Fiesta de Esperitu

5 Aug

I stood there standing, at the entrance to a mine, cold and confused, and still wondering where all the lamas were.  I’d imagined colorfully dressed women, drinks, noise, a boisterous celebrations.  Instead I found a dry rocky field and a few people milling around.  I tried to fit in by buying some fruit at a local vendor.  A line of grandmas stood ready to serve the different shifts of miners all day.

A kid approached me to offer me a tour, told me he could take me to the inner depths of the mine.  I declined, but asked him if he knew where the fiesta de espiritu would be held.  He did.  And so for a few coins, i followed him to another mine, scrambling up the side of the mountain, out of breath within seconds.

There I saw two lamas, one of each gender, finely dressed and trimmed, awaiting their fate.  He showed me where they’d be slaughtered.  It would happen at the entrance to the mine, the point where the rails disappear into the dark.  I saw that the area was still covered with the dry blood of the past.

I was early.  Couldn’t have been ten yet and most people wouldn’t arrive for another few hours.  We decided to work our way back and I bought a beer and cookies to pass the time.  A shiny new car made its way past us.  I asked my new guide what it was doing on the mountain.  It belongs to a miner he matter of factly stated.

But how can he afford it?

Miners have money, he told me.  He was surprised I didn’t already know all of this.  You can find silver and be really rich, he concluded with a glint in his eye.

I realized that it was this drive for silver, the chance (albeit small) that you can strike it rich that kept the miners going.  It reminded me of a chapter in Freakonomics I’d once read about crack dealers in DC, how everyone of them went down that road of drug dealing because of the chance to become the drug kingpin.  The chances of becoming the kingpin were practically nil, but the rewards of becoming one were all around.

Access was unrestricted and I milled around the mine with my brew. Made friends with a kid even younger, a kid probably at about seven or eight.  I liked him.  He sold rocks glittering with minerals to tourists.  We hung out for a while while I fed him cookies and grilled him with questions.  He reminded me of the children I saw in the documentary about the mines.

Meanwhile, a group of miners were preparing in their own way, with a bottle of whiskey and a crate of beer.  They waved me over and I knew right away it was going to be a good time.  We started strong, passing the bottle around and exchanging jokes.  I’d read that the way to any bolivian’s heart was through humor and made sure to make them laugh from the offset.  It wasn’t very hard.

By the time I had joined them, a few in the group were already passed out, eyes rolled back, ready to enjoy whatever dreams would come.  The rest were happy and wasted and soon so would I.

Before every drink, we’d spill a bit on the ground.  I thought it was odd that guys that worked so hard for a living would waste alcohol, but it was their way of respecting and honoring mother earth.  I guess even she needs to drink a bit too.

I was getting wasted and getting wasted quick.  The super high altitude helped things along.  They showed me how to eat coca leaves, something I’d really wanted to do for some time.  My mouth was numb instantly.

The miners were from an elite group.  They were the drillers, the guys at the front of the action.  They assumed the most risk.  Losing a body part was something that came with the job.  The guys that I was drinking with had finished a shift from the night before.  They were still wearing their gear.  Dust covered.  Practically all white.  They had their helmets with gas driven light bulbs (to alert them of dangerous gases) they got a kick out of me wearing one.

I was having fun, and soon seeing the sacrifice wasn’t as much of a priority as was buying another round of beer.  I asked the guys if they were going.  They weren’t.  I thought they were getting drunk to celebrate the ritual but the only ritual they were celebrating that day was getting off of work.  Their mine had already sacrificed to the tio a few weeks before.

I decided to stay put.  See, I’m not that blood thirsty after all.  The sacrifice wasn’t the fundamental part of Potosian society that I thought it would be.  Truthfully, it seemed largely forgotten and so I decided to forget it as well.

I ended up drinking for the rest of the day and got blackout with the miners.  The things I do remember is slipping one of the miners 15 bucks and made him swear to come visit me in Sucre.  They tried to convince me to stay in town and go drill in the mountains with them the next day. I also remember getting into a car that wouldn’t start, and arriving in Potosi by coasting on neutral the entire way down.

Although a few of the miners would later use our friendship to try n get some money out of a gringo, that day on the mountain goes down as one of my favorite days from my trip.

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