Being stuck below ground is our worst nightmare, but imagine if you were forced to look the devil in the eye every morning as you headed into the subterranean world. Intrepid traveller Jacqueline Donaldson discovered what it was like for the underground workers of Bolivia…
“If God is in the sky then the devil must be in the ground” was what a Potosi miner told me when I was surprised by an effigy of the devil on entering the dark entrance to a mine in the intriguing city of Potosi. As I watched, miners filed past giving small offerings to the devil to keep them safe for the working day.
I was on a tour of the Cerro Ricco tin mines, which gives you a taste of what life is like for thousands of Bolivian mine workers (and hundreds of thousands of mine workers around the world). It’s scary. The only light is from your head torch and the strange sounds of workers are muffled in the claustrophobia of the tunnels.
The points of access from one level of the mine to the other are extremely steep – I couldn’t imagine taking loads of rocks on my back up and down the mine levels like the young boys do. Stories of collapses and miners lost for days without light chill you. Despite the discomfort, the tour is definitely worth doing – you are entering a working mine and that is why this is a unique experience.
After the tour our group had an incredible stroke of luck. As we were standing outside the mine we started asking about the growing crowds dressed in finery and the statues of saints that were being carried around. We had happened upon the day of the annual miners’ festival and were invited to join them.
For several hours we danced down the mountain with local families, giving thanks for the safety and fortune of the workers. We all took turns carrying the revered relics and spent the day dancing arm and arm around the carriers, toasting the virgin and blessing the earth with ethanol, laughing and learning the colourful and tragic history that mining has brought to this region. This day in Potosi still counts as one of my best travelling days ever, which is one reason why I highly recommend visiting Potosi and Bolivia!”
* photo by David Morris – Intrepid Photography Competition