Monday, January 16, 2006

Hell in the Middle of a Mountain (and New Years)

New Year´s in La Paz – not bad. A few drinks down the local English pub, Oliver´s, some ceremonial hugging and downing dodgy shots on the coming of the year and then off to RamJam´s. Unfortunately from here we were minus Dave as he was genuinely sick, but Mik and myself went on and in the true style of home got in a right state. Luckily, as usual everyone else was gone so no one noticed anything and we all had a good time dancing until the wee hours. So Bolivians do know how to party… headache the next day!

New Year´s day in La Paz was a bit alike that of the election, totally dead. Hence we had to spend another day in the Pizzeria, the Coca museum and the pub – nice. From there an unbelievably comfortable night bus to the famous/infamous POTOSI.

I have been led to believe Don Quijote coined the phrase “Vale Potosi” (“to be worth a Potosi”) and a glimmer of this city's history shows you why. Not too many centuries ago, this remote outpost at over 4,000m above sea level was the richest city in the America´s with a population exceeding that of contemporary London or Paris. In a nutshell, the largest known silver deposits ever found had been stumbled upon within a mountain and many of the people who came/lived/were brought have exploited it (and in many instances been exploited) ever since.

The town is full to the brim with crumbling churches and indications of its former glory. The quality of the silver has significantly decreased and nowadays that very same mountain is largely worked by local cooperatives who work in some of the worst conditions imaginable.

Questionable as the morality is, we had come here to do a tour of these very mines and the experience was shocking. Bolivia is such a different place. Where else are you not only able, but openly encouraged to purchase dynamite with ammonium nitrate, fuses and all ready to go for a couple of bucks. You can give them to the minors or, if you want to, give them a go yourself. As they like to say “in Bolivia everything and nothing is possible”. We then went to see people working with cyanide and other friendly chemicals in the extracting process before spending a couple of hours crawling around the mines themselves.

I say crawling because the tunnels were often no more then a couple of feet high. It is a literal rabbit-warren of tracks of various sizes following mineral veins up, down, left and right. Sharp dust everywhere. A struggle to take a tour around let alone work in. The hard rock nature of the mountain helps support the tunnels but cave-ins are quite common. The job of these men and boys (we saw workers as young as 14) is the harshest I have ever witnessed. They work sometimes 16 hours a day in a dark, cramped, sweaty, dusty and downright dangerous environment that has changed little in hundreds of years. Memories of kids pushing huge carts, drenched in sweat and dirt will stay with me. Accidents are common, but even accident free most workers die in their forties of chest problems. It is unheard of to live past 60.

Despite this place being about as close to hell as I can imagine, what most etched itself onto me was the attitudes of the workers. Under this fate they have drawn close together. Ties of family and friendship are very close and the workers themselves have a very dark sense of humour with dirty nicknames seeming mandatory.

We emerged from our ever so short experience unscathed physically, but certainly in my case a little mentally drawn. That people can still live and work in these conditions in today's age is shocking and quite frankly embarrassing. It is not I believe being too much of an idealist to know that these problems can be sorted if there is only the will to do it. Not only do these men die at a pitifully young age after most of a life underground in unthinkable conditions, but after they have died their usually slow and painful death their women are left without the ones they love to whittle out there days in a place where trees do not even grow. It is a lesson to us all that they live such a life in relative good humour and just get on with it.

One thing that jars my thoughts is that if it were my family I would send my kids to a different place and future, but hence the conundrum comes that it is family that gives these people many of the positives in the life they lead. They purposefully bring as many kids as possible into this situation to continue doing what they have done for generations - another world to the cosseted one I live in and it is so difficult and perhaps wrong to judge peoples actions where I do not fully comprehend the circumstances of their existence. My jar though remains.

On a brighter note – oh how easily us mortals are pleased – everyone could not help but be amused by the sight of the guide putting lighted dynamite down Dave´s underwear, leave it there and then take it away briskly to blow a large crater in the ground – anything and everything is possible in Bolivia!!!
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