Monday, May 21, 2012

Las minas de Potosi

Cerro Rico.
Friday night I made my way to the worlds' tallest city. Altitude: 4090 meters, or 13,420 feet. Potosi, is quite an interesting city. Legend has it that a man was herding his llamas when one of them wandered off up a mountain. The man followed the llama, but it quickly became dark so he decided to camp out on the mountain. He started a campfire and to his surprise the ground began bubbling beneath him, and a shiny silver liquid oozed out, for the mountain he was camping on was full of silver. Potosi is called Potosi because the silver made a poto-shiiii sound when it was bubbling (the Spaniards couldn't pronounce this properly, which is why it is now pronounced Poto-see). Spaniards quickly found out about this mountain of silver and Potosi was founded in 1545, and was once the richest city in South America. In fact, it was said to be even wealthier than major cities in Spain and France, all because the amount of silver extracted from Cerro Rico, "rich hill." No one knows exactly how much silver was extracted from Cerro Rico, but it has been estimated to be approximately 137 million pounds. The legend on the 16th century Potosi coat of arms read, "I am rich Potosi, Treasure of the world. The king of all mountains, and the envy of all kings."
The city of Potosi.
Although Cerro Rico was the introduction to wealth for the city of Potosi, it was also a death sentence for those working in the mines. In three centuries, an estimated eight million people died in the mines. Eight million! Because of this, Cerro Rico is also known as, "The mountain that eats men." Many of the workers were indigenous Bolivians and African slaves who were brought to South America specifically to work in Cerro Rico's mines. Rotation systems were set up where miners would work for twelve hours at a time, but in their twelve "free" hours they would never leave the mine. The slaves would spend four straight months in the mine, never seeing sunlight. The life expectancy for these miners after working nonstop in such harsh conditions was only six more months to a year. The main cause of death was mercury poisoning and lung disease, mainly silicosis. Of course, there were also mining accidents.

By the 1800s Cerro Rico, wasn't too rico anymore, the silver was almost completely depleted so miners turned to zinc and tin. Today, the thousands of miners who still work in the mines are hoping to get lucky and strike a vein of silver. It is a rough, rough life to be a miner– I don't think I could ever do it. Most people who work in the mines don't live over 45– again, the main cause of this is silicosis. When miners have 50% silicosis of the lungs they can retire and collect miner's pension. But at that point, they really will only have a few years, or months, to live. Before going to Potosi I watched a film called The Devil's Miner. It is a documentary following the life of a 14 year-old boy as he works in the mines to support his family. He started working when he was 10; he had no choice but to turn to the mines when his father passed away and he became the sole provider for his family. It is a very moving and well done film and I highly recommend it to anyone.

So, after all this information about the mines and how dangerous they are... can you believe that I donned long pants, a long shirt, rubber boots, and a helmet equipped with a headlight and went into the mines for a full two hours? Yup, I did. This tour is definitely not for the claustrophobic as we were squeezing through small, dark, dirty spaces. When going down to the second level I actually had to get on my stomach and army crawl down this rock shaft. I kept a bandana over my mouth the whole time because I was nervous about breathing in all the dust and chemicals. The air was so thick, heavy,and just dirty feeling. And it was hot– on the third level it got to be 104º Farenheit. There are four levels, we went to the first three, the fourth is where the miners are still working so it is off-limit to tourists, for a good reason I would say! Even though we didn't descend to the working level, we did pass a few miners. There were two times where we had to stop and find a wide enough place where we could press our backs against the wall as a cart full of minerals zoomed by on the tracks. When we passed miners they would say, "buenas noches" which means goodnight (in a hello sense, not goodbye). It was explained that miners never say good morning or good afternoon because it is always dark in the mines; it is always night. What a depressing outlook. We also met a miner along the way who was taking a break– sitting on the floor, back against the rocks, with a big wad of coca leaves packed in his cheek. Miners chew coca leaves to combat fatigue, hunger, and  pain. Coca leaves also help with the high altitude, although at this point of his life, he must be acclimated. This man had been working for 24 hours straight– and the crazy thing is, that isn't uncommon. Miners will often take double shifts. We left him with a bottle of coca cola– he is the guy in the photo on the left side.
It was difficult to take photos while in the mine! But the blurry
effect is sort of cool.
We didn't only visit the mines but the miner's market and the refining plant. At the miner's market we bought gifts to bring to the miners– water, coca leaves, and soda. Someone on my tour even bought dynamite, because yup, they just casually have it sitting out at the market. Anyone can buy a stick of
In the refining plant.
dynamite for the equivalent of 2 dollars (I think– however much it was, it was cheap!) I didn't really want to walk around with a stick of dynamite in my pocket so I opted not to buy any. Then we went to the refining plant, where we saw the equipment that they use to separate the minerals, etc. This was the one part of the tour that I didn't really follow– the tour was in Spanish and I just didn't know all the words for the chemicals and the machinery. But I did gather that it is very dangerous, and back in the old days they used mercury to help with refining... hence the mercury poisoning that I mentioned earlier. So I guess in comparison it is now safe... you know, since they aren't breathing in mercury anymore. Oh, here is a fun fact: Before entering the mines, I took a shot of alcohol. 96% alcohol. Ewwwww ewww ewww. When I say shot, I mean a capful. And when I say alcohol, I mean it was literally a bottle of rubbing alcohol that back in the states is used for medical purposes. Our tour guide took the first capful, but before tipping it back he said, "Para Pachamama, para el Tio, para protección para todos, y protección para mi." When he said for Pachamama and for el Tio he dumped some of the alcohol on the ground. So when it was my turn, I made sure that Pachamama and el Tio got more than their fair share of my capful of rubbing alcohol. I just wanted to give them a worthy offering (aka I wanted to drink as little of the rubbing alcohol as possible) SO GROSS.
El Tio
You may be confused about Pachamama and el Tio. Pachamama is mother earth, or the good mother. El Tio, is the devil that is worshiped by the miners. The Spaniards invented el Tio to scare the indigenous into working. The Spaniard didn't call Tio, Tio, they actually had said Dio, God. However, the indigenous couldn't pronounce Dio, because there is no D in Quechua (one of Bolivia's indigenous languages). So they said Tio. Each of Cerro Rico's 44 mines has a Tio, and everyday when miners first enter the mine they offer Tio coca leaves or some other offering.
Making our way through.
My day in the mines was an interesting experience. I am glad I did it, but I would never do it again. I was so incredibly happy when I caught my first glimpse of sunlight. Being in the mines was just
I don't know how I possibly look this happy. This is me
crawling through that rock shaft, so I really
wasn't smiling like this... I guess I am a good
terrible. It is so dark, and wet, and hot, and scary, and just awful. It is terrifying to know that at any second something could go wrong and the whole entire place could cave in– it is a working mine... just think about what happened in Chile a couple years ago. It is strange to be a tourist paying to go into the mines when miners are there working, just trying to scrape by. It is almost like they are being exploited, but at the same time tourism is keeping this city afloat. I guess I am a mixed bag of emotions/thoughts when it comes to this tour. It is like riding an elephant, you really don't want to do it because it is almost like animal abuse– but when else are you going to ride an elephant? Does this make any sense? Probably not. At the end of the day, I am just happy I am not a miner and I wish all the miners will find a vein of silver that will give them a lifetime of wealth so they never have to enter those mines again.

1 comment:

  1. this post made total sense. i am sad for the miners and would feel the same as you - really strange touring in the terrible conditions they have to live day in and day out. powerfully depressing