The Bowels of Hell Meet Happy Endings

Before I begin, let me apologize for the lack of pictures in this blog.  Internet here is often too slow to upload flicks on wordpress. 

It has been roughly 10 days since our border crossing fiasco, and my impression of Bolivia is not in the least bit affected by that one bad experience.  After a few nights in Tupiza and a 70k bikeride to and from the Salar (salt desert) to go on the most bizarre camping trip of my life, we hopped a bus to Potosi, the highest city on Earth (and I mean this in the litereal sense, Portland is by far the highest city on Earth nahmsayin?).  We arrived healthy and rejuvinated from basking in the salt, our skin dry as bone.  With an abundance of street food ranging from 1 to 5 bolivianos per item, we are eating cheaper than a vegan at Taco Bell.

Many gringos travel to Bolvia to enjoy the cheap tourism.  I swear to God you can go parasailing, rock climbing and cliff diving anywhere on this continent.  For me, however, it has been my dream to come to Potosi to see the mines that have existed here since the Spanish enslaved the indigenous population to scrape veins of silver and other minerals 500 years ago.  Morbid?  Maybe.  But hear me out.

When you enter Potosi, you can see the highest peak looming over the city.  Brown, barren and dry, it somewhat resembles an ant hill.  The thousands of miners filing in and out of it 24 hours a day add to this effect.  My initial idea of seeing the mines was that I would ask around and see if someone would take me in, but upon my arrival I realized that there are dozens of guided tours to take you in for a small price of 80 to 100 Bolivanos (10 to 12 U.S.).  So the gringo tourist remained as such in this sense, and I was disgusted to find that many of the companies are outsiders that do not have any formal connection to the mines.  Their profits do no benefit the miners who work for roughly $70 U.S. per week, despite numerous advertisements that they give 10% of their earnings to the miners.

By reccomendation of a friend, we came accross a tour company that calls itself, in English, ´The Real Deal´.  All of their guides are ex-miners, and they started this company as a response to the mine tourism boom that escorts foreigners to see what is perhaps the toughest job on Earth.  It is policy that when you take their tour, you bring gifts of soda, liqour, cigarettes, coca and dynamite to the miners, and 10% of their earnings do in fact go into the hands of the miners.  The guides, though they are no longer scraping the mines for what precious minerals are left, are very much connected to the mines, and still do indeed work in them.  They were very kind, spoke English and Spanish (though for most their first language was Quechua), and their sense of humor was on point.  After a brief orientation and a stop at the miners store to buy gifts, one of our guides screamed to us, ¨Lets go llama fuckers!¨, and we began our short bus ride up the hill to the mouth of the mine.

When we arrived to the mine, we split into two groups, one that would be guided in English, and one in Spanish.  Gabe and I opted for the Spanish tour because it was much smaller.  We were able to see more and move faster.  Our guide, Reynaldo, took four of us into the mine first.

Lets backtrack a little for a brief history lesson.

The mines of Potosi were raided by the Spanish using indigenous slave labor.  So much gold and silver was extracted here that it was common to say a rich European had a ´Potosi´s worth of wealth´.  The streets were literally paved in silver, and Potosi was in fact the wealthiest city on the planet.  If capitalism repeats itself, we can call Potosi the first Detroit in the Americas…  No more minerals, no more rich Europeans, and the indigenous to this day toil to extract what is left over from the days their ancestors were forced to work until their imminent death from collapsing lungs, frequent accidents and general exhaustion.  The life expectancy of a miner is still very low, and they often begin working in the mines around age 13.  Miners make around 2000 Bolivanos per month, which is roughly $280 U.S.  There is very little private enterprise in the mines, and the majority of the miners are members of cooperative syndicates.  The Bolivian government, under the guidance of President Evo Morales sees to it that the overwhelming ammount of cooperatives dominates the mining culture, and that private corporations stay put do not expand into their territory.  Listo?  Lets go to the mines already.

When you enter the mines the hieght of the ceiling fluctuates meter by meter.  You are constantly  moving from upright position into a full-on crawl.  The labrytnth of tunnels resembles an intestinal tract, and the sudden temperature changes from freezing to stifling hot (as much as 110 farenheight)  makes one feel as if they have entered the bowels of hell.  It is dark and musty, and you can see particles of espestos and dust dancing in the air through the beam of your helmet light.  When passing some corridors, dynamite fumes attack your senses.  As Reynaldo takes us deeper, some are unsure if they can fit through the narrow holes in the ground that connect other series of tunnels by way of rickety wooden ladders.  As he disappears into other tunnels to make sure there are no workers needing to get by, or that there is no demolition taking place, we wait for his signal to continue on.

The small corridors, connected by rail tracks leave no room for passing.  We are guests in the mine, and if the workers come barreling down the passage with a mine cart overflowing in minerals, we are to backtrack quickly until we can find space to move out of the way.  The miners will often ask you to help them push or pull, and we stop to give them coca, and talk to them about their experiences in the mines.  Despite the numerous dangers that go with working in the mines, and the physical demands of pulling minerals, the miners are often in high spirits and there is a fraternal bond between them that is immediately apparent to any visitor.

Every mine has at least 2 statues of what seems like a demon goat to an outsider.  This is called the Tio, or the god of mine.  Created by the Spanish hundreds of years ago as a superstitious lure, the Tio is still highly revered in the mine, and workers share their breaks around the Tio.  They make offerings of liquour, tobacco and coca to the Tio so that he will keep them safe fom accidents.

Moving around in the mines tires you instantly.  You are at roughly 15,000 feet, underground.  You fall short of breath quickly, and often feel nautious.  We share coca to keep us alert.  I wonder how such an inhabitable place can support so much life.  In 2 hours spent in the mines, I experienced extreme fatigue and dehydration, and at times my vision went blurry from heat exaustion.  How on Earth can someone spend 30 years here?  And I bitch about my 40 hours a week in a kitchen enjoying a more generous wage and all the food I can eat?

Subsquent to our descent into the belly of mother Earth, we were invited to a wedding for one of the miners (this is the happy ending I was talking about).  He was our guides cousin, and the whole family said they wanted us to see a different side of life outside of the mines.  We accepted our invitation with enthusiasm, and like the entrance to the mines, there was one condition…bring a gift.  Instead of buying coca and liquor, we brought gifts typical of any wedding.  Tacky tupperwear sets, glasses with pictures of fruit on them, and other housewarming items.  When everyone had something to offer, we hopped on a bus and headed to the reception.

Weddings in Bolivia are not too far off from any other wedding I had been to, but there is a different sense of community around weddings for miners.  Often working 6 days a week, miners do not get as much leisure as other professions.  When you go to a miner´s wedding, it is not just a ceremony for the Bride and Groom, but a day for all the miners and their families to unwind, take their minds off of work…and yes, get really, really, really drunk.

When I got to the wedding, it was hard to even believe that I was there with some of the same people thad I had seen in the mine.  The rough and dusty exteriors were scrubbed clean, and everyone was dressed in such a way that put my llama t-shirt and jeans to shame.  Nonetheless, we had a blast.

At most weddings in the U.S. you would expect an open bar, champagne toasts and some shitty DJ or Wedding Band that played 80´s covers everyone could dance to.  At the miners wedding, there were two kinds of drinks (both mixes of cheap soda and grape liquour), and the band played some sort of poppy music that was difficult to understand through the muffled microphones.  There is no lights off bumpin and grinding.  Rather, they keep ALL the lights on (and they are very bright) and men and women get in two lines facing eachother and bob up and down aimlessly.  By far the most unimtimidating dance party I have ever been to (and certainly different than the night clubs of Mendoza and Buenos Aires).  If your glass goes below 1/4 full, you can expect a drunk server to roll by and top you off.  After a certain hour, the servers carry around trays with shots (concauctions of orange soda and grape liquor).  It is customary to pour two sips out for Pachamama (mother earth) onto the floor. Two cakes, one provided by each family (and both larger than any cake I have ever seen) are consumed around midnight.  By the end of the ceremony, your feet are covered in sticky orange liquor and frosting, and it is impossible to determine how much alcohol you consumed until the next day…when you can´t wake up.

The wedding is supposed to last three days, the two days after involve lots of eating, and even more booze.  For these three gringos, we could not keep up.  I knew there were many special things about this country, but I could not have imagined recieving the hospitality we have been given in my life.  Thank you all Potosians!

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