The gateway to hell.....
Leaving behind the colonial granduer of Sucre then and moving on to Potosi which was a mere 2 hour taxi ride away and at 30Bs each not a bad bargain either.....although leaving behind my travel towel on the back window meant it cost significantly more!
So the 5 of us who had been hanging out together in Sucre made it on to Potosi - me, Hayley, Caroline, Gemma and Veronico with the intentions of doing the trip into the mines and that's just what 4 of us did, with Veronico who had been before assuring us that it really wasn't that bad.......yeah right! If suffocating dust and holes in the floor dropping 2 or 3 levels without any kind of safety at all is your idea of easy then so be it!
A little bit more about the city and the mines then.....Potosí is the capital of the department of Potosí in Bolivia. It is at an altitude of 3967 meters and is claimed to be the highest city in the world. It lies beneath the Cerro Rico ("Rich mountain"), a mountain of silver ore and was one of the places plundered most by the spanish, so much so that it is said that the wealth generated here was what drove the industrial revolution in Europe. Its rumoured that a million souls have perished there over the last 300 years - beginning with the natives and then added to by African slaves brought over to work the mines. Why then would you want to go in and see for yourself then? For me a large part of it was actually seeing in person what these men and boys do every day of their lives to support their families, and what is it that decreases their average life expectancy to only 40 years old?
Starting the day early we went to be kitted out with protective trousers and a jacket (to keep most of the dust out...), a hard hat and a torch powered by a battery belt. That was that then! Then off to the miners markets to buy some supplies to take as gifts to the miners - this was an actual working mine that we were going down and the gifts were a way of saying thanks for letting us interrupt your work as we make our way past you. The gifts consisted of soft drinks, chocolate, coca leaves, hydroglycerin and dynamite - yes you read that correctly....dynamite. Enough to start a small war.
After that shopping trip time to make it into the mines, our group consisted of 8 people, 1 guide and 1 helper who's purpose was to take anyone out should they be overcome by dust, claustrophobia or sheer panic and fear. Going in the first hundred yards what strikes you is the dust and that's at ground level where the air is cleanest, then its the darkness. The further in you go the lower the ceiling becomes and the tighter the shafts so you spend your time either permantly hunched over or crawling on your hands and knees. Running through the middle are the tracks on which the carts are pushed manually by 1 or 2 miners to take the 'completo' out - that is the raw material blown or picked from the walls and loaded onto the carts after being hauled up through openings in the floor from up to 4 levels below. At the first level and half an hour in we had our first person give up and be led out - a strapping man from Sweden who just couldn't take any more. After that we descended through holes in the ground to the 2nd, 3rd and then the 4th levels all the while hacking away and stopping to rest every 5 minutes or so as it was so difficult to breathe through the choking dust, it felt like alking through treacle. Added to this was the attempts at avoiding the cables running along the walls as they were carrying live electricity and then you're having fun!
Mining is hereditary amongst the men of families. Father take their sons into the mines when they are as young as eight years old to be errand runners. Miners have a very short life expectancy with silicosis being the usual cause of death but having a lot of help from accidents, and the hard living that accompanies the lifestyle outside the mines.
How these men and boys, some as young as 12 years old can do this every day is unbelievable and somewhat heartbreaking - everywhere you look are the blank stares of the miners as they chew their coca leaves (believed to make a person immune to thirst, hunger and physical pain) and occasionally groups sitting down resting sharing the local brew of 98% alcohol - anything that takes the edge of the harshness.
The guides were excellent and most informative of what was happening, the history of the area, mining, and descibing the every day life of a miner and his family, being ex-miners themselves they were clearly knowledgable. Our guide at the age of 25 had already spent 11 years working down the mines with a further year as a guide. Whilst Bolivia lacks the infrastructure and clear directives from government this will continue as long as there are mines to mine and the country's wealth will continue to be eroded. Sad but true. I definitely recommend this as a way to see how the people here truly live - a very effective eye opener for all.
Now onto the fun part! That evening we were accompanied out on the town by Pedro, one of the guides who wanted an opportunity to improve his english in a social situation......so off we trotted to the Devils Bar, frequented by the miners and friends although on this particular night we were pretty much the only ones there. The drink of choice was a fairly potent Bolivian concoction served hot - no idea what the name is but not bad all the same! That of course led to calls to find another karaoke bar and continue our tour of the top singing spots in Bolivia - that brought us to the american bar....oh dear....but away we went and karaokied the night away with Pedro whispering in my ear that he really liked me and he wanted me to stay with him! So whilst Lady in Red was being crooned by the other 3 laughing their heads off at my utter dismay I had to let him down gently and let him know that there was no future for us together (bearing in mind that we had met only 4 hrs before and that I didn't have the intention of staying in Potosi!). Shortly after it was time to head for the hills and say goodnight - have to say it was a pretty amusing trip home with me being the cause of most of the piss taking! Bitches! Time to hit the road again the next morning - next destination was to be Uyuni and the Salt Flats.