Hey all! I drafted this post a while ago, but I never finished it. I wanted to share this experience with you now because, after thinking about it off-an-on for a few months, I have realized that it was an important experience for me. Just to preface, I was never in any danger, but this experience gave me a much deeper appreciation for real, hard work, and it gave me some new things to think about for my own future. Now, back to Bolivia.
The city of Potosi sprung up around the mine that the Spanish started in 1545. It was initially silver that brought people there, but now it is tin and zinc, but even those are hard to find in the mine now. Some people estimate that the mine will be totally dry within ten years. It has operated continually since its start and more than 8 million people have died in the mine - that is 2 deaths per hour for every hour over the past 470 years. And those deaths weren't all from a long time ago. Some records say that two people die each week as a result of working in the mine.
I decided to check this place out for myself, and I organized a guide to the mines through the hotel I was staying at. The city isn't very touristy, but those of us who go there are there to do the tour of the mine, so the people who live there have become well equipped to handle curious gringos. The tour of the mine was with an ex-miner and three other tourists willing to go in. Again, this was never dangerous because we went to a place at the mouth of the mine which is a lot safer than the new areas of the mine. Potosi is becoming an increasingly popular place to visit.
We started the day at the Miners' Market, where you can buy anything you might use in a mine. Dynamite was freely available to buy, and I wouldn't have to get a permit if I wanted to buy some for myself. I could just buy it. Our guide demonstrated the safety of one stick he picked up from a street vendor by throwing it at our feet.
We went from there to a refinery where some of the ore was processed. It looked like everything you have seen from the history books about the Industrial Revolution. The machines were very old and didn't have any safety equipment to speak of. Plus, the slag pond next to the refinery shares a wall with a children's playground. All of this was located in the center of the city, so I imagine that the ground water here is totally polluted.
The way up to the mine area is marked by small, white picket crosses, some a fresh white, others much darker. The mountain itself is a bright orange, and the miners and mine equipment were mostly dark brown with dirt. At times the mine was very hot, and at other times it was very cold. Almost every five minutes, you would hear something like distant thunder rumble on for about 30 seconds, and maybe a few specks of dust would fall from the ceiling. There is no central authority controlling who can dynamite - it all just works by shouting. It was actually really exciting and fun - we went in, saw a few of the old cavities, learned how the miners worked, and talked to a few miners on break.
The miners only have air being pumped in, not out. That means the asbestos accumulates in the air, adding another element of discomfort to the often hot, thick, muddy air. But what was really distressing to see was how comfortable these people are with their jobs. The miners we talked to couldn't have been happier, more confident people, but their humor seemed like it was that of people who need to laugh so as to distract themselves from other things. The man we talked to the most said he was 46 - he has 11 children - and the average lifespan for the miners is 45. We brought gifts into the mine and I gave him the rest of the stuff I had brought.
Our guide said that miners make an average of 300 Bolivianos per week, which is about $45. And he said that a lot of that goes to things it probably shouldn't go to, but there are no other jobs in the area for people to go into. Many teens have to quit school and join the mine if a breadwinner of the family dies in the mine. Miners work for themselves, because the companies were collectivized. That means miners supply safety gear and mining equipment for themselves. They work twelve hour shifts, during which time they can't eat, because the dust would get in their food and make them sick. Plus the body's waste creates toxic gas if too much of it accumulates in a confined space. A "double shift" is 24 hours long, but miners during the Spanish colonial period were sometimes forced to remain below continuously for months.
There isn't much to get out of this. We all intellectually know that working in a Bolivian silver mine is probably dreadful. That's intellectually not new. But to watch teenagers pushing carts of ore through the tunnels is a strange experience. Hearing people hammering at a wall with an actual hammer and not an air-powered pneumatic drill (nobody can afford them) is equally strange. It helps you feel what the experience is like, not just imagine it.
Visiting that mine, like many experiences in Bolivia, was absolutely bizarre. The refinery, the slag pond next to the playground, and the ridiculous conditions in the mines all reminded me of what we have pushed away from in the United States. It is stuff like this that has gotten me to really appreciate some of the things we have accomplished in the US, and it is strange to know that such bad conditions exist on the same planet.
I think I have taken away two main things from this experience. I have a much deeper appreciation for America's reformers and our current regulations, which are caused by a more meaningful emotional understanding of what it is to work in a place like this. The second thing is a realization that I have never done a hard day of work in my life, which is an extremely unusual status for humans across the planet and back into history. This experience has gotten me thinking of how much I could learn if I put the books on hold for one summer and did some farm work, or some ranching, or worked on a skyscraper. I know how communist that sounds, but I think that people who do this type of work have skills you don't usually learn doing white-collar work, but they are skills that can really help you when you are doing white-collar work. They give you the appreciation of knowing what kind of opportunities you have, but they also give you more tangible things like focus and diligence.
My time in Bolivia was also when I realized how important it is to look and not pass judgement. Everything about the mining process in Potosi is outdated and unnecessarily unsafe, but it is the way it is. That doesn't mean I have to accept it, but changing it requires much more than anger or disgust - it requires compassion. You have to maintain people's pride in what they do - the miners are very proud - but you also have to identify that things need changing.