(View the map for this chapter.)
I wasn't looking at Lake Titicaca. Even though the highest navigable lake in the world was just outside of my bus window, another passenger was commanding my attention. He was about seventy years old and short with gray hair cropped close to his head. He wore a white fleece jacket and was walking the length of the bus, introducing himself to everyone. A fancy digital camera hung around his neck, yet he was riding on the same cheap bus as me, rather than traveling with an expensive tour group.
This guy's a backpacker. Good for him.
The man patted the person he had been talking with on the shoulder and approached me. But before he could say anything, the bus stopped and the driver announced, “We have arrived at the Tiquina Strait. Everyone needs to get off the bus and wait outside.” The lady who had sold me my bus ticket that morning had mentioned that we would cross the strait on a ferry. The older gentleman turned around and walked off the bus. I followed, along with the other passengers.
There were several wooden piers lining the shore. The other side of the strait was about half a mile away. A few women sold salteñas (bread pockets filled with juicy meat and vegetables) and two young men dressed in green military uniforms stood leisurely with their assault rifles at their sides. Gentle waves lapped the concrete shoreline. A couple more buses pulled in behind ours. I looked for the ferry but didn't see it.
“Excuse me, where is the boat?” I asked one of the salteña saleswomen.
She pointed at the pier, looking dumbfounded. “It's right here!”
I thought I misunderstood her. The pier was about fifteen feet wide and seventy-five feet long. It was constructed from planks of wood and had knee-high guardrails. A man was sitting on one rail and two schoolchildren on another, but otherwise it was empty. Then I noticed a tiny outboard motor at its far end and realized that the “pier” was the ferry!
Our driver drove the bus onto the “pier,” and the momentum pushed it from the shore. The military men, who apparently were supposed to ride with the bus across the strait, ran and jumped aboard. The man who had been sitting on the guardrail walked to the stern and started the engine. One of the kids plunged a long wooden pole into the water, guiding the “pier” as it turned around. Then it began its journey across the strait.
All of the passengers were still on the shore, watching the “pier” bounce with our bus on Lake Titicaca's deep blue waters. Another wooden boat approached us from the far side of the strait and pulled up to the shore. This vessel looked sturdy, with waist-high walls. When the boat nudged the shore, the driver – a boy about twelve years old – shouted, “Let's go!”
We shuffled aboard and sat on the bench seats that spanned its wide, flat floor. The boy opened the throttle on the boat's fifty horsepower motor and it let out a high-pitched hum – we were on our way. After a few minutes, we overtook the “pier” carrying our bus, which bobbed like a cork each time a wave struck it.
“I hope our bus makes it. I left my backpack on it!” I said to the older man who had fascinated me a few minutes prior.
“I'm glad we're not on it. Rumor has it there's been a few incidents on the ferries lately. I guess it doesn't look good for the tourism industry when customers plunge to the bottom of the lake trapped inside a bus.”
“Makes sense. I'm glad they're looking out for us. But now I'm even more worried about losing my worldly possessions.”
When we reached the other side of the strait, we waited for our bus by the shore. Miraculously, it arrived without sinking and we climbed aboard. We left Lake Titicaca behind us and rode across the altiplano, a vast plateau between two of Bolivia's mountain ranges. I saw nothing but flat, dry land, as if we were driving across a desert rather than the foothills of the Andes, 12,000 feet above sea level.
“Where are you from?” asked the older backpacker while I was looking at the scenery.
I turned to see him in the aisle, hovering above me. “Wisconsin, how about you?”
“We're neighbors! I'm from Thunder Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior.”
The city sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. Then, I remembered. “Isn't that where that guy on Letterman's from?”
“Right, Paul Shaffer. He's our most famous former resident.”
“Well,” I said, “the most interesting thing about my hometown is its name.”
“Oh? What is it?”
He scrunched the bridge of his nose and looked confused.
“Not many people have heard of it,” I reassured him.
“Is that a Native American name?”
“No, it's a made-up name. Nobody could agree on what to call it, so they put the letters of the alphabet in a hat. Then a girl started pulling them out until they had something pronounceable.”
“No kidding? You learn something new every day.”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “Today I learned how Bolivian ferries operate.”
“Right, that too. I'm Lloyd,” he said, offering his hand.
“Dan. Good to meet you.” Part of my reason for taking this trip while I was young was because I didn't think I would be physically capable of doing it when I got older. Lloyd was living proof of how wrong my thinking had been.
I glanced out of my window and saw some mountainous peaks poking above the horizon. This was our first glimpse of the Cordillera Real (Royal Mountain Range). “Hey Lloyd, look at this,” I said, but he was already talking to some other passengers a few rows back. I didn't take offense – he seemed genuinely interested in meeting everyone on the bus.
We drove for a few more hours across the flat, barren altiplano until we reached the city of El Alto. This impoverished urban center was formed a century earlier as an extension of nearby La Paz, but it became an independent city after decades of migration from poor and desperate campesinos. While driving along El Alto's main drag, we got stuck in a traffic jam. This was the sole route leading to La Paz from the west, and hundreds of vehicles were fighting for position.
Our bus cleared the bottleneck when it made a left turn onto a wider highway. But soon after speeding up, we abruptly pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. Cars shot past us, honking. At first I thought something was wrong with the bus, but then our driver looked at us through the rear view mirror and shouted, “Does anyone want to take a photo of the city?” With so much traffic, this didn't seem like a safe place to stop. But here we were, so I left the bus along with most of the others.
La Paz, Bolivia's sprawling capital, was in a valley below us. Unpainted cement houses blanketed the sides of the valley and high-rise buildings rose from its center. The streets and alleys leading up to the highest houses looked impossibly steep, even more so than those of Cuzco. A multi-peaked mountain dominated the skyline, as if the city were wearing a giant white crown.
“Do you know the name of that mountain?” I asked Lloyd, who was standing near me with his camera raised to his eye.
“That must be Illimani, the 'golden eagle' of the Aymara people.” The Aymaras had been living in present-day Bolivia since about 1500 BC. The Incas, and later the Spaniards, subjugated the Aymaras, but they still made up the majority of the inhabitants on Bolivia's altiplano.
“It's beautiful,” I said, snapping several photos.
“Yes it is,” Lloyd replied. “This is probably the best view we'll get of Illimani.”
Our bus driver honked the horn and I noticed that everyone else was boarding. Why are they in such a hurry? Lloyd and I took one last glance at the city and mountain and returned to the bus.
We drove around the upper rim of the valley, then shot downhill like a skateboarder dropping into a bowl. Before we made it to the bottom, traffic slowed to a crawl. There were shouting vendors and honking horns all around us. The stench of car exhaust and garbage piles was overwhelming. We rolled along the energetic streets and made it downtown just after dusk.
Instead of dropping us off at a bus station, our driver pulled to the side of a congested street and opened the door. Our ride was over and I was in the middle of a big city without a guidebook or even a map.
“Do you know where you're going to stay tonight?” I asked Lloyd.
Standing on the sidewalk, he pulled a pair of reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and rested them at the end of his nose. Then he opened his backpack, dug out a guidebook and held it at arm's length. “If I'm reading this map right, there's a hostel a few blocks from here. Shall we go and see if there's room?”
“Sure, let's just get moving,” I said, glad that someone had a plan.
As soon as we crossed the street, a young woman in a green uniform stopped us. “Good evening, where are you going?” she asked.
“To our hostel. It's down this street,” Lloyd replied.
“Then I better go with you. I'm a police officer from the tourism department.”
“Is there a problem?” I asked defensively. I had heard rumors of fake police officers in Bolivia kidnapping unsuspecting tourists.
“It's not safe for you to walk here at night.”
“All right,” I said. I figured there was no way she could kidnap us on this busy street. “Our hostel's this way.”
Lloyd and I started walking and the officer followed.
“Are you going to leave the hostel later?” she asked.
“Yes, I need to get supper,” I said.
“All right, but walk straight to the restaurant and back.” She looked at Lloyd's camera, still hanging from his neck. “And don't carry anything valuable with you.”
Lloyd slipped the camera inside his jacket and zipped it up. The officer nodded with approval. “Well, here we are,” Lloyd said. We were standing outside of an old stone building with a “Hostel” sign above its arch doorway. “Thanks for the help. We'll be careful.”
We walked inside and the woman left us. She must have been a real police officer. Was I too trusting, or not trusting enough? [*]
[* A few months later, two Austrian tourists were kidnapped and murdered in La Paz by men posing as police officers. After news of the incident made shockwaves around the continent, my distrust of anyone appearing to be an authority figure grew exponentially.]
Lloyd and I paid for beds in a dorm room. I locked my daypack to my bed frame with a cable and removed enough bolivianos from my money belt for dinner. “I'm going to look for that restaurant now,” I said to Lloyd. “You wanna join me?”
“Sure, but let's walk around a bit first. I want to see the city.”
“I don't know, Lloyd. That officer told us...”
“We'll find something nearby.”
We walked uphill for a block and glanced down a side street. “Hey, look, this is the witch's market,” Lloyd said. Native women known as Cholitas, wearing colorful multilayered skirts and bowler hats, were sitting next to their kiosks. They gave us welcoming smiles as we approached. I took a closer look and saw that they were selling a variety of potions and powders in plastic bags. There were even a few dead frogs in jars for sale.
Lloyd unzipped his jacket. His camera was still hanging from his neck.
“I thought you left your camera at the hostel,” I said, wondering how I could have missed it, bulging from his chest.
“I take my camera everywhere with me. There's so many great street shots here!”
Lloyd exchanged a few words with one of the women and took a picture of her next to the stuff she was selling. Then he snapped a photo of what looked like a stack of little dried animals and said, “I think these are llama fetuses.”
“Why would anyone want to buy something like that?” I asked, astonished. I hadn't seen any folk medicine sold on the street in my five weeks in Peru.
“The local people bury them in their yards as an offering to the gods.” Lloyd was full of knowledge about Bolivia. But I was growing impatient.
“Lloyd, I'm starving,” I said. “And llama fetuses don't count as food.”
“OK, I suppose I can come back here tomorrow for another look.”
We found a pizzeria and ordered a large Hawaiian pizza. “Is this your first time in Bolivia?” I asked.
“Yes – normally I like to travel in Asia, but I decided to come to South America this year.”
“And how much longer are you going to travel?”
“A couple more weeks. My wife doesn't like it when I stay away for too long. Besides, I want to leave the country before December, in case there are riots.”
“Riots? What do you mean?”
“Didn't you hear? The presidential election is coming up. A full-blooded Aymara cocalero [coca leaf grower] is the front-runner. He'll probably get the most votes, but you know how corrupt those in power can be in Latin America.”
Since starting my trip, I had been reading about the various South American dictatorial regimes of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, during which tens of thousands of people were executed for their political affiliations. Bolivia had had a democracy for over twenty years, but it had undergone some tumultuous transfers of power of late. Its seventy-eighth president had been forced to resign during a fight over the country's natural gas resources a few months earlier. With the next election coming up, the current president probably wouldn't remain in power for long.
“You mean the election could be rigged?”
“I'm saying that anything can happen, and if the Aymara man loses, things could get ugly.”
“Thanks for letting me know. In that case, I'll get out of the country before the election as well.”
“I'd still like to stick around La Paz for a day or two, though. I'm planning to take a train out of town. You're welcome to join me.”
Lloyd was proving to be a fun travel companion, but the police officer's warnings, along with the city's noise and high elevation, made me want to leave La Paz. Lloyd, on the other hand, actually seemed to be thriving in this environment.
“Thanks for the offer, but I'm going to get moving sooner. I'd like to go to Sucre next.”
“No problem. You never know, maybe we'll run into each other again.”
It was nighttime in the old mining town of Potosí and I was shivering, with only my windbreaker to keep me warm. It had been a week since I had left La Paz for lower elevations. I wasn't expecting to enjoy Sucre, but it was clean, safe and warm, and I wound up staying longer than I had planned. Now I was back at 13,000 feet above sea level, roaming the dark streets of one of the world's highest cities in search of a hostel.
“Hey Dan!” called a voice from across the street. I turned and saw a man who was limping and covered in mud. He had a petrified look in his eyes, as if he had survived a brush with death. It took a moment for me to figure out who it was.
“Lloyd? What happened?”
“I'm going to my hostel for some coca tea,” he said, his frozen breath visible before his face. “Come with me and I'll explain.”
We walked a few blocks to his hostel. The walls inside were painted bright purple and orange, and there were space heaters in the reception area, giving it a tropical feel and almost making me forget the bitter cold outside. I paid for a bed in a dorm room, dropped off my backpack and met Lloyd in the kitchen.
Lloyd had already put a kettle of water on the stove and was sitting at a table, propping his head up with his hand. On the counter behind him were a bowl of coca leaves and a jar of sugar. “What's going on?” I asked. “Are you all right?”
“I just got back from my tour of that horrible mine. Some of the tunnels were less than a meter high. I could barely squeeze through them, and the air was so dusty, I nearly suffocated. I had to turn around and crawl back out early. Thank God I escaped before I passed out.”
Lloyd's even more adventurous than I realized.
The kettle whistled. Lloyd stood up, took two empty mugs from the cupboard and poured the boiling water. Then he added some coca leaves and sugar and stirred both mugs.
He handed me a mug and returned to his chair. “If you want to go, this hostel sells tickets,” he said.
Other backpackers I had met in the last few days had told me that it was possible to visit an old silver mine near Potosí. I had planned to take the tour, but now I was reluctant.
“After all you went through today, you still want me to go? It sounds dangerous.”
Lloyd held his cup between his palms and tilted it toward his lips, slurping the steamy liquid. “It's like a boiler room in there. Some of the passageways are so narrow you could get stuck. There's chemicals and explosives all over the place. Of course it's dangerous!”
“Then maybe I should skip it. Besides, it seems obnoxious to gawk at poor people working.”
“No, you should go. You're young. You can handle it. And some of the money goes back to the miners. You can also buy them gifts. I'm not saying you're going to change the mine by taking a tour. But the mine will change you.”
I thought about this as I drank my coca tea.
“Excuse me, but I need to shower and get some rest,” Lloyd said. “It's been a long day.”
“Are you sure you're OK?”
“Yes, I'll be fine. I'm going to some hot springs tomorrow. That should help clear my lungs.”
“Well, good night Lloyd. I hope you feel better.” He slowly stood up and walked to his room carrying his cup.
Lloyd's advice changed my mind yet again – I decided to go. I went to the front desk and asked about the tour. “We leave from here at eight in the morning,” the lady at the desk said. “And you'll need to fill out this first.” She handed me a sheet of paper that I never expected to see in a poor country where lawsuits were uncommon – a waiver form, absolving the hostel of all liability if I were injured or killed on the tour.
I signed my life away. Even in Bolivia, there are lawyers.
“The combi is here!” a hostel employee shouted the next morning as I was finishing my breakfast. I went outside, where a ten-passenger van was waiting, climbed into the back and sat next to a young woman wearing white-rimmed sunglasses. She was leaning on the shoulder of a man with a dark blue bandanna covering his head. Behind them were a man with salt-and-pepper hair and two women about my age. We exchanged pleasantries and the combi started to move.
“Good morning everyone!” the man riding shotgun said, turning around to face us. “My name is Enrique, and today we're going to visit the mine where I used to work. But first, we'll pick up some clothes to wear while we're inside.” Enrique was in his early twenties and spoke with enthusiasm. He had the dark skin, long nose and black, mop-like hair of an Aymara, and he was wearing a colorful striped scarf and a fleece jacket. He could have been a student at an American college.
We stopped next to a warehouse and got out of the van. Now that we were standing, I noticed that the man with salt-and-pepper hair was even taller than I was. At six-foot-three, I had regularly cracked my head on ceiling beams and smashed my knees against bus seats while traveling in Peru and Bolivia. Many kitchen tables even had an extra bar connecting the legs, which appeared to be designed to break tall people's kneecaps. The world in which I was traveling wasn't made for people taller than five-foot-six. The salt-and-pepper man was close to a foot taller than that, and I already felt bad for him.
We walked inside the warehouse and saw rubber jackets and pants hanging on a wall. Next to them were shelves holding helmets, headlamps, and large batteries hooked up to chargers. There was a pile of knee-high rubber boots in a corner.
“Everyone take a helmet – it's the most important item for your safety,” Enrique said. “Also, make sure your lights work with one of the batteries, and put on a jacket, pants and boots.”
I disconnected a battery from its charger, popped it into an orange plastic container that had a cord leading to an incandescent light and turned it on. It was an ancient, cumbersome apparatus compared with modern LED headlamps, but it worked. I joined the others in getting dressed, and we laughed at the silliness of wearing rubber outfits that were too short for our limbs on top of our street clothes. When we were outfitted, we followed Enrique back to the combi and started driving again.
“My friends in the mine don't normally like visitors,” Enrique said, again facing us from the front seat, “so we need to buy them gifts from the miners' market. This is especially important for the ladies in the group. Women are considered bad luck and are not normally allowed inside. But if you give the miners presents, you'll be good luck to them instead.”
The combi stopped at a bustling market where stout Bolivian men in similar outfits to the ones we were wearing dashed between shops. Women sold dried coca leaves out of industrial-sized garbage bags. Enrique led us into one shop, which was stocked with familiar items like soda, alcohol and cigarettes. But there were a few items for sale that I hadn't seen in other markets, such as gas masks, goggles and gardening gloves.
“What are we supposed to buy?” the young lady with the sunglasses asked.
“The miners will appreciate everything you see here. They don't eat much in the mine because it's too dirty, so they drink soda and chew coca leaves to give them energy and suppress their appetites. And they'll be grateful if you buy them gas masks, which most of them can't afford. Also, a lot of miners smoke, and most of them drink. A bottle of ninety-percent alcohol only costs ten bolivianos and is strong enough to get a small group of miners drunk.”
Drinking was understandable to me, but it was hard to see why any of them would want to inhale anything besides fresh air.
“And what's this here?” the salt-and-pepper man asked, pointing at a box filled with long white sticks that looked like candles.
“That is a stick of dynamite,” Enrique said and took one from the box. “It's the most expensive item you'll find here, but also the most useful to the miners.”
“Are we allowed to buy that?” I asked.
“Yes, in Potosí anyone can buy and use dynamite.”
“But I don't know anything about dynamite!” I protested. “Can't it blow up by accident?” I looked around and noticed the others nodding in agreement.
“You don't have to worry about that,” Enrique said dismissively. “Look, I'll show you.” He threw the stick on the ground in front of him, causing everyone in our group to gasp and jump backward.
Holy shit, this guy's crazy. And my life is in his hands.
“In order to blow up the dynamite, you need to attach a fuse and catalyst,” Enrique continued. “We call it a completo. Ask for it at the register. And if somebody buys an extra one, I'll give you a demonstration after our tour.”
I bought a completo, a bottle of soda, some extra gloves and two bags of coca leaves – one for the miners, and one for myself. I didn't buy any cigarettes, but I got a bottle of booze, with the thought that anyone who works as hard as these guys deserves a drink at the end of the day. The other backpackers also stocked up on gifts, including several completos, and we tourists – with no knowledge of pyrotechnics – continued in the combi with enough dynamite to blow up a small town.
We drove to the outskirts of Potosí and headed toward a brown hill with streaks of red that formed a perfect cone far above the city. “The mine we will visit today is inside this hill, which is called Cerro Rico. Hundreds of years ago, when this region was still flush with silver, the Spaniards forced African and native slaves to spend six months at a time inside the mine. Most of them died before they were allowed to leave, but it was quite lucrative for the Spaniards. At the time, Potosí was the biggest and richest city in South America. They say its streets were paved with silver.”
The dwellings we passed now were single-room shacks with mud brick walls and corrugated tin roofs. Filthy kids in tattered clothes played on dirt lawns while women sold food on the street. It looked like only the poorest of the poor lived near the mine.
“Why do people still work there?” the salt-and-pepper man asked.
“Money, money, money! Instead of getting paid an hourly wage, the miners work in cooperatives and get to sell what they extract.”
“So there's not one big company that owns the entire mountain?”
“No. The miners can lay claim to any minerals they find. Of course, that can lead to fights when silver deposits are discovered. A few years ago, six miners blew each other up while fighting over a silver vein. But don't worry. For the most part, the different cooperatives stick to their territory and are friendly with each other.” This reminded me of office workers suing each other over a winning lottery ticket. With dynamite.
“When did you start working in the mine?” I asked.
“I started when I was fifteen, as an apprentice with the cooperative we're going to visit today. I averaged one thousand bolivianos a month, which is more than most experienced laborers make in Bolivia. When I quit three years later, I was a full member, making two thousand bolivianos a month.” Enrique's final monthly salary was about $250, enough to get by in Bolivia.
“Then why'd you leave when you were making so much money?” I asked.
“I wanted a better life. When I was still working in the mine, I went to night school to learn English. I only quit mining when I became a tour guide. Now I'm taking classes in international relations at the university. One day I want to start a tour company of my own.” Enrique seemed like a smart kid with an entrepreneur's mindset. I believed that he would realize his dream eventually.
“But I was lucky enough to have a family to support me while I went to school. Most of the men don't stop working in the mine until they get silicosis from inhaling dust. The government doesn't pay for their health care until their lungs are ninety percent blocked, and by then, they have less than a year to live. My friends understand the risks, but they're desperately poor and need to take care of their wives and kids. Still, they make fun of me for quitting. They say I'm not macho enough to handle the hard work.”
So the combination of poverty and machismo destined the miners to early graves. How many of the women selling stuff at the miners' market were widows? And how many kids in Potosí were growing up without fathers?
As we approached the hill, we crossed paths with several dump trucks. Their beds were full of rocks; a handful of miners sat on top of each pile. “Those trucks are going to the refinery where minerals will be extracted from the rocks. Most of the silver's gone, but there's plenty of iron, copper and zinc left. And there's a chance the men will get rich before they get too sick to work. Have you seen the Hummer driving around Potosí? It might be the only one in Bolivia. The man who owns it found a large vein of silver, and now he's one of the richest people in town. Everyone hopes to end up like him, and not like the thousands of others who've died in pursuit of wealth.”
“But aren't you still getting exposed to the toxins on your tours?” I asked.
“I think I'll be all right because I only go inside for a few hours at a time. And the tours just go to the top levels of the mine where the air is cleaner. Some of my friends will stay at the bottom for days rather than climb out after their shifts. They even have mattresses at the deepest levels of the mine.”
Was Enrique deluding himself about the dangers of being in the mine? Was I doing the same? I was only going to be inside for a few hours, but I had no idea how long it might take for the dust to cause permanent damage.
Our combi wound its way up the side of Cerro Rico. When we were far above the city, we passed a large pile of rocks that several men were shoveling into the back of a dump truck. Leading away from the rock pile was a set of train tracks that ran parallel to the road. The road ended next to a tunnel carved into the side of the hill. The tracks continued inside. The combi stopped and everyone got out next to the tunnel.
“Here is our entrance,” Enrique said. “Everyone put on your helmets, turn on your lights and follow me.” He took off his scarf and fleece jacket, and slipped into his rubber clothes. It was amazing how quickly someone could go from looking like a college student to a dirt-poor miner. Sometimes the clothes really did make the man.
Enrique tied his battery pack around his waist like a belt, using the long piece of rubber that was attached to it. I did the same, slipping a bag of coca leaves underneath my new belt for easy access, then put on my helmet and light. My clothes didn't make me feel like a miner. I just hoped I could make it through the day without getting stuck in some tiny space. I put a handful of coca leaves in my mouth and almost gagged from the bitter taste. I told myself they would protect my lungs.
Enrique led us single-file along the tracks toward the tunnel. When half of our group was inside, Enrique stopped and yelled, “Everybody back!”
We jumped away from the tracks and heard a subtle rumble coming from inside, getting louder by the second. Then, a mining cart flew out of the tunnel at breakneck speed a few feet in front of us. It was filled with rocks and two miners were crouching behind it like kids playing on a shopping cart.
“How often does that happen?” the young man with the bandanna asked while his girlfriend took a picture of the backs of the miners rolling around the corner.
“All the time,” Enrique responded. “But don't worry, I can hear them from far away.” He stood still and tilted his ear toward the tunnel for a few seconds, giving us the illusion of safety.
“All clear. Let's get moving before another one comes.”
Enrique walked into the mine and all but disappeared as the darkness overtook him. The rest of us followed. The tunnel was about six feet tall and its arched ceiling was reinforced with bricks and mortar. It was warmer than outside, but not sweltering. I wondered if Lloyd had overreacted when he had described the mine.
After walking for about one hundred feet, we had to duck to get through a smaller archway. There was no longer even a ray of light from the outside world. The tunnel continued to get shorter until it was about three feet high – the same height as the mining carts. I began to crawl through puddles of mud – my rubber outfit no longer seemed silly. Soon I was breathing heavily and covered in sweat. I had gotten into much better shape since my trip began, but the high elevation and stale air still punished my lungs. Eventually the tunnel opened to a clearing with higher ceilings. The electric lights hanging on the wall provided a relieving illumination.
“We can stop for a break here,” Enrique said. Next to him was a papier-mâché devil-like effigy. Its skin was painted red, and it had horns on its head, a pitchfork in one hand and an empty liquor bottle in the other. “This is Tío. He's the only god we worship when we're in the mine, and he's clearly happy to see us.” Enrique pointed at Tío's erect penis and we chuckled. Then he grabbed a handful of coca leaves from his bag and spread them at Tío's feet. “You need to leave him an offering for protection. When he gets angry, miners don't make it out alive.” We took turns sprinkling coca leaves on Tío, then Enrique lit a cigarette, shoved it between Tío's pursed lips and said, “I think he'll be kind to us today. Now let's give him some privacy while he smokes.”
It seemed strange that the miners worshiped pagan deities. They may have called themselves Catholics, but this probably wasn't what the Vatican had in mind.
The torrid air turned viscous as we left the comfort of Tío's lighted room and entered the next tunnel. By the time the tunnel opened into another room, I was out of breath and my heart was pounding.
I sat and moved my head back and forth to illuminate the room with my headlamp, one section at a time. The ceiling was a bit over five feet high, tall enough for a Bolivian miner. The walls were rounded like a goldfish bowl twenty feet wide. We were at the end of the train tracks and there was a half-filled mining cart. Perhaps this room was once a silver vein.
“Hermano, ¿Cómo estás?” Enrique asked the middle-aged man who was working in the room. Instead of a helmet, he wore a bandanna on his head and was leaning over a shovel.
“Bien, trabajando,” he responded, his right cheek bulging with coca leaves.
“This is one of the miners I used to work with,” Enrique said to us. “Notice that his light uses acetylene gas instead of batteries. Many of the miners use this type of lamp because carbon monoxide will extinguish it.” The light looked liked a miniature blowtorch shooting from his forehead. It was a creative early warning system, but it had taken a long time for us to crawl this far.
If his light goes out, will he have time to escape? How about us?
While we were resting, a cranking noise echoed throughout the chamber. Enrique pointed to a black void next to the miner and yelled, “This shaft is twenty meters deep. The other team members are sending up a load of minerals now.”
The noise stopped when a bucket that looked like a huge bowling ball bag full of rocks reached the top of the shaft. The miner unhooked it and dragged it across the fishbowl, an act that must have taken incredible strength. He began to shovel the rocks from the bag into the mining cart.
“After emptying a few more buckets, he'll have a full cart to ride out of the mine.”
“Is this the only job he does?” I asked.
“It's his only job for now, but they rotate positions within his group every three weeks. Let's give him some gifts and keep moving.” We gave the man soda, coca leaves and dynamite, and thanked him for showing us his job. He remained apathetic.
“Next we go to the drilling area. Follow me.” We crawled out of the goldfish bowl, and before long, I had to lie prone on the muddy ground and shimmy forward with my forearms. I could see nothing but the soles of the boots worn by the man in front of me. If we got stuck here, there wouldn't be enough room to turn around, so we'd have to shimmy backwards. I could picture the crushing weight of the mountain from above me. The air was thick with carcinogens and heat. I tried to take a deep breath but it only made me cough. Breathing was always difficult at this elevation, but it was far worse inside the mine. Even while lying still on my stomach, I huffed as if I had just run a mile. I had to close my eyes and inch forward to avoid having a panic attack.
Finally, the tunnel opened into another clearing, but it was so full of dust, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. The noise of a jackhammer reverberated throughout the room. When Enrique started talking, I couldn't discern what he was saying. I sat as still as possible and tried to catch my breath, but any air I sucked in covered my throat with soot until I coughed. When the drilling stopped, the dust settled enough for me to see the blue t-shirts that were covering the drillers' faces. Their eyes contained an expression that was part “Look at how tough I am” and part “Help me.”
Why am I here? I can't see, I can't breath and all I'm doing on this tour is staring at these poor bastards as they slave away for peanuts.
“I can see you guys are tired,” Enrique said. “Let's give the drillers some presents and go to the last part of our tour.” We gave soda and coca leaves to the drillers, who thanked us and returned to work.
We aren't being very generous. Our “gifts” will only help them to work for a few more hours until they crash. But how could I possibly help them? Their situation is hopeless.
We shimmied out through another tunnel. Even though we were still deep inside the mine, I was overcome with joy to be out of that room.
Next, we climbed down a series of rickety ladders. It was nice to be able to stand upright, but now I had to be careful not to fall with each wobbly step. When we reached the ground, Enrique said, “We're at the bottom of the shaft we saw before. We've only visited a tiny part of the mine, but this is as far as we're going today.” I looked around and saw that we were in a hollowed out room at the end of another railroad track. There were two miners resting against a wall.
“Stand back everyone!” Enrique shouted. We heard the familiar rumbling of an incoming mining cart, and when it emerged, we saw that it was at least twice the size of the previous one. It was overflowing with rocks and took four men to push it along the tracks. When the cart came to a halt, the miners used all of their strength to topple it and send the minerals tumbling to the ground. They took turns shoveling the stones into the same over-sized bowling ball bag we had seen at the top of the shaft.
“Does anyone want to help shovel?” Enrique asked.
“I will,” I said. As long as I was there, I wanted to experience the miserable work for myself.
I grabbed a shovel, scooped some rocks and examined them before dropping them into the bucket. Could a chunk of silver be lurking in there somewhere? I decided that the odds were infinitesimally small. Lloyd was right – the mine had changed me. I thought back to when I had complained about my cushy desk job with health care and retirement benefits. I'd had a great life situation before leaving. My problems were in my own head, and easily fixable. These guys wouldn't even make it to middle age.
After less than a minute of shoveling, I was already exhausted and coughing up more phlegm, so I handed the shovel to the next volunteer. When everyone had taken a turn, we gave the miners the rest of our gifts and said goodbye. Then we climbed to the top of the ladder and took a break.
“What do the miners think of having visitors?” the salt-and-pepper man asked. None of them had said more than hello, goodbye or thank you to us.
“They are shy men and have mixed feelings about you. They like to receive gifts and show off their profession to others. But they know you make a lot more money than them in your home countries, so they're a bit resentful.”
“Do most of them like their jobs?” I asked.
“They love their jobs and are proud of the work they do, but they wish they could have safer working conditions. Nothing is likely to change, though. Tourists have been coming here for years and safety hasn't improved.”
We started to shimmy and crawl again, and twenty minutes later we saw the light shining from the exit. It was so bright I had to close my eyes. When I stepped outside and took a breath of clean air, I felt like I had been released from prison.
“Does anyone still have a completo?” Enrique asked.
The young man in the bandanna handed Enrique the dynamite he'd been saving for this occasion. “OK, let me get it prepared.” Enrique attached the fuse and catalyst with extreme precision. When he was done, he struck a match, lit the fuse in front of us and waved the dynamite around with pride.
“Holy shit, what the hell are you doing?” someone shouted. I was about to run for my life along with everyone else in the group.
“Don't worry, it has a ten-minute fuse. Look.” Enrique clenched the middle of the white stick of dynamite in his teeth and flexed his muscles. It looked like he was gnawing a giant, sparkling tampon. Then he walked with it to the middle of an open field and came back to us, sans tampon. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Five minutes went by, then eight and I plugged my ears with my fingers. Ten minutes passed and I stared unblinking at the place where Enrique had left the dynamite. Our tour was about to end with a bang. But there would be no fireworks and no happy ending for the miners of Potosí, just a pointless explosion to give us a fun story and a bit of excitement.
That's all for now! You're about one-third of the way into the book. Thanks for reading to this point.
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