The lives of others
La vida de otros
(The Life of Others)
15,827 feet above sea level Potosi, Bolivia is the highest city on earth. It was during Spanish rule the richest and largest in terms of population, at more that 200,000 people. The mountain Cerro de Potosi looms over the town and casts a early shadow on the city each afternoon even in the summer the temperature never really reaches anywhere near something that would be considered warm or comfortable. You can see in the faces of the indigenous people the effects of generations living at this altitude and climate. Their bodies are smaller and have a more round figure that makes it easier for them to get oxygen at this altitude.
The city of Potosi was once the center of the Spanish empire in the Americas. More than a million Africans and Indians were enslaved to work within the mines extracting the gold and silver which made Spain the wealthiest empire on earth. I knew very little of this when I arrived in Potosi. All i had heard was that it was a must do while traveling through Bolivia. Taking a tour through a mine where the conditions are unbearable and more than one hundred thousand people may have died. I remembered what Laura, a South African girl i had met while in Lima said about the mine tour,"it was one of the coolest things i have ever done, but i will never do it again. I'll never bitch about my day job again" Why not?
I signed up for the tour through my hostel. The van would be by in the morning to pick me and the other people up at 7am. I asked if there was a later tour but they said it wasn't possible, I cringed at waking up before ten on a vacation and i thought of ditching the whole thing. The next morning was cold I was sitting outside drinking a cup of coca tea smoking a cigarette watching the fog gently lift from the city which gave way to bright sun with a crisp blue sky. I got lost in the peace of the clouds and the silence over the city and thought about the massive amount of history that this city must of been part of. The small van arrived at around eight, a hour late. Three men jumped out of the van dressed in dirty overalls covered in dirt and soot.
They spoke only in spanish and I spoke no spanish. There were five other people that had signed up for the tour, most of whom didn't speak spanish either but their was one Israeli who could. He actually could speak five languages and he made sure everyone knew that about him, he reluctantly translated for us when it suited him. The tour guides introduced themselves and went on to speaking, I couldn't understand a thing past their names. It didn't necessarily matter to me that I couldn't understand them I was excited about the tour and experiencing something that was so cool and at the same time i would never want to do again.
We got in the van and the guides brought us up the mountain to a section of the town where most of the miners lived. The guides let us out of the van and told us that it would be a good idea if we bought something to give away to the miners as gifts. They suggested; grain alcohol, coca leaves and above all, dynamite. I was impressed how easily anyone could buy dynamite, it cost about two dollars and came complete with a matchbook, a wick, the dynamite stick and a mixture of some chemical to make a more powerful explosion. I bought four sticks, a bottle of alcohol and a bag of coca leaves all for about nine dollars. I packed all of it away in my backpack.
The guides then took us into their shop where they gave us rubber boots, a jacket and a hardhat with a lamp. We walked over to a large truck and got in its back bed along with a few other miners. The truck started and headed up to the entrance to the mine. The entrance was almost like going into a train tunnel their was a small track leading deep into the darkness of the mine, and what seemed like dark black oil that coated and stained the walls surrounding the entrance.
There was a hold up with us entering the mine and the Israeli translator never thought of letting everyone know why. After about twenty minuets of waiting more and more miners started to fill the small area in front of the mine's entrance. Their was a noticeable sense of excitement in the air. The miners were talking and cheering all while stuffing their mouthes with handfuls of coca leaves. A large llama was pulled down from behind the mountain to the entrance of the mine. The animal was trying to escape its eyes seemed to try and crawl away toward its freedom, the miners pulled at the rope tied around its neck. They pulled at it dragging it toward the mine's entrance.
The guides started saying something and the Israeli laughed and nodded his head, still no reason in his mind to let us know what was going on. The miners pushed at llama down to its knees and onto its side. They brought out a few plastic bowls and a knife. They pushed the llamas head to the ground and pulled its jaw back. One of the miners took the knife and pushed it against the llama's neck and started to saw at its neck. The llama started to cry and shake violently, a few of the other miners held the animal down as the the man with the knife continued to try and break the animals skin. It was almost as if he was trying to hack through a tire the animals skin would not give into the blade of the knife.
The knife wasn't sharp enough and the miner continued to hack at the llamas neck with it continuing to cry. A woman came up to the miner and handed him another knife. The animal continued to scream as the miner let up to change knives. The man took the new knife and within a few storks blood began to pour from the slit. The screams of the llama were then replaced by a gargling struggle as the animal drowned in its own blood. As the blood poured from its neck the plastic bowls that the miners had brought out were placed under the animals neck to catch the blood. Then the blood of the llama was thrown over the entrance to the mine.
Within minuets the black stained entrance to the mine was red with the blood. I looked back down at the lifeless body of the llama as the miners had already began to cut the stomach open and pulling the meat off the carcass. The grain alcohol was being passes around, one miner turned to me and poured a shot. Even though it was pushing ten at the latest i took the shot and fought to keep it down as it burned my throat. The Israeli finally told us what the guide had been saying. The miners were sacrificing the llama to Pacha Mama or mother earth. They believe due to the fact that throughout their generations, thousands of people have died and continue to die because the devil or Tio, lives within the tunnels of the mines. This sacrifice was to appease him, give thanks to Pacha Mama for allowing the miners to take silver from the mountain and to protect the miners.
The guides signaled for us to follow them into the entrance to the mine where the blood of the llama was still dripping down the sides of the wall. Along the side was a shrine to a horned Tio covered with coca leaves, cigarettes, beer and a fresh glass of llama blood.