Down, Down, Deeper and Down
The road to Potosi, the "highest city in the world" at 4800m, was on a small, shonky, bus - none of the luxury cama-buses of Peru, here. Rather, it was jam-packed jalopy with whole families squeezed into 2 seats, breastfeeding in the aisle, and a young lad relieving himself though the window of the moving vehicle (fortunately, our window was closed so there was no re-entry!)
Potosi is famous for one thing, and has been for hundreds of years - mining. The mammoth Cerro Rico looms over the town in more than one way. Over 300 years of Spanish rule was funded by the silver extracted from this mountain, using slave labour under barbarous conditions. Nowadays, the silver is almost depleted, but the mountain still yields enough zinc, silver and tin to support over 150 active mines, 15,000 miners, their families and the entire town's economy. However, the working conditions have barely improved from colonial times and are still pretty shocking. 15 deaths due to accidents per year on top of the life expectancy of 45, or less, for miners, mostly due to silicosis. Of course, no-one uses any respiratory equipment more sophisticated than a handkerchief.
Although the mountain is mined by co-operatives, who share profits equally, competition is fierce between those groups and woe betide a group whose mine crosses path with another. Physical fights break out and, only 2 years ago, 6 miners were killed when such a confrontation escalated to using dynamite as a weapon!
A tour of the mines starts with a visit to the miners´ market (for a change, not a tourist trap but the real supply point for all the miners working in the co-operatives), to purchase gifts for the miners into whose realm we would be intruding. Coca leaves, to stave off exhaustion. Sugary drinks, as no food is eaten in the dust-plagued atmosphere below ground. 90 percent alcohol, for the Devil or Tio (Uncle) as he's affectionately known around here. As was explained to us, God watches above ground, but this is the devil's domain. Only he causes, or can prevent, roof collapses! Sticks of dynamite are also available (for about 30p), together with blasting cap, a fuse, and Ammonium Nitrate to make the blast even greater - when mixed, it is known as a completo - the whole shebang!
Inside the mine, the brutal conditions are quickly apparent, with only natural ventilation, no electric lighting, mining-by-hand, back-breaking ceilings and claustrophobically-tight crawl spaces. The roofs are propped up by worryingly cracked, sloping ancient beams and heavy clouds of dust are everywhere. To get to the lower levels means scambling down 45-60 degree slopes - the only winches are for bringing up the raw mineral conglomerates, not for passengers. These are the conditions in the mine at the upper levels, which are now only used for shuttling up the materials from the lower depths, where noxious gases lurk and explosions occur without warning. No tourists are welcome, or would wish to go, down there.
To leave the mine after 2 hours was bliss - the miners work there 8-10 hours per day, without any breaks or food, 6 days a week. Everyone in the group realised that they were quite happy to return to their office jobs after the visit. As light relief, an explosive demonstration was given outside the mine. Still, nobody, sings Hi Ho, Hi Ho in this mine- not even in jest.