The Man Eating Mountain of Potosi
Potosi, South West Bolivia, February 2009.
The celebratory spirit of the Potosi Miner’s Carnival on the second Saturday in February is contagious and insatiable. In the week running up to the festival, the miners go to the mountain as usual, but instead of working they sit in the mines drinking, playing music and chatting. Visiting the town at this time is a unique and intoxicating experience.
After purchasing a bizarre collection of gifts for the men from the miner’s market, including gloves, beer, dynamite and lemonade, we make our way to Cerro Rico, The Rich Mountain, that has consumed 8 million men in 500 years.
The fear surges up my throat as we bump along the red dirt road to the mine. A group of celebrators push their faces to the window, and I see the flash of a grotesque wire devil covered in rotting animal flesh hovering over the faces of the crowd. It seems to my oxygen-starved brain that the monster’s twisted features turn to watch us as the bus creeps past.
Unfamiliar imagery of the devil as a benevolent uncle figure has bombarded us throughout the miner’s market, with people offering animal sacrifices and dried foetuses to the ‘Tio’ in order to keep the miners safe from his wrath. In the stomach of this land, the miners work in Satan’s realm; God cannot hear them.
Standing at the mouth of the mineshaft, my stomach is churning. Groups of drunken revelers stagger past us waving and shouting; it’s only 10am. The solemnity and danger that usually permeates their working life is temporarily alleviated during the festival, and they were definitely making the most of it. We are all apprehensive about entering the belly of the mountain, because while the entrance to La Negra is decorated with colourful streamers and flowers, the inside looks black and ominous. Dirty, broken wagons containing medieval equipment spew out of the hole on rattling tracks, pushed by blackened, smiling, singing men.
A young man called Ali offers to set off some of the dynamite that we’ve bought, although I’m reluctant to hand over my sticks to an inebriated teenager. He messes around trying to get his lighter to work for a few minutes and steps back. When nothing happens, there is a sharp intake of nervous gringo breath as he runs back to check that the fuse is lit. Disaster is averted when an older, slightly more sober man takes over, and the dynamite goes off to a cheer from the miners, and a sigh of relief from us.
As we clamber through the entrance, a Wilfred Owen poem repeats in my mind:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, […. ] And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep.“ The real mine experience begins.
The shaft is only a few metres high and the tallest of us have to bend completely in half, and sometimes crawl, to fit through. The walls are slimy and crumbling, and the ceiling has beams that block the passageway even more. Our guide, Julio, makes us move very fast and we have problems keeping up; the headlight on my helmet is dim and useless so I can’t see the beams very well. I bash my head on the ceiling more than once, but when I hit a beam I stagger backwards in pain. Blood is pouring down my face and I realise that my helmet has jolted down and taken a chunk out of my nose. My head is killing me and the idea of carrying on crawling deeper and deeper down the shaft is terrifying. The passage seems to be getting narrower; we pull ourselves through a tiny hole in the wall only to emerge in another tunnel. Julio is way in front of us, and the Dutch girls ahead of me are nearly running to keep up.
Suddenly, the shaft expands and opens out in a cavern. In the centre is a rickety winch for lowering miners down to the lower levels surrounded by picks, spades and other ancient tools. A group of gruff looking men are carefully decorating the space with streamers, banners and wheelbarrows full of flower petals. Two of them are precariously dangling over the winch shaft to hang some flowers form the top of the wooden frame. They greet us politely but seem slightly uneasy; tourists rarely visit this mine and the men are not accustomed to speaking to travelers. The men here obviously haven’t drank as much as the dynamite boy so the conversation is nervous and stilted. Julio translates the Quechua words that we don’t understand, and as we ask questions about the men’s lives they become more animated and talkative. The bottles of 96% alcohol that we bought at the market are passed around, and Julio advises us to pour a little drink onto the floor for the Tio before taking a sip ourselves. The stuff tastes like meths, even with water it’s stronger than anything I have ever tasted, but we feel rude not to drink it when offered.
A boy who looks no older than 16 wraps curly paper decorations around our necks and we laugh as he liberally throws confetti all over us. The mood lightens as the alcohol flows and Julio tells us stories of when he worked in the mine as a teenager. He says, “My stepfather worked to send me to school where I learnt English. When I started my tour company I wanted travelers to help the miners rather than just visiting them. I give a lot of the money to the men, but I feel guilty that they cannot have more.”
The wall behind me and my friend Suzanne is running with water and at one point a pile of rubble hits us on the head. One of the miners urges us to move and begins to stab the loose rocks with a spade, causing a whole section of the wall to collapse. He tells us that because of the heavy rain the mine has suffered many collapses in past months, killing a number of men.
We visit another group of men who are in the full party spirit. It’s early afternoon, the tour is only supposed to be two hours, but Julio has had a lot to drink and he isn’t stopping any time soon. We clamber into the chamber and a huge cheer goes up from the assembled crowd. The men have obviously been drinking all day, and to greet us they affectionately kiss and hug the girls and slap the boys on the back in a manly way. Julio had previously warned us of the sexist attitudes of the miners, but they treat us courteously and kindly, offering their rock seats to us and handing us beer cans. After a round of musical chairs, I sit in between two men who gratefully accept the drink and gloves that I give them. The extremely drunk man to my left is called Ottavio and he instantly launches into a barrage of questions; he’ s very impressed to hear that I’ve attended university.
He tells me “I work in the mine so that my son does not have to. I pay for him to go to school so he can get an education and get a good job”. He begins to cry and his friends comfort him in an embarrassed way, rolling their eyes at us. The average life expectancy for these miners is 45 but Ottavio looks a lot older, his teeth are black from chewing coca leaves and his face is carved with dark lines. He laughs his misery off quickly, but his face betrays his sadness.
Julio gives us a strange hollowed out fruit containing ‘special rum’, he doesn’t elaborate further, and the bunch of onlookers fall into hysterics when we taste it. It tasted even worse than the other drink! A man called Martin makes an effort to talk individually to each one of us, forgotten to speak Spanish and lapsing into Quechua. Julio helps him, and he slowly explains that he doesn’t drink except on this week, “we welcome you into our celebrations, you are very welcome”, he says.
Paulo, the boy sitting to my right tells me that he’s 17. We have a chat about where I’ve been travelling and he asks if I like Bolivia. He is shy while we are talking, and the other men tell us that he is gay because he hasn’t got a girlfriend. When we depart, Paulo suddenly gets up and hugs me, tightly; he says “thank you for visiting us, and thank you for the gloves!” An awkward moment ensues between us when the men cheer him on.
The 96% alcohol and endless coca leaf chewing has taken its toll on all of us, and I feel sick and dizzy bending down to crawl back outside. At one point the group is split in half when the Dutch girls take a wrong turn. Julio leaves us to go back and find them, sitting next to a giant red Devil shrouded in offerings of cigarettes and streamers. The statue sits in a hollow gap in the wall of the tunnel, and with no outside light our low headlamps are the only way to see it. We crouch there in silence for a few minutes, wondering when the rest of the group would return. Satan sits on his throne smoking and laughing at us.
When we are reunited with the terrified girls, we carry on. Julio takes us over a huge shaft in the floor, covered by one plank of wood. He makes fun of us as we shakily step across the gap like tight rope walkers, eyes fixated on the darkness below.
The tunnel begins to widen and the cold wind gives us an indication of the distance between us and the outside world. We emerge from the mountain’s belly blind, nauseas and disorientated. Cerro Rico has coughed us up alive, yet not totally unharmed. My nose is still bleeding.