Where the Lamas at?

5 Aug

I arrived in Potosi and on went the dance of finding a cabbie that wasn’t too sketchy.  Usually you’re swarmed outside of bus stations with aggressive cabbies, but this time I had to take to the street to find a ride.  Up pulled up a car.  There was a kid sleeping in the front seat.  one u-turn later and off we went.

I spent the rest of the day asking about the Fiesta de Spiritu, which was the main reason I had come to town.  I’d read that the town would come together to offer a lama sacrifice to the devil, to ensure the luck and safety of the miners inside.

What I found was a town much larger (and much more evolved) than the one I had imagined.  The economy had moved one.  Everyone knew someone who worked in the mines but the glory days of silver were well behind it.  People had been forced to find other jobs.  The result was that at first, no one knew what festival I was talking about.  I wondered if it was simply a private, religious event, and whether people just didn’t want to give a tourist any information.  Gradually I learned to revise my question.  It wasn’t that the whole town would join in the festivities, it would be a sacrifice for the miners and by the miners, and I had to find out which mine.  Still, nobody knew.

That night, back in the hostel, I decided to make it a night of reading and hung out with a mug of beer and a book all night.  I switched back and forth between academic reading of Bolivian politics and Marching Bones, a story about a English drug smuggler locked in a Bolivian prison unlike any other.

It was cold, and I had all of my layers on, but what was perhaps the truest testament of our altitude was how hard it was to pour a beer.  Mine fizzled and foamed and no matter how far I leaned my glass, the result was a mug of beer that looked more like a mug of milk.  I’d read that beer at that altitude was like women at that altitude, cold and frigid, and you had to take great care to make either work.


Dawn marked my renewed search for the lama sacrifice.  It wasn’t that I was blood thirsty and wanted to see some lamas meet their maker.  Actually, I didn’t even know what a lama looked like yet.  I just thought that it was an important day and a grand festival in the lives of the miners and I wanted to take part.

A documentary I saw back in Sucre told me that the miners believed in two gods, one for the outside world and one for the mountains.  It was believed that the “Tio,” controlled all inside of the mines and all accidents were attributed to him.

To be honest, it was all a bit sad because it was the Spanish who invented the Tio, and it was the Spanish who placed giant, ugly looking devil statues inside of the mines to keep the miners scared and appeasant.  The miners seemed to be in tune with that history, but still undeterred in their unwavering worship of the Tio while underground.   Devil worship started at a young age too.  When I talked to a few kids, no older than seven or eight years old by one of the mines that day, they both informed me uneasily that it was the Tio who ruled inside of the mountains.

Meanwhile, back on my quest to get to the mines, I spent the morning in the central plaza approaching men that seemed to look like miners.  Eventually, I was armed with a bus number and a few names of different mines.  Even though there was only one main mountain from which to mine, there were a number of different entrances, and a number of different companies working to find their lucky share of silver and zinc.  These days, just about all of the companies functioned as cooperatives, a form of revenue sharing where everyone has a stake.  I gathered that the festival took place over four weeks, and every week a different company was responsible for hosting the sacrifice.

With time running out, and bus drivers pretty unhelpful, I went on the hunt for a taxi.  A cabbie, who I found out later used to be a miner himself, said he knew where the Fiesta de Spiritu would be held, and could take me up to the shafts.

Off we went, driving a Toyota Corolla through rocky roads into the mountain.  On the way, we passed the large trucks featured in the documentary – trucks that transported the miners back and forth between the shafts.  These were trucks that my driver used to take as well.  Then one day his group hit a lucky silver vein and from that day forward, he used the money to buy a car and make a new living as a taxist instead.  The miners all know that their life expectancy is limited, that their likely to die with twenty, fifteen, even ten years of entering the mines.  Those that decide to work have no other choice, and with that came a pride that I noticed with all of the miners I met.

Up the mountain we went but the cooperative we came upon was closed.  It was Saturday and activity on the mountain was limited on the weekends.  Only the mine conducting the ceremony would be the exception that day.  If it wasn’t this mine, it would surely be one of two other ones my cabbie told me.

But that would cost me more.

We never agreed on a price when I got inside.  The truth is I rarely do, especially when I’m not sure how much prices in the area run.  That gives all of the leverage to the cabbie and I’m forced to either take it or leave it.  Once we’ve already arrived on the other hand, it’s me who’s got the upper hand since he’s already done the work.  This time was interesting though because we still hadn’t arrived, and I still wasn’t sure how much things should cost.  His price was outrageous though and I told him to take me back.  I’d find another way to get to the mines.

By now though, I knew the names of the other two mines and I remembered seeing a bus heading to one of them.  So miles from town, in the middle of the open road where I’d seen the bus before, I told him to let me out and I paid him what I thought was fair.  We scuffled and argued and he wanted more money.  He said he wasn’t leaving till he got a bit more and stood next me to arguing while I tried desperately to ignore him.  Thankfully a bus arrived soon enough anyway that gave me the getaway that I needed.  Ironically, it was my cabbie who pointed out it was the bus that I needed.  I wondered if I really had short-changed him or whether he just saw an opportunity to get some extra money from a gringo.

Finally, I was on the right bus to the right mine, and I’d see what I’d finally come to see.  I was excited.

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