“Get down, there’s going to be an explosion!”
We huddle together in a tight narrow passageway, feet away from a grotesque statue of the devil, and wait. The silence is broken only by the sound of blood thumping through my own veins. Then, someone cries out, there is a muffled roar as if Satan himself has woken in anger, the earth shakes and I feel the radiating vibrations shudder through me. We are deep, deep inside a tin mine in the town of Potosi in Bolivia. The devil presides over this dank underworld. His statue glows red in the beam of our lamps, mocking our unease with a lascivious grin. The miners who risk their lives each day are at his mercy, and regularly bring offerings to place around his statue in the hope of guaranteeing their safety and a productive day’s work.
The narrow maze of tunnels looms out of the darkness and dust as we gradually unfurl our bodies, and are given the all-clear to continue our progress into the heart of the mine. My legs feel heavy, my head light, as I follow the line of dark shapes in front of me, nervous about what might be ahead, but more anxious not to be separated from my companions. We’ve been fitted out with hard hats, coats and huge boots for our own protection but it makes it difficult to manoeuvre easily in these cramped conditions. We weave our way through the labyrinth, breathing in the damp and the smell of dynamite.
The grey light opens out ahead and we catch a glimpse of a spectral group of miners working down one of the many arteries, their faces besmeared with the dust of the mine, only rags tied around their noses and mouths provide a far from adequate filter. We had been told to bring coca leaves as a present for the miners, which help stave off hunger, allowing them to work long shifts without a break to eat. I try to imagine slaves working these mines at the time when Potosi was ruled by the Spanish, when they were rich in silver and the city was famed for its luxury and wealth. Conditions do not seem to have improved greatly for the miners, the average life expectancy is 40 years, many succumbing to the fatal lung disease, silicosis. Today the Cerro Rico or Rich Mountain still dominates this town, but the streets are no longer paved with silver, and the reserves of tin are dwindling. We hand over our gifts and, with a mixture of reluctance and relief, turn to make our way back to the mine’s entrance.
After what seems like hours of creeping through hell’s underbelly, we finally emerge, stumbling into the Andean sun. The glare stabs at my eyes, and I’m battling to keep them open against the unrelenting rays. But we are smiling, bemused by the strangeness of this polychrome world and the feel of the breeze against our skin.
We did not have to go down a mine, but had chosen to do so as part of a tour. But there are hundreds of mine workers here who have no choice, and daily enter the devil’s domain. Today it seems we have escaped unscathed , and we walk away, exchanging guilty looks.