If you've ever complained about your job, read this
Aug 27, 2005
|When we arrived to the city of Potosí, we thought to ourselves how much we would hate living in this place. Although it is the highest city in the world, nothing can classify Potosí as being pretty. Other than deserts, it's the driest place we've ever seen. You see pueblos upon pueblos, and as the bus twisted and turned through the streets of Potosí, we saw an old woman who lived in one of the adobe houses sweep dirt from the dirt floor in front of her house. It was a surreal sight.
We happened to be in Potosí for their annual festival called the "Fiesta de Chu'tillos." It is the largest festival of the year and features traditional dancing from all over South America. The costumes are absolutely amazing, and the people dance for up to 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday to complete the parade circuit. There must have been over 20,000 people in attendance! In fact, we arrived in Potosí after the festivities were already in full swing. With our huge backpacks, we would get trapped amongst the walls of people watching the parade, and couldn't move. People were packed in front of us and pressed up behind us. Needless to say, finding our hostel that day was quite a challenge. Once we manager to break through the wall of spectators, we had to hike uphill 30 minutes to get to our hostel. It was difficult with the altitude and felt like the Inca Trail all over again, only we had no porters to carry our packs this time.
But of course, the real reason for visiting Potosí (seemingly a god-forsaken place) is to visit the silver mines here. The silver mines are the lifeblood of Potosí. Back when the Spaniards ruled Bolivia, the mines were rich with silver. The Spanish, in their pursuit to loot South America of all its natural resources, worked thousands upon thousands of indigenous people half to death to collect the rich deposits. When production lagged a bit, the Spanish resorted to using African slaves to make up the difference. The slaves often were worked to death. For example, many were used as human mules to turn the huge cranks of the silver mining facilities. The horses which the Spanish had used previously died too quickly due to the cold at 13,000 feet, so the slaves were brought in to fill the gap. The lifeblood of the earth (in this case, silver) was extracted in exchange for the lifeblood of thousands of citizens of South America, Africa, and Europe. This vicious tradeoff continues even today, although the silver deposits are fewer and the lives of the miners a little longer.
For anyone who ever complained about their jobs, they need to visit this place. Let us tell you, no matter how rough your job is, it simple doesn't hold a candle to the toil inside the mines. Maybe if everyday, you were stripped and beaten with electric eels for the circus, your job would be worse. Aside from that, nothing compares. The mines were interesting to see, but you couldn't pay us to go on another tour to spend another 3 hours, 15 meters below ground breathing in toxic lava dust, asbestos, aresenic, sulfuric acid, and much more. (all with very little oxygen). The mine tour was absolutely shocking. Most people working in the mines die of pneumonia within 20 years, and those that are lucky enough to continue on have respiratory problems for the rest of their lives.
We started our tour by getting dressed in protective coating, everything from a hard hat with head lamps, downing jacket and pants, down to rubber boots. Efraín, the tour guide then took us to the miner's market to buy presents for the miners, which by the way are dynamite sets with detanator, ammonium nitrate, blasting caps, and fuse included (completos), coca leaves, and 2 liter bottles of soda. After a lengthy talk about the do's and don'ts of dynamite and blasting caps in which Efraín routinely threw both on the ground to demonstrate their safety, we all purchased the completo for 1$. It's amazing that anyone with money can buy dynamite off the street. Our guide explained one of the games the local children play. They buy detanators, shove them into pieces of fruit, and feed them to animals. Imagine what happens to this poor creature when it bites down! Distraught kids also used this method to blow up themselves.
After the miner's market, we quickly realized that the tour wasn't for the faint of heart. We were taken to the mines where we traveled 15 meters below ground, sloshing our way through the water in the blackness, often scrambling in low, dirty shafts. When we say low, some of these shafts were only a foot and a half tall. We were often on our knees or stomachs trying to crawl to the next open corridor. There were 3 main levels to the mines we visited, and we often descended to the next level on old rickety ladders. There were some metallic traces used to support the old coal cars you see in the movies. No modern machinery here. We glimpsed several times 4 men pushing up to a ton of complejos (minerals) out of the caverns in the same old carts they've used for hundreds of years. As we made our way to the deeper, drier areas of the mines, the breathing problems started. The fine dust begis to coat your lungs and throat as you struggle to breathe in the caves. Combine that with the fact that inside the mines you are constantly clambering through the tunnels on your hands and knees, it is easy to see why so many tourists back out of the tours once they get inside. We seriously thought our lungs were going to explode. The entire time we were down there, we were suffocating and coughing.
The miners work in groups mainly made up of family members and friends and continue for many generations. They work for themselves and pay taxes to the government for the permit to mine. However, whatever they find is theirs and shared with the rest of the group. Most of the deposits are a combination of lead, zinc, and silver (complejos). It is rare for any group to find a vein of pure silver. In one mine with 60 groups, only 1 family group might find a vein of pure silver in 40 or 50 years. So, most of them mine the complejos and sell them to the processing plants in tons. As we peppered one of the miners with questions, he kept hammering away. How old are you? 28. Bang bang! How many years have you worked in the mines? 14. Bang bang! How many hours do you work? 16. Bang bang! This particular miner had been working 6 hours on his spike hole. Once it was finished, he would stick dynamite in the space to blow out a square meter of minerals. This process occupid 80% of a miner's day in the mines. Everything was done by hand because drilling tools were too expensive. Most of these guys never see daylight except on Sundays if they choose to take the day off. As the miner reached out to accept our gifts, we noticed he had two fingers missing from one of his hands. Our guide said it was probably a dynamite accident. We couldn`t believe it. This guy, 5 years our junior, was slowly feeding his body to the mines to feed his family. He had 3 kids and a wife, by the way. We descended deeper into the mines, and the dust again began to scratch and claw at our throats. Everyone was coughing and watery eyed as we stopped to talk to the next miner. He was one of the elders, at 45, and he had been working the mines for 29 years. His name was Don Ricardo, but the other miners call him Chino because of his narrow eyes. All of the miners had colorful nicknames like llamaface, pigface (our guide's), and others more disgusting. By this point, we were all itching to exit the mines. We weren't given any protective masks, and by the time we got back out to the open air, we had completely lost our voices, and our eyes were on fire. Next, however, came one of the best parts of the day.
Our guide sat in front of us and taught us how to make the same explosives they used in the mines. When he finished, he lit the bomb, told us to back off, and calmly walked it to a space about 50 yards away. After, he set it down he ran to take shelter. The thing that struck us about the explosion, literally, was not the explosion itself, but the shockwave. From 50 yards away, the force of the explosion felt like a punch in the stomach. We could only sit and imagine what soldiers go through while they are being shelled.
When we visited the miners, the temperature was a stifling 100-105 degrees in the deepest parts. All of the miners' clothes were soaked through with sweat, dirt, and grime. We were there only to observe and never had to lift a hammer, yet all we could think of was when we were going to be able to get out into the fresh air. We can't imagine an everyday existing in there with the knowledge that you would probably die from working there.
So why do they mine? Because Potosí is what it is. Being the highest city in the world and being so dry, they have absolutely no agriculture. They can't farm or raise livestock. The only natural resource they can exploit is to make a living harvesting complejos. When the hills of Potosí is dry of minerals, Potosí also will be nothing but a ghosttown.