Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Dynamite and Coca in a Bolivian Mine

Potosí is the highest city in the world, at 4090m (13,420ft), and you can certainly feel the altitude there, such as walking up a hill for a minute and getting really out of breath! Just to give you an idea of the sort of altitude we're talking about, when we were at the highest point on the Salt Flats trip we were at about 5000m, which is 16,404ft; in New Zealand, we did the highest sky dive you can do there, which was from 16,500ft! But we had started to acclimatise a bit by this point, so we didn't get sick in Potosí.

The city lies in the shadow of the 'Cerro Rico' ('rich mountain') which is a silver mine and has been mined since the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Back then the silver made Potosí one of the richest cities in the world, but now it is running out and the economy is in slow decline. Tin is now the main product, among other minerals. Indigenous labourers work in the mines in very harsh conditions and they have short life expectancies (many only live to about 40) because they often develop silicosis in their lungs. Also, there is always the risk of a collapse in the mine, so it is a dangerous job.

The city itself is very pretty, but the main reason many people come to Potosí is to see the mines for themselves. Some unscrupulous tour companies include an example of a dynamite blast in their tour of the mines, which is of course dangerous and the miners don't like this because it could potentially cause a collapse and it damages the mountain (due to the centuries of mining, the Cerro Rico is not as high as it once was). We went with an eco company that doesn't do this, but in any case we ended up seeing a genuine dynamite blast in the mine itself! More on that later...

The mines are run by co-operatives, with each miner buying his own dynamite to use underground. It is customary when visiting the miners in their workplace to get their permission and to bring them gifts, such as bottles of fizzy drinks, bags of coca leaves, and of course, dynamite sticks. We started our trip at the miners market buying these bits and pieces:

We also had a taste of the alcohol that miners bring to the mines to offer to their 'Tio', or god of the mines:

Then it was off to get into our mining gear: boiler suits, helmets, headlamps and boots. Bob Marley was also there:

Here is the road to the mine, with the 'Cerro Rico' rising up in the background:

The entrance to the mine. You can see the rails running out of it, which heavy carts full of rubble are pushed along:

When we arrived, there was a group of miners sitting outside the entrance to the mine having a break and chewing coca. We stopped for a chat with them and gave them the bag of leaves we'd bought at the market. The idea is to chew the leaves along with an alkaline substance (this is a grey block made of vegetable ashes or something similar and you nibble a bit of it), and then you leave the ball of chewed up leaves in your cheek for a couple of hours or until you've had enough. You often see people in Potosí with a big ball of leaves in their cheeks. (Centuries-old pre-Columbian figurines also often have a distended cheek on one side, showing that the figure is chewing coca!) The miners work extremely long hours, often 13-hour days without breaking for food, so they chew leaves to give them energy and suppress their hunger.

The mine itself was like a series of connecting tunnels and levels, really mazelike. The ceilings of the tunnels are really low, so even I was walking bent over most of the time. The miners spend every day hunched over like this. The tunnels are also really narrow, so you have to watch out for carts coming down the tracks so you can get out of the way (you can hear the rumble of a cart coming from a way off though). The equipment and setup was extremely basic. As you go deeper underground, it gets hotter and hotter, and it's so quiet down there it feels like a world away from the cold sunshine outside. We met several miners at work down there, and gave them the gifts we had bought at the market. At one point we came across a blaster who was in the process of setting up a dynamite blast to open up a section of the tunnel, and we stayed to watch this. He was an expert and had been doing this safely for years, but it was still quite nerve-racking to be under there in that tiny tunnel with a load of dynamite, knowing it was going to be lit! Here he is adding fuses to the dynamite sticks he's putting together. You can see the sticks of dynamite on the floor, and also the coca leaves in his cheek.

He had drilled several holes at intervals along the ceiling, and then he stuffed them with the dynamite. He lit them and then we all ran back down the tunnel and round the corner to wait for them to go off.

You have to listen and count the explosions to make sure that all of them go off before you venture back down the tunnel. Never return to a lit dynamite - like with fireworks, but more serious! The video below shows us listening to the blast. The sound wasn't a big hollywood-style explosion, but more of a deep boom that you felt in your chest and which shook the walls. The sound is so low that the microphone on our camera couldn't pick it up, it just goes silent. Imagine a really low boom during these gaps in the sound. Scary stuff!:

Before we left the mines, we went to visit 'El Tio', the god/devil of the mines. Our guide explained that the miners believe in a duality of religion: above ground, they are Christian, but deep underground is the domain of the Tio. Each mine has a statue of the Tio, and the miners bring coca leaves and alcohol to leave by the statue as gifts. In return, the Tio will protect them from harm in the mines. Every year they hold a sacrifice to El Tio and slaughter a llama, smearing its blood on the entrance to the mine.

'El Tio':

It was a very memorable experience to see the mines first hand. It was incredibly eerie down there, and I can't imagine spending every day down there for long long hours, not knowing if it is light or dark outside. You feel so far away from the outside world, that it's easy to understand why the miners believe that Jesus can't reach them down there, and they must keep El Tio happy if they are going to survive. And it was impossible to forget, every time we met a miner, that their life would almost certainly be cut short by the job they were doing.

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