Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The devil's in the detail

Potosi, Bolivia, claims to be the world's highest city. Reknown for it's silver mines, it has become increasingly famous for tours that take gringos deep into the still working mine.
The Lonely Planet gives some warnings about the safety of the mine, but danger being my middle name, and there not being much else going on, I opted in.
Me and 2 others were dressed up in some impractical but wholly embarassing 'protective' clothing and taken to the town market. In the market, from a wholly unremarkable stall, we each bought 2 sticks of dynamite, detonators and bags of amonium nitrate. No questions asked. We also had to buy the same 96% liquor that pachamama had seemed so keen on in the jungle. This was a gift for the miners, who have deemed working in a mine, in Bolivia, with dynamite not dangerous enough and so to spice it up, spend most of their working life, very, very drunk.
Then off to the mine. As is par for the course in Bolivia, any sort of health and safety briefing is vigourously avoided . This seems to be for two reasons. One is that there is no health, and the other no safety. In place of the briefing, we are all made to take a swig of the 96% liquor. As the liquor is so strong and dissolves your taste buds on the way down, you don't feel the full impact until it mixes with your stomach juices in such a way as to render images of the movie Alien and you wouldn't be suprised, in fact might be relieved, had an ugly little space monster burst forth from your stomach.
There are an estimated 90km of tunnels, on 16 levels, all co-operatively owned. Into this warren we went, and were struck by the stench of toxic chemicals. We were initally made to handle the naturally occuring orange arsenic which the miners believe hold the mines together (experts have told them the mine could collapse very soon, but the heady mix of liquor, chemicals and machoism have allowed the miners to continue in blissfull, willfull, ignorance). The guide (an ex miner) told us that water wouldn't wash the arsenic off, but our own urine would (I'm game, but not that game and went for the diplomatic inbetween of 'soap' instead).  He later told us that if the toxic chemicals became dangerously strong, the workers would urinate on their clothing and then breathe through that. It seemed there was no ill that couldn't be cured by this magical liquid. I wondered what other uses they put it to, and concluded that this seeming over reliance on urine was probably just an amusing way to dispose of it in this toiletless world.
We went deeper into the passages, to where a statue of the demon, Tio was sitting. This is the demon that they believe rules the mine and decides on the fate and fortunes of the miners in it. The guide gave Tio a cigarette, then poured the 96% liquor on my thumb and lit it. He then used my thumb to light the cigarette, the point of which (other than to cause me uneccessary suffering) I was oblivious to. After this things got really weird, and the guide threw the dynamite at the two petrified Dutch girls I was with. Shortly after we found out that this was to prove that dynamite is not dangerous on it's own, but I'm pre-tty sure we would all have just taken his word for it. In case we still didn't believe him, he then lit the end of the dynamite and began smoking it, pretending it was a cigar, which I promptly blew out. At this stage I was begnning to wonder what sort of protection the wellies and overalls would provide in the face of this madman who seemed intent on detonating dynamite in my face. He then then set up the dynamite, inserted the detonator, the fuse and the ammonium nitrate. He lit the fuses (which sparked away as in old westerns) and, of course, handed them to the two Dutch girls and told them to put them round their necks. We all then nipped round the corner, left the dynamite, returned to a maximum of about 5 metres away, turned all our torches off and waited in the complete darkness. Tick tock, tick tock then BOOOOOOOOOM. The sound was loud but you felt the explosion far more than you heard it, and the floor shook, but thankfully the roof remained where I wanted it.
We were then taken further into the mine and met another, much larger statue of Tio, with a large phallus which we, for some inexplicable reason, had to pour beer over. We then met some of the miners, the most voiciferous of which was a chap about 65 years old. In an odd setting, we then had an odd conversation which went along these lines. He said one of the Dutch girls was my girlfriend. I said no. He said she would be after many beers. I said I had a girlfriend. This conversation then repeated itself for the next five minutes until I decided that he may well have fathered 9 children, worked in the mine for 38 years and be the head of the co-operative, but was still an idiot. Thankfully that episode ended and we left. A good experience and although it didn't feel very cultural, the bawdy drunken nature of our guide and the miners we met was probably a pretty good reflection of the culture of the mine. And in such appalling working conditions, I suppose, it's whatever works.

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