You might think differently about your job after a trip to one of the world’s highest cities – Potosi, Bolivia. Potosi is home to Cerro Rico Mountain – an endless series of nightmarish mines. Maybe every employer should send their employees on a Potosi mine tour. I feel like a complete wimp for ever complaining about any of my past employment situations. I couldn’t imagine worse working conditions. The Potosi mines are simply hell on earth. There are even devils down there (seriously).
I’d say I’m borderline claustrophobic. I don’t like being in tight dark spaces and I’d never go spelunking. I already plan on wussing out on the “Death Road” Bike Ride with Bryan, so I figured I’d toughen up and do a Potosi Mine Tour. This ‘Round the World Trip’ has been continually taking me way out of my comfort zone so I figure this would just be another “growing experience.” Although the mine tours are popular among backpackers visiting Bolivia, they definitely aren’t touristy. There are no safety regulations in the mines and accidents are a real possibility.
Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) of Potosi has been mined since the 1500’s. In its prime, the mountain was the world’s richest source of silver and even funded the expansion of the Spanish empire for 200 years. Potosi was once extremely wealthy and one of the largest cities in the world. The saying goes that you could build a bridge from Potosi to Spain with the silver mined from the mountain, but you could build two bridges from Potosi to Spain and back with bones of people who have died in the mines. An estimated over 8 million miners have died in the history of the Potosi mines. The mountain was depleted of silver by 1800 but miners continue to work around the clock to harvest many various metals such as tin, lead, and zinc.
Our traveling friends opted not to do the tour because of the possible dangers, so it was just Bryan and I. We suited up in jackets, pants, helmets with a headlamp, rain boots, and a potato sack backpack. On the way we stopped at the small miners’ street market to buy gifts for the miners. You can buy dynamite, alcohol, beer, coca leaves, juice, cigarettes, and gloves as gifts. Coca leaves are the lifeblood of the mines. The miners don’t have an opportunity to eat during their shifts so they chew huge wads of coca leaves. They walk around with huge chipmunk cheeks and chunks of brown and green residue in their teeth. The coca leaves are said to stave of hunger and give the miners energy.
Many of the miners start their day at 2 a.m. This allows them to be finished in the afternoon so they can sell their mined materials to the mineral refineries. As they enter into the mine, they give offerings to “Tio” the underground devil of the mines to ensure their safety. Although the majority of Bolivia is Roman Catholic, Tio the devil is worshipped underground and Jesus is worshipped outside of the mines. They believe that Jesus doesn’t have the power underground to protect them in the mines and he would never enter such a terrible place. The miners light a cigarette in Tio’s mouth for him to smoke. They pop open a beer to share with Tio – pouring it in every direction to protect all of the mountain’s miners and pouring some on Tio’s penis for fertility. They also offer dead llama fetuses to Tio and decorate him and party with him on Fridays and special occasions. Every mine has at least one Tio statue.
The mines of Cerro Rico are a huge, dark, never-ending maze. I have no idea how they find their way around. The beginning of the mine was chilly but as we walked it became increasingly hotter. At our final point, it was over 100 degrees fahrenheit. Temperatures in the mine range from below freezing to over 113 degrees Fahrenheit. At our hottest point, the miners were shirtless and drenched in sweat. Our group was sitting down exhausted, sweating, and complaining about the heat. But we weren’t even working. All we were doing was meandering around and giving out gifts for a couple hours. For some reason, the tour guide only knew Bryan’s name so she kept calling him out to do things. He had to help two miners push an empty trolley for a few minutes and he was already worn out. The miners were blasting dynamite, shoveling heavy loads, and pushing two ton full trolleys hour after hour, day after day. And they weren’t complaining. In fact, they were friendly and welcoming. A few of the miners sat down with us and joked around, asking the guys in our tour group if they had any sisters. I can’t help but wonder what keeps them going each day. Is this the only life they know or do they find some kind of satisfaction in their job that we can’t understand?
Most of the miners we met were in their late teens. You would never guess they were that young – they look much older. Some miners start as children (some as young as 12 years old). Many of the child miners have lost their fathers to lung disease from the toxic mine air. The children only make a few dollars a day and work long shifts six days a week in order to provide for their families. Many miners work until they are in their 40’s or 50’s and then die soon after from lung disease from the chemicals they are exposed to in the mines. Those miners that make it to their 50’s are the “lucky” ones – many die from silicosis pneumonia within a decade of starting their work in the mines. There are also the threats of death from falling rocks, explosions, trolley accidents, mercury poisoning, and much more.
I was more than ready to get out of the mine after two hours. The air was thick and hard to breath. You could see heavy clouds of particles in the air. I was tired of squeezing my way through tight places not much wider than my hips and I had hit my head on the low rock ceiling countless times. I was also tired of tromping through the “mud.” There aren’t any bathrooms in the mine so the brownish, yellowish water we walked through definitely wasn’t just mud. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see daylight.
I currently don’t have a job, and probably won’t be working for another two years. When I do work again, I hope to keep the images of those miners in mind. The worse day at most jobs is infinitely better than the best day in the Potosi mines. Bryan hoped that I would leave the mines thinking twice before I asked for jewelry now that I saw the conditions that silver miners work. He’d do anything to get out of buying jewelry.
Walking around the city of Potosi later that day, it broke my heart to see the cute little boys. They seemed so happy and carefree. A group of them were gleefully running up and down a hill with kites made from scraps of trash bags. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them are destined for a lifetime of mining followed by an early death from lung disease? I hope and pray they find another career path.