March 7, 2006

Into the Jaws of Hell

Well, I made it to Potosi after a near heart attack leaving La Paz! After waiting patiently at the station for 2 hours for my bus, the driver told me as I was boarding that I should be getting on another one. Of course, having next to no SPanish it was really difficult to figure out what he was saying and I just ended up running off in the direction he was pointing. Every bus driver I asked said they were not going to Potosi and I was running around the station like a lunatic with my enormous pack on my back. When I eventually managed to ascertain that I had been getting on the correct bus initially, it was pulling out of the station, and I had to run after it shouting and waving. The journey was long and overnight and, as usual, uncomfortable, but I´m starting to get used to it. We arrived at the bus station in Potosi as the sun was coming up. I got a cab to a hostal that I had been recommended to me, but when we got there I found a sign saying that they were full up on the door. When I tried to get the taxi driver to drop me somewhere else, he just hopped in and sped off, leaving me in the deserted morning streets. There was nothing to do but start walking. I felt very unsafe, but within minutes I came across another hostal. I rang the bell, and after what seemed like hours someone answered and let me in. Luckily they had a room, and so I just crawled into bed, clothes and all, and slept for a few hours.
Later that morning, I headed to the center of the town in the hope of booking the 2 oclock tour to the Potosi mines, but found that everything was shut due to the carnival being on. I got soaked BADLY twice walking along the street and ended up running into a nearby cafe for refuge. While I was sitting there, a couple of Canadian girls and Dutch girl came up and asked if they could sit with me. We decided to all do the mines tour together the following day.
The Potosi Mines
So, the following morning we all piled into a rickety minibus - our driver and our guide were both hammered (I mean, really hammered!) and as we wound our way up the narrow mountain tracks we all feared that we were going to go careering down the cliffs at any moment! We stopped for a few minutes at the Miner´s Market at the edge of the town where we bought sticks of dynamite and bags of cocoa leaves for the miners. Further up the road, we stopped at a sort of big shed to get suited up with overalls, hardhats, boots and headlamps. Far from sexy attire, but you´d probably die down there without it.
The mines are the most inhospitable and frightening environment I have ever been in. It was tough, really tough, and its very hard to believe that this is somewhere they bring tourists! Its even harder to swallow the fact that children as young as 14 work in this place. The air is thick with dust, arsenic, asbestos and god knows what else! You can feel your chest and throat tightening as you go deeper into the bowels of the mines. The terrain underfoot changes from thick squelching mud to deep water to crumbling rock. At many points, we had to get down, not just on hands and knees, but acutally in a lying position and manouevre our head and limbs through these tiny narrow passages, hitting the roof above and knocking little bits of rock. Fear grips your heart as you imagine what it would be like if the roof caved in - you´d be a goner - an awful way to go.
Also, the deeper we went, the hotter the mines became - unbearably hot, and the guys in our group were even becoming very uncomfortable and anxious.
About half way through the tour, our guide instructed us all (in his slurred speech) to turn out our headlamps. In pitch blackness we huddled, as he sparked a single cigarette. Everyone jumped as the face of the devil lit up in the corner in front of us. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a full figure which had been created by the miners, bedecked with streamers (to mark carnival time), and complete with horns. Our guide sat beside it and lit another cigarette which he placed in its mouth. He then began to "pray" to it, asking for long life for the miners and for the members of our tour group. He explained that the miners believe that the devil is the "god of the earth" and so they pay homage to this figure every day. I felt slightly disturbed initially, but then got a fit of the giggles at the state of our guide, who had continued swigging beer throughout the tour and was talking total shite to this lump of clay sitting on a wall. It was all kind of ridiculous! lol.
We clambered and stumbled through 5km of tunnels with our headlamps finally fading to mere glimmers in the darkness. Managed to get some photos in there, and when we finally emerged into the daylight again; I felt glad that I had put myself through the experience. Visiting these mines was a profoundly moving experience, if not a horrifying one in many ways.
Back Up in the Land of the Living
When we got back to Potosi, I decided to move hostels and stay with the Canadian and Dutch girls. A German guy from our Mines group also decided to come with us. We have all decided to travel to Uyuni together and maybe even book the same tour once we arrive there. After a lot of racing around the city this evening, we finally managed to book a bus out of here tomorrow morning.

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