Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Trip pt. 2: The Mines

Originally, the plan was to leave at 8am for the mines. But, I am in India after all, so that didn't happen. Let's back track. I woke up around 7:30am. The power had gone out sometime before, and since I had the wonderful fortune of sleeping next to the water cooler, at 7am, the sweat began to run. Once you are hot, once you are sweating, sleep doesn't come easy.

After freshening up, I felt refreshed, and was served a nice cup of tea. You would think, in one of the hottest countries in the world, why they drink so much tea? On top of that, why just hot, boiling milk tea... you would think that the hot milk doesn't cool you down at all. There's a divide in India with this subject. In the hotter, lower lying states, most people drink tea. The claim? That tea in fact, despite it's hot temperature, brings coolness to your body. In the higher altitude, more hilly or mountainous regions of India, instead, they drink coffee. The claim? That coffee brings heat to your body. Personally, I can attest that it's true. Once I had gotten off at a train station to stretch my legs and grab a cup of coffee. I felt comfortable in the climate at the time, but after drinking the coffee, I began to sweat. Maybe an isolated incident, but I never experienced this with tea before.

After some sipping of tea, breakfast was served. And for the first time, I was served the Indian version of scrambled eggs and toast. Toast was, of course, chapatti, thin dough cooked on a flat griddle with a little bit of oil. The scrambled eggs on the other hand, were extremely interesting.

Wanting to learn how to cook Indian food, or just be able to cook better food in general, I decided to spend that morning in the kitchen, watching Auntie cook. At first they described it as egg curry - and she had to begun to cook in that manner. Heated oil, some onions, some turmeric powder, salt. Then some cloves, and cinnamon, a splash of chili powder, chopped tomatoes, ginger/garlic paste. All the essentials to a good curry.

Usually, in a traditional egg curry, hard boiled eggs are the last thing to be added into the sauce. The eggs were sitting in a small bowl in front of her as she began to pick one up. As I watched, I wondered if they were still shelled or not. It seemed kind of odd if they were still shelled only minutes before adding them to the curry. Then, she did something unexpected, and seemingly genius. She cracked the shell, and opened 4-5 eggs into the curry. She began to mix and beat the spices, oil, eggs, tomatoes, onions etc.

And voila! Indian scrambled eggs. Pure genius, and pure deliciousness.

I was full within minutes, I wolfed them down. And Uncle quickly returned, with a new plan. In a couple hours we would first visit his work place - the open-cast mine. At 3:30 in the afternoon, something new, we would make our way down into the damp, dark, closed-cast mine.

We jumped on his bike, and zoomed away to the mine. We went from city landscape, to country landscape, to a landscape more like that of Mordor. To those of you unaware of Mordor, it is from Lord of the Rings and is that black, dark landscape located in Middle Earth. But enough of crazy references, as we got closer to the open-cast mine the vehicles got bigger and the goround got darker. Leaves went from green to gray. Soil from red to black. Everything was covered in a black soot from all the trucks transporting coal back and forth.

This was ground for some good time joking. Obviously, me being the butt-end of the joke. Since everyones skin is brown, they kept joking that staying and working you couldn't tell if they were dirty or not. Instead, they would look at my fingers and arms, and you could see the dirt getting stuck in between my pores. By the end of the day there was soot on my face, under my fingernails, my white skin quickly absorbed, and made visible how dirty the coal mines were.

After some time of sitting in the office of the Head Principal of the Shasti Open-Cast mine, we all got into a jeep and away we went. And to think you could go any deeper into this blackened land....

There was not much to see besides a big hole in the ground. It had to be a kilometer or so across, maybe 1/4 or half a kilometer in width. As you can see in the pictures water has gathered in some spots at the bottom, and they were only excavating a small portion of the land where there was access to coal. The pictures show what I could see, and that's as close as I could get. Exciting to see, but I was waiting for the real bang - the under ground mine.

We went after this to go see Uncle's truck. About three of me tall and 12 of me long, this "Motor Grater" was enormous. Our English was communicable, but not perfect, and that being said I'm not sure if I fully understood what his job is and what his truck does.

However, that's why we have wikipedia:

A grader, also commonly referred to as a road grader, a blade, a maintainer, or a motor grader, is anengineering vehicle with a long blade used to create a flat surface. Typical models have three axles, with the engineand cab situated above the rear axles at one end of the vehicle and a third axle at the front end of the vehicle, with the blade in between. On certain countries, for example in Finland, almost every grader is equipped with second blade that is placed on front of the front axle. Some hard hats refer to this machine as "the blade".

And there you have it.

We went home after this, relaxed, for there were only a couple hours left until the underground mine.

Screw it, I can't wait to explain it, I can't build it up... the underground mine!!!!!!!!!!!

Where to begin....

As with most things that are exciting, we spent the first two hours waiting. Since Uncle and many people in the mine don't speak English very well, we brought along a pastor. Father Sayum from a local church who is good friends with Uncle. Now you'll have to forgive me - I'm sure at this point you are scratching your head saying 'Why does Norm keep saying Uncle? Isn't his name Prakash? C'mon.. at least Uncle Prakash'. You're right, that would usually be the case... in western places. Here, younger people usually call older people Uncle. So I'm going with that for a bit. Funny side story, I walked up to the roof the other day (at home) and two kids were flying kites. One wanted to ask me something and he goes "uncle?" and then says something in Kannada. It was cute at least.

So after much waiting we were ready. We had our hard hats, our giant flash lights, and shoes. The flash lights were like this. A light about 3-4 inches in diameter on one side connected with a long cable. This cable connected to an almost unbearably heavy box which contains the power for the light. And this box has to sit on your waist supported by a small plastic belt. One of the most uncomfortable things I've ever worn. If you look in the pictures, you can see my holding the box... you can just imagine how quickly I took it off after getting out of the mines.

Equipped, we head over to the check in station, where they saw me taking some pictures. Not surprisingly, someone ran out and told me no pictures. Fair enough, it is a mine and heres some white dude taking pictures... he could be anyone. But now, they knew I had a camera. Before walking over to the elevator they frisk you to make sure everything is out of your pocket. I told them I already deposited my camera (lying) and tried to walk by. But... they caught me.

And with good reason! You can't even carry a cell phone down there. Apparently, with the gases, the change in pressure, Lithium Ion batteries, or any recharagable battery has the chance of exploding. So let's see. One explosion from a battery, in a mine where the biggest gas expelled is CH3 (Methane).. while oxygen is being supplied through ventilation shafts. Its a recipe for the ground to hiccup and crash in on itself. So I (for reals) deposited my camera and walked through the first door. Then the second. And the third, fourth, and fifth. I believe there were six doors in total just to reach the elevator. They said because of air pressure, the mine and things I'm not really sure I understood, they had to make sure the first door was closed before opening the next.

Then a sound grew as we walked through each consecutive door. Louder. A buzzing. As we reached the elevator I saw what the issuing this sound. A giant, and I mean giant, fan at the end of a long tunnel. It was like this:

A hole going 170 meters down into the ground with an elevator. On one platform of this hole was where we stood, to enter and exit the elevator. To the left of us, a long tunnel with tons upon tons of steam being pulled through the fan. The tunnel had to have been 20-30 feet long. Everything was wet at this point. The elevator, the railings... all wet. The answer came to me later as to WHY it was wet.

So six of us packed into this tiny elevator, all metal, no more than 7 feet long by 3 feet wide. Clunk, clang, gghrrrrrrr the elevator began to descent. I pointed my flash light at the wall and it was like being in a really cool, watery cave. The walls were slimy with different colors, from red to orange, brown to green, the constant water, gases and minerals constantly changed the walls. Looking down over the edge of the elevator there was no seeing the bottom.

The elevator ride was more or less smooth. Some of the guys were joking and laughing. Others just sitting there. My mind was not calm though - why? They decided to explain some history as we were descending. They said that this mine was originally built by the British. It was then shut down when they left, only to be opened again in 1972. So it still has all the ORIGINAL EQUIPMENT. Which means..... we were riding in an elevator that was built here before Independence of India. Before 1947. Over 60 years old.

"Don't worry, there have only been 15 deaths here total" they told me to try and calm my mind. Well, I am typing this, which means we got down safely. And back up. 170 meters is a long way down though... it took at least 6 minutes to ride. And 6 minutes in that cramped space is a LONG 6 minutes.

We began walking into the mines. Some of the workers pointed me towards the shrine of various Gods saying it might be a good idea to receive a blessing before going further. I wondered what the Christians were thinking.

I swear, what I saw in the begging could be in a movie. Monsters in the dark. Men twice the size of me, covered in coal, with a giant, cyclops like eye on their forehead. Many of the main passage ways were lit, but the smaller corners, the places where real work was taking place, undeveloped mine so to speak, was black as coal. No pun intended.

Turning one corner, there was a lamp that they had shown me earlier - but now it was being put to use. Here's a safety measure: they have a small oil lamp with a little flame going. If the flame dies, or even begins to get smaller, what does this mean to the workers? RUN. RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. This flame is the life signal that the gases in the mine aren't dangerous. But if it gets smaller or goes out, that's it... too much of a certain gas could mean death. Our lives and the flame's life were intertwined.

Going down longer corridors we would lift our heads only to see lights staring back at us. We walked back engineers, miners, cart pushers, cart operators... the whole team was down there. And upon probing further, this mine ran all day, every day. Heck, with no sunlight down there, a clock might not matter as much. There were three shifts in the day: 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm, and 11pm-7am. I feel sorry for those working the graveyard shift. And I'm sure, to support their families, many workers are working overtime.

As we got closer to the end of the mine, things grew darker and hotter. To keep this Christian thing going, we were descending into the depths of hell. I was just waiting for the fire and brimstone.

And finally, we reached. The end of the mine. A tunnel pushing deeper and deeper into the earth. Man "conquering" in the sake of energy. I don't want to say emotional, but that word best describes the experience. I was standing in front of a black wall, maybe 10 feet high, and 12 feet across. They just stripped away a layer of coal and debris, and I was staring at the naked earth, the newly excavated earth. I told the Pastor, "I would say this is looking into the face of God. We're staring at millions of years of work done by the earth. Millions of years of heat, compression, organic material being pressed into a new, usable material." He looked at me and sort of smirked, but issued no response. I wonder what was going through his head. Yet, still, I stared on in awe. I picked up some loose coal flaked and rubbed them in my palms. It was magnificent.

But enough mushy stuff! Blah! Onto the work they were doing. At the end of the tunnel, where there were no cart tracks, and only the rock supporting itself above us (there was no "human" support yet) 4 men brought over a drill. A huge drill piece about 2 inches in diameter, and 7-8 feet long. Attached into this little motor that would push it into the earth, creating a hole to fit the dynamite. Did I mention I got to see and touch the dynamite explosives? You'd think TNT is hard, but no. It was this soft, gooey material, like half-hardened Elmers glue.

So these 4 men in their underwear (it was beyond humid, beyond hot) pick up the drill, put it into the rock, and hit the on button. One is the driver, the other 3 have to push this thing into the rock. Without causing the rock to collapse. When the machine started to malfunction, one of the men put his hand ON the drill bit to gain some leverage. His hands must have been like leather... without a peep he grabbed the drill bit and kept pushing.

First hole successful, then they had to do the roof to place in the steel supports. This was a little nerve racking but successful and exciting the watch. After they blow out a mine (I believe its one kilo of explosives for 1.5 meters of rock blown away) they need to discard it. Doing it by hand would take way too long. So they do this:

The tracks extend as far as is feasible into the unfinished tunnel. Anywhere from 10-30 carts are pushed all the way down the track. Now each cart is about 5-6 feet high, and 4 feet long by 4 feet wide. It's a big cart. At the end, is a bulldozer of sorts. A miniaturized version, this thing looks like a giant in the small mine. It scoops up the debris, as it would above the ground. However, since its so small, and theres not a lot of space in the mine, it has a cool trick where the sides of the bucket open and it pushes the coal and debris into the carts that way. Cool to watch, but I quickly realized that if that worker hits one wrong lever, one wrong switch, you could very easily be pinned against the wall, dying a slow death. Also, this little machines bucket and everything ran on hydrolics, but the machine itself ran on electricity. That was kind of cool. And made sense being the gas with all those inflammable gases might be a bad combination.

When we emerged from the mine, night had already fallen. That gave me a strange sense of time passing and what was going on.

Oh! I nearly forgot... the wetness in the main tunnel going up and down. When we were about to go back up the elevator I asked if it was safe to walk out into the hole. I really wanted to look up and see if I could see light. Nothin' doin'. It was like a bad rain storm under that hole (hence why I am all wet in my pictures). Why?

This is the conclusion I came to: the humidity and heat comes from the coal, all the people working, the friction of rocks, the machines etc. But this needs to escape. They have ventilation shafts within the mine, but that is just so the methane doesn't sit in one spot and people die. So the humidity rushes through the tunnels and escapes through the main tunnel. Note that before I had seen the big fan up there blowing everything away. So up and up and up it goes, until BOOM it hits the surface air. Which, relative to everything down in the mine, is a lot colder. Lets go back to 4th grade science - what happens when hot moist air hits cold air? It condenses, forming clouds. What happens when clouds get too heavy? It rains. What I was standing in was a perpetual rain storm in a mine.

It's pretty crazy if you think about it.

1 comment:

  1. what a story, wonderful I loved it.
    Love Mom