On the road again. . .
Day 7. I think I’m the last man standing at the hotel, although considering the night I have just had last-man-down would be a better fit. Just yesterday morning as the last of us gathered around for breakfast in the TRYP hotel where it all began, after a really unfortunate and sad end to a wonderful trip, I tempted fate by commenting on my fortune on not having had suffered badly from any Delhi belly symptoms. Last night was undoubtedly one of the top ten worst I can recall. Without going into detail (that no one wants to hear about despite me wanting to share my pain with you all) I was yo-yoing to the bathroom all night and shaking like the last leaf clinging on for dear life in the autumn winds. Having arrived stuffed full of flu to leaving emptied of all energy.
* * *
Day 3. We woke at around 6am again. Peppered with a few bites during the night and woke up quickly with a cold shower. Paracetamol and plantain for breakfast downstairs with a few street dogs chancing their arm outside the glass doors. Today was another day of travel, back to Bogota, on the bus. #thrilled.com However, despite the already tiresome bus rides, this was pretty much our last big coach ride and we were going via the Tatacoa desert to enjoy some of the natural sites and a pool stop for lunch. We were not disappointed one little bit, in fact it totally rejuvenated any weariness that we were all beginning to suffer from.
One of the hotel staff along with a 1st aider joined us on the bus and we headed off into the desert. Two stops, the red desert and the grey desert, points for guessing why, answers on a stamped addressed postcard. . . I tried to contain my laughter as the guide and 1st aider got us lined up in the already hot sun and told us to start stretching off. I didn’t want to be the obtuse Scotsman (leopards, spots) so curbed my lack of enthusiasm for the obviously pre-extraneous activity and didn’t laugh too hard at the poor man who was just looking out for our wellbeing.
The red desert was stunning. Beautiful formations of red (bizzarely) rock that had been wind and rain eroded throughout time to form these amazing structures that I went photo crazy for, it was a lovely walk. Stopping for a drone taken photo from the photographers and paying no notice to the no drones sign, we waved for a good group shot and stopped by the bus for a sugar cane juice. On to the grey desert, it wasn’t really much by comparison but nice nonetheless. Back on the bus and headed to the lunch destination.
Still networking, socialising, sharing ideas and stories on the bus, we came towards our promise of a pool in the desert and due to recent rains washing away tracks, bounced our way along amid the cacti until several serious lurches from side to side stopped us dead. After a small inspection of the bus and track, our driver pushed on through successfully to rapturous applause and carried on. Our success was short lived as the track disintegrated ahead and we walked the last little stretch to this little paradise of a hidden lodge with lots of greenery and animals. Despite being told on the bus that we were to bring our swimming costumes, Fabritizo (Francesco) decided to leave his stuff on the bus and had to trek back for his mafia pants. It was a little surreal to walk through the clearing to find this man-made pool but Stewart and I didn’t hold back and were straight in. It was heavenly, as close to perfect as one could get, topped off by him then doing a beer run to the restaurant. This was a very welcomed moment as we all commented on just how amazing this little moment was. Lunch was all laid out for us afterwards too and looked like a feast for royalty in beautiful clay bowls with all sorts of food in them.
We spent the rest of the day however, on the bus, back to Bogota. Joy. We arrived in late at a hotel near the airport in Bogota, all feeling of rejuvenation from the days sightseeing and pool dip now totally obliterated by the bus journey. The even more exciting notion that we had to get up at 3am for our potentially not happening flight to Pasto was not filing anyone with any enthusiasm whatsoever. The out of sync sleep pattern and cold shower however helped to rise early to my alarm and dragged myself downstairs to the lobby for our taxi’s to the airport. Coffee after check in and the most simple of security and we were all in the waiting shed to board the flight. Head against the window I started to drift off and we sat on the runway for an abnormally long amount of time. It could hav been an hour, more or less, I don’t know. But the problem with this flight is the daily evening and morning fog at Pasto. It was fogged in, so our flight was eventually cancelled and we all trudged back into the shed, grumbling at how we could have all still been in bed.
Perhaps another hour in departures and we were ushered back into the plane being told it was now clear at the far end. This was of huge relief as our tour was on such a tight schedule that any further delay and we simply wouldn’t have made our second mine visit. Sadly on a flight under two hours there were no films on the Avianca plane but I did find they had bejewelled 2 on the games section and that had me hooked the entire way there. Landing was brilliant, the runway just appeared out of nowhere in the hills and we disembarked into a brilliantly rural airport that felt like we were again the travellers off the very beaten track. However, we were in for one hell of a surprise with regards to what the beaten track meant and what we were about to experience next.
Day 7. I’m now in departures having left the hotel amid one of the most impressive thunder, rain and hail storms I seen in years. It’s good to be on the move at my own pace and choosing again. That said last night’s aches and fever has returned and I had hoped to find a pharmacy this side of security, but no such luck. I tried to get back out to the check in area but they weren’t going to let me. Just needed to get some paracetamol in me but in order for that to happen they sent me the first aiders for evaluation. This was overkill, unnecessary and a little embarrassing but after an awkward bout of trying to explain I was fine and just needed some paracetamol, they gave me the medical once over and finally handed me two paracetamols, result.
* * *
Day 4. After finally landing at Pasto and dragging myself away from bejewelled, we all gathered outside the airport in the already sweltering heat and met our convoy of big white 4x4 land cruisers. Kenneth, Christina, Florian and myself, as it turns out, drew the short straw with our driver and set off at high speed out of town and along the motor way. Now you have to allow certain tolerances in differences of culture when abroad, for example it’s not illegal to use your phone while driving in Colombia, or if it is, no one cares. However, our driver, let’s call him Speedy Gonzales as long as it’s not deemed racist, as I'm thinking of the Mexican mouse, was clearly more interested in social media then the road as he spent most of the journey on what’s app sending emojis whilst driving one handed and overtaking on blind corners. Kenneth had the good sense to ask Speedy to stop using his phone and drive slower, which was greeted with “Si, tranquillo, tranquillo” and was then back to normal habits with 5 minutes. Now this you could tolerate for a short period of time, but our racing raleigh was a 4-hour journey on some of the worst roads. Roads that you would drive very slowly and carefully on anyway as having cycled down and bussed up “Death road” in Bolivia, parts of this were equally as dangerous. We all took our minds off dying by keeping chatting about our interests in what we were doing and going to see at our second mine that afternoon.
We slowly transcended from desert to jungle as we raced along steep hillsides with sporadic dwellings. Every so often out of nowhere a town or village would pop up, which was highly surreal as we were so remote and it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, cut off from all civilisation. Speedy did point out to us several coca plantations at the bottom of a valley, which was a little unnerving as web were 6 big white land cruisers speeding towards them in convoy. I was hoping there wasn’t much of a lookout set up around them today as we could definitely be mistaken for the wrong kind of convoy. Thankfully we passed without incident and carried on up death valley to our final destination. Eventually, we all reached the Codmilla mine and miraculously, in one piece.
We were met by two female miners, Yanitce and Narcisa, who were our guides at Codmilla. Narcisa was sporting the finest pair of tartan wellies I had ever seen. Gathering outside our first mine we all had the welcome translated talk and were issued more hard hats with lights. This shaft descended down a steep wet, muddy slippery slope that was well lit but with the inevitable hard hat hitting off the top of the tunnel again. At around 100m in we stopped at the miners’ refuge and were introduced to two of the miners who were working. As questions and answers were being translated we all started to be aware of what could only be described as the feeling of a train rumbling closer and closer till the point where the whole tunnel began to shake and us with it. Explosives had been set off in a nearby mine. We all knew what it was but none of us knew if it was ok, worried eye contact spread round us all at high speed but our guides quickly reassured us with smiles that it was what we thought and we were in no harm. We took their word for it despite feeling our entire bodies tremble in what had gone from overhead train to earthquake.
We carried on with questions to the miners as to what working in a Fairmined certified mine meant to them, how long they had been mining, what the annual premium of the Fairmined certification meant to them and how it helps. What we found out was an overwhelming sense of community from them. There are hundreds of mines in the hill, of which a small group are currently Fairmined certified, but what the certified mines do is help out the uncertified mines in their community. They buy safety equipment for them and help in other expenses, in order to help them have a better, safer daily routine mining. The annual premium that the cooperative gets is used to better their way of lives in the mines and community, even to those who are not within the certified umbrella. This was a humbling thing to hear how well they look after each other. There was also a distinct lack of gender bias as we learned about the roles women play in the mines and community.
After our first mine we split again into two groups and started to the next mine. The altitude was beginning to hit hard as most of us were considerably out of breath going up the hill. The hill was very steep with nothing more than simple paths cut out along the side of it. I kept wondering how the rock was transported down the hill but finding the occasional broken donkey or mule shoe soon answered that question. Only later did I find out that the rock was also bagged and carried on the miners back as well. Half way down the second shaft I got a slight uneasy feeling in my stomach and realised that I was going to be in need of a toilet in the next 20 mins or so. Lasting as long as I could, I checked it was ok to take myself to the surface where I was delighted to find a purpose-built toilet for the miners. Something that their annual premiums has been able to provide the miners at every mine we saw, quite frankly money very well spent. We were told that one miner in particular had been waiting for us so we hiked up even further to meet him but sadly he had been waiting since 10am, it was now closer to 6pm and he had gone home. This was a real shame as we were told great things about the care this miner conducts himself with and how being one of the poorer miners, he still shaped his mine with ingenious artisanal creativity for the benefit of everyone and how he took real pride in his work.
We headed down to the cars and were taken to the office in Codmilla where upstairs they had laid out our lunch, which we ate at maybe 7pm. The food was great and it was in a room that was like a mini museum celebrating forty years of their cooperative. Again, we had some translated speeches and I chose to give them the silver mine cart as my gift towards the end. I must have been quite tired as I fumbled my words and went a little shy, sitting back down after handing it over, only to then awkwardly get back up and pose for a few pictures. We all wanted to stay and ask more questions, but it was getting on, we’d been up since 3am and still had an hour drive to our hotel, with Speedy at the helm. Speedy was asleep in the car and we struggled to wake him. He looked decidedly grumpy at having to drive us further and then when we were all on board he shot off trying to get past the 3 cars in front with less space than was needed to fit. Kenneth again asked him to calm his driving but he just ignored us and kept trying to get to be the lead car. Which was stupid as it was thick fog and he didn’t actually know where he was taking us.
Where we were heading was to dinner with other miners. This would have been fine had we made the morning flight and had an early lunch, but I couldn’t eat another thing and after stopping outside the restaurant, we split up and a few of us opted for the hotel as long as it wasn’t going to offend the group waiting for us. Room was fine, shower was a cold hose pipe with a curtain which was actually quite welcome and I had the first chance since we started to check emails amid a highly intermittent wifi signal. The fact we even had one was quite impressive considering our remote and simple surroundings. I became aware then of the wintery conditions back home and that courses back at the workshop might have to be cancelled. Did what I could from where I was and left the decisions up to those back at the PMW. Thanks to Cameron and Hazel for sorting out that which I could not.
Fabritzio returned (shared room) and left me a gift before heading back out to have a beer on the roof terrace while I finished off connecting with home, worlds away. By now we had all become a very tight group, a Fairmined family in the making all passionate about responsible mining and metals and making connections that I have no doubt will keep us all connected for many years to come. Which is why the next day was brutally sad and an unexpected end for most of us.
Gallery images below are copyright © Alliance for Responsible Mining