"Marry a miner. He will get rich fast, and die even faster."
Crosses jut at odd angles from the ground as they vie for space in the parched earth like a field of forlorn, desiccated daisies. Dusty and unloved, the graveyard in Potosi is replete with the crushed bones and curtailed dreams of millions of young men swallowed by the mines looming above.
Like some premonition of a grimmer, post-apocalyptic version of the future, the town sprawls resolutely over the lifeless anti-Plano 3800m above sea level. Once made wealthy by providing the mineral life blood of the Spanish empire, her luck ran out with the supply of silver from the mountain above. The grandiose mints and manors of Spanish nobility enriched by the deaths of countless scores of slaves, have since been engulfed in a maze of slums and shanties. There is nothing left here but grinding poverty of the most brutal kind.
It is this destitution that compels successive generations back into the mines that have already claimed the lives of some 8 million slaves over their lifespan. Silicosis, rock falls, run-away mine trains, and monoxide poisoning are the most common dangers to the men who risk their lives every day to extract the very last dregs of silver from inside the hulking shadow of the Cerro Ricco. They labour in almost total darkness, much as their forefathers did centuries before, with no regulation, no safety equipment and no training.
The women in Potosi joke: "Marry a miner. He will get rich fast, and die even faster."
"Hola chica" ('hello girl') the grizzled old foreman growls at me. He is after the beer in my backpack, which we have been advised to bring to placate the miners. Other gifts include coca leaves, which are masticated and held in a corner of the mouth like a great gout of chewing tobacco, and several sticks of dynamite, which can be bought freely on the street.
Thankfully, our guide carries the blasting caps, and the bag of ammonium nitrate fertiliser necessary to make the explosive actually go boom. Right now, safe and inert, the sticks of TNTs sit like great sticks of gum in the bottom of my back, stopping the glass bottles of lager clinking together.
As the foreman approaches, squat, but stout and surly, I am instructed to relieve myself of a beer. At altitude, the head spills over the lip like the foam from a bottle of cheap champagne. Dusty bottle in grimy paw, we are ushered into the mine. The entrance is a single dark hole, scarcely above shoulder height, with a rickety track leading into its mouth. The rocks above are streaked black with dried llama blood from a sacrificial ritual intended to placate Mother Earth. The blood is said to sate her appetite for human flesh. As an added layer of protection, a small crucifix is affixed above the roughly cut apex of the doorway. Given that these form the chief safety provisions, I suppose that an extra appeal to divine providence can't hurt.
The rocks above are streaked black with dried llama blood from a sacrificial ritual intended to placate Mother Earth. The blood is said to sate her appetite for human flesh.
The dark dankness of the tunnel is pierced at intervals by the faint orange glow of our primitive headlights. Scarcely wide enough for two men to pass abreast, it winds seemingly without reason into the heart of the mountain. We splash and scrabble through mud and rubble while the walls glisten with perspiration and great green stalactites of arsenic which seep through the rock.
Eventually, under the cracked and contorted beams of a half collapsed roof support, we are told to pass downwards through a hole in the floor to a deeper chamber.
The darkness and silence is oppressive. It is the day after pay day, and the majority of miners are nursing methylated spirit induced hangovers, but as we descend, there is the sound of a faint scraping. Two boys, 14 and 16, are at work extending this end of the mine by hand. I relieve myself of 2 more beers, and they relieve themselves of their shovel and wheelbarrow.
For a moment, I experience the backbreaking labour that they have endured for a lifetime. Intensified by the lack of oxygen due to the altitude and profundity of the mine, it is an effort even to navigate the wheelbarrow through the twisting tunnels.
The darkness and silence is oppressive. It is the day after pay day, and the majority of miners are nursing methylated spirit induced hangovers, but as we descend, there is the sound of a faint scraping. Two boys, 14 and 16, are at work extending this end of the mine by hand.
Then, upon encountering another small group of miners, I am expected to push their mine train back towards the entrance. Only about 2 kms, it is nonetheless some of the hardest exercise I have experienced, while I build momentum to shift the half full mine cart and avoid inconveniently placed rocks and spars.
With the welcoming glow of the entrance in sight at the furthest end of the tunnel, I am told to stop and let the professionals take over.
It is some of the hardest exercise I have experienced, while I build momentum to shift the half full mine cart and avoid inconveniently placed rocks and spars.
It is time to pay homage to the devil for my safe return. He sits, contentedly, with half-finished cigarette in mouth, legs splayed and grotesque erection at full mast. Offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and money lie scattered at his feet. I feel awfully rude blazing my headlamp into his glazed marble eyes and jauntily set horns.
Each mine has a resident 'tio', which in Spanish means 'uncle'. Really though, the etymology of the name owes itself to the inability of native slaves to pronounce 'Dios', the Spanish name for God. This is because the 'tio' is a Spanish invention. Scared of their inability to maintain control in the darkness and confusion of the mines, the Spanish exploited the superstitions of the Andeans and invented a God of the underworld who they claimed would prey on recalcitrant miners. The idea has since persisted for centuries, becoming conflated with elements of the Christian Lucifer and pre-Hispanic ritualistic practices. As such, the mountain is riddled with life sized ceramic effigies of the devil, which are beseeched for protection and wealth. Rumors still abound about particularly bad foremen who make human sacrifices of young, ignorant miners in an attempt to ensure future success. In Potosi, God is only for the surface. The devil is king below ground.
On the surface again, the mood is more relaxed, but the miners with the cart maintain a silent vigil over their spoils. The rocks and minerals are sealed in thick blue woven plastic bags to obscure their contents from potential bandits and pirates who prowl the area. A phone call later and we board a pick up heading to one of the many local refineries dotting the city, where the minerals are crushed in great rumbling machines and tested for quality. While we wait, our guide informs us that having not been crushed, exploded or robbed, we are to celebrate by finishing the crate of 'Potosi' lager which appears miraculously before us. It is here, in the company of men living on borrowed time, to the accompaniment of rocks crushed by whirring gears, that I learn the time honoured tradition of opening beer bottles with a shovel. With the flair of a cavalryman sabre-ing a bottle of champagne, a young miner 'Chispas' ('Sparks') places the tip of his shovel blade under the crinkled rim of a bottle cap with great ceremony. His friend holds the selfsame bottle in outstretched arms, face turned away and contorted slightly with fear. Assuring his friend with a comforting murmur, Chispas then carefully places his left hand underneath the point where blade meets shaft so that the entirety of the implement is finely balanced between his balled fist and the bottle cap. With a great grin of mismatched teeth, he proceeds to raise his right hand above his head, pauses like a matador before the final strike, and then brings it down onto the end most point of the shaft with great speed and force. With an audible pop, the cap flies over the wall of the compound.
Over the course of the morning I reach the conclusion that the objective of this practice is to eject the caps as far as possible while avoiding removing the fingers of your partner.