The Mines of Potosi

I usually know exactly where to begin.  I start with an image that takes me in an unknown direction and I follow it like a compass needle until I vaguely see its shape and feel the momentum.  At that point, I know where I’m going and am able to anticipate the turns before I reach them. But right now I feel lost.  Its as if a magnet is spinning my needle in circles and I don’t know if I should begin with the 100 grams of dynamite sitting in my backpack 4 inches from my heart, the llama blood smeared all over my hands, or the adolescent high I had from buying cigarettes and coca leaves from a cholita for a 14 year old miner who is already showing signs of lung disease.  Or maybe I´ve got it all wrong: I should start with the town itself, Potosi, and talk about how it used to be richer than Paris, and how the Spaniards said they extracted enough silver to build a bridge from here to Spain and still have some leftover.  But then again, maybe I should mention the usual afterthought, that with the bones from the indigenous workers (who were enslaved and died in the mines) it is said that an equal bridge could be built, with bones left over to juggle.

This is the problem: I don’t see a clear beginning or ending… It all feels like a mangled cassette tape and my finger is too fat to fit in the sprocket and wind it all back together, and even if I could, i don’t know where I´d end up.  Regardless, here’s my attempt, but don’t forget my confusion for a second.

I met Nancy, his wife, before I met Geronimo himself.  She was sitting behind a desk with a 24 carat smile that put me instantly at ease.  As I started to explain that I was looking for more information about her tour, her daughter jumped into my lap and asked how old I was.   “102,”  I said and she jumped out.  The man sitting on a couch to my right laughed.  He asked me what country I was from and then said, “we all know Americans don’t live that long with those eating habits.  The tour begins at 9.”

……………..Tomorrow becomes today………….

The first stop we made was the miners´ market.  Geronimo explained that it would be a nice gesture to buy the miners some cigarettes, coca leaves, dynamite, and alcohol.  I didn´t think being drunk, underground, in the dark with explosives was a good idea, so I abstained from the alcohol and bought everything else (which amounted to under 5 dollars).  Let me clarify for a second, when I say market I do not mean to conjure images of stop and shops and food emporiums.  Imagine a Macy’s Day parade without the balloons and people hawking everything from llama fetuses to toenail clippers.  That’s a Bolivian market.

It didn’t really dawn on me that I bought enough dynamite for a small excavation, nor did I stop to think that it’s probably not a good idea to have dynamite and fuses stuffed in the same plastic bag in my backpack.  “Today is miners´ day,” Geronimo explained, “so not that many people will be in the mines, and we may or may not see a llama sacrifice.”

As we entered the mines I whimsically recollected my few spelunking experiences and started to feel at ease for the first 30 seconds, when we didn’t hear faint explosions reverberating throughout the mine.  That comfort ended fast.  About 10 minutes in, we ran into our first miners.  They were pushing a cart filled with 300lbs of ´´dirty silver, ´´ and looked tired and worn.  Geronimo asked their ages and they told us 18, 20, and 36.  A few tourists gave them some coca and then flashed their cameras at them as they turned away.  “8 carts,” Geronimo said, “can be sold for 150 boliviano (21 usd). They split this between the three of them.  Don’t forget they´re using hammers and picks to break the rock from the mountain.  Let’s go meet the devil.”

Bolivian mines are filled with water.  The miners´ wear rubber boots that go up to their knees and slosh through these dirt rivers with a headlamp, attached to a yellow helmet, that connects to an orange battery (a little bigger than a small box of chocolates) that leaks acid and is wrapped around the waist.  The light from the lamp is not an LED; it’s a regular bulb that casts little more than a milky yellow shadow wherever it touches.  “This is el tio,” Geronimo said as we walked into a little enclave that housed two miners sitting on both sides of a life size papier-mâché devil.  The devil was sitting with his legs open, aggressively showing his erection. “Outside the mines we believe in god.  Inside we worship the devil.” The two miners flanking the devil were young and were drinking what we would consider rubbing alcohol.  Every other shot, they poured on the devils knees.  “This is an offering,” one said, “so that the devil brings us luck.” We offered them coca and cigarettes and everybody began to loosen up.

I asked the first question, “What do you think about the tourists that come into the mines?”  They both said that they enjoyed it because the tourists bring small gifts and share stories about places they would otherwise never be able to visit.  They asked where I was from and then commented on September 11th, “the towers,” so I told them how the day unfolded for me.  A heavy silence followed, he offered me a shot and I asked another question, “If you could do other work would you leave the mines?”  He poured himself a capful of rubbing alcohol, downed it, then offered one to the devil.  “There are two types of miners,” he explained, “those that work for socios (corporations) and those that work for themselves.  Neither has any health benefits and the average age of a miner is 45.” Geronimo quickly interrupted to say that his father died when he was 10, due to a mining accident.  “Why don’t you form unions?”  “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” they replied. We continued to talk for another half an hour, thanked them, and followed Geronimo.

At the miners´ market CJ had bought two sticks of dynamite on behalf of the group, and I had bought two that CJ and I had decided we would give to miners along the way.  Geronimo asked for the group dynamite and CJ eagerly handed it over and stepped to the back of the group.    Geronimo began a harrowing sequence of steps to prepare the dynamite (part of which included putting the fuse in his mouth and inserting it into the stick).  Just before he lit the stick, it occurred to me that these things are damn sensitive, and I wondered if one explosion could set off another, namely the two sticks I had in my backpack.  “As a precaution, hand them to me.”  He lit the fuse and we ran.  Fuses are supposed to last 2 minutes.  We did a count down from 1:30 when we all got settled and by the time we reached zero nothing had happened.  “Just wait.” 45 seconds later an explosion shook my soul.

To exit the mine we had to walk up a 50 foot ladder grabbing onto the surrounding rocks to stabilize ourselves.  There were pretty flake-like-crystals growing all over the place and someone asked what they were.  “Asbestos.  Its everywhere down here.”  When we finally stepped into the light again, I had to avoid a pile of blood that was at the mouth of the entrance.  I looked up and it was smeared on the rock above my head, and I noticed it was also splattered on the miner’s shacks in front of me.  Geronimo explained it was an offering for miners´ day, and then pointed at a house where the llama resided.  Outside the house was a beautiful puddle of lipstick red blood.  Without thinking I bent down and started to take photographs and then stuck my hand in the puddle …feeling as if I was living an active metaphor:  The spilt blood on the earth, the hand in the blood, the blood not quite absorbing into anything….just leaving its visual trace.  Geronimo saw me and asked if I was alright.  I stuck my hand into the mud to try to wipe the blood off, but it had already dried.


While in upstate New York three years ago I came across an individual named Cornelius Winston.  Cornelius was finishing his senior year at X University when we met, and I learned that he had just been awarded a $25,000 fellowship to study the role dreams played in shaping the cultures of Brazil’s indigenous tribes.  Needless to say my interest was piqued, and I spent the rest of the evening listening fascinated as Cornelius explained to me the practices of transcendental meditation and lucid dreaming. We have been in touch ever since.

Upon returning from South America in the fall of 2006, Cornelius took a job as a consultant in New York City.  A year later he found himself unfulfilled and searching for meaning, so he decided to head back down south.  He is currently trekking across South America training to become a spiritual healer.  These are his stories.