Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Mines in Potosi, Bolivia

We stopped at a little mining town called Potosi. It probably wouldn´t like me describing it that way since it was once one of the largest and weathliest cities in the world and still is the highest city in the world at 4090m. We went into the mines guided by a former miner. The conditions are dark, cramped and the air causes most miners to die of silicosis by age 40.

Tradition runs deep in the mines and most of the men that work there (women aren´t allowed, nor is salt, or odd numbers) have literally grown up in the mines. A few we spoke to while we were on our tour explained that they learned everything they know in the mines, especially how to drink. While you must technically be 18 years old to work in the mine, often the boys start as young as 12 because their fathers want them to work on their team.

The mine is run as a co-operative and every man works in a small group in business for themselves. They work six days a week and often do not come out of the mines for 12 hours at a time. All the miners chew coca leaves in order to be able to keep working without having to stop to eat. Chewing coca leaves, which the majority of Bolivians do, provides them with enough energy and vitamins to work long shifts without needing a proper meal. Its quite odd seeing elderly women chew coca as I´m used to mostly redneck toughguys chewing tobacco in the States. Below is a pic of the coca leaves, cigarettes and 98% alcohol that tour groups bring the miners as gifts.

They sell dynamite to anyone with 15Bob´s (about 2 dollars). We bought some and blew it up after the tour.

They pray to the Devil, El Tio, who they believe owns the mine. Here is a statue where they offer him coca leaves and pour alcohol onto him everytime they enter the mine to ask his permission to work there. A few times a year they also splatter blood from the llama they have sacrificed in his honor. The dark splatter above the statue below is the blood! It´s actually really funny to see the miners pour out part of their alcohol or energy drinks in honor of El Tio or PachaMama (mother earth). Its alot like pouring some out for your homies.

We had to climb down several shafts to go lower and lower into the mine where the workers were. It´s literally pitch black dark down there except for where your head torch shines. I asked one of the miners if he was ever scared when he first started mining 25 to 30 years ago. He told me that you have to be a little scared because the Devil plays tricks on you when you are new. He said you hear voices and feel rocks being thrown at you when no one is around and that this is the Devil´s way of testing you.

Here we are talking wih a small team of miners. The two next to Gemma in the first picture are father and son.

It was an amazing experience seeing the conditions these miners have been working in for hundreds of years and where nearly 30,000 slaves died from long hours in the horrible conditions. It was really humbling to see their way of life and how hard they work just to get by. I tried lifting one of the bags of rocks they carry up several "floors" to the mines entrance and honestly could barely lift it off the ground despite my massive biceps.

Our guide informed us that experts are predicticing the mine will run dry in about twenty years leaving the future of Potosi very much in quesiton.

And finally, on a lighter note, I got to see some miners carts. This is what I had envisioned I´d see full of silver and gold flying all over the tracks down in the mines like something out of the Goonies or Indiana Jones. Sadly they were empty and hardly in use.

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