Published: June 22nd 2009June 13th 2009
After our fine Land Cruiser journey and our first city in Bolivia (Uyuni) we moved on to Potosi. Potosi is a mining town and certain companies offer tours of the active mines so we got to see it all first hand. Before we decided to do the tour we read that it was sketchy, dangerous, lame, and overall not a very cool experience. But naturally we do not listen to other people and I am so glad we didn´t because that is not what we experienced at all. It was a phenomenal experience that I am so glad I did, but then again I do not think I would do it again. Self preservation is high on my list! The tour endangered the lives of several people including my own. The most exciting part of the tour was when I was walking over a pit I could not see the bottom of via a small plank of wood in order to ascend a 10 meter rope up a 60 degree incline. During this little crossing a large number of large rocks fell down the incline hitting me and a few others. Luckily there was only two of us on the
plank and I managed to hold my own ground and help the girl in front of me do the same. To set the story in its proper setting we will start from the beginning.
The day of the tour they picked us up and took us to a house where they had all of the gear we needed: pants, jackets, boots, helmets, head lamps, and back sacks. The whole tour group was about 12 people and we looked pretty damn cool. In order for tourists to visit the mine, the companies worked a deal that tourists will buy the miners gifts to compensate for the hassle. The gifts Dylan and I chose for some lucky miners were coco leaves, alkaline activators for the coco leaves, cigarettes, 96% alcohol, dynamite, nitroglycerin, fuses, and soda. Dylan bought an extra dynamite kit just for fun and it turned out to be a rather explosive experience during the tour. After we walked around town buying gifts in our full gear we took a tour of the refinery plant.
At the refinery plant we walked through the process of taking crewed rocks into pure minerals. The guide spoke great English and
was very entertaining. He thought he was really funny when he gave us all nickle eye black making us all look even cooler. After the refinery we entered the abyss that was the mine. When I say the mine is active that is an understatement! It is beyond active, the mine is frantic with tons of busy workers. There are teams and teams of Bolivian miners that are pushing mining carts on little tracks like the ones you would see on Donkey Kong. The majority of the mine was much shorter in height than I am so I spent most of the time bending over and practically jogging to keep out of the way of the busy miners. Since it was such a small space and miners need to go both ways, every once and a while we would have to jump in some alcove while we would watch the miners swap cart positions. Watching the swap was like watching trained rustic dancers. The empty carts would be tossed to the side and the full carts would be pushed along in a very tiny space with more people than should have been able to fit. Bolivian miners are such hard
workers and I have so much respect for them. They subject themselves to very dangerous conditions just to feed their families. Their life expectancy is roughly 15 years depending on where they work in the mine. The individuals that drill holes for dynamite insertion are the least fortunate. The gasses that inhabit these areas are very deadly and cause black lungs. As you would imagine this would be the most unwanted job, and for that reason the individuals who do it obtain immense respect from their peers. Another interesting fact of the mine is that there are several alcoves dedicated to different deities. The shrines are full of offerings such as coco leaves, alcohol, beads, and cigarettes. The guide told us that the miners are highly religious people that depend on these deities to provide them with safety and good minerals. Every 2 years they have a large offering where they dig a big whole in the ground and offer the blood and heads of several llamas. This religious festival will be going on tomorrow (Sunday June 14th). The theory behind this offering is that if the miners take something from the earth they need to give something back. In
Why so serious?
A view of Potosi, Bolivia in full mining gear. Mining is a very serious career!
the mine we had time to sit down with a few of the miners and learn about their lives. We learned how long they had been doing it, how many children they have, their health conditions, and their belief in the different deities. These types of experiences are so phenomenal because they really put you in touch with real people in really intense situations. At one point in the tour we even got to help them with their job. I ran a wheel barrow full of rocks through what felt like a very long tunnel. I cannot imagine doing this over and over and over again! The town of Potosi is at 4100 meters and in the mine there is roughly 15% less oxygen then there is outside. Talk about severe oxygen deprivation. It took me a minute or two to regain my breath. So much respect!
Now to the life threatening story. The tour group was visiting a deep part of the mine where we had to climb several ladders (some with broken rungs), cross several pits using old wooden planks, and crawl through very small spaces that literally required crawling through mud and barely fitting through.
At the end of this sequence of events we reached the plank of wood that crossed the endless pit at the base of a 60 degree incline which required a 10 meter rope to climb. The guide went up the incline first and I was behind him about to climb when I looked behind me to see two girls looking very uncomfortable on the small slippery plank of wood. After some technical swapping of places I allowed the two girls to get in front of me for which they were very thankful. The first girl reached the top and the second was about to climb when a very loud noise was heard. I looked up and saw massive boulders and rocks falling down the incline. My first reaction was to get back and pull the girl in front of me back also. Remember this is all on a slippery plank of wood over a pit I could not see the bottom of. The girl and I succeeded in not being knocked down the pit or being severely hurt. We were both hit with tons of rocks and I have no idea how the large ones missed us. After recoiling to
safety the guide and the first girl came down the incline. She was severely shaken and had tears in her eyes. I felt so bad for this poor girl. I thought I was doing her a favor by letting her go first. I did what I could to offer any sort of comfort. After she calmed down she was able to retell her part of the story. When she got to the top she saw a bunch of miners up above who let loose a large source of rocks. She was pummeled with several rocks all over her body but she primarily remembers the ones hitting her face. All she was able to do was cover her face. Luckily the rocks didn´t knock her down the incline and into the pit. The only reason for this was the terrific guide. The guide threw her out of the way of the rocks and jumped behind her. I do not think I will ever forget the face of the girl named Becky after this event. Even after this shaking event she was able to make it through another hour of caverns and dynamite. Such respect!
Now what about that explosive dynamite Dylan bought? The tour group was sitting down and talking about history when the guide pulls out the explosive kit and continues to show us how it is constructed. So he gets the clay like dynamite, sticks in the trigger and fuse then proceeds to light the fuse. Yes this was live dynamite in the middle of a mine. He hands the dynamite to Dylan and I to get a couple of photos with the ticking time bomb. All the members of the tour looked on from face to face with the exact same question, what the hell is this crazy Bolivian going to do with this explosive. The guide says, "get ready to run", hands the dynamite to his friend and jumps in the corner in the fetal position with his hands over his ears. The friend with the dynamite threw the dynamite down an unseen whole and a few seconds later a very large BOOM was heard. After a few seconds we all realized everything was "safe" and shared a good laugh. I cannot even comprehend the possible danger we subjected ourselves to. Like I said before, it was a great experience but I was very happy to get out of that mine and never enter again.