Only the devil can save us now. Potosi, Bolivia.

21 Mar

At 4070m, Potosi is the world’s highest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is set against the backdrop of a rainbow-coloured mountain, the Cerro Rico – but a beautiful eye to a depressing soul, for Potosi’s history is a long, sad tale…

“The city was founded in 1545 following the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain, and Potosi veins proved most lucrative. By the end of the 18th century the streets were ‘paved’ with silver, it grew into the largest and wealthiest city in Latin America, underwriting the Spanish economy for over two centuries.

Millions of indigenous people and imported African slave labourers were conscripted to work in the mines in appalling conditions, and millions of deaths occurred. Today thousands continue to work and die in the mines: although the silver has been depleted…” [extract, Lonely Planet]

More than 8 million have died since the opening of the mine, though this number encompasses only those who have died from mining accidents. It does not take in the millions more who, due to unprotected exposure to noxious gases, have lost their lives from silicosis pneumonia. The mines still operate and are no less dangerous than 100 years ago, using primitive tools in temperatures from freezing to +40C. Earning less than $2 a day, they have a life expectancy of 35 years. With a lack of other jobs in the area, children as young as 10, who have lost their fathers in the mine are forced to enter themselves, with little hope of escaping.

In order to truly experience the past and present horror of this city, we decide to visit a cooperative mine, led by Rodrigo, ex-miner-come-hostel-owner-come-tour-guide…

The tour begins at the miners market where we can buy gifts for the miners. The most precious items are coca leaves (to stem hunger and toilet trips), alcohol (95%) and cigarettes (traditional tobacco mixed with coca leaf). Rodrigo insists we try before we buy. MC, of course, will give anything a go…

Arriving at the mine, we curse the Israelis, who insist on consistently demonstrating their absolute disregard for others. The large group of girls stand for 10 minutes taking pictures, in the pathway of miners heaving wheelbarrows weighed down with dirt and stone, completely ignorant of the added work they are creating for these men to navigate around them.

Even from the outside, the mine is harsh and bleak…

Clutching my gifts for the miners, I hesistantly observe the rabbit hole opening…

We scramble and crawl in low, narrow, dusty, muddy shafts and climb rickety ladders. Working practices are medieval, safety provisions non-existent (we walk across multiple unsecured planks, an 80m drop either side). The shafts are unventilated, and even with our masks on, the fumes are intoxicating…

Miners work long hours in these harsh conditions…

Most miners believe in a god in heaven, and thus deduce that there must also be a devil beneath the earth, which cannot be far from the environment in which they work. They reason that the devil himself must own the minerals they’re dynamiting and digging from the earth, so to appease ‘Tio’, they set up ceramic figures in a place of honour and make daily offerings. Towards the end of our tour, we stop at one such place.

We light a cigarette in Tio’s mouth, and sprinkle a little coca leaves and alcohol on his hands and feet (to keep the miners safe) and on the penis (to give the miners fertility).

Then we have a demonstration on how to prepare the dynamite with MC as Rodrigo’s right-hand man…

And then, Rodrigo lights it…

The noise is deafening and makes me yelp, the roof shakes and crumbles. Fair to say, I should have considered bringing a spare pair of undies. As interesting as this tour has been, I’m now quite keen to high-tail outta there! Now, where was that exit…

When I finally stumble back towards the opening, I take a moment to savour the sweet fresh air rushing dizzily into my lungs. In gratitude, I whisper a quick word of thanks to Tío.

The Potosi mine has been one of the most shocking, most haunting, and most subduing experiences in my travels so far. It really feels like hell. I know wearing silver will never feel the same and I shall never complain about a day in the office again.

x kel

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3 Responses to “Only the devil can save us now. Potosi, Bolivia.”

  1. Craig April 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    DAMN!!! that sounds like something one must do (such an experience) even given the harrowing conditons that you can face.

    Top Effort!!!

  2. Gordon April 6, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Hi Matt,
    Good adventure – if I had to picture you as a proctologist that’s what you’d look like!
    Let me know when you are back in blighty – all the best

  3. Royston April 14, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Wow.. Just come back from a rather dodgy canal holiday (which is like living in a floating coffin for a week). This story makes me think I just stayed in five star luxury and certainly priviledged to have the opportunity to get away on one.. Cracking memories for you both. x Roy & Nick

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