I never imagined that a famous place could be so horrible. There I was, feeling trapped beneath the Earth's crust in a deep, dark mine in southern Bolivia, crawling through claustrophobic tunnels in Silver Mountain, known locally here in Potosi, Bolivia, as Cerro Rico.
The mountain had provided the Spanish empire with the vast silver riches that financed its colonial adventures and adorned its cities with ostentatious displays of wealth. But this mountain, which once stood as a symbol of nature's richness, was systematically decimated and now represents the ultimate symbol of past injustice. It enriched thousands beyond their dreams but destroyed millions beyond their nightmares.
Potosi had 150,000 inhabitants by the 1600s, more than London, Paris or Seville (its population is 120,000 today). There were gambling houses, prostitutes and fine dining. It was a magnet of riches, importing products from all over the world to accommodate the New Rich who made an easy fortune from the fortuitous presence of the natural wealth the mine offered and the seemingly interminable amount of natives that were sent to dig out the riches.
The Indians, eight million of whom died in the mines during the colonial era alone, were told the Europeans were gods who would condemn them to Hell if they didn't work in the mines. They respected the seemingly omnipotent Europeans for their skill at surveying and geology but feared them for their malevolence, manifested in the way they enslaved the Bolivian men and sexually mistreated the women.
Locals say that going to work in the mines is still pretty much a death sentence. I could see why as I sat on black rock, feet immersed in primordial brown mud, sipping moonshine with a wad of coca leaves in my mouth. With lungs full of asbestos, I chatted with miners after offering them a valued gift: a $6 stick of Chilean dynamite I had bought in one of the "miner's shops" outside. Everyday, the mine shakes when miners insert dynamite sticks into the hard rock in an effort to uncover deposits of tin or the all-too-elusive silver.
The high-proof moonshine burned my lips and torched my throat, and combined with the full mouth of coca leaves, lack of oxygen, intense heat and lack of water, created quite a dizzying buzz. My decision to immerse myself into the miners' lifestyle proved punishing, but I felt I owed them the experience. It is always an honor to be invited into the everyday lives of those I encounter on the road, and I was not about to shy away from this experience, no matter how unpleasant.
There are no water fountains or safety masks in Hell, I learned quickly, nor are there any warning sirens to alert one that a rail-cart full of ore being pushed at speeds of 30 mph by three miners is approaching quickly through these constricting tunnels. So when I heard the threatening sound of rattling steel, I ran to the nearest cavern and ducked into the shadows to let the speeding load pass.
Although the silver they have extracted was exported to build churches to honor the Spaniard's god, the miners have for hundreds of years believed that the devil lives in the mine. Having seen so many of their coworkers die from falling rock, from suffocation under cave-ins or from fatal respiratory diseases and cancers, they have become very superstitious. They lay offerings to this resident devil, whom they call Tio (Uncle), including the stimulant coca leaves they chew throughout the day to give them the energy and endurance to work 12-hour shifts in such a punishing place. They also sprinkle the ground with sips of the 98 percent alcohol they drink throughout the day. They imbibe this turpentine-like drink because of its "purity," and believe the devil will repay them for their devotion by rewarding them with pure deposits of the silver and tin that have become so scarce after nearly half a millennium of relentless mining.
Watching Carlos (a sweet-smiling 16-year-old caked in black, with only the white of his eyes as testimony he was not a piece of coal) work towards death for $3 a day had a profound impact on me and inspired me to devote my time and energy to helping children in need. All I had to do was figure out the most efficient means to do so.
During my eight-month South American journey last year, I had been writing for a travelers' Web site called Bootsnall.com, and one day I received an invitation from the founder of Backpack Nation, a new humanitarian organization to apply for the position of "global ambassador." Backpack Nation sends global ambassadors to underdeveloped countries, where each ambassador dispenses a $10,000 grant to whichever compelling situation the ambassador chooses to address. The goal is to improve people's lives by making these grants and to prove that everyday Americans (from the San Francisco taxi-driving founder Brad Newsham to the donors to the ambassadors) care about the world around them and Americans' reputation.
Our first ambassador recently returned from her journey in the Middle East and is passing along Backpack Nation's premier grant to a micro-lending program set up in the Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. I'm working to raise the money necessary to make my ambassadorship to Brazil a reality.
I consider myself well-prepared to carry out my project. Studying cultural anthropology at Michigan opened my eyes to the challenges faced by cultures past and present, and six years of international travel exposed me to the harsh realities that many face in the world today. Obtaining my master's in international development at George Washington University allowed me to study the successes and pitfalls of a wide range of aid programs, and serving as a Fulbright Scholar studying the effects of African immigration in Spain allowed me to apply the anthropological field-study skills I had learned at Michigan.
In Brazil, I will address the street children epidemic. I'll volunteer with different programs as I search out the most effective program or organization that would most benefit from my grant. To raise the $20,000 for my ambassadorship. I have printed a pamphlet, launched a Web site and appeared on National Public Radio's Worldview program. I am confident that my ambassadorship will alleviate the suffering of many children and will help Backpack Nation launch its admirable ideals onto the world stage.