Today, I very last minute decided to do the mining tour in Potosi. After arriving in the bus terminal from Sucre and being told I had a solid nine hours before the next bus left for La Paz, I thought “Why not?”
I took my first micro bus which is basically a public taxi. Anyone can jump on wherever, and anyone can jump off wherever by yelling “Voy a bajar aqui.” I followed the other’s lead and found myself in the town center.
This tour was actually not on my list for a couple of reasons. I read that the mine would expose me to silica dust, arsenic gas, acetylene vapors, and asbestos deposits. None of which sound particularly fun.
Some of the mines were constructed over 400 years ago, and after reading about the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, my head was telling me no.
The last reason I was unsure about going was because I knew that seeing these men and young boys working in these horrible conditions would bring the waterworks.
This actually became the reason why I chose to do it.
I knew it would touch my heart and open my mind to what’s going on in worlds that aren’t mine.
So, I hopped onto the bus with six other crazies, geared up, and headed for the mountain.
Before entering the mine, our guide, Sol, stopped at a market just outside. She explained that the miners do not eat anything all day so that they do not defecate in the mines. Instead, they chew on coca leaves or hold them in their cheeks which eventually numbs their mouths. This helps them to ignore their hunger. The hours of their shift depend on how many wagons of minerals are pushed out. A good day’s work consists of ten to fifteen wagons, and if that happens to take 18 hours instead of six, then so be it.
We were able to buy gifts for the miners here. Gloves, juice, coca leaves, and alcohol (96% alcohol to be specific) are delicacies for them.
The mine was cold at first but grew extremely hot as we descended. Sol told us about the demonic looking statues just inside the mines. The miners believe that the minerals belong to their version of the devil who is called “Tío”, or “Supay”. They believe that because they are so close to hell, they need to offer sacrifices to “Tío”. To ensure their protection and good fortune, they offer alcohol, coca leaves, and place a lighted cigarette in the mouth of the idol before going to work.
We met a couple of miners in the middle of their work, and they were quite happy to take a break to talk with us. Unfortunately, we only met a few. Usually, there are more people working, but because there was a fútbol match the day before, most of the workers were taking the day off to cure their hangovers. Or at least this is what Sol told us. One of the miners asked to take a picture with us. He was especially friendly. This man exuberated joy and life and had the biggest smile. He is working one of the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs in the world, and still had genuine kindness to share with our group. His son was working with him, dutifully pushing a wheelbarrow back and forth. These men have to do what it takes in order to provide for their families. This humbling experience made me realize just how silly my complaining is. The tour companies are working hard to improve the working conditions here, but it will be a while before any progress is made.
My bus was scheduled to leave at ten that night. I got to the terminal and found my gate. I put my backpack down to be loaded, and I boarded. My seat was 39P, but there was someone in it already. After a bit of confusion, he looked at my ticket and explained that I was on the wrong bus.
Okay, no big deal, I still had 15 minutes before my actual bus left. I went to grab my backpack from the loading bin, but everything had already been loaded.
The bus started up.
I ran to the bus driver and told him why he couldn’t leave yet. He looked highly irritated but turned off the motor. He told the lady who was in charge of the loading crew.
I have never had someone look at me with so much disdain.
This lady opened up the luggage compartment to show me that there was no hope. It was a WRECK in there. Piles of bags and objects had been piled in.
The lady started cursing at me and calling me names, asking me how I could be so stupid.
“There’s too much stuff. We don’t have time to get it out. We’re leaving.” She told me I would just have to go to Cochabamba and get my bag when we arrived. Cochabamba was a 10-hour bus ride and completely out of the way from La Paz.
I started weeping and begging with her.
“Please! All of my things are on this bus! I need it! I’ll help unload and put everything back! I’m sorry!”
9:55pm and the bus started up.
They didn’t care.
I was screaming now.
“I NEED my stuff!”
People started getting off the bus to watch the scene. A couple of ladies helped me to plead with the lady and finally, she opened back up the luggage compartment for me. She motioned with her arms giving me permission to look, stood back, and crossed them, watching me heave huge boxes and crates. I finally found it and embarrassed by the massive crowd watching, I ran back into the terminal crying.
I have worked in customer service for five years and never have I had someone yell at me like that.
10:05. I didn’t have time to sit and cry. I finally found the right bus just as it was starting up. The ONLY thing I wanted in that moment was a hug from my mom.
Sleep didn’t work to put off the sadness either as I had a terrible nightmare.
My sisters were throwing all of my things into the ocean, yelling at me for leaving to South America. My dad just sat back and watched, telling me I deserve it.
Not a great night. Praying tomorrow will make up for it!