Cerro Rico part two: My experience inside an active Bolivian mine

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My ears popped. I put a finger in each and adjusted my jaw. At that moment a muffled blast shook the mine shaft. Dust and small pebbles bounced off my helmet.

“The miners are blasting deeper into the mountain.” Jesus chuckled and brushed dust off the mouth of his whiskey bottle, as if in this environment he was concerned with contamination.

“The pressure of the blasts can blow your ears out.” I added it to the growing list in my mind of things that could maim me within these mines.

Jesus led us through a tight opening in the ground of the mine shaft, muttering something in spanish about giving birth. He led us to a cavern that housed an alter of sorts, a clay representation of the god of the miners. A large man-like creature sat on a candle-wax thrown, devil horns emerged from his head and a comically large phallic protrusion from his torso. He was covered in cigarettes and coca leaves.

“El diablo de las minas” Jesus said. “The devil of the mines.” The miners believed that his well-endowed alter scared away the evil spirits of the mines, protecting them from mishaps and injuries.

As we continued down another tunnel, we were stopped abruptly by a loud rattling noise. A bright light approached us at a scary speed. A full mining cart, propelled by some invisible inertia, hurled down the tracks. Jesus yelled something in Spanish and I jumped out of the way, pressing my body as flat against the uneven stone walls as I could. High from adrenaline, I watched as the cart hurled around a corner and out of my sight.

Jesus decided, most likely from the horror on my and my brother’s faces, that it was time to make our out of the mines. As we slowly emerged, my pupils seemed to be screaming at me to run back inside.

“Amigos,” Jesus said, a smug smile on his face, “you still have some dynamite left.”

This guy is absolutely nuts, I thought.

“Yes, we do. Should we give it to a miner?” I asked, feeling guilty that I hadn’t earlier.

“No, no, no. No necessary.”

We followed Jesus to a meadow and gathered around a particularly tall cactus. We seemed uncomfortably close to a residential area for what we were about to do. Jesus tied the stick to the neck of the cactus, giggling madly, displaying a bit of inebriation.

As he secured the blasting cap, I slowly took a few steps backwards.

“When I say run, run.” He pulled out a lighter and lit the fuse. “Corre, corre, corre.”

I hesitated for exactly the time required for my brain to translate “corre” into “run.” We sprinted through the meadow, hopping over rocks and low bushes until Jesus signaled that we were a safe distance.

The meadow was silent, except for the distant chirping of a bird, and the fizzle of the fuze. A second later, where the 12-foot cactus had once stood, having acquired that height over centuries I imagined, a small crater had been formed. My ears rang and my brother and I stood speechless. Jesus eagerly awaited our reaction, his dark, bloodshot eyes searching our faces.

“You like?”

We nodded in unison.

After leaving Potosi, we frequently reminisced about Jesus’ life and philosophies. He could turn lung disease into humor, make any near-death experience hilarious. He, despite his living standard and brutal working conditions, seemed to live a happier life than anyone I’d met.

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