Shit I Learned In The Potosí Mines

I was picked up this morning by a very funny local man by the name of Antonio Banderas. He tells me that there is the famous Antonio Banderas of Spain who sings (?? I thought he was an actor) and then there is famous Antonio Banderas of Potosí who dances (him).

We first went to his office where we were equipped with sexy red pants and jackets, helmets and torches, ready for a bit of industrial spelunking. On the way of course, we had to stop and acquire some supplies. Such supplies consist of coca leaves, a 96% bottle of booze, and snacks to give as presents to the miners. Why you ask does a person need a 96% bottle of alcohol in a mine, well, we will get to that later.

Antonio Banderas and his dick dynamite

So a bit of background history. Locals lived here for thousands of years happily. The Spanish rock up with their guns and evil trickery and take over pretty much the entire continent. Upon the discovery of a boat load of silver ore underground, some of which being up to (oddly) 96% pure, they decided to base their entire South American economic operations out of Potosí. Problem though. Who is actually going to work in these unsafe mines in shocking conditions for the profitability of the Spanish? Certainly not the Spanish.

According to Señor Banderas, up to eight million local Quechua died working in these mines from either accidents or lung failure from the silica dust. They were forced to work there as slaves. My fact checker journalist friend finds a mere hundred thousand in comparison on the internet but no doubt these numbers have been fudged a bit along the way by both parties. As it stands today, there are 7,500 people still working across 40 different cooperative mines in the area and there are on average approximately three deaths per month. One of the last they had to haul out in pieces after he exploded himself with dynamite.

A derailed cart for transporting silver through the mines

In an attempt to protect themselves from the evils of the mines, there are several rituals which miners undertake to ask Pachamama and their devil friend they call Tio, for sparing. At first we throw coca leaves and some alcohol on the ground at the mine entrance to ask Pachamama for her blessings and then we enter.

Back in the days of the Spanish, when the Quechua would refuse to enter the mines, the Spanish lied to them and told them that unless they went and pulled as much silver out of the ground as possible that they would seriously piss of the God of the underworld, also known as Satan, and that he would rain fucking hell down like you’ve never seen. All lies of course, but what this started was super interesting.

Scattered throughout the mine are devil statues of varying sizes that they call Tio. Tio means uncle in Spanish, but it is more likely the case that they were trying to call him ‘Dios’ without the capacity to be able to pronounce the letter ‘d’, thus ‘tios’. Each Tio has his hands on his knees in sitting position with an optimistically giant erection sticking out from between his legs. The ritual proceeds that one gives coca leaves and alcohol to each hand, to protect the hands, to each feet, to protect the feet and lots for the penis for “lots and lots of sex sex sex!” Antonio Banderas tells me. Of course he is joking, the significance of the giant schlong is fertility and they make the biggest offering to it in hope that the mine will be rich with ore and give back ample dinero. Antonio then also sparks up a doobie, has a few puffs and inserts this cigarette into Tio’s mouth so he gets the trifector of all vices of miners. Most of the Tios have black noses for this and black lips. This is still something that is performed in devout manner to ask for protection and safety every single day in disregard to occupational health and safety measures. Despite losing both his father and grandfather to lung disease from working in the mines, Antonio still didn’t wear a mask.

One of the many ‘Tios’ scattered throughout the mines

What he did do however was sing the Indiana Jones theme song quite consistently and recommend that we use hands to crawl like ‘Spider-Mans, Spider-Womens and Spider-Pigs’. I can say that I not so graciously attempted to follow this advice as I squeezed my way through some of the small cracks where we observed the miners working in their actual conditions with hammers to break up stone, shovelling rocks into carts and pushing them along the tracks. These days the ore is lucky to contain ten percent and as such, not a lot of money is to be made from such a gruelling process.

They are however a proud people. Proud of their jobs and proud of their history. I can tell you this right now, I don’t think you could pay me enough money in the world to make the daily sacrifices that these men make, with their lives and their long term health, just to sustain their families. But then I was fortunate enough to be born with such a choice. Many of them don’t and come from generations of miners like Antonio Banderas. He did something smart though. He learned to speak English and started doing tours of the mines.

One of the tunnels used for transporting silver in the mines.

“Six years”, he will proudly tell you he has been speaking English. “Fuck is the first English word I learned”, he chuckles as he adds in “fucking tourists, jejeje”. He is one of the most friendly and jovial men you will meet, and very, very funny. But his face takes a hard worn look to it as he discusses his friends that died in the five years he was working in the mines as a miner. A reality that every single man in the mine faces.

It’s all fun and games crawling around a mine as a tourist, in all your gear, with your helmet, but at the end of the day, that’s what we are. Tourists in the unfortunate lives of others. These men work in appalling conditions that will either lead them to rapid accidental death or the eventual death by age forty from the constant inhalation of silica dust. It is hard, dirty, and completely unregulated in what we would consider a western standard. Nobody here survives in the end. They just accept that it’s their card and get about it until they die, with the exception of the odd ones like Antonio and a few others who defy this and find work elsewhere. It certainly gave me an appreciation for the options I have for work in my life. At least I don’t have to die to provide for my family for the short working span of life I would have working here.

 

Advertisements

The Emotions Of Going Home

Going home. It doesn’t really have very strong connotations for most of us. Going home from work. Going home from a holiday. You can pretty much expect things to be exactly the way that you left them. But what if you’ve been gone for four years? What if you don’t even know anymore what you are going home from? Or even better yet, going home to?

Obviously I am going home to my family and a lot of exciting and not so exciting things that involve my family, whom I adore to pieces. But everything else is more scary. Everything else is so unknown, and for someone who has lived unknown for such a long time, you would think that I would be used to it. But this is different. This feels more permanent. This time I don’t have an escape and somewhere else to go to. This time, I am back to stay.

And that is hard when I don’t feel like I know or relate to my country anymore. For the last few times I have been home, I have felt like an alien walking around a land that looks so familiar to me. A foreigner in a land where everyone sounds just like me. A stranger to people who I have known for a long time. The truth is, in moving around and meeting so many other people, I have detached myself from the parts of being Australian that I didn’t want to associate myself with. The parts that get involved in ridiculousness like national outrage over shaved cricket balls and supermarkets banning plastic bags. The parts that need to be in everyone else’s business because there is nothing else to get worked up about in a place where people are so fortunate. The parts that have a reputation globally for being racist and unaccepting. Or better yet, drunk all the time and disrespectful. I left them behind somewhere along the way and I don’t want them back. A part of me went about collecting the best parts of other cultures and trying to incorporate them into who I am. Will this person be accepted? Or shunned by others who will go about isolating me and keeping their distance, which something I experienced last time I returned for several months.

I fear the lack of being able to communicate with others on the same level. After leading such a different life for such a long time, it is hard to come back to what is considered normal. It is harder when people don’t like to acknowledge that you haven’t been living normal. That you’ve been living something unexplainable. How do you make new friends when you’ve forgotten how to talk to normal people about normal everyday things that aren’t “Where are you going? Where are you from?” How do you communicate with old friends when so much of who you are has changed? Half the time I feel like I am sitting as an island witness to conversations I no longer have the capacity to be a part of because I lost pop culture along the way.

I fear not making enough money to survive and yet I also fear having a job where I wind up in the same stress cycle I did last time, ending up in adrenal fatigue and nervous breakdown. How do I manage to navigate a network of obtaining a job that is considered acceptable or do I just blow the whole thing off and go work as a card dealer at the casino or serve ice cream or something? Will I again be judged for choosing something that isn’t considered ‘professional’ in a society where what you do for work is a large part of defining who you are and what your worth is? If I shun the standard view of worth and work, will I still be accepted by others or will new people I meet walk away and decide I am not good enough because of it?

The biggest thing for me is that I fear that I cannot make this work. That at some point in six months from now, I am going to want to pick myself up and go somewhere else because I am unhappy and it is too hard. The truth is, I am at an age where I need to consider whether I want to have children and a family and if I can’t stay in one place long enough to meet someone that I connect with at that level, then I am giving those things away. And if I don’t manage to meet someone because I have waited so long to do so, then I have given it away with my choices up to this point already. And that, well it will be a bridge I cross when I come to it. But I actually need right now to commit to it. I need to commit to opening myself up, putting myself out there, meeting people with the knowledge that I am not saying goodbye to them in six months from now and making myself a life. I tried in England. I failed. After two years, I walked away with very little to show for myself because of several different factors that I don’t want to repeat.

So here we go again. Like always, I feel the fear, and I get on the plane and I tell it to shove off and I go home. I go home. To what I don’t know. But to home, nonetheless.

Shit I Learned About Bolivian Ladies

The Bolivian ladies are a special breed. They don’t take any shit, I can tell you that right now. In comparison to their other South American counterparts, these women have got it going on. Just be prepared for them to kick your arse good and proper if you piss them off though. So here’s the four-one-one.

  • A ‘Chola’ means a lady that uses traditional clothes. However, over time, and through inappropriate use by the Spanish, this word took on a derogatory tone. The women, however, adopted the name ‘Cholita’ which translates to ‘cute, little women dressed in traditional clothes. Have no fear though. These women are indeed not as timid as the ‘ita’ would have you believe. In fact, some of these women are involved in a local Bolivian pastime; Cholita Wrestling. I was fortunate enough to go and watch one of these shows and the women here are brutes, yelling and screaming at the crowd, threatening audience members, one even threw her opponent on the laps of two of my friends. Somewhat hilarious, but very much staged and a funny thing to see.
Cholitas preparing for battle, ie. talking shit.
  • From the word Chola, mixed with the Swiss word, chalet, you find yourself with ‘Cholet’, a very expensive and posh house that you mostly find up in the area of El Alto, in the higher and richer area of the city. These houses are all developed with extravagance to demonstrate wealth and every house has to be designed differently. Some are used for actual houses, some are used to house Cholita wrestling, and others are used as function rooms. They are however, impressive.
A couple of cholets.
  • The women in the markets, with their Chola-heritage, also don’t take shit. If you take a picture of one without asking, expect rotten fruit to be piffed at your head and god-forbid you actually touch the fruit. You will get the mother of all slaps. You see, they choose the fruit that they want to give you, you don’t get to choose the ones you want. The best way of not getting slapped is to repeatedly go back to the same lady for the same product day after day. She will then get to know you and reward you for your loyalty by giving you the best fruit. You can also ask for an ‘yapa’ (I think this is the spelling, I am not sure) and they will give you a little extra. However you should never, ever ask for a discount as this is considered rude and devaluing their product. If you manage to score a regular lady, she becomes your ‘casara’, which comes from the word ‘casar’, which means ‘to marry’. Go see someone else next week and she catches you, you’re as good as divorced and are going to have to find somewhere else to get your juicy goods.
  • Women’s calves are considered attractive here (Bingo! I’m in!) As such it is not uncommon to see the single ladies let a bit of ankle slip out of the bottom of their skirt to show just how strong those lovely legs are. The married ladies, cover those babies up because hubby wouldn’t be impressed with the exhibition of his lovely calves.
  • The hats that the women in Bolivia wear were originally designed in Europe and bought over by the Spanish. The women originally wouldn’t wear them and then the Europeans thought up a fabulous idea and decided to lie to them about the hats special ability to increase fertility. Next thing you know, hats are everywhere. They are worn straight on by married women and tilted to the side for single ladies so that the men know who the eligible ladies are. They don’t secure these hats to their heads either. They maintain the hat’s position through posture and head tilting.

Of course, each lovely Cholita is somewhat different and for the most part, lovely if you don’t piss them off. I, in fact, like these women. They are definitely more spirited than those that sit around placidly waiting for a man to come along and do everything for them and tell them what to do. They got sass. And you have to respect that.