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Into the Lungs of Hell

We headed back to Potosi, bouncing down the dirt paths of the Cerro Rico, as the sick woman continued to vomit out of the front window of our beat up Land Cruiser. A few sticks of dynamite rolled along the floorboard of the crammed vehicle while our hard-hats banged the dented metal ceiling. The industrial stench of chemicals still lingered in our sinuses and the dirt still caked on our faces. The poisonous gases had taken their toll on the woman’s lungs and we knew that she was in dire need of an oxygen tank. Tearing through the dirt paths of one of the world’s highest cities, we swerved around various livestock on our way to the center. Approaching the hospital, the campesinos looked on as a group of dirt covered men emerged from the truck and carried a shaking, heaving body into the small doorway.

Earlier that morning, we had headed into the one of the medieval silver mines of central Bolivia. It was a place where men died weekly in the working conditions that have gone basically unchanged for hundreds of years. Passing through the decrepit shanties on the outskirts of town, we climbed up the steep mountain roads as the mustached driver followed the Bolivian custom of riding right only inches from the edge of the towering cliffs. At an altitude of 14,700 feet, I looked off into the red dusted horizon of the Bolivian altiplano to see some of the highest Andean peaks off in the distance. Nearing the end of the road, we came to a few shacks circling a small entrance in the side of the mountain.

Donning a hard-hat, rubber boots, and a homemade lantern, I prepared myself for whatever awaited us in the Cerro Rico. Walking along the rickety railcar tracks, I entered the cold darkness of the mountain. The lantern lit up the rugged rocks along the tight passageway which enclosed us as my helmet bashed against the ceiling. A soft rumbling sound could be heard off in the distance as my guide Alberto grabbed my arm. “Get out of the way!”, he shouted. We looked off into the void to see a light coming around the bend. Running ahead to a small opening in the wall, I jumped aside as a two-ton car filled with rocks and debris came racing past. Hanging on the back of it were two sweat soaked workers with cigarettes hanging from their lips.

As we continued down the tracks, a cold wind blew past and I could smell a strange odor. It was the asbestos, carbon monoxide, and other chemicals that cause most of the workers to die within ten years of entering the mines. The poisonous gases take their toll on the lungs, heart, and liver, slowly draining the life from the desperate souls trying to eek out a living in Bolivia’s struggling economy. I figured I would save what little respiratory health I had as I wrapped a rag around my face.

The occasional car continued to race for us as we continued further and further into the belly of the beast. Through tight passageways and in between leaky, gas-filled pipes, the workers shuffled past us into the darkness without the aid of a lantern. As many of them enter the mountain before dawn and leave after dusk, they rarely see the daylight. It was as if years of nocturnal living had given them a special ability to see in the dark.

The ceiling began to drop lower as we crawled further into the mountain. Alberto had worked in the mines for four years before becoming an “official” guide. “My father worked in the mines all of his life until it finally killed him a few years ago”, he explained. “Working in the mines used to be a local tradition. When I was growing up, boys wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps. When we were old enough, we would quit school and come to the mines.” Working in the mines can be a tempting option for many of them men seeking to provide better incomes for their families. Some of the workers in the co-op mines can make three to four times the average Bolivian income. But the question is “are you willing to trade in years of your life for that money?” After Alberto watched his father die of heart failure, he knew that he had to get out of the business.

My pack was filled with the gifts that mine workers expected of the occasional visitor : dynamite, cigarettes, water, and the all important coca leaves. In colonial times, the Spaniards had discovered the wonders of coca as it allowed slaves to work for long periods of time with little rest or food. Since then, little has changed as Bolivian campesinos continue to chew the legally grown leaves. As I creeped through the darkness, open hands appeared from lonely figures that peered out from the holes as I handed out wads of coca.

Crawling into a skull-shaped opening along the side of the main path, we came to a small altar with a devilish figure perched upon a rock. We were going to pay homage to the lord of the mine. El Tio, as he is known, has the power to take and save lives in the Cerro Rico as he sees fit. He demands no certain lifestyles of creeds. All he asks for is the offerings of coca, cigarettes, and alcohol which the miners bring daily. As our lanterns lit up the figure, we passed around a small flask of miner’s moonshine. Gagging on the potent sludge, I splashed it on the devil’s face as it ran down his chest to the pile of coca leaves on his lap. Out from the leaves stood and erect penis. It was welcome news that El Tio appeared to be happy that day. “For you El Tio”, Alberto shouted.

After climbing back out of the passageway, we creeped along the tracks deeper into the mountain. Approaching a small hole in the floor, I shined the lantern and backed my way down a shaky ladder through the tight 20 foot drop that lead to the second level. Off in the cold darkness below me, I could hear rumbling and shouting voices at the bottom. Down a tunnel on the lower level, lantern light illuminated a group of men gathered around a hole in the ceiling. “Listo”, one of them shouted as he signaled to those above that they were ready. Alberto pushed us back against the wall as an avalanche of rocks and dirt fell through the hole, shaking the walls and earth around us. As a cloud of dust began to blanket the small room, the men began grabbing the bigger rocks and throwing them in the rail car.

As the car filled to capacity, two unfortunate men struggled to pull it down the tracks off into the darkness. When they reached the end of the tunnel, they would pack the rocks into bags and carry them up rickety ladders to the next level. This was one of the lowest jobs in the hierarchy of mine work – carrying the loads of rocks up and down ladders. One wrong move would send them crashing down the shaft with the load of rocks. Broken bones were not an uncommon occurrence. “Load after load, day after day. This is how I first started in the mines”, Alberto explained. Just a few years of that type of work can scar a man for life. Alberto’s chronic backaches, sore throat, and eternal cough will never let him forget his days in the mountain.

Around the bend from the opening in the ceiling was another small passageway leading up to the top of the chute where the men were dropping the loads of rock. Snaking my way through the tight, steep crevice, I approached the chute to see two men on the other side looking down into the hole. A warped and cracked beam was the only way to get across to the other side. As I stood on the tiny ledge, I realized that one wrong move would send me down the hole along with the boulders and debris. Holding onto an outcrop in the rocks, I peered down to see something that I was not quite expecting. Halfway down the chute was a man hanging on for his life. With one foot, he kicked at the rocks beneath him, trying to break open the clogged hole. It was death waiting to happen.

Crawling back from the chute and upper level, I discovered a woman laying on the ground. Coughing, vomiting, and crying, she started to panic as Alberto and a couple of miners came to her aid with water and coca. It was clear that she had to get out of the mountain. Two of the workers picked her up, as if they had carried hundreds of bodies out of the mine before, and started back for the opening. “This is your last chance”, Alberto said with a stern look on his face. “It is only going to get worse on the 3rd and 4th levels. If you want to go, you should follow them out now. We will meet at the top. All she needs is some fresh air.” The coughing and sniffling British couple followed them off into the darkness. There were only four of us left : myself, Alberto, and two young Peruvians from Lima.

Starting on the last leg into the Cerro Rico, the conditions grew worse just as Alberto had promised. High humidity, heat, poison gases, and low oxygen levels make for some of the worst breathing conditions on the planet. Everything had to be taken slowly as we inched our way though the tunnels and shafts. I found myself dropping to the ground every ten minutes from coughing spasms that were brining up greenish flem. I knew that I would not be able to last much longer. As we came to the end of the line a labyrinth of tunnels shot off to the new frontiers which were soon to be mined. The workers were few and far between. It was the part of the mountain where men had come to work and were never seen again.

After reaching the lowest level in the mountain, I crashed on the dirt path to guzzle water and regain strength. Crawling into the last and most secluded room in the mine, I discovered two lonely men chiselling away at the lantern lit wall with rusted pick axes. They turned around and looked at us with a stare of amazement from their zombified, blood shot eyes. I let go of the bag of coca as they slowly took it from my hands. As each shoved an enormous wad into their mouths, I gave them all I had left. With coca laced drool dripping down his illuminated face, I asked one of the men how long he had been working in this part of the mine. He started to shake his head as he picked up his axe and looked at the other miner with a look of confusion. He didn’t know.

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