As an English teacher and Tour Guide, I often played the game 2 Truths and a Lie. Usually, I would lead off with my 3 things.
- I’ve been in prison.
- I ‘ve been a beauty queen in my home town.
- I’ve been a coal miner.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time whatsoever, I hope you can guess my lie.
Yes, of course, I have NEVER been a beauty queen. Dudes, as my four-year-old daughter will tell you, “I can walk in highheels better than mommy!”
Growing up, my dad was a coal miner. So in University I spent the summer working there too. Keep in mind, this is an open-pit mine. No under ground stuff here.
And prison? Well, in one of the craziest, and most memorable countries I have ever travelled to, you can essentially take a tour inside a prison. This does not mean a guard takes you inside while you look behind a safety gate at the prisoners mulling about in their cells. No, in Bolivia, things work a little bit differently.
My brother and I sit outside the prison for a long time debating whether or not we should go. I think we left a note at our hostel should things go terribly wrong. If not, we should have.
Eventually we enter the doors. We essentially bribe the guard to let us in. He does not bother looking in my brother’s backpack. It is not until the gate closes behind us that we realize there are no guards inside the walls. Where we stand. It is a prisoner, one we later find out is in for murder, that is our escort. First things first, we are taken to a smallish, hellish, under the stairs room where we are offered cocaine to buy. WTF? I don’t know what I expected, but it was not this. It was not buying drugs inside a prison from a prisoner. My mind is reeling. If I don’t buy it, am I pissing them off and in deep, scary shit? If I do buy it to appease them, am I setting myself up for a drug bust, never to leave the walls of a Bolivian hell hole again? Oh shit, this is not good. My brother and I are so undeniably in over our heads. And scared shitless.
We do not buy the drugs.
So we are offered counterfeit money to buy.
What the hell is this place? Where bad guys come to get more work done?
Nothing I can ever write can explain this place. This extreme hierarchical system where foreign prisoners rule with TV, movies and women and a mere cell block away, the lowest of the lows lay in their own excrement. It is brutal. Ugly. Out of this world terrifying.
After a fascinating hour (half hour- I can’t recall since it felt like eternity), we are out. Free.
Apparently though, we need more reasons to be so entirely grateful for our lives, that we head out on a Mountain Bike Trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road. Then having survived that, into a mine. Not an open pit one. No, one that goes deep into the depths of misery. We are paying to do these things? Insanity.
Bolivia is the harshest, and most amazing country I have visited. A visit to the Potosi mine showcases the brutal life that many Bolivians endure. Before heading to the mine, we first go to the market where we must buy gifts for both the men and shrines of the mine. These ‘gifts’ consist of cocoa leaves (like chew only the leaves give you more of a buzz and numb your mouth), pop, hand rolled cigarettes, 96% alcohol, and dynamite. Not exactly the quaint gifts of fragrant candles and flowers that I’m used to purchasing.
Next we arrive at the mine. While donning questionable hard hats and sketchy gas lanterns, we are given a talk on ‘safety’. “Do not touch any metal pipes. You might burn. Avoid wires. You may die. Try to avoid touching the walls. These are poisonous materials. Brilliant. I Am An Idiot.
Passing by the blood streaked walls of sacrificed llamas, we head inside. Immediately upon entering I am struck with an intense blast of heat. The guide confirms it, 40+ degrees Celcius. “Don’t worry, it will cool down fast as we go lower down.” he says. And it does. It drops to -10 degrees within minutes.
We shimmy and duck and crawl and squeeze through various passageways, crawl spaces and tunnels. Then we meet Tio Gorge- Uncle Gorge. He represents the God of the underworld. He is ugly, nasty and sports a mighty large penis. We must make offerings to him, as do the miners everyday, before continuing. We put a smoke in his mouth, sprinkle cocoa leaves all over him and pour the 96% alcohol first on the ground for Pachamama (Mother Earth), then to El Tio, and finally one of us must also toast. I am the chosen one. I sip at the potent alcohol and try not to offend by coughing it all back out. I swallow and immediately feel as if my insides are burning.
Having appeased El Tio, we now head out to meet some miners. I am struck by their stature. Their frames are small, maybe 5 feet, yet it is obvious they are fiercely strong. They are filthy and hot and exhausted. They welcome the treats we bestow on them, but they only wearily acknowledge our intrusion. Immediately they down the two litre pop bottles we bring them, pop the cocoa leaves into their mouths, take a swig of alcohol and tuck the cigarettes safely into a pocket before resuming their grueling work. Trolleys, which looked like so much fun in Indiana Jones and a mine museum I once visited, now only looks arduous and dangerous as the miners push it from one place to the next as they chip away at walls extracting zinc or hopefully, if the day is a good one, some silver.
I don’t remember how long we were down there for. Maybe two hours. But I will never forget the pure relief I felt upon seeing the light of day again. I was exhausted. And that was two hours. Those miners spend 10 to 15 hours a day in there. Maybe more. They are able to support their families by doing so. But the cost is ultimate. They pay with their lives. It is estimated that a man can last up to 15 years working there and will then die as a result of ingesting one of various poisons inside. After all, 40% of the air inside is gaseous. Only 60% oxygen. And this is at 4300metres (14,000 feet) where oxygen is hard to come by in the first place. That air upon exiting the mine, thin though it may have been, may well be the sweetest I have ever breathed.
To end off the tour, we are treated to an explosion. Not fireworks or even firecrackers. No, our guide detonates dynamite showcasing how it is done inside. Dirt and rocks and dust go flying and with that, our tour is over. I am both humbled by the experience and thankful that it is over.
All of this to say, that watching these miners in Chile being rescued, one by one, after over 2 months trapped, is a true miracle. I am teary at every single one arising from the earth. I think back to my 2 hours under ground and the pure relief I felt coming out. Oh how these men and their families must be feeling. The ingenuity to get them out is inspiring. The miners will and spirit, uplifting. What a lesson to the world about rejoicing in our lives.
Bolivia is harsh. But also stunning. Our bike ride moved from the high, barren altiplano to the low, luscious rainforest. See those trucks on that road? One truck is the width of the road with pull out spots scattered here and there to move over. If you are lucky, you make it to one of those spots as trucks pass.