Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Arsenic and old lead.
It was hard to believe but just a few hundred years ago, Potosi (and Bolivia) had been the richest city in the world. No really, poor crappy dusty Bolivia had once been the envy of the world with Potosi at the centre of it all. This wealth came from the crappy dusty hills surrounding the city. Or rather one hill, Cerro Rico (literally Rich Hill). For almost 500 years, miners had been pulling silver out of the ground of this looming bump. These days the search for silver may take years unlike the minutes it did back in the beginning and the miners must make a living selling lesser minerals like zinc and tin but mostly by giving tours of the mines. Although Potosi was nice to look at, it was small so the mine tour was the only reason to stay in Potosi. And today that’s what we were doing.
The night before we’d booked our Engligh tour through the hostel figuring that the favourite hostel in town would have a pretty good tour. They promised small groups but when they picked us up there were double the number in the mini bus. Hmm… But we still were only about 18 of us and our guide Julio was soon joined by Jhonny who was going to help out. Julio either had a very weird sense of humour or was about to go postal. I hoped for our sake it was a sense of humour but when he told us that before becoming a guide he’d worked in the mines for 20 years I began looking around the mini bus to make sure he didn’t have a duffle bag with a rifle and boxes of bullets.
The bus dropped us off at the office where Jhonny and Julio handed out protective jackets and pants as well as rubber boots and helmets, headlamps and battery belts. All the sizes were European and it took Adrian and I a couple of guesses to figure out what our sizes translate into. Even then, we both ended up walking around in boots at least a size too big. But the last time we changed our boots, Julio started twitching and yelled that it didn’t matter. So we decided not to say anything and clomped across the street to the miner’s market.
At the miner’s market which wasn’t actually a market but a street with a handful of modest shops, Julio gave us a little background on the mines. Until the 80s the mine of Cerro Rico were a huge part of the Potosi economy, even after silver ceased to tumble out of the shafts. Then the price of tin and zinc and silver fell and the government pulled out. The rusty industrial equipment they left behind still pockmarked the side of the mountaim unused and abandonned. But without the mines the people of Potosi had nothing and no way to make a living. The miners decided to continue mining on their own and formed small mining cooperatives (photo above), each claiming a portion of the shafts as their own. It was one of the dozens of cooperatives we were going to visit to meet some of the 20 miners that worked for it. They mined everything by hand. Life was short and hard. And the returns for their effort were even smaller. That’s why they did the tours. And to help them out, we were now at the market to buy them some supplies as a gift. We all put in 20Bs each and let Julio choose what to get. At the first stall, he piled up coca leaves and cigarettes before directing our attention to the lighters. There were typical Bics and as well as shelf of those decorated with pictures of half-naked women.
“If you were down in the mine, which lighter would you rather have?” Julio asked. The lads in the group immediately grabbed a handful of the half naked ladies. Julio approved and added them to the pile, holidng on to one just a little too long before dragging us down the street.
“We have to buy different things at different places because only certain people can sell certain things,” he continued. “Back there we bought coca leaves because she had a license to sell coca leaves. But we couldn’t buy too much because she could go to jail.” We were all confused so he explained. If a licence holder sold more than 500kg a year, she could be arrested and accused of selling to cocaine producers. That was unfortunate for the locals because with all the tour groups coming through and all the miners desperate for a little buzz while they worked, she probably could have sold a lot more and made a lot more money.
The next shop was licensed to sell dynamite. And alcohol apparently. Interesting combination of products. And perhaps it was the alcohol that explained Julio’s weird behaviour. He threw sticks of dynamite to all of us causing us to yelp when half of the folks missed and dropped theirs. That just made Julio laugh sadistically.
“They’re harmless without these,” he said holding up fuses and blastic caps. But not all of us were convinced reading the large warning on each. He roughly gathered up all the sticks and put them in a pile before adding a dozen bottles of pure alcohol to the pile. One guy made the mistake of grabbing some water too. Julio tossed it aside. “If you were down in a mine, would you want to drink water,” he scoffed but he replaced it with some bottles of non-alcoholic but super sweet orangeade as if trying to appease us.
With the shopping done, Julio hustled us all into the mini van for the drive up to the mine entrance. On our way up, Julio began barking at us about safety. “My word is the word. You must do exactly as I say. And if you don’t like it tough sh*t. Complain afterwards. I don’t care.” Oh boy, this was going to be a fun outing. His mood didn’t improve at the mine. He divided us into two groups. He took one group and Jhonny took the other. Adrian and I were pushed into Jhonny’s group. That would have been fine except Jhonny spoke no English. I told Julio we had paid for an English tour. He glared at me and told me to complain to the office and then ignored me. Luckily Leoni, a Dutch girl, was fluent and said she would translate for our group. It turned out she was the only one who had signed up for the Spanish language tour – the rest of us were all expecting English. I was happy to be away from Julio but still angry about the incident. It wasn’t the language barrier (I could understand and translate for Adrian) but it was his unapologetic attitude that ticked me off.
But I had to forget about all that as we passed the entrance. Overhead the sign was barely visible under the sticky film of llama’s blood that covered it. Jhonny explained that it was part of a blessing ceremony that took place twice a year. It was a blessing we all wanted once we stepped inside. It was impossible to step upright in the tunnels, built for the vertically-challenged Bolivian miners. We were instructed to move fast to avoid the full ore carts due to come speeding down the narrow tunnel. But our progress was hampered by the uneven ground as we tripped over deep holes filled with murky water. Of course, it was as I was hunched over and trying to speed walk that I discovered my helmet was too big for me. It slid over my eyes and I couldn’t see unless I held my head up awkwardly. If you want to recreate the moment, blindfold yourself, bend from the waist and try to run. Not easy. I considered taking the helmet off until I banged my head on the overhead pipes and realized I’d rather stumble than knock myself unconscious.
After 15 mintues of walking into the heart of the mine, Jhonny pulled us into a small cave. It contained a statue of Jesus. This was a place where the miners blessed themselves before heading in. But it was also marked the point where miners left religion behind. Inside the mine was considered the underworld and this statue was a way of announcing “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Cheery. Jhonny let us catch our breath before taking us further into the mine. There was another cave not too far ahead. Inside this one was a grotesque statue. This was Tio, the god of the mines.
Tio, Jhonny told us, wasn’t a Quechua god, he was actually a Spanish creation. When the Spanish had first built the mine, they had forced the locals to work in the mines but found they weren’t very productive in the horrible conditions unless someone was watching over them. Of course, none of the Spanish had wanted to volunteer in the deadly depths so they called on a higher power. They placed a statue in the mine and called him Dio (God) which the Quechua pronounced Tio. The workers, probably terrified by the figure, worked harder under its gaze and now it was considered the god of the mines. They made offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and lit candles to it, praying to survive longer than the average worker.
After we’d all had a moment to take in the story and the statue, Jhonny got us back on our feet and led us further into the tunnel which had somehow gotten story. We were passed by Julio, leading a girl out to the entrance. She was obviously upset unable to take the claustrophobic conditions. When he came back he pointed at me and told us we were now to join him. It was a case of be careful what you wish for. Sure we were now in the English speaking group again but we were back with Julio, the jerk.
My mood didn’t improve as the air got hotter and thicker the further into the mine we went. (And Julio’s certainly didn’t) In the humid conditions my glasses kept fogging up and I had to take them off. It wasn’t like I could see with the helmet slipping over my eyes anyway. Julio saw me struggling with my helmet and then yelled at me for not wearing one that fit. I wanted to remind him that he said it didn’t matter if everything fit but wisely bit my tongue. We met up with the rest of the tour group and Julio led us to an opening in the ceiling. I looked at the height and then at my short little legs and knew there would be a problem. I tried to assess how I’d be able to climb up the slimy walls to get through the hole wearing rubber boats that were too big, unable to see, and worried about breaking a leg or two, only to have my thought process interrupted by Julio.
“What’s taking you so long? Get up there now,” he barked at me as he grabbed my arms and pulled. Now I had no way to support myself so I wrenched my arms away from him, and told him off. I took my time to get up the hole conjuring up everything I had learned about caving from Patrick back in the caves of Belize. It worked. Up above we were in a small chamber in the midst of a group of miners as well as Jhonny and his group. As we were gathered around them, Julio took the time to yell at me in front of everyone. “If I tell you to move, you move. If you don’t you can just leave. If you think this is bad think of the miners who work here every day.” He stared at me and I glared back not breaking my stare. He blinked first and then encouraged the miners to ask us questions, the ruder the better. So the miners asked the girl with short hair and no boyfriend if she was a lesbian, the guy with dreadlocks if he was gay, and wanted to know why I hadn’t given Adrian any babies, etc. He seemed to think it was funny and when anyone objected he told us to be sensitive to them. For Julio, working in the dismal conditions of the mine meant one could be as rude as possible. This was the first time during our time in Bolivia that we’d encountered any sort of bad behaviour by the locals. The highly indigenous population were normally quiet, shy and reserved. But down here, things were different. Down here they had Julioto egg them on, Julio who obviously hated us tourists. Hoping to ease the mood, we passed out our gifts of dynamite, coca leaves, and pure sugar alcohol. The miners immediately opened the alcohol and began to pass it around. Julio told us all we had to drink or the miners would be offended.
Around the fifth round, Julio came over to sort of apologize to me, claiming that safety was the reason for the outburst. But I wondered why, if Julio was so worried about safety he was forcing us to drink. It was only the voracious thirst of the miners that kept us from all getting completely drunk. He probably hoped that the alcohol was going to soften my mood but I simply glared at him and he moved on. The miners polished off the alcohol before going back to work. The five of them were trying to insert a beam above their heads to support the roof of the cave. Julio then asked who wanted to go further, everyone but Adrian and I put up their hands. So we stayed with Jhonny and the miners. For some reason we felt safer with the drunk miners hammering at an unstable roof than we did going down to the next level with crazy Julio, even as chunks of the roof fell around us. With the help of Jhonny we were able to talk to the miners a bit more honestly. Most were under 30, married with at least one girlfriend on the side and a couple of children. They were proud of their girlfriends; the more they had the more successful and manly their peers considered them. But I wondered how many of them were telling the truth and how many were lying to keep themselves amused while they worked 12 hours a day in these mines. They’d all started working underground in their teens and admitted they’s probably die here. Jhonny was only 23 but had managed to get this tour guide gig. Unlike the rest of them, he actually smiled. I would too once I made it out of the mine, whenever that was.
I was getting anxious to leave, especially when Jhonny explained that the dust and slime in the mine was full of arsenic, lead, asbestos and other fun things. I pulled my hand out of the pile of gunk, however, I was already covered in crap and pretty sure I’d be blowing black boogers for the next week as it was. We had to wait 45 minutes for the others to return before we could leave the toxic mess. None of them looked happier or satisfied. In fact they looked worse. Now rather than just one miserable guide there was one miserable guide and 18 miserable tourists. Julio couldn’t make any of us feel any worse, so he considered his work done and began to lead us out of the mine. The thought that the tour was almost over, made the return trip a lot easier. And there was the sound of deep breaths being taken when we reached the wall of fresh cool air just before the entrance.
Outside of the mine we all whipped off our helmets and opened our protective jackets. But Julio had one more activity planned. He took us to an open area and ordered Jhonny to blow up the last stick of dynamite. He proceeded to tell us the story of buying dynamite. You never used to need a license to sell it or buy but a few years ago a tourist bought some and then took it back to his hostel where he promptly used it to commit suicide, injuring a few guests in the blast. I wondered to myself if he killed himself after taking Julio’s tour. Jhonny lit the fuse and we all stood a safe distance away only to notice that Julio and Jhonny were nowhere in sight. A guy turned to me and said “Do you think it’s odd that they’ve left us hear while the dynamite goes off.” Actually no, I wouldn’t be surprised if Julio was trying to get rid of us. We put our helmets back on and took a few more steps back just as the dynamite went off. It was loud but fireworks are a bit more exciting.
Julio and Jhonny were waiting at the bus to take us back to the office where we shed our layers of muddy clothes and deposited our helmets and battery belts. Despite being the thing to do in Potosi, no one was talking about the tour in an excited or satisfied way. No one was talking at all. We’d gotten to see what working in a mine for almost no money was like. It was grim and depressing. But the tour was even worse. I’ve always said the tour guide makes or breaks a tour – and Julio had definitely broken this one. When we got back to the hostel, the murmurings began. Everyone had hated him and was happy to see the back of him. I immediately showered trying to remove the layer of gunk off of my face and hands. But like Julio’s attitude it wouldn’t go away and for the next few days all I could smell was the nasty metallic scent of the mine.