Mining on the outskirts of Potosi
Before the Chilean Miners made headlines, Toby Harris got to know some Bolivians in Potosi…
3.32am – Stranded and dying on the night of the “earth mother”
“Julio, I need bed. I´m not a Bolivian miner, I can´t breathe here. I´m so tired and I can´t breathe. We go? We go?”
The swirl and song of drunken, incomprehensible conversation washes over me.
“Toby, you´re a coward. Be a man.”
The veteran miner and guide pats me on the back lovingly, then, cheeks full of coca leaves, necks down another shot of “Whisky Boliviano” (basically 96% alcohol which somehow doesn´t kill you, mixed with water). He returns to his compañeros, telling a leader of another cooperative that he can help his men if he puts ladders in for tourists. Julio is an arrogant man who hates gringos so much he ironi-cally named his tour company “Green-Go” but he speaks French, English, Spanish and Quechua and he knows every miner in this cooperative and many others.
I stand up, shake my back. Fuck it, give me another shot – I´ll have a cigarette – start making an effort and asking these incredibly hardy people about their lives. Alcohol, fuel.
We´re in a stony shack, crammed with miners on the edge of a mine 4.5ks up on the outskirts of Potosi. There is no food or water available. These miners have stayed here all night, but the rest of the cooperative is deep in the mine, sitting in the dark, cramped spaces where they work by explosions, pneumatic drills and by hand all day -
00.47am – La Pachamama´s tortured womb
The culture/ethnology experience meter is spinning into sublime new states of joy and understanding. Somehow I´m sitting in silence around the offering the miners have made to the Pachamama, sharing coca and alcohol and cigarettes – they hold soft, solemn conversations – it´s warm down here too. The offering is on a blanket with a llama foetus in the centre, piled up with an array of fake hundred-euro notes (they don‘t trust the dollar), coca leaves, trinkets and wax – tonight they are worshipping, with a faith born from despera-tion, with a religion like no other… I´m so fucking stoked to be here, man! The first gringo ever? Julio thinks so. Better attempt some kind of anthropology -
There are two deities which the miners must appease and they operate in a duality. La Pachamama is the earth-mother, perhaps the only god I can kind of believe in – they must reciprocate for what they are taking from her here. Each cooperative is run on democratic principles, shares everything and provides pensions for the families of dead miners. No one owns La Pachamama and no one owns the metals still left in the mountain either, so this is a religious transaction intimately bound up with the financial transaction and both are taking place knee-deep in blood. That´s the reason for the other deity – El Tio (the uncle) – the devil. This mine has a clay model of him which they respectfully douse with alcohol, just like the ground is made sodden with offers to the Pachamama. El Tio has a white beard and marble eyes, a version of the Satan of 16th century Spain who has taken his place in this logic system. He´s got a massive red dick. Pay respect to Satan and he´ll rape La Pachamama like the Spaniards raped this continent. Eight million corpses. Then the La Pachamama will give you tin and silver and zinc, and together they might just protect you.
“¿Estas bien?” “Si…si” I, tentatively – Bruce Parry style – attempt to offer coca leaves and fuck it up three times. Each time I am solemnly corrected but there´s a warm, fuzzy feeling in the air. Everyone is getting drunk. This religion isn´t cold, cruel and torturous like that of the priests of Urizen, bound by chains in their cathedrals and boardrooms, it´s different but -
“Julio, I want to talk but I have nothing to say. I can´t relate to these people.” “Toby, tranquilo – just sit. Think.” I look around at the indigenous faces, lit by the lights on their helmets which lie on the dusty dusty rocky floor and try to think.
8.24pm – Drinks…
“They want to know if you have any sisters!!”
The shack is a bubbling hive of ass-slapping, coca leaves and slow drinking.
“I do, but she´s only ten!”
A bewildering array of crazy responses echoes back from the miners. It‘s okay, because ―she‘ll grow‖. Julio gets up, an old friend slaps his ass, then points at me when he turns around. Some sort of Andean trance is on the radio. It´s kind of good -
“Okay, fuck you!” I say. “Do you have any sisters?”
“Yeah, yeah,” someone says, “he does! He has two!”
“Ah facil, amigo – they want my fucking passaporte!”
It´s all a joke. All they talk about is sex. They question me relentlessly and I find myself understanding that the way in is via chauvinism. You a virgin, boy? This kid is! He masturbates all the time! You fuck any girls in Brazil? I say unspeakable things in reply.
It´s pretty repulsive stuff, but I participate and throw away my ethics in order to get deeper ¡I´m sorry! But this white weakling attempting a feminist lecture at these group of men, each one working nine hours a day, six days a week, in horrible conditions without adequate food or water, to support their wives and children, all of them certain to die before fifty if they don´t get out of here? You try it. They tell me if I get too drunk and fall asleep they´re going to rape me.
There´s an offering here as well of a llama foetus, wax money, coca and trinkets, and the floor is sodden with alcohol. It´s a totally different vibe to later on. I had been invited to share this day with them for a few quids worth of booze and that night I took on that hateful persona to get in but enough of this, let´s get back to it.
3.35am – Near-death revolution rave
Three or four hours scrambling around the mines with four professional guides, visiting different groups of miners, had almost destroyed me. I´m not a healthy man, and the resulting high blood pressure actually helps with the altitude sickness, but by the end I was tripping and stumbling with fatigue, banging my helmet and dislodging the light every five minutes… But that was before, look at the time, we´re back in the shack again and it´s getting cold. No more fucking chauvinism – I need to try and communicate with them properly – Julio could translate but he would´ve mistranslated – not many opinionated individuals can translate politics accurately – in fact – none can. Their Spanish was thick with Quechua and their mouths packed with coca – mine was ruined by exhaustion – but I did it, managed to make a connection, with this set of words:
“En Inglaterra, es muy mal estar patriotica, y en los Estados Unidos tambien, porque el imperial-ismo, si, pero, en ¡¡Bolivia es bueno estar patriotica!!” There´s a chorus of “Si!” and “¡Compañeros!”, “¡Amigos!” – a rapid press of hugs and hand-shakes and proffered drinks and cigarettes spill-ing everywhere. Of course, the arrogantly intellectual Marxist thinks to himself, that statement is not completely correct, but this pretentious twat from Oxford has somehow managed to convey finally he is their comrade, their brother in the struggle contra-capitalismo, contra-imperialismo, la lucha para democracia, social-ismo!!
We talk about MAS and I try to explain to them the mentality of their enemy, the United States. I am not a gringo apparently – only Americans. They of course don´t know too much about the English-committed genocides in North America and Ireland, the concentration camps we used first in the Boer War and again against the Mau-Mau uprising (and that was in the fifties)… I explain and they under-stand – they know – that around the world there are people also struggling against our mindlessly destructive enemy – the machine that bankers, managers and corporate slayers chain themselves to for the sake of gold. For the sake of El Tio´s curse. El Tio´s blessing.
I tell them they are an inspiration for workers in England but I know that most of the tourists who do the day trip are there to vicariously soak up some pain and misery. But there´s joy here, too. One miner makes me give him my email and I add www.socialistworld.net as well, too tired even to remember to put the Spanish address. He gives me his Bolivar football team scarf. He wants to kiss me, I can tell.
The three other rooky guides Julio has taken along are utterly tabled, falling about the place as we stagger back to where our shoes are and then take a taxi back in the town. Finally, it´s finished. My head rocks with new levels of exhaustion, coca-high and alcohol. My lungs are fucked. That was the hardest night of my life, but it was worth it.
Interested in another perspective? Check out this blog post on visiting Potosi.