Arriving into Potosi was like arriving into a whole new world. Narrow roads wound round the city, with cars hurtling around them. It was like being back in India with its mad traffic. Western influence didn't have a hold here with most people still dressed in traditional costume. This was a sight in itself and paved the way for the rest of Bolivia. The women wore full skirts to the knees, which did nothing for their hips or size. In fact a size zero model would look like a size twenty in these skirts- they were so unflattering! Cardigans and shirts were worn on top and long braided hair (in two braids) swung down their backs. To complete this amazing ensemble was a bowler hat, perched delicately on top. Some women had brightly coloured material tied around their necks and in the back would peek a tiny baby head or vegetables. Certainly a sight to behold and made Bolivia much more appealing. It depicted life as life has always been. We later learned that women dressed like this due to the Spanish conquest and subsequent influence. The bowler hats were a substitute for the veils and hats the Spanish women wore.
Potosi is mainly known for silver. Looming in the background is the mountain Cerro Rico, responsible for all the wealth- and misery - of the town. Silver was discovered here in 1544 when according to the Lonely Planet "a local Inca, Diego Huallpa, searching for an escaped llama, stopped to build a fire at the foot of the mountain known in Quechua as 'Potojsi' (meaning 'thunder' or 'explosion' in Quechua, although it might also have stemmed from potoj, 'the springs'). The fire grew so hot that the very earth beneath it started to melt, and shiny liquid oozed from the ground."
From then on the mountain was exploited, making Potosi one of the wealthiest cities of its time. Mining still continues to this day and in pretty much the same conditions as in the sixteenth century. This one mountain has also been responsible for over 8 million deaths in its history. Not a happy place.
Therefore, with a warning of the conditions in mind, we booked a tour of the mines. There are still over 300 active mines, ranging from small local co-operatives to large scale ones. Our visit was to one of the smaller mines. We were first kitted out in our mining gear - overalls to cover our clothes from the dirt, a hard hat and wellingtons to keep our feet dry. Next stop was to buy some gifts for the miners. First was coca leaves. Coca leaves are very important in Bolivia and especially to the miners. Being the basis for cocaine understandably the Bolivian government has certain issues over the growing of these leaves and the USA has tried greatly to stop it. However, in its natural leaf state, it is chewed to prevent tiredness, reduce hunger and generally maintain alertness. For miners who work twelve hour shifts it is is a godsend. We were able to try some but I must admit it is a taste to be acquired and I soon spat it out!
Second was to buy some dynamite. All the miners are self-employed and work as part of a co-operative. Therefore they have to provide all their own tools and explosives. Given that the miners only make around 50 Bolivanos a day (around £5), the gifts tourists bring really help out. The dynamite is around 20 Bolivanos for a stick. We were able to see the different types of sticks, the wicks etc and it was incredible that we were actually allowed to buy them just from a street stall.
Other gifts included a small bottle of alcohol - 96% proof. This is drunk by the miners and is also used as an offering to the mine devil. I tried a sip and wished I hadn't. It was disgusting and I am really not sure how the miners drank it! Our bag of gifts also included some crackers and food - maybe to take away the taste of the alcohol!
Armed and ready, we set off to the mountain. We were in luxury sitting in a small mini-van. For the miners, they cram into what almost look like cattle trucks and stood the whole bouncy way to the mine. At the mine we could see a tiny entrance with a truck backed in. This was waiting to accept the gifts from the mine. As we watched, a man ran out from within the mine with a wheelbarrow full of rock. He hurtled the wheelbarrow forward to tip out its contents into the truck. Then, once empty he niftily turned and ran pushing it back in.
We were kitted with lamps on top of our helmets and were then led into the mines. For the first 5 steps you could stand upright but then the roof lowered and it was a half bent walk. We followed our guide through a maze of tunnels, stopping every so often to flatten against the wall as the wheelbarrow man hurtled past us. We turned off the main tunnel and stopped to watch some miners at work. This mine had no machinery and the work was all manual. One man at the bottom of the tunnel broke off the rock. This was then shovelled up to one layer then on to another, then into the wheelbarrow, which was then, as we had already witnessed, whizzed off to the entrance. Some of the boys in our group tried to move the full wheelbarrow and really didn't get very far at all!
We left some gifts for these miners then carried on winding our way through tunnels until we reached the Tio - the devil who the miners worship for safety and prosperity. This obscene statue (with the biggest hard on ever!) was sprinkled with the alcohol and offered coca leaves. You also had to rub his penis to bring luck. Interesting and what a contrast to the Christian cross so often hanging at the entrance to mines!
Leaving the devil behind we wound through more tunnels to meet more miners. By this point I was completely lost and would never have been able to find my way out. Finally we came across a miner digging a hole ready for dynamite. We were able to have a go at digging but it was definitely harder than it looked. Then the next miner took some dynamite from us and ran off ahead. We watched him prepare the fuse which he then proceeded to light in front of us. The wick had a three minute blow time so understandably we were a wee bit anxious. Returning he pushed us into a side room, turned off all the lights and made us wait. In the dark the wait seemed to stretch endlessly. Then there was a massive boom which shook every atom of your being. It was immense. We were told it was too dangerous to go and look at what damage the dynamite had done immediately and the miners would have to wait half an hour before returning to allow everything to settle, so we just had to carry on our journey through the mines.
The miner gave us a bag of rock to carry out and, fair play to David, one of the lads in the group, he did try carrying it to the entrance but was scuppered by a tricky bit of climbing. There was a small log we had to crawl over then a sheer wall to climb down. I personally was scared witless. The log was bad enough but the sheer wall was frightening. There was a rope to use, but it had frayed at the end so you could not use it all the way. Instead you had to lean across the gap and use the wall opposite to help you climb down. I managed it but then shook for about 5 minutes afterwards! How the miners did it with bags on their backs I will never know and certainly David did not manage it.
We climbed out of the mines to sunshine. Before we left we were able to see an explosion and not just hear. Once again the dynamite was prepared and lit in front of us. The man then casually walked off to place it on a rock to explode. He did start running towards the end which only heightened the excitement. With the dynamite placed he came back and the wait started. Knowing it would boom in no way prepared us for it. The sound was deafening and made the rock under us shake. Apparently all the dynamite is placed in the mines ready for midday. The mines are then evacuated and off blows the bombs. This was the only safety aspect we really saw.
The trip made me in complete awe of the job the miners do down there. It is physically demanding, dark, wet and- to put it mildly - extremely unpleasant! With no elevators the miners squeeze and crawl through small spaces and climb up and down old wooden ladders to access the deep-cut extremes of the Potosi mines. We were told that the larger mines even though they have machinery, with it comes more danger and certainly it is not machinery we would expect in the western world!
The mines go the depth of the mountain and in the lower levels can reach up to 45 degrees c in temperature. This is with inadequate ventilation. Over 300 mines dominate the mountain and as a result the mountain is now several feet lower above sea level than previously! What will happen when the metal runs out is anyone´s guess.
Later we watched a film called ´The Devil´s Miner´ following a boy´s life in the mines. Whilst technically there is an age limit for children working in the mines, sometimes it is a necessity for them to earn money for their families and have no option but to work the mines. For this boy, he was mining whilst also going to school to try and make a difference. Education was the most valuable thing he had and shows how spoilt we are in the western world and what we take for granted.
Leaving the mines, we were accosted by children selling rocks. In a fit of empathy we all bought the rocks which they had probably picked up from the roadside. The children made more from us in 10 minutes than the miners did in the day. Ironic isn't it!
Lunch was next on the agenda. Like in India, we had been warned that service was slow and that food would come out at different times so when you got your meal don't wait for others but eat. Our lunch certainly put this theory to the test. Being hungry, we all ordered simple things thinking it would come quicker. An hour and half later we still had not had anything to eat. David´s came first. He had ordered a ham and cheese sandwich. Not hard. It was tiny - the size of a teacup saucer and had been toasted but so quickly that the cheese was still cold and in no way melted. David´s face was a picture. The rest of the food followed and was not much better. Katy´s coffee came after we asked for the bill. There was one waiter and two women in the kitchen and no other guests to use as an excuse. Certainly an interesting experience.
By the time lunch was over it was time for dinner. This time, in a different restaurant, we fared better and it was much more enjoyable. We finished the day enjoying the square decorated for Christmas. All the lights had been turned on and it was so pretty and festive. It was a delight. A local band then started playing but was so dreadful we soon escaped to enjoy more of the lights in other parts of the town. Potosi certainly brought in the festive spirit.
Before leaving Potosi we visited their local museum which used to be the Mint for the country. Now though the coins are made in Chile, the 2 Bolivanos in Canada and the notes printed in France. It is too expensive to produce their own money. I thought this was a real shame and the museum echoed this sadness of former glory gone by. This is a reflection of Potosi all over. Once rich for its wealth in silver the more this is depleted the more it will impact on the economy of the town. A never ending circle with little chance of reprise.