Pockets full of dynamite and coca leaves, looking like a construction worker who is about to rob a train, in a hard hat and a bandana over my face, I went down the dark narrow shaft.
The silver mines of Bolivia’s Potosi, the highest large town in the world (over 4,000m), were claustrophobic and dusty. They swerved on and on, disappearing in the dark. Fixed to the ceilings were rubber tubes carrying high-voltage electric cables, water, and what sounded like compressed air. The air I was breathing was musty and full of dust. The ventilation system in the mine is virtually non-existent, and throughout their entire career the miners breathe in silica dust and toxic fumes like sulfur and arsenic. A miner’s life expectancy today is about forty years, but mining is a family tradition, and as soon as sons are old enough they will come down to the mine and work like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
Slinking through tight passages, four levels down, trying not to think about the durability of the mine’s structure, I gave the dynamite and coca leaves, together with some 99.8% drinking alcohol, to the miners, thanking them for letting me visit.