The mines went deep and we chewed coca as if we were miners. It was meant to be protective, as if the wad of leaves in your mouth could somehow filter out the dangers of the dank air, or the little jolt to your heart rate could counteract the soullessness of that hostile, stifling underworld.
Even aboveground that part of Bolivia was bleak, unvegetated, marked by the harshness of geological processes. It looked like an image from a space probe of some battered distant unfortunate moon, not a place you could ride through on the back of a truck. We went into the mine with little metal lamps that hissed as lumps of calcium carbide dissolved in water, making a gas to burn for light.
The passages were narrow, the hiss of the lamp constant and strange. The mines went back to the 16th century, and the earliest time of Spanish occupation. The silver that came out had financed an empire, had crossed the Atlantic in many ships, occasionally diverted by English pirates to become the silver salvers and teaspoons of the American colonies. There were many ghosts underground, many sad ghosts. Deep, deep in the mine was the devil, and you had to leave him cigarettes, and coca to chew.