MOUNTAINOUS MOLE HILL

Amidst a forsaken landscape and with its parched history stands the tin mining city of Potosi. Train effortlessly subduing momentum. Glide to a halt. No conductor to announce our arrival seemed fitting. Dusk was falling, and an icy wind was battering intermittent rains against the crumbling North side of the mud brick train station. A rusted sign made its proclamation in the foreground, a gloomy city up the hill behind it. Street lights dimmed and muffled by the sheeting rains. Looming faint in the distance was the Cerro Rico.

There was a distinctive smell in the air, and I knew what it was. It was mining. A runaway from Broken Hill knew those smells, could almost sense the people and their lifestyles. At least, that was what I may have thought.

Rain jacket, woollen beanie and gloves were rendered useful from the bowels of my backpack. The temperature was plummeting, the sun had gone and people were heading up the paved track towards town. The silent slosh. Already at over four thousand metres in altitude, we headed upwards to climb the two hundred metres to the central plaza. The lungs were feeling it, and I was glad not to be carrying my full pack. This small day pack, with just a change of clothes and sleeping bag, really was the easier way to go.

A bed was quickly found and, before the hour of seven had struck, I was securely mumified in my duck down sleeping bag. The rain had managed to get onto my lower half, on the walk from the train station, and my toes had frozen solid. I now wriggled them back and forth to regain circulation. There was no doubt that it would go below freezing point tonight. It was just a question of how far it would go. I read another half a chapter of The Thorn Birds, by candlelight. It was almost like disco lighting, the flame darting about carelessly, due to the underdraft coming through the bottom of my door. It was cold enough to warrant particularly clumsy behaviour. Like unzip the bag, turn the page, and then retreat with all appendages back to the covering warmth of the bag. It was blowing a real gale outside now and it became easy to submit to the demands of the Master of Sleep Ceremonies. The almighty, all encompassing, I am yours.

Drowsy in the half stupor of sleep and, with an uncompromising bladder at three o'clock in the morning, was not necessarily a major hurdle. But a definite mental blockade had been erected against leaving my present temperature. I tried to let myself drift back into sleep, but it was evident that drastic measures were being called for. So I presented my magic show for the cockroaches and elves of darkness. Armed only with my bladder, penis and the probable cause of such distraction, the dreaded soft drink bottle beside my bed, I performed a remarkable feat. Nothing up my sleeves, never leaving the warmth of my bag.

Bodily functions normal, bottle where I wouldn't trip and knock it over in the morning, I nestled back into slumber and headed for the daylight hours.

Upon opening my bedroom door, I was greeted by both the open arms of a bright sunny day and the bite of cold. Snow lay everywhere. Outside the front door people were scurrying this way and that. Men with scarves wrapped across their nose and mouth, looking like thugs. Women carrying large mantas full of goods, trudging through the slush of mud and snow.

How leathery callous their feet were, bound only in open car-tyre sandals. Only occasionally a pair of socks. And here was I, in my all-leather vibram soled waterproofed hiking boots. Equality of humans, of nations, of the sexes. Equality, nothing more than an ideal. A myth. Dreams.

All my years as a non-coffee or tea drinker didn't mean that hot coffee was not the most immediate thought with me, as I trundled off to look for the central plaza or Plaza de Armas. Some quick directions from a man setting up his roadside stall, and I quickly established bearings, found the plaza and then wandered into a sunlit eating place. The hot coffee with eggs on toast were the perfect start to another day of South American exploration. A new day.

It seemed that there were no other backpackers in town, so I spent the day wandering through typical tourist haunts like the museum, art gallery. A day of quiet. Then I started to collect information on how I could get to see what I had specifically come to see. The working conditions of the tin miners. Some months before leaving Australia I had seen a documentary on the plight of these people and had really needed to "see for myself", so as to clarify the reality of it all. I had even imagined that they had possibly dramatised the truth. The media was such a suspect area of truth. Opposing papers, same subject, different point of view. Papers and politics. Media and moguls. Of power.

My second day in Potosi was another of those singular excerpts in my travels which were to leave profound, even dramatic, thoughts within me. Nothing could have prepared me for scenes that seemed almost fictional. Women and men aged way beyond their days, hawling loads as not even donkeys should be expected. Children clammering about in huge quarries carrying buckets of raw tin. Rock piles where people, from young girls to older women, would hand crush the rock, using primitive hammers, into small gravel. In one of these quarries alone I saw at least five hundred people mining their own misery. The most negatively hued adjectives abound, but to have people to work in such conditions, know that their life expectancy was well documented at being just over thirty for men, not much later for women ..... this is appalling and repulsive. But I wanted to see more, I wanted to see it all. I continued to clammer up the tracks of the Cerro Rico. Slowly but surely getting muddier and dirtier until, hopefully, I would be disguised from someone who was free, someone who would live a full life, with full medical attention as my right, an excellent diet .... anything, everything.

Why didn't someone do something about all this I thought to myself. I pondered, step by step, at the vast inequalities that existed even between these people and the average Bolivian. They were so far removed from the average Australian, that it didn't even seem "real" to contemplate it.

The Cerro Rico was a vast extinct volcano with thousands of small mines, diggings and claims dotting its façade. It gave the impression of being some lunar-like mound; scarred, potted and slashed in slow time by humans grovelling about like moles in mud. The only distinctive feature on its brown face being the huge dump of tailings from the Government-owned mine.

"A donde va?" was the question that sprang me out of my ponderings. Yes, indeed! Where was I going? Was he asking me the philosophical question or the lesser, more immediate, directional one? Upon turning, I met the gaze of a rather toothless man, who's eyes met me at about shoulder height. He had a dusty beanie on his head and mud splatterings over the rest of his jumper and trousers. A comic character. He smiled to let me know from what hip he was leaning, and I returned one equally as befriending. I was slightly "on guard" as we had been told at the tourist office not to go wandering about the Cerro Rico, and that we should take a tour of the Government mine only.

I told him I was just having a look at the mining and explained to him that I came from a mining town in Australia. We soon became embroiled in trading stories, talking about the mines in Potosi. He said that he and his family had a small mine a little further up the mountain, and that he would like to show me "how it was". Not for pity, but from pride.

We arrived to a cart load of diggings being hauled out of a narrow mine entrance. A simple rail track with an improvised haulage cart being pushed by two young men. Their faces covered in fine dust, and on their heads were flame powered lights. The scene looked directly out of the Bolivian epic "Olivia Twisto"!!!!

He asked whether I'd like to see inside the mine, and after only a slight hesitation, I agreed. We took time to prepare two headlamps, which were powered by placing small rocks of sulphur inside a metal container, adding water to cause a chemical reaction which would give off the gas which powered our lamps. Simple and cost effective.

The initial tunnel had an entrance of just over three metres high by over two metres wide. We travelled just twenty metres in before I was already crouching over, so as to not bump my head. Soon I was quite bent over and even my guide, so small in stature, was just coming within scalp shot of the roof. It became warmer, dustier and the crisp Andean air outside was replaced by the haze of eternal dust. It was completely black. Hernando, my guide, stopped and asked if I wanted to turn back, as I stopped to peel off some layers of clothing. I said no, that I was okay, but asked how long our lamps would last. No worries mate!

The tunnel acted as a huge reverberant chamber, the sound of the haulage cart rumbling on its return. Hernando hurried me along to quickly find a place to get out of its way. The tunnel was barely wide enough for the cart alone, and we would surely have been hurt, had we stayed where we were. We found a small dug-out area and stood quietly in the surrounding roar. A short time after the cart hurtled past, pushed by the two labourers. Heads down toward yet another pillage of the "cerros" veins.

The tin they were looking for ran like arteries throughout its depths, and all along the main tunnel were "search" tunnels which would follow these arteries, to see whether they came to something worth mining.

Hernando gestured me to follow him. I looked at where he was crawling. I like the air of adventure, but distrusted the safety of it. There were three or four of these exploratory tunnels driving off into the darkness. We took the top one. Crawling through slush. The air was lacking and I felt claustrophobic for the first time in my life. He kept going. I was feeling uneasy, but kept the pace. We were rawling, climbing through passages and twisting around corners like human rats in a chamber no more than a metre wide and high. I perspired profusely and started to feel uncomfortable, the taste of dust on my palate, my lights' phosphorus fumes making me feel nauseous and still we crawled.

I called to Hernando to wait. I relaxed onto my side and took some calming breaths. The momentary stillness felt good, and I could hear that we were getting close to some action. The sounds of metal on rock echoing towards us from unknown minstrals of the dark.

A little further up the tunnel we came to a small cavern. Two men hacked at one face, standing atop rubble that had already fallen to their quest for tin. A meagre living that would prematurely finish their lives!! I rocketed off into insular ground of reckoning, of internal debate. I flashed away with my mental photographs and recorded every little nuance of that chamber.

These men, whose teeth were soiled with the green spittle of coca leaves and dust; these men who commonly worked fifteen to twenty hour shifts, sustained only by the numbing of the leaf. These men, who lived in such amounts of pristine air and yet spent most days breathing aerated dirt. Their broken backs and bodies. And still they would stop hacking and extend their hands to me in welcome. I felt sick on the stomach and had it not been for my resolve, their pride, I would have cried. There have been few moments passed that have affected me as that single point in time. Unresolved and vivid.

Seconds later, they turned around and continued to hack and scrape. Another light appeared up out of the tunnel from which we'd just surfaced and a thick-set man with a hessian bag clammered up. He filled his bag to what looked to be fifteen kilos' worth of rubble and then hussled back down the hole. It was unbelievable. What is the value of a human life? Who finally profited from all this? Could these people even grasp the idea of quality versus quantity of life? They seemed destined for neither.

To see an old lady sitting on the ground next to a pile of rocks the size of a house, with just a hammer at her disposal, to be crushed into small two centimetre gravel stones; small children lugging cans of water to replenish water tanks; all to support a tin smelter mostly owned by some foreign company, well .... I was left to ponder. Grey matter turmoil, the big search for meaning, further coloured.