Chasing the Devil in Potosí, Bolivia

The Dutch girl I met in Sucre shuddered when she remembered her mine tourmi in Potosí. ‘It’s definitely interesting’, she said, ‘but it won’t be fun.’ Seeing that the mines are at the altitude of 4,400 metres and underground, I can easily understand what might inspire such a statement. But here I am – ready to descend into the depths of the Earth with minimal idea of what’s to come.

The tour starts at a warehouse where we don on protective clothing and laugh for a bit at how small my feet are and how big Sarah’s are. She has decided to join us today despite having freaked out about her possible claustrophobia for days beforehand. I do feel a little sorry for her, being tall and all, while I expect to fit into the mining tunnels like a hobbit myself.

After the wardrobe change we’re taken to the miners’ market where the workers buy all their supplies – namely dynamite, refreshments and protective gear. We are encouraged to buy something to bring as presents to the miners, and as we’ve been warned beforehand that this is just another way of making more money off tourists, Sarah, Scott and I hesitantly put some money together for two bottles of juice and one of water. Then our guide pulls out a small bottle, not unlike the one full of rubbing alcohol I used in the jungle to light up the fire. It’s what miners drink, our guide explains, and it’s 96% alcohol. He pours a little into the red lid of the bottle and spills some on the hard stone floor. ‘First you have to pour a little to Pachamama, Mother Earth’, he explains, then proceeds with: ‘Happiness. Love. Safety in mines.’

The lid goes around the circle. When it’s my turn to make wishes, I pour one out for happiness and another for safe travels. ‘And one for a boyfriend?’ the guide smirks. I laugh and reply: ‘Actually, that’s a good wish the other way ‘round. To no more boyfriends.’ I spill a drop out to seal my forlorn love life and throw back the lid. The drink is strong enough to make a grown man wince but since it’s made of sugar cane, its sweetness overpowers the punch of alcohol.

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So far happy

The van climbs up the hill to the entrance of the mines. Just outside the gate at a makeshift shack of a bar, men of indeterminable age are drinking Potosi beer from plastic cups. It’s Friday, after all. From up here you get a sweeping look over the city. The yellow, barren landscape is reminiscent of a sci-fi film, perhaps of Star Wars or Mad Max. I remember our arrival to the city. Arriving in Potosí was like arriving in a ghost town. Unfinished red brick buildings on the outskirts of the town made it seem barely inhabited, and the few people I spotted from the bus window bore the mask of seriousness as do the kind of people who work hard all their lives with little reward.  Hard work is certainly well known in this place: sixty per cent of the population of Potosí work in connection to the mining business.

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Our guide asks if anyone needs the toilet. ‘Inside the mines you can only pee-pee’, he says. The methane gases of excrement could prove dangerous in the claustrophobic belly of the mountain where men work closely with dynamite. For this, the workers don’t eat anything inside the mines during their 8-hour shifts. They keep themselves hydrated with juice and water, and they chew coca leaves to give them energy.

We dive into the mines, trailing after two men jogging alongside an empty cart. Even without its contents it looks heavy, and as I struggle to draw enough oxygen from the thinning air, I can’t help but admire the stamina of the men working here. Machinery inside the mines is very simple; most work is done by sheer manpower.

Now I have never been one afraid of narrow places, but as we rush to keep up with the miners ahead, I realise the combination of the high altitude and the scarf on my face are allowing minimal oxygen intake. For a rushed second I verge a panic attack, imagining what it would be like to suffocate to death here inside the dark hill. I pull down my scarf and even at the threat of dust and asbestos, I drink in the cool air of the mine. Maybe at this point it would still be possible to return to daylight, back to wide open spaces, but I keep in step with the rest of the group and soldier on.

We stop at a small chapel just inside the mine. Usually these altars are located outside since underground the lord of the other realm reigns – the Devil, or El Tio, ‘The Uncle’, as miners call him. His image adorns every leaflet advertising the mining tours. In these images, he is naked except for the rubber boots that every miner wears, a cigarette drooping from the side of his mouth, a bottle of sugarcane booze in hand and a bag of coca leaves laying at his feet.

Without our headlamps it would be pitch black. I shine mine down some of the corridors we pass, imagery of some distant horror movie vaguely on my mind, but amongst the very real dangers of being inside a live mine they fade away without touching a nerve. The mines form a labyrinth and I wonder how the workers learn to orientate themselves in the deceptive similarity of the corridors. Our guide seems to know exactly where he is going. As workers pass, he greets them enthusiastically by name, and hands them a bottle of water or a bag of coca leaves in passing.

The first obstacle of the tour comes soon as we gather around an open mine shaft. As I’m standing on the edge, the guide reaches out and turns off my headlamp.

‘Can you see the miner?’

Forty feet down, a pale light shines at the bottom. I arrange my feet extremely carefully as I move over the shaft. My boots are maybe half a size too big and I miss my beat-up hiking shoes.

On the other side of the shaft sits a man, 59 years old, a father and a husband, operating a winch that lifts potfuls of minerals from the bottom to the top. At one point, as the empty pot is making its way back down, he tosses in a green bag of coca leaves and requests two more for himself.   As we leave him, the steady sound of the rope coiling around the winch follows. I imagine him there, alone at his little machine, sending the pot back and forth all day long with nothing more to keep him company than his leaves and the little light his headgear gives out. This is a job to drive a man mad.

Our next route, our guide warns, will be a little bit more adventurous. (Later I will learn that no other groups followed the same gut-wrenching, heart-in-throat way that we took.) We dive into a low, narrow tunnel, scrambling on hands and knees, and in passing I feel sorry for Scott and Sarah, both impossibly tall from my 5’4 perspective. My elation for being small is short-lived as we arrive at the first bridge. It is but two wooden planks wide apart over a hole that plummets ten feet, maybe more, into the ground. There are no safety railings, only your own hands against the stony ceiling. I look at it and can’t believe my limbs would be able to simultaneously reach all the points of support.

Even for the danger of sounding like a total wuss, I’ll admit that some time ago I was terrified of crossing rivers on stepping stones after a harmless dip into a glacial river in the Himalayas. This bridge reminds me of some perverse, wicked version of stepping stones, but of course a side step here will break your leg instead of just getting them wet. But there is no turning back. ‘Holy shit’, I mutter to myself, and I cross.

Down we go, deeper into the belly of the beast, and as I start to sweat under my overalls I can’t help but think that we’re riding on the tail of good ole Uncle straight to Hell. We descend a ladder that’s missing a step. Not for the last time do I get wishing that my legs were a little bit longer. We arrive at another bridge, this one dropping steeply at the other end where you have to climb down using minimalistic footholds. As I step onto the planks, all I can look at are my boot-clad feet inching towards the other end of the bridge; underneath, just darkness. I can only hope the look on my face is that of grim determination instead of naked terror.

Once I reach the end of the planks, I stop and hesitate. I look at the guide two metres down, already pointing at the first spot to put my foot at. ‘My legs are too short for this shit’, I moan, not unusually.

‘Sit down’, the Swiss girl advices. She has already crossed and is looking at me intently from the corridor behind the guide. We’re all watching each other’s’ steps but there is no sense of rush. Everyone’s faces seem to bear the expression of ‘what have we got ourselves into’. Legs shaking, I sit down on the narrow plank and dig my nails into stone. Slowly, carefully, I lower my small dusty foot onto the first foothold as pointed by the guide, then to another one, hands following suit, knowing that one slip-up will see me sprawled on the ground or falling backwards into the darkness of the mine shaft underneath. Finally my feet kiss the ground, and as I push myself away from that horrible spot, I give out a shaky, elated laugh, a survivor’s laugh. It’s hard to believe they would be allowed to run these tours if there was actual danger involved. It’s too easy to imagine slipping up and plummeting into the heart of the mountain.

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My legs are not long enough for this

We meet a man working alone, doggedly driving a metal pole to the stone time after time to make space for dynamite. He’s 20 years old, single, and he tells me that if I’m feeling dizzy, he can give me some more oxygen mouth to mouth. All I ever see of him is the back of his head protected by the yellow hood of his overalls. His hands, illuminated by the bluish light of his head torch, never stop working. I laugh and say that my mum would cry if I moved to Bolivia for a man. He promises to visit my family in Finland.

He works at the end of the line, so we turn back, squeeze through a space between two rocks so tight that my front and back press against the stone on either side. Then it’s scrambling on loose stone, under a ceiling so low we’re limboing on our asses, and back up a different route. Supposedly this is the easier path, but that only shows in the lack of open spaces to fall in. We’re basically rock climbing. Once Sarah turns around and pulls me up a particularly steep rockface. As we reach the ladder, I double over trying to reach for the rung above the missing one. Crossing the first bridge back doesn’t seem as bad now that I’ve already conquered it once, and knowing that the tour is almost over gives me strength to shuffle over that jaw of darkness once more.

On the other side we sit down to breath, and for the first time I mark the rapid beat of my heart. It’s running wild like a mustang galloping away on a prairie, but as I have been focused on keeping my balance, I have not had time to lend an ear to my earlier panic. My breath comes in difficult mouthfuls. It feels good to sit down for a while.

‘It’s not good to work alone’, our guide says. He knocks on the unused rails on the ground to demonstrate the way miners working close to each other communicate: three knocks to signify a soon-to-be explosion, and then, slower, eerie: signal for help. Sometimes the dynamite doesn’t detonate as it should, and then the miners have to wait 24 hours until they can go check it. Many a good miner has been lost in their impatience to rush to check a seemingly unexploded piece of dynamite.

I’m sure the tour is almost at its end, but the guide informs us that we’ve got about thirty more minutes left. (Later Scott will confess that this was nearly his breaking point. After the excitement of climbing over open mine shafts, we’re all eager to get out.) I detest this place. Its claustrophobic darkness, the uneven ceiling bowing uncomfortably low in places, its musty smell of dust and sand that permeates my lungs even through the scarf that covers my mouth and nose.  I am finally starting to understand why tour groups are encouraged to bring presents for the miners. It is not a way to rip off my money, it is a way to show them our appreciation, make their incredibly hard job a little bit easier by bringing them goodies that they can’t pause their work to get. Throughout the tour it has become clear that this is not just any tour leading tourists through a regular attraction. We are at the actual place of work of these people, peeking at their work from the safety of our travel money and desk jobs back home. I might feel depressed in these dark hallways, but I am just passing through; these people work here  every day.

We duck under a low-hanging barrier and come to two men working side by side, extracting minerals from stone. Previously Potosí was known as the biggest producer of silver in Bolivia, and nowadays the mines produce bronze and zinc in addition. ‘No children work in the mines here because it’s illegal in Bolivia’, our guide states, then asks one of the workers his age.

‘Fifteen’, he answers.

‘He is my son’, says the other man. It is usual for sons to follow their fathers to the mines, starting on school holidays and later making it their whole career. The life expectancy of a miner is short, just 45 to 55 years. We have already met various men pushing late fifties. It is hard to determine anyone’s age, however. The lines on faces that rarely see the sun are an identical mask.

We leave the dad and son behind and reach a new tunnel. The unmistakable stink of tobacco hangs in the air. It’s coming from a lit cigarette that one of the guides has stuck into the mouth of a statue. We have come to the chamber of the Uncle, the devil himself, and in the solitude of the labyrinth it is easy to believe that it wasn’t the guide at all but the effigy himself that lit up the cigarette. He sits surrounded by empty bottles of miners’ alcohol, a big stone cock peeking out between colourful paper streamers that have been thrown about his shoulders.

It makes sense that people working underground should confide in the lord of the netherworld. The devil is a male presence, a counterpart to Mother Earth that is this whole hill. Women are not allowed to work inside the actual mines so that Mother Earth wouldn’t get jealous and cause accidents.

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The thunderous rumble of cartwheels against steel rails indicates that we are close to the entrance again. I bang my helmet into the thick black pipes that carry compressed air around the mines, so eager to get out that I barely remain cautious. The square of sunlight at the end of the tunnel is the sweetest sight. We emerge blinking, dirty, happy to be breathing outside air again. My hair under the helmet feels sweaty and hot.

I finally ask the question I swore I would not make inside: how many miners die here?

‘14’, says our guide.

‘In a year?’

‘In a month’, he replies. ‘Ten die when tunnels cave in, and four die for professional sickness.’ And even though the thought wasn’t on my mind, he must have thought it was, because he is quick to add: ‘But no tourists die here. Maybe some get scrapes and bruises on hands, knees, arms, but no tourists are ever injured.’

Back in the van we speculate whether this is true. Scott is half convinced that at least some broken legs or arms have come out of crossing those bridges but surely they wouldn’t want us to know. I’d rather believe our guide, an ex-miner, who throughout the tour has remained calm and cool as if nothing bad could ever happen, even in  the deep belly of the unforgiving mountain.

The Dutch girl was right. It was not fun. But as we head back to the city, tired to the bone and faces covered in fine dust, I feel I have caught a glimpse of a life that I could never have understood before.

 

Holy bandwidth-speed, Batman! I swear I’ve been trying to upload this post for like two weeks but the unmerciful Bolivian wifi has just turned up its nose on my failed attempts at uploading pictures. I’m in Peru now and hopefully will continue to have better internet for the last four weeks of my trip.

Have you ever done a tour that was just no fun? Or would you go down into the mines?

 


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