Between a rock and an orange

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
<%=[TAN_psinet_include "/includes/include_ad_goingplaces.html" ]%>
Andean Adventure

Between a rock and an orange
August 13, 1997

A miner at Potosi
Centuries ago, as legend tells, Huallpa was grazing his llamas on the high mountain slopes above his town. In the coming darkness he sought to gather his flock, but two had strayed. Huallpa's search lead him into the cold of night and, forced to camp, he began a fire. Amazingly, the ground began to flow under the heat of the blaze — a gleaming stream he recognized at once as the new substance for which the Spanish were crazed.

So began the discovery of silver in Potosi and the process through which this small settlement would become one of the richest and most important cities in the world. Cerro Rico or "Rich Hill" as the Spanish named the mountain above Potosi became the sight for one of history's most extensive and brutally repressive mining operations. In its heyday between 1545 and 1825 the mines of Cerro Rico yielded over 20,000 tons of silver. Enough, it is said, to have constructed a bridge back to Spain. By contrast, this bridge could be built as well from all the bones of the miners who died as a result of the brutal work conditions.

In 1572 the Viceroy Toledo instituted the Ley de la Mita, a system of slave labor requiring all Potosino males between 18 and 50 to work shifts of 12 hours for four months at a time without once leaving the mine. The Mita, along with the corrupt system which all but forced the miners into debt, forced miners to live underground for months and even years at a time. Those who managed to satisfy the Mita emerged with eyes bandaged to guard against blindness in the intense sunlight. It's no wonder most miners did not last long. The desperate Spanish resorted to importing slaves from Africa, increasing the casualties as the high altitude (Cerro Rico is above 4,500 meters) and rarified air of the Altiplano took their toll. A shocking 80 percent of workers died — over 8 million people.

Despite Spanish hopes, the supply of silver was not infinite and eventually the mountain began to play out. By the late 1820s Potosi was a ghost town. The once might population of 200,000 fell to 9,000 by the time of¨Bolivian independence. The discovery of tin in the mountain restored a measure of prosperity. The state-owned mine, along with numerous cooperatives continued to pillage the mountain for riches guaranteeing Potosi's survival into the 20th century. In 1987 UNESCO declared Potosi a World Heritage Site on the weight of its extraordinarily tragic history and the wealth of its surviving colonial buildings.

Today Potosi is a requisite stop on the tourist loop through Bolivia, yet the town is far from being gringo central. Potosi's 100,000 inhabitants throng the narrow streets, jostling past each other on strips of sidewalk. A nonstop flow of minivans and motorcycles careen down the steeply cobbled streets. Evidently the city has never seen a need for traffic lights and the air is filled with chaos: urgent horns compete against children shouting bus routes, pop music, dogs fighting, and vendors hawking everything from goat cheese to shoe horns. Walking the streets of Potosi it helps to have your head swivel-mounted as you spin amid the incredible sights. I never got over the indigenous women wearing black cloaks and soaring top hats. You expect them to pull a broom from under their capes cackling, "Come my pretty."

The cooperative mines, however, are the draw card for voyeuristic tourists who are drawn to see work conditions tourist brochures boast are "unchanged from medieval times." Choosing from among the plethora of tour companies could be taxing, but not to worry — they'll come to you. You soon discover it's impossible to be in Potosi for long without being propositioned. Tour peddlers accost you on street corners, men holding tattered photos of the mines, innocent-looking women carrying groceries. "La Mina?" they entreat as you pass by. Exhibit just a hint of interest as we did and you're caught.

"Have you heard good things about this tour company?" I asked the woman at our hotel front desk.

"Yes, they're fine," she answered noncommittally. A half-hour later came a knock on our door.

"I've come to tell you about our mine tours." It was a guide from the company.

Our surprise at his sudden appearance was compounded by his thorough presentation. Describing the tour, our guest produced a map of the mountain. "You'll visit seven levels of the mine where different work is carried out," he said pointing to little cartoons of diligent workers. He showed us impressive photos — the sort you hope to end up taking — and pictures of happy-looking tourists. That settled it.

The next morning we were met not by our night visitor but instead by Boris, a young boy of 16. He looked every bit of 12, as young Bolivians do.

"Where is our guide?" we asked.

"I'll being taking you to the office. He'll meet you there."

Forty minutes later we boarded a microbus with 11 other tourists for the grind up the mountain side. I didn't see any guides aboard. At the last moment Boris, our 16-year-old escort hopped aboard.

"Buenas dias, amigos! Vamos!"

Boris, we learned, was himself a miner. He had started working at age 8 and had spent fully half his young life in the mines. Not their expectation of a miner, Boris faced a group of surly looking tourists. I immediately felt sympathy for him; this seemed a more daunting task than his regular work day.

First stop was the miner's market, where we were encouraged to buy gifts for the miners. Coca leaves, the staple of Bolivian markets, was abundant, as were hand-rolled cigarettes. More exotic items included detonating caps, nitroglycerin, and dynamite. At 8 cents a stick you could start a small insurrection for under 10 bucks.

"The miners consume large amounts of coca," Boris informed. He held up a small shopping bag full of the green leaves. "Each miner chews a bag a day." The Spanish discovered long ago the beneficial effects of coca — numbing the body and mind to hunger and exhaustion — and encouraged its use among miners. Today, despite widespread coca consumption throughout Bolivia, the miner are still the champs.

Several women moved among us, pressing bags of coca and packs of cigarettes into our hands. "Buy for the miners, buy for the miners," they goaded. We politely refused. Nancy had bought a big bag of oranges instead, with hopes of instigating a nutritional reform.

At the entrance we donned worn jackets, hats, and rubber boots. We looked like an eighth-grade class touring the local power plant. Boris provided small lanterns which combusted sodium sulfate in water — a practice unchanged from colonial times that seemed to me a modern miracle. Before we set off, Boris set the tone by exploding a stick of dynamite. He then pointed to the recently dried llama blood above the entrance. Our good luck was assured.

We crouch down the muddy, slanting passageway, banging our protected heads on the sharp rocks. The air is sticky and suffocating and I am immediately amazed that people can work in here. I turn to confer with Nancy who looks like a shocked deer in the dim glow of my headlamp. "Uh, Bill, I think I have to go" she stammers as though she is suddenly remembering a lunch appointment. Carlos, our 10-year-old "apprentice" escorts her back through the winding passage.

A short while later we pause beside a drafty vent in the cavern. "Chimney," Boris points out for our edification. We grunt and move deeper into the earth.

In the next passageway we encounter two miners hard at work driving steel bars into the rock. They hardly notice us staring. With a small brush they empty dust from the hole that they will later stuff with dynamite. Twelve o'clock is given as the time for the anticipated explosion. I make a mental note to be out of the mine by then.

Hopes of the promised seven-level tour prove fruitless. We reach a winch and in turn are lowered to the next level. For security Boris wraps the rope around our waist twice. I think of the modern climbing harnesses I usually strap on, but say nothing. Safety in numbers, right?

Our last stop is a visit to El Tio, a small devil statue tucked in a corner. Miners believe just as there is a God above ground, so too must there be one below. It stands to reason that such a God should own the minerals the miners hope to exploit. Out of respect they call him "Uncle" and appease him with offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves, and pure-grain alcohol.

"The pure alcohol assures the miners will strike only pure veins of minerals," Boris relates. Giving the work conditions, the alcohol no doubt has other uses as well.

We exit the mine two hours after we entered. The group is disgruntled for not getting all we were promised, yet everyone is relieved to stand upright and breath fresh air again. As we work our way out of our uniforms I look around for Nancy. I see her excitedly talking to a group of miners on their lunch break. Their eyes move from her face to the brightly colored oranges they hold in their hands.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web