This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Potosi II - A Miner Sacrifice

Editor's Note: This is my second post from Potosi, Bolivia. I recommend reading the first part -especially about the mines - before this one (click here).

Editor's Note #2 - WARNING! This post contains graphic images of dead llamas killed for ritual purposes and for food. Though if you eat meat, wear leather shoes, feed your cat or use a down blanket then this really shouldn't bother you, now should it.

So we do our mining tour on Tuesday and could pretty much leave Potosi and then we hear about the upcoming miners fiesta. On the final three Saturdays in June the miners of Potosi sacrifice llamas. I do not know an exact reason for them doing this, but I believe it is connected to ensuring the safety of the workers. Miners are very superstitious and they want the llamas blood to satisfy El Tio, the demon/deity of the mines. Yet this festival is also for Pachamama - Mother Earth. Throughout the day we are leaving her offerings and the llamas final remains will eventually be buried in her bowels. This event will be happening in front of every mine entrance at Cerro Rico and with every cooperative of miners performing their own ritual.
Mine Entrance
Llama sacrifices. Sounds like a good enough reason to stick around town for a few more days. Now it probably seems strange that we would want to go see this, but then again it was only ten months ago that we attended funerals in Sulawesi, Indonesia to see them sacrificing water buffaloes. This is just kind of how the year has been.

At nine in the morning a large group gathers at our hostel, which is fun, but I am a bit worried about having a big gang of gringos crashing a fiesta. We first walk to the Miners Market to buy beer and coca leaves and to catch the bus to Cerro Rico, the mining mountain. We have some time so our Bolivian guides tell us that we can walk up the hill to check out where they are selling the llamas tethered to light poles and loading them into trucks. Right away I can tell that it will be a good day. The miners are in good spirits, smiling, chatting with us and shaking hands.

Guests of honor - unwittingly
We hop on the bus and ride to the mine mountain. Our guides lead us to outside the mine called May 1, but we have to wait for the boss to show up and see if he'll accept our motley crew of gringos. The only ones outside now, besides some llamas, and the first ones to greet us are the kids who appear happy to have this strange flock of camera toters crash their party. I am not sure how many photos the children posed for throughout the day, but I am guessing it is in the hundreds.

A jeep arrives carrying the miners and loaded down with beer bottles. We are kindly accepted into their group and honor this moment with a can of beer, a shot of their homemade cocktail of orange drink and Whiskey Boliviano -  96% cane alcohol and preferred drink of the miners - and a handful of coca leaves. I actually had not planned on drinking today, and it is still before 11:00 AM, but I can easily see that avoiding alcohol will be impossible. Miners like to drink and they are very good at it. The beer and Devil's Cocktail keep flowing until we depart around 6:00 PM while the miners kindness and generosity to share with us never ceases for a moment. This is not just with alcohol. I also said that I am not going to chew coca leaves today. I bought a bag in the market to share with people, but they are also sharing their stashes with me.
Sharing coca leaves
Yes, all day the beer and orange drink/Bolivian Whiskey cocktails keep coming and purposely overflowing. The tradition here is that one person holds the bottle or pitcher and just one cup and keeps serving others...and keeps serving others...and keeps serving... There is no nursing drinks because they need the cup to serve the next person. And always before drinking some alcohol is spilled on the ground. This is for Pachamama. I think it is safe to speak for all the gringos there that as the afternoon wore on Pachamama's share grew larger and larger.

We are also handed cups of beer and instructed by the miners to pour it on the llamas as another type of offering. This is done when the llamas are alive and dead. The four llamas are eventually pulled in front of the mine entrance which we all know is where the deed will be done, but there is still some build up. Next we wait pouring more beer on the llamas. Then the beasts are force fed beer and coca leaves - more offerings.

Meanwhile, more gringos have descended on this fiesta. It is actually amusing because they are coming from their mining tours, so they are the ones dressed as miners for a miners party. So it is a pretty large, festive group of gringos, guides and miners when the moment of truth arrives.
Moving the llamas to the mine entrance

Feeding llama beer
Three men hold down the llama while the man with the knife has his knee on the neck. This is the one part that bothers me: their knives are two small to kill the llamas quickly. He slices through the neck. The blood spurting from the neck is collected in bowls. He then moves to the next one until all four have been killed. From a foreigner's perspective it is very easy to lament the poor llamas brutal death, but they are part of a tradition much bigger than us and our Western sensibilities. It is by no means pleasant to watch, but would it be less humane than what is happening at any slaughterhouse in North America or Europe? I kind of doubt it.

This is the now the first time that we see women. The ladies retrieve the bowls of blood. One woman throws fresh blood onto the mine entrance while another sprays bottles of beer. I heard that at some places the blood is put on the faces of the miners and guests, but it is not done here. Four bowls are used to make another offering inside. 

Everyone who entered this room spilled some alcohol
on each corner of this offering for Pachamama
When the llamas are fully dead the bodies are removed from in front of the mine to an open area so that they can begin dissecting the animal. People work in teams of three or four to hold the stiffening legs as one person works with a knife. First the wool is removed. Then the middle is split open and all the organs are removed.

The grilling meat is placed to the side until the fire is ready. The head, hooves and all internal organs are neatly arranged into wheel barrows. Normally other parts of the llama like the heart or liver may be eaten, but today all of this is for Pachamama. The llama parts (Pachamama's portion) are brought back to the mine entrance where they are decorated and will wait until holes have been dug and buried in the earth.
Time to butcher the llamas and most tourists are keeping their distance


While others prefer the hands-on approach
This is to be buried later for Pachamama

"Hey, no playing with Pachamama's llama parts!"

Ladies grilling the llama meat
The ladies give the signal that the meat is ready. The kids begin handing out plastic plates with potatoes, a piece of lettuce and a very large, meaty llama bone on top. I do not eat meat and try to refuse a plate. They do not accept my excuse that Mika and I will share. After the fourth time that someone comes by to offer me my own plate I have to accept it. Not wanting to insult my hosts nor upset Pachamama I take the plate and decide to try a bite. I can count on one hand the number of times that I have eaten mammals or birds the past eleven years and my soft, tree-hugging teeth are no match for this job. This meal harks back to neanderthal days when communities sat around fires, bones in hand, ripping off chunks of tough meat with their mouth.

My herbivore teeth are no good at tearing meat
It is near 6:00 PM with dinner over and the Whiskey Boliviano still coming with no end in sight. I am almost glad to hear that we should head down the hill if we want to catch the last bus back to town. I had a terrific time talking and laughing all day with the miners, guides and other tourists. This event was a much more personal encounter than is possible with the mine tours and I am still touched by the miners extreme generosity towards our group of strangers. And before leaving they all invited us to come back next year.

The Rambler's Rant

When reading writings about the mining tour in Potosi I see enough people questioning the ethics of doing the mine tour or saying how sad it is. Do the miners benefit from the tours? How can we take photos of people working in appalling conditions? Basically, it is first world tourists feeling guilty about going to see the poor developing world laborers as they toil away for paltry wages. To me these arguments are a crock of... well, llama poop.

Children are one thing. There should be absolutely no one under eighteen working in the mines and to see them doing so must be heart-breaking. But I am talking here about the adult miners who earn little wages risking their lives and long-term health in the hopes of striking it rich for themselves and their families. In the documentary film, The Devil’s Miner, the boy says that he is embarrassed to tell his classmates that he is a miner. Our guide, an ex-miner, told us that this part of the film made them very angry. The men who work in the mines of Potosi are proud and strong. The last thing that they want is people’s pity - especially from a bunch of gooey gringos who make it all the way to Bolivia without stepping outside of their insulated bubbles.

Maybe I am lucky. I had a whole afternoon at the fiesta to hang out and talk with the miners on a personal level. Drinking beer and having a laugh with the boss or being able to hear one guy’s story about how he overcame drug addiction and can now support his young family by working in the mines definitely broke the superficiality usually found on mine tours. I cannot reiterate enough how kind and generous these guys were to us. Not one of them asked for our sympathy and as visitors to their world this is something we should all respect.

So my recommendations for anyone considering doing the mine tours. First of all, if you think that you will feel guilty or sad and need to blog about your feelings afterwards then don’t go. It is disrespectful to these proud miners and does everyone a disservice, including yourself. Secondly, find a tour company that gives good opportunities to miners and their families. Ask if your guide worked in the mines. Our company, The Real Deal, was owned and run by ex-miners and I am sure there are others. Lastly, when in the mines give the people you meet gifts which they can use, take photos and speak with them on a human level, not as a tourist attraction, and sincerely thank them for giving you the opportunity to see them work. Just leave your pity at home.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Giving Mountain: Into the Mines of Potosi

We finally get out of Uyuni, Bolivia (with cash in hand) and take the six hour bus to Potosi. Before coming here I knew that Potosi is a colonial town and a mining town, but what I did not know is that it would end up being one of the most fun visits that we have had in a while. A lot of this is just due to luck and the good timing of our arrival in June.

Baby You're a Rich Man

In 1545 Potosi was conceived around one of the richest silver mines in human history. In its heyday Potosi was the largest city in the New World and bigger than Paris or London. Up until the late 18th century, 45,000 tons of silver had been extracted. Standing over the town is the mountain Cerro Rico whose veins have been giving out these minerals for centuries while millions of indigenous people and African slaves gave up their lives in return to The Mountain That Eats Men. The Spanish used to force workers to stay underground for six months at a time. Today, 466 years later, there is hardly any silver here but miners are still working in Cerro Rico to find zinc and tin.
Cerro Rico overlooking Potosi
Like many of the colonial towns we have been visiting in South America Potosi, is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is actually the first time where I question that distinction. Yes, the city center is full of old buildings with nice interior courtyards but besides the churches and Casa de Moneda not much seems well-maintained. Walls are crumbling and there is way too much grafitti. Traffic is also a problem. The narrow Spanish streets were designed for mules not buses. And being at 4060m (13,320 ft - making Potosi the highest city in the world) oxygen is hard to come by. Our first night here I definitely feel the altitude. The worst part is not the lack of air. It's that I am sucking in diesel whenever I need to take a deep breathe.
The center of Potosi still has several gems and
ancient churches sprouting above town
Despite the flaws there is some charm here. In the central market you can buy groceries, coca leaves, toiletries, pirated cd's, get a suit made and have lunch all within a few steps of each other. Modern Potosi appears to have everything, but an overabundance of nothing. There are a few ATM‘s, one cinema, one supermarket, some discos and small variety of restaurants.
The movie theater
The main sight in town is the Casa Real de la Moneda, a nice museum dedicated to Potosi’s wealthy silver past. It is housed in the former mint. In the mid 1700’s, it cost US $10,000,000 to build (that‘s in today‘s dollars). Upon hearing this outrageous sum, the king of Spain assumed it was built in silver. It’s not. The building is still well-maintained and houses the original silver coin-making contraptions and some luxurious art from back in the day.
A procession in front of the former Spanish mint
Here Comes the Sun

We happen to arrive to Potosi on Saturday June 18th, a few days before the winter solstice. We and some others in our hotel are invited by two of the Bolivian staff to go with them to a party on a hill to commemorate winter solstice by welcoming the sunrise. On June 21, we leave our place in the cold and dark of 4:30 AM and walk about a half hour with just a thermos of coca tea and a bottle of Bolivian Whiskey - 96% pure evil cane alcohol - to keep us warm.
Our first introduction to "Bolivian Whiskey"
is this fire demonstration on the sidewalk
We make it up the hill where people are gathering in small groups covering a fairly large area. People are building fires. Usually all year the sun keeps us warm, but today, the shortest day of the year, it needs our help. The fires will give the sun energy and warmth. There are many different small bands of musicians walking around playing traditional music. This party is a wonderful mix of urban folks and campesinos (rural folks). Everyone is huddled around the fires. It is cold, but people are in good spirits.
One of the many bands on hand
As light begins to climb over the hills to the east and the sun finally starts to rear its head, the fiesta stops and everyone turns to face the sun. It becomes very quiet. People raise their hands, palms out, to welcome the sun. Random individuals in the crowd make benedictions starting with the Quechua phrase "Hai Yai" and when finished everyone replies with "Hai Yai." I do not know what Hai Yai means.
Facing the sun
Facing the crowd
The sun is up. People give hugs and shake hands. The climax of the event has been reached, but the revelry continues. Now people are more generous than when it was dark sharing alcohol and coca leaves with strangers, pulling us into their dance circles and asking to pose for photos with our group of gringos and accepting our own camera requests.
Mika making friends

I Me Mine

Just like the boy in Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree, the people in Potosi over time have adapted new ways to get wealth from Cerro Rico. Today it is through tours to the mines deep inside the mountain. As usual, we do not know which company to choose and decide to go with a new agency created by a group of very nice guys who were ex-miners then ex-guides and now small business owners. Also, their tour is the only one that includes lunch.
Grilled llama for lunch
The tour starts with us putting on our mining outfit, boots and helmet then it is a shopping stop to the Miners Market. At the stores here the miners can buy everything they need for their work such as: clothing, tools, wheel barrow tires and dynamite. We are at this shop to buy gifts for the miners. Since this tour will take us to an actual working mine we bring goodies to show our appreciation to the miners that they are tolerating a group of foreigners with flashing cameras hanging around their "office." This market is the one chance in my life that I will have to legally buy dynamite, but I chicken out when I realize that I will have to carry it around the mine until we find someone to blow it up for me. Our guide suggests that we buy 2L bottles of juice for the miners. The mines can get incredibly hot and dusty and the miners will spend all day down there without proper hydration. They never eat in the mines.
In the miners shop our second encounter with Bolivian
 Whiskey - the favorite drink of the miners.
We all take a swig of the 96% hell in a bottle and then our guide puts it back on the shelf
At the market we also stock up on coca leaves buying bags for 5 and 10 Bolivianos (US $0.72 and 1.45). The coca leaf is as important to the miners as their drills and helmets. Because they never eat in the mines the coca leaf is used to stave off hunger and gives necessary energy to the miners. We do not see one miner without a large coca leaf bulge in his cheek. Sharing coca leaves - by putting two pinches from your bag into someone else's bag or into their hands -  is also a good way to make friends. Two Swiss guys in our group are coca leaf professionals. Pretty soon we all (apart from one woman) have wads in our mouths that last us throughout the morning. I later learn from them that chewing coca leaves will show up in urine tests as cocaine in the system. Oh well, there went my chances at the Olympics.
A coca leaf seller
After shopping we go to a refinery where they process the minerals. As soon as we arrive some workers are waiting and we hand out some coca leaves. They are like kids on Halloween with their bags open waiting to get a treat. We pass by the various whirling machines that finish at a pile of sludge that should hold some metals. This is where the process ends. The sludge at this refinery is sent off to Brazil where they pull out the precious metals.
Our guide showing us specks of metal in the strainer.
A lot of it is probably fool's gold
There's something of value in there?
After the refinery we go to the mine entrance, switch on our headlamps and walk into the unknown. The first part of the mine is constructed from stones dating back to colonial times which is not very reassuring. We go further and further sometimes through very low, narrow passageways and other times opening up into large cavernous sections. To avoid hitting my head I end up doing a type of duck walk while others prefer to bend forward or to the side. Headlamps are our only source of light and bumping helmets onto stone is not uncommon. The temperature has changed and it begins to feel much warmer. The dust in the thin air has increased and I can taste it when I am breathing.

After walking a  bit and getting used to the conditions underground we arrive at El Tio to pay our respects to the deity of this underworld. Above ground the miners may pray to Pachamama or Jesus, but it is El Tio who rules the mines. We take a break as the guide talks to us about the history and present conditions of the mines. There are a countless number of mines and tunnels in the mountain and the history is ruled by tales of exploitation. Now the mines are run by small cooperatives. Some of these cooperatives share tunnels while others work their own. The miners only earn money from the amount of minerals they take out of the mine. The conditions are far from ideal but at least now in this century the miners have some control over their own destiny. Each mine has its own Tio who they pray to to bring a richness of minerals and ask for their personal safety.
El Tio
We leave offerings of coca leaves and spills of Bolivian Whiskey to Tio to ask for our safety for the rest of the tour and for that of the miners working far below us. We head further away from the entrance climbing deeper down a few rickety ladders and through one tight space on our hands and knees. There is the smell of gunpowder from recently blown dynamite and the dust has gotten worse. We climb down a hole and squeeze into a little cavern where three miners are taking a break. They kindly answer our questions for a while and we fill their bags of coca leaves before leaving.
Having a break
Sharing coca leaves
As we head back towards light we have to scramble out of the way and off the tracks several times as miners make their way towards the exit hauling excruciatingly heavy carts full of rocks.
Heavy load
There are so many mines and I am not sure how the guide chose ours. but we end up not seeing so many miners working today. Other tourists we talk to see dynamite explosions and drilling. Unfortunately, we seem to just catch the workers as they are taking out rocks or having a break. Other than that the tour is fantastic and a real eye-opener to a world very far from my own.

I leave my one day in the mine with a much greater appreciation for these miners who depend greatly on the generosity of Pachamama and Cerro Rico and the benevolence of Tio for their livelihood and safety. Our tour feels like we go far into the mine, but it barely scratches the surface of where these miners go daily. And since new mining routes are constantly being made it makes me wonder how much longer can Cerro Rico remain stable with its insides forever being dug out. Accidents are always a danger. However, the biggest threat to the miners is silicosis - a disease caused by the formation of dust in the lungs. Many miners are afflicted with this when they are as young as 35 or 40 years old.
Entrance to the mining area under Cerro Rico
Editor's Note: We have one more big event with the miners in Potosi (hint: llama sacrifices), but since this post is getting long I will save it for next time. So stay tuned... 

It's ready. Click here to read my second post about Potosi.

The video below is the trailer for the 2005 documentary film The Devil's Miner about a 14 year old boy working in  the mines in Potosi and the miners' relationship with Tio below ground and their god above. The second mine that the boy works at, Rosario, is coincidentally the same one that we visit on our tour. I highly recommend you rent this film. It gives very good insight into life of the miners of Potosi.