If you want a kick in the pants to remind you how good you have it with your day job, just take a trip to Potosi, Bolivia, where for $14 USD you can take a 6 hour tour of the silver extraction and processing operation in the surrounding mountains. The tour can be organized through an agency in Potosi (I chose the recommended Koala Tours), and includes a trip to the silver refinery, the miners market, and 2 hours inside a Bolivian silver mine.
The refinery is not much to see although it is interesting being surrounded by so much heavy, whirring, spinning equipment with little supervision or safety measures. The miners market gives you a chance to by a donation for the silver miners. They sell gloves, water, soft drink, coca leaves and dynamite. That’s right, for the equivalent of $4 USD you can by a stick of TNT. If you wanted to, it wouldn’t be an issue to slip one of these sticks into your bag for detonation on a deserted mountainside at your own discretion, just sayin. Down inside the mine you will be a hindrance to the miners so the least you can do is buy them some gifts for the inconvenience. Could you imagine if a bunch of foreigners came to your job to look over your shoulder while you worked? It’s be a lot easier to bear if each one brought you $50 and shoveled a couple shovels full of rock wouldn’t it?
I didn’t understand at first how it benefitted the miners for us to bring them dynamite. Didn’t the company provide supplies like dynamite for the miners? It turns out the Bolivian silver miners all work as part of shared collectives, groups of miners of different experience levels working together on individual silver veins. They share the work, and they share the profits. A worker just starting out might make in the vicinity of 2400 Bolivianos per month ($400 USD) whereas an experienced worker with more than 5 years in the mine may make upwards of 5000 Bs, at which point they will be paying taxes, have benefits and be building a pension.
To say the work is hard is an understatement. The average lifespan of one of these miners is 55 years. About 30-35 miners die inside the mine every year, mostly from cave-ins. There is nothing quite like being 3 levels down and 1200 feet inside a Bolivian Silver mine. The temperature reaches 110 degrees F, the ground is covered with either loose gravel or 4 inches of muddy water, the walls feel as though they will collapse at any given moment, and the air is oxygen low and dust filled at an altitude of13,800 ft. There are miners everywhere, some shoveling, others drilling, others resting with coca leaves and coca cola, still others driving mining carts from place to place.
The guides, ex miners themselves, were great, friendly, knowledgeable guys with some of the best English I have heard in Bolivia. The other miners were in great spirits, better than I would have expected considering the conditions. After a week working in the mines I would probably be huddled in a corner crying for my Mother, not laughing, joking and shoveling coal with my shirt off. At one point our guide, Daniel, who was leading us down a particularly cramped area of the mine, turned around, came running back at us yelling “trolley!!”. He had warned us at the entrance to the mine that if a trolley was coming we’d need to get off the tracks into a sort of safety zone to the right or left of the track. The problem is that the mine is only wide enough to do this in certain areas, and if you are not in that area when the trolley comes you need to run your ass to one of those safety zones ASAP. So we had 8 awkwardly tall rubber booted semi claustrophobic tourists scrambling to heed Daniel’s warning and get to the nearest safety spot. Just as the last person filed into the zone a trolley full of material came zipping past at nearly 10 mph. On the back of the trolley was the operator with a massive grin, teeth shining through his dust covered face, obviously enjoying scaring us half to death.
One of my fellow tour-mates summed up the sentiment perfectly after we left the mine with our lives intact. He said “that was one of the best experiences of my life that I never want to do again.” To know these miners are grinding away at that mountain, 7 hours a day, deep down in those pits of darkness is a sobering thought, one that makes me appreciate the workers rights that our government enforces and the capitalist society that pays for us to have the luxury of having workers rights. I’ll never forget this experience, it may have the greatest impact on me of all experiences so far, only time and reflection will tell.
P.S. I know the photo at the top of this post is not the highest quality but there was no way I was going to bring my good camera down into that mine! And sign up for the email list below to receive automatic updates: