Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Mines of Potosi

After our jeep trip across the Atacama desert to Uyuni in Bolivia, on a whim we headed directly to Potosi. The JeTZ were temporarily upgraded to a team of 4 as we were not yet ready to part from our fellow jeep travelling companions Marissa and Byron.

Potosi is claimed to be the highest city in the world (even higher than La Paz). We are not sure if that claim is true, but in any case it is located at an oxygen deprived altitude of 4070m above sea level.

Potosi is famous for 'cerro rico', or 'rich mountain', whose silver deposits practically bank rolled the Spanish empire between the mid 1500s and about 1800. In Spanish the name Potosi is synomous with wealth. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Bolivia there is very little evidence in their daily lives to show for the fortuity of living adjacent to one of the world's greatest mineral deposits.

Today the silver deposit is largely depleted, and the miners extract tin and other resources from a catacomb of unregulated mines that make the cerro rico appear to be one enormous rabbit warren.

The first stop on a tour of the Potosi mines is at the miner's market. In the centre of the market is a 'workers of the world unite' type statue, with the communist hammer and sickle customised for Bolivia with a rifle and jack hammer. Today the miners work in small collectives, so they own their own equipment which they buy at the market. Tourists can also buy presents, such as coca leaves and soft drinks for the miners.

Here our guide is explaining how he was lucky to be injured after a couple of years of work in the mines and now work as a guide rather than a labourer. He also explained how his burdens have been increased by an unexpected pregnancy. His salient advice: never use a condom made in the USA!

So after impressing on us the woes of the miners, our guide had convinced us to buy some presents to give to the miners we were to meet later. It did not take too much convincing for Jez to purchase some dynamite. Our guide told us we could buy dynamite for ourselves or the miners. At that moment we werent sure why we would need any dynamite for ourselves, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

We were a tad surprised that the dynamite sticks, the ammonium nitrate fertaliser pellets, the fuse and detonator were handed over in a shopping bag as if we had bought them from a grocery store! Here our guide is explaining the difference between three different types of dynamite. Apparently Peruvian dynamite is best, in case you need to know.

Here we are, The JeTZ, a guide, and Marissa and Byron, all kitted up, and ready to descend into the mines. The smiles might have been a little more strained had we known what we were about to experience.

In the first level of the mine there was a museum describing the history of cerro rico. Here we learnt about the atrocious working conditions. Even today, children as young as 10 work in conditions better suited to the 1700s. Incidentally, there is an award winning documentary about the child miners in Potosi called ´The Devil´s Miner´.

In the colonial era the native Indian work force was decimated by disease and the work conditions and was replaced by imported Negro slave labour. Today the Bolivian workers have a short life expectancy, typically dying in their 40s from silicosis.

There were also several life size figurines. This one is 'El Tio' or 'The Uncle'. The workers shower him with gifts of cigarettes and coca leaves and in return he apparently keeps them safe. We are not sure how he manages to do that, but maybe there is a clue in the size of El Tio's phallus.

As we descended deeper into the mine the dust and the lack of air and the claustrophobia started to become overwhelming. We turned to the local remedy, chewing coca leaves, for some relief. Here I am trying my best to imitate the workers, who strip the leaf from its stem with their teeth, and deposit the substance in their cheeks. This half masticated bolus is then 'activated' by chewing a small piece of ilucta (a chalk like substance prepared from lime stone and the ashes of a native plant).

The process of activation helps you produce saliva and to release the theraputic elements of the coca leaves. Overall its not a custom that we expect to take off within the institution of high tea at The Ritz, but it is apt for the mines of Potosi.

We continued to descend to the third level of the mine. By this stage things had started to get pretty uncomfortable, as it felt that all the air had been replaced by dust, the ladders were death traps, and the tunnels became so tight that Jez could barely negotiate them with his enormous muscular frame. To top it off our guide had started to become visibly agitated. It did not set us at ease to learn the reason for his agitation. We were approaching 5pm, or the 'blasting hour' when the daily charges of dynamite would be detonated.

Crawling on our hands and knees we finally made it to these workers, deep in the mine. By this stage I was going through cycles of counting to 10 in order to put aside the panic that was rising in my throat. TZ helped put things in perspective when she turned to me at one particularly tight point, with an unprotected shaft dropping away on one side, and a pool of mucus freshly deposited by a worker with silicosis on the other, and said ´you owe me a manicure when we get out of here´!

Here TZ is reminding me that she wasnt joking about the manicure.

After a few moments to recover from our ordeal (for us a trip into the mine was a physical and psychological trauma, without even picking up a shovel) we discovered the purpose of our dynamite. Our guides prepared the sticks by inserting the fuse and detonator, and then putting the sticks inside the shopping bags with the fertaliser pellets. It was now time to pose with the lit explosives as the fuse quickly disappeared. Notice that while Jez is very conscientiously holding his lit fuse away from the dynamite, TZ is playing dare-devil and letting the lit end come perilously close to the explosives!

Moments after these photos were taken our guides snatched the dynamite from our hands and ran off into the hills. We watched with racing hearts and rolling video camera as the guide made a hasty getaway and then BLOODY-KABOOM the earth shook.

In the aftermath your trusty video camera operator realised that in the shock of the explosion that the stop button had inadvertently been pressed at the moment of truth. The mushroom cloud will live on only in our memories!

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