I understood what poverty really is...

Trip Start Jul 08, 2007
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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I have seen a lot of poverty in my life and my travels and up to this date, I have always thought to understand what it meant.  I have walked the Indian streets of Mumbai and New Delhi, saw people dead on the side of the road and kids crawling on the floor to get my attention for money.  I have been to the poorest areas of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Morocco, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.  I have seen and talked to homeless people in Montreal sleeping outside by -30C.  But until today, I have never understood what it really meant to be poor.  You can read as much as you want, you can see them all around the world but until you have joined them, you cannot understand what it means.
 
Today I have visited the famous mine of Potosi in Bolivia.  Potosi has helped significantly to create the wealth of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries by supplying them with 3 times the amount of silver that could be find in Europe at that time.  There was once so much silver in Potosi that at some point there was a saying there that their was enough silver to build a bridge from South America to Europe, all in silver.  Today, things are very different and the silver is much scarcer.  On top of that, Bolivia is one of the poorest country in the world and the poorer of South America.
 
In the tour, we were first given our very rustic mining equipment (nothing to be compared with the new technologies and techniques of more advanced countries): full protective suit, a helmet with a light, plastic boots and a gangster type of scarf. After receiving our briefing on how mining works, we finally entered the famous mine.  The mine counts 15 000 workers on 17 levels, so we were only going to see a tiny portion of it.  I have always had the pre-conception that mining was quite easy.  Yes I thought it to be hard physically, but as you don't have to think much and so take difficult decisions, I assumed it was without stress.  All that I thought was expected from miners was to dig and go home when their shift was done...
 
I was really excited to enter the mine and I brought with me tales of treasures, adventures and even images of the Mine of Moriah in the Lord of the Rings.  At first the tunnel was quite high, the floor dry and the air fresh.  I saw, as I was expecting, wood beams placed on the roof of the tunnels to support it.  We were once in a while joined by miners extracting the minerals (4.5 tons of rocks per day) on an Indiana Jones type of chariot running on rails.  I was getting even more excited and could not wait to get to the deepest places of Potosi.  Then I heard a very strident noise hurting my ears, so much I thought something was about to explode.  I was explained very normally by our guide that it was the compressed air pipes used by the miners to power their jack hammers.  A few moments later, I bumped my head (helmet) quite hard on a beam sticking out of the ceiling in a weird way and really hurt my neck.  A few meters later, I had to bend in two in order to keep on moving forward and avoid hitting my head again.  Before I could really understand what was going on, we were sliding on our bums for many meters in order to climb down into the unknown.  The first person of our group turned back as he did not feel at ease.  I forgot to mention that the mine was situated at 4500 m altitude making it the highest mine in the world.  I later found out that African slaves brought to work in Potosi could only survive 2 to 3 weeks in the mine because of the high altitude.
 
The dust was everywhere in the air, the sulphur-nickel odour was really intense, my eyes were itching and my scarf was hardly stopping the dust from entering my lungs.  The dust was in fact silicium and after a few years, it destroys the skin and the capacity of smell of the miners.  The air temperature was now reaching 25C-30C, the lack of oxygen from the high altitude was slowly gaining my muscles and the scarf although useful at first, was now making it 3 times harder to catch my breath. 
 
We kept on venturing in 50 cm tunnel opening, crawling on our tummy most of the time in order to keep on going.  I thought to myself that we would have to walk back up this entire road and that was not such a pleasant thought.  We finally arrived at the end of that tunnel 450m below the top of the mine which I learned there was in fact a volcano.  So the deeper we were venturing, the warmer it was getting.  There our group (8 people) crawled in a little room, as big as a small car where Felix, an 18 years old Bolivian miner, was working.  I was the first to get in and could not imagine all of us fit simultaneously in that little room.  But we somehow did.  Felix was making a whole in the rock with a hammer and a metal stick, so he could later put a dynamite in it and explore further what the mine had to offer.  He was working diligently, very focused on what he was doing.  The temperature was culminating at 35C, he was breathing without any mask and had no protection whatsoever.  It was his 4th year in the mine.  I could not stop thinking about how much rock was above and how all of this could fall on our head or trap us down here for ever.  After all, we frequently hear miners' accidents all around the world and given the 8 millions miners who have died in Potosi in the last 400 years, why not now?  Felix what hitting his metal stick with the maximum strength he could each time.  One bad hit and he would break his hand, no doubt.  After thanking him for answering our questions for a little more than 5 minutes, we came out to speak with his father who was just outside this chamber analysing the rocks found in order to decide where his team/family should dig next.  Then we met Alphonso, Felix brother who at 13 years old, have been working in the mine for 2 months.  He was not studying and soon had to decide if he was to become a miner like his brother and father.  Alphonso seemed so unhappy and lacking any joy and life force.  He was timidly answering our questions without looking at us, as if he was the most insignificant person in the world.    My heart crisped in my chest as I was realizing what poverty and lack of choice really was.  I saw a glimpse of his future and it was mainly the same sight until his death.
 
We left them behind after giving them a few gifts (soda, dynamite and coca leaves).  Going down was somewhat easier comparing to climbing back up.  The hard conditions, low oxygen and dust made catching my breath an almost impossible task.  Arriving in a little room, I had a few seconds of panic where I could not breathe anymore.  I could have removed my scarf to help me (like others have done), but as the mine's dust was also the primary reason for miners death between the age of 45-50 years old (silicosis), I did not want to do that either. We where still really deep, it was boiling hot, the smell was just too unpleasant and again I had this idea that all the rocks above our head could collapse at any time.  I have always loved scuba diving in the tiniest caves, in the darkest and less visible water possible and I have never felt claustrophobic.  Quite in the contrary, I have always felt free.  But for this short moment, I lost it.  I got dizzy and was really unhappy in that whole.  I somehow managed to rationalised myself and comeback to my senses, as more oxygen was finally reaching my brain.  Part of me felt so much better and the other part was wondering that maybe the hell the church falsely added to the new testament of the bible in the 8th century AD was really existing after all.
 
After 20 more minutes climbing back up, the air suddenly got fresher and I knew we where almost out remembering Gandalf wise words to Merry when they where lost in the Mine of Moriah: "If in doubt Merryadoc, always follow your nose".  I eventually saw the light at the end of the tunnel and I was extremely happy to see the sun, breathe the fresh air and be in the open once again, with only clouds above my head.
 
I could not stop thinking that in the miners' position I would never work in that mine.  It seemed to me a dead end job: terrible work and conditions, no fulfilling purpose to it, it would subtract about 15-20 years to my life and I would earn a ridiculous salary.  Actually, I would not do this work for any amount of money.  I was told that 90% of the miners were working in the mine because there was no other options for them; 4% because it was a family tradition and 3% because they enjoyed it.  My understanding of poverty was taking shape.  I understood that poverty is a lack of freedom, of spiritual and mind awareness, of happiness and vision for a better world.  Life for them is a matter of today and anything beyond does not mean anything.  I use to think that we all choose to decide what we do to some extent.  I could not have been more wrong.  I have now the greatest respect for miners.  I could not help thinking that for them to keep on doing this work 6 days a week and 10h per day (sometimes double shift for a total of 24h straight), they must close down a part of who they are and pass on surviving mode. 

My heart is still in pain and I send them all the love and hope I have to offer.  May they be blessed and find their way in their servitude.  Even after a thorough shower days later wearing new clothes, I can still smell the mine on my skin. 
 
I could get angry at the world for what these miners have to live but that would not solve anything.  Something greater and with more perspective needs to be done.  Reality exists in the balance of its extreme forces.  What could balance such an injustice?  This experience opened a new consciousness gate within my soul.  I don't know yet what it means, but I sense I will soon find out.
 
I will never feel the same towards silver and other richness.  Have a thought for how they came to you next time you desire them.
 
All the love in my heart
 
Erriuc
 
ps, there is a great documentary on Potosi called: The Devil;s Mine
pps, for pictures of the mine, click on the previous blog entry.
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