After an incredible stay in Salar de Uyuni, we headed towards the colorful and charming mining town of Potosí, that had once been one of the most powerful and rich towns in Bolivia. After the Spaniards arrived in Bolivia and learned of riches in Potosí, they created a mint here producing Spain’s coins using silver mined from Cerro Rico.
At 4,200 meters the mines in the Cerro Rico mountain of Potosí are the highest in the world. Each day, 14,000 miners enters the nearly 10,000km of tunnels within the mountain in search of silver or zinc. On the second day of our stay in Potosí, we had an opportunity to visit the mines and venture inside.
Our first stop of our tour was at a small store where we needed to buy gifts for the miners per local tradition. These gifts consisted of soda, cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and dynamite. Yep, dynamite. In Bolivia you can buy sticks of dynamite from any tiny and weathered local woman with a storefront- no questions asked.
Now, because you can’t just meander into a mine without proper attire, our next stop was at a warehouse where we were properly outfitted for our journey into the center of the earth. I wandered out from the building drowning in an oversized plastic jacket, pants and rain boots- the only thing that fit well was my helmet, complete with a lamp in front. This was certainly not the version of playing dress up I was use to, but that day I was Miner Barbie.
I was prepared to make my grand debut in a new career, but as soon as I stepped into the tunnel, I felt myself choking on the mix of dust and fumes that filled the air. As our group ventured deeper into the tunnel, the light at the entrance became dimmer and the tunnel itself became smaller and smaller, to the point where most people couldn’t stand up straight. At all of 5 foot 3, I only needed to duck my head down a bit (I was like Goldilocks, and the tunnel was just right size). But, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone else managed to work in these cramped conditions when I could barely walk through.
I looked around at the tunnel walls, laced with traces of arsenic, and the stream of dust that my lamp illuminated, wondering what awful disease I will develop from these thirty minutes.
Here I was playing Miner Barbie, when this was someone else’s reality.
I work at a desk (with an option to stand because sitting is the new smoking, ya know?), I have healthy snacks and meals readily available, and I can go home at 5pm.
I do not need to pay for my own equipment like these miners do. I don’t have to crawl through tunnels for hours on end, breathing in toxic fumes. And I most certainly am not risking my life by throwing sticks of dynamite and hoping I can run away in time.
As miners, young and old, passed us by,I was filled with admiration for the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that they do.
For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that gratitude and humility are common themes. So, I shouldn’t surprise you to know that as soon as the tour was over, I hurried out towards the sun and the fresh air- grateful for my education, the opportunities I’ve had, and my employment.
Plus, I realized that I would have made a terrible miner.