Sunday, 21 December 2008

Phobia of being buried alive, and some stunning scenery

I went to Potosi to go down the silver mine. I had heard that it can be dangerous – accidents are frequent, you have to crawl through some of the tunnels and you breathe in lots of nasty gases, none of which appealed to me particularly. It is a working mine and the miners work for themselves and methods are still very manual and conditions basic, with next to no health and safety regulations – miners often set off dynamite when they fancy it, and runaway trolleys carrying rocks aren´t unheard of. But it was also supposed to be a pretty amazing experience, so I decided a few days before that I would definitely do it and didn´t look back.

So having arrived in Potosi at 6.30am I was signed up for a tour at 8.30am. After getting kitted out with overalls and a bandanna to tie over our faces to help us breathe we went to the miners market where we buy gifts for the miners. Standard gifts are coca leaves to prolong how long they can work for, fizzy drinks for energy as they don´t eat down there, and, err, dynamite. So I headed to the mine with a bottle of Fanta tucked under one arm and a couple of sticks of dynamite under the other!

You don´t really go down the mine - it is inside Cerro Rico (rich mountain) - so you just walk into the mountain. It was ok to start with as you could stand up in most of it, and I didn´t have to crouch too much. But as we went further in, I had to get lower and lower and I was pretty much crawling. At one point we were pulling ourselves face first down a slope on our fronts. It was really hard to breathe. Potosi is 4070m in altitude anyway and no air is pumped into the mines - whatever air there is just finds its way in, and there was so much dust and nasty gases like arsenic in the air. Crawling through such narrow tunnels was pretty scary, especially as I´d made the mistake of reading the liability waiver, which mentioned "cave ins"! I learnt that I actually do have a phobia of being buried alive after all. It was difficult to know if my heavy breathing was lack of air of near panic. But I was ok when we stopped to rest and could get my breath back.

The miners have a life expectancy of 45 and they almost all die of silicosis (or in accidents). How anyone can work down there is unbelievable. Two Americans wanted to try it for two weeks but barely lasted two hours apparently. One of the miners we saw was 15, but they start as young as 8. This is just what people do in Potosi as they have for years. I don´t remember being happier to see daylight and fresh air. It was quite an intense experience and a very interesting one, and was glad I did it even if it was a bit scary.

As well as not reading the liability disclaimers, I´d also recommend that if you go to adjust the cloth over your nose, try not to poke yourself in the eye as with your hands covered in dust and other dirt, it kind of hurts. A lot. Muppet.

Some people in our group had saved some dynamite to set off ourselves. From lighting the fuse, we had 45 seconds to pass it round and have photos of ourselves holding it. Really! The only thing that was missing was the ACME trademark like in cartoons. After 45 seconds the guides grabbed them, legged it frantically, dumped them and ran back and we got to enjoy the explosion. Not sure that would have passed health and safety back in Blighty!

There was little else in Potosi so got a bus to Uyuni that evening. Arriving at 2.30am we managed to find somewhere to stay, at 7.30am I was going round the tour companies looking for a tour of the salt flats and at 10.30am I left with said tour. This was 3 days of uninterrupted stunning scenery – salts flats, deserts, mountains, lagoons (red and green), 'stone trees', geysers, even a train graveyard. And on a massive scale too.

The salt flat – Salar de Uyuni - was a huge expanse of white, flat (as the name would imply) pretty much as far as the eye can see. Really spectacular. In the middle of the Salar is fish island, an almost random island covered in cactuses. It looks so out of place. Because the salt flat is so, err, flat, people were taking photos making it look like their friends we either under their feet or standing on their hands etc, but because I am on my own it all seemed a bit too much effort to round some people up to partake.

There was a lot of time spent in the jeeps, and it was an effort to stay awake (as it often is) at times but the scenery was well worth it. Luckily for the numerous hours in the jeep the driver had two 60 minute tapes. One tape was more or less the same on each side with mostly Beatles songs interchangeably in English and Spanish, and the other was Bolivian pop (I assume), where as far as I can make out, every song is pretty much the same.

The quality of the tours can be variable due to breaking down in the middle of nowhere, bad food, and the drivers having several cans of beer for breakfast, but we didn´t break down, the food was ok – lots of it which was the most important thing - and our driver wasn´t obviously hammered. I shared a jeep with two Japanese and three Canadians who I played quite a lot of cards with.

At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the Bolivia-Chile border, to cross into Chile to go to San Pedro de Atacama. This initially wasn´t planned but it is only an hour from where the tour was anyway and Felicity (flatmate) said it was good so if it was rubbish I´d blame her!

I had only spent nine days in Bolivia but it was my favourite place so far. Had met some good people and done some really good stuff, bizarre things you can´t do in a lot of places. From cycling down a road with certain death on one side to going round a prison with no guards being escorted by prisoners and buying freshly squeezed juice from the prisoners to wandering round with dynamite, it was just a fun sometimes surreal experience.

1 comment:

Flee said...

how could you even think of doubting me????!!! Did you not love San Pedro??! If not, you're a fool. plain and simple x