Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Miner Problems (no, that's not a typo)

  1. I'm not crazy about tight spaces.
  2. I have heard about mining accidents all over the world.
  3. I really like being able to breathe fresh air.  

These are 3 great reasons to not do what I did.  But despite all of these reasons, I decided to visit a working mine in the small city of Potosí, Bolivia.   Though my family visited "mines," when I was a child, if my memory serves, they were really more like shallow caves that had long since stopped being used.  They in no way prepared me for my "Day in the Life of a Miner."

This mine, however, is very much functioning.  The main metals extracted from the mountain are silver, tin, zinc and lead, which are sent all over the world.  The mines of Potosí are cooperative (there are 16 in this one mountain), whereby each person sort of invests in a certain area, and receives an appropriate percentage of the profits when all the materials are sold.  It sounds pretty complicated, actually, with different social levels: bosses, workers, daily hires...  profits are split with specific algorithms. Plus, it's risky for those investing, as it is subject to the ups and downs of the international market.  

I'm trying to be a more informed consumer, so though I was nervous, it felt like something I needed to see.  I wanted to understand what working conditions are like for miners and from where some of the many materials we consume originate.  So, I signed up for a tour, and suited up in a nylon jumpsuit, dust mask, helmet, headlamp and rubber boots.  We also brought bags of coca leaves (a popular snack, energizer and appetite suppressant) as well as large bottles of soda as gifts for the miners.  She encouraged us to speak with the miners, to ask them questions, "but," she said, "don't ask them if they like their jobs.  No one likes to work in the mines."  That sentence clung to me for the duration of the tour.

Suited up, and ready to walk into the mine.  It was at this moment that I needed to turn off all the
voices of reason screaming in my head, and to consciously ignore the dangers.

In order to be able to haul out the heavy materials, large metal carts like the one in the center are pushed along this train track that runs the length of the principal tunnels.  Each section of the mine delivers its haul to a certain section outside the mine, seen here delineated by rows of rock on the ground.  This is how they keep track of how much material each person/team has collected.
Next, the rock is gathered up in a large truck and delivered to the smelting houses where it is weighed,
to know how much to pay the miners.

Here we are going in the mouth of the mine.   This small entrance is deceiving.  It doesn't give any sign that there are tons of different splitting tunnels inside, leading us to walk for a few hours without stopping!

Here I am, right at the entrance of the mine, my camera wrapped in a plastic bag at my side

Our tour guide, a petite and gruff woman of Quechuan descent who stood at about 5', knew all of the various tunnels well, pointing out points of interest along the way and greeting the various miners we encountered.  Her small frame easily maneuvered the low ceilings, but for myself (5'7") and a very tall gentleman in the tour with me, the at times under 5' clearance was tough.  More than once I whacked my head on a pipe, low hanging support beam of the rock ceiling itself.   Hence the helmets.
This was my first picture taken inside the mine.  It was just myself and one other tourist with the guide,
so the small group allowed up to move swiftly. 
 Our first stop was the "Uncle of the Mountain" Tio, a tradition for the miners to make an offering for a safe day in the mines.  They offer coca leaves (seen littered all around the figure),  alcohol (95% proof!), and cigarettes (as our guide is offering now).  If he "smokes" the cigarette, you will have a safe passage that day.  Thank goodness, he smoked our offering.  We also dribbled 2 drops of alcohol on the ground as an offering to Pachamama.

Here our guide is lighting a cigarette to offer to Tio.  You can see what remains of the old tio, the overexposed head surrounded by leaves at the bottom, which was replaced by the newer Satan-like representation constructed after the first was destroyed.  It is in the form of Satan, she explained, because he is the guardian of the ground, where we are now.  Especially since this mountain is an extinct volcano.
After making our offerings to Tio,  we continued onward.  Our guide pointed out some of the systems in place to help the mine run smoothly.  I expected to see the men walking around slinging pick axes, images from the seven dwarves flashing through my mind, but I was way off.  The most important tool the men can use is dynamite.  The rock is so hard, that at least 15 sticks of dynamite are needed to blast a 1 cubic meter of rock.   More than once during our tour, we heard and felt the faint rumble of explosions about 100 meters away, a dull but disconcerting sound that sent my heart beating just a bit faster.

For safety, all of the explosives are stored together to prevent accidents, about 100m in from the mouth of the mine.
At various points as we walked through the tunnels, you could see deep holes like this one, leading 70-160 meters down.  The climb down into these narrow passages to collect the raw materials.
Once rock is collected from these deep side passages, it has to be hoisted up to the main tunnel where it is loaded into a cart to be wheeled outside.  This winch is hoisted by just one person, but can hold up to 100kg of rock.
Rock by rock, these large carts are loaded, and are then pushed by the runners,
wheeling their heavy load along the metal tracks.
There is one day per year where there is a special offering to Pachamama (mother earth) to protect and provide for the miners.  The tunnels are decorated with streamers like this one.
Occasionally through our walk we could see the remainders of last year's celebration.
We arrived late to the mines, around 10am.  Most miners begin their day between 3-4 in the morning when the air quality is still pretty good.  But as you can imagine, over the course of the day, the air gets thicker and thicker.  These following pictures are from the deepest part of the mine that we reached before turning back.  You can see how thick the air is, filled with an extremely fine, and dangerous powder., a mixture of the rock itself and the remnants of the explosives used.  By the end of the day, the men are literally covered with this dust, making the look as if they wore light grey, skin tight, body suits.

At one point, she took us up and around.  By far the most hair-raising portion of the day, even more than the dynamite.  The tunnel was incredibly narrow, cluttered with loose rock, so dusty you could barely see more than 3 feel ahead, and it curved up and over, having to shimmy ourselves across a small beam to brace ourselves.  Upon reaching the top, the air was so thick with dust that there was literally nothing to see, so we turned around and came back.
This is a load being dropped outside.  You can see the cloud of dust being generate, and how quickly the men are moving to get out of its way.  As soon as that dust cloud comes around, it cuts off all the fresh air, and you find yourself coughing, even with a mask.
So, I said earlier that my goal for this trip was to better understand where our materials come from, and the sacrifices made by the people who collect them.    Mission accomplished.  I couldn't imagine this being my daily working conditions.   The deep-down fear of knowing that there's a chance a freak accident could cause the space to collapse without warning, the thick dust that makes breathing a challenge, seeing impossible, and covers everything with a hard-to-remove coating, the risks of an unpredictable market, the high demand for expensive dynamite, the incredibly challenging work schedule, and the very challenging physical demands of the job...  It certainly makes my work-life complaints seem like child's play.

After my visit to the mines I am blessed with a new appreciation of the simplest things:  fresh, clean air while at work, sunlight on my skin, my physical safety, job security, and the chance to do something I enjoy.  I hope that I never forget that.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Uyuni: More Than Just a Salt Flat

not my picture

Pictures like this have long held both my attention and my imagination.  Salar de Uyuni was very high on my bucket list.  So finally, early this November, I made my way there.  My trip, however, was during the dry season, so no picturesque mirror-like surface to perfectly reflect the sky.  However, to my delight, the salt flat was incredible (even dry), and there were even more to see than I realized!  It was an excellent 3 day trip!

This was our first stop: flags brought from visitors from all over the world.

Salar de Uyuni
These are the actual infamous salt flats.  You can see the sharp crystals layering the ground.

Our transport for 3 days.  We covered over 1000km!
Some buildings are constructed from blocks cut straight from the ground.  Other bricks can be seen forming cairns like these.
The light was lovely at sunset, but it was starting to get so chilly already!  Even though i have long pants, tall socks, a hooded jacket and a thick hat, I was freezing in this picture.
Apparently, there are 3 different layers to the salt.  The deepest layer of salt forms these amazing salt crystals.
During the dry season, people have fun taking silly perspective shots:

Our last stop in the flats was in the area where they harvest salt bricks for the buildings.
Here, we found a previous guest had built Uyuni.  Fun photo.

Salt Hotel
Our first night, we stayed in a salt hotel, which is exactly as it sounds: a building constructed from bricks of salt whose floor is a thick coating of dry, loose, rock salt.

Our dining room
Our guest room

Incahuasi Island

Also on our first day, we stopped at a hill right in the middle of the salt flat.  It is so out of place, that they call it an island.  The island is a solid block of fossilized, ancient coral, covered with huge, spikey cactus.

Managed to catch this little guy just as it landed on the cactus flower.
Here's a close up of the cactus spines.  They are so thick that it looks more like dry grass, or a spikey head of hair.
Most of the cacti were in bloom during our visit.

 Volcanoes and Lagoons 
There was an incredible view at every turn: rainbow colored mountains, volcanos, turquoise lagoons, and warm-colored rocks.


Most of the lagoons were teeming with flamingos.  The water was so shallow that you can see peaks of salt peaking through.

Rock Formations

The harsh desert winds have carved unusual and impressive rock formations across the plains.  There is the Tree of Rock and the Valley of Rocks.

Valley of Rocks
Tree of Rock

Plateau Animals

I was surprised by the amount of animals we saw in such a sparse landscape.

These are an endangered type of llama, called vicuñas.  They are known for their fine, soft fur.
I was amazed at how many of them we saw!  They were everywhere.

These little guys can be spotted in the crevices of rocks.  This pair was 30' over the ground.
They are called viscachas.  They are related to chinchillas, but can grow to be larger than jackrabbits. 

Watched this little guy get chased by a predator, but I accidentally scared it away and this guy was safe.

This fox was hungry and I accidentally interrupted his search.  This was the 3rd fox I say these days.
This guy came quite close to our car, making me think that it is accustomed to being fed.  :(

Geothermal Activity
Since the whole area is ringed with volcanoes, there is geothermal activity all over.  From small geothermal pools, to hot springs, and geysers.

This pool was bubbling and slurping, splattering a strange, sulfuric clay all over the place and filling the air with the burbling sounds you'd expect to hear in Willy Wonka's factory.

Other pools were more water-like, though still bubbling.

This field was full of over 50 steaming holes.  Some were large streams shooting upward, and others were gradual trickles.  You can walk between and around them all.

Train Cemetery
The last stop on our tour was to what they call the "Train Cemetery."  Filled with retired trains from all different centuries.  They are all rusted, graffitied, and bedraggled.  It was a photographer's paradise.

Overall, it was a visual buffet of awesomeness.  There's something for everyone here in an Uyuni 3- or 4-day tour.  It was such a treat, that I even considered doing it all again!