Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cerro Rico

There’s something not quite right with the taxi driver. We are on the road from Sucre to Potosi, the silver mining town that clings to the slopes of the Cerro Rico, the Rich Mountain. Thousands of Bolivians have died in its poisonous, treacherous tunnels digging out the precious white metal. Thousands still do. For their sacrifice, the mountain appears on the Bolivian coat of arms, a lonely Smaug’s mountain in the centre of the one boliviano coin. Life is cheap here, and it seems the taxi driver who is taking me and three Bolivians to Potosi treats it as such. He is driving erratically on the tortuous mountain road, as much on the wrong side of the road as the right, but the Bolivians are stolidly silent and so I sit tight in my belt-less seat and watch carefully.

He’s in the wrong lane and there’s a car coming right at us. He doesn’t seem to notice. We drift towards the car, which doesn’t slow down but holds a steady collision course. I want to yell out ‘car!’ but the paralysis of cultural uncertainty, the ridiculous desire to not make a fuss, paralyses me. Plus, the only word I can think of is German. Spanish has abandoned me. At the last moment, before the driver suddenly wakes up and swerves back to the other side, I’m giving myself about 25% odds of death. Not a head thing, but that’s the calculation my instinct is making, summing together everything I know and everything I don’t. Or am I crazy? No, something is definitely wrong. I look at the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They are red, slitted. He rubs them, yawns, waves his arm outside the car to wake himself up, changes the radio repeatedly, leans forward for a bit, leans back again. He’s a surly, unpleasant man, the eyes that catch mine in the mirror are cold and veiled. He has the broken-nosed profile of a boxer, of a man to whom bad things happen.

A car overtakes us. This is not good. The driver’s manhood is challenged. All of a sudden he is driving like a bat out of hell. If you want a picture of this road, think the Great Ocean Road, minus the ocean. Just barren badland mountains, starkly beautiful and utterly uncompromising. The landscape for a war, for oppression and suffering unremarked. No country for old men, you might say. And there are few old men. The mines kill them within ten years.

Back in Sucre I talked to a beggar who came from a village in these punishing hills. I told him Bolivia was beautiful. No creo, he said. I don’t think so. His father died in the mines, and he himself had an accident. He shows me his hands, the raw, infected stumps of fingers. There is no free hospital he tells me, or at least no free medication. He can have the operation he needs, but he has to pay for the anaesthetic and the antibiotics himself. Forty bolivianos that he doesn’t have. You can see where this is going. Others are watching the exchange and I know they are thinking: Don’t do it. Don’t fall for it.

Where are you staying? he asks me, and I make the mistake of telling him: La Posada. It’s my one splurge so far on the accommodation front, an elegant, classy place with soft sheets and terracotta tiled roofs, a beautiful hacienda-style courtyard. How much are you paying? Of course. The contrast, you see. And the truth is, it would pay for his medication five times over. The guilt trip. And yet, the reality. All those complicated, unresolved emotions associated with these situations. The guilt of privilege, the unsureness of oneself, of what is truth and what is spiel. But does it matter? The hands are no trick, the poverty is not feigned.

I watch the driver’s eyes, taking it on myself now to be the one to shake him awake if his lids lose their fight with sleep for that fatal moment. Right now, I hate this bastard. I have a son, you reckless prick, I think. Don’t make him wait for my call in vain. No, I’m being a chicken, a wimp, a soft westerner, right? This is normal. Has to be. He tears around the bends trying to catch the car that so rudely overtook him, but this is a deadbeat rust-bucket from circa 1985. Its guts don’t match his testosterone. Then I see he’s using the fucking handbrake to try to slow down. I hear its useless ratcheting as he wrenches it up.

I’ve had it now. Por favor, no tan rapido! I burst out. Please, not so fast. He nods curtly. Tiene sueno, es muy peligroso. You’re sleepy. It’s very dangerous. The taxi fills with tension, but I feel the gratitude of the others. Funny how you know just from the quality of the air.

We’re coming down a hill and there’s a truck in front of us. We are coming at it too fast, but he doesn’t change course, doesn’t slow. Suddenly it’s on us. The Bolivians’ stoicism cracks. Hands fly up, people cry out, and in the last possible moment, he swerves, the truck’s filthy tailgate slides past my door. I see his sly smirk in the mirror. A savage joke, punishment for my humiliating him. I look at the others beside me. The cultural differences are dissolved now. The driver is a lunatic. I am actually shaking with fear.

When we reach Potosi, his driving is no better, but I don’t care if we crash. At this speed I’ll be alright. And in fact we do. We actually do crash into the back of another car. No biggie. No-one even bothers to stop to inspect the damage.

It’s a strange town, bleak, bereft of green, and cold. Mountain winds flap the bright shawls of the old, bowed women by the roadsides. The air is thin, and the streets climb precipitously between close-flanked buildings which combine dilapidation and a certain beauty. There’s a deep resonance of time and suffering here, a grave dignity. I get out at the terminal, refuse to thank the driver, but bite my tongue on the words I want to say. I stand on the cold street beside one of my fellow passengers who smiles at me with real warmth.

That was crazy, right? I say to him in Spanish. That wasn’t normal.

No, he says, joy for his life in his eyes. I was praying to Saint Mary.

My next taxi driver, from the station to the hotel, laughs grimly at the story. Oh no, he says. Don’t take a taxi. Many accidents. Never take a taxi from Sucre.

The Cerro Rico, Smaug’s peak, scarred and shattered and eviscerated, looms in the light between the narrow lanes. The taxi driver holds up a coin to show me the mountain there too, imprinted in the silver. Lives minted in coin, in cheap Bolivianos. Forty of them, forty pieces of silver, to fix a man’s ruined hands.

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