so were used by us just to keep us down there! On ascending to the surface the change in temperature became even more obvious and the closer to the entrance we got the colder and colder it became till we were finally back in the sunlight. Once back up top we were shown a demonstration of the dynamite we had bought and had an opportunity to chat with more of the miners.
The green Bolivian plastic explosive is unwrapped and rolled into a ball that the fuse can be pushed inside before placing the entire lot inside a bag of fertiliser and being lit. the full package then produces a powerful explosion which, if built inside a hole in the rock is capable of producing considerable damage and releasing a lot of rocky ore form the mine.
Today was a truly revealing insight into the conditions still endured by the poor inhabitants of third world countries desperately striving to survive against all the odds. I will never look at jewelery in the same way again especially when knowing that a lot of it is founded from the ore shipped out of Bolivia to be smelted in many other countries the world over.
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