Despite the Patrick Swayee Double Bill the previous night until the small hours of the morning, managed to bring my body down to the breakfast hall the next morning for a bite to eat before setting off on a tour of the infamous silver mines nearby. Along with the inclusive egg, bread, juice and tea, met many of my fellow hostel guests who were also taking a tour that day. Quite a few were also the surpluses of an intended tour for the weekend, but found had to wait until Monday - when the miners were back at work.
A Koala representative (the company of both my hostel and tour agency) walked the big crowd of us to the agency, where a bus was waiting. First stop though, was to a house (kinda) nearby, to pick up our all essential protection gear. Though advised by the Lonely Planet to "wear your gnarliest clothes", the fashionably dark jacket and trousers provided rendered our own clothing not top of the priority. Even our shoes were spared the trouble of getting sooty and dirty by replacing them with wellingtons. To top, we were also given bright yellow helmets, and an attachable electric lamp - powered by a pack strapped to our back. My wardrobe dresser (one of the guides) kindly tied the belt (for the pack) on for me with a lovely knot - giving a little more shape to the otherwise loose shapeless jacket.
Once everyone was suitably dressed, it was time to pile back into the bus. Next stop - Miners' Market, which would be a terrorist's heaven with all kinds of explosive readily available, and of course, all at Bolivian prices. We were spilt into three groups, as there were so many of us. There were three other English people in my group, sports teacher Louise and her gas engineer boyfriend Curtis, anther teacher Sarah (so many travelling teachers!! obviously can't complain about the low pay if so many can afford to quit their job and go travelling for a long time!!), and a Portuguse lawyer Philip. Our guide for the day was Efra, an ex-miner whose excellent English was picked up and refined through five years of working with tourists. As a testimony to the number of British travellers over American ones in South America, Efra used words like "trousers" and "torch" - a very refreshing change!
Standing around a little stall displaying various explosives, Efra gave us a quick lowdown on the products available. He passed around some dynamite sticks to us, and explained how they were all different - produced in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Peru, with different price labels. Of course, the Bolivian one is the best, and costs US$1, the same as the Argentinien and Chilean ones. Though very cheap, these little devils could blast its way through a metre cube of hard hard rock. The Peruvian one, at a lower price, was smaller and only good for softer rocks. Still, these are recommended as presents to the Mother-in-Law, Efra explained - adding that he always keeps a stick under his bed at the wife's. Curtis and Louise stepped back quickly as Efra suddenly threw the dynamite stick onto the ground. Nothing happened. For it to work, other elements was required, such as the detonator and bag of (I think, if remembered correctly) ammonium nitrate, plus a metre long fuse - to have a minute to run to safety.
As for the miners worked for themselves, and must buy their own supplies, it would be greatly appreciated to buy a bag of "completo" (pre-packed goodie bag of all the stuff mentioned above) and give to them as a gift. At a cost of only US$3 to us. After that we were ushered to a lady with coca leaves, so that we could all buy a bag of these as gifts too. The miners (like most of the Andean people) chew through bags of these, as they could not bring food down into the mines - the soot would simply give them stomache cancer. Chewed with a catalyst (available in men bitter flavour, or a more girly sweeter one), it numbs the senses, so they woudn't feel the hunger, the cold, the working condition etc. Hence these make excellent presents. "This afternoon, I will write an email to the Lonely Planet," Efra complained, "to tell them that cigarettes and alcohol are not good presents (as they have printed)". Not only is smoking bad, the ventilation in the mines is terrible, and plus they would be inhaling in all the dust. And is it really a good idea lighting up with so many explosives near you?? As for the alcohol, not only it would make them drunk, but the depth (some levels are more then 70m below the ground) would also make that worse.
Armed with our presents, we had a quick break in the markets to feed ourselves. Had to content myself with a plain banana sandwich, whilst everyone else was savouring the delicious hot empanada (pastry) only available filled with meat. Oh, where are those lovely egg and potatoe ones in La Paz?? Anyway, after that we were driven up to Cerro Rico, a mountain rich with minerals, and have been mined for the past four hundred years.
Shortly after the conquest, the Spaniards discovered silver and other minerals there, and built an infrastructure sufficient to exploit this - not only with railroads, but also shipped in slaves from Africa to work in the mines. The natives were not spared as workers neither - villages were built according to where they came from, so they worked an lived with people from their original community. All the indigenous people (including the proud Inca people from as far as Cusco) were required to do a few years of "National Service" in the mines. From the bad working conditions in the mines (man and natural), most of the miners die before the age of fifty. But before their death, they suffer from various respiratory diseases. Nonetheless, the Spaniards were very lucky with the mining, extracting 80% pure minerals and thus became very rich. This is evident in the city of Potosí - once the richest city in the world, with its many pieces of beautiful colonial architecture. Scientists, geologists and engineers are giving different figures of how many more years Cerro Rico can be mined, maybe twenty, thirty or fifty years - no-one really knows. But what is certain, is that though the mining eventually kills the workers painfully, the people of Potosí don't want the mines to be closed - for the very simple of having no other alternatives.
As the highest city in the world at 4070m above sea level, the altitude creates some very harsh climate, and the surrounding areas are too barren for productive farming. Most of the farmers come to Potosí and turn into miners instead. As co-operative miners, they don't enjoy a fixed or minimum salary. If they are lucky, they may mine a few tonnes of minerals (in their group) a day, so that each individual may get US$200 a month. I am ashamed to say that I spend about that much in a little more than a week, even in cheap Bolivia (price driven up by having to take tours). It's shocking how these people can sustain themselves and their family with this amount of money. Sadly some miners may not earn anything in a day, if they are unlucky enough not to have hit a mineral vein.
Some people who had taken the tour had warned me to be prepared. Not only are the mines small, dark and airless, but the primitive working condition is also pretty shocking. Luckily I was ok, and did not freak out, and neither did my group mates. But I think that's mainly due to the humourous atmosphere created not only by Efra, but also the other guides. Had noticed even when we were being dressed, that the guides were always making jokes - Efra explained that all the miners were the same. Considering how they work, the laughs help them through.
We had to scramble through lots of little tunnels, bumping our heads - yes even me! Thank goodness for the helmet!! and sometimes having to crawl on our hands and knees, and other times using all our limbs to climb up to the next level. So it was quite physically demanding as well as an eye opener. I do feel I have learnt a lot about the mines. As we were led in a fully working mine - not only for the tourists - we often ran into other miners at work. Efra would speak to them either in Spanish, or his native tongue Quechua, and then explain to us further what the miners were doing. As a gesture of goodwill, we would leave them a gift of a bag of completo, handful of coca leaves, or a bottle of soda. We even put in some physical work at one point, all taking a turn to shovel in a basket (weighing a tonne) filling it up with complejo (mined minerals only about 20% pure, and must be sent to be separated, and refined into powder - the process was explained to us at the factory before entering the mines).
In total, we had spent about three hours inside the mines - seeing the various activities involved, and stopping periodically for a rest, whilst Efra filled us in with the different aspects of mining, the miners, the city of Potosí and the Bolivian economy. Once back in the open, Efra and his friend constructed a bomb (bought by us) and exploded for us to see. Then it was back in the van again, back to Potosí, all looking forward to a nice hot shower, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.