We were down there for over an hour before we emerged, a bunch of sweating, gasping messes, congratulating each other for handling the claustrophobia fabulously in the parts where dragging ourselves along on knees and elbows was necessary, wiping the moisture from our brows with the bandannas we’d purchased to wear over our mouths to stop the dust from entering our lungs, waxing lyrical about the awesome sense of achievement gained from this kind of experience. What a tour.
But this isn’t just a tour, this is a snapshot of the daily lives for these men and boys. Sense of achievement? Bitch puh-leeze, welcome to the world of the Potosí silver mines, where these guys spend hours and hours working in these conditions, crawling around passages cut manually with pickaxes and blasted with dynamite, shovelling rock and minerals into carts which, weighing a couple of tonnes, are then pushed by the workers to their destination. It’s hot, dirty and the air is thin at this altitude making it difficult to breathe.
I’m never gonna bitch about my job again… ok that’s a lie and we all know it but it makes you realise how wrapped in cotton wool western society is. Life can’t be so bad when your biggest employment concern is that they took your favourite cookie out of the snack vending machine and the coffee tastes like slurry. Tall glass of cement, anyone?
The mines criss cross through Cerro Rico and provide the income for the majority of the families in Potosí which, at 4060 masl, is the highest city in the world. The tours aren’t for everyone though, only the hardcore motherfuckers amongst us can handle this. They’re proper, working mines and not museums set up for the fragile tourist. They could cave in at any time, the air is full of dust and grime, the tunnels are small and claustrophobic and you run a very serious and real risk of breaking a nail. In some places you have to drag yourself through on your stomach, and it’s hot down there. Sweat runs down your face and drips off the end of your nose into the dirt as you clamber your way from level to level. Sometimes there’s a ladder to help you, other times you have to grab hold of rocks and hope they hold and… I’m sorry, what…? What was that…? I didn’t quite understand you, what is this “health and safety” of which you speak?
When the Spanish were riding rough-shot over South America, they forced literally millions of indigenous people and slaves brought in from Africa to work in mines. Millions died and even today the mines claim many lives, slowly killing the workers with silicosis pneumonia, an epic lung disease. These days the mine is a cooperative so the more they work the more they earn, providing they can find minerals to extract. A percentage is paid to the government, a percentage is paid to the cooperative and the rest is split amongst the workers who sell their share to be smelted.
So anyway, that’s the mines, this is the tour. A prerequisite of this tour is that you look like a dickhead. This involves getting kitted out in red trousers, a blue jacket, a pair of wellies, a yellow helmet and a belt that sits just below your tits which holds the battery for your head lamp. It is important for these items to be too big for you or the look isn’t complete. The bandanna is optional but makes you look gangsta when worn on the head. Next, you’re lead to the miner’s market where you get to purchase all kinds of exciting things such as coca leaves, dynamite and 96% alcohol. Do not adjust your sets. I said dynamite and 96% alcohol. Oh fucking yes! Backpackers + dynamite x 96% alcohol…? Only in Bolivia. I fucking love this country.
My life is governed by a certain set of rules which, I believe, make me a better person. For example, I will never hook up with my friend’s ex, or indeed anyone my friends are into. I will never cheat on a partner. If someone needs help and I’m in a position to help, then I will help. And if someone offers me a shot I believe it’s very fucking rude to refuse. So my first thought as I chucked the Ceibo down my neck was that it was actually ok, it just tasted like cheap vodka and me and cheap vodka are very well acquainted even though I don’t fully remember every detail of our encounters. Then the burning started and didn’t stop until it reached my stomach where it went into battle with my stomach acids to see which could dissolve my internal organs first.
Anyways, we bought a heap of stuff for the miners to say thank you for letting us gawp at them like some kind of zoo exhibit then we were off to look at the smelting plant and breathe in some noxious chemicals before heading to the mine. Every day before work, the guys chill out, chew coca leaves and make offerings to Tio Jorge who is sort of like, I dunno, a mine god or something. A lot of people liken him to the devil. Every mine has its very own statue of Uncle George who, and don’t ask me why, is depicted with a massive penis. Righto, then. Boys and their toys. They offer him coca leaves, cigarettes and the aforementioned 96% fall-down juice. They believe that the purer the alcohol, the more minerals Tio will bless them with. Communion wine? That’s for pussies. If I ever find religion then the blood of my god will clearly be Ceibo and the body will be chocolate cake. With sprinkles. And ice cream.
And so onwards and downwards. One of our group freaked out right at the start which, to be fair, is probably the best place to freak out. If I was going to freak out I’d like it to be 4 metres from the exit as opposed to 4 levels underground thankyouverymuch. I tell you what, though. It’s an eye opener. I mean, I dislike children intensely. I don’t like them out in public, I’ve chosen not to have kids and I don’t want anyone else’s inflicting upon me. I’m a firm believer that they should be locked in cages in the basement until the age of 17 and only brought out if the chimneys need sweeping or the mines need working. Of course say this in jest, I don’t really mean it (… or do I?), but when you’ve got a family to support sometimes there’s no other option but to send the kids down the mines. The first lad we spoke to via our guide was a 16 year old called Nelson. He was working with his dad and had been for three years. The youngest lad in the mine at the moment is 14. Now harden the fuck up and stop bitching about your paper round.
We were lead from level to level, watching as the guys shovelled rocks into baskets to be winched up to the next level, or as they hacked into the walls with chisels and pickaxes. Down ladders, up slopes, over rocks and there was a bit at the end where we had to crawl up a dusty, slippery rock slope. Oh. My. Fucking. God. I got halfway up before the wind was just sucked out of me and I had to sit down for 5 minutes, sweating like a blind lesbian in a fish shop, gasping for air like a phone pervert with a copy of the Yellow Pages and 500 free minutes. A quick detour to visit Tio Jorge who, mysteriously, had had his cock snapped off (well clearly we don’t know what these fellas get up to in the dark) and we were back into the fresh air to play with dynamite.
Oh hell yeah. You didn’t think we’d leave the market without purchasing some explosives for ourselves do you? Our guide showed us how to pack it for maximum boom, lit it, passed it around for the most frantic photo session ever before handing it to his assistant who nonchalantly wandered off to bury it in the ground. As you do. There aren’t many tours that end as explosively as this one. You see what I did there…? Explosively… I’m sorry. I’ll never do that again.
Stayed at: Hostal Koala Den