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Dante: Hell on Earth, Bolivia 2009

Date of entry: July 18, 2009

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96% strength alcohol, for the miners down under…it is truly a foul hell down there..

For 70 Bolivianos, $7 US Dollars or around 5 British pounds ?, welcome to a hell ? on earth. Once the throbbing heartbeat of South America, its richest and most prosperous town with the masses of Silver ? that had been (and continues to be, minus its purity and its widespread availability) discovered in its subterranean depths, much has changed since these heady days.

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Whence before Bolivia in the 16th century, courtesy of Potosi would produce masses of coins for its country, Spain and more, now all of Bolivia’s money is made outside of the country.

Predominantly in Canada ? and Spain.

Work was once abounded in its masses here, and riches could be had from the presence of almost pure silver in these mountains ⛰️, now workers eke out an existence that borders on nightmares.

Working no longer than 8 hours a day because of the severity of the conditions, there were 70 deaths that occurred last year because of the high incidence of toxic fumes ☠️ that abound in these caverns.

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That curious bulge you spot is some of the treasures that I will gift these miners (a soft drink and cocoa leaves to be exact!). And the lovely backdrop is the world they come up to from hell….enchanting isn’t it?!

The Lonely Planet reads that workers can die in up to 10 years when working in the mines of pneumonia, because of the strain this underworld places upon their lungs.

Our guide “Sol”, which is Sun in spanish, contends that there are some that have lived out their lives in here for as long as 25 years.

Predominantly Quechuans with no other alternative job opportunities, they huff and puff as they travel through small walkways, crawl through small tunnels, and continually bump their helmeted heads on the low ceilings of granite and volcanic ? forged rock.

They have golf sized cocoa leaves which shape a horrible deformation of their cheeks as if they were part of the mines themselves.

Slowly swelling and contracting as they chip away at the mines, and the underground waters that trickle up from above being akin to the beads of perspiration that trickle down their face and over the huge swell of crushed cocoa leaves.

Continually chewing on these removers of pain, the cocoa numbs their mouths, deadens their appetite, and helps fight fatigue as they work in darkness, with moving pools of light that sit atop their dome. Like worker ants ?, furiously chipping away at their nest in order to find some such treasure seemingly forged by the gods.

And then their are others, who seemingly have come to accept this as a way of life and a means only to a daily end of food and water… no more. Fathers that bring in their sons at the tender age of 14, to work in order to support their family. Small, strong, wiry men with rotting teeth and swollen cheeks, as they become one with their captor.

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It’s a wonderful old world down there, and some of these miners did make a good living, before the economy collapsed for minerals. And now it seems they know no other way of life, so down they stay….family and all….

With there being no other work that is easily available in this small town, this “co-operative mine”, is nothing of a cooperation at all.

Men live their working lives here solely to sell whatever they find for themselves to bring them food and water. You have the experienced workers that toil day upon day, and then the helpers, that are contracted in in order to find all the silver that they can.

Already a draining existence, things have only grown worse since the collapse of the silver market. Whereas before they could stand to make 2000 – 3000 Bolivianos per month on the open market, now they rarely make more than 6.

Furthermore, at only 3 bolivianos to be earnt per kilo, it should come as little surprise to see men hauling 150 kilograms of rock on wheelbarrows some 4 kilometres deep across these tunnels. Yet, everything about these tunnels shock the senses.

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Hauling up up to 50 kg of rubble in order to make more room to find minerals. and sift through this rubble for minerals! This is not before they cart along up to 150kg of rubble through a walkway I am unable to stand in….

It’s a muggy, at times falling below freezing ❄️, and others well above 35 degrees place that keeps miners working at the ends of their tethers in this world of eternal darkness.

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And off they go….hauling the 150kg….it’s a hardknock life for them.

It is ironic, that the one thing that they worship while underground is Tios, a devil, to whom they give offerings in order to be afforded a safe passage in and out of these mines day upon day.

Alcohol, some 96% strong is offered to Tios, with a sip taken by the miner, and the rest given to the god. The lips ? and throat, stomach and all burn as I ingested this vile concoction.

Down in the mines itself as soon as I was in, scrambling through the tight walkways, on hands and knees crawling along, and continually hearing the bump bump of my helmet on rock, I just wished to be gone ?

The mines of Bolivia are certainly not built for the European man, but nonetheless, the strength of will and sinew of these men is simply incredible. Suffocating, unnerving, upsetting and more, it is a place that will forever leave an indelible upon my brain.

I will always remember this haven of the devil, where men pop sodas, chew coca leaves, and work by day in these appalling conditions, sometimes dying young, with others plowing on.

It’s somewhere I have no desire to go back to ever again. Seeing the sticks of dynamite that the men use to buy to blow up small pieces of rock in order to find some small slithers of silver sometimes makes me wonder still, whether they are using the dynamite for the wrong thing.

As we all exclaimed, upon our departure, truly a hell on earth…

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Oh my Tios, his highness whom they worship beneath the surface… ?

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