By Sara Shahriari | It was a Friday morning, and I was sitting in a mineshaft in Bolivia with 20 miners and a bag of llama entrails at my feet.
Four white llamas had been killed earlier in the day. Their throats cut, they bled to death quickly. The miners butchered them like masters, keeping the meat for a dinner celebration and preparing the rest for Tío Supay, god of the mines. “We’re very careful when preparing the sacrifice,” said Ruy Lopez, one of the mine’s directors. “If there’s one little thing wrong, El Tío won’t accept it.” Three miners died here last year, so it’s important that El Tío be pleased. If he is, he’ll lead the miners to wealth and care for them. If not, he may feast on more men.
Working underground is a dangerous business in Oruro, where equipment consists of rubber boots, a headlamp, and a helmet. Dynamite explosions, collapsing tunnels, and poisonous gases kill fast. Lung disease kills slowly. Either way, tin, silver, and lead mining is a brutal life. Though they are Catholic to a man, everyone sitting around me paid tribute to Tío Supay.
Part of that tribute is drinking a lot, smoking a lot, and chewing wads of coca leaves. The coca leaf gives the miners energy and dulls discomfort. The alcohol just dulls, and today the miners were taking their usual routine up a few notches for the celebration. Dust particles and cigarette smoke swirled through the air like fog in headlamp beams. The beer, poured into a single communal cup, made the rounds again and again. Every once in a while a plain white container filled with grain alcohol made a pass.
The miners shared their life stories as we floated on a cloud of booze and smoke. Ruy came to work in the mines after his father died young, leaving his sons to support the family. “None of us, as humans, thought of working in the mines,” he said. “We always think of overcoming it and becoming professionals, but we don’t find the resources. A lot of us get out, and a lot of us don’t.”
Soon it was time to complete the offering. The men took the bags of bones and entrails to an abandoned part of the mine, where they carefully distributed them, finally splashing blood on the walls. Then we all picked up and moved so that El Tío could feast in peace, in the dark, undisturbed.
Emerging from the mine into the afternoon sunlight, it was hard to believe that the world outside still existed. The darkness, the mood of the mines, the booze and stimulants made everything outside seem like a dream. But the party wasn’t over. Llama was being served in the miners’ hall and the beer flowed even faster. The next day I woke up with a thumping hangover.
Two nights later I was on the bus, watching a thunderstorm move over the Bolivian plains. I was on my way to Potosí, site of one of the richest silver mines the world has ever known.
Potosí was the greatest source of imperial Spain’s wealth. People like to say that you could build a bridge from here to Spain from the silver that came out of Cerro Rico, the mountain that dwarfs the city. Or two bridges from the bones of the African and native slaves who died mining and minting it, as one of my guidebooks remarks.
The city has a beautiful colonial center, testament to its rich past. To the south the Cerro looms, a broad, rust-colored mountain where silver yields started declining 200 years ago, shifting attention to tin.
After tin prices collapsed in the 1980s, the Bolivian government pulled its mining operations from Potosí. But many of the miners formed cooperatives, got government concessions, and continued working. Today they work without much oversight—or safety equipment—moving like ants in and out of the mountain, day and night.
On the skirts of Cerro Rico is the Calvario Miners’ Encampment,where a woman I'll call Patricia lives. Like over 60 percent of Bolivia’s population, she identifies as indigenous. She is a Quechua Indian wearing a knee-length velvet skirt, flat sandals, a cardigan, and long braids hanging down her back. The encampment houses were originally built by the state for miners, but today form a slum where cooperative miners’ families rent one- and two-room homes. Patricia’s family of seven squats in a one-room cement house with a tin roof, a rough concrete floor, two twin beds, and some old dressers stuffed with clothes and blankets. The kids’ clothes are dirty. There are a few dried pieces of meat stored in the rafters for meals.
Standing in front of the house all you can see is the mountain. It dominates everything. Patricia’s husband is a miner, and like many miners he drinks too much of the clear alcohol sold for a dollar a liter in Calvario’s shops. Drunk, he left the family two weeks before I met them. Patricia is sure he’ll be back, but while he’s gone she spins llama wool, sews, and washes clothes to get by. But that brings in much less than the $150 a month her husband can make from the mine.
I’ve been in houses like this before, in other parts of the world, but this one felt different. Patricia is 28 and can scarcely read. Her husband is an alcoholic who has worked the mines for years, which means sooner or later he’ll die of lung disease. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the shadow of the mountain over everything, but this house felt worse than all the others. It felt like a hole they’d never get out of.
To really write about the mines, I knew I had to go more than a few hundred meters into them. Enter Reynaldo Ramírez, a miner who learned English by talking with the steadily increasing flow of visitors to Potosí’s mines. The 29-year-old now works as a tour guide. His agency guides up to 50 tourists a day through the Candelaria mine.
Dressed in huge protective pants and a jacket, plus rubber boots, a heavy belt with a battery pack, a headlamp, and a helmet, I was not feeling my suavest. There is something absurd about trying to interview someone about his life when you are basically costumed as … him. Like if I went to interview doctors with a stethoscope dangling around my neck. But there was no way around it.
Reynaldo took me through a stonework arch he said has been there since colonial mining, reminding me of the nearly 500 years this mountain has been tunneled, dynamited, and dug. The miners working the first level are lucky. It’s flat. There are tracks and carts to move the rock in and out. Fresh air reaches in, and in most places you stand upright. Going to the second level is not so easy. A three-foot-high tunnel goes down, down, so that hunched on your heels you slide 30 feet as the air suddenly gets hot, and the dust burns your throat.
The heat, the knowledge that hundreds of feet of rock rose over me, the shabby wooden boards supporting the tunnel, the suffocating dust, the thin air at 14,000 feet—I couldn’t take it. Halfway to the second level I turned around, scrambled back to the first level and waited for my small group to retrieve me. I sat alone in a place called the cross, where tunnels curve off in all directions. It was totally silent except for my panting breath. Not a breeze, not the scrape of a shovel, not a sound.
I still can’t understand how tourists make it to the fourth level of the mine, or how Agustin, a 14-year-old I met, works in the sixth level, nine hours a day, six days a week. I like to think I’m tough, that I’ve been around, but these mines are hell.
Why are there people here, when it is miserable and death is a foregone conclusion? For Agustin, whose father recently died of silicosis, the answer is abject need. He told me he plans to work for a year and then go back to school, though I can’t quite believe it. For others, it’s desire. Reynaldo says taxi drivers, lawyers, and engineers come to work during their vacations. Because in every miner’s heart is the hope that the next explosion, the next level down, the next tap of the hammer, will mean they’ll never want again. And they choose the cooperative mines because when they hit that big vein, part of it belongs to them.
Need or hope, that’s what brings miners here. But what brings so many tourists, hundreds a day in the August high season, to this suffocating place where people work in medieval conditions? Any guidebook that covers Potosí recommends agencies for mine tours–walking around the city center you see the storefronts of the booming business that has grown up around it. Every morning in neighborhoods at the base of the mountain tourists geared up in yellow protective suits waddle like baby ducks behind their guides.
I stayed in a hostel for over a week, listening to a lot of people fresh off of mine tours. Some describe it as the highlight of their South American trip. Others exclaim that they’ll never complain about their day jobs again after seeing the conditions on the mine’s lower levels. I asked an Eastern European how she thought people could go into the mines and not come out horribly depressed. She thought most people see the mines, are fascinated and frightened by them, but don’t get close enough to see the daily poverty and sickness that surround them.
Tours of Rio’s favelas, Bombay’s slums, Bolivia’s mines. On one hand, I have to salute travelers who don’t simply stay at five-star hotels and have the locals bring them cocktails. On the other, what lies behind this mode of tourism that whisks visitors through some of the world’s most brutal places in a five-hour-trip with a guide and private transport? Is it a desire to know how people live, or is it the same thing that turns your head toward a terrible accident on the highway? Is it a desire to understand, or the wish to amaze your friends at home with your mettle and adventurous spirit?
And what does seeking out these places mean about me? What do I want? What am I accomplishing?
I chose to do a story on Potosí. No one sent me, and as a freelancer I probably won’t profit by selling stories about it. I’ll break even. But from the moment I read about the mines a year ago I knew that Potosí was one of Bolivia’s great tragedies, and I knew I’d go. I tell myself that bringing a situation this horrible to the world’s attention is inherently valuable because … because what? Because someone rich or powerful might do something, because we should know our world, because the weak shouldn’t be left to suffer in silence. A lot of fancy concepts that may or may not change anything. But I was curious and fascinated too. I wanted to take a really close look, to be affected, to have a reason to roll around in other people’s lives and soak up their experiences.
Yet I wasn’t wrestling with my meta-motivations when I stumbled, squinting and shell-shocked, from the mines and went with Reynaldo to meet Agustin’s mother at her home. A 49-year-old woman who looks 70 and speaks only Quechua, she was sick with stomach pains and lay huddled in her bedroom, which is also the kitchen. I glanced over at Reynaldo, and he looked as bad as I felt. I asked him what was wrong. “I guess I see their faces every day, but you don’t think of the story behind it,” he said. I asked him if he thought Agustin would return to school the next year. “No,” he said.
Bolivia’s politics and economy tell me that life for Potosí’s miners isn’t going to change soon. The Cerro remains their promise of food on the table, a gamble at riches, and their guarantee of death. After two weeks in that world, I needed to head back to La Paz. A part of me wanted to forget, at least for a bit, that the mountain even exists.
Leaving Potosí I looked one last time at the peak, feeling my powerlessness to change anything about it. It remains the dream of past kings, and the future tomb of so many subjects. I was glad to escape its shadow of power and inevitability, and afraid for those, like Agustin, who cannot.
Sara Shahriari C’01 is a freelance journalist based in La Paz, Bolivia.