Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mine is Fea: Meet Carlos and Carlos

Meet Carlos:

"You know," says Carlos, "I never used to work with clothes on." He's handsome, though downtrodden, and I could see why every tourist Wily brought down to where his group, The Sanchez, worked took home a picture of his shirtless torso glistening in the orange light of the work lamps. The Señoras palliris that we're sitting with squint against the sun and one of them asks, "What was it?"

"Gas," says Carlos, "I saw a ton of colors, all matter of colors, and then I don't remember."

He was dragged out of the depths of the mine by his legs about a year and a half ago, by another miner; dead, according to him, but I don't know if that means he was unconscious or really dead or...After recovering he got a post with the government, guarding the now-defunct COMIBOL processing plant, where he and two other men patrol the massive skeleton of what was Bolivia's mining glory during the short run of reform and nationalization from 1952 to 1985, when mineral prices crashed and the plant shut down permanently.

"We communicate with whistles," he says of the other two men. And later, walking in the sun dappled ruins of the various building he shows me parts that have been robbed and insists, with perhaps misinformed Bolivian optimism, that the plant could definitely work and still has up to date technology - American and Czech! - to process the low-grade mineral coming out of the mines now. The plant itself is not unlike sugar processing mills and gypsum factories I've snuck into - rubber transport belts running between corrugated sided building with missing wooden planks in the floors and stopped machinery, some with remnants of the last load that ever made its way through it, still present.

In the guards' office, he brings me samples of the minerals from the Cerro Rico and we talk about math under posters of callipygian white women. He scribbles a formula on an index card for me - 10√hxd - and draws an arc with twelve little crosses, indicating where the dynamite would go around a vein, to open it up. The accident made him more courageous, he says, but the new job is asegurado; he's salaried and he gets retirement pension. Too, he doesn't explain what long term damage the accident has had on him but says, meekly, "This job, pure laziness. Now, when my wife asks me to help her bring water 'I'm mal [bad]', I tell her."

Meet another Carlos:

Outside of church, Carlos Sanchez Flores' mother stood in the middle of an intersection directing service goers to the rented salon up the way. She wore all black, full knee-length skirts and slips blowing up to reveal that her stockings, too, ended at her knee, and the wind caught the length of thin fabric she had wrapped around her head and torso and floated it, a gracefully amorphous but threatening cape that enveloped and thrashed at each person that approached her. The sky was a soft, voluminous grey and the leaves in the courtyard of the church rustled irregularly. I watched, mesmerized, until Don Juan led me away by the elbow, whispering softly, "And, Señorita, how are you this morning? How cold! No? Did you know the friend?"

Carlos Sanchez Flores died a year ago, of gas in the mine, and there was going to be a big party. "It is because his soul has gone lightly, now," explains Marlene. In a turquoise, scrubbed room, we sat along the walls and received his mother and sisters, who walked around handing out cigarettes and distributing palm-fulls of coca leaves. A picture of Carlos along with all necessary libations plus candles stood at one end of the room and his mother sat by it, smoking, backlit by the engraved windows, and proclaimed definitively through the fog, "Drink!"

Don Juan, cat-like, exhaled at me, "Come back at 5. We will dance."

In the evening, the family had changed out of their black grieving clothing, which they had worn all year, and sat in a line against the wall with confetti in their hair, receiving guests. Guests came, kissed them on each cheek and pinned bills on the lapels and scarves of chosen members. Speakers as big as dog houses were piled up on both sides of the room and a live band recreated songs that would have sounded much better had they been played from a CD.

Drinks were first brought out on little fish trays; each tray contained a rum mixed drink, a sangani glass and two small shots of 96% alcohol mixed with something. Then waiters made their rounds with beer. Then more fish trays. Then large silver trays of just shots with another waiter trailing behind with a tray to deposit empties. Mother and sisters walked around restlessly, foreheads wrinkled with worry, waving both hands palms up, as if soliciting louder applause, and pleading, "Drink, drink!" Bottles appeared and their owners, too, made rounds distributing shots, waiting for you to take yours before ambling along. "I am sick," I tried to explain. "This is 96% alcohol. It will cure you," they insisted.

The dancing was getting sloppier and sloppier and I sat through a 15 minute "conversation" about Arnold Schwarzenegger; the only reason I knew it was still about Schwarzenegger was because the monologuer paused intermittently and slurred out, "Schwaaaaaaarzeneggerrrrr, you knoooow him?" as clearly as he could before continuing on with it. When I started getting aggravated, Johnny, ever helpful, leaned over and said, "Here, one must get along with everyone."

Carlos, I'm told, was rich and also powerful within the mine. The group of which he was the boss, The Sanchez, was the same one that the other Carlos worked in. Three other men, too, died last year from the same group and it disbanded, fearing the ominous (and carried out) deaths of fellow miners. The deaths, some say, were inevitable. With mineral prices at record highs in decades, the miners were working the veins 24-hours a day - day and night shifts - and drinking heavily (see above) in their off time. The mine never ventilated, allowing gas to accumulate, and their bodies never rested, lessening any chance of withstanding an onslaught of gas. Too, The Sanchez worked deep down, aggravating all of the above conditions until they fulfilled fatally, four times over.

There were no speeches and little mention of why we were there. There was a lot of drinking and dancing and then, again in our seats lining the turquoise walls, we ate pig and potatoes with our fingers from overloaded bowls while discussing sports.

"Asi es la mineria," Don Juan had said when he led me away that morning, which seemed melancholy, at best. But Johnny, drunk in a house discotheque later that night, explained: "I do not cry always (though his eyes were moist under the black lights), but here, it hurts very much," he said, pointing to his heart and making a movement with his hands as if his heart was vomiting. Then he grabbed me and we danced a strange stomping dance to a song from Oruro.

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