— Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America
Julio Morales Zambrana is furious. Our window into the mountain is about to close.
“Hurry!” yells Julio.
“Momentito,” says Jason.”We must go now!”
“Momentito, por favor.”
We stand at the entrance to La Negra mine in Potosí, Bolivia, at the base of the infamous Cerro Rico. It is November 2007. The nation around us is once again on the verge of shearing apart.
The first 300 metres of La Negra are very dangerous, says Julio. The shaft is low and narrow, and there is nowhere to hide. Moments ago, a trolley filled with ore came barrelling out of the mine’s mouth. The longer we delay out here, the better our chances of being annihilated inside by the next delivery.
Jason wrestles his camera gear, and I try to calm my nerves. I stare at the mine opening, a two-metre-high hole blasted into the wall, the trolley tracks disappearing into it like the rails of a ghost train. A small plaque commemorates La Negra’s reopening in 1988 after centuries of disuse. High above looms the summit of the Cerro, a cool and handsome cone of stone.
Finally, Jason is ready. We steel ourselves, duck down, and follow Julio into the darkness. Soon there is nothing but the bog of mud between the tracks, our splashing footsteps, and the serpentine hiss of the air compressor that powers the jackhammers. The only source of light for the next six hours will be the headlamps affixed to our hard hats. Though I can’t see them, the walls are so close they scrape my elbows.
Julio runs and tells us to do the same, but I am nearly a foot taller than the average Bolivian. Bent double, I go as fast as I can. Then I smash my head at a particularly low point, and my world collapses. My lamp goes out. My glasses fall from my face. I call out for Julio, but he can’t hear me. He’s howling deep into the mountain, pounding on the pipes, announcing our presence to the trolley runners, who are surely bearing down on us.