Friday, November 26, 2010


In Potosi, they're repaving a road near the central plaza, because earlier on today they had a street parade and, in Potosi, a street parade isn't a street parade without a few sticks of dynamite to blow the road to bits. Dynamite is popular here. You can walk into a shop and pick yourself up a stick of the stuff for a shade under three Australian dollars, plus a handful of detonators, and, for that extra bit of bang, a plastic bag full of what looks like calico pie, but is in fact ammonium nitrate. No permits or any of that silly stuff. And this is in fact what we do before our tour of Potosi's infamous mines. We buy three sticks of dynamite as presents for the miners, plus one which our guide promises to blow up for us in the mine just for fun. We'll also be taking in a few bottle of the miners' preferred beverage: 96% over-proof alcohol. And of course coca. Always coca. The miners need it because they don't eat lunch, so they chew coca leaves to ward of hunger and maintain their energy.

The guy in the explosives shop is a cowboy. He's already getting stuck into the rocket fuel. His teeth are black from coca, his eyes have a mischievous look. He demonstrates the non-flammability of dynamite by lighting a stick like a cuban cigar. Perhaps one made for Fidel by the CIA. You know it's OK, but still you shuffle on the spot a bit as the wrapper goes up in flames and the green plasticine underneath blackens. Now these, on the other hand, he tells us, picking up a harmless looking metal stick from a box of similar items. Throw this on the ground and you lose your legs and your penis. Suddenly that box is looking very close to the edge of the table. Nitroglycerine, you see. He grins, showing those blackened stumps. Now the tourist bit: getting your photograph taken with a bunch of dynamite sticks jammed in your mining belt. I refuse. Gauche.

Then it's off to the mines. The amazing thing is that the Cerro Rico still stays up. It's so riddled with holes by all rights it should collapse on itself like an amateur's souffle. But they're still burrowing, chipping, nibbling away inside it, extrapolating a crazy network of tunnels and shafts deeper and deeper into the mountain's bowels in search of that increasingly elusive vein of pure ore. The Spaniards managed to work to death somewhere in the vicinity of eight million indigenous slaves here. And the death toll continues, though today it's mainly the accumulated effects of toxic inhalations and accidents that acount for the deaths in the mining co-operatives that dig tin, silver, lead and zinc out of that perilous warren. Murder too, if the cowboy is to be believed. If you let on to the wrong person about a big find, you might just 'slip' down a hole one day.

At the entrance to the mine, bowed over to avoid the low beams and compressed air ducting, daylight shrinking behind me, I have just a moment of claustrophobia, a Gimli-enters-the-Paths-of-the-Dead moment in which I want to shout, stop! I can't do it. But it passes quickly and doesn't return. I ask the guide about the white and yellow mineral encrustations on the walls. Arsenic, he tells me. It's not this stuff that's a problem, he says, pointing to the crystalline formations, but this: he crumbles white arsenic dust from the wall with his fingers. It's breathing that stuff in every day that does for you in the end.

The first stop is the clay idol, or tio, to which the miners make offerings of alcohol, coca and llama's blood and pray for purer minerals, safety and fertility. To the indigenous miners of Spanish colonial times, the idol was the consort of Pachamama, Mother Earth. To Christian miners it was the devil - not that they didn't pray to it too. And it still combines these dual identities. The idol is bedecked with coca leaves, its crude clay phallus soggy and crumbling at the end from over-enthusiastic libations. The walls are black with llama blood. The devil in the mountain is hungry for blood - if it doesn't receive llama's, it will take men's.

We push on deeper into the winding, increasingly airless tunnels and come at last to a shaft. It's just a gaping dusty hole dropping an unknown distance into the dark. The tunnels are divided into levels separated by shafts like these. The miners work up to twelve levels down, but we are only going down two today. At first glance it looks unthinkably terrifying. There's a rope that leads over the brink and at first we think we're expected to abseil down without safety equipment. It's not quite that bad. Not far over the edge, a rickety wooden ladder begins. It's scary as hell, but you can hold onto the rope and, dangling over the void, find the top rung of the ladder with your feet. Grab the wrong place with your hand, and the earth crumbles and falls into the dark below. But once you're properly on the ladder, it's not so bad. It's too dark to see anything but the rung in front of you, so you go one step at a time and don't think about falling.

Some parts of the tunnels are so narrow we have to crawl through. I've lost my sense of direction entirely, I'm just plunging on following the light of the guide's helmet, panting and dizzy from the exertion and the altitude. We meet a miner, offer him gifts in exchange for a photo and a few minutes of his time. He cuts an archetypal figure somehow, standing there in that sweltering dead-end of rock, chiselling a vein of white tin. We find out he is forty-five, but he seems ageless, as if he were part of the mountain itself. All miners, every miner manifest in the one sweating, powerful figure. The bag of ore near his feet slowly grows heavier. He asks us for a 'hangover', so we offer him one of the bottles of alcohol we've brought. Long after we've left, I think of how he's still there, how he'll be there tomorrow, how he'll always be there, chipping out the metal that makes our machines, our tin cans, our playthings, one rock at a time.

Deep in the mine, as I'm panting at the bottom of another dodgy wooden ladder, another dangerous shaft close by my right hand side, waiting for one of my two companions to follow me down, I have a genuine sense of adventure and even some pride. I faced fears here. But when the guide lights the fuse on a half stick of dynamite and we stand in the complete darkness of a nearby cul-de-sac, waiting for the blast, I get that uncomfortable feeling that follows me throughout my travels: the awareness of the falsity of this, its built-for-tourists sensationalism. Even here, in the real mines of real Bolivia, in a (small) degree of real danger, I'm still inescapably a tourist, a gringo, a voyeur. It's an awareness that always leaves me slightly queasy and ill-at-ease. But don't talk about it to other tourists. Nobody wants the spell broken. Everybody wants to see the picture, not the carefully constructed frame.

After the blast, I'm clambering back up to the main tunnel when my light goes out. Unable to see, I can't climb any further. The last light from the others disappears around a corner and I'm alone in the dark. Wait guys, I call out, but nobody replies. There is not a photon of light, not a sound. Just for a moment the frame shatters and I really am lost and alone deep in the earth, buried alive. It is terrifying, but I realise later I'm grateful for this real moment. I was a tourist before, a tourist after - there is no escaping it - but I'm glad to have felt something down there that was not tainted by the suspicion of voyeurism and inauthenticity.

1 comment:

Suzie SG said...

Oh wow! Miners of the world unite?