Potosi Mines - A Brief Encounter with the Underworld
by Curley32 on January 21, 2011
Initially, I was not going to do the tour of the Potosi mines in Bolivia. I had many reservations, ranging from personal reasons to moral ones. On a personal level, I am semi-claustrophobic, with a severe dislike of enclosed spaces and places where I cannot stand up fully. I also hate being trapped somewhere where I know that I cannot escape easily or quickly. A volcanic mountain with narrow, low-ceiling walkways that snake to cavernous depths of up to 800 meters is a perfect example of just the kind of enclosed space that I am not going to enjoy.
On a moral level, I disliked the inevitable voyeuristic nature of such a tour. I fully accept and acknowledge that one of the fundamental characteristics of the traveler is that we are voyeurs. We crave to look inside the cultures of other countries, marvel at the differences and embrace the unusual. We are traveling window shoppers, gawking through the lens of our cameras at the lives being conducted beyond the glass. Generally, we maintain a polite distance behind the glass, staring but managing to do so in an unobtrusive way. Sometimes, however, we lean too closely so that we smudge the glass with our grubby fingers and leave clouds of hazy condensation from our hot, heavy breathing. We cross the line between showing interest in the cultures of others and invading their personal space. This is a living, breathing exhibition that we are examining and a certain degree of etiquette and respect needs to be maintained so that we don’t become tourists at a zoo, exclaiming over the exotic animals in their enclosure.
This is what I feared the Potosi mines tour would be, an explicit invasion of and morbid fascination with the hardship of the lives that are living and breathing within this archaic dinosaur. For this is what the Potosi mountain is, a veritable dinosaur in our modern world of high technology mining. The outside world is intrigued by the incredibly basic mining procedures here and come in their enthusiastic droves to witness for themselves the daily, arduous toil of those who work in the mines. Here, men and boys push ton trolleys by hand; use stone age-style chisels and hammers to detect weaknesses and mineral veins in the rock; manually pull on ropes to lever both themselves and their buckets of rock in and out of the mine shafts; and blow up sticks of dynamite in a way not practiced since the roadrunner cartoon aired on children’s Saturday morning television.
Despite these reservations, I went and did the tour. Why? Well, I was in Potosi anyway, as it is the world's highest city, and it was on my way to Uyuni and the salt flats. More compellingly, the hostel I was staying in showed a documentary called "The Devil’s Miners," which is narrated by a 15-year-old boy who was a miner in the mountain. The story he tells is gruesome and deadly, with miners having a life expectancy of only 35, but it is also a fascinating tale of culture and superstition. I was intrigued. It was never going to be an enjoyable experience, but I felt that I would learn more about the psyche of these resilient people if I went into the mine for myself. Also, the tour company is run by ex-miners so all of the money you give stays locally.
Our day began by getting decked out in appropriate mine-exploring clothes. These included hardy rubber gumboots, hard hats with flashlights attached and protective clothing. It is also essential to have your own head scarf that you can use as a face mask as the amount of dust and asbestos floating in the air of the mines will burn your delicate western lungs. The mood was buoyant at this point; everyone delighted in the novelty of this fancy dress and were posing for silly photos all round.
Next stop was the miner’s market, where we went to buy gifts for the miners. Here we collected bottles of juice, bags of coca leaves and dynamite. Yes, we purchased dynamite at the market while dressed as pretend miners. The number of truly bizarre situations you find yourself in as a traveler are endless. Buoyant mood was replaced by nervous humor as all became a little apprehensive about having dynamite along for the bumpy ride. Our final stop before the mountain was to the processing plant near to town. Here the minerals are separated and divided into their individual piles. This company is owned by foreigners, an all too common ailment in Bolivia, a country abundant in natural resources but extremely poor as all the extraction of these resources is done by foreign companies.
It is here that we partake of some 96% clear alcoholic liquid fire that sustains the miners when they are deep down in the mines. Our guide was clear that he wanted us to experience a little of what it is like for the miners, and so this was our first initiation. Needless to say, it burnt my throat like a trickle of hot molten lava coursing down into my stomach, singeing everything along the way. I’m sure this is only meant for removing paint from cars. Getting back in the mini bus, we could see the mountain in the distance, resplendent in hues of rich purple and red. It was hard to imagine hundreds of people milling around inside.
The miners don’t eat during the day. They survive on a diet of cigarettes, coca leaves and 96% alcohol. Each miner steadily works his way through a big bag of coca leaves during the day, chewing and masticating until they have accumulated a golf ball sized ball that they hold in one side of their mouths. Coca leaves are used to combat hunger and fatigue in these harsh conditions. Upon arrival to the mines, I noticed a small group of miners sitting outside behind a shed having a break, all chewing from their own bag of leaves and all smoking cigarettes. I wondered what grim conditions lay ahead that necessitate this stimulant-heavy diet.
Heading into the mines, you immediately entered another world, an underground one where there is no light or fresh air and you can feel the potential danger lurking in the damp crevices. We followed the railway path of the trolleys. It was muddy and wet underfoot, like trudging through a shallow sludgy swamp. The head-torches illuminated the precarious wires overhead, curling and twisting menacingly like strands of Medusa’s hair. Rickety wooden structures lined the way, our guide informing us that these are put in place in potentially dangerous, collapsible areas. It was worrying how frequent they are. The air was cold and wet, and millions of dust particles floated weightlessly in the narrow beam of my torch. Few of the miners wear face masks. I don’t think I would have been able to breathe without mine.
My torch caught a glimpse of some yellow sticky-looking substance on the wall beside me. I was horrified by the guide’s reply when I asked him what it was. "Arsenic," he casually replied as he pulled some off and asked if I would like to hold it. My panicked query as to the danger of such a substance was met with the calm response that it isn’t dangerous if you touch it, only if it goes in your mouth. Did he have any idea how frequently and unconsciously our hands go to our mouths, eyes and nose? As we walked on, I noticed some arsenic on the backpack of the guy in front of me, and I steadfastly vowed to be aware of my hands at all times for the duration of the tour. The tour lasted three hours and, in all that time, I refused to drink any water from my bottle, even though at times I was gasping. I simply could not take the risk of opening the bottle and contaminating it and poisoning myself.
Not only was our journey into the mines daunting, it was arduous as well. Over the course of nearly three hours, we climbed down shafts using ropes and wooden steps or sometimes just our own leverage and crawled on our haunches through narrow holes, all the time listening out for trolleys so that we could step out of the way. These trolleys weigh 200 kgs and carry loads of a ton. Once they are motion, it would be very hard to stop then to let the tourists past. The faces of the men who pushed the trolleys are hard to forget. They were covered in a film of grimy sweat, with bulging but intensely focused eyes and a massive bulge in their cheek where the coca bundle rests.
The further down you go in the mine the hotter it gets, and we were sweating profusely by the time we had descended 30 meters to the little cave where Felizio and two others were working. Miners are working at 800 meters, and I cannot imagine how long it takes them to get down there or how frightening it must be mentally to know that you are that far down beneath untold amounts of crushingly, heavy rock. If anything went wrong, it is highly unlikely that they would get out on time. We sit and chat with Felizio. He is busy using a small chisel and hammer to tap the walls looking for the mineral veins. Once he has located them, they can plan where they will place the dynamite. They blow the walls late in the afternoon. This is so that they can leave it to settle and return to the site first thing in the morning to extract the minerals. It is here, in this tiny, enclosed dead-end that our guide educates us on how to use dynamite, explaining how each of the parts work. I was truly uncomfortable at this point and painfully aware of how stifling it was down there. No fresh air. No light. No easy way out. Many dangers all around. Much potential for disaster.
On the way out, the guide took us on a detour to see the Tio. The Tio is the god of the mines. He is the one who decides the miners' fate. The Tio was created by the Spanish who had commandeered the mines after they invaded Bolivia to force the miners, who had tried to quit working the mines, through fear to continue working. The Spanish understood how the Bolivians believed in gods and, therefore, they manipulated their beliefs to work against them. They originally called him Dio, but the Bolivians couldn’t pronounce the "D" and so it ended up Tio, which means "uncle" in Spanish. What is particularly poignant about this tale is that the Bolivian miners know that the Spanish created this god just to make them work, but they continue to worship him, regularly visiting him with gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol, all of the things that sustain them in the mines.
At first I couldn’t understand why they continued to believe in something they know to be fabricated, but I realized that it is just like our western superstitions. We know it is silly to fear the bad luck that is said to come with walking under a ladder, spilling salt or breaking a mirror, but we still walk around the ladder, toss some salt over our shoulders and dread broken glass. In the dank, dreary and dangerous conditions of the mines, the miners need all of the protection they can get, even if it does come from a false god.
Everyone was relieved to leave behind the oppressive atmosphere of the mines, with its rank air and enclosed spaces. Far worse than these, though, for me, was the air of instability that permeated the mine. Each second inside felt loaded with potential danger, and my mind could not relax nor escape thinking about possible collapses or explosions. I felt as tense as a loaded gun the entire time I was in there. I cannot imagine what goes through the minds of the miners each and every hour that they are deep inside this volatile mountain.
One final detail that our guide provides us with is that the Bolivian government believes that the mountain has only 15 years more before it collapses from the strain of constant mining. The miners, however, believe that the Tio will provide another 300 years inside the mountain for them. I’m glad I did the tour now and not in 15 years time, as I do not possess the same unshakable faith in the Tio as these resilient miners do. I hope they are rewarded for their loyalty.