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Published: April 22nd 2006
Shopping Potosi Style
After having snapped up my very own bomb making kit in Potosi, buying cheap CD's off the Bolivian markets might seem a bit tame in future!!
A slighty belated report of my time in Potosi coming up.
Potosi is touted as being the highest city in the world, 3,977 of your finest metres according to the guidebook. (Although I have seen this claim caveated (sorry, been reading my word of the day toilet paper again) with the fact that its the highest city of its size in the world). Anyway, its quite high. High enough so that anything more than a leisurely stroll is inadvisable as it leaves you a mite breathless.
Thus, it would seem a slightly foolish idea to travel even higher to crawl around in the choking dust filled spaces that are the silver mines of Cerro Rico!! Perhaps slightly foolish - but definately very rewarding.
First of all a bit of culture so you guys back home don't start thinking this travelling lark is all booze and women!!
Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) towers above Potosi at 4,824 metres. This mountain was at one point so choc-full of silver that around the turn of the 16th century, Potosi was the richest city in the Americas and it rivalled London in size! The amount of silver being extracted and then exported
The mountain that once made Potosi the richest city in the Americas.
is reported to have fuelled economic growth across Europe, and all this was achieved using the most basic of mining practices that were massively labour intensive. In order to obtain the huge workforce needed, the Spanish envoy at the time simply decreed that one seventh of the adult male population was required to work in the mines for a period of one year at a time. Problem solved!!
These days things are not quite so rosy. The silver is pretty much all gone and the miners have set up co-operatives to extract tonnes and tonnes of rock containing a mixture of zinc, lead and silver. The miners work in teams of between 12 and 20 or so, and rotate through all the necessary jobs required in the extraction of the ore.
I went on my tour of the Cerro Rico mines with Koala Tours. the guides are ex-miners and the company claims to donate 15% of the $US 10 fee to helping miner's causes.
Early on in the tour we got kitted out in our miner's gear - boots, jackets, trousers and helmets complete with a lamp that looked like i was pre-war and a battery that
was about as big a car and weighed about the same!!
First stop was the miner's market. This is an interesting experience as rather than the usual stalls selling dodgy DVD's and alarm clocks you can pick up fuses, detonators, dynamite and ammonium nitrate - everthing the budding pyromaniac could possibly need!! We bought some of these wares as gifts for the miners as well as a mountain of cocoa leaves - which the miners chew non-stop in order to combat altitude sickness and stave off hunger pangs - meaning they can slog their guts out for up to 24 hours at a time - oh joy!!
When we actually got underground the experience was amazing. This was no namby-pamby torist tour, but an actual descent into the bowels of a working mine. As we entered, the amount of dust initially seemed choking, and each breath was slightly hindered. We descended through the various levels of the mine, negotiating tiny passageways on our hands and knees and being constantly worried about the very real danger of speeding mine carts!! These mine carts can carry a tonne of ore at a time (seems a very convenient number - methinks
The dusty depths of Level 4
I know this looks like a photo of San Francisco in the fog, but if you look very closely you can make out the form of one of the driller's on the left hand side. T'was a mite dusty down on level 4!!!
the guide may have been making that up on the spot!!), and seem to be pushed by the youngest of the mine workers. Two that our guide chatted to were 13 and 15 and absolutely caked in dust and sweat.
As we went further into the mine we stopped to help some of the men working down there with the tough task of shovelling the piles of ore into baskets so that they could be hauled up to a higher level and then taken outside via a mine cart. These baskets held 100kg of ore at a time (again a mite convenient!!), and filling them up for 15 minutes was not exactly pleasurable - let alone for 12 of 24 hours!!!
The real eye-opener came when we descended down to level 4 - the deepest of the levels - where the men were drilling holes ready for the placing of the dynamite. The dust down there was so thick that our headtorches simply reflected back off it as if we were in a thick fog. When we all turned our torches off, we could barely make out the vague forms of the men that were working down there.
Runaway Mine Cart!!!!
Time is money for these guys. They didn't want to stop for anything and the onus was definately on us to be getting out of the way!!!
There was only a faint glimmer from their head torches, even though they were only around two metres away!!
We climbed back up to level one, and the air that had initially seemed dusty and choking suddenly seemed cool and pleasant when compared to the lower levels!!!
Upon being reaquainted with the outside world, the guides had a demonstration for us. As a group we had bought all the necessary components to make a couple of bombs, which our guides duly did for us. It seems you take one stick of dynamite, fold it in half a couple of times and then mould it around a detonator. You then attach a fuse to the detonator and stick the whole lot ino a bag of ammonium nitrate. Then all thats left to do is light the fuse and make sure you're somewhere else!!!
The boom that the explosion made was just incredible. It was just louder than anything I can describe. I have got a video of one of the explosions but don't think I can get it onto the site. Its quite amusing as you can just about hear me squealing like a little girl in the
Erm, are those live bombs????
Guide - "Don't worry they're two minute fuses."
Me - "Hmmmmmm"
background when one of the bombs goes off!!
Anyway, to conclude - some of the miners we met had spent 30 years of their lives working in Cerro Rico. 2 and a half hours in there was enough to convince me that however bad a day I might have in the future, these guys have almost certainly had worse.
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