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Short lives and labour in Potosi’s silver mines

There can’t be many places in the world where you can buy dynamite and 96% alcohol across the same counter, no questions asked.

But the mining town of Potosi, in Bolivia, is one of them.

“Even children can buy the dynamite,” said our grinning guide, Juan, sweeping his hands around a shop stocked with miner’s lamps, detonators, and plastic bottles full of the ridiculously potent “alcohol potable”.

As we bought sticks of Bolivian-made Dinabol – plus fertiliser to make an even bigger bang – Juan said: “Just last month, I had a group of five drunken English lads who weren’t satisfied with the dynamite and fertiliser – they kept asking if they could blow up an animal – a pig or a llama. They kept asking and asking, but I just kept telling them, no, you might be able to do that in England, but not here.

“I later found out they’d kept one stick of dynamite and set it off in their hostel in Uyuni. They were fined $10,000 for the damage to the hostel and had to pay a further $13,000 to stay out of prison.”

We took our dynamite, fertiliser and 96% alcohol potable up to Cerro Ricco, the mineral-loaded mountain that towers over Potosi and which has taken more than eight million lives. In his 500-year history The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano describes how the Spaniards used to whip Potosi’s indigenous miners into brushing out every last mote of silver from Cerro Ricco’s veins. The miners, he says, used to kill their own children when they became old enough to work in the mines, so they wouldn’t go through the same misery.

Conditions haven’t got much better. The miners still work manually, constantly breathing in asbestos and cyanide that shortens their life expectancy to 40. Their careers are not expected to last much longer than 10 years before they succumb to silicosis. President Evo Morales had recently doubled the tax on their earnings to 50% – the former coca farmer had shown little sympathy for the miners. Little wonder that many of them swig on 96% alcohol to keep going.

I had waited three days to get a bus to Potosi, since the miners had set up road blocks to protest against the 50% tax. When I eventually got a ticket, my bus was stopped three hours short of our destination – the miners weren’t letting any buses through.

As the sun dipped over the Wild West landscape, my fellow passengers elected to pay a tipper truck to take us the rest of the way. I was the sole gringo, so couldn’t protest. Twenty-nine of us crushed into the flatbed, my face was crushed in a Bolivian arse sandwich and I lost my grip on my bag. The next time I glimpsed it, three Bolivians were using it to break their fall as we went flying over another pothole. I prayed my laptop wasn’t in bits.

191116513qnywox-lWhen we were stopped in our tracks by a landslide, the driver went off-road and onto railway lines. We proceeded to bump and bang over 10 kilometres of sleepers by freezing moonlight, with sheer drops either side, keeping a terrified vigil for oncoming trains.

We were eventually stopped on the outskirts of Potosi – the world’s highest city at a bone-chilling 4,060 metres – and were told to walk the remaining three kilometres into town. Luckily, a dodgy taxi driver overloaded us into his cab, and I rolled into the darkened city with a gearstick up my anus.

“The miners are so glad you came with alcohol today,” said Juan the following morning. “They thought there’d be no tourists because of the road blocks.”

We’d crawled 350 metres into the mountain and 40 metres down, where we’d found two miners nicknamed “crazy” and “shorty” emptying giant rubber slings full of ore from a winch. Just inches above their heads, sagging beams precariously held up a giant rockfall. They handed out cup after cup of the alcohol potable. Juan had warned me that the miners would consider it bad luck if I turned down the proffered drinks. Luckily it was dark in there – I surreptitiously poured the whole lot away behind me, pretending I was making offerings to the Inca earth godess, Pachamama.

“Just recently, a drunk miner fell down a 40-foot shaft to his death,” said Juan. “We had tourists in here and they witnessed it. One of our guides felt very guilty, because he’d called the guy into his house to drink with him that very morning.”
But the miners who live longest avoid booze.

“The oldest guy in this mine – 53 years old – was recently asked how he’s managed to live so long. He said first of all, you have to eat well, then you have to exercise, and finally, drink only once a month.”

This is extracted from Mat Ward’s excellent ebook, ‘Around the World in 80 AA’s where he tours the world investigating the phenomenon that is Alcoholics Anonymous.’ Buy it now.

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