Bolivia – The Devil Runs this Mine

Potosi, Bolivia.

The town has was built in the 16th C around the mountain because of its silver deposits. The mines have been running ever since. There is an opportunity to go down into the mines for a half day, so I went with my two travel buddies from back in Chile last week Hugo and Michael. There are still about 14,000 people working there now. The operating structure has changed significantly, going from a colonial (slave) operation under the Spanish to a corporate owned thing to being nationalized to being shut down due to poor mineral prices to now – groups of miners working in groups (collectives) who own everything they can extract.

We went down into the mines with three guides. They were all former/current miners. Prior to going in, we stopped at the market to buy some gifts for the miners. The implicit deal is that this makes up for the work interruptions and also means that hopefully nobody gets run over by mining carts.

The gifts were coca leaves, alcohol, dynamite and juice. The coca leaves are chewed to stave off hunger, cold and fatigue because eating down there does not happen because of the inevitable arsenic on the hands. The alcohol says ‘potable’ on it. It was probably not – it seemed like something that comes from a Mississippi bathtub and causes blindness. Not 96 proof as in 48%, but 96% as in 192 proof as in… yikes. The dynamite is their favorite gift because it is relatively pricey, at about $3.00 Cdn per stick.

Dynamite! (Not Napoleon)

We had some cool guides. One was called Chacski, but he was not Polish. Apparently it means messenger because he had a great showing in a marathon a few years back which is very impressive given the brutal hit anyones’ lungs take working there. He had great english and was a very nice guy. He was the leader which was good, because his sidekick was a guy named Choco Loco. This means ‘crazy chocolate.’ He was crazy. Well, more like a belligerent final-stage alcoholic / professional sleazebag. He would lurk around any girls trying to coerce them into drinking and using the same line all the time, ‘me amor imposible.’ He almost got into a fight with an Aussie guy, lurked around the hostel (which sanctioned him apparently), tried to rip off the guys who had the misfortune of getting some drinks with him and his favorite hobby was exploiting the cool movie star of the town (or country or continent….)

Choco Loco sometimes be gone for a while (passed out, presumably) but then he would reemerge sometime later with a new jug of swamp water laden with 96% booze and make absurd demands, like ‘[inaudible grunt]… me amigos!! Six llamas were sacrificed today so you must immediately have 6 shots!! Vamos! Radipidmente!” The easy deflection once it got ridiculous like this was “sure, you first.” That would get rid of him for a while. It’s worth noting his underground behavior was moderately more sober than his ‘day off’ antics.

Time to drink a 50/50 mix of 96% 'potable' alcohol and gross fruit flavoured drink. Chacski (L), Choco Loco (R)

We saw previous to the trip a movie on the mine. It was very good, definitely worth seeing. It was a true biographical account of Basilio, a 14 year old who works in the mine.

The Film

Basilio is the central character. He is on the movie cover/poster. The film basically chronicles what a miserable place it is to work but also how he balances it with school and is mentored by the older miners who look out for him. Anyway, he’s now 22 and we met him on the Saturday when the llamas were being sacrificed. Basilio is doing some university now but still working in the mines. We got to meet him and he is a very cool guy who was barely tolerant of Choco Loco trying to parade him around in a futile attempt to impress girls. Anyway, we invited him to come and stay with us for a bit if he ever comes up to our respective countries (Canada, England and Holland) because he was a very nice guy.

Michael, myself, Basilo and Hugo.

As alluded to previously, there was blood. Gore. Lots of both. We came back on the following day because it was the biannual festival. They sacrifice llamas to the Tio (translation: uncle.) The Tio is a big devil in the mine. God is only for when they are above ground – when below ground, the Tio rules the roost. They eat the llama meat after the sacrifice to it is not senseless thankfully, but there is a lot of blood being tossed around as a sacrifice for the bloodthirsty Tio. If not the llamas it will be the men, so the thinking goes.

The enterence on Saturday...

The Tio takes offerings of lots – he likes coca and cigarettes and 96% ‘Bolivian whiskey’. Here I am pouring him a drink from my 96% booze. All offerings are proceeded my pouring some on the ground first. Similar to any LA stereotypes/films where the gangsters pour malt liquor (out of a brown bag) onto the sidewalk and say ‘for my dead homies.’

The devil and I. He is gussied up for the festival. Note my bag of coca leaves too.

But in the grand scheme the Tio only got a small amount of my swag – the miners, and there are lots of them, were happy with the lion’s share.

We also met another celebrity. Well, so we thought. He was not Art Garfunkel but a lookalike. He claimed to be from Chicago but drawled like he was from the deep south. He was an expert on everything. Everything. But his specialty was screaming at the TV when sporting events were on. His default emotion was indignation.


(NBA on TV)

OHHHHHHHHWWggggg!! WHAT A RACE!!! You can’t appreciate racing unless you build engines like me. And race! But that was when I was young. Now I just appreciate the power and gears, yah!!

(F1 racing on TV)

OH!! Look at that turn! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT????? Waita turn, Shumie!!!!

(More racing, showing a routine turn)

He also spent much time screaming at the hostel staff. The gist of it was this.

a) The Faux Art G. paid for a tour or something. With a wheel-barrel of cash it sounded like.
b) He forgot about the tour.
c) He remembered after and demanded his money back,
d) He used the time-honoured technique to jog peoples’ memories – yelling.
f) He had no receipt. This further enraged him – bad men must have stole it.
g) He was out like 90 Bolivianos!! That is like $15 Cdn.
h) There was much bemoaning this misfortune afterwards.
i) He showed his indignation by… staying in the same crappy hostel for two more nights.
j) The concept of being careful with money in a 3rd world country was lost on him evidently. Ditto with the notion of most likely ‘missing’ money turns up later in your other pair of pants. Yes, I now have two pairs here, like a high roller.

On the way out to La Paz, where we are now, we got burgers to go. ‘Hamburguesas con huevos.’ Burgers with eggs, good deal! Well, risky given the 12 hour bus trip had no bathroom and stopped only once. But anyway, they forgot the burger part. So it was strictly eggs. Probably for the best.

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