For whatever reason, my wife, Lori, and I ended up in Potosi, Bolivia, on that particular part of our vacation. After considering various things to do around the city, we ended up selecting the “mine tour” option. The city is over 200 miles south of the capital city of La Paz. At 13,400 feet of elevation, it’s one of the world’s highest cities. And, as we came to find out, it’s dominated by Cerro Rico, a big mountain which has been mined regularly for silver ever since the days when the Spaniards were the rulers.
We arrived knowing little about the city other than that there was a big silver mining mountain nearby. We were on a side trip from La Paz and most interested in visiting nearby Sucre, the colonial capital, and educational center of the country. Potosi’, or Potosi for short, was conveniently situated on the train/bus loop we took, so we opted to spend a couple of days there en route. Since most things in the immediate area seemed to revolve around the mine, choosing to delve deeper into that local industry, made perfect sense.
While out on the town the evening before the day in question, a nice young local man somehow picked us out of the crowd. He offered to take us up and into the mountain (Cerro Rico), where we would be able to experience things on the inside from his unique and personal miner perspective. In retrospect, we probably didn’t adequately assess the risks before making the deal. But we felt good about him and his intentions and liked the idea that he’d pick us up in his car in the morning at 8:00 and get us back to the hotel by 5:00. If all else failed, we felt like it would at least make for a fun and educational day.
We were standing outside our hotel the next morning as scheduled, when Juan- the man/guide in question, showed up. We greeted each other as Lori, and I got into his old mini-van. He soon explained that we’d be making a few stops for supplies in town, but would be up to the mine and headed inside by mid-morning. He was short and wiry, probably in his 30’s.
He spoke no English, but I spoke a little Spanish, and so, he just described what was happening in that language as he drove along, and I translated for Lori. He wasted little time with small talk, as he immediately launched into an explanation of how the mine dominated the area and had done so for generations. He said that currently, the mountain was owned and controlled by three different entities. First, a prominent commercial company owned the top and was doing some surface mining up there. He knew little of that operation other than that the company was from the U.S. Then, there was a large section below that run by the state where the miners wore uniforms. In addition to their orange coveralls, those miners received weekly paychecks and received a pension of sorts once they got too old or sick to mine.
Finally, there was the bottom of the mountain, where we’d be going. Various individuals were working there, all hoping to strike it rich, but only making money based on what they took out. It was a co-op of sorts, known locally as a “Collectivo.” Most of the people working the co-op mine spent their days engaged in the serious tedium of making enough money to take care of the people depending on them. Some days, each Collectivo miner made only pennies, but there were times when it was more, and always, there were hopes of hitting the big one. He told the story, which I kept swearing I’d heard before, about Guillermo Maranche. Some years earlier, he related, Guillermo had found a huge nugget of some sort of precious metal. And he was now living the life of royalty, driving a Suburban and living in La Paz. After pondering the tale, I realized that I was probably confusing it with one from the California Gold Rush (without the Suburban or La Paz factoids).
Nonetheless, in the cooperative part of the mine, there was no entity paying for any mining-related expenses and certainly no long-term plan, safety net, or fallback position for old age or dealing with the possibility of a Silicosis onslaught. Or at least, I should say, there wasn’t a workable hierarchy in place that was effectively dealing with such things. To that end, Juan told us that whatever we could do to effectively lower any of the individual miner’s costs, would be appreciated. So, we agreed to do our part and would help in providing them with various supplies, which would be a direct and immediate benefit to each, and ultimately to all who relied upon what they earned.
We drove only a few blocks before pulling over at a small store. Juan said he’d be right back as he hopped out, headed in through the front door, and almost simultaneously popped right back out, with a plastic bag full of something.
“Coca,” he said as he got back into driving position and cranked up the car. “The miners can work faster and longer if they chew coca leaves,” he said.
Coca tea and coca leaves are widely and legally available all over Bolivia. I’d had plenty of tea and had put a few leaves in my mouth in the past. But I’d never really experienced any sort of unusual feeling or urge to do anything such as laboring harder, so I wasn’t sure what all of the hype was about.
But then, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small clump of something else, and said, “goma” (gum).
He then went on to explain how a person puts a wad of leaves into their mouth along with a small piece of activator, or gum, and then simply chews on it, which causes it to do its thing. In the old days, he continued, the Spaniards encouraged the local slave/miners to chew coca while working in the mine. That was because it acted as an appetite suppressant (meaning the bosses didn’t have to worry about providing lunch) and, at the same time, caused the laborers to work harder and faster. In the Spanish miner owner view, it made the workers more productive. And now, the tradition continued in the Collectivo part of the mine (and probably elsewhere) as each person did whatever they could to get more work out of their day.
We made a few turns on various streets, and I noted that at least we were going in the direction of the mountain, which loomed large directly out in front of us. We finally seemed to be making good progress in the right direction, when Juan decelerated and then whipped up to the curb and stopped once again. He got out and walked over to a young woman at a sidewalk booth of sorts who was selling sticks of something that came out of wooden boxes. I watched as he picked out six of whatever they were and handed her some Bolivianos. She sacked them up, gave him the bag, and he walked back to the car and got in.
Once settled into the driver’s seat, he turned and set the mystery bag in the back floor-board next to Lori. And then casually said, “Dynamite, We use a lot of it up there.”
I probably should’ve been concerned about having it in the car. But I realized that in the first place, I didn’t know a whole lot about the stability of the explosive. And besides, driving around with it in the car seemed to be something he did all of the time. For some reason, as we drove on toward the mountain, the whole idea of car safety inspections came to mind. And I quickly concluded that the one for his car must’ve been current. And so, for the moment, I felt safe.
I was careful not to distract him while he drove on through the outskirts of the city. Once out of town, we went up a dirt road right onto the lower slopes of the mountain. He stopped in the middle of a big sort of rustic parking lot where most all outgoing paths appeared to lead to the same black hole of a mine entrance. He parked next to an old banged up Chevy pickup. Lori and I grabbed our daypacks as we got out, he loaded the coca and dynamite into an old grocery bag, and the three of us walked toward the hole.
He stopped about 20 or 30 feet in front of the entrance and said he wanted to show us something. By then, we’d become a bit overwhelmed by all we were seeing. There was already a lot going on around us that defied any sort of explanation that our Central Texas/Colorado minds could conjure up.
Before he began the tour, he mentioned that a few others would be joining. And within only minutes, two apparent American men got out of a car down below and began walking our way.
“There,” he motioned. “There, they are.”
While Juan and I watched them walking toward us, Lori began walking around and exploring the dirt and rock piles of what appeared to be mine tailings. The whole landscape had an almost eerie lunar quality. I noted that there was a mostly rock-pile free and flat basin just below us that seemed to be somewhat forgiving. Suddenly, I saw Lori walking out onto an undercut ledge. Juan saw it at almost the same time, and we both yelled, stopping her dead in her tracks, and sending her in fast retreat. At that point, both Lori and I began to realize that the whole area probably wasn’t a good place for wandering or exploring.
It was just as well that neither us nor the two tourist men recognized that the landscape surrounding the entrance was part of a big sinkhole. At that point, we didn’t need any more concerns. Especially, considering that we hadn’t even gone inside the mine, yet. We just didn’t need to be thinking about instability, of any sort.
Finally, he got back to what he wanted to show us, and he performed a dynamite demonstration out in the middle of the nearby basin. After the dust settled, we finally approached the six-foot-tall entrance into the innards of the mountain. Considering all that had already happened, even then, we were still full of excitement and wonder as to what else the tour guide had in store.
After a short discussion about lama sacrifices and the blood painted on the entrance, we headed in. The mine opening quickly squeezed down into a shaft about four feet wide and less than six feet tall. It had obviously been built for the local indigenous miners who are typically relatively short, but we made it work for us. A timber framework was in place which appeared to be supporting the tunnel in some way. The timbers looked as though they might’ve been in place since the days when the mining began. And that kept me speculating about disastrous cave-ins as I calculated how long they’d been there. And related to that, I started wondering about what wood rot looked like from the inside. One of the other tourist men in our group was on the large side. As he traveled through the shaft in front of us, he kept coming very close to banging into the beams. And that only added further to my increasing stability concerns as I then started wondering about things like redundancy.
Thankfully, we each had on a helmet with a light. The light helped significantly as we entered a big “room” of sorts several hundred yards in and had to step across a big, seemingly bottomless chasm. Jackhammers were working close by. Once above the pile of debris that they were creating, we came to an opening into a smaller room. Nearby, two men were banging away at the solid rock with an antique-looking air hammer. We stopped, watched them work, and they gave us a few insights into their day’s toils. Then, Juan gave them an offering of coca leaves and a couple of sticks of dynamite, and we moved on, each of us shaking our heads in agreement to something unknown.
After crossing over another hole, this second one a bit less tricky, we came into an even larger room with shafts headed off in various directions. The ceiling was perhaps 30 feet tall, and we could hear muted machine sounds and voices coming in from what seemed to be all directions. The temperature was cool, and I could feel the high humidity, which made the air feel even chillier than it probably was. Miners moved in and out and back and forth, paying us little heed as they intently focused on their task at hand.
We walked on across the room, and just as we came to a mine ladder of sorts, which we realized we were going to ascend, we passed a man lighting up a cigarette and candle. And I noted that he was wearing a bright purple, nylon shelled, heavy coat. At the top of the ladder, we stepped up into a new shaft, with a side room that opened up off to one side. We turned, entered the room, and Juan asked us all to find a spot and get comfortable. He told us that anywhere on the far side of the El Tio idol (formed from the local clay/dirt) would be okay.
Once situated, our guide began to explain that we were now in the world of El Tio and that there were certain things done to appease him. To that end, he poured grain alcohol on the statue’s head and stuck cigarettes in its mouth. Then, as he lit them, he explained how the miners were careful to set off the dynamite charges at noon each day. And also how that was a convenient time for them to eat lunch and change out their coca wads. Just as he was beginning to expand on his thought, a pronounced smell of burning plastic along with some sort of distant yelling infiltrated our space. He immediately stood up and then just ran out of the room. Significantly, he had picked up an assistant along the way. That young man did, at least, stay with us but had no answers as to what was going on. Then, after a few silent moments, Juan reappeared. He begged our pardon in Spanish but quickly began engaging the other man in Quechua or some language I didn’t understand.
I wanted to translate something but had nothing to offer. But then, he uttered some straightforward Spanish. It was a word I understood, “Vamanos.”
Both of our guides motioned us to the door and said we should move quickly. Still not exactly sure what was going on, we began to follow Juan as he backtracked his way toward the entrance. The smell and confusion seemed to be growing all the time. Near the bottom of the ladder, the purple coat sat on the ground and in flames. Thankfully, the miner was not attached. Our two other group members were semi-controlling their hysteria as we crossed over the hole and picked our way down through the boulders. But when the dynamite explosions started going off behind us, they simply began screaming.
I was wondering if it was the lunch hour but didn’t have time to look at my watch as Juan kept imploring us to hurry. We crossed the second hole way faster than we had on the way in. We managed to enter the homestretch ahead of the dust cloud, which was also headed for the exit. Our cohorts continued screaming and babbling. Once back out into the daylight, they began to get their breathing under control. They were soon walking down to the parking area to their waiting shuttle. We all had little to say to each other besides good-bye. From their body language, I could tell they were simply ready to get back to their hotel.
Juan didn’t talk about whatever it was that happened in the mine while driving us back to the hotel. But he did invite us to a lama feast that some friends were having later that day. He had a plan– we could go back to the hotel, clean-up, and he would pick us up at 6:00 and get us back by 9:00. We thanked him but declined. Part of me wanted to know what lama tasted like, but another just needed some time to absorb the current set of events. At that moment, I learned the value of letting things soak-in for a while before reacting.