Food Poisoning: the two words that pretty much sum up my last few days in Bolivia. A failed attempt to visit hot springs in a nothing hole called Oruro (This place rivals Cambodia’s town of Strung Treng for places with nothing to do: minus the garbage market and the matching pajamas) I ended up on an overnight bus to Sucre with screaming babies, NO bathroom and food poisoning… I destroyed several bathrooms in a hostel with no functioning water system during the day, spent two full days in bed, and have nothing worthy to report on the otherwise aesthetically pleasing capital city. Then, we worked our way to Potosi.
Potosi is the highest city in the world (with a population over 100 000) at an elevation of 4060m above sea level. The altitude is so intense, that just walking one block at a slight incline left both of us breathless. One girl we met said she nearly passed out brushing her hair one morning! We’ve been at a lot of high elevation in Bolivia, but Potosi is where I really noticed the physical difficulties.
The city is really quite beautiful. Settled in brown hills with very little vegetation, Potosi’s streets are colourful and quaint! The place has gorgeous stone churches that light up at night, and funky pubs that cater to tourists with excellent cuisine. But what Potosi is really known for is it’s mining industry. Potosi’s mountains are full of minerals including tin, iron and lots of silver; thus resulting in huge mining cooperatives. Anyone in Potosi can get a job in the mines; in fact, it’s a hugely family oriented career. Parents pass down mining techniques and knowledge to their sons and grandsons for generations, working long, hard hours for their wages. The men get paid according to how many tonnes of the minerals they can produce… But at the end of the day, the wage is middle class at best, and the work seems hardly worth it.
Adam and I went on a tour of one of the mines and found the experience to be eye-opening. We suited up in full rubber boots, work pants, a jacket and a helmet with a large headlamp and set out from our hostel. Our first stop was the miner’s market. This is where we bought gifts for the miners we were going to see during the day. We each bought juice and coca leaves, but it was also possible to purchase gloves, clove cigarettes, a moonshine-like alcohol of 98% liquor or dynamite.
Once we had bought our gifts, we drove onwards towards the mine. The mine that we went to had been in operation since the 1700’s; and I’m pretty sure still had the same safety regulations as when it first opened. Today, there are 150 men working in that particular mine, but there are over 500 separate mines in the one mountain. The men work in small teams, or individually within the mine: each collecting his own profit and or splitting it among the group of 4 or 5. Their workday is minimum 8 hours a day, 6 days a week: although often some men work up to 12 hours a day. The work is tough to say the least. Long hours of heavy labour with no food or sunlight all day long. The only thing the men consume while on duty is coca leaves and juice. Food is said to be bad for the digestive system down in the mines because of the amount of dust that is around. Some men chew so many coca leaves that they have permanently stained black teeth, and have large, permanent lumps on the side of their face from where they’ve had coca stored for so many years.
We walked as a group into the entrance of the mine to begin our two-hour decent. The entrance tunnel was dark, dusty, and filled with ankle-deep water most of the way. You had to hunch over to be able to walk, and electrical wires and oxygen tubes ran along the ceiling of the tunnel. You could constantly hear dripping water and leaking oxygen as you walked along, and frequently we would all have to press ourselves against the cold rock walls to let men with carts speed past along makeshift rails. This mine went down 4 different levels, and men worked on all of them.
We began our tour by descending to the 3rd level and talking with 2 miners. One was named “Jimmy Morrison” and the other was his eldest son. It was immediately apparent that there was no easy way down the levels. We scrambled through tiny holes that were barely large enough for a body, crawled through short tunnels, and traversed our way down the side of a rock wall with only a rope to hold on to (the rope was only used for tourists, the miners apparently just scamper their way around effortlessly without). At the bottom, we briefly chatted with Jimmy Morrison’s son. He was a twenty-year-old kid who had diligently worked along side his father in the mines for the past 5 years! Since he was 15, he’d spent minimum 48 hours a week, down in the mines, chewing on coca and digging away for silver and tin. By 20, he was an expert in setting up dynamite explosions, and extracting minerals with small hand tools. This boy looked way beyond his years. Although he was very shy, I never would have guessed that he was only 20 by the way he talked about his job and moved about the mines. It was incredible, and kind of sad, knowing that he was destined to a life of darkness at such a young age. We gave him a large bottle of peach juice and a bag of coca leaves and let him continue with his work. There’s no money made in taking breaks in this trade…
So we continued exploring the mines, our adorable little female guide leading the way effortlessly through the maze of tunnels. We arrived in a cavern with a large, rock statue with horns, which was covered with small offerings. This was the god of the miners: Satan. Because the miners work underground, where there is no light, they worship the devil so that he will protect them in his realm of the underworld. The statue was creepy to say the least, with a snarling face, painted red, large horns, sitting in the darkness on a ledge in a cave. The effigy was covered in small offerings from the miners. Coca leaves, cigarettes, small bottles of alcohol and such covered the statue from head to toe. As well, little colourful flags were found covering the devil, and the room that we were sitting in. The flags were from Carnival. Every year the miners celebrate Carnival, just like the rest of South America. But they do it at work! They dance, bring booze and decorate their workspace with colourful flags for the day to celebrate! Even the tourists that come on that day join in with the festivities, and party alongside the miners.
After we stared down the hardened face of the devil for a while, we continued upwards, and deeper into the mine to visit an old man named Pablo, who had worked in the mines for 36 years. We squeezed our way through tiny openings, scrambled upwards, practically digging our fingernails into the dirt walls to shimmy along, and made it to a larger opening a few stories up. There we found Pablo, a huge and jolly miner digging away with his bare hands in a tiny hole that he’d been working on for god knows how long. How this man fit through the holes we had just squeezed through is beyond me! But he was nice enough to take a break, sit down, and talk to us about his life as a miner.
Pablo came from a long line of miners. His father was a miner, his grandfather was a miner, and his great grandfather was a miner. Pablo himself had 10 children, 5 girls and 5 boys, and 2 of his sons worked with him in the mines while the rest went to university to learn other trades. Pablo is 51 years old and has been working in the same mine since he was 15 years old. He really enjoys it! He says it’s a great job for families. Sometimes, when his sons have a day off at school they come to visit him in the mines while he works. They get to catch up on life while he works. It’s mindless work at times, with just a lot of digging to do, so it’s nice to be able to keep up to date with your children’s lives at the same time. They tell stories while he listens and digs; he almost makes it sound idyllic…
But then Pablo reveals the sadder aspects of his job. In the 1970’s they did a count of every man that worked in the mine. There were 200, ranging from the age of 15 and upward. Pablo and his father had worked there then, and were included in the list. These were all people he knew, worked in close proximity with, was friends with some of them. Today, if you look at that same list, only 3 of those men are alive. Pablo revealed this with tears in his eyes as he recalled how each one of his family members and friends had passed away, too young for their years, from some sort of lung cancer, disease or illness as a result of their jobs. At 51, Pablo is an old man for the mines. He wants to retire soon, but his chances of living that much longer are slim anyways. 36 years of inhaling dust and grime and working unprotected around chemicals, explosives and dangerous minerals will take its toll on a body. Luckily, he still gets to spend quality time with his family while he can…. I suppose all jobs have their ups and downs.
Mostly, Pablo works by hand, or with a drilling tool that he managed to acquire over his years in the mines. To make a 1 and a half meter hole by hand takes 1 month. To make that same hole with the hand held drilling tool takes 1 hour. Big difference; however, to rent the machine for one hour is equal to over 1 day’s wage. So for some people this luxury is impossible. The average mining wage is 100 Boliviano’s/ day, or $12CAD. It is $15/hour to rent the machine, and even that is a low-end, hand held device that would be sub par standards around the world. Some men we saw in the mines have newer, more efficient machinery to work with, but mostly those men work together as a team and are able to split the costs. Pablo still uses more traditional techniques, and carries the 75kilo, several feet long, drilling machine into and out of the mine everyday himself. Through snaking tunnels and tiny enclosures: trust me, this seems a nearly impossible feat when you see these tunnels!!
After we all chatted with Pablo it was time to go. We also gave him a portion of our gifts, then headed on our trek out of the mines. Just two hours, trapped in the dusty enclosure of the mines was quite the experience. To see how these men work so hard, everyday, to support their families, even though they understand the consequences of their job, is incredible. The safety standards are completely non-existent, with men wearing jeans and t-shirts into the mine with no safety masks or protection from dust whatsoever. It’s amazing, saddening, and a way of life that I just have to accept I suppose. It was a whirlwind morning in Potosi to say the least. We were out for a nice dinner that evening and onwards to Uyuni the next morning! Three days of trekking in a 4X4 in the South of Bolivia still to come…