After what I have experienced today, I just had to make a blog entry to have it all clear in mind, although I don't think I will forget for the rest of my life. This time, I'll start with today and not do it chronologically, because the events of today are too amazing and horrifying at the same time.
I arrived in Potosi, Bolivia, yesterday in the afternoon after a long and bumpy ride. With its 4070 m above sea level, Potosi is, as far as I know, the highest town in the world, which becomes evident everytime I do any kind of activity more demanding than walking slowly (walking uphill with a backpack was the best cardio ever). This town is famous for its silverproduction that made a lot of Spaniards very rich back in the 1600 when the conquistadores discovered this treasure in the huge Cerro Rico very close to town. Even today a lot of people work in the mines that are now owned by the workers, even if it is one of the world's most dangerous mines and goes under the name "La Come Hombres" or "Man-eater" because it has taken the lives of several million men during the years. Even today, around 30 people die each year from cave ins and silicosis - from the time you enter the mine to the time this disease gets you you have 10-15 years. Most miners start when they're very young, 14-16, and don't live to see their 40s. The people that work here do it because they have no other way of supporting themselves or their families.
This morning at 9 I went on a tour down to these mines. You're strongly advised to NOT take this tour if you have any diseases, especially respiratory problems, or if you're claustrophobic. You're exposed to asbestos, silica dust and arsenic gas among other dangerous chemicals and gases, and you will experience crawling through very narrow paths - and then of course there is the altitude that might leave you shorter of breath than before. I was told all of these things, but still I had to go see for myself what conditions the workers had to deal with every day.
My guide was an ex-miner, who had only worked in the mine few years before he decided to quit, as he was getting sick and did not have a family he needed to support. It was excellent to hear some of the things he could tell about how dangerous the life as a miner in Potosi is. He told me that they work long shifts, both day and night, and that it is extremely difficult for them to make a living, so that's why they work as hard as they do.
Before entering the mine we made a stop so that I could get changed into clothes allowed to get dirty, boots, a helmet and a light for the helmet, since it is pitch black in the mines. Also, I bought some coca leaves, some cigarettes and some alcohol for the miners, as this is expected. Then it was time to get going. We drove up to where the entrance was. I have to admit I was a little nervous to go in, with all the potential risks, but I followed my guide as he went in and disappeared in the darkness. We hadn't walked very far before the light behind us disappeared and we were totally dependent on our own lights. I was just hoping the batteries would last. My guide started telling me about the dangerous chemicals in the walls of the tunnel, and later when we walked through water he toldme how extremely toxic it was. On our way deep into the mountain we met a lot of hardworking Bolivians. EIther they were preparing the dynamite for an explosion, or they were pushing and dragging what seemed to be extremely heavy trolleys either empty ones going in the mines, or full ones going out of the mines. They all looked exhausted, and they all looked grey, like they had become a part of the mountain, which wasn't far from the truth with all the mud stuck on their clothes and the dust in their faces. They were all wearing helmets of course, and most of them were wearing some kind of cloth to cover their mouth and nose in order to avoid dust and gases. Everyone we met, we handed some cigarettes, something to drink or some coca leaves to chew and they all seemed to greatly appreciate it. They were all very nice and more than happy to let me take pictures of them. As it was so dusty, muddy, narrow and dark it was limited how many pictures I managed to take in the end though. All the workers had something different to tell, about their wifes at home, how many years they had been working in the mines, what hours they worked and what problems they faced down there. We met some miners that looked like they were about to collapse from the hard work, but to my surprise most of the miners we met looked happy and were laughing and making jokes with each other. I guess you have to do what it takes to get through the day, and I'm sure the alcohol and cigarettes helped. One of the first things my guide showed me was this creepy human-sized figure down in the deep. It was "El Tio" which is the God (something like Satan, but not quite) that the miners sacrifice alcohol to in order to keep them safe. It is said, that as a miner you have to leave your religion at the entrance, because in the long dark tunnels in the mountain, it is only Tio and Pachamama (Goddess of the mountain) that can help give you the good luck you need to get back out alive. Scary.
When we had walked around maybe half an hour to an hour (it is difficult to tell time in there) I was guided off of the tunnel we'd been walking and into a narrow and very low tunnel that we had to climb through to get to some other place where miners worked. We did this several times, and each time I was really short of breath due to the physical activity, and maybe due to nerves as well. At some point he had us climb up a steep ladder, then another one and then through muddy waters to get to an extremely narrow little space where two miners were working. I could feel how it got hotter and hotter the further into the mountain we got, and I couldn't help thinking many times how I couldn't believe that anyone could work under these conditions. It was absolutely horrifying. We met a group of workers trying to get a trolley up on the tracks - it looked extremely heavy. We gave them our last coca leaves and cigarettes, and I talked to a couple of them. Most of the workers I had talked to were in their 20's, and most of them early 20's, but the guy I talked to here had just turned 16. Sixteen! I couldn't believe it. It really puts things in perspectiove that kids that young do work this physically and mentally exhausting. And it seemed like the most natural thing. I couldn't help feeling spoiled with my safe background. This life is so different from the life I know in Denmark, that's for sure. You can't help but wish there was something to be done to improve the conditions of the miners - besides for making them happy to see a young, blonde girl down in their own personal hell.
When the trip came to an end (which I think it did because some stones and mountain was falling down from the roof of the tunnel and the guide thought it unsafe to walk any further) and we walked all the way back through the many tunnels (I don't know how they don't get lost) I was happy to see "the light at the end of the tunnel". But when I got outside, my eyes hurt so bad in the sunlight and it took more than 10 minutes before I could open my eyes completely. I can only imagine what it's like getting out in the sun after working through the night. Ouch! Still, this is probably one of the most amazing experiences I will ever have and I am not likely to forget it anytime soon, hopefully never. There aren't words to describe the utterly inhumane conditions of all the thousands of workers that have changed so little over the last hundreds of years. I can only hope that some of them faces a brighter future, although for most of them that's probably too late.
I will let that be my last words in this blog entry, and make a whole other one about my trip to Uyuni and my upcoming trip to Sucre, "The White City". I hope that reading about the mines of Potosi will have given you something to think about. It sure did me. Ciao chicos.