Sunday, 13 September 2009

An afternoon down the mines, 5 September 2009

Potosi used to be the richest city in the whole world. It´s hard to believe now, given that the average monthly wage is the equivalent of 120 pounds. The thing that brought wealth to the city back then and that now attracts tourists in droves is the mountain that looms over the city: Cerro Rico.

The story goes that when the Incas came to Potosi they discovered Cerro Rico and when they began to mine the mountain in search of minerals a god appeared and told the Incas that the wealth of the mountain did not belong to them, instead the wealth belonged to people who had not yet arrived on Bolivian soil. Hmmm.. the Spanish!

So, when the Spanish came they found Cerro Rico and began to mine for silver.

Visiting the mines is one of those experiences which leaves you feeling uneasy. By visiting the mines for two hours or so are you simply treating the miners who work incredibly hard in ridiculously atrocious codnitions like animals in a zoo?

It was strange, but I was kind of excited to go and visit the mines. Even though I had to sign my life away before I joined the tour, I think I was ignorantly caught up in a happy little world where I would get to dress up in dirty clothes with a miners hat and head torch. So when we arrived the shock was even more brutal.

It was a Saturday, but there were still a few miners around. Our guide told us that it was not unlikely that some of the miners we would see would have been working for around 20 hours or more in the innards of Cerro Rico.

Before we entered the mountain we went to a laboratory where the minerals were chemically tested and separated from the scum. I say labroartory, it was four bare brick walls full of machinery. Machinery that rattled round at 100mph and was held together with bolts and screws that looked like they would fly off at any moment. I feared for my life, death by stray bolt, as i wandered around the ´lab´.

It was a real eye opener. Health and Safety was clearly not a done thing out here. Our guide said to us ´In Bolivia anything is possible´ and from wandering round you really could see this was the truth.

After carefully walking through the lab I was out again in safe territory looking up at the mountain. I was sickened with myself taht just half an hour before I was excited at the prospect of an afternoon down the mines. Now, I was terrified at what I might find.

It´s a bit sick to say I was excited, but I had heard so much about the mine at Potosi before I got there that I was excited to see what i had heard so much about.

We donned swine flu masks as we entered, the miners who worked inside would have no such luxury. I was glad of the luxury. My nose was instantly filled with dust and I struggled through trying not to touch the live electric cables running to my right, watching where I put my feet so I didn´t trip over any cobbles, and keeping an eye out for any low points in the ceiling which were waiting for me to crack my head on.

We can´t have been inside for more than two minutes before i cracked my hard hat on a protuding beam and sent it flying on the floor. This was the first of many. Damn being tall.

I´m not a claustrophobic person, but I hated being inside. I was the last of our group, with just the assistant behind me, and I would have so liked to have gone back out again straight away. But I couldn´t, I was this far and I wanted to hear the stories of the miners who worked in these close and uncomfortable confines. To turn back less than 500 hundred meters in would just be isnulting.

The group sat in a clearing and our guide(who was also a miner himself)began to explain how the mining cooperatives work, how that mining in Potosi is an occupation passed on through the family, how the miners will work for 12-24 hours without food, just drink and coca leaves. As he reeled off the facts we listened intently. He was a very intuitive guide and despite our swine flu masks that concealed half of our faces he knew that we were depressed as we listened to his accounts of mining life.

´Why are you all so sad? We have a great time in the mines. The first rule of being a miner is to have a good sense of humour. We all have nick names, like llama-f****r, that´s my nick name. We have fun down here, it isn´t a sad place. And when we hit silver it is great.´

All very well, but the last time a significant amount of sivler was found on the mine was in 1992. It seemed pretty futile. But of course the miners mine for other minerals than silver.

Our guide then led us further in the mountain. It was quiet because it was Saturday but eventually we found two mniners.We gave them dynamite, soft drinks and coca leaves. Seeing the conditions, it had been worth it to spare a couple of quid to make this gesture.

We asked questions and watched them pot out the holes which they would soon pack with dynamite.

The most prying question on my mind was how do the miners feel about toruists coming to watch them at work. The response was a positive one. ¨It breaks the monotony to see people, and we appreciate the gifts they bring, it is great to see pretty western women too.´

After around 3 hours we were back out in the open air and breathing easily.

I didn´t know how to feel. I had seen horrific conditions and hard work. But I had heard stories filled with hope, optimism and humour. It was torn.

The guide refused to tell us the death toll when we were inside the mine, but when we were out he told us that only 8 people died a year. Yes, it was a dengerous job, but miners were in the mines from the age of 14 or so and were trained by their fathers so that they knew how to work the mountains.

I left incredibly unsettled by the experience and with a nose that felt completely caked in dust.

That evening I met up with Scott and Rhiannon who had done the mine tour in the morning (my tour had been in the afternoon). They had an altogether different experience.

They had met a miner with 70% balck lung who was working in the mine untill his last breath so that his children would not have to work in such a harsh environment.

They had been told that the mountain was close to collapse because the network of tunnels and passageways were so intertwined and making the mountain fragile.

Scott and Rhiannon´s stories of the mines were shocking. It was strange. I guess my guide was an optomistic guide. One who coudln´t bare to dwell on the reality of life in the mine because such dwellings are counterproductive.

As I write this blog now I still feel uncomfortable about the experience. It was hard hitting. Even without the horror stories that Rhiannon and Scott had heard first hand, what I had seen was pretty brutal. But the humoour and jest that our guide presented the facts with just left me unsettled.

1 comment:

  1. Well done Amy. What an experience, a real eye opener.X