Monday, February 18, 2008

Bolivia: Potosi

Today we landed in Potosi, supposedly the highest city in the world at 4,070 meters (13,300 feet!). Our bus ride was mostly uneventful, save for three tire changes done the old-fashioned way (i.e. no power tools). Our hotel, while lovely, was remarkably Being John Malkovich-esque. Poor Eric must have clocked his noggin` about twelve times.

Potosi has an amazing history, as it was once the richest town in the Americas, and more populous than Paris. That was back in the good ole days of colonialists plundering the rocks for silver. Potosi`s Cerro Rico, literally rich hill, meant decades of wealth in the 15oo´s. African slaves were used, locals were used, basically anyone who could be exploited was, and the town has the gorgeous colonial architecture, stunning cathedral, and impressive historic mint to prove it. These days, people still mine Cerro Rico, but it is subsistence living of the most dangerous variety. Nearly all miners die of black lung within 10 to 15 years of entering the mines, and accidents and cave-ins take at least 20 lives a year. These days nickel and tin are sought after, as the silver appears to be mostly tapped out. The style of mining is little changed since the mountain was first dug into. A handful of miners have escaped the work to become guides for popular tours that lead curious travelers straight into the heart of the mountain to witness the work in progress. And we were curious.

There is all sorts of etiquette, ritual, and preparation that goes into visiting the mines. First we had to suit up with headlamps and protective clothing. Next, we stopped to buy gifts for the miners. As the mines are all cooperatively owned, miners are responsible for buying all of their equipment, and supply shops line the road leading up the mountain. The most popular and appreciated offerings were dynamite, coca leaves (to stave off hunger while working, as you can`t eat in the mines because there`s too much arsenic in the air), and alcohol. The rot gut of choice is a potable 96% grain alcohol. Basically it`s as potent as you can get without killing yourself, and a striking nod to the difficulties of mine work that may need to be forgotten in a drunken stupor. And yes, we tried it.

Gifts of coca leaves and alcohol are also left as offerings to Tio, the devil that oversees the hellish work in the mines. Literally Tio means Uncle in Spanish, but it`s a euphemism for the devil in the mines. While Bolivians are by and large devout Catholics, most miners believe that God leaves them at the entrance to the mine, and they have to pay their respects to the underworld in order to be kept safe in the belly of the earth. During the Miner`s Carnival, a llama fetus is buried at the mine`s entrance, and fresh llama blood is splashed around the entry to appease Tio.

Donning our headlamps, we bow our way into the mouth of the earth, following wagon tracks. The natural light disappears, and the dark wet cold is replaced by hot, narrow, damp passageways, loud with the hissing pipes of condensed air that run down the shafts to power drills far below. We walk briskly, ducking low to avoid chutes, and breathing heavily in the thin smelly air (14,000 ft). We crawl up a narrow chute to watch how they winch up heavy rubber baskets filled with earth from the depths of the mine. Shortly after this point, the claustraphobia, heat, fumes, dust, altitude, and general sissiness conspire to make Kathleen question whether she really needs to venture further into the mine. The answer, after a few more meters of descent and rising panic is no. Luckily the guides are prepared for this, and the incredibly sweet and kind Renaldo leads Kathleen back into the sunshine. Meanwhile, Eric continued down into the depths.

We proceeded down another three levels, sometimes crawling on our hands and knees or working our way down ladders (avoiding at all times the many holes that go so far down you can´t see the bottom). We stopped on the third level to say hello to the miners that were filling the rubber baskets that were being raised to the first level by a motor. We even had a chance to pick up shovels and pitch in to help. The saddest part is seeing the fourteen and sixteen year old kids that were working in this group. We shared some of our gifts and then proceeded to crawl down to the fourth level. Here we found a separate collective of six miners, working only with hand tools, who had to carry whatever they found out with them on their backs. The conditions down here were horrible, it was hot (they did not wear shirts) and it was incredibly hard to see and breathe. No breathable air is forced into the mine, and we were taking in only what came through the small entrance way four levels above and the noxious chemicals and gases, including silica dust, arsenic gas and acetylene vapors among other nasty things. We gave them some dynamite, coca leaves, alcohol, and soda and made our way out as quickly as possible.

While outside, Kathleen chatted with miners on their break. None of whom was shy to ask about how much money we make or how much airplane tickets cost. Questions that we are embarassed to answer in a country where the average annual income is less than $3,000. All things told, the whole experience was eye-opening and valuable. We had the luck of seeing a German documentary on the mines called The Devil`s Miner a few days after our visit that deals with the plight of a child miner. We highly recommend it.

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