Image for Travels without a Donkey: Bolivia (4) (Potosí 2 & to the border)

I WANTED to experience a day in the life of a Potosí miner to allow me to write about it. I made my way up Cerro Rico to La Mina Poderosa (The Powerful Mine). At eight in the morning when Jorge introduced me to miners I was to be working with, they stared at me, one side of their faces already bulging with coca leaves, no doubt wondering why this tall white guy would want to work with them for free.

My lack of experience placed me with the third class (lowest) miners who are generally the younger guys or those with less than two years experience. Fortunately, the price of zinc has risen in the world market over the past few years, meaning if production is good, the daily wage of a third class miner is about 11USD.

After following the tunnels left, right, up and down for a few hundred metres we got to a long mostly straight section with old wooden rails along the floor and a small vertical chute in the rock ceiling at one end. We had to fill a heavy metal trolley with rubble, which we dislodged from the chute above us with a metal pole.

Then, with two of us pushing and one pulling and steering the trolley that now weighed about a tonne, we took it 200 metres to a pit, where other guys shovelled the rubble into drums that were then pulled to the surface by the only electric winch in the mine. It was like pushing a car, but hunched over as the roof was barely four feet high in sections.

After about an hour of pushing, I was dripping with sweat and panting like a rabid dog trying to get oxygen that the altitude wouldn´t give me. I was quickly turning grey from the dust and constantly spitting out a paste made of rock dust. I felt like the fine dust was gradually filling my body and was acutely aware of its taste and the feeling of breathing it into my lungs. I tried to have some water and initially gagged trying to swallow it, as my throat was choked with the dust. After four hours, my back, arms and upper legs were like jelly. Fortunately at this point the chute ran out of rubble. We sat in a dusty cave, de-veined at least 100 coca leaves each and managed to squeeze them into the side of our mouths.

About 200 miners currently work in this mine, 70 per cent in the day and the rest at night. There are about 15,000 miners working in Cerro Rico for about 50 different co-operatives in around 500 different mines. The miners have to pay to join a co-operative, so most spend their first few years of work paying off their co-operative fee.


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Sun rising over the Cerro, as I wait to start work outside the miners´ huts of the Powerful Mine


Johnny, 29 like me, has been working in this mine only a month, but in another for a long time. Only Johnny and I had a good grip on Spanish, Isidro and Florente were only confident in Quechua. With Johnny´s help translating we were all able to talk. Florente, who was 40 years old, had only been working in the mines for a year because he had lost another job. Isidro, like many others, started working in the mines as a young boy (at ten years old) due to the death of his father. There are thought to be over 500 child workers in the mines of Cerro Rico.

After about half an hour talking and chewing, there was a huge dynamite blast that felt only a few metres away, followed by another 15 or so. Every loud bang hurt my ear drum as if it was going to burst. With each blast the ground and rock walls around us shook and vibrated so much that the bags of coca leaves shuffled across the floor.

I couldn´t stop thinking about it all coming down on top us, as happens to around 40 people a year, but my compañeros didn´t seem bothered, even as small rocks crumbled from above us and hit our helmets.

Andres, who was so caked in the dust that is killing him he was just a pair of eyes and half a set of teeth, took me to see the blast he had drilled. We had to finish early due to the dust and fumes caused by the blast, they were lethal, making breathing painful for the throat and nose.

We made our way up to the light, where they asked me back the next day, to start even earlier. I couldn´t say no.

After a half day of work, my chest felt full of dust and disturbingly tight. I had the voice of The Godfather. I felt shattered and kept coughing up the grey paste of powdered rock. I had a nasty head ache from working at 4,350m altitude. These guys work six full days a week all year. They are permanently caked in dust, including the inside of their lungs.

As I worked with them, I couldn´t help thinking how much shorter their lives would be than mine. The odds are that Johnny will be dead in 9 years. Isidro, at 18 years old, likely won´t even live to 38, having already worked 8 years.


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Cerro Rico and San Benito Church from the lower part of the city. This church was large and basic, built in the part of the city where the Indians and African slaves lived. This church served as a place to covert traditional beliefs to Catholicism, but also to collect the tribute Indians had to pay to the Spanish Crown.


On the second day, I was outside the mine by 6:45. The day always starts with about half an hour of ´´pi´chear, ´´ (Quechua for de-veining and chewing coca leaves). During this time, we dress for the day as well, in overalls, gloves, boots, helmets and headlamps. The miners go without food for the entire 8 – 12 hour shift, only chewing coca leaves.

On day two, our job was to collect and transport the rubble, which had been blasted the day before, up to the next level, from where it would eventually be moved by wheel barrow to the pit and be winched to the surface. Johnny and I had to wind up rubber sacks, made from old truck tires containing around a hundred kilos of rubble. The best way I can describe this task in a physical sense, is like doing ten push-ups, resting for 30 seconds then doing ten more, and repeating the cycle for four hours. It was exhausting work.

Andres proudly showed me the glittering vein of almost pure zinc they had blasted and explained that the veins only run from north to south. We all finished work at noon as it was the day of a city festival. I was relieved to finish work. I was afraid for our lives down there and I remain afraid for theirs´. On the way out, we heard a strange noise and looking at me with his best attempt at seriousness, Isidro said, ´´It´s El Tio.´´

After work I met Anna and Jorge to interview some people. We interviewed three elderly women who work every day on the hill breaking the most invaluable rocks with a hammer and separating them into different mineral types. Celestina is 81 years old and works with her daughter Maria (62) and Macaria (68). Celestina has been doing this work for 40 years. They earn between 4 and 5 dollars a day.


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Celestina (81) who breaks and sorts rocks on Cerro Rico


Macaria works there because her husband was left brain damaged after a mining accident and her daughter has no legs and cannot work. They were all very sharp and eager to talk (especially Macaria, who recounted her life and described the state of Bolivian politics through the years before even being asked a single question). It was one of the easiest interviews we have ever done, which was especially surprising given Spanish is their second language after Quechua.

Macaria, at age 14, started working in the mines with her brothers, when her father died. She worked until she was 23 in lead and silver mines then began working outside the mines separating minerals with water and gravity.

The 1985 crash in the price of tin, caused by a US flood of the market, caused incredible poverty on the Cerro, and was particularly tough on the female workers, who by this stage were mostly working separating tin outside the mines. 1985 also saw the end of the revolutionary government that had governed the country since 1952 and had nationalised all the mines. All three women tell us how much better things were when mining was run by the revolutionary government between 1952 and 1985. Maria explained that Potosi has given so much to Bolivia, and indeed the world, and yet it never gets anything back.

I asked Macaria what the three most important things in life were. She explained to me that work was the most important, because ´´without it you cannot have health or look after your family.´´ When you ask this question in Australia, or another wealthy country, work never comes before health and family, here, it has to.

We then interviewed mother of eight, Modesta, who lives with 5 of her children (pictured in the previous donkey) and her drunken miner husband on the side of Cerro Rico. She earns about $45 a month for living there and guarding a mine entrance and its equipment from thieves. She only spoke Quechua so Jorge had to translate for us (over a third of the 700,000 people in the Department of Potosí only speak indigenous languages). She openly admitted not having hope for that the lives of her family would ever improve. She didn´t want her children to work in the mines due to the danger, early death and hunger wages. Her main hope was that they could escape; the daughter to be a maid in a city, and the sons to factories in Argentina or Chile.

Elias (7) is the only one who has an interest in local opportunities, he sells rocks to tourists, which his mother helps him find. He´s got courage as there can be nasty competition between the other children selling rocks. This competition for the small change of tourists causes fighting amongst the children and prevents possible friendships.


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Jose (4) and his older brother Elias (7) - Elias sells rocks to tourists that his mother, Modesta, helps him find


The next day we were invited to lunch with Toño and his family. Family in Bolivia automatically means extended family, and as such lunch was shared with about 20 people spanning three generations, most of whom, live in the same house. We had a quinoa soup and spicy chicken with rice.

The next night Ramiro took me to the old workers´ pub. It´s completely hidden away up some stairs off the main Plaza, with absolutely no signage and, is for men only. I don´t have anything against women, in fact, I am even engaged to one, but this place was brilliant, like stepping back in time for a few hours. Old and young men drinking Casa Real playing dice and cards games, ranting, laughing, stumbling, and occasionally coming up to the oddity that was I, to shake my hand or even give me a hug.

One of the last things I had to do in Potosí was visit the huge miners´ cemetery, a place you are never alone, due to the death rate of Potosí´s miners. The dead go to their after world as miners, their graves adorned with coca leaves, Casa Real and cigarettes. But the poorest miners can´t even rest in peace. If their family can´t afford to pay for more time, the remains will be tossed out after five years and the burial plot used for someone else.


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The family home of Modesta, her husband and five children is the middle third of this building, the remaining space is mining storage


With sadness we had to leave Potosí on a night bus to Tarija, near the border with Argentina. In the taxi to the bus terminal we had a conversation with the driver that felt a bit like the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that closes the chapter of Potosí.

He began with the standard questions about where we were from, and did we like his country. But then he drifted into questions about wealth in Australia and then excused himself for asking such a question, and asked, ´´How are people from your country, Europe and the United States so rich? Do people work harder? Are they smarter? How do they have so much more ´´plata´´ (money)? Unsurprisingly in Potosí people refer to money as ´´plata´´ (silver).

I tried to explain that we don´t work any harder, and that in Australia we haven´t been enslaved and exploited for the benefit of other nations for 500 years. But basically the only real answer I could give him was luck – I was lucky to be born in a rich nation, he was unlucky to be born in a poor nation. It´s difficult explaining to someone that it´s simply luck, that makes me 20 times as rich as them and gives me more opportunity than I know what to do with.

It is necessary to see the cage in which the new global neoliberal order encloses possibilities of action for the world´s poor majority with the imminent presence of the Pentagon and the military force of the United States in addition to the material limits of scarcity, national isolation and poverty. Adolfo Gilly

He explained that he asked because he wanted to know how to get more money, and if there was something we knew about that he was missing. He has a five year old daughter and would like another child, but can barely afford to look after his daughter as it is. One doesn´t earn their birth in Potosí, or in Hobart, two cities of similar size nestled below a mountain, but what different lives the two can offer you.

There´s a saying in Tarija, Viene a Tarija no bebe, porque puta viene (come to Tarija and you don´t drink, why the fuck did you come). Tarija is Bolivia´s grape growing region and where its wines, ports and the wonderful Casa Real come from. Tarija is effectively part of the Chaco region, which includes much of Paraguay and the northern part of Argentina. It´s a nice place but you don´t have to walk far from the glamorous centre paraded by new SUVs to get to the dusty slums. Tarija, like Sucre, displays more obvious wealth than Potosí, yet there also seemed to be much more begging.

After a few days we had to make the two hour dash to the border to meet Argentina. The trip involved six of us in a beaten up old car, and me, who had the best view of him in the rear view mirror, waking the driver every two minutes as he nodded off behind the wheel. It was not a relaxing journey. As we walked across another lonely bridge linking two countries, we wondered how different Argentina would be, and if the change would be instant. We would soon find out it was. 

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Talking with the women and some of their grandchildren