I’ve always been attracted to precious stones and minerals. As a child, I
spent hours in museums staring at them. Their different shapes, colors, and
textures intrigued me. I loved the sharp edges of pyrite and the smooth
feel of polished quartz. Nevertheless, there was little pleasurable about
my experience with minerals today.
I traveled from Uyuni to Potosi in Bolivia solely for its reputation as a
mining city. When Ernesto “Che” Guevara saw the miners slogging away in
Potosi during his “Motorcycle Diaries,” the experience made him conscious of
the plight of poor peoples throughout Latin America. Potosi surprised me. I
expected an industrial town, but a walk around the city reminded me more of
a hillside town in southern France than the steel-based town of
Philadelphia. Facades of buildings, the interiors of cathedrals, and the
views of the town were gorgeous. Then again, the steps scaling up the
mountains to hillside towns looked awfully like Brazilian *favelas *(slums).
Looming in the background of the Spanish colonial architecture were the
signs of extreme poverty.
This morning I took a tour of the mines. We started the tour in the
refinery. The minute we entered the building I thought, “This must be what
hell smells like.” The room was engulfed in noxious fumes. Everywhere you
turned there were whirring machines ready to chop a limb off. This tour
would definitely be illegal in the U.S.
From the refinery, we proceeded into the mines armed with boots, overalls,
headlamps, and helmets. The moment we entered the mine I heard “Move! Run
now!” We ran back towards the entrance and narrowly avoided being run over
by a mine cart. We reentered the mine, more cautiously this time, and
proceeded slowly through the dark tunnels. At the sound of a cart barreling
down the tracks, the five of us clung to a wall. My friends’ arms holding
on to me were the only things that kept me from falling off the narrow ledge
and directly into danger’s path.
At the end of the tunnel the guide pointed toward an abrupt decline and
cheerfully said, “Here’s our path!” Ok, you’ve got to be kidding me. We
slid down on our butts, grabbing onto electrical wire to keep us from losing
our grips. At the last moment of descent, my guide took hold of my foot and
stopped my freefall towards the bottom of the mine.
From there, our passage consisted of crawling on our hands and knees over
the rocky ground and crouching below the low roofs. It wasn’t so much the
pressure on my knees and the sharp pain in my back as the dust that killed.
Despite the bandana around my mouth and nose, the toxic dust continued to
enter my lungs. Out of breath and dizzy from the heat and altitude (more
than 4,000 meters), I kept on ripping of my bandana and painting for air.
As we ventured further and further into the mines, we encountered miners
hard at work. We were warned that conditions down in the mines were
miserable, but seeing the reality was quite different from hearing about it.
The miners looked straight out of Dante's *Inferno. *Their bodies dripped
with sweat while their mouths bulged with coca leaves (the leaves used to
make cocaine. Around 500 kilos of coca leaves are needed to produce 1 kilo
of cocaine. In small quantities, the leaves keep one awake, suppress
appetite, and reduce altitude sickness). Trapped underground for anywhere
between 8 and 24 hours a day with no food or water, they stuff their mouths
with baseball size clumps of leaves in order to numb themselves into
oblivion. We were told to bring gifts for the miners, a concept I didn't
understand until I saw them desperate for a drink of water or more coca. They
were like the shadows in Plato's metaphor of the cave, deprived of fresh air
and sunlight for too many years.
Mining earns well. Miners earn around 1.5 times Bolivian minimum wage. In
spite of that, their lifespans are short. They often die within 10 years of
entering the mines because of the toxins given off by the minerals or
gastritis caused by the excessive chewing of coca.
When we finally emerged from the caves, I thanked god for getting out of
there. I was grateful for the sunlight and the fresh, breathable air.
In the afternoon, I visited the *Casa de Moneda *(House of Currency), where
currency was produced for hundreds of years. Bolivia was the center of
South America and the center of wealth for the Spanish empire because of its
immense deposits of minerals, in particular gold and silver. The museum
detailed the history of coin-making in Bolivia. It showed African slaves
exhausting their bodies keeping fires lit to melt the silver. 8 million
Africans and Bolivians died in the mines. The Africans died especially
quickly because they couldn't adjust to the altitude. One exhibit which
stood out was a room with a man and four mules tied to a yoke. The mules
would walk in a circle, powering a machine which pressed the silver down to
the width of a coin. Because of the fatiguing work, the mules only lived
till 2 or 3 months old. Bolivia had to import 3 to 4 mules per week from
Buenos Aires in Argentina. I couldn't help but think, all that for a coin?
We ended our tour with a showcase of precious stones and minerals, typical
of any museum around the world, as well as candle holders, crowns, and other
objects made out of gold and silver. It contrasted starkly with my
experience earlier in the day down in the mines. It makes you wonder, why
are coins so important? Why not another system of barter or exchange? Coin-making
powered the Bolivian economy and the Spanish empire, but during the past 40
years has become so expensive for the Bolivian government that it now relies
on Chile and France to mint its currency. Ironic, no? Even though I
showered for 30 minutes after the mine tour, I still can't get the smell of
coal off my hands. It'll be hard to ever think of coins the same way again;
something so expendable yet so significant for the lives of millions of
people in Bolivia and around the world. Makes you think doesn't it?