What brought us to Potosi were the recommendations we got from friends who had been to this city, and especially from those who had entered the mines. Those interested can take a tour of the mine* in the company and under the guidance of a former miner. So we embraced the opportunity of such a special experience, and probably strong perspective change as well.
We started towards the mine at 1, all six of us (of which were left only 5 at the entrance in the mine, as one of us was claustrophobic) and we soon met Daniel, the guy who was to be our companion and guide. Our first stop was at the equipment store, where we put on a uniform and some rubber boots that would have made even uncle Vuitton blush. Also there we got our helmets and the light that was to go on top of our head. Next stop was the miners’ market, where we bought water and coca leaves for us, and some soft drinks, coca and dynamite as gifts for the miners. Throughout that whole time Daniel was giving us all sorts of information about the mines and miners, and we continuously bombarded him with even more queries. He responded perfectly to everything we asked, and we definitely recommend him as a guide if you do the tour of the mine.
Coca – the miners’ magical plant. And alcohol potable – another magic
Coca leaves are one of the most important things you can give to a miner, and something they never enter the mine without. With a huge ball of coca leaves between their teeth and cheek, they often look at you with a distorted face and sometimes you can hardly understand what they’re trying to communicate. Miners spend about 10-12 hours in the mine every day, and all this time they don’t eat anything, they just keep the coca leaves between their teeth and continuously maneuver their pickaxes. Coca keeps their hunger under control and also gives them the energy they need for the intense physical work they do, especially at that altitude – 4000 meters. For us even a simple walk proved quite difficult at that altitude, not to mention hitting the walls with hammers and pulling wagons. Miners give so much credit to the coca leaves for their strength that they spends about 15% of their monthly salary on the magical plant.
Another very traditional element for the Potosi miners is the “alcohol potable”, so to speak drinkable alcohol. What I did not think possible when I found out its actual alcohol concentration: 96%. These guys surely did not seem to be joking. The preferred time for consuming this drink is Friday afternoon, because most miners work a “normal” Monday to Friday program (by their own choice). So Friday afternoon is “group drinking” program, and people don’t play around – they don’t drink to make room for lofty conversation; the objective is “dead drunk” and nothing less! At least that way they can forgive for a moment about the toughness of the their conditions, of their work, of their life.
The silver refinery plant
From the miners’ market we moved on to the silver refinery plant. Small and large containers full of substances and mixtures, connected by belts and pipes that seemed ready to break any moment. I was afraid the whole time I was in there that a belt was going to snap somewhere and start a domino effect that would send us all over to the other side like in Final Destination.
Fortunately that was not the case, and the first breath I took when I got out was full of hope and joy that life and I were still best buddies. I hadn’t seen anyone in the room at all, so I asked Daniel: “So how does this mechanism work, there’s no one there to supervise?”. “No need, it’s all automatic. Someone passes from time to time to check that everything is okay, but there is no need for someone there all the time.” “Automatic” was the last word I had in mind upon seeing that entire system, which seemed to have been put in place a few centuries before.
Outside the plant Daniel showed us a stretch of dark gray pasty mass which was resting under the scorching sun. “Silver,” he clarified. Then he stuck his finger in the pasty matter, grabbed my hand, drew a ring on my finger and proudly proclaimed, “There, you’re my wife now.” So that’s how it’s done in Bolivia, huh?
At the entrance in the mine
Next destination was the mine entrance. The moment we got there we met with a lovely view: about 15 beer bearing miners, passionately talking about something I could not identify using my lip reading skills (especially since they’re truly inexistent). But they did not seem to be celebrating the birth of a newly born son (which would have indeed been reason for joy, as apparently miners love a big family – of those we spoke to, the one with the fewest children had only.. seven!). We later learned that two groups of miners were angry with each other because one of them had discovered a vein with a lot of potential, and now the other group wanted to exploit it as well. So the first group was much upset, and they were discussing over alcohol how to solve the situation – maybe not the best idea, but that just seems to be the way things are sorted out around there.
When they saw us though they truly rejoiced, and invited us to have beer with them, wanted to take pictures with us and really enjoyed welcoming us. Daniel had told us before that the miners are always happy to receive visitors (especially girls, as he made sure he mentioned) and now we had proof the man was right.
Inside the mine
We didn’t linger too long outside, and soon came the moment we were all expecting: entering the womb of the mountain. Further and further into the tunnel, Daniel had a big step and went so quickly that he seemed to be racing, and we were staggering after him, fighting to keep up. The landscape kept changing: different colors on the walls, puddles that sometimes seemed to become rivers (thank God for those rubber boots), the narrower and narrower tunnels … and then there were the level crossings, where we had to crawl on all four or slide on our butt through narrow holes. Definitely not a trail I’d see my grandma completing with flying colors.
And then there was the heat that accentuated as we got deeper into the mine, and the dusty air that made it so hard for us to breathe. We had bought some scarves to wear as face masks and we used them almost the whole time, but a scarf over your mouth is the last thing you want in an unbearable heat. That’s one reason why so many miners contract silicosis – is it possible to wear face masks at 40 degrees while doing back breaking work? Every single moment?
At one point we came across an older man who was working independently and had three bags of ore to carry out of the mine. When we met, he put the bag down and we had a bit of a chat for a while, about his 10 children and other things. When we said goodbye we offered to help him carry his bag. I grabbed it, put all my strength in lifting it off the ground… and I managed to budge it 1 millimeter. And our man was carrying it on his back from the bottom of the mine to the entrance. Unbelievable. I mean, seriously, unbelievable.
We had another couple of attempts to help, especially when it came to the wagons – we all pushed with all our strength, pulled with all our strength, the things didn’t even budge. But when the men put their hands back on the wagon, it began to move again more or less elegantly on the rail. Strong guys they are, no doubt about that!
Tio, the underground deity
Our last stop in the mine was a visit to Tio’s shrine. Tio is the deity that rules the underground world, and in the context of the miners he’s the one who decides their fate. So miners make sure they pay him a visit or two every single day and bring him various offerings (mainly coca, tobacco, alcohol … pretty much whatever they consume, and assume that the “uncle” likes them all the same). Tio is the one who has the power to keep the miners alive or not, to help them find rich veins or not, to bless them with joy or curse them with misery. Daniel told us stories about individuals who are said to have “sold his soul” to Tio … and have found veins that have made them millionaires, but then when they stopped bringing the promised offerings, they lost more than they had.
Many young miners don’t believe in Tio anymore, but of the old ones you won’t meet anyone who’s not afraid of the deity of the mine, and does not pray for his safety every day. At each level in each mine there is a small quiet corner where a shrine has been built for him. I asked Daniel where the name comes from, and he gave me two explanations: practically Tio is the “invention” of the Spanish, who saw in it a way of controlling and scaring the indigenous they were forcing to work in the mine. They were instructed to treat him always with great respect, because then he will protect them. So the Indians have always treated him with the respect they would pay an uncle (“tio”means uncle in Spanish). The second explanation is that “Tio” is how the indigenous people managed to pronounce “Dios”, and “Dios” means God in Spanish.
Before exiting the mine we found ourselves near an unattended wagon and took advantage of that to listen to Daniel explaining about the metals in the mine. We all searched for a little silver stone, but unfortunately those were the minority. Well, life.
Today around 8,000 miners enter the mine every day, out of which 1000 are children. The reality is painful … but up at the mountaintop nobody invited you to sit in an office behind a computer. Life really beats the movies! And speaking of the movies, “The Devil’s miner” is one you really want to add to your “to watch” list.
And if you visit Bolivia, you may want to add the Potosi mine to your itinerary. It’s a different kind of experience for sure.
* We chose Koala Den, and a tour costs 100 Bolivianos.
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