Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.
The llama sacrifice is a ritual at the heart of Bolivia’s carnival, which also includes more familiar trappings such as parades, masks and carnival queens. The Quechua Indians who run the tired old Itos mine above the city of Oruro make offerings to two different protectors during carnival. As Catholics, they have a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the mine. As Quechuas who observe pre-Columbian religious beliefs they make sacrifices to “uncle,” the spirit who owns the zinc and tin and silver they blast out of shafts 300 meters deep. It’s dangerous work because they run aging equipment on a shoestring budget – each miner gives 10 percent of his earnings back to the cooperative. Commercial miners abandoned Oruro long ago, having sucked the biggest riches out of the mountain. The Quechua cooperative miners make a hard living off of the leftovers but if things go well at the sacrifice it could mean better days ahead.
For the sacrifice, dozens of miners and several journalists walk into the mine and stop in a cavern about 25 meters in. The atmosphere is serious, as befits a religious ceremony, but also joyous and a little unhinged as the miners drink heavily and their children run around squirting everyone with gigantic pump-action water guns (which is something children in Oruro do during carnival week). Some of the miners are in Andean ponchos, others in coveralls and helmets and headlamps. Most of their wives are in traditional Bolivian Indian wide skirts and bowler hats and shawls.
Deep in the mountain around me, miners are taking creaky lifts into other mines this day to make their own sacrifices asking for safety and abundance for the next 12 months.
“We must do this with all our faith,” says Jorge Gutierrez, the head of the mining cooperative, speaking through a wad of coca leaves. Then a Quechua witch doctor, Jose Morales, takes over the celebration, sprinkles sugar over the crowd in the dim cavern and blesses the eggs, alcohol and other offerings that were pushed into the mine on a trolley.