A narrative essay about a tour of a cooperative silver mine in PotosÃ, Bolivia.
|The Mines of PotosÃ|
12 sticks of dynamite
2 lg. bags of coca leaves
"Is that everything? Okay, let's pay for this stuff and get going!"
Our guide, Yamil, led the four of us to the jeep with our purchases for the short trip up to the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia. Two German girls had joined Mary and me for the tour of the cooperative mines. The provisions were for the miners who would share their stories and show us what they do every day. Our helmets were equipped with acetylene lanterns fueled by calcium carbide and water. None of those unreliable flashlights for us!
The sulfide was placed in a holder in the helmets and water added to create the gas which we ignited. Carrying little fires on our heads and wiping the dripping, stinky liquid from our brows, we entered the complete darkness of a mine that had produced enough silver to build a bridge to Europe. It had also killed enough men to build two more bridges with their bones.
We spent several hours making our way into the depths of the mine. At the beginning of the tour we stopped to pay our respects to two of the "uncles" of the mine. These tios looked a little more like devils to me. We laid out a blanket of coca leaves at their feet and placed cigarettes between their clay lips. Unfortunately, we forgot to bring a lighter or matches. Our guide brought along three other escorts, the young sons of some of the miners, who made a trip back to the entrance to get a lighter Mary left in the jeep. The boys ranged in age from about eight to twelve years old. They would soon follow the family tradition and be working in the mine for whatever meager finds it offered. These boys had no need of lanterns. They knew these tunnels by heart and moved quickly without the hindrance of us tall gringas always smacking our heads off the low roof of the tunnels. Soon the tios were smoking their Camels.
Yamil explained how all of the equipment in the mine worked. When he showed us the contraption that sent rocks bouncing off the sides of a shaft to a cart below, the sounds of bouncing faded before the rocks reached their final destination. Since the cart was near the entrance, I realized we had been climbing into the mountain, not descending into the ground as I assumed. The feeling of all that ground between us and the surface made me feel a pang of claustrophobia.
We stopped at several spots where miners were working. We offered coca leaves, which serve to stave off hunger. We even tried some ourselves, stuffing a wad into our cheeks and chewing it until it was juicy and sour. Coca leaves are also good for altitude sickness, which was our excuse to try some.
One group of miners was preparing to blow out a piece of the wall just as we arrived. We provided the dynamite and detonators and were treated to a demonstration. I was a little nervous as the miners pounded the dynamite into a crack and positioned the detonators. They sent us down the corridor for the actual event. We plugged our ears and heard the explosion just before a blast of air hit us and blew out our lanterns.
"Okay. That was way-cool, but who has the lighter?"
"I do. Here." Mary's voice sounded a little muted in the darkness. A flicker of light pierced the darkness. Yamil took each helmet and attempted to light the lantern.
"No hay agua." I've heard that far too many times since arriving in Latin America. Why did we come on a day-long tour without water?
"It's okay. We'll go get some." Our saviors, the three little boys each grabbed our helmets and took off down the corridor. The tios sure aren't taking care of us, but these boys are.
Within only a few minutes, the boys returned, lanterns once again dripping and ready to light. We were in business.
"How did you get the water so fast? Are we near the entrance?"
"No, we're a long way from the entrance now. But pee works too!" They laughed as we wiped the drips from our faces. Wasn't that just precious?
Having seen what we came to see, we urged our guide to start leading us back towards the entrance. Yamil wanted to show us a few things first, though. We reached a shaft with just a short drop to other level of corridors. Yamil led the way and helped me down. The shaft was a little snug. Mary and the German girls looked down, conferred a bit, and decided they were not going to follow. They were tired. They wanted to go back to the hotel. It had been over six hours underground, and they had had enough. What to do?
"Okay. I'll take this girl and Pedro. The other two boys will take you to a place where you can meet us on the way out of the mine."
That sounded okay to me. The German girls seemed a little perturbed that our guide would be leaving them, but they complied. I tramped along behind Yamil to yet another shaft. This one led up. It was a very snug fit. Pedro had no trouble getting through. Having just recovered from a two-month bout of Giardia, I had little trouble squishing my bones through the hole. Yamil stood alone in the corridor below us, looking doubtfully up at us.
"I can't get through this one. It's too small. I'll meet you at a different spot. You go with Pedro. You'll be fine." Yamil disappeared from sight.
"Okay, Pedro. Try not to lose me."
I followed my little guide with total confidence. He didn't seem malicious despite the pee episode. I didn't believe he'd ditch me in the darkness. He turned and checked on my progress frequently. What a nice boy.
Oh, no. We reached a point where there was a large mine shaft spanning the width of the corridor. I threw a rock down, trying to make it bounce off the sides as it descended. I counted. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.....up to eight Mississippi before my body would splat at the bottom.
"Long way down, Pedro. What now?"
"No problema." He jumped across the gap like a little rock-hopping llama. Sure. I can do that.
There stood Pedro with his hand outstretched. Yeah, right.
"Pedro. How much do you think I weigh?"
"I don't know."
"Enough to drag your puny little body to the bottom of the shaft with me if you try to catch me. Don't even think about it."
"Jump. You'll make it."
"Pedro. I want you to picture this. I run. I jump. I go up. My head hits that dangerously low ceiling. I go straight down the mine shaft. You hear 'splat'."
"Oh. No, you'll make it. Just jump more forward, not so much up."
"Yeah, that's me--long jump champion. I placed fourth in that event on field day ten years ago."
"Just jump. I'll catch you. Promise." Poor kid has such a sorry future he's willing to take his chances.
I started doing a little geometric figuring. Spatial relationships are one of my strengths. I never took physics, though. Who'd have thought it'd come in handy here? Okay, I could run diagonally down the corridor, aim for the wall next to the shaft, and ricochet towards Pedro. Excellent plan! I spotted a tiny ledge where I could try to push off with my foot if I got enough momentum.
"Okay, Pedro. This is it? Are you ready?"
"Get out of the way."
"No, I'll catch you."
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you."
I backed up as far as I could and sprinted for the shaft. My left foot hit the ledge and I launched myself forward, bashing into Pedro on the other side.
Lying on the floor, covered in dust, Pedro looked up at me so sweetly.
"See? I told you I'd catch you!" What a doll!
"That you did. Thank you."
We did eventually meet up with Yamil and the girls. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We thanked our guide, wiped the pee from our faces, and headed back to town.