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A young arriero leads a mule across fresh snow in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Benjamin Swift (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist), South America Semester.

Below the Surface

Before diving into our controversial subterranean adventure, we need some context. La Paz is alive, Cochabamba is thirsty, Sucre is dreaming, the Amazon is on fire and Potosi is…gritty. From the work ethic of its people to its rugged streets to the dust that turns black sneakers beige, Potosí has grit. It is also a unique, improbable city with a tragic origin story.

Conquistadors arrived in the “New World” in search of precious metals. One enterprising inca saw this appetite and tipped the Spanish off about the jackpot of jackpots: an Andean mountain filled with pure, untapped streaks of silver. The crown pounced and soon this rich hill (“Cerro Rico”) had become one the most productive mines in world history. Silver from Cerro Rico crossed the Atlantic and fueled Europe’s sixteenth century Renaissance. Potosi, the city surrounding the mine, boomed until it surpassed Paris in population. The unsavory side to the tale is the mass exploitation of natives who mined Cerro Rico. The Spanish forced indigenous people into grueling labor that claimed eight million lives. Centuries later, although silver is more scarce and the mine is now state run, the project continues. It’s dangerous work and the miners turn to El Tio for safety. Represented by statues throughout Cerro Rico, El Tio is the devil or God of the mineral underworld. Workers offer coca leaves and alcohol to the statues, hoping for prosperity or at least survival.

In 2005, an American and German filmmaker documented the story of Basilio, a fourteen year old boy who works in Cerro Rico along with his younger brother. Since age ten, Basilio has been wielding pick axes, preparing dynamite and scouring the mountain for patches of silver. The young laborer spends weekends in the mine, relies on El Tio for protection and describes school as “vacation.” The film — La Mina del Diablo — portrays a playful teenager who aspires to be a teacher. The documentary also reveals a bleak world, however, where children are forced to work and silicosis sets the life expectancy at 40. We watched La Mina del Diablo after arriving in Potosí and all asked the same question. What happened to Basilio? Surely, he escaped the mine. But how?

The suspense died one day later. We had read Cerro Rico’s history, watched the documentary and met with a local child labor activist. It was now time to visit the hill and enter the mine. We hopped on a bus and met our guide: Basilio. The former documentary star, now a 28 year old man, handed out coca leaves and hard hats. We ambled over to an opening stained by Llama blood, switched on our headlamps and started down the ladder.

The world suddenly became dark and dusty. Photos were futile. The mine is not a sight but a feeling. The feeling of dust slowly coating your throat and grating between your teeth. The BOOMs and subsequent tremors from distant explosions. The discomfort after seeing asbestos and arsenic casually lining the walls. The awkwardness of shuffling past busy miners and mumbling “Buenas Dias”. The clumsiness of ascending ladders not designed for western travelers and their 35 liter L.L Bean backpacks.

Before leaving, we visited El Tio. We placed a lit cigarette into his mouth for luck, offered coca leaves out of respect and sprinkled alcohol on his genitals to encourage profit. Basilio made three wishes. He wished for more tourists. He wished health and safety onto his fellow miners. Finally, he wished us luck for our travels ahead. I too had three wishes. I wished for the miners to find hope, happiness and health. I wished that the children of Cerro Rico live joyous childhoods that lead into full adulthoods. And, finally, I wished to get back to the aerated, sunny outside world as fast as possible. How people spend years there, I do not know. They must have more strength, more coca and more to work for.

I returned to the hostel shocked, overwhelmed and grateful. This was what I signed up for: uncomfortable, thought-provoking experiential learning. As educator, I’d prepared to debrief for thirty minutes by discussing an article on Potosi’s history. It turned out that, while the mine disturbed all of us, others were also provoked by the activity itself. The critics were scathing. We were self-indulgent privileged teenagers who, by paying to visit Cerro Rico, had participated in “poverty tourism”. We supported an exploitative industry and unnecessarily exposed ourselves to asbestos and arsenic. We shouldn’t ignore Cerro Rico’s conditions but, the skeptics argued, “a doctor treating Ebola doesn’t need to contract it himself.”

The defense was equally passionate. Visiting the mine empowered and educated us. We are students, not saviors. Reading is enlightening but standing inside Cerro Rico made the situation immediate and real. We spent less than two hours inhaling arsenic and trusted our experienced guide who himself explicitly welcomes tourism. We left better informed and in line with our mission statement: respect, grow and embrace the adventure.

I’ve distilled the conversation down to two criminally simplistic sides. The discussion was more open-minded than combative and many fell in between the extremes. Regardless, I was just as excited about the debate itself as the actual arguments. Cerro Rico, dusty, dangerous and claustrophobic as it is, triggered something special. We may have reacted differently to the mine but we all reacted. We all came back grappling with the existence of this profit-driven death machine and questioning whether or not we had a right to be there. Some praised the trip, some slammed the trip but all minds focused on the trip. We were engaged and present more than ever before.

Fifteen years after La Mina del Diablo, much remains the same. Thousands of Bolivians, many of them children, continue to live, work and die for the plata in Potosí. Basilio still lives on the same mountain, works in the same mine, and breathes the same air. In 2005, filmmakers promised two-hundred fifty dollars a month for videotaping and selling Basilio’s struggles. Fifteen years later, he’s still waiting for the checks.

But the world is less stubborn than it seems. Basilio recently began studying tourism at the local university and plans to become a tour guide in the Uyuni salt flats. As Cerro Rico becomes less and less rico, Potosí has the chance to redefine itself separately from the mine that birthed it. Four days ago, a group of twelve foreign students visited the devil’s mine for ninety minutes. A few months earlier, a Dragons alumnus returned to the mine to reconnect with Basilio and study Cerro Rico as the focus of his college thesis. We lack the power to transform the mine but the mine is powerful enough to transform us. And so it did.