Once we arrived in Potosi and found a decent hostel with hot water showers to wash away our chills, we decided to book a tour of the city's main attraction: the Cerro Rico mine. This mine is famous for its silver production and infamous for its extremely poor working conditions and child labour. The movie "The Devil's Miner" is about a young boy and his little brother who work in this very mine and worship the devil for their safety. This rendition isn't far from the truth, as many diablo-like characters were set up in the mine as good-luck symbols, such as the pirate below.
Our tour guide had worked in the mine for three years before he realized he didn't want to get sick and die at a young age, like his father, and his father before him. He used what little money he had (the average miner makes around $200 a month) to educate himself in languages and went into tourism to bring awareness to the mines.
We started off the tour by gearing up in dusty cloth suits, boots and helmets with head-lamps. Next, our guide brought us to a mine supplies shop where we were encouraged to buy dynamite, fuses, juice, coca leaves, and cigarettes for the miners. A stick of dynamite cost less than 50 cents and there was no restriction on their sale - any child could buy them if they wanted!
We were then driven up the hill to the processing area where the mined material is crushed and the raw silver is extracted.
A worker turned on one of the machines that basically frothed the water to bring the tiny silver particles to the top.
He then proceeded to pan the silver...
...and then gave us sparkly real-silver war paint!
Then it was time to enter the mine. We drove further up the mountain and proceeded down a dark hole, ducking constantly along the narrow path and crawling the rest of the time. It was extremely difficult to breathe - the air was hot and moist, low in oxygen, and thick with dust. There was a distinctly unpleasant smell, too, which we later were told was cyanide. After only 10 minutes in the mine, we couldn't believe that people could work there for their entire lives... which isn't very long, seeing as the life expectancy for those working in the mines is lowered dramatically.
We crawled down muddy tunnels and some questionable wooden stairs until we were three stories down and soaked in sweat.
This is where we found some workers manually breaking and shovelling the ore into carts. They were pretty happy to receive our juice and coca leaves.
After an hour and a half in the mines, we were all pretty darn happy to see blue sky again and breathe in fresh, although thin, air again!!!
The next day, we set out for some lunch and found ourselves in the middle of a big festival! I don't remember exactly which festival it was, but it had something to do with good fortune. There are just too many festivals to remember the meanings of them all...
The whole town participated, young and old.
I was going to get these dresses duplicated for my bridesmaids... but I thought I would be nice and let them pick their own instead ;)
People not only decorated themselves and paraded and danced down the street, but also decorated their cars. Our favourite was this fluffy teddy vehicle with the sheep dogs all over the hood!
We really enjoyed our time in Potosi, other than the fact that Tyrone picked up "the black lung" during our trip to the mines. No joke - he had a respiratory cold for the next two weeks! Our mining experience was extremely humbling and taught us to appreciate our own jobs and lifestyles so much more. If you don't realize how good you've got it, you will once you're standing in mud and dark 60 feet down a hole and have a mine cart coming down a narrow path straight for you!