Thursday, 21 November 2013

Potosi and the most dangerous mine in the world.

I know, I know. It's been a couple of years since the last post but better late than never eh? eh? Guys........

Potosi is a city famous for two things; being one of the highest cities in the world and being the city that boasts the most dangerous working mine on the planet. Established in 1545 its makeshift tunnels have been the cause of over 5 million deaths. From collapses and overwork by the Spanish during its long colonial past and the catastrophic lung complaints that nearly 100% of workers currently excavating the silver and other minerals in its depths will certainly die of before the age of 45.

We arrived in Potosi, breathless from the altitude (4090m above sea level) and the white knuckle ride along the Cliffside tracks that constitute the majority of the Bolivian road  network. The driver, obviously unhappy at the lack of excitement during the journey made a last ditch attempt to plough into a car as he swung the bus into the station but thankfully the other driver was on point and swerved wildly into oncoming traffic to avoid him. No harm done.

Potosi is a nice city, a mixture of colonial churches, plazas and the more modern single storey brick dwellings the majority of Bolivians call home with what looks like a giant hill looming ominously over the city. This hill it turns out is a veritable ant colony of brittle tunnels and dangerous silica where the vast majority of Potosi's inhabitants make a living by collecting silver and various other minerals used in mobile phone and laptop production.

We shuffled around the city for a while before booking our guided tour into the mine for the next morning. Despite having more or less acclimatised to the altitude by now it felt like we had the fitness levels of a morbidly obese 75 year olds as we crawled up and down the hills of the city. It did not bode well for the visit to the mine the next day, where oxygen in the tunnels would fall to dangerously low levels, muscled out by the cancer causing properties of the silica dust blowing in clouds throughout.
The tour started with a visit to the local market to pick up gifts for the miners. Bottles of 96% alco puro and sticks of dynamite as well as bags of coca leaves to combat the effects of altitude and stave off hunger for the duration of their 16 hour shifts. Dynamite in hand we went to change into the overalls and hard hats we'd be wearing for our journey to the centre of the earth.
'Do we have masks?' another tourist asked. 'No' answered the guide. Nervous looks were exchanged as we wrapped scarves around our faces and boarded the bus that would take us to the entrance.
The entrance itself did little to dispel the nerves as we arrived up to its crumbling threshold. It was at this point that two women decided it wasn't for them and made their way back to the bus with horrified looks on their faces. As you can see here it most certainly does not look too appealing to the claustrophobic.
As we entered, the air immediately became stiflingly hot and the scarves we'd tied across our nose and mouth did nothing to help our breathing. We pulled them down and instantly started coughing as a rush of dust was inhaled into our lungs. The capful of 96% alcohol we'd ingested at the market burned reassuringly in our empty stomachs as the passageway continued to narrow.
After crawling on hands and knees for a while we reached a hole barely big enough to squeeze my shoulders through. our guide pointed to it with a big grin on his face. Three more women decided to opt out at this point and were escorted back to the entrance. One of them was crying.
As we descended, so did the oxygen levels, we were to go to level 4 in the mine. The deepest was level 17. I cannot even imagine how unpleasant it must have been down there as it was already pretty horrible where we were, as you can probably tell by the state of me in this photo.
We continued through the mine, tunnels opening out into large caverns where kids as young as 14 were pulling bags of rocks up to the surface by hand on a dangerous looking pulley system rigged up to the unstable rock formations. They were there working during the school holidays apparently. Although once their legal responsibility with the state education system ended, they would certainly join the co-operative that all the miners belong to. The guide informed us that if you managed to work down here for 15 years you could retire on a pension funded by the co-operative but that by that time, even if you make it to 15 years, you are almost guaranteed to have a terminal lung complaint.
Imagine a such a lack of options that you had to, knowingly, shorten your life by 20 years just so that you could afford to feed your family. The workers in the mine do earn almost double the average wage in Bolivia so you can understand why so many make the decision to work there. Whether or not double the money is worth it, is a different question altogether.
Because of the omnipresent danger that working in this mine exposes the workers to, they are a spiritual and superstitious bunch. Walking and crawling kilometres through the mines' tunnel network to visit statues of 'uncle' or 'tio' as they call him. Tio is a representation of the devil that gets the blame for the horrors that happen so often so deep underground.  Cigarettes, bags of coca leaves and miniature bottles of spirits surround the crudely constructed monument whose proud triangular penis pointed upwards as though seeking out the light so far above.
We were only underground for a couple of hours, an eighth of the standard shift worked by the miners, but we got an insight into what must surely be some of the worst working conditions that human beings have to suffer anywhere in the world. It really was an eye opener. So thoroughly unpleasant. And how much money do you think makes it worthwhile to endure these conditions? Roughly 10 of your English pounds.
Next stop, La Paz