Potosí­ Mines

November 15, 2005
Day 48

Breakfast was included at my hostel, so I took advantage this morning. I have found that there are only two types of breakfast here: continental, which includes bread, butter, and coffee, and American, which also has juice and an egg. My hostel served the American breakfast, which of course made me happy because, being an American, I eat the same thing every morning at home.

The mine tour began right after breakfast. Seven of us rode in a van to a building where we were given our mining attire. Over the top of my regular clothes, I got to wear a black rubber jacket, pants, and boots, along with a hard hat and a battery-operated head lamp. After getting decked out in mining gear, it was time to buy gifts.

Miners love tourists for the simple reason that they bring them presents. What kind of presents do you get for someone who works in a mine all day? Well, dynamite is a good start, but cigarettes, booze, sugary soda, and coca leaves also go a long way.

At the "miner's market," a street lined with shops that sell goods to the miners, our guide explained everything we needed to know about the aforementioned items. The dynamite wouldn't explode on its own, as our guide demonstrated by throwing a stick of it at my feet. It needed to be combined with a fuse and a catalyst, affectionately known as "El Completo," to work properly. The miners obviously use dynamite to blow apart new holes in the mine. It's the most useful tool they use, except when it misfires and kills them. As dangerous as dynamite is, it is legal for anyone to buy and use it in Bolivia. This comes in handy when protesters here want to blow something up to get their point across.

It's far too dusty to attempt to eat food in the mine, so miners drink sugary soda all day for energy. They also chew coca leaves to suppress their appetite. The combination of not eating and doing physical labor all day makes the miners extremely skinny. None of them have an ounce of fat on their bodies. Maybe it will become the next American diet fad.

The cigarettes and booze were needed because after a long week of working in the mine, the miners like to kick back and relax. Two types of alcohol were available: 40% "water" and 95% "good stuff." Generally, the miners only buy the 95% alcohol because several of them can get drunk from one bottle, which costs $1.25.

I bought two "Completos," one for the miners and one for me to blow up later, a set of gloves to keep my hands properly manicured, a bottle of "water," and some coca leaves. Everyone else bought more of the same, and we tourists with no knowledge of pyrotechnics continued to the mine in the van with enough dynamite to blow up a small town.

Before entering the actual mine, we got to see the refining process for the minerals that come out of the mine. First, the large rocks are broken down in a rock crusher. Next, the resulting pebbles are sent through a series of machines that break them down further into a fine dust. Finally, this dust is combined them with several liquids to separate the valuable minerals, which are sold for a profit, from the worthless waste, which is flushed directly into the city's water supply. Seeing that made me feel real good about tonight's dinner.

The whole area was so loud, I couldn't even hear my guide when he explained what each of the machines did. That was probably a good thing, though, because I was too busy guarding my life to listen to any of it anyway. Every step I took through the factory, I came dangerously close to moving blades, belts, and poisonous chemicals. Outside the factory, we had to walk across a narrow ledge. One step to the left and we would've fallen about six feet to the concrete below. One step to the right and we would've fallen into a vat of deadly chemicals. Our guide explained the purpose of these chemicals to us as he stood in the middle them, inches away from certain death. Now I know what passes for "tourism" in Bolivia.

Mixed in with seeing the refining process, we also learned a little more about the mining lifestyle. Our guide was a former miner himself, so he knew a lot about what it meant to work there. He explained that when the mine was opened over 400 years ago, the workers were all African and Native American slaves. They worked without helmets or any other safety gear, and were forced to stay in the mine for up to six months. Every day of their lives, they ate, drank, slept, and worked in the mines. Usually, they died before they were allowed to leave.

Silver used to be the main mineral that was mined, but there isn't much left anymore. Nowadays, iron, copper, and zinc are mined instead. The miners work in small groups and get to keep whatever profits they make for themselves, after the government takes its cut. In exchange for the large amount of money the government makes through taxing the miners, they provide medical benefits to the miners when they get Fibrosis (Black Lung Disease). There is a catch, though: 90% of a miner's lungs have to be blocked before he can receive his benefits. Usually this happens after about ten years of working in the mines, and it means that the miner has about a year to live.

The miners know about the health risks their job brings, so why do they still choose to work in the mines? Money, of course! The average salary in Bolivia is less than 500 boliviano's per month, but most miners make over 2000 boliviano's per month. On top of that, they don't need any special skills, including being able to speak Spanish (many of the miners are Quechua-speaking Indians), to land a job. Mining is an addictive profession in which people try to become rich before they die. The richest person in town was once a miner himself, until he found a huge chunk of silver. Every miner knows about this man and hopes to strike it rich, just like he did.

The facts that the miners work independently and have a small chance of becoming wealthy lead to a lot of fights. When large deposits are discovered, different groups often claim the same stake for themselves. Since the miners all have dynamite at their disposal, the fights can turn deadly. A few years ago, six miners were killed in a dynamite fight. It is a deadly profession in more ways than one.

After several hours of learning about the mining process, we were finally ready to step in, but first we had to wait for some miners to exit riding carts full of rocks. They flew by us like they were on an amusement park ride. We started walking in, but quickly had to jump out of the way as another cart soared passed us. We walked forward again, and I began to wonder how our guide knew that there weren't any more on their way. I hadn't even entered the mine, yet I had already seen many of the dangers that it posed.

When I first entered the mine, I actually thought it wasn't too bad. The tunnel was cool, the ceiling was high, and the air was breathable. After about five minutes of walking, however, the conditions worsened dramatically. The ceiling averaged about five feet high, the air got thicker and hotter, and I could only see the small amount of space that my headlamp covered. The entire place smelled of a noxious odor. I began sweating profusely, coughing uncontrollably, and hitting my head on the ceiling constantly. We had to stop a few times to let more carts pass us, after which we entered the museum.

Yes, there was a museum inside the mine. The first thing on display was "Tio," a devil-like character complete with a bottle of liquor and an erect penis. Tio is the only god the miners pray to, and they do so by leaving offerings of coca leaves and cigarettes at his feet. The rest of the museum was filled with information about the mine. I learned that currently, about 8000 people work there, 1000 of whom are children. The number of workers has increased in recent years because the price of minerals has risen, driving salaries upward. I also found out about the 1942 rebellion, during which several miners asked for higher wages and were subsequently shot by the government. I guess unionizing never caught on in Bolivia.

When we were done visiting the museum, we continued deeper into the bowels of the mine. We had to crawl through a tiny space and shimmy up to a clearing, where we saw a miner emptying large containers of rocks that were sent up a shaft via a pulley system from 65 meters (213 feet) below. Every minute or so, a new container weighing more than 200 kilograms (441 pounds) appeared, the man stood on a narrow ledge, and he tipped the container over into a hole that led directly to one of the carts that exited the mine. This would be his job for three weeks before rotating to a new position within the group. We watched him work for about ten minutes, gave him a large bottle of soda, and continued to our next stop.

We crawled through another tiny space down to the second level and took a break. I inquired about the colorful substance growing on the ceiling and was told that it was a combination of arsenic and other poisons. I guess that would also explain the horrible smell. The miners have to breath that stuff in every day of their short lives.

Next, we had to crawl up a dirt hill to the drilling area. It got so loud and dusty as I neared the top, I didn't know if I could make it all the way up. Finally, I reached the top in a ball of sweat. I frantically tried to get air into my lungs, but it was practically impossible. Doing physical activity at 4100 meters (13,450 feet) in an area polluted with arsenic isn't very conducive to healthy breathing.

Eventually, my breathing slowed and I was able to take in my surroundings. The drill was not water-cooled, and there was no ventilation, so it was horribly hot and dusty in the entire area. I couldn't even see my feet. The drillers wrapped t-shirts around their faces for protection, but I don't think it helped much. They let me do a bit of drilling, but I couldn't handle it for more than a minute or so. Finally, we gave the miners a Completo and some soda, then we crawled back down to the previous area and began our decent to the third level.

This time, there was a ladder on the way down, but it wasn't much better than crawling. "The second rung is dodgy," someone ahead of me said. Sure enough, the second rung was barely attached, but the guy forgot to mention that the third, forth, and fifth rungs were dodgy as well.

When we got to the third level, I learned that we were at the bottom of the same shaft we had previously seen with the guy emptying rocks into carts. Two guys shoveled rocks into a container and sent it up to the top. After a few minutes, a huge cart that had to be pulled by four men showed up and its contents were dumped onto the ground. I was then given the opportunity to shovel the rocks into the container. It was so hot, I got tired rather quickly. I couldn't imagine doing that for a living.

When we were ready to go back up, our guide gave the miners the rest of our gifts, including the liquor. As expected, one of the miners claimed that it was water and slammed down a bunch of it. He then passed it around for us to try. I can definitely confirm that it wasn't water. Several of the other tourists and our guide also drank some of it. Of course, since each of us left our offerings to "Pachamama," or Mother Earth (the Quechua equivalent of leaving "one for my homies"), we didn't actually drink enough to do any major damage.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, we crawled, shimmied, and climbed our way back to the top of the mine. As we approached the exit, I was finally able to breath freely again. The light at the end of the tunnel was the greatest sight I had seen in a long time. I was only in the mine for two hours, but it was enough for me. I couldn't imagine working there for a lifetime.

We still had one task to do before leaving the area: blow up our personal stash of dynamite. Two guides each grabbed a Completo and took a few minutes to rig up the dynamite with the catalyst and fuse. After my guide lit his fuse, he put the dynamite in his mouth and flexed his muscles. After having his fun, the guide took the lit dynamite a safe distance away. Suddenly, I heard two huge explosions and saw the subsequent plumes of smoke. Mining is a dangerous job, one I'm sure glad I don't have to do.

When I finally got back to my hostel, I immediately jumped into the shower. It was one of the greatest showers of my life. I then took my dirty mining clothes directly to the lavanderia. At last, I was clean from the dirt and toxins of the mine. The "tour" was awful, but I'm glad I did it. Ten years from now, when I'm having a bad day sitting at my desk, I'll think to myself, "At least I don't have to work in the mines of Potosí."

At night, I got together with Katrina, an Australian girl from my tour, Chris, her boyfriend, and Guy, from London, who happened to be staying in the same dorm room with us. We went out to a long dinner where many discussions about the mine developed. Chris, Katrina, and I will go to Uyuni tomorrow afternoon to try and book a tour of the the nearby salt flats. They want to do a three-day tour and end in Chile, but I'm not quite ready to leave Bolivia yet, so I'm going to do a four-day tour and end back in Uyuni. Because of the differences in our plans, I don't yet know if we will end up going on the same tour or not.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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One thought on “Potosí­ Mines

  1. Slip

    Your shameless self promotion worked.

    Successful blog entrys are:
    a) informative
    b) thoughtful
    c) concise

    This entry is indeed informative. Going to a mine is original and something that people usually do not think to do.

    It would have been great to have seen a conversation/exchanges with a miner or some of the other locals.

    Keep 'em coming.

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