Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Potosi Bolivia Mine Experience

Around the Koala hostel in Potosi, Patrick and I met and talked to the owner of the place to see if he would know anybody who could help us build the memorial for Kevin.  The guys we found ourselves by asking in hardware shops really tried to put the screws to us.  Not only did the owner help us, he knew Kevin! What??  For real?  He said he remembered very well.  Kevin stayed here at the very same hostel in room #5. Neither Patrick or I knew that before.  The man told us Kevin was here alone, and said he had a big white helmet?  "Yes..." The owner knew we were talking about the same guy because the accident was a big story in the local news. He also said that Kevin was really quiet and seemed to be deep in thought a lot when he was here.  That made me even more sad.  I have stayed in a lot of hostels with Kevin and he is Mr. Sociable.  He is instant friends with everyone he meets and chats away. I wonder what he was thinking so much about. Interestingly, the last time we talked, we were making plans on meeting in Mendoza Argentina and I asked if he still wants to try to make it to Ushuaia when he gets here.  The season is getting late so he said "No, my only goal is to get to you."  I thought that was very sweet, but I mention it here because he seemed very serious when he said it even though I didn't think it was something to be concerned about then. His bike was not running well, which was ticking him off. So I know that could have concerned him, but I'm still surprised he was so quiet.

The hostel does one thing.. It sends young backpackers to the mine every day.  Like I said before, it is the only thing to "see" in Potosi if you don't have the freedom to travel and explore by motorcycle like us.

The mountain in the photo below, is the mine.  Patrick had done it, everyone else are doing it, so I guess I should see it myself.


This small mountain called Cerro Rico has been mined full time since the 1500's.  They've been able to pull heaps of silver out of it over the years, but it's mostly dried up now.  I'm a bit nervous about going inside.  They tell me there are so many tunnels in the hill, that it's like swiss cheese and could collapse in on itself.

However, I start the tour with other backpackers anyway. Our fist stop is to the miners shops. The one hill actually has several different syndicates, like miners unions.  They don't get paid unless they pull something out.  Many miners work so hard for 12-15 hours per day, several days in a row without getting any bit of metal, silver or zinc!  AND, it's up to them to have their own dynamite in order to find silver and make some money.

So the tour guide encourages us to buy dynamite as to give the miners as a gift.

 Tour guide and our purchase of dynamite stick and fuses

The miners are so poor and on top of the back-breaking work they do, they can not eat during all those hours while mining.  What goes in must come out.  The miners are so deep into the earth, they can't come out for a toilet.  And they can't keep a toilet inside the hill due to the methane gas it creates. So they survive on Coca leaves for energy.  We are also encouraged to buy them bags of leaves, a sweet drink and straight alcohol as gifts.

Then we're led to the little opening in the rock to tour the mine.  I'm looking at that hole and already thinking that I really don't want to go in there.


I have to admit, I have been so spoiled in my life.  I've been on some tours around the world, and they usually are full of annoying safety standards.. Now that I am faced with this quite possibly dangerous tour, I'm not real keen.  There is no path for viewing with safety ropes.  We have to walk amongst the miners, stop them and crawl through and over their carry carts while disrupting their work to get through.


Sheez, check out these conditions...


As we hunch and crawl through the tunnel, our guide hands out a bag of the coca leaves to the first man we see.


There are NO lights in this mine.  Any photo you see is only from of the flash of my camera.  We also carry a head torch, otherwise, it is pure black.  The dust is unreal, I don't like breathing it in.  I'm wearing my bandana, but it's not nice either.  The mine is really hot inside, breathing through the bandana and the heat with dust, I feel like I'm suffocating already.  I can NOT believe people come here and work 12-24 hours per day.  It's SO cruel.

There was a young backpacker, an American college girl on our tour with her friends.  To her this was all a party.  She thought it was great.  I'm mentioning it because it annoyed me a fair bit.  We have our protective clothing on but she has her top open to her belly and her super size bra-less boobs hanging out as we walk through in a hunched over way, talking and laughing really loud.  Maybe the miners loved it, but I didn't see the usual whistle and staring reaction.  Interestingly, these boys and men seemed dazed, no reaction to her or anyone else. The fact that they didn't react to her flaunting her boobs is enough evidence to say the miners are in a bad way.

At around 20-30 minutes crawling through the dark dreadful mine, we stop at a large-ish hole in the rock for a break and some instruction that we are about to go down through another tunnel in the hill to a level where the temperature is around 40 degrees Celcius (104 F).  While listening to the guide, these young kids come through that tiny hole in the rock, dragging their large bags of heavy stone.  They looked about 13 years old.  I asked them if I could take a photo, and only this one said yes, the others did not want a photo.


I was so sad, and imagining if my own nephews the same age had to do work like this.  It was making me sick.  The young boys stopped in the same pocket that we were sitting, trying to clear their noses so they can breathe.  And a lot of coughing.  If I didn't think it was cruel enough before, now I've had enough. I do not want or need to go down to the super hot level to see them work.  I've seen documentaries on t.v. about horrible lives, slaves, hardship, but to see it in my face is more than I can take.  I want out.  I'm happy to give them money and gifts to help them get through another day, but I don't need to see any more.

An older man came out of that same hole a few minutes later and sat down next to me.  I asked him for a photo and he agreed. 


It's estimated that most miners life expectancy is 45-50 years old.  This man is 42, and he works alone.  Can you imagine being in a dark tunnel all day, all night alone.. ??  His jaw is full of coca leaves and his teeth are black.

A Swiss couple felt the same way I did and stopped with me.  While the 4 young Americans were thrilled to go further.

We crawled our way out and waited outside until their tour was over.

I didn't like that at all, so being in the fresh air and sunlight made it easy to smile again.  Unfortunately for the miners, they have very little to smile about.  They don't expect that hill to provide any more silver or income for the people of Potosi in less than 10 years.  After that, what will they do, where will they go.. will the town die off completely. 


I asked our tour guide if there is another hill, or does the government have a plan at all.  He laughed and said No.  The only thing the government does is make sure they keep working on this hill.  It's estimated since the mine started in 1545, around 8 million men have died inside this mine. 8 Million!!! So many lives for somebody else to get rich.


I diverted my attention to the super cute young puppy and then took the bus back to town for a lovely sunset. 


I suppose it's good to take the mine tour if you know your money and gifts can help the people.  I am ok with that and happy to help.  And it was good for opening my eyes to a world I never really knew existed. Of course I was aware it existed, but seeing and experiencing it first hand brought it to a new level, at least for me.  But I would not want to see it again.  I hope and pray no human being would ever have to work like that anywhere in world.  I am so sorry for them and wish there was something more I could do...

2 comments:

  1. Wow, Sherri Jo!! What a terrible thing, that mine. And to think they start so young...looking at a short life that leads nowhere. So sad. I have been reading your blog since you started in Eastern Russia. It is very inspirational. I, myself, am shipping my VStrom to Europe this next summer to begin my own travels. You have me excited about doing some of the same things you have done. I hope I get to meet you on the road some happy day. Ron

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  2. Walter would have posted pictures of those other mounds...
    What!?! WHAT!?!

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