After my long stay in Sucre it felt good to be back on the move. There was still so much ground to cover in Bolivia and now I had kindergarten Spanish under my belt; what could hold me back? Perhaps a live and active road blockade in the city of Potosi, that could do the trick... About 5km outside the high altitude mining town an inconveniently placed tractor trailer made it pretty clear the bus was going no further. Everyone unloaded with limited fuss, it seemed this was not as uncommon as it felt. The rest of the journey downtown would be made on foot.
Potosi was once a booming city. Huge silver mines provided large amounts of wealth to the region during Spanish colonial times. But war, silver reserve depletion, severe human rights violations, and the loss of port access to Chile all contributed to a steady decline of Potosi into its current state; a poor, struggling city, with limited opportunity for its population. The mines are still very active, but much more zinc is recovered than silver, providing smaller returns for the workers.
It's a fairly common practice for tourists to visit the mines on organized tours. This is something that I would usually pass on, as guide companies tend to exploit the workers in these situations just as much as the companies they are employed by. But a former miner turned guide and educator came highly recommended so I put on a hard hat and climbed in. I didn't know what to expect as I descended down the first ladder sticking out of what ammounted to a small hole in the side of a mountain. What I found is something I would never want to experience again. Complete darkness was only broken by headlamps attached to the helmets. The first tunnel that I traversed was almost impossible to pass without getting on hands and knees. It was frigid cold (this is summer) and wet, yet a constant dust cloud lingered. In general it is difficult to breath in Potosi as the city is over 4000m above sea level, but in the tunnels it was damn near impossible. A black dust ring formed on the synthetic face mask around the condensation from my breath, and for the first time in my life I had small bouts of claustrophobic panic in the tight, unmarked maze. Following the guide, the group got as deep as the third of eleven levels in the mine. Beyond here was too dangerous and active to even consider bringing an inexperienced and unpredictable group of people to see, and I don't think I would have gone had the opportunity been on the table. Remnants of dynamite used to blow the tunnels could be seen next to large piles of rubble created from the blasts. This is all still manually moved into mine cars and pushed out by human hand.
There is a deep spiritual connection between the miners and the mountain that provides them both income and almost certain death. A devil type idol, 'Tio', is worshiped. The supposed lover of the Pachamama (Mother Earth), their lust gives life to the silver of the mountain. Offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol are given to Tio statues throughout the mines in exchange for safe work conditions and fruitful labor. Over the course of an 8-10 hour mining shift no food is consumed. The workers survive purely on the light buzz acquired from chewing the coca leaves with a catalyst to help extract the active ingredients; this is similar to knocking back coffee after coffee on a constant basis. The alcohol offerings are often partnered with a small sip for the worker, regularly made throughout a shift, however I am not talking about a bottle of vodka being passed around. This is 'puro - 96' or as you may be familiar 96% pure rubbing alcohol, the exact same thing I use as fuel in my camp stove. In the USA and Europe a bittering agent is included in this type of liquid so it can not be consumed. The life expectancy of a miner in Potosi is in the mid-fifties, and this is only above the long standing 35-40 range now that child labor (our guide began working in the mine at the age of 12) has been outlawed. Now you must be 18 to take on the job. Approximately 7,200 people work in the mine throughout many independent collectives and shafts. Two to three people lose their lives monthly from accidents within and lung cancer among other respiratory diseases is almost certain from the silica dust inhaled regardless of the use of respirators.
This was a truly humbling experience, and a shocking look at what one has to assume is only 'middle of the road' conditions for mining at a global scale. I was ready to kiss the ground upon our exit from the mine after only an hour and fifteen minutes; I can't really get my head around a 10 hour shift five to six days a week.
On a slightly lighter note, there is an incredible, yet scary, opportunity that is solely available in Potosi, and that is to legally purchase dynamite over the counter. Yes, you can walk up to a street vendor, pay Bs. 25 ($3.62) and be the proud owner of one stick dynamite, one fuse, and one igniter ready to lay waste to anything of your choosing. I was told this is the only place in the world where it is possible and I'm going to take the man's word for it.