Saturday, May 15, 2010

Meet don Pablo

don Pablo looking at mineral with Pablito in the background.

Don Pablo, about 300-pounds heavy just up top with short skinny legs and tiny feet, seemed grotesque at first. When I met him he was sitting, his little legs splayed open to leave room for his three-tiered belly, and chewing coca. Leaves stuck to his lips and green saliva flew out whenever he opened his mouth to let out an enthusiastic chortle.

"Come," he said.

I followed him into the tunnel. He lumbered along unhurriedly and then turned off sharply and began to climb. His giant behind loomed as I followed him up a narrow and steep rabbit hole that squeezed around him as if he was carving it as he went. It ended in a wooden slatted door. Everything beyond the door seemed like a kingdom of sorts: dank, narrow corridors that opened up into high chambers, recently opened, small nooks with arched entryways, serpentine passages between levels and amongst galleries, glittering veins snaking through dull grey rock, piles of angled debris blocking passage, heaps of mineral awaiting transport, glittering with silver in the absolute darkness every time my circle of blue light landed on them.

Don Pablo led me through his Coliseum, as he called it, and pointed out all of the new veins; veins waiting to be opened and taken, veins of chocolate, and la negra, veins of pure silver that are handled manually and sold separately in small sacks, veins of complejo - silver and zinc - that are often signaled by the presence of pyrite. Some appear as thin rivulets meeting into wider streams in the damp rock, others like oxidized banners unfurling widely on the roofs of don Pablo's galleries. He throws a small bottle-cap-full of 96% booze on a new vein, to bless it, and admires it with a sort of ache in his voice, "Pucha, que linda es la plata." With him I stand and admire the brilliance of the vein, like the wing of a bird caught still by a gray mass. I think, for the first time, I understand the greed of a prospector, the avaricious eye that sparks at the glint of mineral and that which it promises. Pucha, que linda es la plata. And que fea, too.
Orphaned at age 10, don Pablo began working in the mines with an uncle the same year. Now 50, he has ten kids of his own, the "black sheep" of which, Pablito, 16, works alongside him.

don Pablo, left, and Pablito.

Yesterday, don Pablo went to the doctor.

"You're healthy," the doctor told him.

"Pucha," says done Pablo, "at this rate I'll never retire."

The sector he currently works was worked by COMIBOL, the Bolivian Mining Corporation, when the mines were nationalized, between 1952 and the 1980s. "People told me there's nothing left here," he says, "but I know there is." He perforates to the east and west with Chinese-made pneumatic drills, looking for the veins that run north-south. As we're standing on the top level of his cave, admiring veins, explosions start to go off, like heavy objects falling far away. He counts 16 detonations and then it goes quiet again.

"What if one doesn't go off?" I ask him.

"You come back in 24 hours."


He sort of half-shrugs and leads me to another vein. "What I need is peons," he says. "There's too much work." He needs money for explosives, too, so he can release the veins he keeps showing me.

When we're sitting, resting, he says: "What I really wanted to do was be a veterinarian."

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