“We’re going to make a bomba. A very good bomba.”

Pedro plays to the crowd, throwing the dynamite around before explaining it isn’t explosive by itself. Opening up the paper wrapping, he exposes the soft grey stick, cracking it into pieces before adding the starter and placing it in the carefully cradled bag of little white beads — ammonium nitrate — in his lap. Finally he ties it tightly around a two-foot-long fuse. Once lit, he pretends to smoke it, posing for pictures and taking his time to walk across the dry, lumpy landscape where he plants the explosive in the dirt.

I’m the only one who doesn’t jump when it finally explodes. I’m still trying to comprehend the fact that although we’ve just emerged from underground we’re still more than 4,000 meters above sea level.

A small mushroom of dust puffs into the air and disperses into the dried-out, pock-marked landscape. Trash and rubble are mixed in the reddish soil, like a bizarre reverse image of the clouds floating above in the blue sky. In the background, the city of Potosí looks like a pile of dusty matchboxes and the surrounding hills undulate into the distance. It looks stunning, although it’s not what I expected in the middle of one of the harshest environments and poorest nations in South America.

* * *

I was conflicted about going on a mine tour in Potosí. I didn’t think I would like crawling through stuffy tunnels and exposing myself to silica dust, arsenic gas, acetylene vapors, asbestos fibers, and explosives residues. I didn’t know how I would feel entering a place said to be responsible for the deaths of 8 million African and indigenous slaves over its 300-year colonial history, and where today the average life expectancy of a miner is still only 40 years.

We went to the miners’ market to buy gifts for the miners we were going to encounter underground.

Before visiting, I’d read articles. I was told the mine tours are a ‘must,’ that they allow you to see the ‘real lives’ of miners. I also learned about child labour, rampant poverty, and silicosis deaths. There was even a reference to ‘institutionalized slavery.’

But the people I met in Potosí changed my mind. I’d imagined them to be grim, as if the tragedy of the mines would be written on their faces, just like the photographs I’d seen of dirty, miserable, and diseased miners. But everyone I spoke to — the taxi drivers, the people who introduced themselves to me in the streets, the waitresses who served me lunch — seemed to go against this image.

I sought out Big Deal Tours, the only company run entirely by ex-miners. Many of them had been guides with another company but left because they didn’t like the way it was run.

“Tourists come, stay in their hostel, eat in their hostel, take a tour with their hostel. They don’t have to leave the hostel for anything! It’s a monopoly,” Pedro told me.

When we met for the tour, I was surprised to see that half the group were Bolivians.

“Where do most of your tourists come from?” I asked Pedro.

“Everywhere. England, Germany, France, Switzerland, Australia…I can speak any language you want. Quechua, Aymara, Francais, Deutsch, Australian…G’day mate.”

He had the group laughing and paying attention for his next joke before we’d even started.

* * *

We went to the miners’ market to buy gifts for the miners we were going to encounter underground. Plastic helmets, headlamps, filter masks, gloves, and shovels hung on cracked concrete walls outside tiny, dark doorways. Traffic drove by, blowing exhaust and dust into our faces.

I had read on a travel blog that when buying gifts you should try to contribute useful items — like masks and gloves — necessary, but relatively expensive, safety equipment. I asked Pedro.

“Well, gloves are just for one man. It’s better something you can share…coca leaves or a soft drink. They really like juice because it’s so hot down there.”

“It’s like Christmas,” said the Australian girl next to me. “You’re disappointed if you get a useful gift. You always want something that’s more of a treat.”

As we left the market and bumped up the unpaved road in our little bus, the Russians showed me what they’d bought for the miners; cigarettes and some bottles of El Ceibo 96% alcohol. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a Russian guy on a train in Siberia. He’d told me apologetically that Russians smoked and drank a lot because they had a hard life.

* * *

We must have been walking in the mine shafts for more than an hour, hunched over yet still knocking our heads on unseen outcroppings. After climbing three vertical ladders, caked with clay-like mud, we reached Tío. A life-size, terracotta figurine with the horns and goatee of the devil and a miner’s rubber boots. A god of sorts, worshiped underground where the Catholic God doesn’t have any influence. “When something goes wrong, we say fucking Tío, and when something’s great we say fucking Tío!,” explained Pedro.

Sitting in the rock-cut alcove, we made an offering to the statue. Particles in the thick air glimmered as they drifted in and out of the beams from our headlamps. I pulled the bandanna down from around my mouth and nose and felt cool air hit my face. None of the miners I’d seen had been wearing masks, but then again, none of them had been working. They were all resting in little alcoves off the tunnels we’d trudged along, waiting for the air to clear from blasts in other areas of the mines. Or, according to Pedro, playing in a Saturday football tournament outside.

* * *

Two men came by, pushing a cart full of rocks. At Pedro’s instruction we handed out some of our gifts. Under the peak of his helmet, the older man’s face was lined, the thick skin dusty and gleaming with sweat. The younger man stayed in the shadows. They seemed especially happy for the cigarettes.

“They don’t like to use so much technology. The miners say that if they use machines, then people will lose their jobs. So they prefer it this way, even though it’s a lot of work,” explained Pedro.

I asked how long they’d been working that day and how long they had to go. Six hours was the answer to both.

“The government mines, they limit how much you can work; not more than eight hours a day, five days a week. And you can get fixed money. But in the cooperative mine, we can choose ourselves, how much we want to work, and if we find some metal — a very good part with a lot of metal — we can keep it for ourselves. Miners can make a lot of money if they’re lucky.”

Later we passed another group of miners. I asked how long they’d been working that day and how long they had to go. Six hours was the answer to both.

* * *

Near the end of the tour, we squeezed into another alcove and sat in front of a small crucifix.

“Now we’re near the surface, so God is here, not Tío. Look, you can see these decorations from last year when the miners had a party. Next week they’ll have a party again — they’ll bring so much alcohol, music! It’s a great party.”

The Australian was surprised and asked how they could have music down in the tunnels.

“Portable speakers and cellphones,” explained Pedro. “You know, we’re not so poor. It’s not like these films — The Devil’s Miner — they say we’re so poor and life is terrible. But if you ask a miner, ‘Are you tired?’ he’ll never say yes. He’ll never say that today he is sad. Of course, they work hard, it’s very difficult work, but they won’t say it. They enjoy active work, working with their friends. They like it more than working at a desk in a bank. Some of them leave, but they come back to work as a miner because they miss it. That’s why I like my job. I can come to the mine, see my friends, but also spend time with tourists. Even though I don’t make so much money.”

* * *

We all keep squinting in the bright sun even though the dust cloud has floated away. Pedro appears from somewhere further along the road and motions us to follow him. We walk down the hill, past corrugated metal shacks, piles of rubbish, and the occasional pig rummaging for food. At the road we wait for our bus, hot, tired, and dusty.

Pedro sits down on a heap of earth and takes out more coca leaves to add to the ball in his cheek. For the first time on the entire trip he is quiet. He looks tired.

“How long have you been a guide?” I ask.

He takes a moment to count and seems surprised by his answer. “Fourteen years. Wow! Yeah, fourteen and before that I worked in the mine five years. Yeah, it’s a long time. The doctors, they say only 30 minutes in the mine each day is enough to make you sick. Miners always get sick. I go to the mine two hours every day with tourists, so…”

He looks down at the pale, muddy stains on his black rubber boots. The sun suddenly feels hotter. I glance at the rows of miners’ housing below us, outside the main area of the town, away from the colonial Unesco World Heritage buildings and tourist restaurants.

“You ever worked in a mine?”

I’m caught off guard at his sudden question, but he’s smiling, laughing at my mumbled ‘no.’

“Why not? Some girls work there.”

He speaks loudly so the Russian girls will hear it too. They turn towards us and join the conversation as Pedro tells a story about a couple of young girls who came to the mine and asked for work.

“The men said ‘Come with us. You take our dynamite into a small hole’…”

Everyone laughs. I laugh too.