the journal


A Conversation with a Chilean Miner

Filed Under international travel

I’ve been glued to the television watching the rescue of the miners in Chile. Thirty-three men have captured the world’s attention after they became trapped a mile underground following a mine collapse. I’m not alone in watching this drama play out, with a rescue capsule being lowered into the earth,  then loaded with a miner, and slowly reeled up, back to the surface to the cheers and tears of those watching around the world. As I write this, the third miner is being brought to the surface, his wife waiting in the wings, her face showing the emotions we all feel. The tribulations each of these brave men must have gone through, having survived the collapse of the mine, living like troglodytes for almost 70 days underground, and separated from their friends and family by a mile of dirt. It is hard to imagine what they have felt, not only during this historic event, but as a miner in what is being reported as an unsafe mine. I’m looking forward to hearing their stories, as I’m certain we will, and the path each took in their lives that lead to this fate.

As I watch this dramatic event unfold on the television, I’m reminded of my own chance meeting with a Chilean miner. In late 2009, I spent a few weeks backpacking through Chile and Bolivia. For one section of my journey, I traveled 1,471 miles by bus, from Pucon north up to San Pedro de Atacama. On this bus, I met Claudio.

Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert of Chile

Claudio was a 40-year old miner with salty dark hair and sharp facial features. He wore a neatly pressed short-sleeved collard shirt which hung untucked over his clean dark jeans. He looked more like a mathematician than a miner, but I would learn that he has been working for mines for over 15 years. His English was rough, but much better than my Spanish. We chatted on and off for the course of the 20-hour bus ride through the dry and desolate Atacama Desert. He was on his way to the El Tesoro Mine, an open-pit copper mine near Calama. “It means ‘the treasure’ in Spanish,” he said proudly about his employer. Claudio leaves his wife and two children in Santiago and takes this muscle-atrophying bus ride north to Calama, one of the driest cities in the world, where he works long and hard hours as a mechanic. The mine provides him simple room and board between shifts for eight days, after which he has eight days off and takes a bus back to Santiago and his family. Every month, he commutes over 7,500 miles (12,144 km) spending 80 hours on a bus. Must be a sweet gig to spend so much time to get to and from his job, right? “My job is very unsafe,” Claudio tells me, “but the pay is good.”


Claudio exiting the bus in Calama, Chile

Before traveling to Chile, I signed up for a Google Alert on anything regarding the country. For weeks, I received a daily summary of the news stories coming out of Chile. The global economy was tanking and Chile was being hit hard in many industries. However, copper was soaring in price, and since Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of copper with at least one-third world share followed by the USA, Indonesia, and Peru, mining was hot. Chile produces over 1,200 pounds of copper every year and despite the doubling of prices of copper, wages for miners weren’t moving and this lead to strikes across the country.

Claudio told me that these strikes do not effect his job, but he knows that some of the larger copper mines in the area are on strike. He might use this to his advantage: “They have threatened to fire everyone and hire a new staff. If they do this, I will apply because they pay more!”


Claudio and other miners in Calama

We pulled into the dusty town of Calama, a town that is completely dependent upon the men who work in the surrounding mines. I said good-bye to Claudio and watched him retrieve his small suitcase from the belly of the bus, as did other miners who journeyed from Santiago.

Two lives from completely different backgrounds came together for just a moment in time. While watching the parturition of the thirty-three miners from their underground womb, I think of Claudio and the indelible impression he left on me. I got a brief glimpse into what it is like to be a miner in Chile.  I hope he is safe, wherever he is.