The fog came in at midnight and ate the last of the famous Atacama desert stars, and Jupiter too, as it tracked up from the dusty mountains on the east side of the valley. Even before the moisture (wasn’t this supposed to be the driest place on earth?), the stars were less brilliant than usual, the Milky Way almost indistinguishable from the dozen confused tracks of campfire smoke creeping around in the windless night. The air, day and night, is powdery enough to gum up my nose and burn my lips with alkali, and the night is bright enough to make redundant my headlamp. The fog, with the hundreds of brilliant white vapor lamps of TV crews, a towering oil drilling rig, and a series of construction projects upvalley gave the site a San Francisco feel. Or maybe it’s Burning Man: There is the manmade moon, a glowing white globe emblazoned “Carabineros de Chile,” an absurd little art installation in this place that needs no police, where everything is free, where millions of dollars in TV equipment sits out all night unprotected, where everyone is focused on one thing.
The famous Atacama silence? Don’t talk to me about silence. Because I won’t hear you over the Chilean cumbia from the first camp by the bodega, the seven (countem!) gasoline-powered generators out back of the BBC camp and, audible for kilometers, Plans A, B and C, roaring and grinding and bashing bedrock to powder. This isn’t a place for silence. This is a working mine. The ore is not 8 grams per ton of gold nor 1% copper sulfate, but 33 bodies of living human flesh, walking and driving around a half mile under our little foggy village.
The quarry, these 33 men, are invisible and to most of us silent, known only through revelatory testimonials and priestly intermediation — the buried miners, the trapped miners, the 33. They are 32 Chilean and a Bolivian flag on the dusty mountain to the west side of the valley. They are signatures on Chilean flags — one hanging on the snack bar, one presented this week to the Pope. They have become much more than they were before — famous photos, famous family members, famous phrases. But at the same time their reality has gradually disappeared — that they were just going to work. Their time cards are no longer among those at the mine gate. (Dozens of time cards still sit in the rack, almost all marked as “excused with pay.”)
The mining is going pretty well, all things considered. No one has ever tried to rescue anyone from a labyrinth 600 meters under the earth before, and especially not by drilling a series of five-inch boreholes to feed them, then 26-inch-or-so wells that will, if all goes according to plan, become at least one elevator shaft and give these newly cherished men a route to freedom and new lives as semi-saints.
But that’s still at least a couple days away. And after they are out, they aren’t out. They emerge from their hole, they get put in a cell for four hours to recover with families. They come out of their cells, they go to the hospital for a checkup. They stay there a couple days. Only family allowed. So they remain virtual people. And when they speak, will they speak to “the press” or will they demand pay to appear on specific shows, offering “exclusives” — hey, I got the diabetic! i got the shift chief! i got the guy who danced on tv!
In the meantime, the camp grows and mutates. Three days ago I was a newcomer here. But look, I have foreign press badge number 422. Now the badge numbers are well into four digits and I’m showing people around. Crews, paid by the government in Santiago, keep accommodating more press, more families, why not? In the press tent, a government staffer just showed up with bottles of sunblock. A Komatsu 130 bulldozer just squeaked and ground down the access road to join the Caterpillar D-8T on the new parking area down below, busting through acre after acre of cryptobiotic desert crust, carving off a few meters of soil (or is it “overburden?”) and expanding, always expanding, the camp. The yellow machines look like they are mining, but what is the target metal? Maybe popularity. If one could measure head grades of political ore, this would be the mother lode. And I am part of the equipment, every bit as much as the Caterpillar D-8T, as no matter what I write, even this blog post, adds to the hype.
But leave the cynicism for a minute. This place is a joy. Camp Hope is filled with the kindest, most open people you could hope for. Even those who have sworn off talking to the press, who don’t want to give away their stories, they can’t help it. They still offer you dinner. The workers, the reporters, the volunteers, and of course the family members who built this place and serve, more or less, as the hosts — they are all a delight, and it’s a pleasure to be here sharing this experience. I am a lucky little piece of equipment.