Steve's Adventures in South America

I bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela and I'm not coming back until my tube of toothpaste runs out...

Potosi Mines

Crawling in dirt, playing with dynamite - it's a boy's dream come true!

Havin' a Blast!

Red Neck Hill Billy Steve

I wake up and shave. No ordinary shave though, I follow Sean's suggestion and go Red Neck! Today I'm gonna be handling Dynamite and I wanna look the part. At the start of the tour we're driven to some one's back yard and given wellies, safety helmet, head torch & battery pack and jacket & trousers and then driven to the Miners Market. Here our group of 7 were led to a stall and out guide gives us a quick history lesson of the mines, including descriptions of Blasting and handling real sticks of dynamite!

Smokin' Sticks of Dynamite!

Mining conditions are harsh and still very labour intensive. They work for themselves in small groups (usually 2 - 7 people), up to 1½ km deep in the mountain with no electricity and no machines. They use pick axes and hand cranked drills to bore blasting holes for the, now very ineffective compared to modern explosives, dynamite sticks. The fuses and detonators are still the archaic burning black powder type and if they don't hear a stick go off they have to wait 24 hours before checking on it. All, except a few larger syndicates, carry all the rocks, ore and minerals to the surface by hand in 35 Kg ruck sacks. Some of the upper levels have rail tracks and carts but again they're manual and the miners have to push and drag the full wagons by hand. Bear in mind that despite being in the mountain, they're still at some altitude of 4,000m, there is no artificial ventilation to pump air & oxygen in, the dusty atmosphere is full of arsenic and asbestos and the only light they have is provided by the torch on their helmet. These electric head torches only came into effect a few years ago. And we get to experience it all. Oh yeah!

Presents for the Miners

Women aren't allowed to work the mines, it's bad luck. (Just think, "women + sharp object = disaster" therefore "women + explosives = major catastrophe!") Miners are real men. They work all day with nothing but Coca leaves, fizzy pop and cigarettes to stimulate and sustain them throughout the day. Then on Friday night they get blotto'ed on Ceibo, a 96% volume alcoholic drink and chase the Chicas. I feel compelled to buy them some pressies. From the stall I buy them a Completo (1 stick of dynamite, a 4 minute fuse, detonator and a bag of ammonium nitrate for that extra kick!), ½ litre of Ceibo, 2 litres of fizzy pop, 2 bags of Coca leaves, ½ litre of some 45% grape spirit, a couple of chocolate bars and 2 Completos for myself - all for under £5. I love this country!

The Processing Plant - Watch Your Fingers!

Before we hit the mines we first visit the processing plant. This is where the rock and ore gets crushed, separated and tested for purity by various large and very exposed heavy machinery. We're also told now is the time to try the Coca leaves to help with the altitude. Needing no further invitation I pummel a fistful of leaves into my mouth and start chewing. It gives a strong yet pleasant tea flavour and quickly makes my cheek and tongue go numb. The rest of the group are slow at taking up the initiative. The guide explains you're not supposed to chew it like chewing gum because you ingest it too quickly, giving you diarrhoea. I instantly stop chewing. Instead you pick the leaves off the stems and stash them in your cheek, much like a hamster, mixing it with saliva and letting the juices slowly seep into your blood stream. So I did that and lost the flavour and the feeling returned to my tongue and cheek. Feeling no other stimulus I wondered what the point was but kept the stash in my gob regardless - it added to the Red Neck Hill Billy look. Yeah!

El Tio Effigy

Head torches on we enter the mine. The tunnels are no larger than need be and barely fit a small standing Bolivian miner. They are only reinforced where cave-ins had started - you had to duck under these sections. Underground we enter a mini-miners museum. Here they have effigies of El Tio, the devil spirit of the mines. Each morning the miners adorn him with Coca leaves, cigarettes and booze in the hope of receiving a good stash of minerals in return. We also learn of more mining hardships, e.g. in only 1942 thousands of women and children were shot and massacred in 5 hours by the Bolivian Army as they marched to ask for a pay rise for the miners.

Steve and his Trusty Guide

During this break I take the opportunity to shovel more Coca leaves in my mouth. Even at this early stage we loose 2 of our group of 7 who couldn't hack the claustrophobia. Monika wanted to leave too but Sean dragged her deeper into the mountain. Here we had to crawl on hands and knees and slide down wooden shoots to progress further. The altitude and chemically contaminated atmospheric dust proved to be a real challenge. In these upper levels we came across many miners, both digging, pulling wagons and resting. They all seemed happy, or at least content, with their lot.

Steve Lends a Hand

To give a real experience of what it's like to mine we were asked to help out and shovel a wagon load of rubble into buckets, but quickly before the next wagon load turned up. In the thin air and dusty heat we were soon sweating and heavily out of breath. It was but one wagon load - miners do it repetitively for 10 hours a day. Their stamina is impressive.

Tiny Mining Tunnels

We clamoured down to level 3, there are 8. That was hard and deep enough for the group, all except Sean and I. After a "little" persuasion the group split and Sean and I were taken deeper, down to level 4. This involved slithering down a vertical hole in a side passage no bigger than a human, with no ladder, just using pressure from arms and legs to keep yourself from falling. We loved it! We then raced, crawled and climbed back to catch up with the rest of the group. There were no rests nor breaks until we did and our lungs were bursting, craving oxygen. We were breathing deep as if we'd almost drowned.

Is That a Burning Stick of Dynamite By Your Nuts?

For some the sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel was a welcome vision. For others the sad end to a fantastic experience. But not sad for long for I had 2 Completos to blow up! Our guide showed me how; unwrap the stick and roll the explosive dynamite into a ball, stick the detonator & fuse in, compress the paper wrapper back around it and tie it tightly in the plastic bag of ammonium nitrate. I lit the 4 minute fuse, it began to burn. The guides and miners seemed unbothered as if there was all the time in the world, so I pose for photographs with an ignited explosive by my nuts, watching the fuse slowly melt away. With only 2 minutes to detonation I begin to get nervous, no-one had taken an interest in my death device. Then a miner grabs the dynamite and he and his mate, also with fists of burning explosives, peg down the hill. They drop the dynamite and run back up the hill as fast as their little legs could carry them, as if their lives depended on it. Which it did.

Steve's Dynamite Bites the Dust

Us tourists hang back, cameras in hand, waiting in anticipation. We were not disappointed. Bang! Boom! We felt the shock waves of the explosions, saw plumes of dust and smoke erupt into the air and our ears rang with the deafening roar. Awesome and very satisfying!

Later we ate at the Koala Cafe, upstairs and next to Koala Tours for a cheap meal of juicy chicken and delicious mashed potato. I return to my cold and smelly room. It's been an excellent but hard day.