Saturday, November 19, 2011

In the Mines of Potosí

One week while Andrew was tied down by work in La Paz, Tom and I wandered off to see something of the country’s rugged Central Highlands. We traveled mostly by bus, except for the initial flight out of La Paz, which we were forced to take because the Aymara of El Alto were blockading the highway heading east out of La Paz. From Cochabamba we meandered to Sucre, and then we made our way to Potosí, one of the oldest cities in North America. It perches just above 4000 meters. Our bus ride up was entirely at night, winding along the side of vast gulfs and broad, treeless plains, all indistinct in the starlight. We hadn’t made a reservation in Potosí, which made me more nervous than usual about our arrival, but we found a cold, quiet hotel as fans were leaving the bars at the end of a Copa de Oro game.

The Spanish founded Potosí in 1545, shortly after silver was discovered in Cerro Rico, the tall, triangular peak that lies just north of town. The mines were extraordinarily productive, with hundreds of shafts sunk into the mountain once the surface deposits were exhausted. The crown took a fifth of all production, and its share was brought to the Caribbean by mule train and boat, where it became part of the fabled Spanish “treasure fleet” that sailed across the Atlantic once a year in a massive convoy. Francis Drake made his name by raiding these ships.

The conditions of mining were brutal. The Spanish imported millions of African slaves to work in the mines, of whose descendants, the Afro-Bolivianos, only 35,000 survive (they’ve mostly moved northwest, into a fertile, quiet valley of the Yungas Province). The imperial governors also conscripted millions of indigenous people to work in the mines as part of the mita system, a required annual stint of labor that the colonial administration adapted from an old Inca policy. Perhaps as many as eight million men died in the mines over the centuries (many secondary sources assert this number, though I have to admit that I have yet to find a convincing explanation of the estimate). The silver eventually ran out during the eighteenth century, but miners later dug for tin and, nowadays, lead and zinc.

While most of Cerro Rico’s wealth was exported, the city itself did grow to as many as 160,000 people, making it the largest city in the western hemisphere in its 16th century heyday. Tom and I wandered its streets for a day, taking in the small but ornate churches. At the Convento de San Francisco, we climbed to the top tower, from which we could take in the whole of Cerro Rico’s ochre and gray bulk. Its top half is so riddled with mineshafts that miners may only dig on its lower sections, where the roofs of the passageways are less likely to cave in.

Both the guidebooks I had on the trip (the first, sadly, left on the back seat of a La Paz taxi) strongly recommended but also sternly warned their readers about a visit into the mines. Of course, I was deeply intrigued. I made arrangements to enter a cooperative mine with a reputable tour group, Greengo Tours, the next morning. Then Tom and I went out for dinner at a rollicking café whose owner was probably the most extroverted Bolivian I met during the entire trip. We eventually left when he began to exhort us to dance to the music of a local band.

I rose early to meet my guide at the tour office. He was a short, stocky fellow named Julio Morales who spoke decent English, and he endeared himself to me with a number of off-color jokes. We were joined by a pair of Belgian girls who had traveled all over Bolivia for the previous month. They seemed remarkably sanguine about our trip underground.

We took a bus up the side of the mountain to a small office owned by the tour company, where we donned mining outerwear and boots to keep our clothes from getting all wet and dirty. This included putting on a hard hat and a miner’s lamp of the kind that clips right onto the helmet itself. Next, we walked to a small mining market, where we bought coca, orange juice, and several sticks of TNT to give to the men we would meet inside the mountain. According to Lonely Planet, the owner of Greengo Tours is fighting against incorporating dynamite explosions into tours, but apparently this ethic did not extend to actual use of the device.

Another bus took us up onto the mountain itself, where we dismounted by several shacks, one of which had a sign inscribed Cooperative Minera. Several men were sitting around, apparently on their lunch break. One of them couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old. Julio stopped to chat with them, seemingly making a joke or two at our expense, as they all laughed together heartily. Here and there around us were empty carts, some turned over on their side. A small-gauge railroad track ran through the carts and into a small, dark hole in the side of the mountain.

Julio eventually collected us, and, after going on at length about the challenges of the darkness and confined space that would soon engulf us, led us into the hole. On this first section, we had to move fast, as the railway sloped downhill and, every so often, a cart would come hurtling along, loosely guided by a pair of miners (the most junior of the workers, according to Julio). If we were caught on the track, it would have been very bad news indeed.

I immediately was aware of just how small the tunnel was, as I had to constantly stoop as we trotted along. The hard hat came in handy when I smacked my head against a wooden buttress supporting the roof of the tunnel. It was very tiring keeping up with Julio – we were at 13 or 14,000 feet, now, and I hadn’t eaten much breakfast.

When we did stop, it was to duck into a side chamber where three or four miners were operating a gasoline-fueled winch. A wire ran down (out of sight) eighty or one hundred feet to the bottom of a shaft, where other men were using pickaxes and shovels to load rock into a bucket at the end of the wire. When the bucket was lifted back up to top, the waiting men unloaded its contents into a cart, which they hustled out to the surface.

The miners were happy enough to chat with us, or were at least pleased to get their present of coca leaves (as with Luis on Huayna Potosí, they seemed to consume little but coca - notice how many in these pictures have a solid wad tucked into a cheek). Then we headed on, further into the mountain. We descended several wooden stepladders to see what the operation was like at the end of a winch. The Belgians and I took a turn shoveling rock into a bucket. Julio often stopped to tell us about some detail of the work in the mines. He had spent three years as a miner but quickly grew restless. Judging by his clothes back in town, he had done well for himself on the outside, but he still seemed acutely aware of the social hierarchy within the mine. Everything on the inside works on the basis of seniority, and we ran into one foreman who was miffed that Julio had not taken us to see his own operation because he wanted a share of the gifts we had brought into the mine.

At one point while Julio was talking, we heard a distant pop-pop-pop, like fireworks across a large lake. It was dynamite going off somewhere not too far away. We stopped midway down one shaft because there so much silica dust filled the air. Most miners get silicosis pneumonia after a decade or two of work in the mines and die; indeed, I only saw one or two men in the mine who appeared to be older than thirty. All of them seemed to be short, efficient, and cheerful – content in relatively good-paying work that allowed them to realize their masculinity. I tied my bandana over my mouth and tried to breath lightly.

On our way out, (we were all exhausted by the bending and hustling, not to mention the air) we stopped in a small passage occupied by a grotesque figure carved to represent some sort of underworld god. It sat by the edge of the wall, taller than any human, looking like a cross between the Minotaur and a Rastafarian. It was covered in silly string and had coca leaves and a cigarette dangling from its mouth; in its hand was a plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid that must have been grain alcohol. The miners try to keep this creature pacified with such gifts, for they believe that when he is angry, fatal accidents occur. Julio also made a veiled but meaningful allusion to its appetites, which are voracious and undiscriminating.

In fact, women are rarely allowed into the mine. Miners believe they bring bad luck, but exceptions seem to be made for foreign tourists, about whom the miners are, unsurprisingly, very curious. I bought Julio lunch when we were back in Potosí after the end of the tour (at an exchange rate of 7 to 1, I could afford to be very generous with my guides), and he was eager to tell me about his odd situation mediating between the hard-bitten miners and his relatively affluent clientele. He was an opinionated, prejudiced man, but it was unfair to judge him by American standards, and I found his direct honesty appealing, as he found my expressed desire to relate the experience to my students at home.

Daylight and space to stretch my legs were bliss once we were back outside.