Monday, June 19, 2006

The computer next to me in Sucre's speediest internet cafe is playing Metallica a little too loudly for me to know what to say at the moment except that Ginger and Mike and I are having a grand time eating, drinking, laughing, crying, hiking and mining our way through La Paz, Sucre and Potosí -- the latter being the world's highest city (tied with Lhasa, I'm told.) Mike and I went up to Potosí to tour the Casa de Moneda -- which tells part of the story of the 400 years of tragically-mined silver that funded Spanish empire -- and then to tour the silver mines themselves which, as you might imagine, tell the rest of the story.

As many as 8 million (yes 8,000,000) workers died in the mines -- first the indigenous people of Bolivia and then African slaves brought in when there simply weren't enough Aymara or Quechua men left. (You can read more about it in this BBC article or this tourist's account.) The only things we saw in the working conditions there that can't be described as medieval were pneumatic drills, electric headlamps and a few electric lifts. All of the nuggets are still transported horizontally by the younger, healthier (12 to 22 year old) miners and a good number of them are moved up at least one or two levels by handcranks.

Our guide Jaime seemed lighthearted about his 8 years working in the mines, but he was also clear that if he was still there (instead of leading tours for a cooperative guide service) he'd be decades closer to his death. It was Sunday -- and a day after the annual festival where the miners slaughter llamas for another year of good luck or at least no more collapsing shafts, scarred lungs or spent mineral veins -- so the mine was tranquilo. In fact the only miner we encountered was a woman who had worked there for 46 years -- inside for 5 or 6 and now outside hauling and sorting the promising nuggets the miners sent up from deep inside the mountain.

But we did encounter sticks of dynamite (bolstered with ammonium nitrate), half-finished fuses, ladders that inspired little confidence, 30 meter holes, freshly-collapsed ceilings, noxious powders, mysterious liquids, tiny crawl spaces that led to gigantic rooms, and an altar to tio -- the reverent yet affectionate title of Uncle given to a creature some might call the devil. The traditional Christian understanding here has been that God is in the sky and the devil is underground -- meaning that the silver buried in the mountains belongs to the devil, personified by the smiling and, ahem, well-endowed tio and regularly placated with cigarettes, alcohol and coca.

Potosí has beautiful churches, inspiring views, cheerful people and an unbelievable altitude . . . but none of that affected the unshakeable sadness I felt in the air there. I asked our guide at the museum about a vial of mercury on display. "They needed it to purify the silver. Yes, it's very dangerous . . . especially for the workers." But when I asked for more about the lives of the people (the toil and the toll, some would say) who made these houses of silver stand, she said "We have very few documents about that" and walked away. There are few minerals left in Cerro Rico but whereas it was once the cause of much wealth in Spain and much suffering in Bolivia, it is now a caustic and cruel source of hope for a miner's harsh chance at wealth in Bolivia -- despite the suffering, despite the odds, despite the facts.


At Tue Jun 20, 01:33:00 AM CDT, Blogger Andrew said...

Hey, Zac!
Beautiful Blog entry...well done. What a pleasure to read and view!
It's comforting to know that your adventures are so varied and valuable in insight. I was happy to learn, by way of your previous blog, that Miss Post is planning more peregrinations with you--I'm not sure that the Bolivian government is fully aware of the risks such an encounter involve!!! :) Please pass my Best on to her--I'm curious as to what she's undertaken since Brandeis (I somehow recall that she was finishing her studies there!)

BTW-I've decided to teach in Seoul and not in China: I'll earn more money, be able to travel extensively in China and Japan, and have a little more of a monetary margin when beginning graduate school (most likely in Vancouver, BC--European Studies).

In fondness of thought,



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