I strongly wanted this stage in Ratnapura to visit the gemstone mines of Sri Lanka to compare them to those of the Brazilian Minas Gerais, which I know quite well, but above all, to understand this peculiarity of the island. Well, the stage in Ratnapura was yet another important life lesson, and I was really shocked by it, a bit like it happened further north, visiting the Hill County of Sri Lanka and its tea plantations.
Ratnapura is a Sanskrit word, meaning the city of gems. Here they excerpt rubies, sapphires, and other precious stones. The city life revolves completely around the extraction and trade of gems, trade operated largely by foreigners, owners of some 20,000 mines.
Those who work in mines do it for 12 to 14 hours a day, in conditions very similar to slavery and for about 400 rupees (more or less $ 4). There are no children in the mines visited by tourists because child labor of any kind is illegal in Sri Lanka. Still, despite the law, according to UNICEF, there are about 60,000 € working kids on the island, and more than 20,000 are in Ratnapura.
The visit to the mine was a source of great stress and embarrassment for me, and due to the heat, the noise from the winch, and the shock, I and shamelessly fainted … Ale went down this vertical well with the miners and me, therefore, asked him to tell his experience.
Can you describe the mines of Ratnapura?
First of all, this isn’t the mine of the seven dwarves nor the mine of ancient Klondike. None of this but holes in the ground dug by hand, about fifteen meters deep, and covered with simple handmade wooden scaffolding.
The mines are scattered in a vast plain on the outskirts of Ratnapura, and from afar, you only notice a swarm of men who run all around. Closely the same men greet you with a friendly smile, happy to show their hard work… something more than exhausting judging by their weight and by their sweat. They chew betel tirelessly not to feel the fatigue and endure the suffocating heat in the gemstone mines.
I felt a sad, ugly tourist, dressed like a tourist and wearing the beautiful camera of Silvia like an expensive necklace and standing in front of people who make of work their own life and leave it in their work.
To sum it up: the mine is no more than a very deep hole covered by a light handmade roof protecting the rudimentary wooden winch above it from the rain.
How was descending into the most famous gemstone mines of Sri Lanka?
The invitation of the miners was immediately greeted with my usual enthusiasm in front of unlikely experiences as visiting such a place, and I accepted with an excited “yes, sure! I’m coming down with you!”. I took off shoes and socks, took the precious camera, not listening to the absolutely useless recommendations Silvia was repeating, and I just said, “I’m ready.”
I immediately thought about how I’d clung to the rope with which, through the winch, they would have dropped me right in the depths of the earth, and here’s the first surprise: you actually need to climb down and then up again with only your bare hands! We had to climb down, placing hands and feet on side slippery wooden trunks without any protection, and at that moment, I thought I should have accepted the drug leaves to chew. I had refused minutes earlier…
I show the smiling and super skinny miners nothing about my freaked-out thoughts while having the clear perception that this is one of the most tremendous, exhausting, and tiring works that humankind has devised. The quickly increasing humid heat confirms thoughts. A nightmare.
The Canon around my neck kept hitting the trunks (now you know Silvia), but I could not help it because now the only thought was: “breath or you’re gonna die in here.” When I put the first foot on the ground, I felt mud and hot water all around and actually found it quite disgusting… I looked up and saw tiny heads looking down at me. I turned around and saw a narrow, low corridor and a miner looking at me with a huge smile on his face, just like I were a cool drink served him at those depths.
I thought I had to take some pics, ask him some polite questions and leave as quickly as possible. The smiling gentleman asked me where I was from, and I said “Italy”; his answer was the second surprise: “I used to live in Italy, in Milan and Naples, but then I came back here.” We were in a mine; I don’t know how many degrees and how many meters deep, in a narrow space with no air and surrounded by dirt, mud oozing hot water to look for small stones for a few rupees a day. He preferred to stay there than be in a modern Western city … it’s really true that everyone feels better at home and that everything is always relative.
The visit did not last long: I took some pictures, I said goodbye and started to climb up. At halfway, I had to stop; I could not breathe; I missed the forces, and the trunks were moist, and the only salvation was the arm of the exile miner that helped me leave the underworld.
The mine is clearly not my habitat, but I realized that if you say someone “goes to work in a mine” (a quite common sentence in Italy) is clearly not a good omen, and I have learned that everything is always relative. Finally, the camera was filled with mud and got blocked, I left upset and wet, but it’s definitely an experience that I would repeat, perhaps suggesting to use the winch to lower people …
How to visit the gemstone mines in Ratnapura
Many gems shops in the city also propose a visit to the mines for a few rupees (500/700). We slept at Ratna Gems Guesthouse, and the visit was included in the stay, and I understood that being the only reason to come up here, almost all the guesthouses actually offer it.
Visiting the gemstone mines, the miners themselves will offer you some small stones, and this is obviously the discard that the owner of the mine leaves them to supplement a too meager income. Those stones have no value, but they are a precious gift that allows them to eat and feed the family. Please, do buy them… as I’m writing this, tears in my eyes while thinking back to their faces and their living conditions.
If you wish, you can obviously buy some stunning valuable gems too. They are not too expensive if compared to Western standards, and I suggest you buy them and then have them assembled once back home.
For information on how to reach Ratnapura, I invite you to read my mini guide for an independent travel through Sri Lanka.