Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Bolivia (part 2) Above and Below

December16

A visit to the Patosi Silver Mines in Bolivia, to get an alternative view of the state of things, proves both frightening and enlightening. A descent deep in the bowels of the hellish Cerro Rico mountain which looms over the the city as lugubrious monument and Colonial shit pile. I take a tour with an ex- miner, who on our way up, stops our vehicle outside the Miners Market, insisting that Gringos will only be welcome should they arrive baring gifts. I oblige, purchase a packet of coca leaves, some soft drinks and for good measure, a few sticks of dynamite (bound to endear me instantly I’m told). That’s right, perfectly legal, sitting there amongst the cigarettes, candy, toilet paper in the local Cafeteria´- a wad of explosives (extra mild). Can anyone pop in and buy a pack of Dynamite? I ask, a little perplexed to which my host merely shrugs- Porque no? (Why not). I hope it isn’t on sale to kids, you know to minors ( pun unintentional -honest) or revolutionaries for that matter. Its a question which before I have time to ask, before my very eyes, a boy not past ten ambles in and leaves with two sticks wedged firmly in belt.

From the market one ascends to the crest of the gloomy mount,-lightening and lashings of rain only adding to the Hellish apparition, my mounting apprehension. This is after all the most medieval of mines functioning in the world today- the kind of death toll where authorities have grown bored with counting. Workers must make do without illuminated shafts, lifts or machinery- a far cry from the comparatively cushy Gold Reef City tour (No Toto we are not in Egoli anymore) .Here locals employ ancient push carts, poorly supported tunnels and rickety wooden ladders which plummet into those forsaken depths. As we move deeper the walls begin to tremble with the dull thud of dynamite. Air filling with acrid smoke causing, what little light the feeble head lamp offers, to vanishes instantly.

As for the Silver, for which the very foundations of Patosi are built upon?-nada. The Spanish Conquistadors, back in the day made quick work of that, exploiting every indigenous bloke who happened to wonder into view. Expanding empires, decking crowns and no doubt toilet seats with the ample takings. Sadly the modern day Patosian is left to suffer and scrape by one the remaining (and hardly lucrative) zinc deposits, burying it seems to the very core of the earth to retrieve them. I meet a gang of miners in one of these pits, swerving, slurring and wreaking of booze. What concerns me more is that they happen to be chugging on cigarettes when I extend my dynamite stick offerings. They respond by tugging me by the sleeve to meet the master and cause of their subterranean revelry.

There in a damp cavern, he sits. TIO. A life size replica of the miners revered devil (of which there are over 800 similar idols all over the mine) Carved from rock and clay, decked in traditional regalia, his eyes open, mouth agape. More famed (amongst giggling tourists) for his more than prodigious photo op appendage. A cock one might say as hard and prominent as the rock he has been shaped from. Here the miners proceed to fill his mouth with lit cigarettes, burn coca leaves at his feet and drink themselves to further stupor.According to the legend, TIO is the roving bachelor and veritable party monster of the mount. At the end of each day the men must incite him with an assortment of cocoa, tobacco and booze. Only once they have left does TIO wake, stammer to his feet, stalk the midnight corridors (minus hard hat, but certainly not hard on.)It is said he goes in search of Apache Mama ( Mother Earth- here symbolised by the whole of Mine) where, if i am to understand correctly, he is to give her a rogering to remember. Their vigorous love making of course proliferating the mountains depleted mineral resources.

Back on the ground, tensions it seems are running high. Its not hard to note the Bolivian phenomenon known as the daily newspapers.Seldom have I seen a nation or people as obsessed with their daily news. A scene typical to the ubiquitous city Plazas features elderly women, teenagers, business men (smug in shoe shine boy thrones) scanning their morning print. And if they are too young to read them then you can be certain they’re selling them. A politic obviously worth keeping a beady eye on- as volatile and in many ways as farcical as our own. Small cabbies bustle through city streets with over sized speakers attached to roofs. Above pompous band stand static, a voice beckons the public to arms. The same can be said for fish markets, where impassioned citizens(usually fish still flapping in hand) vent frustrations from upturned crates. Their disdain over the increase in food prices. One wonders what might become of this spark, about to ignite candle or keg? only time will tell. The Police forces, despite their daily proliferation, seem unfazed. Rather they slouch against barricades, pruning appearances in the reflection of their glass shields.

One does however pity poor ol TIO then, the miners Devil, despite his nightly philandering, his perpetual readiness, the current state of the countries natural resources seem to render him impotent.The people are hungry, food prices escalating. And if TIO and Apache -the all providing mama, can no longer deliver the goods, one shudders to think how the less benign (though no less omniscient) Bolivian Government plans to?

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