"Being a horrible claustrophobe, I decided a visit to the mines was exactly what I wanted."
"It was depressing to think of what shape they'll be in when they're my age."
"Just don't let Pat Robertson find this out."
Chilling with George May 14, 2003 Potosi, Potosi, Bolivia
A Land Down Under Potosi, Potosi, Bolivia
Thursday May 15, 2003
From La Paz, the world's highest national capital... to Potosi, the world's highest city. The 11 hour overnight bus ride was not particularly enjoyable, but I survived. See, it gets really cold but the buses have no heat. That's not so much the problem as is the fact that with all the windows closed against the cold, there's no air circulation. It gets a little swampy and zoo-like at times.
Not only is Potosi the highest sizable city in the world, it was once the biggest city in the western hemisphere. At a time when London, Paris and New York had less than a hundred thousand people... this place supposedly had 150,000. About 50,000 more than now. The reason, what was once an incredibly rich silver mine inside a mountain that looms over the city. Lonely Planet claims that in Spain they even still say "es un Potosi." Literally, "it's a Potosi." Supposedly it refers to something or someone that's incredibly rich.
"That's without eating." The mines are still in operation and tourists are allowed into the first few levels for a visit of two to three hours. The conditions the miners work under are much the same as they were hundreds of years ago.
Miners Crank Minerals Out of a Pit
But the mines riches have long been hauled away. Today miners collect minerals like zinc, lead and what's left of the silver. They now work for themselves, as part of a cooperative that runs the mine, but generally earn about five or six dollars per eight hour work day. That's without eating, but still very good money for the area.
But the eight dollars a day come at a price. The dynamite explosions send toxic dust into the air which kills them. Not immediately, but in as few as ten years after beginning work in the mine they can be dead of whatever lung disease ensues. And they start young. Supposedly some of the cost of tourist visits is dedicated to a health care fund, but I imagine that doesn't exactly include treatment at Cedars-Siani.
"Some ridiculous looking protective clothes." So being a horrible claustrophobe, I decided a visit to the mines was exactly what I wanted to do.
A Miner Enjoys a Cigarette During a Break
I plopped down my six dollars and headed off with Hans the 50 year old Dutch guy who'd happened to book the same tour. First we changed into some ridiculous looking protective clothes and miners' hats with lights. Then the long walk into the mine began.
You have no idea how hard it is to walk hunched down for long periods of time. Especially at about 14,000 feet in a mine with even further reduced oxygen supplies. It was the first time since I've been up high that I've really felt that hopeless breathless feeling. There were parts that required crawling with your chest almost totally on the ground, but generally you could at least stand hunched over.
"90 degrees with a humidity approaching 100%." There's compressed air pumped into some of the mine, but as we went deeper and
Miners Crank Minerals Out of a Pit
deeper you could feel the oxygen running out. When we got deep enough to meet a group of four brothers working on their vein of minerals, it was at least 90 degrees with a humidity approaching 100%.
They seemed rather happy to see us. Especially since we brought cocoa leaves and cigarettes. The miners now count on "tips" from tourists and usually seem grateful to get them. The brothers had just set off some dynamite and were waiting for the worst of the dust to settle before hauling out what they'd exploded. They said they work the mine at least six days a week and often seven. They couldn't have been more than 22 years old. It was depressing to think of what shape they'll be in when they're my age.
"The 700 Club will be going on tour." We also met the devil-god of the mine. It's a long story, but the basic deal is
George the Devil God
that the miners figure God, Jesus and company run the world above and the devil runs the place underneath... so they may as well honor the devil while they're in the mines. They do this while remaining devout Christians. Just don't let Pat Robertson find this out or the 700 Club will be going on tour to Bolivia to combat this wickedness.
I'm off this morning for Yunui, a small town on the edge of the world's largest salt plains. Bolivia seems full of "the world's largest" or tallest or highest things... doesn't it? I'll do a four-day jeep tour through the plains that ends in San Pedro, Chile. If the place looks like I imagine, it'll be totally cool to see in person but the photos will suck. Just so you're warned.