South of Heaven

Explosions sound off. The only light comes from small flashlights on workers’ heads. Their eyes are bloodshot and red. Their clothes and bodies are dirty and beaten. The air is sickening and tastes of metal, becoming hotter as the tunnels go deeper into the mine. The tunnel itself is barely the size of a desk. Simple boards and old rails hold up enormous boulders, along with the entire ceiling, which crumbles with every drill. Conditions like this are inhospitable, yet many live and breathe this life every day. Then they go to class.

In a casual summer trip to South America, Ryan Lawrence took on this new perspective. With a goal to see more of the world that interests him, it quickly turned into life changing experience altogether.

“The trip started in Asuncion, Paraguay, where I flew to Montevideo, Uruguay, and from there you can cross the water on a boat, which took me to Buenos Aires, Argentina,” said Lawrence. “From there I went north to Rosario, Cordoba, Tucuman, and Salta. I crossed the border to Bolivia, went to the salt flats and then Potosi, known as one of the highest cities in the world at 13,000 feet. After that I went to Sucre, then La Paz, and finally Santa Cruz. In six weeks, I sort of made a U shape through South America.

At the start, the mood was more relaxed. “Places like Uruguay and Argentina are rich in culture. They’re safe. You can hear good music and eat good food. They’re great places to chill out.”

This feeling continued until he crossed the border to Bolivia, where the mood and temperature changed dramatically.

“I was on a bus going to the salt flats, which really are amazing to see,” said Lawrence. “It’s just miles of white, as if the Earth stops. To get there, the bus had to go over rocky, desert roads that swung around constantly. These roads had no guardrails, but luckily it was at night so I couldn’t see anything. It was so cold that eventually the windows would freeze. There’s no heater in the bus, and some people have all of their clothes on and then a sleeping bag but it’s still cold. Most of the time, it’s only sheer exhaustion that lets you sleep. I was freezing cold. At one point, the bus was stuck in sand on the road, so we stepped out and it was even colder. The bus started backing up, and the driver told everyone to walk and they would meet us later. That’s when I thought I was going to die. It’s too cold. I’m going to die out here in this desert.

“I’ve been to a lot of places and never experienced a cold like that. Eventually we got back on the bus, but then we came up behind another bus that was stuck. We had to wait two hours. I just thought, ‘I’m in the mountains of Bolivia on a road that’s not even a road, and it feels like the coldest place on Earth.’”

From there, things got even more interesting and dangerous. Eventually Lawrence reached Potosi, home to a silver mine that has been in use since the Spanish conquered South America in the 16th century. Formerly known as a land of riches, the city still thrives off its silver mine, which carries a legacy worth its weight.

“There’s a famous quote that says from all the silver they’ve taken out of that hill, they could build a bridge from Bolivia to Spain. But the bones of the workers who have died there could build a bridge to Spain and back,” he said.

Visiting the mine begins with a waiver that states if one gets hurt, sick from breathing the toxic air, or dies, the mining companies are not at fault. Essentially, to tour the mine, one must sign his life away.

“You go from there to get all the gear you need to go into the mine and then you go to the market,” said Lawrence. “At the market, you buy gifts for the miners, like water, a coke, or cocoa leaves which take away hunger and give you energy. The people working in the mines are the poorest of the poor, making only a couple of dollars a day. As you go through the mine, you have a backpack on, and you give these gifts to the miners who are dirty and overworked, having to work in air that hurts to breathe.

“As you walk around the mine, there are always people drilling and explosions. Most of the mine isn’t standing room, you have to crawl around in places no bigger than a desk. You can only go in for two hours, and even then your eyes are hurting and your nose is running. But then these miners are working twelve hours a day, eyes red, just chewing cocoa leaves to get through it. The further you get into the mine, the hotter it gets. You’re crouching around in a mine that’s man made, you can hear explosions going all over the place. I thought I was going to die once again. Workers are always bringing these carts full of hundreds of pounds of minerals, and once you see one coming you have to jump out of the way. If you even have a toe sticking out, it’s gone. Rocks are always falling. This is a mountain where thousands upon thousands of people have died. When you have to sign a waiver that says ‘If I die, you’re not involved in any of this,’ it makes it a little more intense.”

Besides the element of danger, the worst part of the mines is the state of the workers. Most live in shacks just outside the mines themselves, for around two or three dollars a day, twelve hours a day. Even if they survive the everyday explosions, falling rocks, and toxic air, the life expectancy of a worker in the mine is only forty years.

“It’s terrible,” said David Gardner, a former student of Lawrence who is familiar with many of his travel stories. “I knew all about the labor from there but never an in depth story. Knowing that they work that hard in those conditions makes me realize how hard life is, even for kids our age, in other countries. These are just some of the things in third world countries that we sometimes never hear about.”

Lawrence talked about the state of the workers in the mines of Potosi as being a direct reflection of the poverty level in Bolivia, compared to the other countries he visited.

“In Argentina you can go to countless little coffee shops or nice restaurants, but Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. The poverty will blow your mind,” said Lawrence.

“It really makes you realize how good life is here in the U.S.,” said Wills Mathieu, also a former student of Lawrence. “Even when I went to Argentina, it’s just like any other country. The poverty is mostly outside the city. Everyone can make do with what they have.”

After the mine and its surrounding experiences, the expedition through South America drew to a close in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. However, the impact of the near-death experiences and the mine itself were enough to singe a new outlook on life. “In regards to the mine, when you go there and actually see what the miners’ work is like, and then see how there are families living right beside the mine, you walk out with a completely new look on life. There are kids working in the mine that are as old as high school students. In America, you can be in the classroom at a school like Catholic High, working even just for minimum wage, and living in a nice home. It makes you feel very privileged about the life that you have,” said Lawrence.

“A friend told me about a kid who worked in the mine making the usual two or three dollars a day and having to save up for two months just to buy a uniform so he can go to school. And none of his friends know he works there or they’d make fun of him because those that work in the mine are the poorest of the poor. His mom and his brother are living in a shack just outside the mine. No electricity, no AC, and barely even a floor. When you see this kind of poverty in Bolivia, you think ‘I have a pretty good life.’

“Then you see kids like this, who have to go to school and work in the mine, all in one day. You realize you’re not tough at all.”

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