When I was in Potosi I decided after much deliberation to go down the mines, given the vital importance of the mountain's minerals to the town. The visit was melancholic and unpleasant and made me think a lot about the state of the town and the thought of what will happen after all the minerals have run out in about 10 years time as our tour guide calmly stated would be the case. It makes for a relatively negative read but it sums up perfectly how it made me feel.So I went and sat in a cafe and wrote a thing about the state of things in Potosi, and here it is.
These delightful poison battle for prime fragrance in your struggling nostrils. A descent of 20 metres leaves you with a scraped helmet, an achy neck, coughing, dusty hands, itchy eyes, and mild claustrophobia. And that's only after 5 minutes.
After maybe an hour, we hear miners pushing a trolley along the tracks, the trundling echo of clanking getting louder every second. Real live miners! (I use 'live' in the most ironic way, as they all know full well that the average life expectancy of a miner is early 50s, and when you add into the equation that the average starting age is 16 this is not a terribly heartening fact).
One cheek bulging with coca, hands coated in dust, foreheads bearing new beads of sweat every second, breath heavy and laboured, bent double to gather the strength to push and avoid the painful collision with the rocks above.
This is not the sight of a man who has a career choice.
Time does not exist in the mines. This terrifying labyrinth of death is devoid of all reality. Observing this game of luck and death feels perverse. I want to look away and yet my eyes go on widening in disbelief. The 'privilege' of only have to experience this suffocation, ever-expanding coffin for only 2 hours of my life is immeasurable.
'coca es el secreto', laughs a miner of 60; a rare gem in a mass of youn, precious stones. Machismo and joking is what saves the men from a death of morale, but it cannot save them from a death in totum.
We leave the mine, having given gifts of coca and water the the grateful, breathless worker bees who are relentlessley moving about the deepest hive on earth,
On the bus back to normality, (however 'normal' travelling life can be), I am silent.
We wind our way back down the mountain which sits above the city, like a god, waiting for when it will be time to cleanse Potosi, and leave it deserted, punishing it's people for using up all the resources they were blessed with.
Watching people bustle around he town, many women carrying the weight of produce and babies wrapped in colourful fabrics on their backs, I have the strongest feeling that every citizen of Potosi is carrying a heavier weight on their backs; the knowledge of the cities' total dependence on the mines. The knowledge, that all the miners I spoke to were fully aware of, that once the veins of the mountains have been bled dry, the town itself like so many of it's men who have worked in the mines, will die.