What does a Potosi miner want for Christmas..?

“…A new job!”

Well, that would be top of my list if I had to spend 10-14 hours a day in the hot (up to 45oC), dark, dusty airless tunnels chipping, packing, exploding, sorting and shifting heavy rocks and minerals. Also on my list for Santa would be: a professional massage (to ease away the back ache from crouching and bending all day), some jasmine scented bath oil (to wash away the grime and stink of hard graft) and some decent protective hand cream (the dust and rocks are very drying and chafing).

Do the miners of Potosi have the same sort of ideas as me..?
Not exactly.

Their wish list consists of:

– Dynamite
– Chemicals to make the dynamite explosion more effective
– Fuses
– Fizzy drinks
– Coca leaves & some kind of black stuff that increases their effect
– Cigarettes

This was what our guide (and ex-miner) Ronaldo, suggested we buy as gifts when we stopped at the market on the way to the mine last Wednesday morning.

Our tour began with us all getting kitted out in welly boots, protective over-clothing (one size, fits none), bandanna-style scarves (to stop us breathing in too much dust) hard hats and torches. We looked suitably silly as you can see here:

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We were split into smaller groups and our guide asked how everyone was feeling – any altitude sickness, claustrophobia, asthma etc. Luckily we were feeling pretty good (at that point!), so our guide took us off to market to buy our goodies for the miners. A “blowing-up” kit of dynamite, explosive accelerator and fuse costs just £2.00 and anyone can buy it. Our group bought a kit for the miners and another for ourselves to blow up at the end of the tour. Ronaldo passed round some insanely strong alcohol (96%) that the miners drink a little of before starting work for the day and also offer to “El Diablo” so that they will find plenty of minerals in the mines. The believe the purer the alcohol, the better the offering to the devil of the mine. In the days of the Spanish, Potosi was a mainly silver mine, but they took virtually all of it so now it produces mainly tin and more recently zinc. Ise was keen to try some of the alcohol, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the local beer…

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Once we’d done our shopping, we set off for the mine in a minibus, chewing coca leaves (to give us energy and to help those suffering from mild altitude sickness) and clutching plastic bags of rola cola (Peter Kaye fans will know what I’m talking about…) and dynamite. When we arrived, Ronaldo showed us around the mineral processing plant, which was full of dangerous chemicals and wobbly floorboards (health and safety again sorely lacking), then finally it was time to go down into the mine.

The two hours we spent in the mine were pretty awful from start to finish and really made me appreciate just how easy my office job is. Almost as soon as we started walking into the mine, it became hard to breathe. We were bent over, avoiding low ceiling beams and the dust managed to quickly work its way into our mouths, noses and throats despite the scarves covering our faces. Once we’d gone in a little way, Ronaldo let us catch our breath and told us about the long hours that the miners work and that they are not expected to live past their mid-fifties because most develop horrible respiratory diseases like “black lung” or cancer.

After a short rest, we went deeper into the mine, crouching or crawling through rubble and dust in confined spaces. I found it much harder to breathe while crouching and had to stand, or stretch out as often as I could in order to suck in enough oxygen to continue. We all agreed that we couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the coca leaves.

We got to meet some of the miners and Ronaldo handed out our gifts to them (they seemed particularly pleased with the fizzy drinks – maybe it combats the horrible dry throats caused by the dust) and got to see them hard at work shifting the minerals.

Near the end of the mine tour Ronaldo showed us “El Diablo”, the devil of the mines, surrounded by empty bottles of 96% alcohol, representing fertility (as you can see from the picture below)!

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Finally, after what felt like days, we emerged, blinking and grinning into the sunshine and fresh air like skinny, bald, coca-chewing moles and it felt amazing. I can’t imagine going down there ever again, let alone for over 10 hours each and every day for the rest of my life. Those guys have one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the world and they have all my respect.

Last but not least, Ronaldo set up our dynamite and explosive stuff with a fuse and lit it for us to pass around (the fuse lasts for about 3 minutes) before running off with it into a patch of scrub, while we waited with our cameras to film the explosions, with mounting anticipation and nerves…

Before Potosi, we spent a couple of days in Sucre, a lovely old Colonial town. There’s not much to do in Sucre, but we did visit the wonderfully tacky Parque Cretacico, which is half an hour away on the “Dino bus”!

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There have been more than 5000 dinosaur tracks found at the cliff-face of the cement factory outside Sucre. These 68 million year-old tracks include a 581 metre long track made by a small dinosaur that walked on his hind legs and was nicknamed “Johnny Walker” by the archaeologists that studied the tracks. There are also tracks made by 20 metre long Sauropods (like diplodocuses and brontosauruses), ornithopods (bird-like dinosaurs) and anchilosaurs (spiky dinosaurs with armadillo-like scales).

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We weren’t allowed to get up close to the footprints, but we could take photos from a distance and our guide showed us around the park, telling us about how the tracks have survived through time while life-size model dinosaurs roared and screeched at us. Ise made friends with a couple of them…

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As usual, more pictures here.
Love Gude x

13 Comments so far

  1. Nunk on October 17th, 2009

    Brilliant blog…as enjoyable as ever. Quite a blast wasn’t it!  Much love Nunk – I am in Faversham! xxxx

  2. Mum and Dad C on October 18th, 2009

    Fascinating. I’d have hated the mine.Very claustrophobic.  Just think that in Victorian England, children as young as 7 were used to pull those bogeys. Do you remeber going into the mine at Beamish?  Much more health and safety conscious, with props to shore it all up. Mum xxxx

    Looks like you should all have had face masks. I don’t suppose the local shops sell them. 3M(Scotch) are missing a trick in not exporting them. Well done to the miners for getting tourists to subsidise them. Very enterprising. I can see why the mine has a devil associated with it, rather than a god! Glad you made it safely out. Dad X

  3. Karen & Jessica on October 18th, 2009

    I love my job and will  never complain about it again!  Ever!
    Love from us both.
    xx

  4. Granny Gainford on October 18th, 2009

    Hello from Granny. Using the internet for the first time to read about your fascinating adventures. Missing both of you, can’t wait to see you when you get back. Thank you for the postcards.
    Lots of love,

    Granny G.

  5. Rosie on October 20th, 2009

    Hey Gude and Isaac,

    Still loving the blogs!
    I felt claustrophobic just looking at your video of the mine, not sure I would have been able to stay in there for too long.  Its amazing how long those guys are in there, respect indeed.  Loved the anticipation of waiting for the dynamite to go off!

    Keep the adventures coming.

    Lots of love
    xxxxx

  6. David 'n' Stine 'n' Nick Nick on October 20th, 2009

    Gudie, how can it be that even going down t’mine you look glam? Check your fashionably wrapped and ruched shirt and hareem style pants. Love it! Another fabulous blog that perfectly captures the horror of being down there in the dark.
    Missing you lots. Hope you enjoy your birthday goodie bag that David has kindly promised to deliver. Keep on having a wonderful time.
    Hugs xxx

  7. Isaac on October 21st, 2009

    err, what about me?!  I though I was rocking a particularly fetching “Man at C&A” look in that garb.

  8. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    Ha!  It’s all about strategic use of the belt daahling…  😉

     

    Am now quite giddy about birthday goodies and the imminent arrival of David in Rio!

    Wish the Harveys could join us there too.

    Lots of love xxx

  9. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    It’s one of those things that you’re glad you did, but you wouldn’t want to do again! 

  10. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    Apparently Potosi miners can start as young as 12.  I’m glad we didn’t see any children down there…
    Yes I remember Beamish – it wasn’t very far either was it?  We walked 1.5km into the Potosi mine and then the same back out, but because we went down too, the guide said it was further than that (sounds like a pythagorus maths problem to me).

    Didn’t see any face masks in the miners market, but a couple of other tourists had them.  If I ever go back, i’ll take some to sell! x

  11. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    Hehe, that’s exactly how I felt! x

  12. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    Hello Cyber-Gran!

    Glad you’re now on t’interweb  🙂   Missing you too and wish you were here in the sunshine with us.
    More postcards on their way to you….

    Lots of love x

  13. Gude on October 21st, 2009

    Hey Rosie! 
    It was so horribly claustrophobic down there – i don’t mind small smaces, but lack of oxygen is another matter… 

    Hope all is good with you xx