Silver Mines in Potosi

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Potosi, Bolivia
By Rachael Danley

It is said that during the 16th century the Spanish crown extracted so much silver from the mines of Potosi, Bolivia, that a bridge could be built with it connecting Potosi all the way to Spain. The streets were also said to be paved with silver – and aristocrats lived it up in Potosi almost as much as Luis did in Versailles. Potosi in the 16th century was the gem of all gems – not only was it the richest city in the new world – it was also the highest, with an altitude of around 15,000 feet. Potosi was to the Spanish a high-flying, decadent heaven – a silver and white crown of glory.

This was the pretty side of the coin. Unfortunately, in order to extract the tons of silver from the mountainside at Potosi the Spanish “employed” rather reluctant native peoples and African slaves to do the work for them. The terms of employment were quite grim – once a man entered the mine, he worked, slept, ate, and oftentimes died in the mine after a period of 2-3 months.
The 16th century came and went, as we know. The hard truth of the matter is that the conditions under which modern day miners operate are much the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Potosi is now among the poorest cities in Bolivia. Bolivia itself is the poorest nation in South America. Gone are the days when the streets of Potosi were paved with silver.

The mine, however, still remains. It towers over the already elevated city, a mountain that has been so gouged out over the centuries that it more resembles a pile of rubble than a mountain. The skies above are thin and blue, the air surprisingly transparent. Potosi is a labyrinth of varying degrees of white and gray Spanish colonial style buildings – its streets are narrow and curvy, and so steep that I found myself constantly lost and breathless while walking anywhere. Potosi is a poor city, but extremely full of life. I remember a lot of street vendors with balloons, saltenas, humintas, fruits, vegetables, baby clothes, shoes, knives, bras, coca leaves, ice cream, and of course silver. People mill around in all the outfits that you usually see in Bolivia – from western style suits to rags to fluffy skirts and tophats that native women wear to tight jeans and heels and Che Guevara t-shirts.

I was staying at a rather nondescript hostel near the center of town with four English girls. We had been traveling together for some time, and were enjoying wandering around, and trying desperately to make sense of our surroundings. We got along well, but if I remember correctly we were in the sort of stage of our travels when half of us wanted to just spend a couple weeks watching TV and drinking tea, while the other half still had the urge to do things like tour mines.

Being the only American of the group (and the only one with good Spanish skills for that matter), it was my place to encourage the half that wanted adventure to actually come along with me and do it. I had read in the Lonely Planet of a rather harebrained thing that we could do in Potosi – go down in the silver mine with an ex-miner turned “tour guide” and see for ourselves what went on inside the mountain. I had read a little of Bolivian history and was convinced that I had to go.
So I hunted down the guide in some sort of shop in the center of Potosi (unfortunately I have forgotten his name by now, but I will call him Pablo for the sake of this story) and made plans to tour the mines the next day together with one of the more hearty English ladies.

Our “mine tour” included transportation to and from the mine, protective clothing and a helmet, a dynamite explosion demonstration, and approximately two hours inside the mine. We were to be at Pablo’s office at 7 a.m. sharp. On the big day, I bolted out of bed and dragged Miranda, my hearty English companion, to Pablo’s office. Pablo was waiting there with a big grin on his face (he had two teeth with a space in the middle) alongside three grizzly-looking mountaineers from the Basque County, Spain. Pablo busied himself with our protective clothing – while he made five little piles of boots, rubber pants, hardhats, and gloves – us tourists decided to go to the market to get a little breakfast before our adventure.

It was in the market that I came to realize that I was in store for an extremely interesting 12 hours. The Basque Stooges were quite a handful – not a one spoke any English – and I had a hell of a time trying to translate all of their dirty jokes and tales to Miranda. As we ate cheese sandwiches and drank tea, the Basque Stooges flirted relentlessly with the shy sandwich girl. I could tell that Miranda was starting to loose her patience.

Then Pablo arrived and things got even more exciting. For some reason I felt very uneasy about being the only American present and in a moment of weakness I told everyone that I was a Canadian. I thought that there was no harm in this cowardly fib-especially since Miranda had no idea what I was saying. More introductions were made. More bad jokes were told. To my embarrassment, the Stooges and Pablo boasted about the beauty of Basque and Bolivian women, respectively.

Then at once, we left the market. The preliminaries were suddenly over. Next stop was the miner neighborhood. The miner neighborhood is the neighborhood closest to the top of the city, near the mine. It is dusty and very poor, and lined with all sorts of interesting shops. There are dynamite and explosive shops, mining supply shops, liquor stores, and fuel stores. Pablo gave us each our pile of clothing and whisked us away in his little van. On the way to the “miner-town” he told us his story. Pablo was the son of a miner, who in turn was the son of a miner, whose father was a miner, whose grandfather was a miner, and so on. He had come from a long, long, line of miners. Like other boys who were born into mining families, he had started to work in the mines as an “apprentice” when he was about ten years old. Pablo went on to explain that the life of a miner is brutally hard, dirty, and short, but carried with it a sense of deep-seated pride. There was not that much else to do in Potosi but become a miner. For many families there was only one choice – mining or unemployment. Once a boy has been an apprentice miner for maybe 5-10 years, he is allowed to operate his own section of the mine – a status that is well sought after. A large percentage of the earnings of an apprentice goes to the mining company, and then to the more senior miner supervising the apprentice. The apprentice himself gets the scanty leftovers.

Pablo had started his life as a miner at the age of ten, and worked in the mines for more than ten years. He spoke very fondly of his fellow miners, but hated working in the mine, and started to fear for his life and health. A smart and talkative man, he told us that he realized that he could make as much or more money in tourism than as a miner, but at the same time he was reluctant to abandon the mining world altogether. After some interactions with tourists that he happened to meet, he came up with the unique idea of giving tours of the silver mines for people who were interested in how life was like for some Bolivians.

By the time Pablo took our group to see the mines, he was already an experienced tour guide and advocate for the rights of workers. Not only did he take people in to see the mines – he was also careful to explain in detail what the lives of the workers were like. I think his secret wish was to show foreigners in the frankest way possible what daily life was like in a country where most tourists are only aware of and interested in climbing mountains and trekking in the jungle.

Pablo explained to us that it was impossible to go into the mines that day without bringing small gifts for the miners. He told us that the miners always looked forward to the groups he brought in for this very reason. Gifts always have a way of breaking the ice, and he assured us that the things we were about to buy for the miners were absolutely necessary to their well-being and productivity. We were strongly urged to buy the following-coca leaves along with a starch catalyst to chew them with, little bottles of 100 proof alcohol, cigarettes, face-masks, and some sticks of dynamite. Pablo explained the importance and significance of these items in great detail while we were in the shop awkwardly pointing at and purchasing the gifts.

The miners of Potosi work 12-14 hour days, and do not stop every four hours to take a 15 minute break, and most certainly do not have an hour set aside for lunch. They work 12 to 14 hours continuously, without letup, until the end of the day. Eating and drinking is almost impossible – there are a lot of noxious chemicals present on the surface of the rock inside the mountain including asbestos and other carcinogens – so as a precaution food and drink are avoided to reduce the risk of contamination. Instead, miners chew coca leaves all day, which give them stamina and help to dull pain and hunger. Alcohol is considered safe to consume sometimes during work, as it is used to make offerings to El Diablo and Pachamama, the two Gods that watch over the miners while they are in the depths of the mountain. The cigarettes were for the widows of miners who hung out around the entrance of the mine looking through the rubble for silver scraps, and for the miners once they got off for the day. We bought facemasks and sticks of dynamite because these are useful and necessary supplies that are oftentimes too expensive for the miners to afford. Apparently, most apprentices and many miners go without face protection because they simply do not have the money to buy it. The masks are those disposable masks that painters and sometimes doctors wear, the ones that cost about 25 cents…

Finally, our gifts were bought. While the Basque stooges were joking about making arrangements to secure a dynamite supply for ETA, Miranda was looking increasingly incredulous and nauseous. I began to be afraid that she might bail on me. With bags of alcohol and dynamite in my hands, I did not feel very at-ease either, and felt compelled to shove my gifts off on Pablo and make a run for it. I was also hopelessly excited and curious about what lay ahead, and knew that there was no way in hell that I was not going in the mine at this point.

And so we piled in the van for the last time before we were to enter the mine. On the way up, I discovered that I was right about Miranda. She looked at me with pleading eyes and begged me to tell Pablo to let her off where she could take the next bus back to the center of town. There was no way she was going to go down in an airless tunnel reeking with asbestos and crawling with men who could be drunk and hallucinating from hunger, said she. She had made her decision and no amount of coaxing could change her mind. I relayed her plea to Pablo, who good-naturedly let her go after making sure she had given the gifts she bought for the miners to me.

After Miranda’s departure, I suddenly became the favorite. The Basque Stooges began exalting the virtue and bravery of all Canadians, and assured me that they would take good care of me and see that no harm came to me while we were inside the mine. Pablo concurred that Canadians in general were made of sturdier stock than the English, and thanked me for staying even though my friend had left.

The van came to a stop about 20 yards from the entrance of the mine. The city of Potosi was way below us – all we could see was the blue sky above the rooftops and heaps and heaps of dry rubble. The mountain itself looked like a ridiculously large and scarred heap of rubble. Gifts in hand, I, the three Basque Stooges, and Pablo clamored out of our vehicle and made our way slowly to the entrance of the mine. We were outfitted in big boots and yellow rubber overalls that were streaked with dark mud, and hardhats with gas lamps attached to the front. Pablo motioned us toward a group of withered and bent women who appeared to be sorting the dusty rubble and dirt that surrounded the entrance to the mine. He explained that they were the widows of miners who had died, whose only means of support was to look for the odd scrap of silver that the miners had discarded. He introduced us to several of them. They smiled wrinkled and tired smiles at us, and thanked us for the cigarettes we gave them before turning back to their endless sorting and searching.

As soon as we said goodbye to the widows, we were met by a pretty young girl (whose name by now I have unfortunately forgotten, so I will refer to her as Rosita for the sake of this story). Pablo smiled as she walked up to us, and explained that Rosita was his “assistant” who would help him to do his “explosive demonstration” and would also accompany us inside the mine to make sure that we didn’t get lost. She was a very small girl with a serious and humble presence. She told us that she had been helping Pablo with his tourists for years now, that she was fifteen years old, and that she always liked taking groups of foreigners to see the mine. The Basque Stooges looked dumbfounded as Rosita proceeded to rig a stick of dynamite with a very long wick with masterful speed. I thought that she might have been well sought after at Universal Studios in the stunt department.

While Rosita was busy assembling our very own explosion, Pablo told us briefly how the miners used dynamite inside the mine. Only experienced miners were allowed to dynamite new sections – after days and days of tapping at potential veins of silver with a sledge hammer and chisel, the men would stuff a stick or half a stick down the hole, rig a very long wick, light it, vacate the scene, and hope for the best. He also passed on to us several stories of miners who had rather disastrous results when they detonated dynamite – causing the widows to dig for scraps outside.

Before I knew it….KABOOOM!!! Dust flew, Rosita looked pleased with herself, and Pablo laughed at the shocked expressions the Basque Stooges and I had on our faces. Our mine tour had started with a bang, literally.

In we went. The entrance itself was actually so small that it almost looked camouflaged. There must have been dozens of other entrances that looked like this one – it was only about as high as the head of a short man, and held up by some wooden beams at the top. Every now and then a miner would run at full speed out of the door pushing a small cart filled with rubble in front of him, and dump the contents just outside the door. The carts were like little man-powered train cars, and were attached to tracks. I could see these silvery tracks winding like shiny snakes deep into the darkness of the mine. Pablo explained that there were dozens of little entrances like this one because it was safer and more practical to have lots of tiny entrances in the mountain than one large one.

As we crossed the threshold into the mine, a damp metallic odor enveloped us along with the darkness. At first it was hard to see anything, but soon my eyes adjusted and I was able to make out a network of narrow tunnels branching out from a comparatively larger cavern-like room. The ceiling was sometimes fortified with wooden plank, but the sides of the tunnels were raw and oozing earth. There was what looked to be a greenish-white film on the sides of the walls. Pablo later told us that these were toxic minerals and asbestos. The earth underfoot was rocky and gravelly, and in places covered with a couple inches of water. It was an eerie and vast place.
When we got to a place that was wide and spacious enough to stop, Pablo told us to stop so he could do some explaining. The Basque Stooges and I were silent and looking around us instinctively for daylight, for an exit, for fresh air. It was pretty cold inside the mine, and the air had a sweetish and musty tinge to it.

In the place where we had stopped, Pablo pointed out little niches above us, that looked sort of like large rodent nests. He told us that they were beds. Beds? The Basque Stooges and I looked at each other perplexedly. “What did he mean by beds,” I whispered to one of them. I thought that there must be some other meaning for bed than bed. A bed inside a mine, in the ceiling, hollowed out in the wet, sticky earth? Pablo saw our confusion and smiled knowingly. “Yes, beds,” he said. “These are ancient beds. This is a very old part of the mine – as you have probably noticed there are not too many miners running through this particular corridor with little carts, or tapping the walls for new silver veins. No one works in this section of the mine now because there is no silver left here anymore. The Spanish had slaves hundreds of years ago who worked in this part, and this is where they slept. They did not leave the mine for months at a time. They were like moles.”

Pablo didn’t say anything else and left us quiet to stare at the little hollows that used to be beds. I felt a little sick and incredulous at the same time. It was hard for me to believe that the Spanish made men sleep inside the mine. A Basque Stooge must have been having the same thoughts because he started asking thousands of questions. “What do you mean they didn’t leave the mine for months at a time? How did they eat? How did they drink? Did they have to work 24 hours a day?” Pablo explained. “It was typical to have to serve 2-3 months inside the mine. The Spanish fed the slaves minimally during this time and let them sleep 4-6 hours a night. Most of the men doing this died before their 2-3 months was up. If they happened to live, they were allowed a rest period of 2-3 months. That’s when they would go visit their families, if they had any. After the rest period, they had to go back to the mine. Usually, if a man had the good fortune to survive his 2-3 months in the mine a first time, he couldn’t make it out the second time. His family would be waiting for him, but he never came back.

We stood there silent in the darkness for a long moment.

Pablo sighed, but then smiled his big toothy grin. “Now the only Spaniards near the mines are you three!” The Basque Stooges grinned back, a little self-consciously. Pablo went on, having a lot of fun with his little joke. “I know you guys are Basque, but you are probably the only people from Spain that have ever been inside the mine! The Spanish a long time ago made slaves do all the work for them and just took the credit and the silver. They couldn’t be caught dead in here. You are making history!”

It wasn’t really funny at all, but I laughed along with the Stooges as if Pablo had just made the funniest joke in the world. Maybe the asbestos had already gotten to my head, or maybe I just needed a lighthearted moment as much as everyone did.

We left the “bedroom” as Pablo called it, and headed towards a newer and more active part of the mine. The tunnel we were walking though was so narrow that we had to walk single file. It was so dark that we could hardly see the ground in front of us. Rosita had attached herself to me, and was constantly looking back at me to make sure that I was OK. She would tap my arm and smile her sweet smile before turning around to walk again. It was strangely comforting for me to have her there, for there to be another female presence in a place so filled with men.

As we walked on and made several twists and turns, we gradually came closer to the most active part of the mine. We would hear a little roar, Pablo would yell, “TO THE SIDE!!!” and we would flatten ourselves to one side of the tunnel while a miner sprinted by pushing a cart full of rubble. It amazed me at how fast they were running. Most of the miners seemed very very small and wiry, around 5 feet tall. They were dressed in tattered clothes that were caked with dark earth, rubber Wellington-style boots, and had battered looking helmets with gas lamps in front like ours. They contradicted the silly stereotypical image I had in my mind of big, burly slow-moving miners with beards. Pablo called back to us from the front of the line. “Don’t worry, pretty soon we will get to a place where we can talk to some of my friends that are working now!”

On and on we walked through the dark and damp tunnel. It seemed as if we were going deeper and deeper into nowhere. Every once and a while there would be a faint rumble and a slight vibration of the walls that sounded like a mini-earthquake. “They are making explosions!” Rosita grinned. I wasn’t quite as amused by the explosions as Rosita seemed to be.

As we were trudging along, the Basque Stooges became increasingly talkative and boisterous. They were cracking jokes with Pablo, asking millions of questions, and telling us many tall tales about their mountain-climbing adventures. They had been in Bolivia for almost a year, and didn’t know and didn’t care when they were going to go back to Spain. They were in heaven amongst chaos, mountains, South American girls (Rosita looked back at me and rolled her eyes), jungles, and the unexplored. They were larger than life – so comical and boisterous that I felt energized and interesting just listening to them boast and laugh. I began to feel at ease with them, and lucky that I was able to be in the mine with them and Pablo and Rosita. There was a definite and strong but unexpected feeling of friendship that became increasingly palpable as the day wore on. I thought to myself how strange it all was – here I was in the depths of a filthy mine with complete strangers – and I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

Finally we came to a larger tunnel. We stopped, and Pablo introduced us to one of the miners who was tap-tap-tapping the rocky earth with a sledgehammer. He stopped what he was doing, shook all of our hands solemnly, and began to explain how he found and extracted silver. The earth was usually a different color and texture if it container a vein of silver in it, so he would make holes with his pick until he found the vein. Once he found a vein, he would have to make deep holes alongside it before he dynamited to free up the silver. When he was done explaining, he let each once of us take the pick and sledgehammer to try and make a hole. They were so heavy that I could hardly hold both things in my hand! They Basque Stooges were very impressed by the miners strength, and asked the miner if they would grow huge muscles if they came to help him everyday. The miner laughed and told them that they should probably join a gym instead.

We left some of the gifts with Pablo’s friend and headed on our way. He just kept tap-tap-tapping into the rock with his sledgehammer.

By this time I had no idea how long we had been in the mine. I felt as if I had lived my entire life inside the mine. My eyes had gotten used to the darkness and the musty mineral-laden smell, but my stomach was starting to feel queasy and my mouth a little parched from thirst.

We headed deeper and deeper into the mountain. Every once and a while we would stop and talk to one of Pablo’s friends – we would give him a few gifts, he would tell us about his technique and about his life as a miner. Finally Pablo stopped and told us that we only had one more important stop before it was time to head out. We met another one of his friends, who began to tell us terrifying stories of miners who had gotten lost inside the mine, miners who had been trapped or suffocated and died inside the mine, miners who had gone crazy from claustrophobia or overwork, miners that had seen the ghosts of the African slaves who had died inside the mines centuries ago. Pablo joined in the storytelling, and we stood there terrified and transfixed. There was the potential for so many weird and terrifying things to happen inside the mine that most miners were very religious.

It was a very unique sort of religion that sprang up inside the mines, explained Pablo. Miners believe in the power of the earth and in ghosts and the supernatural, and after growing up hearing scary stories or maybe having near-death experiences themselves they turn out to be very religious! Apparently Pablo had gotten lost once for three days inside the mine while he was still working there and he almost went crazy. The only thing that kept him going until he found his way out was his loyalty to the two Gods that watched over the miners – El Diablo and Pachamama. Pachamama is sort of like an earth goddess deity or mother earth that many Bolivians believe in – she is sort of a morph of native beliefs and the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. El Diablo is the male form of her. El Diablo literally means ‘the devil’ but is quite different in nature. He is responsible for disasters, violence, and host of other unpleasant things, and is considered to be very masculine. Together, Pachamama and El Diablo form sort of a dualistic good-evil mother-father sort of circle. Both Gods are venerated by the miners, who believe that if both are satisfied they have more of a chance of surviving each day inside the mine. Pablo told us that there were many altars that the miners had built in honor of the two Gods inside the mine. Most of them were too far for us to go and visit, except for one of El Diablo that was quite near to where we were at the moment. El Diablo was more popular with the miners (and more infamous) because he was believed to be responsible for most of the bad things that happened inside the mine. It was important to make many offerings to him to keep him happy!

The altar was in a dark and relatively deserted area. El Diablo was quite the interesting character. He was bright red from head to toe and consisted of an extremely large head with horns and a beard like the devil, two tiny little legs and feet, and a HUGE red penis that protrudes from him where the rest of his torso and body would normally. I took one look at El Diablo and felt the sudden urge to laugh hysterically, but suppressed it as best I could because of the grave and serious looks Pablo and his friend had on their faces. Rosita looked a little giggly, too, so I turned away from her gaze and looked at the Basque Stooges instead, who wore shocked expressions.

Pablo said gravely, “now we have to make an offering to El Diablo, or he’ll get angry.” He proceeded to empty the contents of one of the bottles of 100 proof alcohol that we bought all over the statue of El Diablo. Then he lit a match, told us to stand back, dropped the lit match on El Diablo’s huge extremity, and ran. El Diablo burned like hell itself for several minutes. We stood there and stared, our eyes dazzled by the sudden and horrible brightness of the fire, and by El Diablo’s red grin that was visible through the flames.

The fire stopped as suddenly as it had started. We were left standing in almost complete blackness, and at that moment I knew that it was time to leave the mine. I had had enough.
It took the Basque Stooges about two seconds to start joking and asking questions after El Diablo had vanished into the darkness, and I listened to their laugher and stories as we make our way back to the entrance. The eerie and uneasy feeling I had gotten when we had visited El Diablo subsided, and I simply felt exhausted, the kind of exhausted you feel after a day of climbing or test-taking. I knew that once we stepped out of the mine a huge and strange adventure would be over, that I would walk slowly back to the nondescript hostel that I was staying at with the English girls, and that one of the most memorable days of my life would fade into the past. I also knew that I would never forget what I had seen or those that I met.

We kept walking in the blackness. Rosita continued to turn around to check on me, and the Basque Stooges were starting to crack jokes about El Diablo’s package. I was thirsty, tired, and would have been very hungry if it weren’t for the musty smell in the air and the queasy feeling I got from spending an entire day touching walls with asbestos on them, but I was the happiest Canadian on earth at the moment.

One of the Basque Stooges yelled to me from the darkness – “you know, you’d make a great addition to our mountain-climbing trips. If you survived today, you could climb and peak with style!” His companions joined in, excited about the idea of having a brave Canadian girl to accompany them.
I was touched by their high opinion of me, but declined their invitation to become the fourth Basque Stooge. “That’s very nice of you all,” I said. “But I would miss the English girls, and after today, I think I might want a break from risky pursuits for a while. And I’m really American!”

Everyone started laughing at what they assumed was the last joke of the day. We were still laughing as we made our way back into the sunlight.





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