Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Potosi - Bolivia

The route to Potosi was stunning, yet the town could only be reached once the strong men of Bolivia with the assistance of a young man from Jersey pushed a less fortunate broken down bus off to the side of the road so that ours and others could pass, not an easy task on an upward slope at altitude!  The main draw for the town of Potosi is the silver mine, a massive but deadly employer alleged to have claimed the lives of over eight million people.  This death toll is in the most part owing to the original conquistadors upon discovering the quality and amount of silver held within, forced the indigenous workers to work without pay and in torrid conditions.  Even today the life expectancy of a perfectly healthy man entering the mines is only ten years.   Accidents are frequent for various reasons.  Metal carts which weigh a ton even when empty career through the tunnels with no breaks and there isn’t always a place to get out of their way.  Collapses occur from beams unable to support the above weight, dynamite explosions occur after an original unsuccessful detonation requires a miner to revisit the placement.  Yet the most common killer like most things in life is the slow one, the gradual inhalation of harmful particles from working long shifts day in day out leading to acute silicosis, the lungs fill with fluid leading miners to the point of coughing up blood and eventual death from ‘the black lung’. 
Against all these risks the mine offers the potential of wealth, albeit not much in comparison to its earlier mineral content as today only two kilograms of silver are retrieved per one hundred tons of extracted ‘ore’ compared to two hundred kilograms in the times of the Spaniards occupation which made Potosi the once upon a time wealthiest town in the world, more so that Paris and Rome.  According to a documentary we watched on our first evening there are still over eight hundred children working in the mine today despite the risks.  We would be visiting the mine ourselves and spending two hours often in space only big enough to crawl through and dodging carts the next day.
They couldn't have done it without me

Owing to the industrial nature of the town we didn’t expect much.  We were therefore more than pleasantly surprised when the vibrancy of the place emerged on that first evening as a young marching band paraded through the plaza.  There were things going on until quite late, but we were getting up early to do the tour of the mine that we had booked with a company called Koala.  We took a short bus ride to the depot where we would be gearing up with our wellies, trousers, overcoat, miner’s helmet and receive a short briefing from our assigned guide Danny.  Dressing would be difficult as the temperature of the mine differentiates to a large extent depending on where in the mine you are.  A knackered old bus then took us to the miner’s market where it was a custom for those taking tours to make a further contribution to the miners in addition to their small cut from our one hundred boliviano fee (about nine quid). 

The marching band in town

At the miners market our guide began by talking to us about the dynamite that was for sale, initially throwing it to the floor in demonstration of the stability of its properties yet fairly disconcerting all the same.  For about two pound you could buy the dynamite, ammonium nitrate and black powder fuse which of course we did.  We also purchased some all-important coca leafs both for ourselves and to hand out to help combat the effects of fatigue, altitude sickness and suppress hunger and thirst.  Finally we bought a large soft drink and some of the hand rolled cigarettes that were on offer.  Before we left we tried (although didn’t purchase) a liquor of over ninety percent potency that the miners drink and offer to the devil of the mine, named Tio (introduced by the Spanish dictators to instill fear, the indigenous Bolivians didn’t have a ‘D’ in their alphabet therefore the literal translation of ‘Diablo’ meaning devil couldn’t be used) of whom they have a statue smothered with various offerings in return for productivity and safety.

Kate gearing up for the mine the next day

On the bus up to the miner's market

Kate holding the dynamite and other essentials

On we drove to the refinery where the silver is extracted from the ore sold by the miners.  It was a mish mash of machinery clunking away doing various processes like some kind of ‘Heath Robinson’ invention although each process had its purpose.  At one particular machine our guide showed us the silver residue that was produced at this stage.  Ducking under wires and walking along a boardwalk we saw many machines and vats, some were surprisingly still made only of wood and others looked like they had been patched together extremely haphazardly.  Kate and I had been filling our gobs with coca leaves since the miner’s market and had now acquired a pretty good ball of mush in the cheek as required in order to eventually get enough of the chemical properties.  I had hidden the cigarettes and this proved to be a good idea because as soon as the workers saw the bag of coca leaves they began demanding some two handfuls at a time.  Outside, the silver extraction process continued as did the ravaging of our coca leaves at which point the guide relived us of the bag and handed out the lot to a group of miners who were hanging around the plant.

Me holding coca leaves and traditional cigarettes

The silver ore processing plant

Some silver ore taken from a later stage of the process

Our guide handing out our coca leaves to some workers

During a further hill climb in our rickety bus we bit into some of the alkali substance required to release the properties of the coca that help to combat altitude sickness.  We briefly stopped for a viewpoint opportunity before the bus lead us to the entrance to the mine.  Danny gathered all our gifts into a cloth sack and we gaped at this dark entrance, the outside spattered in the blood from cumulative llama sacrifices done whenever productively is low.  Alas it was time to enter, so we turned our headlamps on and began our decent into the abyss!  The first part wasn’t overly uncomfortable, the air was still quite fresh and the ceiling wasn’t very low although it was still necessary to keep your head down and dodge the odd half collapsed beam now and again.  We stopped and gathered together just before the going was about to get a bit tougher.  We were to be crawling down a small gap on a steep slope and two people from our group of eight decided that they had had enough and dropped out at this point. 
Here Danny held an interesting question and answer session and provided us with some information about the history of the mine, much of my previous explanation coming from what he told us.  He also told us when asked that he had worked in the mine for around two and a half years and that his poor farther still did to this day owing to previous unsuccessful ventures.  Talk time was over and we needed to get our bums through this small tunnel.  I decided to go at the front just behind Danny for the extra psychological boost that I couldn’t stop, panic or want to turn around because the other guys were behind me.  It wasn’t too physically challenging but the key was to move through without dragging any limbs against any surfaces as this would generate a lot of dust and whilst many of us had masks or scarves to help filter it out, it made it more difficult to breath as the air quality reduced the further in we went.
Zoolander poses at the entrance to the mine

Entering the tunnels

The first stopoff before things got a little tight!

The hole we descended into

Stopping for a break

Having my photo taken with dust mask

The tunnel opened into a more manageable area where we could stand upright again.  It was here that we ‘helped’ a couple of miners out by shoveling some of the silver ore off the cart rails to stop any derailment.  Further on we came across a group of miners using an electric winch to haul up the ore in heavy pots before the pot would be sent cascading down again with little warning.  On we went and we soon had our first cart to dodge.  I couldn’t hear anything but Danny raised the alarm at which point it was every man for themselves scrambling to find a nook in the side of the tunnel wide enough to push your body up against and wait for the metal monster to clunk past.  There were three miners to each brakeless cart and they were jovial as they raced past us saying a quick ‘hola’ on the way.  The ceiling of the mine tunnels was often covered in strange minerals including some green stuff that was said to be arsenic.  Things were hotting up and we had to wait to advance up into a small area as a tourist had fainted and needed some space to get out.  After he made it out we clambered up to another area which was using an electric winch, this time to haul an ore carrying cart up a steep slope.

Miners stopping for a break

Stepping to the side to allow a cart to pass

It so happened that the cart came off the rails whilst we were there, the wheel requiring some attention.  Whilst this was going on we could chat to the winch operator who mentioned that he was doing this less labour intensive job owing to having a problem with his lungs.  There was also a fifty five year old man working his ass off shoveling ore down an opening to his colleagues below.  In this small space dominated by the cart in need of repair there were three holes leading to lower parts of the mine that needed avoiding!  At this point it was so hot that many people took their tops off including our guide who couldn’t help but lend a hand to these hard workers and help shovel some ore.  Once the wheel was fixed, the heavy cart was unleashed down the steep shaft with no warning which raised a lot of heartbeats in the room.

The winch operator

The tunnel that the cart hurtled down

Fixing the wheel

It was nice to get out of that room and continue our cart dodging and miner visiting opportunities in a cooler climate.  Danny took us to the fabled ‘Tio’ of this mine, the idol worshipped by the miners as soon as they are inside.  Outside they are Catholics but this was the world of the devil.  Offerings were evident all around the statuette.  It was now time to start making our way out.  For a little experiment we all turned off our lights to see how easy it was to negotiate the mines, the bottom line being that is was extremely difficult indeed.  Arms on shoulders and heads cautiously lowered we made slow progress in the complete darkness until some caved in and needed to turn on their lights again.  It soon became as cold in these tunnels as it had been warm in the previous ones to the extent of icicles forming from the wooden beams.  Splashing through large puddles of unknown depths and squeezing past miners, daylight eventually emerged in what signified the end of the tunnel.  We were all relieved to be out but had greatly enjoyed the experience and had established a new found respect for those who called this place their workplace day in day out.

Hanging out with the devil 'Tio'

Icicles on the way out

A planned protest erupted onto the streets around the plaza where we were passing the time after the tour on the third of August.  Kate was on the phone at the time and I went out to take photographs, by the time I came back the shutters on the telephone kiosk shop were down as were many other shops along the street.  I knew that Kate would be safer indoors anyway!  The march seemed peaceful enough aside from the demonstrative chanting and fists in the air that usually accompany such events.  Even so there was an element of uncertainty, as though it could suddenly turn nasty with so much palpable tension.  People here are very passionate and history tells us time and time again that it really doesn’t take much for these things to turn sour.  Some people didn’t seem so happy to having their photo taken (I’m not sure why surely the point is to be noticed?) but most people weren’t fussed, I was even asked to join in by more than one person to which I replied the march was for them and not for me.  So what was the march about? I believe there were a few reasons, but the general statement was that Senor Evo Morales, the president had not resolved issues surrounding mine ownership along with an uncompleted road and other broken promises.    After doing a loop of a few blocks the marchers settled in the plaza, some on the steps of the large church which is the focal point of the area.  Fireworks were being let off by yet more marchers who were emerging even when there was already a large presence from those who had originally set off from the square and were now congregating by the church.  

Monument in the plaza

The protestors

Female protestor in traditional clothes

The protestors congregating in the plaza

We made our way back to the hostel where we were sharing a triple room with Gaëlle when we had seen enough, having eaten we were heading home when yet another group burst out onto the plaza dancing and singing in this crazy country.  They were promoting a children’s festival, kind of like a circus but the whole thing was totally bizarre.  There were girls dressed as naughty nurses and doctors holding raw meat and people dressed in spurm costumes accompanied by a marching band?!  It had been a great experience and we were to head to the Provincial capital of Sucre the next day.

The day ended with a party in the plaza

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