Potosi, Bolivia


Here's our shopping list this afternoon: coca leaves, 96% "alcohol potable", hand-rolled cigarettes, biscuits, dynamite. Dynamite??? Yes, it's only in Bolivia where tourists can buy dynamites but don't even think we're bringing the stuff back with us as souvenirs. These are to be used at the mines beneath Cerro Rico, that mountain towering like a pyramid over downtown Potosi where our group is going into. Potosi already sits at a dizzying altitude of 4,090 meters above sea level so you can imagine what we're dealing with: going midway up the mountain in this thin air and into its bowels for about two hours of mining adventure with actual miners!


What we're buying at the miner's street market is actually our gifts for the miners themselves. A bag of the goodies, including dynamite and sodium nitrate, cost 25 Bolivianos. A bottle of Ceibo "alcohol potable" cost an additional 15 Bolivianos. I won't be surprised if Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen will find Potosi to be their Garden of Explosive Eden. I held my dynamite stick with such care knowing our van, 11 of us carrying 11 dynamites in all, can be one hell of a mushroom cloud if something catastrophic happens.



We put on our protective miner's suit, boots and helmets at the downtown office that conducts the mine's tours. As soon as we arrived at the mine's entrance, headlamps were handed to each of us with the 24-hour battery pack secured at our backs. They're our only source of light as everything else in front of us would be otherwise dark. With our bags of gifts, we entered the main tunnel and met a miner pushing a wheelbarrow full of ore ready for extraction outside. Our guide, a local woman, immediately asks one bag to be given to this man. The air was noticeably stale and dusty. Blasting with dynamite was ongoing as we heard muted explosions coming from caverns deep below us.

Deeper into the tunnel we went down, walking on a very uneven floor then clambering up and down shafts while dusts whirled all around us. Further down, we encountered an altar dedicated to El Tio, the so-called god of the underworld. El Tio doesn't look like the regular saint on an altar - more like a scarecrow. Miners offer El Tio cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves, hoping that this shrine amongst the rubble and dust would offer the miners safety and best of all, an abundant ore for extraction. These days, zinc is the most profitable mineral being extracted as silver is almost depleted.

Our guide asks for a dynamite which was given to one of the miners. A hole has been burrowed on some potential area, ready for some blasting. With the fuse attached and ignited, Tom bravely volunteers to place the stick and we all huddled in the safety of another chamber nearby. In just a few seconds - booom! - the whole place shook with explosion as a blast of air and dust whirred all around us. That was a very unnerving experience really. I got worried at that point that an exploding dynamite might cause a cave-in!



Miners as young as 12 years old toil around the many interconnected shafts. Conditions, just like the Spanish times, remain very crude that they are constantly exposed to a myriad of dangers: cave-ins, tuberculosis and silicosis. One man I met is all covered up with dust and grime, looking like a middle-aged laborer only to be told he's 18 years old! I wonder how long he's got to live? If not for the coca leaves they chew which numbs them from hunger and thirst and gives them that much needed stamina, they wouldn't even survive a day here. Working in these conditions is the pay-off for what miners think make them earn more than the average male Boliviano.


As we clambered up a very narrow shaft, supported by all four extremities, I thought nothing about Cerro Rico as "Rich Mountain" but rather as "Death Mountain". Cerro Muerte, why not? With all those who died in the mines since the Spanish times up till now, lives are really being lost faster than the rate at which any ore is being harvested.

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