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Colin and Sue’s Travel Diary

Monday, 13 Nov 2006

Location: Potosi, Bolivia

MapWe decided it was about time we had some exercise and decided to go cycling to the local hot springs - we were the only people on the tour so half the employees of the tour company came along for the ride and a picnic. The ride was from Potosi to the springs - a descent of about 400m and was "mostly downhill" - we came back in the jeep. The volcanic crater lake was really good - our guide book said "on no account swim in the lake" but we ignored this on the basis that our guide assured us that the people who had got into difficulties were drunk (and he swam). We were also encouraged by some expats who were swimming in the lake. The place was full of Bolivians who didn´t swim - because lots of them can´t and also because there is a legend of a whirlpool in the lake waiting to suck down unsuspecting swimmers. Anyway we survived with only a touch of sunburn where we had missed with the suntan lotion.

On Monday, we went on the long awaited mine trip - but yet again not many miners were working as they were attending the funeral of a miner who had died - either of carbon monoxide or alcohol poisoning - either way not very encouraging! After getting kitted up, we went to the miners´market to buy gifts for the miners - we bought dynamite packs (about $2 for a stick of dynamite, some ammonium nitrate to make a bigger bang and a fuse) and fizzy pop, the others bought coca leaves.

The mines were originally just silver mines but now the miners mine for a number of minerals including silver. First we visited the processing plant where the minerals are extracted from the rocks. Health and safety considerations are nil - no safety guards or rails and open vats containing acids, arsenic etc. No wonder we had to sign a complete disclaimer before setting off.

Next stop the mine - it was like going back in time - again no safety to speak of - and nearly everything was done by hand. They didn´t use drills and it took 2 hours to chip out a hole in which to place the explosives. The only mechanised part was electric winches to lift out the rocks. We were lucky that there weren´t many miners as we had to keep avoiding the trolleys which were pushed by hand at speed. The tunnels and shafts were all narrow and we had to crawl in some parts. We assisted in some shovelling rock into hoppers - about 2 minutes (or less) was enough for most people.

The most exciting part came after the tour - blowing up our own dynamite. Colin helped mix the dynamite and ammonium nitrate and then the guide lit the three minute fuse - one minute to take photos, one minute to take it away (the guide did this bit) and a minute to get clear - it made a very satisfactory bang.

The mine was incredibly hot, dusty, cramped and dangerous. Spending just over an hour inside was more than enough. But 12,000 miners work there in total with an average life expectancy of 42 because of accidents (about 25 die in the mines each year) and lung disease - despite this it´s a very popular job as they earn on average $200 per month which is good money for Bolivia. To limit the numbers, the miners co-operatives are effectively closed shops with prospective new members having to work as helpers for 4 years before they can join the co-operative. Don´t think we´ll be signing up for it.