Physical Hell

Thomas Reissmann 


© Copyright 2004 by Thomas Reissman

Photo of two miners hauling a heavy sled of silver ore.

Thomas Reissmann is 28 years old and a German national, who has spent the past the past eight  years travelling.

I met a joyful, elderly Dutch couple, who invited me to a pizza, and recounted their love story of how they had met. The cheerful woman had always developed his travel pictures in her Kodak store, and one day she had taken the courage to talk to him about his adventurous travels, which she had always witnessed on his photographs. Soon they were travelling together through Bolivia. This was her first vacation in more than ten years. They urged me to visit Potosi’s Silver mines, because that would be the most dangerous and shocking organised tour I would ever do. It sounded certainly tempting, a dangerous, shocking tourist experience under controlled circumstance. I wasn’t entirely sure though, what their definition of danger was. I soon had to find out that they had been more than justified in describing it in those terms.

Potosi is a now non-descript mountain town,  but it had once been the richest city in the Spanish colonial empire, because it was full of silver. The Spanish, greedy bastards that they were, totally flipped when a local showed them the mountain full of shiny metal and lost no time in enslaving the natives and transporting them underground, where they could work off their sins and be allowed into the Christian heaven. They took their devilish coca leafs from them and prohibited the whole savage custom, until they realised that those lazy slaves worked a lot better and ate less when they were eating coca leafs, so they promptly changed their opinion and made the consumption of coca obligatory. A real benevolent bunch they were those Spaniards.

I had one sitting in the car with me now, as we drove towards the collective mines, although he certainly would not have said so, because he was a Basque. He was fiddling with a couple of sticks of dynamite, as those Basques tend to do, but this time the explosives would not blow up any Spanish, merely a part of the mountain that would hopefully reveal its veins of silver. The sticks of dynamite were gifts for the workers we would visit, along with tobacco and plenty of coca leaves. A young couple from East Germany also shared the van with us and I was glad to chat in my native tongue to some of my fellow countrymen from the formerly Russian-occupied-zone. We arrived in front of the mine, located at considerable height and indeed it was chilly up there, it was also dusty and very ugly. The collective mines are shared by independently working men, who were not employed by a company and thus did not receive a wage or health benefits. They were completely on their own and took home whatever they found, a kilo or a gram, depending on their luck. Most of it was rubble, containing some silver, which was stacked up in front of the mine and sold to a processing plant.

Our guide quickly excused himself, went into a hut and audibly vomited for about five minutes. He emerged cheerfully and ready for the tour, smelling a little of fresh alcohol vapours. We were given a gas-lamp and a helmet each, and went inside the mountain, accompanied by another sickly-looking boy. Our first encounter underground was with the Devil, and he liked tobacco, alcohol and coca, which were spread out in front of him. Some of our presents now went to the colourful wooden Satan, sitting on an outcrop, who apparently had no intention of proliferating or was possible afraid of sexually transmittable diseases, because he wore a condom over his wooden cock.
“If God lives in the heavens then the Devil must live underground, we believe, so if we want to be protected down here we have to apiece the devil,” our guide explained.
“Do you also go to church?” I wondered
“Of course, we live like Christians outside the mine, it is two different lives.” It certainly felt a little like hell in there, it was dark, hot and very claustrophobic and it was only going to get worse. We climbed further down but it wasn’t steps we were using, merely holes and paths that led to more holes and paths. It was like being inside a gigantic piece of Swiss cheese. It was during one of those precarious climbs, while I was trying hard to keep a hold of my gas lamp, which was shooting out an open flame, that I noticed something rather disturbing. There were unexploded sticks of dynamite in the wall, with fuses the length of fingernails. I informed my companions of my discovery and advised them to keep the gas torches away from the walls. We entered a somewhat larger cave.
“Why are there sticks of dynamite in the wall,” I asked nervously.
“They did not explode and now the fuse is too short,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Is there a lot of accidents with dynamite here?” the Basque asked.
“There are some, usually because someone was too drunk. You know there are lots of parties down here, but the accidents happen when people drink and work at the same time. If you noticed people only drink this stuff,” he took a bottle from the little devil in front of us.
“It is 97 per cent pure alcohol, because we believe that if we drink pure alcohol we find pure veins of silver.” ‘Sure whatever works for you guys’, I thought. ‘I would want to get wasted on a regular basis and as effectively as possible too, if I worked down here.’ We were now introduced to Antonio, a real-life worker, who used four things for his work: a spick, a shovel, a bucket and plenty of coca. The latter was for keeping the time we were told.
“The time?” we asked almost in a chorus.
“Yes, you see down here there is no sunlight to indicate the hour of the day and the people here can’t really afford watches, so they chew coca. They know that the effect wears off after three hours and so they keep the time. After three portions of coca they usually go home, although some people work eleven or twelve hours a day, sometimes even on Sunday.” We gave Antonio our presents and the Basque seemed terribly relieved to get rid of the two sticks of dynamite, he had been carrying in his jacket. We went further down and observed more people hacking away at the mountain.
“Doesn’t anyone use drills here,” the Basque wanted to know.
“No they can’t afford it. In the private mines they do, but the people here would just end up paying off the cost of the drill all their lives or not have enough to survive.”
“Does anyone ever find a big piece here?” the East German girl asked.
“Oh yeah once in a while someone hits it big time and he gets really rich.” I saw a bucket being pulled up on my right and I realised that I am looking at an authentic, real-life, fully functioning, museum, displaying the way mines were worked five hundred years ago, because absolutely nothing had changed, time had stood still in here. I wondered whether the people toiling in here now, were the reincarnated Spaniards, who had made the natives dig for silver, and were now unconsciously working off their Karma. Only God knew or maybe the Devil.

The further we went down, the hotter it got and also the more claustrophobic.
“It’s like descending into hell,” I said cheerfully but the Basque was not amused. He was having problems. In fact he was shivering and hyperventilating. We told him to calm down and breath slowly.
“I need to go outside. I need to leave now,” he muttered, while our guide looked on indifferently, slightly amused even. ‘Those gringos just can’t handle a thing,’ he must have thought. We waited a while for the Basque to relax and eventually he did. Being a man he decided to continue and stated that he was ok now. But the worst was still to come, it got so bad, that I was on the verge of freaking out too. Already, I had a really difficult time imagining the elderly Dutch couple in here. Our guide stood in front of a small hole, at only about knee’s height, when he told us to crawl in. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. To prove his point he made the first move and disappeared in the tunnel, followed by his young helper. We just looked at each other slightly dumbfounded. ‘He couldn’t possibly make us do this, we were paying tourists for God’s sake. Oh yeah, this was the kingdom of Satan down here, God had no say in this.’ I crawled in first to prove my manliness, and wanted to go back out again when I saw the length of the tunnel in front of me. But the East German was already behind me, nearly torching my arse. This was when I started sweating profusely and told myself to stay calm or else I would flip and do something stupid, like setting off one of those dynamite sticks decorating the wall. I would like to think that I am fairly fear-free but claustrophobia is something I have to work on, although I really don’t feel like it.

 I suppose I was dramatised as a child when I had let my friends roll me into one of those big grey mats, used in the gymnasiums. I had been stuck in there, unable to move an inch, while they had amused themselves looking into the tube and watching my terrified face from the outside. I had pleaded with them to let me out calmly at first, along the lines of: ‘alright guys, this has been fun, but I want out now.’ But they had to all look at me in there and there was quite a few of them. So eventually my pleas had evolved into screams of panic, until they realised that I was seriously uncomfortable in there and let me out. I was now reliving this episode and just wished for the end of the tunnel. My knees were hurting from sliding over sharp rocks and I was really not enjoying myself. This was not what I had had in mind when I had signed up for this. I could now see light at the end of the tunnel now, but it was somehow blocked by legs. In fact, there was a whole group of legs just parked right in front of the exit from my misery and they were not moving. I tried to get their attention by calling out to them, but they were somehow preoccupied, their guide was telling them some fascinating story of someone who had actually managed to find a large piece of this godforsaken silver…I really did not care at all whether they were interested or not and forcefully pushed their legs out of the way, making a few people jump with surprise. It could have been funny but I didn’t feel like laughing. I had just faced one of my worst fears. Our guide sat about somewhere, chatting and sipping on superstitious spirits, when we rejoined him, and he seriously asked us whether we had enjoyed ourselves during his tour. I did not want to be impolite and said that it was very interesting and the others must have felt the same way, because they said similar things, all looking a little pale and it wasn’t just the silver dust on their faces.

The East German girl asked the kid what he wanted to do when he grew up and he honestly said that he wanted to work in the mine.
“I am just teaching him now,” his dad said proudly.
“But would you not rather be a tourist guide?” she asked him incredulously.
“Yes, after I find a big piece of silver and be rich.”
Jesus, they must still have this yearning for silver in their hearts, chaining them to the underworld. I sure hoped they would be freed one day. At least they did it on their own accord, but it filled me with incredible sadness to imagine the natives being taken from their land and family and forced to work underground in perpetual darkness until disease, exhaustion or an accident freed them from a life of hell, imposed upon them by greedy Christians. I was glad to be out of there again and we all looked a little shocked indeed. The feeling of desperation had I found down there, would linger with me for some time. But I was comforted by the fact that there was no more slavery and if they really wanted, they could work in the private mines, get drills and health insurance. So they essentially chose their own destiny, and that gave me a sense of tranquillity, at least people did have a choice these days.

Thomas Reissmann was liberated from a mental and physical prison by the collapse of socialism in East Germany, wonderfully symbolised by the fall of the Wall, and subsequently travelled the globe for eight years. He studied Tourism Management in the UK and Australia, worked as a research assistant, investigating the effects of tourism in Costa Rica, managed a hostel in New Zealand and currently resides in Guatemala, where he organises Neo-shamanic retreats.

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