A hell of a job

I will never complain about my job again.

Okay, so currently I don’t have a job, but when I do get one, I will never complain about it. Stressful deadlines, unpaid overtime, annoying colleagues, weekend work – it’s all just peachy with me. And why this sudden rose coloured attitude to work?

Because after crawling through the dank tunnels of  the Potosi silver mine I realised that no matter how unpleasant my job ever becomes it will still be heaven compared to the absolute hell that these silver miners work in.

Potosi is a small colonial town in the south of Bolivia which grew up around a silver mine. The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) that looms behind the town was once full of silver, legends tell of explorers finding lumps of pure silver scattered about the hillside. The mines opened in earnest in 1545 and for a time the city became fabulously wealthy, rivalling European cities such as Paris for beauty and decadence. But after more than 450 years of mining, the ore deposits are close to being tapped out. The silver has dropped in quality and the wealth has mostly disappeared.

The miners, however, are still there. Still heading to the Cerro Rico every day and – literally – risking their lives for the chance to earn their days wage. An average wage is between 70 to 100 Bolivianos.  That’s between US$10 and US$14.

A and I debated whether or not to go down this mine. From all reports this was not something to sign up to lightly. It is a working mine, and a primitive one at that, and we would have to contend with everything within it, from extreme temperatures to constant dust to navigating narrow mine shafts. But once our tour guide assured us that we could turn back and be safely escorted out at any point, we decided to go for it. How often do you get to head down a working silver mine?

By 10am the next morning we were kitted out in protective clothes, boots and hardhats, and our group had already been assigned the name Sexy Llama Fuckers by our guide Antonio. Our first stop was the Miners Market where we bought gifts for the miners; water, pure alcohol and coca leaves. Antonio explained how each of these was crucial to the miners – especially the coca.

Given it takes about 40 minutes to get to a mine site, the miners don’t particularly want to trudge up and back to a bathroom. Many of the miners work for themselves or as part of a cooperative, so wasted time is wasted money. So they don’t eat while they are down there. Chewing coca leaves helps them to suppress appetite, gives them a little bit extra energy and helps with altitude (the mine shafts start at around 4000m above sea level).

Gifts purchased we headed into the mine. We pulled up outside the gaping entrance and were given one last safety talk before we began. A few metres in to the first tunnel and a sense of unease came over me. Puddles covered the floor, cracked and sagging wooden beams held up the roof, worn electrical cables criss-crossed each other up and down the walls and all the while there was an ominous hiss from the air pipes that stretch down the tunnels.Then there was the smell; damp, sweat and sulfur all mixed into one.

We tramped along the muddy earth single file, with Antonio calling every so often “Watch your heads” or “Hole in the floor”. A few times we had to push ourselves up against the tunnel wall as a mine cart – pushed by two miners – rattled past us down a decrepit track.

We walked through the first level easily enough, though I admit to that I struggled a bit with the dust and the sulfur, and the steadily increasing temperature. As Antonio waited for me to catch me breath, he explained the next level would be a bit trickier and asked – again – if everyone was okay, and if anyone was claustrophobic.

The answers were all respectively “yes” and “no”, which was just as well because two minutes later we were crawling commando style through a narrow shaft. We inched along on our hands and knees – sometimes our stomachs – for a good 100m or more. It was quite an experience, fumbling and crawling among the rocks in darkness.

At the end we had a much-needed break where Antonio filled us in on his own personal story of the Cerro Rico. He was originally a miner, he started working when he was 14. When he was 19 he had his accident. An explosion in the area he was working had left a gaping hole in the floor of a tunnel, but neither he nor any of the his crew had been told about it. He was pushing a cart loaded with silver ore back through the poorly lit tunnel when he and the cart fell through the hole. He fell six metres to the next level, and the cart and the silver ore landed on top of him. He was unconscious for six hours before he was found. He spent six months in hospital recovering from multiple broken bones internal injuries. Unsurprisingly the accident affected his stregth and movement, meaning he was unable to return to work as a miner. He ended up as a tour guide – for which he is incredibly grateful.

Soon we went to meet some miners, some of Antonio’s friends were working in a nearby section. Before we went to meet them, we got a run down of the working conditions – or at least the working hours. The mine functions as a cooperative, meaning all miners are entitled to a stake in the mine and its profits. The more they put in, the more they get out of it. In theory. But it means the miners are down there for 12 hours a day – minimum – with double shifts of 20 hours quite common. They buy their own sticks of explosives, which they use liberally, to blow the rock and they work other parts of the mine with pick axes and shovels. Everything down here is down manually, save for the odd pneumatic jackhammer.

Antonio’s friends were posted at a station where they were filling carts with silver ore. If you guessed their ages, you might guess close to 30. In truth they were only a few years over 20, and one young guy was just 17. Most of them had been down the mines for five years or more. Their faces were open and smiling, but worn. Stripped to their waist, you could see that their bodies were hard and solid. Solid, not fat. Their muscles would have drawn appreciative stares from any gym junkie, but these were the kind of muscles you can only get from years of physical labor. No amount of pump classes will give you these muscles.

They welcomed us to the mine and jokingly asked if we could help them out with shovelling the next load. We jokingly obliged. When the next cart arrived I picked up a shovel and pitched in. I managed about five or six shovel loads before my girly arms told me to stop being silly. I handed my shovel off to another keen tourist. We chatted with the miners for a while, shared a sip of alcohol with them (pure alcohol – my god how that burned!) and then moved on to another section of the mine, ducking beams and dodging puddles as we went.

All the while Antonio continued his history of the mine, punctuated with personal anecdotes of mining accidents and mining miracles. By this time, we were all suffering from the temperature, which was both extreme and erratic. Working with the miners, we were shovelling in at least 40 degree (Celcius) heat, sweat streaming off us. Fifteen minutes later, down a shaft and around a corner, we were avoiding low-hanging icicles. It was surreal, and it took its toll on all of us.

The last stop was Tio, both the Devil and the Deity of the mine. Each day the superstitious miners bring offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves to this idol, asking him to keep them safe, asking him for a profitable day. I don’t know why but seeing this garish clay idol adorned with all manner of gifts, I felt sad. It’s a clay idol, and it does nothing to protect them from the reality of collapsing tunnels, explosive accidents and from the poverty that comes when there is no silver to be found. It certainly doesn’t protect them from the inevitable silicosis they develop after inhaling silica dust for 20 years. It certainly doesn’t help them out in their life expectancy – the average Potosi silver miner lives to around 50. If Tio doesn’t “take” you inside the mine, the silicosis gets you on outside.

I was relieved when I saw sunlight. Genuinely relieved. That mine, with its soaring temperatures, dank tunnels and ludicrously unsafe working conditions is hell. Absolute hell. And I was only down their for two hours.

A was possibly even more relieved than I. He has been into some Australian mines and to him the conditions were all the more horrific in comparison. He couldn’t believe just how primitive the mining technology was, nor how unstable the shafts and tunnels were. A mine like that would simply not exist in Australia, nor any other Western country.

So at my next job I will smile through the deadlines, shrug off the unpaid overtime and hug that annoying colleague. I’ll even volunteer for weekend work. Because a desk job – any desk job – in an Australian office is heaven my friends. Absolute heaven.

2 thoughts on “A hell of a job

  1. I had the same kind of reaction to the silver mines of Potosi when I visited: http://takingtotheopenroad.wordpress.com/2011/01/01/bolivia-silver-mines-of-potosi/

    I also struggled with whether or not to actually go inside, but on a different level to you as I didn’t know how exploitative the experience would be, and although we were assured our tour fees would benefit the miners’ cooperative, we were unsure as to the extent of truth of that statement. In the end I’m glad I did go to meet some miners and talk to them. Their answers to “Why continue to work here?” were honest and direct – there is a dire lack of jobs in Potosi and it is either the mines or watch your family go hungry. Heartbreaking.

    • Heartbreaking indeed. The only good thing that has happened in that mine, recently, is they have managed to get most of the child miners out of there. But of course, once they are out of school and need a job, they end up in the mines anyway….

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